Comic Fodder

Give me eComics (and Trades) or Give me Death (or not)

Editor's Note: I wrote this during last night's speech by President Obama. So... it seems this post is far less coherent and rife with errors, type-o's, etc... than normal. I've tried to fix most of the errors I discovered.

Don't watch speeches and blog, kids. That stuffs for the professionals.

I want to look forward in time, casting my eye toward the distant, distant future. Let us ponder... oh... April or May. I know, I know... "Ryan," you say, rolling your eyes in disbelief, "How can we begin to imagine a future that's so far off?"

There's been a lot of talk in the comics blogosphere the past few weeks about a few topics. The recession and comics, eComics and the ever dwindling sales on comics. All common topics, not just on this site but across the discussion of comics on the internet.

And so it begins...

What started this whole thing off sort of began at Occasional Superheroine. D'Orazio ran a column on how mainstream (read: superhero comics) and others could position themselves in the age of the interweb. It's a fairly common-sense (if not common wisdom) prescription, and her observations are well worth a read. There are the usual challenges thrown at D'Orazio and from web-comic developers, but it doesn't really discredit D'Orazio's suggestions for what DC and Marvel can do to begin to embrace web comics.

D'Orazio suggests that mainstream companies lean on their reputation as authoritative, or, as I'd suggest, "name brand" the webcomics.

I'd suggest part of what could help is that we quit talking about "web comics" and start talking about "eComics" or... dare I say it... "comics"? Regardless of platform of delivery? the distinction is necessary to shake off some market pre-conceptions of "web comics" as the equivalent of a strip, and embrace, as McCloud would probably be thrilled to consider, all the various forms of comics digital media can support. Ie: can we start thinking downloading Watchmen instead of getting the RSS feed of our favorite strip?

Pretty clearly, DC isn't really ready to make the move from monthly printed comics, or business as usual, to diversifying their format. In discussing the possible jump to eComics, as discussed by John Cunningham, DC Comics VP of advertising had a bit of a doomsday scenario around what it might mean to see readers abandon the printed page. Cunningham had a bit of a freak-out, as reported by Ad Age, that predicted the collapse of DC should 10% of their readers quit their weekly shopping spree for a format that DC isn't currently supporting. 10%. Some might even argue that if its that fragile, mayhaps the DC powers that be might want to start diversifying their outreach.

What's really odd is that Cunningham (and one assumes, DC) is aware of the issues surrounding the possibilities for delivery. And they're aware that their currently losing some unknown number of readers to bit torrent downloads, but they're so paralyzed by the shifts in technology and/ or their inability to stop the proliferation of illegal distribution, that they've refused to give a possible audience who would pay for those downloads a viable alternative.

(editor's late addition: This came through as a link from Mac, Film Fodder's God Fodder. It talks about "fear of free media" and is fairly germane to this discussion.)

An open message to DC

Hey, DC. I'm right here.

For reasons that are mostly ethical and intangible, I refuse to illegally download your comics. I buy them. They're all over my house. It's upsetting my wife. She doesn't know why every time a comic with Superman leaves the coffee table, a new one appears. The room where I store them is upstairs, and sometimes I worry about the integrity of the floor beneath the thousands and thousands of your comics that you seem to believe are each a collectors item. I don't like to take my comics in for resale and get pennies on the dollar per comic. I'm willing to pay the price of admission to read your comic on my monitor or handheld device. But I'm not paying $3.00 when there's no distribution or middle man. And I sure as heck am not paying $4.00. So be smart.

You're giving the pirates all the opportunity, and the rest of us, those of us who want to do what we think your characters would say is the right thing to do... we're looking down the pipe at $4.00 comics before the end of the year.

I appreciate the Zuda thing. Sort of neat. But every time I start following a comic, it doesn't get voted through, and then... where am I at? Some of us were hoping you were going to screw around with Zuda for a year and then get serious. But...

I like reading your comics, but I'm not made out of money. Or closet space.

Wait for the Trade

Both Marvel and DC have been moving a certain direction with their new offerings. For an easy reference for us who are DC-centric, I point you to the May 2009 solicitations.

I touched on this a while back at The Signal Watch, but I've been meditating a bit more on the topic.

There was an era when DC and Marvel would have a two or three titles out there that didn't have a built in audience. A writer or artist might be known, but DC might roll out something experimental like "Wild Dog", or "The Heckler" or even "Watchmen". Books featured new, unproven characters. And to an extent, that's still true, but a glance at the May 2009 solicitations for their DCU books demonstrates a few things.

1) DC has circled the wagons in an effort to reinvigorate their biggest franchises. They've also counted on the nostalgia factor to an astonishing degree (did people really want a return of "Vigilante"?), seemingly responding to the inability of new properties to survive in the current climate.

No question a few of the newer ideas are out there (what the hell is a Dead Romeo?), but its also highly questionable that there's any support in marketing for the newer books. And at $3.00 for 22 pages, when someone is following all 25 parts of "Battle for the Cowl", (I count 8 Bat titles alone for May) am I really going to find out what a Dead Romeo is?

2) DC seems to have figured out that even if fans of their characters may not be buying Battle for the Cowl or whatever else, there's still interest (from nostalgia or whatever) in the collected format. There are more than 20 DC-centric collected editions in the May solicits alone. All different formats, price points, etc...

Let's guess that the cheapest collection is around $15.00. Paul Levitz may have some awesome crack he's smoking, but I don't think anyone believes that DC fans are picking up even half of these collections, especially at this pace every month. So what's going on?

We turn to the hotly debated Bookscan research produced by Brian Hibbs for Comic Book Resources. I won't mention Watchmen, because, as always, its a freak point in the statistics, but suffice it to say, it sold a heck of a lot of copies for a 20+ year old book.

Hibbs states that DC Comics placed 71 titles in the top 750 books sold at Bookscan locations. That's right: DC is taking up almost 10% of the Bookscan list. The #2 comic book company. Hibbs says:

DC more than doubled their performance in the bookstores in 2008. And while “Watchmen" accounts for a lot of that, as well as the trickle down impact of “The Dark Knight" in the theaters, it seems clear that their new bookstore partnership with Random House’s distribution has yielded amazing results for them.

Right or wrong, has DC seen a path back out of the direct market and into a mass market once again? Reaching people in ways that the limited number of direct market stores simply can't?

So what does one have to do with the other?

So what do eComics (or, ahem, comics) have to do with the increase in trade sales through Bookscan?

DC and Marvel share the opportunity to work with their audience and get to them where they live. Cunningham's understanding of how a larger iTouch could impact comics isn't enough. He's got to quit complaining and start figuring out how DC can exploit the Kindle, the iTouch/ iPhone/ whatever mode people want to read a book, magazine, whatever format that their readers are at. Paper was the only cost-effective form of delivery until a few years ago, we get it. But models rise and fall.

The Direct Market may need to begin adapting, and the Big 2 adapt with it. It may not be enough to sell monthly comics anymore, and comic shops may need to start migrating to more of a bookstore model. But with trades coming out almost immediately, that's a distinct possibility for comic/ specialty stores. And, hey, it'll still probably be profitable to keep a smaller number of monthly issues in print. Someone is going to pay whatever you ask to maintain a complete run of Amazing Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, etc...

I don't want to say there isn't a downside. It is true that smaller publishers and creators may never see their work in print. Or, at least, may NOT see their work in traditional paper print models. But there's also the possibility that as eComics spread their wings, it'll open the door for collected editions, a la PVP. Or even collections of strips such as Achewood. Or, heck, collections of strips from the newspaper.

The comic industry isn't alone in this. Countless periodicals and publications have moved to an electronic-only version. I can speak from personal experience that academic journals are on the verge of going electronic.

There's obviously money to be made from the collected editions. And while DC may have made its money on stapled comics, it seems to be on the verge of either making a leap of faith into the dark future of, well, maybe March or April 2009, or slowly watching their periodical sales continue to dwindle.

And, hell, Diamond/ Geppi will probably be Chapter 11 by June, anyway.


Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.

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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