How to Fix Comics

I keep reading how people are going to ‘fix comics.’ And it normally comes down to one of two things:

– If we go back to printing on Newsprint, comics will be cheaper and we’ll go back to “the way it used to be.”

– If we stop all this ‘diversity’ nonsense (which is just a commie plot to indoctrinate kids into not hating and fearing people for being different), and change all the characters back into white, heterosexual males, comics’ core audience of alienated white, heterosexual males will come flooding back and we’ll go back to “the way it used to be.”

They’re both nonsense, and here’s why…

The simple fact is that there is no single quick-fix solution.

The two big companies have spent DECADES creating the corner that they’ve painted themselves into.

(1) They saw that comics which adopted an ongoing serial format where large changes happened and characters grew and developed (Uncanny X-Men, New Teen Titans) were big sellers, so they moved everything away from a more episodic approach to a more serial approach. The problem with that is that it’s harder for new readers to just ‘jump in’ without needing to know decades worth of continuity.

(2) They saw that big events (Secret Wars, Crisis on Infinite Earths) sold, so they made them a yearly thing, and then twice yearly, and then quarterly, until every comic feels like it’s either leading towards a big ‘event’ or marking time until the next big ‘event’, not realizing that if an ‘event’ happens every other week, it’s NOT an ‘event’, it’s just that annoying thing that interrupts what you were reading with a lot of pointless noise.

(3) Combining #1 and 2, they saw that comics where big things happened (Dark Phoenix Saga, Death of Gwen Stacy) spiked sales, so they started trying to do it on a regular basis, not realizing that the reason these stories resonated so powerfully was that they DIDN’T happen all the time. Eventually, the laws of diminishing returns meant that fans grew bored with constant ‘shock’ events.

(4) During the speculator boom of the 1990’s, both Marvel and DC, seeing competition from Upstart Companies like Image, Dark Horse etc… began to flood the shelves with extraneous titles (5 Spider-Man Titles, 12 Batman Titles, etc…) in order to starve their competition of shelf space.

This has resulted in customers seeing SOME titles as ‘important’ and others as surplus to requirements, (e.g. is it a CORE title, or extraneous? Is it tied to continuity or the universe directly, or tangentially?) with the result being that some of the companies’ best comics usually fail to connect with an audience.

(5) With comics gaining ‘respectability’ in the 80’s, many new readers became uncomfortable with the idea of reading ‘kiddie-stuff’, so the companies began pitching their work at older audiences and instead of the vast majority of mainstream comics being aimed at a teenage audience, but accessible to all ages, they’re now aimed at an adult audience, accessible to teenagers, and inaccessible (whether due to content, price or need to understand and follow continuity) to young readers.

None of these problems can be solved with band-aid solutions like switching to newsprint, or pandering to people who see widening comics’ customer base as some sort of ‘commie plot’.

It’s taken DECADES for comics to train readers to approach comics in this way, and undoing it isn’t going to happen overnight.

(Also, a reminder. Anyone who complains that “Comics are pandering to…” is ACTUALLY saying, “Why aren’t comics pandering to MEEEEEE???!!!” This starts to become really obvious in these discussions.)

11 Comments

  1. M-Wolverine

    But ‘How to Fix Comics?’ Actually, I don’t think they can be fixed. No more than newspapers or big box stores. Their time is passing. There are things that could be done to prolong the market. Stopping most of the things you mention would help. Biggest being make the titles cheaper, whatever it takes. Paper cost go up, but “rock star” creators aren’t really viable in this market. Maybe the answer is digital, but they’ve been too greedy there. Roll back digital to .99 prices and you’d sell a lot at no overhead. But kill all the shops that have made your market survive.

    The other is lessen the titles, lessen the overhead, and lessen the sales, but only somewhat. If there was one Spider-Man title instead of spreading out sales between 3 titles you might get 2/3 of the sales on one title, but only have 1 creative team, 1 book to print, etc., etc. And the quality might go up because only the best writers and artists and editors would get the title, because they wouldn’t be searching for people to work on titles that are unnecessary.

    I don’t really think most people are saying “pander to me.” Sure, there’s a bad element in all views. But most are saying “don’t take away what I like just to give it to someone else when I’ve been the one supporting you. Be just the tiniest bit creative, and give them something as good as what you’ve given me. And who knows, they may collect what I collect, and I may like what you’re doing with for them.” The only thing that has kept most of these companies afloat is character loyalty. Through good times and bad, people have stayed loyal to the characters. And for good and bad. Because we’re still dealing with the same characters from the 60’s or the 30’s. But if you create something good enough, they can succeed. Wolverine, the Punisher, etc. are old characters now, but weren’t “original” characters. No reason Ms. Marvel can’t be one of them in another couple of decades. But she, and Captain Marvel, weren’t replacing successful heroes and living off their name. Just taking up old trademarks and making them viable again. We don’t need 4 Wolverines, 3 Captain America’s, 5 Iron Men/Women, and 386 Spider-people. That waters them all down, and just turns readers away.

    Priest’s Black Panther didn’t survive on just “new readers.” It appealed to everyone. And even that was limited, because it was never really a best seller. The fact of the matter is the only way you can get the industry to succeed to to appeal to all readers. Because there aren’t enough minority readers to support a title solely. And there aren’t really enough “heterosexual white male” readers left to make a title successful on their own. You really need to create and utilize characters so they appeal to everyone, and being divisive isn’t going to make that happen. But right now it’s hard to get anyone not looking totally at the $$$ line to not see things as “us vs. them.”

    1. Le Messor

      “most are saying “don’t take away what I like just to give it to someone else when I’ve been the one supporting you. Be just the tiniest bit creative, and give them something as good as what you’ve given me. And who knows, they may collect what I collect, and I may like what you’re doing with for them.” The only thing that has kept most of these companies afloat is character loyalty.”

      Yet again, I find myself agreeing with you, M.

  2. Pol Rua

    “I don’t think they can be fixed. No more than newspapers or big box stores. Their time is passing.”

    I have to disagree, but then again, to me comics are words and pictures. People will always want to read, People will always want to look at pictures, and People will ALWAYS want stories.
    Comic books as a medium can do so many things that prose, or film, or television, or any other medium can’t do… plus, anyone capable of making a mark and having a place to make that mark on can make a comic.

    The problem is in people trying to sell comics the same way as they did in the 1940’s, and adopting a retail structure which is designed to suit the needs and desires of publishing and distribution companies rather than the customers.

    1. Le Messor

      I find the problem (one of them) is that comic books can do things differently to other media – but the companies insist on limiting them to what other media do. The ‘make it more cinematic’ mentality, basically.

      1. frasersherman

        Novels have the same problem. I’ve heard successful writers argue that actually getting inside characters heads is some kind of cheat — that what good books do is show everything, just like a movie or TV show. This makes no sense to me.

  3. Jeff Nettleton

    Newsprint isn’t a fix, under any model. It isn’t that cheap to print on it. if it was, newspapers wouldn’t have the problems they do. So little mass printing is done on that medium, these days, that most printers don’t maintain large stocks of it. No demand, means no supply., Therefore, when someone does want to print, there isn’t that much of a savings, unless you are talking very high volume, to spread out costs. Just look at paperback books. You have to print those things in huge number to spread out the cost and have a price point low enough for consumers to consider it. For publishers, that meant a big outlay for a title and they became very careful about what was considered for that. It’s actually cheaper to print hardcovers. The trend to trade paperbacks was a middle ground that fit more publisher’s economies, which is why you see more trade releases, especially in general fiction and genre fiction, than you do mass market. Mass market is largely reserved for the big name authors and “airport” titles (thrillers/mysteries, etc).

    With comics, newsprint isn’t a cost savings. Circulations are too low for newsprint to be a large savings. Comics were subsidized for years by advertising; but, with other channels available, it became harder to secure advertising.

    Digital is a cost savings, long term; but, you still have the upfront costs. Meanwhile, you still have a lot of evolution for that medium, before it really delivers the experience that makes it the way to go.

    Thing is, the best selling comics are not in pamphlet form; they are in book form. That’s because they are YA material, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, and the works of Raina Telgermeier; as well as the old standbys of Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes, Get Fuzzy and Pearls Before Swine. Those books and book collections make comic book publishers salivate. They reach a mass audience; comics do not. That is how to fix comics; build a mass audience. That isn’t a problem of format; but, of content. That is where publishers need to take a hard look; but, so many of the editorial people are locked into a very narrow focus. It’s the same thing that brought comics to the low points of the mid 70s and brought the steady decline across the Direct Market era.

    1. Peter

      I think it’s also a problem of format, to some extent. The price and flimsiness of today’s comic is a big turn-off to your average bookstore browser who could easily get a thick, content-loaded People Magazine or Rolling Stone for approximately the same price. Similarly, I feel like a lot of lapsed comic readers are discouraged by today’s format. I know that I myself can’t really support Marvel Comics single issues anymore when they have 20 pages of story, a cover that’s the same paper stock as the interior, and a $4.99 price tag for a first issue. I’d be more likely to pick up a “prestige format” or album-like presentation with really nice paper stock, no/limited ads, and no changing of artists halfway through the book.

      Ultimately, however, high-quality content that’s accessible to a lot of people will find a way to sell.

  4. fit2print

    “Comics” don’t need fixing. “Superhero comics” need fixing**

    Contrary to popular belief (on this continent, anyway), they’re not one and the same.

    **Or not. I’d be cool with them going the way of romance comics… your results may vary.

  5. 15 years ago I did a big long rant about this topic on the CBR forums. I still have a copy of it saved, and might just dust it off; with very minor updates to some numbers, it’s still timely.

    Short version: The current state of comics is a culmination of 75 years of short-sighted, greedy, fearful, or cynical decisions by people who should have known better. All of them can be undone by anyone with courage, vision, and some resources.

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