Issue #86

OLIVER is far from the best musical ever done. That would (racial issues aside; while it's now accused of being ethnically intolerant, it was considered quite progressive in the late '50s) arguably be WEST SIDE STORY, though my personal favorite will always be BYE BYE BIRDIE, also not the best musical ever done but I find it endlessly watchable. (I know many would choose THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, but I first made the leap to public consciousness as a film reviewer with a very negative review of it and the years haven't changed my opinion.)

An old friend of mine was surprised a few months back to find I knew something about musicals; he's always figured me for an anglophile rock kind of guy. In truth, my knowledge of musicals is scanty and specific: with a few exceptions, it begins with BRIGADOON (I vaguely recall a stirring Scottish sword dance I thought was incredibly cool at the time and recently discovered isn't in the movie at all) and ends around the time Barbra Streisand became a central figure in the genre. (As far as I'm concerned, the only good Barbra Streisand is SOUTH PARK's Mechastreisand.) I blame this on my mother, whose record collection when I was young consisted mostly of Original Cast Recordings and Matt Munro albums. BRIGADOON. PETER PAN. MY FAIR LADY. CAMELOT. (I recall one Saturday afternoon when my mother got furious with me because I kept playing "Officer Krupke" from WEST SIDE STORY over and over, trying to learn the words, which euphemistically end with the – according to my mother – highly inappropriate "Gee, Officer Krupke – krup you.") Musicals are sort of like comics, in that appreciating them requires either obsession or a leap of faith that many people are no longer willing to make. Which is why there aren't many financially successful musicals anymore, just as there aren't many financially successful comic books. Whether many are artistically successful is in the eye of the beholder, but, like modern comics, modern musicals are far too ready to surrender to camp to interest anyone beyond the faithful. What I remember most about the musicals I was exposed to as a kid was that they took themselves seriously as theater, without irony. Even the more successful musicals of the last few decades – GREASE; LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS; the aforementioned ROCKY HORROR – join the audience in the assumption that only a fool would still try to take musicals seriously.

Change a few nouns in that last sentence and it sounds sickeningly familiar, doesn't it?

My parents dragged me to OLIVER! on a vacation to Minneapolis in '68. Given I was heavy into rock, politics and Michael Moorcock novels by then, it was about the last thing I wanted to see. It held two surprises: Oliver Reed's intensely menacing performance as villain Bill Sykes (turning me instantly to a lifelong Oliver Reed fan, though I didn't realize it was him for years) and bittersweet comical songs from Ron Moody as an aging hustler leading a band of boy thieves. One is an anthem of capitalism and practically a motto of comics publishing: In this world one thing counts: in the bank, big amounts. Heaven knows these don't grow on trees. You've got to pick a pocket or two. One, "Reviewing The Situation," he sings upon deciding it's time to abandon his dead end way of life:

I'm reviewing

the situation

I must quickly look up everyone I know

Important people

with a station

who will help me make a real impressive show

People have been reviewing the situation of comics lately and issuing a lot of proclamations without thinking them through. One I've seen repeated over and over the past few weeks is the conviction that we have to drop prices to bring kids back in.

I've covered this before, but, clearly, it has to be said again. This course isn't practical.

[Green Lantern #2]The theory goes that kids read comics because they were 10¢ or 12¢ or 25¢ or 50¢. Or 75¢ or $1 or $1.50 or $1.99. They were cheap. Kids could afford them. As prices have risen, the kid audience has fallen away, and now we've priced ourselves out of that market altogether.

All of which is pretty much true. But the interpretation of the data is wrong.

The economy of comics has changed dramatically since the heyday of the 10¢ comic. The magazine industry has changed. Distribution has changed. The decline of kid readership can be seen as a function of declining distribution more than a function of rising prices. The myth is that if we get prices down and get back to the newsstands that kids will flock to comics again. But comics were never about price. That's how adults think. That's not how kids think. Comics were hot with kids because they showed you things you never saw anywhere else. I grew up in the 60s, and you can't begin to imagine what a dreary time much of that was. (I hear the 50s were worse, but I don't remember them well enough to say.) There were bits and pieces of excitement: pop action from London, the space program. Comic books. You could get things from comics you couldn't get anywhere else, and they had the sheen of the corrupt as well; they were forbidden fruit. It didn't get any better.

But they were sold as a convenience, not as a money item. Spinner racks were invented so shopkeepers wouldn't have to waste shelf space on comics. Distributors came in to do all the handling. Comics were stocked as a distraction, so kids would have something to do while mom and dad shopped. If you sold a few, fine. They were returnable anyway, so those that didn't sell didn't cost anyone anything. Except the publisher.

The direct sales market didn't come about by accident. Necessity created it. Kids stopped reading comics because shops and newsstands stopped carrying them. They took up space, they brought in no profit. By the 70s, value for space was the name of the game in retailing. Why would stores or newsstands want to stock comics that brought in 15¢ a copy profit when they could stock PLAYBOY or ROLLING STONE and get a couple dollars per issue profit, as well as use them to lure in the preferable adult customer with money. Instead of the kid who had no money. Comics didn't leave newsstands voluntarily. Comics were thrown off newsstands. The 70s gave the business a choice: do it differently or die. So they did it differently. Not that publishers were in favor of that. They initially made it hard. Until they saw the new comics shops drew a target clientele willing to pay higher prices to get the comics they wanted, and the new distribution system – direct sales – eliminated the costly practice of returnables. This was the new market that enabled – again, not without considerable resistance from publishers – comics talent to finally make a living wage from the work.

When people talk about lowering prices and going after the kids by getting back to the newsstand, they're talking about throwing all that away. They're talking about casting talent back into near zero wage servitude. They're talking about publishers once again casting their bread upon the waters in the returnables market. They're talking about groveling back to newsstands that don't want us and couldn't care less if they never heard of comics again, and doing it with a declining price point when what newsstands want are rising price points. A low priced comic book is not what newsstands are looking for.

And it wouldn't work anyway. It wouldn't bring kids back. The only thing that will do that is content, and that doesn't mean content "aimed" at kids. That content is really aimed at their parents. What kids want is content they can't get anywhere else, and that's where the trick is now. Look at their content options. To get kids back, comics have to give them what nothing else can, and we're still giving them what nothing else could give them in 1963.

Price is irrelevant, except insofar as the standard American comics format is priced beyond anyone's conception of value for money, and the only way to change that is to find new formats.

Leading us to another idea being widely bandied: manga. The theory goes that comics are huge in Japan, where thick phone books are published every week of all kinds of material, and all levels of society read them.

All levels of society aside, most of that's true. Is it a solution for American comics?

Not really. We need to consider cultural difference. Japan is a land of public transportation. This creates a lot of boring empty time. Manga helps to fill that emptiness. Despite its prevalence, manga still isn't totally acceptable in Japan, and, given the rigidity of cultural mores in that country, I suspect there's a level of quiet rebellion in reading manga. In fact, manga readership is now threatened in Japan by the advent of new technology: the cell phone. People can now talk on the phone instead of reading while taking the train. Manga readership is dropping. Personal DVD players are likely to cause another hit, once the price of them comes down enough.

In a land of cars and freeways we don't have such considerations.

I'm on an e-mail group that discusses subjects like this from time to time, and one correspondent brought up an interesting point about the phone books that I didn't know. Most people don't. Since I don't yet have permission to quote him, I'll paraphrase.

Books and magazines are about the last cheap items in Japan. The "phone books" are cheap and thick, good value for money if you're looking for something to waste time with. How do they keep them cheap? By subjecting the creators to awful conditions. Artists are badly paid and must produce far more than Americans are expected to in the same amount of time. Most artists are forced to pay for assistants out of their own pocket in order to make deadlines, and by necessity have mostly have to treat them similarly. There's nothing even resembling a breakeven until book collection of the material, if that happens. All this happens with intense editorial micromanagement. I've heard stories of them trying to lure in American talent, which almost all turn out unwilling to tolerate the extreme editorial control and pressurized creative process. You can certainly cite this as an example of "American laziness" the way the Japanese often did during the 80s when the Japanese economy was booming and the Japanese and their management style were taking over moribund American industries. In these days when the Japanese economy verges on collapse and their "economic miracle" is now known to be based on billions of dollars worth of bad loans, you might refer to it as sanity. At any rate, aside from anthologies of cheap reprints, the "phone book manga" model is probably as economically unsound an idea for American comics as there is.

In OLIVER!, Fagan ends his ruminations with:

I want nobody hurt for me

or made to do the dirt for me

This rotten life is not for me

It's getting far too hot for me

I want no one to rob for me

but who will find a job for me?

There is no in-between for me

but who will change the scene for me?

I think I'd better think it out again."

I think we'd better think it out again.

[Superman #167]
A destroyed Superman #167?

I wonder how many people chopped up their DC comics for Snickers bars this month?

While it's always good to see high profile advertising in comics, the appearance of a coupon for a free Snickers bar is a bit baffling (Mars Candy is introducing their "Snickers Cruncher," basically the usual Snickers bar with Rice Krispies added) on the inside front covers of DC's "teen" line (as opposed to the Vertigo/Wildstorm books and the Cartoon Network and similar books AKA the "kids" line). Comics used to feature coupons all the time, though when I was a kid you could send away for 1000 tiny plastic Revolutionary War soldiers or the cliché X-Ray Specs (which tempted with artists' renditions of seeing through your hands and, by implication, through a woman's clothes, which was the real draw, though I never knew anyone who actually sent in for one). You could send in a coupon and a dollar and join the Supermen of America or the Mighty Marvel Marching Society. Ads for upscale items rarely appeared, though there were always lots of candy ads because candy and comics were kid items.

But comics were still impulse items then, and advertising was a lot less sophisticated. No computers, for one thing. Today computers allow manufacturers to trace coupons for source, to check the effectiveness of ad placements. So I have to believe somewhere there's a Mars Candy computer keeping track of how many coupons clipped from DC Comics go through bar code scanners.

And that's the bewildering part. Presumably, in this age of diminishing revenue streams, DC would like to keep accounts like Mars coming back for more. But comics are no longer an impulse buy in most cases. Today's audience is largely the collector market, those who buy comics to read and keep. Cutting big holes in front covers just isn't done anymore. So either Snickers is going to end up with a minimum number of coupons clipped and used and feel the venture was a gigantic waste of money (which might not be true, as comics readers might see the ad and run out to buy the candy bar anyway) and decide never to advertise in comic books again (and these things aren't kept secret in the ad business, meaning others would also dismiss comics as an effective advertising medium) or DC's being really, really cynical and expects their audience is just dumb enough to run out and buy a second copy of the books for $2.25-$2.50 a copy just to get a free coupon for a candy bar that would cost them 50¢ in a grocery store. I have this image of THE SIMPSONS' Comic Book Guy giving himself a nervous breakdown: "Must bag comic to maintain pristine mint condition... but... free chocolate..."

In one sense it's humorous. But it also signifies the vast schism between what comics want to be and what they are. Most magazines don't survive on the cover price. Most survive on advertising, with rates varying by circulation. Most independent comics companies don't sell much advertising and have never tried to, filling non-comics space with text features and house ads. Their circulations just aren't high enough to interest anyone. (Many magazines are also as much as 60% ads, something readers don't respond to well in their comic books.) DC and Marvel use a neat trick: they combine circulations into a lump sum they wave before advertisers. Which is one reason DC keeps 25 titles going in their "teen" line (which encompasses most of the traditional superhero books): even if each has only a circulation of 30,000, spread across the line that amounts to a circulation of 750,000, or, in ad terms, 750,000 exposures. (Hence the inside front cover location: virtually all comics readers are likely to see it there. How many even look at the back covers?)

As long as comics are going to try to maintain as a magazine economy (despite the inexorable transition to a book economy that's now apparent to absolutely everyone) advertising is necessary, because advertising is the foundation of magazine economy. It's not enough to simply sell advertising anymore. (Other ads in this month's DC "teen" line: 4 videogame ads, 2 public service announcements, 2 candies, 1 film ad, 1 stereo ad, Tang, Corn Nuts, a house ad and milk. With two coupons.) Magazines spend huge amounts to survey and pinpoint their audiences, to become the best intersection between advertiser and customer. Advertiser budgets are limited; the competition for ad dollars is fierce. Comic book companies rarely make serious attempts to demograph their audience. Until they do, short-term great ideas – and giving away candy bars is a great idea – run the risk of turning into long-term fiascos. Placing ads aimed at an impulse market in comic books aimed at collectors just doesn't make sense, because this hasn't been an impulse market (not to mention a kids' market, and candy is still widely considered a kid item) for a long, long time. And if we're going to behave as if the comic book is an impulse item, we ought to take steps to actually turn it into an impulse item again.

The last ever issue of X-MAN, a double-sized event, lands on the shelves today. From Marvel. Go forth and buy it. Nate, we hardly knew ye.

With the last of my regular paid work going by the wayside, I've been undertaking something of a total reorganization, beginning with a complete shift of my working habits. I used to work in the afternoon and all night, but have for the past few months been undermined by constant interruption and fatigue; I'm now getting up early in the morning, working until noon, and taking care of other business (like dental appointments, shopping, making phone calls, watching movies, etc.) in the afternoons. I keep reading about writers who got more done by working in the morning – you get up and go straight to work; don't stop for coffee, breakfast, walking the dog, whatever (except bathroom); and you end up getting a lot more done because your brain's rested. For close to 30 years now I've been a night guy, often working until 6 or 7 AM and never believed this morning stuff was true. Guess what? It is! I'm dropping my "Alleged Fictions" company name and going for a permanent DBA this time, and making a complete revamp of my web presence, including a totally redesigned @VENTURE which should be launching soon. Time to get organized and get it on. What does this mean for MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS? That'll be obvious too, in not too long.

I'd like to reiterate a late last note from last week: my information was wrong, and Diamond is not cutting out reorders. That was a false story going around with a veneer of credibility and, in the heat of writing the column fast, I suckered out for it. It's a good thing, too, because many smaller publishers depend on reorders for their survival, since the only real promotion they have is putting the product out there. Word of mouth is still the best promotion, but it takes time, and if the product can't be got, all word of mouth creates is frustration. People don't stay frustrated long anymore; they just go on to something else.

Due to a number of requests I've gotten about possible writing seminars in San Diego, I've been considering a number of options. Clearly there's interest. But San Diego is an expensive venue for such a thing, mainly due to high demand and costs of meeting space during convention week. (I'm not sure I'll even be in San Diego this year.) But two other possibilities were recently suggested. I could start an e-mail correspondence school for comics writing, or I could hold regular seminars (say, two day seminars once a month) here in Las Vegas. (Which would, of course, mean you'd have to get to Las Vegas, but it would also mean you'd get a working vacation in Las Vegas.) Both have their ups and downs. E-mail me with interest or opinions.

Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: What do you think are appropriate and inappropriate levels of violence in comics (with examples) and why?

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

Look Back: Spider-Man Loses a Cast Member in a Still Unsolved Mystery

More in CBR Exclusives