Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Infinite (Comic Book) Crisis?

Recently John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Film/TV blog posted about the fate of Marvel Comics and comic books in general. This was all started by the fool who wrote the article "Will Licensing Doom Marvel?" by Nathan Alderman which was posted on September 19, 2005, at Get it, fool,, yeeeaaahhh – smell that corn. Anyway, Mr. Muir posted "Whither Marvel Comics?". In which I commented on my basic feelings about this.

Basic no more! I shall now talk more in-depth about this subject, which is close to my heart. I’ve been a fan of comics since I was a little itty bitty tiny witty child. Although I don’t buy them nearly as much anymore (more on that later), I’m still a big fan of the medium.

As that foolish article stated: “…Marvel's publishing arm tallied $20.9 million in net sales, comparing respectably with its licensing ($43.9 million) and toy ($23.4 million) ventures. But remove that mask and look at the operating income: While licensing brought in $28.2 million and toys commanded $13.2 million, publishing brought in only $7.89 million -- down more than 12% year over year.”

Ack, so are comics doomed? Yes, no, maybe. Seriously…yes, if publishers don’t wake up and change with the times.

The reality is that increasing technology has made DVDs and video games more powerful and cheaper than they once were. I know that I’m digging the cheaper prices and the increasing extras that DVDs have.

But, not all is lost. Manga (the Japanese equivalent to our American comics) are increasing in sells in the USA. As the article confirms: “manga is eating the mainstream publishers' lunch. According to the Nielsen BookScan ratings of bookstore sales, in early August 45 of the top 50 sellers in the graphic-novel category were manga. In the first half of 2005, DC's graphic-novel sales grew by 13%, and Marvel's increased by 9%, while manga publisher Tokyopop notched 40% sales growth, including 81% growth in the first quarter.” This tells us that Americans are at least still willing to read comic book-like products. So what is it that manga has that American comics don’t? I personally don’t read much of the manga, but I can tell from watching anime versus American animation that the Japanese do take a different approach to storytelling.

So, enough doom and gloom. What can American comic book publishers do to save themselves? Here are my suggestions. Some are not completely serious (but did you really expect them to be?):

Publish Online - Take advantage of the software and publish titles online to supplement print sales. This has been done fairly successfully with role-playing games to help boost sales (RPGs are the only SF niche that is hurting worse than comics). This will also help cut down on sale loss from BitTorrent (darn you BitTorrent!). It will also make it cheaper for fans to catch up with titles, which really is needed due to the inflating continuities of many multi-title ‘universes’. Don’t get me started on the pre-Crisis vs. post-Crisis Superman discussion. And I always get a headache when I think about Magneto. How many times has he died or switched sides, anyway?

Experiment With New Formats - Sorry, but the typical monthly is not working anymore, in my humble opinion. Perhaps publishers should experiment with manga format books or graphic novel only products. Just as the ‘dime novel’ evolved into the novel, perhaps many of the monthlies should become graphic novels.

Scheduling - Lets get scheduling under control. Nothing loses interest faster than waiting an additional week or month (or more) for the next issue. Writer and artist contracts with heavy financial penalties for late work might help things a bit. It blows my mind how often titles are late. Could you imagine a television network allowing their television crews to do that? It would kill a series. As if the networks’ own re-scheduling doesn’t already hurt a series (remember when FOX aired the Firefly pilot last?), but continuous delays by writers would destroy a television series. Guess what, it isn’t helping comic books out either. This is one of the biggest gripes I hear from my friends, and it is probably my numero uno gripe too. Most comic books now (especially Marvel) do 4-6 issue arcs. If, for example, we compare one arc to one episode of a television series, we would have to wait 4-6 months to see one complete episode. Man, I love Lost and Stargate, but if I had to watch each episode only one act or less at a time, I would completely lose interest.

Enough With ‘Comic’ Books - Change the name! I get so embarrassed when I tell someone I read ‘comic books.’ These books aren’t the same funny books of old. Can everyone agree on a new name? Lets just all call them graphic novels, graphic shorts, graphic episodes, graphic-sodes, commie books (just kidding), graphic serials, or something. Anything but “comic book.”

Geek: The Next Generation - Publishers should try harder to court the new generation of readers (the ‘Ultimate’ line is a cool idea – but not the most kid friendly). You can’t beat out video games and movies, but ‘graphic serials’ are not just a cool alternative. They are also a helpful tool in developing reading skills, and that is something that video games and non-subtitled movies can’t do.

We Are Creators, Hear Us Roar - Publishers need to do more to encourage creators to make new characters that can become the icons for new generations. Sorry, but right now a good creator will shy away from "giving away" a character to Marvel or DC, and I don't blame them. How? One way is through creator-owned companies like the awesome Image Comics. Or, at least contracts that give partial rights to creators. For example, creators should get a percentage for use of the character in comics or in other media. Creators should get a voice when a character is being optioned for a movie or TV series. More rights could go a long way in encouraging creators to create new, and future iconic, characters. Perhaps something along the lines of Crossgen’s Code 6 program. Crossgen never had a chance to do much with it, but imagine if DC or Marvel did this. Not only could they have more PI (that’s Product Identity, not Private Investigator) for future movies and TV, but they could use the same method for new characters in their shared universe. It sucks that the creators would only have 1/3 ownership, but it would help prevent a painful crash, like the one that Image suffered in its shared superhero universe when Rob Liefeild got kicked out and when Jim Lee left. 100% ownership just doesn’t work in the long run for a shared universe. The Imageverse has never really recovered. Please note that I’m talking about the shared superhero universe, not Image Comics overall. Image overall is a godsend for creators to create and fully own their creations.

BUT - I do feel that many of tomorrow’s icons are out there right now. They are just in independent books, rarely seen. Until they hit it big in another medium, they will remain in obscurity. How many people heard of Men In Black, Hellboy, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles until they hit movies and television?

Why do I care so much about these ‘funny’ books. Because they are really the first medium of story telling that I used to entertain myself. They are addicting and can tell stories in a way that no other medium can. I have three reasons why I don’t want to see comics die: I’m a fan, I want to introduce my future munchkins to them, and I want to actually write a few before they are gone.

To conclude this rambling, comics aren’t doomed (knock on wood)…they just need to make some changes. In the long run though, I don’t think comic books will ever sell the same as they once did. But, there will always be television (live action or animation), movies, and video games for future heroic icons. That is, until Virtual Reality gets big…and then someone makes a Holodeck…then we ascend into energy beings and amuse ourselves by watching the ‘lower’ life forms live life. Evolution…a harsh mistress indeed.

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