The other day I posted a piece called Diamond: Comics and GNs soar in March and immediately got flack from readers for using the word “soar” — weren’t sales down overall from last year by a significant margin?
Yes, but they were also up from February by a significant margin — comics sales were up 17.13% and graphic novel sales were up 13.86%. Now, Diamond obviously used the word “soar” in an ocean of bad news all around — the reason the rise was so big is that February, with its annual snows and delays, was total suck — but it was equally obvious that they were trying to increase morale.
I definitely decided to use the glass-half-full term for a reason. Now that show season is upon us and I’m hitting the road, several people have been complaining about a perceived “negative” tone here, especially on the business side. It’s a charge I’m very sensitive to — times ARE tough and making things look bleaker are not going to improve anything. I’ll stand by the headline I used even if things have gotten more pear-shaped as more statistics have come out.
With yesterday’s layoffs at Dark Horse — following belt tightening at Top Cow — we’re seeing the effects of the general crap economy at last. Borders going into bankruptcy has left a lot of collateral damage, and as this month’s sales charts (even Diamond’s “soaring” one) show, comics sales are soft.
Now, it’s true that the fantasy economy has been a lot stronger than other business segments during The Great Recession, but it’s also gone on and on for two years. Everyone has been scrimping and scraping by, but eventually you have to look at the bottom line.
But I don’t think this is a harbinger of total gloom and doom for the comics industry either. Companies are also hiring people. A lot of retailers I’ve spoken to say their sales are level or even up so far this year — it’s possible they are all lying to me, but knowing the way retailers like to complain, I choose to believe they are telling me the truth.
The retail segment of the comics business has been the butt of many jokes for a long time, but it’s just possible that they aren’t the whole problem any more — most of the really really bad shops have gone away, and based on what I’ve seen on my travels, it’s just possible that most comics shops still standing actually know how to run their businesses. It ain’t perfect, but they’re here and most Borders stores are not.
Over the past few years I’ve become very skeptical of all the talk about “saving comics” — and I say that as someone who actually started a non-profit organization whose motto was “Here to save comics!” While this could be chalked up to my own ennui, I prefer to think of it as being practical. Or as I’ve been saying everywhere lately:
• They said if we could just get comics into Tower Records, it would save comics.
• Then they said if we could only get comics into Blockbuster, it would save comics.
• Then they said if we could only get comics into Borders, it would save comics.
Of course, Towers, Blockbuster, and Borders are all bankrupt, but comics are still here. Now I do think the comics INDUSTRY needs a lot of work — publishers are increasingly out of touch with their customer base, readers are aging out without new readers to replace them, and the entire media business is in tatters around us. To the above wishful thinking mantras, one could add “If only we could get comics onto iPads, we could save comics” — and you know what? That is probably right.
“Comics” in some form will be here when the iPad joins the Newton, the Classic and the original iPod in the Mac museum. Comics — meaning imaginative, touching stories told with words and pictures — have transcended every business and platform and distribution collapse.
Yes, there have been some rocky patches along the way (Wertham and the distributor wars of the ’90s) but I’ve come to realize that the need to “save comics” is based on two things. One is the ongoing insecurity and self-loathing that has afflicted the industry for a long long time — the strong belief that you are somehow involved in the worst business in the world cries out for a deus ex machina rescue whether it’s Borders or an iPhone. The other reason is that what most people are trying to save is actually their own place in comics.
Things are evolving and moving very quickly in the media at large. We been undergoing a paradigm shift from a place where ownership is the ideal to where access is the goal, and where getting things for free isn’t considered piracy at all – it’s just how things work. As I talk to my colleagues, almost every one is wrestling with various aspects of this evolution — and yes, the current economic shift and the loss of the middle class is definitely part of it as well. It’s a huge, huge thing, and where we come out, those smarter than me will have to tell you.
But wherever that place is, someone will be doodling on a piece of paper or a tablet and making funny drawings and adding words and so on. There will be comics. Or graphic novels. Or pictos. Or rocket pirates. Or whatever.
Now, do I think there are things that desperately need some fixing in the comics industry? Yes, I do. But do these problems really have anything to do with the artform itself? Perhaps I’m arguing a semantic point here — “saving comics” is a shorthand for all the things we’re always trying to fix on the business end — but don’t blame the medium for our own shortcomings and bugaboos. Look around at the great comics from over a hundred years of genius that are available right here and right now — and all the creativity going into creating new things — is that what needs to be fixed? Comics will save comics, with us or without us.
In the meantime, let’s get those sleeves rolled up and figure out what really needs to be fixed.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.