Saturday, October 9, 2010

Has The Worm Turned?

I will now cop to the fact that I do a lot of "chicken little" doom forecasting. It's goddamn depressing to listen to me. I recognize that.

Honesty is my only excuse. While overall sales numbers are not alarmingly bad, there is legitimate cause for concern if you parse the data closely.

Major titles from even the Big 2 launch at numbers that would have caused instant cancellation just a couple of years ago. Nothing cleared even 100,000 Diamond orders in August. Nothing. DC couldn't even finish their Great 10 mini-series the sales were so horrifying. Marvel can't even keep people interested in the staples any more- Amazing Spider-Man is down huge from initial "Brand New Day" numbers and continues to atrophy. Wolverine can't even keep an audience without an annual reboot. It's frightening.

And if it's frightening for Marvel and DC, it's basically "why bother?" for everybody else. If you have any interest in the market side of things at all, you need to get plugged into what John Mayo is doing with Bob Bretall and Chris Marshall on the Mayo Report of the Comic Book Page podcast. They cover the Diamond data for comics and trades each month.

They'll teach you that for August, only 7 comic books outside of the Big 2 cleared even 20,000 in sales. You're looking at Walking Dead, The Boys, and five licensed titles. Books are profitable at that level, but just barely. If you're Robert Kirkman, you're carving out a nice living for yourself as one person. If you're a corporate entity, 20,000 comics is less than pocket change. And that's the best of the best in the indy world. Most books are either struggling to break even or flat out losing money.

And now I'm being depressing again, which wasn't the point. But we need to recognize the problem before it gets addressed, solved. And if you listen to the show you know my diagnosis:

1) Comics Are Too Goddamned Expensive
Comics used to sell in great numbers and were traditionally recession-resistant because they were comparatively cheap. There is a barrier for consumers when you are asking them to drop $4 on a piece of a greater story that may or may not be good and may or may not entertain you for 10 minutes. Economically it is far easier to decide to avoid new product and cut an existing pull because the investment is just too crazy.

2) Comic Racks Are WAY Too Glutted With Crap Product
Between the 33 X-Titles, the 7 Wolverine Books, the 19 Bat-Books, the 9 Green Lantern spin-offs and the 423 Deadpool appearances, it is impossible for anyone to figure out how to leverage interest in characters. It's impossible for even lifers to figure out what is actually on the stands and whether or not the content should matter to them.

Newcomer? Forget about it. A civilian coming into their local comic shop after watching Iron Man 2 is going to walk straight back out. There is no "Iron Man" book. There are two ongoings, a packet of minis, a couple Avengers books, and 600 metric tons of back story in trades, essentials, and masterworks. Not one of those items has one thing to do with any of the others, by the way. Matt Fraction's version of Iron Man has not a sliver of a passing resemblance to that guy running around in those Bendis Avengers books. Couldn't be the same guy, really. The Fraction guy wouldn't have time or probably the interest in doing what he's doing everywhere else. The racks are positively choked with 1,000 firecrackers shooting at your face, not one of which seems to make sense any more.

3) Non-comics readers have no clue that anybody even publishes comics any more.
The newsstand market is gone. The Direct Market is about 1/3 the size it was fifteen years ago. Comics publishers license their properties into movies that show to hundreds of millions of people, and never so much as hint that the comics are still going or that people may want to check them out. There appears to be less than no effort to build a larger base from the outside. The publishing strategy for as long as I can remember is to gouge as much from the existing base as possible.

Earlier this year, Diamond reported that 1/3 comics solicited in their catalogue was a variant of some kind. That's not an industry looking for new people. That's a pack of hucksters who took a glance at the Lucas Sodomy Handbook and decided to see if the suckers would pay for the same thing twice. We don't need double-dippers...we need new blood.

Those are the key issues as I understand them. There are more issues, and the issues I've raised have been oversimplified. But that's why we're dying. Somebody might suggest that I've skipped the digital dragon, but I haven't. Fix # 3 and digital won't hurt. Digital comics isn't actually a problem for comics. The problem is that the direct market is so far gone on life support that even something potentially helpful like digital distribution might bump the IV and send us into cardiac arrest. We need to get healthy enough to survive an IV bump.

And until this weekend, I've seen no indication that anybody in the biz recognizes any of this. Then came the Diamond Retailer Breakfast at this year's New York Comic Con. I don't know what they put on the bagels at that thing, but we need more of it.

DC unveils a plan to take all regular sized titles down to $2.99 beginning in January 2011, and Marvel followed with a similar plan directly after. After reading the fine print, I'm declaring DC the champion on that score.

The DC price reduction does come with a loss in bulk. They're planning on reducing page counts from 22 to 20. They're also getting rid of the back-up features that were plaguing a lot of their titles. I'm sure that a handful of folks will lament this. As an example, I became interested in Action Comics strictly for the Jimmy Olsen pages written by Nick Spencer.

On the whole, though, most people were spending an extra buck for pages they did not want spinning tales about characters they did not care about. It was exploitative. Probably well meaning exploitation, but exploitative nonetheless. That's gone.

Do I wish that we had kept the reduction while remaining at 22 pages. Sure do. But I'm remaining positive on this for the now. I believe that it's still quite possible to deliver good value in those 20 pages, and it might force writers, the good ones at least, to consider ditching the mass decompression we've suffered lately.

With fewer pages to work with, scripts should be less likely to spend three pages on a cup of coffee and facial expressions. Maybe we don't need those six splash pages after all, gents. Maybe we need to get to the business of telling the story. I think 20 pages for $3 can be a good thing.

As for Marvel, I'm not buying the "we were going to to do it any way" line. This was a contingency plan in place should DC ever do what it just did. The Queen Whore had no intention of independently reducing prices, no matter what the spin doctors say. Still, better to follow DCs lead (and when was the last time that phrase has been applicable?) than to languish in Gouge Town.

When you read Marvel's fine print, by the way, it isn't as juicy. Marvel is talking about reducing rates on new books, not all books. Better than nothing? You bet. But I wouldn't expect to see a $3 Secret Avengers or Ultimate X on the racks any time soon. And that's a shame, because that would be enough to get me on board. No word on Marvel cutting out back-up features, either. So good news from Marvel, but not as good as DCs news regarding price.

I was pleasantly astounded by quotes from Marvel's David Gabriel at the Diamond Breakfast, however. He stated an awareness that they have a plethora of product that tends to underperform, and that the Previews catalog for January should show a significant line reduction.

Wow. And it isn't just Gabriel talking about it, either. Dan Buckley also confirmed that Marvel will be contracting the line and added "...we kind of get the sense that you guys don't know which ones are the ones you should pay attention to, so we're going to be pulling back on that in the months ahead as well." OK, sort of condescending and snide, but still music to my ears.

I remember a few months back Brian Hibbs came out of the annual Comics Pro meeting re-energized and hopeful for the future. I wondered what he was seeing that I wasn't. Maybe this?

And listen, there's a big difference between talking about making real changes and actually implementing them. But it's so uplifting to even hear comics publishers acknowledge these problems. We haven't avoided the iceberg yet, but at least we've got confirmation that the captain knows the iceberg exists. And on the flip side, we haven't hit the iceberg yet, either.

I'd like to think we'll look back on this year's NYCC as the Weekend the Worm Turned. We've got real results on the $3.99 bane. Can you ever remember comics moving to a lower price point across a line? I think it's unprecedented, and shows a real commitment to long term prosperity instead of grabbing a few nickels this month.

I can't tell you how excited I am to here Marvel representatives talking about reducing glut. It's going to help continuity, it's going to help cohesiveness, it's going to reduce white noise and help civilians enter the market. It's going to make comics more profitable.

For the first time in a long time, I think there's room for cautious optimism regarding the future of comics. Huzzah!

- Ryan


Irish Mike said...

I's kinda weird, isn't it? Being a strong, vocal opponent to price gouging and seeing positive results from the publishers? Plus being featured on Bleeding Cool?

Shit man, maybe it's time to get out of the game while the gettin is good!

Chronic Insomnia said...

I don't want to get too excited yet, but after all these years of listening to the brass at the Big 2 fail to even acknowledge the problems in a meaningful way....and now to have them not only talk about them but take unprecedented steps to fix them...I'm as close to giddy as I get!

Anonymous said...

Well I think it's quite obvious that Marvel and DC have been listening to our show and finally heard what you've been saying. They took your advice, shared some Ice Cream at the Stone Cold Creamery and said, "That fucker Ryan Lee on that absurd comic book podcast show is right, we need to fix the state of comic books." Congratulations on changing the face of comic books. Yeah Baby!

Anonymous said...

Ry, holy crap, people are listening to you. When was the last time that happened. Sounds like the Big 2 may be getting their act together. But part of me can't help but wonder if you could just step over onto this rug. Why? No reason....just keep looking the other way.