The key to a proper New Year celebration is to not get drunk before midnight. Or at least that’s what the Russians told me after I got drunk before midnight.
This happened years ago, in a time before I had met my partner in life and in business. I was spending New Year’s Eve with one of my closest friends and his new Russian roommates, watching a nightmare version of (link) Winnie the Pooh while we drank. Fairly close to midnight, my friend and I noticed that the Russians were pretty sober. There was a reason for this. That reason was “fire”.
By Brandon Schatz — with edits and contributions by Danica LeBlanc
The Russians played a video of Putin speaking at five minutes to midnight. While this was happening, they prepared for the clock to strike twelve by handing out shots of vodka, pens, pieces of paper, and lighters. We were told what to do the moment we heard the first chime. I nodded far too much and squinted my eyes as I definitely took in every last bit of information.
And then… the clock began to chime. My head moved and my vision swirled over to the piece of paper before me. I quickly wrote down my wish for the new year (“be awesome”), and grabbed my lighter. With the flame aglow in one hand, and my wish for the year in the other, I lit the paper on fire, and let it burn down to my fingertips, at which point I was supposed to toss the wish into my glass. Instead of doing this, I yelled “owowowowowowowow” until many yelling Russians spurred me onto the next step.
The charred remains of my drunken wish dropped into my shot glass, I tossed back the shot. The last chime sounded. We all celebrated briefly, and I almost immediately passed out on the nearest comfortable surface.
Now, what does this have to do with comics or comics retail? Well, it’s a metaphor, you see. It’s 2018 and it’s time to make a wish and set the industry on fire. And also, there are Russians, because that seems to be a thing now.
You missed this, right? You missed this.
2017 was a pretty frustrating year.
At the end of 2016, the direct market was in rough shape. The year had some lack lustre sales. The amount of products sold continued to tick up, but the amount comics sold and money made ticked down. Retailers started coming out of the woodwork to say that if things didn’t change quickly 2017 would be a rough year. And guess what? Things didn’t change.
We’re in the midst of 2018, and there is a mild panic in the air. Marvel is attempting yet another relaunch after a huge stumble this past fall. They’re still leaning on the crutches of variant covers and event style marketing that got them into this mess into the first place. Meanwhile, DC is somewhat stealthily looking at the current model, and realizing it has an expiry date. They’re loading their Rebirth books with as much meat and potatoes as their customer base can handle, and using that to fund life rafts. Most of the Young Animal marketing they did focused on the graphic novels. Their upcoming Ink and Zoom lines will see very few titles serialized in a physical format. And Black Label appears to be looking at a new way of delivering content using an alternative format.
These are both wildly differing reactions to a hard reality: the direct market is not long for this world. It’s something that I’ve been talking about for years. Strangely, it’s why I opened a comic shop with Danica in the first place. The old ways are broken and have been broken for a long time, but everyone thought they could ignore it while the money kept rolling in. Now the money is starting to dry up, and things are starting to fall apart. Many in the industry are starting to look at rusted limbs and realizing if something broke, the money wouldn’t be there to repair it – and that’s a problem. So what’s the way forward?
Sadly, the answer to that is something akin to “go back in time, and invest in long term business solutions”. So many in this industry hitched their wagons to the superhero machine and tiered variants. Emphasis was put upon serving the collector over the reader, which is great in the short term, but terrible in the long term. Collectors are always good for spending large chunks of money now – which can work out pretty well – but at the end of the day, a collector can stop collecting a lot easier than a reader can stop reading.
When we opened our comic shop, we did so with an eye towards connecting people with stories. That meant ordering comics in such a way that removed as many barriers as possible to connect a person with something that they would love. For a majority of those who are into story, they don’t care what format they get it in, so long as that format matches their lifestyle. Some people don’t have time to come in every week. Others don’t have the space to store a lot of single issue comics. We worked with their needs, instead of letting the weekly churn dictate what they could get.
The results have been… well, the results have been amazing. Ever since we opened the store nearly three years ago, we’ve been seeing consistent and sustainable growth. We even managed to weather a falling out with a third partner (and the legal bills that followed) and a relocation without cratering. People followed us because we were giving them more than just the next issue of something – we were giving them things to connect with.
The problems this industry has, and will continue to have, all stem from the need to churn. Books ship twice monthly not because of story demands, but because of budgetary demands. Books like Wonder Woman have been running fill-in stories for almost a full year while it waits for whatever big plan is coming next. Green Arrow is in the midst of four months worth of random writers before the new regular team jumps on board. Superman was running at least one fill-in every quarter for its whole recent run. And Marvel basically used their whole Legacy initiative as a stop gap to get their books from the fall to the spring, where they intended to relaunch anyway. These companies don’t do this because they’re in the business of delivering a satisfying story – they’re doing it because they know you’ll buy it regardless.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at the difference between the way Marvel delivered Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic’s Secret Wars and how they delivered books like Axis and Secret Empire. Secret Wars was allowed to breathe and be a story. Axis and Secret Empire, were means to an end, and were produced through any means necessary. Heck, you can even look at Civil War II. You can see where there intent was: a single writer and artist delivering something that would hopefully sell as well perennially for them as Civil War did. And while I believe they failed in their attempt, their “body language”, so to speak, made their intent clear.
What this industry needs to survive is a long term view – and that’s something that many retailers and publishers either aren’t willing to try to do, or too far gone to make happen – and that’s a shame. Projects like the aforementioned DC imprints have me hopeful that some can see where things need to go. Companies like Boom! Studios and Oni Press seem to have their finger on the pulse of where they need to go as well. But many others? I worry about them. I worry about Marvel. And I worry about a lot of shops and the people who work for them.
So please, if you work in the comic book industry, I want you to do me a favour. I want you to take a look at where we are, and set the past on fire. I want you to look forward to where we could be if we put in the effort. I understand it might take some time, but honestly, I’d rather you come along with us than smoulder in the ashes of what once was.
It’s okay. I promise. You’ve got this.