CCI: Is the Comic Book Doomed?

Is the 32-page, stapled, monthly serial comic book on its way to extinction? What might force "floppies" out of existence, or return them to their former glory? And if the monthly comic disappears, what does that mean for the future of the comics industry, or the medium itself? The "Is the Comic Book Doomed?" panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego set out to answer some of these questions this past Saturday.

Douglas Wolk, author of "Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean," introduced the panel to the crowd, consisting of Cartoon Books' Vijaya Iyer, Comics Alliance's Editor-in-Chief Laura Hudson, ComicsPRO's Executive Director Amanda Emmert and "Daredevil" writer and former Chief Creative Officer of BOOM! Studios Mark Waid.

Wolk started off the conversation by asking the panel what they thought of the current state of the 32-page, stapled, monthly serial comic book. Emmert replied that print sales were picking back up this year, an improvement from the past few years, but Hudson noted that ICv2 recently reported that serial sales fell 8% in 2011.

Iyer answered that when she and husband Jeff Smith launched "Bone" in 1991, the highest selling comic ("X-Men" #1) sold 7.1 million copies, while today's highest seller sells less than 100,000 copies, a sobering shift.

Waid asked Emmert about the sales figures she was citing and how much of those sales were specifically attributed to monthly comics, and she replied that there were more factors to consider than the total number of copies sold, two of which being that there was an expansion in "breadth as well as depth," meaning an increase in the total number of titles as well as the total number of copies, and that the comics are being sold by multiple distributors.

Waid commented that people on message boards often point out high sales from previous eras, but forget that the cost of an individual issue was much less expensive than it is today. He then asked Iyer to share the lowest recorded circulation for "Bone," and she answered that the title's lowest circulation was 2,000 copies, and at that point in time each issue would cost between 30 and 40 cents per unit to print. Waid commented that a black-and-white print run would cost at least twice as much to print now.

While Hudson attempted to reach out for more sales figures via her phone, Waid commented, "Floppies that are sold by Marvel and DC will continue to be healthy for a while longer, because they have deep pockets" (that allow them to print large print runs at a reasonable unit cost), but he would "lose his shirt" were he to self-publish in today's economy, even it he sold 7,000-8,000 copies a month per title.

Wolk asked the panel if it's possible to break even in today's economy, and Emmert said that it was, depending on the context. She went on to explain that whereas "tiers of titles [at Marvel and DC] go down when sales go down" and smaller publishers and breakout hits aren't affected the same way, the real question being whether you can "kill it" and operate at a loss for four or five years.

Waid rebutted there was a better chance of operating at a long-term loss 20 years ago, but Emmert restated her perspective. At this point Hudson again mentioned the IcV2 sales figures, suggesting that the graphic novel sales could offset monthly losses.

Wolk asked the panel at what point selling a monthly pamphlet is no longer feasible. Emmert repeated, "It's a redefinition of terms," adding that the industry need more stores, and the stores needed to "kill it for five years." Hudson noted the growth of graphic novel sales in bookstores, while Emmert pointed out that the tendency of the comic industry to point out its looming death for various reasons every five years, but obviously that death has yet to happen. Iyer said that Cartoon Books will continue to publish as long as there's demand, as their sales subsidize their production.

When the panel was asked for some doomsday scenarios, Iyer replied, "It all depends on numbers."

Emmert cited the sales downturn in the '80s, where in publishing "You either stuck it out or left," but now that the larger publishers are part of conglomerates, the "mid-list" of publishers are the ones that have to stick it out. Waid commented that the industry still needs "The Big Two" no matter what, and noted two doomsday scenarios: Marvel buying Diamond, and DC ceasing to publish comics.

Referring to retail, Emmert replied, "We have enough people in the industry to rebound," and that enough stores know how to acquire comics through alternate means (other than Diamond.) Waid noted the sea change in 1995 when Marvel purchased the third largest distributor, Hero's World, and subsequently distributed their comics exclusively through them.

Iyer commented that the "change in equilibrium doesn't mean end times," to which Waid replied, "Maybe there needs to be a crash before there's a renaissance." Emmert said that the "80/20" rule still applies, meaning that 80% of stores will carry the burden of supporting the industry.

Hudson asked the panel what changes they thought needed to happen. Waid replied that it's harder for smaller publishers to publish original intellectual property, and that he wasn't sure that you could launch a book like "Chew" today.

Wolk asked at what point is it unsustainable to continue publishing, and Emmert suggested "creation cost" as a possible factor. Waid disagreed with this idea.

Turning to Iyer, Wolk then asked if Cartoon Books could have launched "Bone" in today's economic climate, and she answered that they could not launch "Bone" using the same model that they used 20 years ago, and that today they would need some sort of digital promotion in addition to perennial sales. Emmert noted that the "Walking Dead trades" sell more today, but the trade sales need to be seeded.

Hudson asked if publishers can use a digital loss leader for trade sales (as opposed to a printed comic as a loss leader), and Emmert believes that it can would for micro-publishers. Waid cited "Penny Arcade" and Warren Ellis' "Freakangels" as comics that utilized successful digital-to-TPB models.

The panel opened for questions, and a fan asked if the panelists thought that digital sales would surpass print sales. Emmert answered that comics needed to be made to fit the digital readers better, and that "sales are 1-2% of where the market is." (Which ICv2 numbers also support.) Hudson noted the continuity hurdle when porting comics content to digital.

When asked about how the digital comics affect the actual comics form, such as the use of the double-page spread, Emmert replied that bigger companies change slower, and there needs to be complimentary approaches in terms of form and distribution.

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