The above post by Rich Tommaso on FB has been lighting up creator chatrooms and my inbox since it went up yesterday. Tommaso is a long time indie comics veteran, with such books as the well reviewer Dark Corridor and She-Wolf for Image, and prior to that a steady body of work for Fantagraphics Books, Dark Horse Comics, Top Shelf Productions, Chronicle Books, Hyperion Books For Children, Boom!town and Alternative Comics.
In other words the guy is no slouch.
But now he finds himself with lowered sales for his new book Spy Seal, which as you can see from the preview below, looks great, as does all of Tommaso ‘s work. It’s a Jason-like anthropomorphic romp through an MI-6 caper, all in a ligne clair style. Hardly a bizarre premise although maybe a little oddball for the average Image reader.
In case you can’t read the above link, here’s part of Tommaso’s discontent:
Well, if you’re going to bring up that old, “you’re not supposed to make money making comics” argument, don’t bother. I’ve heard that bullshit for years and I’m tired of it, so you can stop reading this now and go back to reading your R. Crumb comics, you little curmudgeons. Reminder: R. Crumb is the underground artist who bought a villa in France for a suitcase of sketchbooks–and whose first ZAP comic book sold a million copies. So, anyway, what the hell happened? Did comic shops pass on the series because it’s not a blood and guts, gore-fest? Is it because it’s not based on a movie or television show? Is it because I have never written or drawn a high selling MARVEL or DC comic? Or maybe I just don’t understand the comics business at all. And just what is the point of using ALL of these social media tools to promote your work when they only lead to such abysmal, diminishing returns?
Tommaso makes it clear that Image is not to blame for the low sales, as they’ve been trying to set up interviews and other promos and Eric Stephenson has stayed with him. But it’s not enough, it seems.
If you read the hundreds of comments on Tommaso’s post or follow the dozens of share links and read those comments…you’ll see a lot of sadness and worry about a career in comics at the moment.
BUT ONE BILLION IN SALES!
That brings us to today. I’m generally a glass half full-er, but it’s pretty clear that we’re hitting one of comics’ periodic rough patches. The last one was two years ago – led by DC’s moribund output after their over from NYC to LA – and comics rebounded just fine, partly because Rebirth led the way.
We’re in a slightly different time now. Let’s look at the record. And start with Tommaso himself. None of this is meant as a criticism, merely observation. Despite his long career, for whatever reason, Tommaso has yet to have a “signature” hit. Dark Corridor got generally good notices, but readers of She Wolf seemed to be confused by the story. All that makes a follow-up harder. Is this anyone’s fault? No. But having an outsize personality on social media helps sell comics, and if you’re just a regular creator who doesn’t do that, you can suffer in comparison. As you can see from Tommaso’s work it has nothing to do with the quality, just what readers and fans expect these days.
But Tommaso has a long career as a professional. Maybe an agent would help here? Hard work and talent are fairly easy sells even in a crowded market.
But, in the larger picture, there is a glut of hard work and even talent in the comics world right now. Seriously great cartoonists are just growing on trees and we’d need about 10 more Scholastics and First Seconds to absorb all the people who can do good YA work, which is where all the money and growth is now.
DC was able to rebound fairly quickly from DC You because once the horrors of a move were over, they had a fresh new work situation, new ideas from new people and (let’s be honest) some support internally because WB wants to challenge Disney in the superhero movie arena.
Now Marvel is having troubles, but as observers keep pointing out they don’t seem to have absorbed just why they need a real rebrand not deck chair reshuffling. Just why this is has many reasons, some of them due to Marvel’s long term corporate culture, but mostly due to the extreme cost cutting practives and mercurial edicts of Chairman Ike Perlmutter, whose insistence on downplaying the X-men and elevating the Inhumans keeps going on and on and on, despite a total lack of enthusiasm from anyone. When you’re subjected to rando bizarre stuff like this year in and year out, it takes a toll.
More importantly, DC has read the tea leaves and Marvel hasn’t. DC is launching a kids line, graphic novel lines and other stuff to take advantage of changing reader demographics. Marvel seems set on a course of riding Marvel Zombies all the way to the gravel pit, while outsourcing kids books to IDW and Archie It doesn’t help that ever since Diversity-gate they’ve doubled down on never showing any public weakness or contrition, never a good sign. I have the utmost respect for all the professionals working at Marvel (yes really) but you can see the bad morale there from a mile away.
Marvel’s slowdown means comics sales can’t grow this year and there’s that nagging double digit drop in graphic novel sales, as well. Comics and graphic novel sales have been growing for a while, but the bookstore market is moribund, newsstand is deadder than a doornail, digital is flat and comcis shops are handcuffed by the Marvel Problem.
Is this a fatal four way? Well, as MacDonald’s Theorem states:
Comics will evolve and bounce back. There could very well be collateral damage along the way however. I suspect we’ll see people moving into parallel fields for a while, and moving between paying gigs in the ongoing gig economy. With Obamacare seeming to have survived, staying freelance is literally a lot more livable for many people.
Which leaves Rich Tommaso and his low orders. Here’s a preview of Spy Seal, judge for yourself and if you like it – preorder.
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.