Our story begins a few years ago, when I was still managing another comic shop in the city. A man walked into the store, smiling and humming to himself.
“Interesting place you got here,” he said, slowly stepping his way through the store, eyes scanning the walls in wonderment.
“Why thank you,” I replied, choosing to take this fairly ambiguous comment as a compliment.
“Interesting that you are so close to a shop that rents movies too,” the man continued. He was still smiling, still moving at a measured, deliberate pace.
“…I… yeah. They’re uh… we like them,” I stuttered, “They’re pretty great.”
“Two dying mediums,” he said, choosing this moment to look directly at me with the biggest and – I honestly believe – genuine smile on his face, “So close together. Huddling against the march of progress. It’s really quite something.”
After he said this, I have no solid recollection of what happened next. Everything previous is crystal clear in my head, his entrance, his slow approach, his smile, his cadence. But after…
I remember being… angry? Hurt? Offended? How dare he. But really, was he wrong? If you lack certain data points, his conclusion makes sense. But then… what’s the end game of this interaction? What’s the intent? To walk into a store and praise the inhabitants with their… courage maybe? Or laugh at the backwards thinking dinosaurs, staring up at a tiny speck in the sky as it becomes larger and larger? Oh, what a pretty speck. Surely it won’t destroy us all.
I don’t know.
What I do know, is that was the moment I started seriously considering the future of this medium, and how people viewed the comic book industry as an entity. It had been something of a hobby before, but after that? It became vital.
Which – to make a much longer story a lot shorter – brings us here.
Every few years, it’s the end of the world. Comics have been dying for decades, and boy howdy, this time we’re really done for. Right?
I’ve been thinking a lot about how the industry has been delivering product lately, and how many publishers have landed backwards into a new paradigm that could be great for comics as a whole. A lot of it has to do with rethinking the way comics are currently formatted, and putting the building blocks into place so that the industry can adjust to what would be a far more sustainable model.
First: consider the newspaper. Ages ago, it was the best delivery format to receive news. Today, papers that have yet to adapt to better and easier delivery formats have found themselves floundering. When you’re delivering time sensitive product, the physical format is not the best delivery method, pure and simple. The physical format is much better at creating the idea of permanence, providing an object to attach feeling to – making it ideal for longer form ideas. With me so far?
I am of the opinion that the print medium is not the best delivery system for serialized superhero content. At least, not with the current wants and demands of society.
As people shift more towards models that reward faster delivery, if not outright instant gratification, the age of the superhero monthly has to – has to – adapt. It has not.
Where we stand right now: storytelling demands will often see stories serialized over the course of 3 to… let’s say 8 issues, with longer stories able to break down into smaller chunks within a typical “three act structure”. This typically means that – if a story is shipping on time – two to three stories are being told with characters over the course of the year.
When you marry this with various corporate needs – the ability to hit certain sales numbers, and the general trend of comics to shed readers over the course of a run – that often means you’re getting roughly three to five stories out of a run before the next creators come along to tell their own version’s tale. The churn leaves a lot in the lurch… which is why I’ve found the recent spat of twice-monthly comics to be a refreshing change of pace, story-wise.
With twice monthly shipping, both the creative and corporate needs change the way stories are delivered. Typically, the opening arc runs a bit longer as a means of introduction, but the subsequent stories all run shorter to accommodate for the production time the creators require. It means ideas are moving faster, and are delivered faster – matching the needs of consumers who want stories to happen a lot faster, or at least in a shorter span of time. The downside? Well, the production schedule for physically printed single issues makes it a poor format for delivery. In short: print is not the best delivery system for how a vast majority of people wish to consume serialized content today.
In a previous column, I implied that DC and Marvel have realized that printing single issues might not be in their future, and have been moving their publishing line towards a model that could more easily sustain the future of serialized storytelling and delivery. After discussing it with my business partner (and after reading a few pointed and well reasoned comments from others), I’ve come to realize that it’s more likely that DC and Marvel are stumbling backwards into a system of delivery that will shift how the market consumes their content.
Let’s break some of this down.
Marvel and DC have started shipping a lot of their higher selling properties twice a month in order to meet content and sales goals for the month. This shipment schedule is problematic on a logistical level, because a comic takes a little more than three weeks to send off to the printer, print, and deliver to comic shops. This means shops are having to decide what their final orders for an issue two will be about one or two weeks before the first hits the stands. Obviously, this is problematic. On the other hand, digital production takes far less time – and can, in fact, be ready shortly after the files are delivered to the publishing company. So: which is the better means of delivery in this case?
If corporate and consumer demands are requiring faster production schedules, wouldn’t it be a good idea for comics publishers to look at the most effective means of delivery quite seriously? And if it becomes apparent that a large logistical headache can be removed if digital production is the primary means of delivery, isn’t that the path a publisher should take? What’s more: if serialized comics are being produced to be distributed digitally, a company could announce a book and have it out that week or that month with minimal spoilers, and capitalize on a single, great wave of publicity. Why would this be the preferred means of delivery or a comic book publisher?
Full disclosure: I don’t like reading comics digitally myself. I’d much rather hold the product in my hand and disconnect from a screen for a good length of time. But the facts are these: for whatever ills it might have, digital distribution of high velocity, time sensitive product is the best system of delivery. On the other hand, as I talked about before, print offers a sense of permanence. It provides a concrete object for the consumer to have and to take up space in their life. Given the inherently more disposable format of the single issue comic, wouldn’t it be a better idea for publishers to focus their print efforts of providing folks with objects worth owning?
Obviously there’s a lot to unpack here and I will never be able to get through all of it through the course of a single column. This will be a discussion that will probably be a running theme through several of these columns in the coming months – and one I fully expect to see discussed in the comment section below. But honestly, I believe that the industry needs to adjust, much in the way that radio adapted its formatting when the television came along and provided a better means of delivering serialized content to the audience.
What shops should be focusing on during this time, is where the industry is seeing growth, and where it will inevitably go. There’s not a sane person out there who truly believes that print will be the primary delivery system for information as time marches on. The change is inevitable and if a business wants to survive, it should taking a long look at sales trends, and should be adapting to suit. The first steps are happening now, whether those steps are intentional or not. Do you honestly think DC charging $2.99 for digital monthly offerings vs. $3.99 in print isn’t a test balloon for some kind of shift? It’s all happening, and will continue to happen as the industry seeks new ways to gain and sustain audience in the face of modern demands.
If a shop wants to survive, it needs to start shifting focus over to supplying the buying public with objects – with collected editions that people are going to want taking up space in their lives. The good news? As production schedules ramp up on serialized content, print collections will be coming out at a brisk, comfortable pace. You know those more casual customers who come in once every couple of months to nab comics? How great would it be if the product on the stands featured a complete story, and could easily be reordered without gaps? A solid chunk of content that they want, complete, and delivered to them at a pace that doesn’t require the rough ask of coming in weekly, despite whatever is going on in the rest of their life. Why wouldn’t that be ideal? I believe it would be the best of both worlds – allowing a more casual delivery schedule that works with the production time of print and the demands of a more casual (and abundant) customer base.
So the question, I think, isn’t so much an “if”, but a “when”. When this all happens. When the industry makes the shift. It might be soon. If you ask me, it should be sooner, rather than later, with companies sinking a considerable amount of money promoting digital on websites, and print within the delivered digital content itself. There will be growing pains, sure, but all for the best for the industry as a whole – short term pain for long term health.
So what’s it going to be? Go forward? Or remain attached to outdated delivery methods. Do we go become the bulk of the newspaper industry, or do we find a way forward, and lumber in that direction?
I’d appreciate your thoughts below.
Until next time.