§ The aptly named Jude Terror of The Outhouse stunned the comics world yesterday with a piece called Die, Industry, Die! (Or Why Letting Comics Fail is the “Real” Only Way to Save the Industry) which took off from the suggestions that the well-regarded comic Nighthawk could have been saved from cancellation if more people had preordered it. This was, by his own admission, a rant, but it struck a nerve with a lot of people, and that nerve was the vaguely unsatisfied one that a lot of comics readers have.
And that brings us back to the original point of all this, which is the idea that it’s your job, as a reader, to save comics from cancellation. That if you don’t buy a Previews catalog, research all of the comics coming out two months from now, and then tell your retailer you want to buy one so that your retailer can purchase an extra copy from Marvel that month and Marvel can brag about it in a press release, it’s your fault when the comic is canceled.
I propose a different hypothesis: it’s Marvel’s fucking fault when Marvel doesn’t sell enough comics. It’s Marvel’s fault they didn’t promote Nighthawk well enough to get retailers to buy enough copies of it. It’s Marvel’s fucking fault specialty shops are the only stores that buy Nighthawk comics in the first place. It’s Marvel’s fucking fault that instead of millions of people reading comics, there are less than 100,000. All of this is Marvel’s fault, not yours or mine, and the propensity of comic book creators to guilt trip fans about preordering has to be classified as some kind of weird version of Stockholm syndrome.
This call to arms was preceded by a history of the direct sales market that was alarming in its complete lack of accuracy. (Terror went back in and fixed the worst errors, but just in case you think Marvel or Diamond invented the direct sales system, they didn’t – it was a bunch of retailers led by Phil Seuling.) The analysis of how we got to 2016 was so wobbly that it pretty much would have made me disregard everything else that Terror wrote, but I can’t ignore the angry mob of readers and creators who have taken up its call. I took off my headphones and I listened.
And yet…poor sales are to blame for the failure of products in every industry. Consumer indifference is mostly because of…consumers. The whole preorder idea is an awful way to run a publishing industry — the idea that consumers need to wade through a 300 page catalog meant for retailers in order to save a book they like is ludicrous and when I see creators like Gillen and McKelvie pushing it, I just feel awful.
That said…ultimately there are three things that make a comic (or any artistic endeavor) successful: good creative, good marketing and good readers. Once, just the idea of a comics starring a black hero, written by a black man, drawn by a Latino man, with covers by a black man and colors by a trans woman would be cool in and of itself. Throw in that the book is about racial issues and gang violence in a real place, and it sounds like a pretty bold experiment for a company that also publishes books based on stackable Chinese toys.
So why did it fail? Maybe it didn’t succeed because it wasn’t very good. (Confession: I haven’t read it, but I like the work of everyone involved so I’ll take the good reviews at face value.) Maybe the subject matter was too raw for Marvel. Maybe it was too dark for retailers. Maybe readers are racists. Maybe no one likes Nighthawk. Maybe Marvel took a chance on the book but didn’t have the marketing resources to make it go past 6 issues.
I, personally, think we shouldn’t destroy everything in comics just yet. I’ve been making a study of sales and the direct market for a long time, and I can say with some confidence that there are more distribution channels for comics than ever. They aren’t all entirely healthy (Google recent Barnes & Noble news if you dare) but publishers are pretty confident that they can survive the loss of one, and stores feel confident they can survive if a publisher or two goes tits up. Because history can be a surprising thing, I’d also like to flash back to this piece I wrote about 80s comics sales, and this Capital Comics sales charts from 1984, where comics sold in numbers pretty similar to today’s market…but remember these are just sales from ONE DISTRIBUTOR. The early years of the direct sales market were actually focused on INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS, like Pacific, Eclipse and Capital. Marvel and DC came along slowly, because they had no choice; newsstands were dying.
In the 80s direct market every magazine sized issue of Love & Rockets sold 50K copies. Awful black and white comics you never heard of sold 50K copies for a while, until the black and white glut of the late 80s. Things went great until the mid 90s, when a spectacular boom — the greatest sales since the pre Wertham days — was followed by a crash and the number of comics shops in America went from as many as 8000 stores to the 2000-3000 we have now. A lot of people with long memories blame Image and their associated companies for this and have never forgiven them for it. Marvel, far from benefitting exponentially from the DM, was in such bad straits in the 90s that they went bankrupt and laid off more than 100 employees. (To be fair, this was mostly because then owner Ronald Perelman was an ass and had wasted money buying a lot of peripheral businesses like Panini and Fleer and then got into a pissing contest with rival Carl Icahn. There’s a book about all this.) Comics languished for a few years until Manga took off, and bookstores expanded their graphic novel sections in the early 2000s. The rise of the internet led to the long tail system we have now.
And what does all this history have to do with today’s current comics market?
FUCKING NOTHING. If there’s one thing I detest hearing in a a meeting it’s “We tried that 15 years ago and it didn’t work!” And yes, I have actually heard that. If your business model hasn’t changed in 15 years, you have a shitty business model.
You may feel differently, but I feel that destroying the DM as it stands without a substitute model in place would led to many good men, women and non binary creators losing their livelihoods. I think we have a new generation of readers who prefer graphic novels, and the periodical is in the process of becoming less crucial to the industry as a whole. I believe this because the dollar value of graphic novels in both the DM and bookstores is more than the dollar value of periodical sales. DC now makes more from GNs than from periodicals, and Marvel’s GN sales are rising as well. They are not denying the existence of this trend.
In a lot of ways, The Terror Manifesto reminds me of when I used to read the show reports from the Attitude Era of the WWE in the late 90s. This was a time when there were two thriving wrestling promotions, and live wrestling on almost every night of the week. HHH, Chyna, Steve Austin, The Rock, the Undertaker, and Mick Foley cavorted on every edition of Raw, and legendary catchphrases were born every night in a savage war with Mr. McMahon. It was, we now know, the pinnacle of the wrestling business. Yet to read the contemporary show reports you would have thought this was the worst shit ever. NOthing but complaints about the booking and the “workrate.” Granted, it’s hard to know you’re having a golden era while you’re IN a golden era. That’s where perspective comes in.
Comics are almost certainly in a golden era right now…if you don’t care about Marvel and DC, something that is very easy at Stately Beat Manor. There are so may great comics coming out from Image, Dark Horse, IDW, Boom, Dynamite, First Second, Self Made Hero, Abrams, Retrofit, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Koyama Press, Uncivilized, Peow and dozens of other publishers. There are so many good comics to read stacked up by my desk and clogging my dropbox that I feel depressed about ever finding time to read them.
I get that people who want superhero comics to be the kind of comics that they want, don’t want to read comics by Ron Wimberly, Isabel Greenberg, Box Brown and Gene Luen Yang instead. One is not a substitute for the other. But I would also submit that as you get older your tastes change, and periodical superhero comics, with their neverending storylines and repetitive melodrama, are a medium best suited to youthful readers who then age into some other format. I’ve seen plenty of onion-belted readers reacting to the Terror Manifesto with a “Hell yeah, I’ve been reading comics for 30 years and they DO suck now!” Hopefully, we’re not going to succumb to a “Make Comics Great Again!” movement.
Admittedly, burning down the industry is a more revolutionary vision, and I’m past my revolutionary days. The ideas for an improved industry that I had 30 years ago are now mostly accomplished; it would be a great time to retire, actually. I’ll let the youngs figure out the next thing. But I’ll leave you with this: man, if you don’t like Marvel now, the Bill Jemas era would have made your head explode.
OOPS, it seems this edition of Kibbles ‘n’ Bits never got past the first link! I’m off to the Diamond Retailer Summit where my indoctrination into industry dogma will be refreshed. More later.
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.