Comic Fodder

Gone Monthly: Breaking the Weekly Cycle

Recently, I made a decision which seems anathema to many-a-comic-fan. I made the decision to cease my pull list from the comic shop I frequented, and begin ordering comics online. Further, I decided to save on shipping and have all comics, etc... arrive in a monthly batch.

I did this for financial reasons to a degree. My web-retailer discounts all purchases, and has low shipping costs, too, which means I can afford to get more comics for my budget.

If you want a view into how twisted I am in regards to the comics thing, I also did it so I could jump ship from the brick-and-mortar store I was using out of geographical convenience, and so that I could accomodate a once-monthly trip to my life to a less-geographically-convenient, but amazing comic shop here in town (that'd be Austin Books). There, I could buy even MORE comics that I could say I missed when I placed my order online.

Previously, it was often difficult to justify this trip, but no longer.

Nifty, no?

However, this new change has thrown me helter-skelter out of the weekly cycle that DC and Marvel currently believe their readership lives and dies by.

And, who knows...? As surely as my former roommate lasted a total of 8 hours on "the patch" before we caught him outside enjoying the smooth flavor of a Camel, so, too, may I be running through the aisles of Austin Books with armloads of new releases.

I'm currently awaiting my first month's shipment from my online retailer (whom I will gladly name when I get a kickback in the form of Superman comics), and so this is the longest stretch I've had in ten years of not picking up my weekly hit. I had expected to get the shakes around week two, but, honestly, I've come to realize, I can wait a month.

But this decision, to receive comics monthly, has had me thinking about how comics are marketed and sold. It's also got me pondering how the big two use the comic fan's addictive/ OCD mentality surrounding their comics to manipulate sales. And if pandering to that audience from a marketing standpoint isn't what's killed comics as a form of mass entertainment.

When I was a lad...

There was a time in my life when I (a) had no idea when a comic was coming out, let alone what day of the week comics were released, and (b) that comic fans are weirder about their characters and creators than US Weekly fans are about Angelina Jolie's adoption proceedings. I knew who some writers and artists were, and usually the name of an Editor-In-Chief type person, but that was it. The 24-minute news cycle of the internet has, of course, changed all that.

Readers will either be old enough to remember comic spinner racks at their local grocery/ drug store/ book store, or they won't. Which means the older readers will also remember an era when picking up comics was both impulse purchase and art form.

Today, the process has become odd and frustrating to even longtime comic readers.

Ordering in advance

Because the direct market retail outlets are mostly small businesses trying to run lean, and because shelf space is limited (as well as the fact that surplus in a comic shop is a dirty word) retailers are ordering based upon their customers requests. Retailers place orders with Diamond (presumably number of orders, plus some random amount), Diamond places orders with the publisher.

Readership and ordering numbers are based, presumably, upon customers' prior knowledge of material before it is printed. Which means readers must be tapped into what the comic will be like at least two months before the comic ever hits the stand. This knowledge must come from somewhere, which means potential customers must peruse the Previews monthly catalog which, itself, they need to pre-order in order to have a copy.

Savvy consumers may also find listings on the internet, but this means time spent hunting down either corporate websites or press releases to sites like Newsarama or Comic Book Resources.

Not all comic shops work on a pull-list or pre-order policy. And many order significant surplus of important event titles (usually based on prior data). But many, many stores are working to keep those margins down and don't order a lot of extra copies.

But I missed an issue...

Add in the possibility that the consumer might not hit the store on a Wednesday or Thursday before a comic might sell out of even the extra copies, and that doesn't leave a lot of room for comic fans to find something new or something they missed when they come back the following week. And it really doesn't help the casual consumer. Nor the dedicated consumer if a reprint isn't forthcoming or the consumer has to run around town looking for a $3.00 comic.

More mileage may vary depending upon your store.

A unique and precious snowflake

There simply is no other low-cost product on the market that works like comics from a retail perspective (placing orders for $3.00 items 3 months in advance?), and it has to be slowly strangling the industry. By creating such an enormous learning curve for getting onboard from a retail perspective, and insisting that shoppers come by each and every week, the culture demands and nurtures a certain obsessive compulsive nature. That, simply, is not the bulk of the population.

It certainly doesn't work for retailers outside of the Direct Market. And that's an article for another day (we're sticking with the consumer view today).

At the bookstore

Attempts to branch out of the comic shop have been curious non-starters. Pushes into book stores seem almost awkward, where the staggering $3.00 cost of a comic seems somewhat ridiculous when put up against the cost of a paperback novel.

Finding floppies is rare, though, compared to the now ubiquitous manga and comics section at big retailers such as Borders and Barnes & Noble. If the curious do trip over the manga fans camping out and reading yaoi in the aisle, they'll find a lot of graphic novels crammed in, usually with somewhat damaged covers and expensively priced, starting at around $15.00 - $20.00. Prices comic readers often pay without batting an eye, but which Moms might begin to question when junior brings her that Iron Man graphic novel he wants to bring home.

Its an inroad to have comics at bookstores and not shoved into a corner somewhere, but the cost may not be competitive enough to break the curiosity vs. cost factor. And without great press and (much deserved) hype whic works such as Bechdel's "Fun Home" receive, its unlikely that comics will begin competing in any serious manner, short of a movie tie-in (see: 300).

The comics which seem competitively priced for bang-for-your-buck are Marvel's Essentials line and DC's Showcase Presents. However, drawing in new readers with comics 40-60 years old and aimed at nostalgic readers (like myself) seems like a long shot with kids who are growing up with Manga and different ideas of "what's hip" compared to today's kids.

The specter of the interwebs..!

The obvious move for cost saving and to defeat the weekly comic cycle for both publisher and customer is to bring comics online. However, "reluctant" doesn't begin to describe the attitude displayed by both DC and Marvel to move their monthly titles online. Despite the potential for massive cost reduction and what they must know about piracy and scans, no moves have been made.

I have no figures for what it would cost DC and Marvel to move their new releases and entire back catalog online tomorrow. Nor do I know what it would cost the consumer to move to an iTunes model for purchasing their comics in this manner. But it's difficult to conceive that with printing, shipping, and the cost of retailers cut out, that prices couldn't drop significantly. Further, wouldn't web comics reach a far, far greater audience? Especially younger readers?

And for readers who've already drunk the Kool-Aid... With web-comics, isn't it kind of impossible to miss an issue? Isn't that GOOD for DC and Marvel? Isn't a lower price likely to mean more comics are sold?

But one does wonder: If webcomics were a success, would this not push a vast majority of retailers, who depend upon Marvel and DC weekly sales out of business in a few months? Not to mention, how it would impact deals currently in place between Marvel and DC and their printers, etc...? (Canadian printer Quebecor was fighting bankruptcy within the past two years as it is.)

No business, all hype

What DC and Marvel both count on is for the web if for their audience to be plugged in to the hype machine. If comics were something I once picked up somewhat haphazardly based on a cover, who was in it, and maybe who worked on it, today's DC and Marvel issue press releases, preview pages, etc... all for comics that, usually, you had to have already placed your order with your shop two months prior, anyway.

The NeverEnding Story...!

Narratively, both companies have been using the weekly release schedule to structure their tales. Marvel's "Civil War" and DC's "Infinite Crisis" and their various tie-in's relied heavily on the weekly format. DC discovered the limits of weekly storytelling with the "Countdown" experiment, as the entire DC line was supposed to line up with the weekly happenings.

The truth of the matter is that there is no other form of media that works this way. Despite decades in business, neither DC nor Marvel have a real roadmap of how to manage this sort of thing. So credit where credit is due.

So what?

I'm not one who actually believes continuity keeps kids from cracking a comic. Aren't we all giving ourselves a pretty big round of credit if we think we figured it out, but nobody else can...? There are too many other factors, beginning with the fact that comics from the big two simply aren't available like they used to be.

Readers, retailers and publishers can cite all the reasons they like as to why comics disappeared off the spinner rack, but as long as DC and Marvel believe they're serving nothing but a collector's market, the numbers can, at best, remain static. It may be safer to hide from the prying eyes of mothers in the murky world of the local comic shop, and comic shop retailers are far, far less likely to give push back on content and distribution deals than other outlets.

And maybe that flat readership pool is okay. There are so many things quirky and unique to superhero comics, from the weekly, Previews-based distribution model to the stubborn refusal to accept digital distribution, that the industry seems to be sinking under the weight of their own refusal to accomodate anyone but a very specific sort of fan.

I have a shipment of comics coming this week. In the meantime, I've been reading graphic novels and collections I'd picked up previously, but thanks to fate, work, etc... haven't had time to read (Queen and Country is amazing. See how late I am to the game?).

I've also been reading a lot of back issues I picked up over the past year and never got around to reading. So its not as if I'm NOT reading comics. I'm just not reading exactly what you may be reading this week.

Do I need to read comics weekly to keep up? Is the internet buzz confusing and deafening when you haven't read the comics yet and you're reading the reviews (thanks, Travis!). Not really.

I'll let you know how far out of it I really feel as the experiment continues.

Update June 1, 2008 #1: Thanks to Journalista! for linking over!

Update June 1, 2008 #2: If you want to see a picture of how comic ordering works from a retailer perspective, click here. Read the article and try to imagine the Direct Market ever expanding beyond its current capacity.


Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.

=======


Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at theleague.cf@gmail.com

well as a manga fan (with too much school and work) I've gotten used to waiting even longer then book dates because I have little money and time to go around.

Especially when you like small publishers that take .5+ years to send out each volume but I dont feel it.

for the few comic issues that I got, I tend to buy in bulk because about the only time I have time to read them is when Im on a long travel for 2+ hours and need to do something (or waiting in line at cons).

As for why I personaly dont read that many comics (besides web comics) is how hard it is to find something I like. I dont like super heros really. I dont know why, I dont watch the movies either (except for older series of super man cause the actor was cute). Its not cause its a boy's club either cause I do read Seinen comics like Zetmen(the closet super hero title I read) and know that Im not its target market.

One thing that does bug me, but do you notice how quick most manga fans can go through a volume? depending on the comic I can read one in 30mins to 1 hour for 200+ pages where comic issues take longer. I dont like that, I dont like all the narration boxes and too much dialog. Its distracting for me to read a comic that has too much words. Comics having to keep to 22 pages is not an excuse cause I've seen plently of comics that keep to 15, 20 and 22 page counts and still dont over do with the words.

Long post and bad typo, excuse me ^^

-- Posted by: Laurie at June 30, 2008 2:06 PM

$3.00 a pop is a pretty high price of admission to a comic that you're not sure you're going to like. Especially if you're sampling comics to get a bit of a taste for what different titles, authors, companies, etc... have to offer.

I'm not sure I'm on-board with the "too many words" idea. I'm not looking to fly through a comic as quickly as possible. Quite the opposite. And I try to trust my creative teams to manage the text/ page ratio in the best manner possible. It's a creative and stylistic choice.

However, there are many American writers who have intentionally or unintentionally begun to work a bit more in the style you describe. I'd recommend "Ultimate Spider-Man" to you if you're looking for breezy pacing and a minimum of dialog and text per page.

I'm not clear on how most import publishers work, or their release schedules. But if the work already exist and the American side is just translation and printing, I've no idea why they wait so long.

-- Posted by: Ryan at June 30, 2008 3:26 PM

having "too much words" isnt realy the bad thing just that I've found out I cant stand them especially if they are describing what is going on in the pictures.

have you heard of the comic "Ultimo" (can be read at onemanga.com) written by Stan Lee? (I dont follow names I follow works so sorry if I dont know much of him). Its a good example of what I mean. its definatly not the drawing style that puts me off on most comics, its the wording. All those narration boxes, I felt, shouldnt have been there.

But that is me. I am part of the newer gen so my first comic was manga and my first cartoons besides disney was sailormoon so my visual reading is different. It's like my preference to BW comics then color. That wont stop me from picking it up, but its not as familiar to me

-- Posted by: Laurie at June 30, 2008 9:25 PM

I completely understand that Manga has a very different language. I recommend Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics" for a great breakdown of some of the differences. It's also a great read for anyone working in any visual industry.

American comics have been adapting, somewhat, to a bit more of the sensibility you describe. And you can certainly pick up from older writers some of the spoon-feeding vibe from how they handle captions and word balloons.

I'd be curious to assign you the 1986 comic "Dark Knight Returns", just to get your assessment of use of captions, text, etc... It was one of the huge influences on American comics in moving from thought bubbles to captions to express character's throughts. It's also crammed with a considerable amount of information on every page.

Then contrast that with the 2001ish release of Dark Knight Strikes Again.

-- Posted by: Ryan at July 1, 2008 12:09 AM

whats the easiest place to get them with out going to the comic book shop?

no hate on comic book shops, then again I dont realy go to book stores.

-- Posted by: Laurie at July 1, 2008 8:22 AM

Oh, probably Amazon.com. Check your local library, too. Dark Knight Returns is probably available at most book stores, etc... It's sort of a perennial.

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