About a year ago, contributor Pol Rua posted an article about How to Fix Comics. I thought it a good idea back then to write a response about why comics needs to be fixed. In the year it took me to get around to it, a small but noisy band of angry man-children decided to drive home my central point, which is that comics needs to break out of the comic shop ghetto and return to mainstream consciousness in order to also break out of the adolescent state often mistaken for maturity. Both DC and Marvel are making an effort now, but Marvel in particular has done a better job of it lately, primarily by creating characters that appeal to the people who never used to go to comics shops. Most of them do not buy their comics at comics shops, preferring to read them online or wait for the trade paperback collections and buy them at a bookstore or from Amazon.
The malignant racist-sexist wannabe-terrorists of ComicsGate are trying to pretend that their real concern is that “forced diversity” is ruining comics, so I’m going to go ahead and explain in painful detail how comics systematically ruined themselves over the course of about 60 years, and why diversity may be the only way to save them. (Spoiler: the ComicsGaters’ prescription will only hasten the demise of the industry.)
From where I sit, as a professional artist, cartoonist, occasional comics journalist, and comics reader of 50+ years, I see four areas in which the comics industry has at various times gone off the rails: Format, Content, Distribution, and Marketing. Each of these areas has been affected by a number of foolish, short-sighted, fear-driven decisions over an extended period of time, the cumulative effect of which has led to the current state of the industry. Here they are:
In 1938, Action Comics and LIFE Magazine were both 10 cents; most magazines of the period were priced around 10-25 cents. Both were approximately the same size, about 8.25″ x 11″ and 64 pages. Over the decades, LIFE and other magazines raised their prices, while the comics held off as long as possible before grudgingly bumping to 12 cents in 1961 (LIFE was then 20 cents), and then to 15 cents in 1969 (LIFE was 40 cents), then incremental increases every 2-3 years. By the time the direct market became viable around 1986, DC, Marvel and Archie comics were all at 75 cents, while most typical magazines were around $2.00; LIFE was $2.25. Today, a typical comic is $3.99, while TIME is $5.99 and other magazines considerably more.
Because the comic publishers thought they were producing a disposable impulse product, they believed their readers would not tolerate any price increase, so they steadfastly refused to raise prices until they absolutely had to, instead choosing to reduce the size and page-count. They never stopped to consider whether those readers might also react to a decline in perceived value. The end result after several years was a 50% reduction in page count and 19% loss of page size. By 1986, LIFE had become a tabloid, 10.5″ x 14″, while TIME and others remained the same size they had always been, in some cases adding pages, while comics had been reduced to 32 pages at about 7″ x 10.5″. In addition to diminishing the size and perceived value of the comics, they also continually reduced the percentage of profit for both themselves and the retailers, making their product less desirable for stores and newsstands to bother with. Because of that ever-diminishing profit margin (and the rise of ever-pickier customers looking for pristine copies without folds or marks), comics became a hassle and a waste of shelf space for retailers, and year after year, more and more of them stopped carrying the things. Comics disappeared from drugstores, convenience stores, and newsstands, replaced by more profitable products.
While this was happening, the Direct Market was gradually coming into being, and eventually became the only viable outlet for the product; publishers shifted from producing the cheapest product possible to the other extreme, choosing the highest quality paper and promoting specialty covers with costly effects like chrome finish, lenticular effects, and other enhancements, which turned comics from disposable impulse purchases to luxury indulgences and limited-edition collectibles. The heavy focus on collectibility also contributed to this shift, driving variant covers and cross-title “event” comics. Unfortunately, pandering to that collectible mania did some damage to the comics industry.
From a production standpoint, publishers used to be able to offset a lot of the production costs through advertising, but advertisers are reluctant to pay for ads that will be sealed unseen in mylar bags or plastic caskets. By promoting the collector mentality and encouraging the speculator business, the publishers made comics more expensive to produce.
The decision to diminish the product instead of raising the price was just one of many foolish choices made by comics publishers over the years. The second was shooting themselves in the foot via the reactionary creation of the Comics Code Authority, a calculated effort by Archie Comics and other publishers to put EC Comics out of business.
The popular story about how the Comics Code Authority was created in response to popular hysteria about the “dangers” of comic books is a myth. As most comics fans know, Dr. Frederic Wertham generated a lot of publicity for himself with his provocative and dubiously-researched book, Seduction of the Innocent, which ginned up public outrage and led to Senate hearings chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver.
But here’s the thing: The comics industry won the debate in the Senate hearings. They proved their case, there was no call for regulatory action. Publishers could have simply marketed their own comics as being wholesome, there was no need for the Comics Code, certainly not for one as draconian as what they came up with. But “coincidentally,” virtually every single thing that was banned by the Code was something found in EC comics. Every word forbidden by the Code was part of an EC comic title. John Goldwater, the CEO of Archie Comics, was chair of the CCA at its founding, and the rules formulated were no accident. The entire point and purpose of the Comics Code was to shut down EC and punish Bill Gaines for provoking the public outcry in the first place.
In so doing, they turned comics from “decadent” to “insipid” and reduced the entire field to being seen as “stupid kid stuff” for the next 40 years. Howard Chaykin asserts that the Comics Code “not only infantilized the comics, it infantilized the readers,” by effectively eliminating comics for those who had outgrown superhero stories. The stated purpose of making comics a legitimate entertainment and education medium was doomed to failure; teachers and parents who forbade comics prior to the Code because they were offensive forbade them afterward because they were vapid and infantile junk. Anything with any higher artistic aspirations or mature themes was pretty much forbidden.
This restriction of content also contributed to the ongoing marketing problem of having to capture an entirely new readership every few years; in the 1960s, an average comic reader could be counted on to read them for about 3-5 years, generally from about age 8 to 13, with an expected 100% turnover in readership every seven years. A common saying was “every issue is somebody’s first,” which meant that writers were expected to provide information that new readers may not know, particularly about who the characters were, what they did, and how they related to one another. This approach made comics stories simplistic, repetitive, and childish, despite many writers’ best efforts to create more sophisticated stories. Because distribution was unreliable, stories that continued beyond a single issue required an extensive “previously” recap to inform readers who had missed the previous chapter.
In the ’70s and ’80s, partly driven by Marvel’s success in capturing college-age readers and DC’s embarrassment over Batman’s “Biff Bam Pow” TV legacy, comics gradually shifted to more mature themes and art in order to hold on to an audience for longer than the typical 3-5 years, while still staying within the bounds of the increasingly outdated Code. This was somewhat hampered by fears of another round of protests from “the Bible Belt,” which also demanded avoidance of anything concerning race. When Jim Shooter attempted to add a black heroine to the Legion of Super-Heroes, the editors changed her skin to blue so as not to offend anyone by her presence.
In the Direct Market, the content was pared down to focus on the core comic shop demographic, which was post-college-age white guys with a penchant for continuity and a compulsion for completism. Following in the wake of Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s landmark comics, the big two began not only appealing primarily to adult men, but actively tried to drive off younger readers, afraid of ever again being labeled as “for kids.”
Fun Fact: In 2002, Marvel’s sales figures, as published in their own advertising sales materials, showed that they sold 4.9 million comics to kids age 6-11, and only 2.4 million to ages 12-17. Marvel’s then Editor-in-Chief, Joe Quesada, was quoted that same year as saying “the function of writing comics for little kids would be disastrous for us, so what we are going to do is leave the 8-year-olds to the folks at Archie and keep writing Marvel comics as they have been.” Obviously, the Marvel brain-trust’s egos were so deeply embarrassed by the notion that comics are “kid stuff” that they would rather give up over half their sales than recognize the obvious. Today, Archie is licensing old Marvel comics stories, reprinting them in the digest-size book format that they’ve been successfully selling for years in supermarket checkout lane racks. Had Marvel leaned into the side of their business where the money was, they could have done this and reaped that 15 years of profit, and they would be in a lot better condition today, because those kids they shunned in 2002 are now in their twenties, and they are not reading comics anymore.
Twenty years ago, the big discussion in the comics industry was manga. Why were kids buying manga books by the truckload? Why were stores like Barnes & Noble giving over entire rows of shelves to Japanese comics? Marvel and DC, missing the obvious, attempted to swipe some manga art stylings, assuming that big eyes and lack of noses were somehow central to the appeal. The obvious, in case you also missed it: Manga embraced all the genres that mainstream comics had long ago jettisoned – humor, romance, fantasy, mystery, historical drama, funny animals, and so on. It turns out kids like variety.
The comics publishers did not abandon mainstream retail distribution in favor of the direct market, contrary to the common legend; they were pushed out of the newsstands, and comics shops were the only viable market that remained. The comics industry realized that sales to comics shops could be handled on a non-returnable basis; in the magazine business, stores typically could return unsold copies (usually just the cover) to distributors for credit on future inventory; a typical comic might print 250,000 copies, with only about half actually selling, which resulted in overhead for the publisher. By selling to comics shops as non-returnable, the shop took on that risk, and by requiring pre-orders, the publisher could reduce the print run to what was actually sold, reducing costs. The specialty shops became their primary market.
Comics shops, like any specialty store, were and are primarily visited by people who already have an interest in the product; very few people ever wander into a coin shop, stamp shop, tobacco shop, model train shop, or collector plate retailer, just to look around and see what’s available. As it happened, the typical comic shop customer turned out to be a young adult male, white, single, middle- to upper-middle class, and already a devoted comics fan. 30 years later, many of the customers are those same men, but now the 21-year-old customer is 51.
In 1950, comics were often an impulse purchase by a random customer intrigued by the cover. As a result, comics sold to both children and adults, and about equally to both boys and girls, and there were numerous genres from which to choose. Today, “mainstream” comics, which paradoxically are far less popular than other types, consist almost entirely of superheroes; other genres are labeled “alternative” or “independent,” since the “Big Two” (DC and Marvel) have eliminated virtually all other types from their catalog. The focus on superheroes and the hardcore comic fan resulted in ever more byzantine and self-referential stories, further reducing the audience, until the publishers felt they had to restart their lines multiple times and attempt to streamline and unclutter their epic mythologies in order to attempt to capture new readers. Such efforts were doomed to failure, because new readers only go to comics shops if an existing reader drags them in.
Another unexpected series of events was the elimination and consolidation of distributors, until eventually Diamond ended up with a virtual monopoly. They have exploited this advantage with the sort of behavior that led Theodore Roosevelt to take government action against monopolies in the first place, creating arbitrary barriers to entry for new publishers and largely dictating which comics will end up at your local comics shop. Independent comics publishers now spend more time trying to tailor their comics to Diamond’s requirements than on telling an original story.
The industry has catered to and encouraged the collector and speculator markets to the point that comics are no longer primarily an entertainment medium; they are limited edition collectibles, like figurines from Hummel, purchased to be stored and re-sold at a later date. The constant marketing of variant covers and rebooting titles to produce a new #1 shows where the publishers see their revenue stream. Comics as entertainment take a back seat to comics as collectibles, but as anyone in the business can tell you, collectibles become collectible by being rare; Golden Age comics are valuable because most of them were recycled during WWII, and the ones that survived were usually trashed by parents. Any product marketed as a collectible is by definition not collectible. Most go up in price due to manufactured scarcity, which has a limited lifespan. Since thousands of public storage spaces in the US contain a box of variant hologram cover #1 issues, you can bet the future value of most of them will hover around zero, especially as the primary customers for them continue to die off.
While the collectible nature of comics is a factor in the market, pandering to collectors is self-destructive. People collect old TV Guides, but you don’t see the publishers releasing variant covers or restarting the numbering to sell more of them.
Now, after over 35 years of this artificially controlled fishbowl marketplace, the industry’s sales and marketing have been controlled for two generations by employees who do not believe there is any other way to sell comics than “the way we’ve always done it” (which is absolutely not true, this is NOT how they’ve always done it; comics were sold in the same way that all other periodicals were sold for the first 50 years of their existence.) As a result of this “that’s how it’s done” approach, when a publisher decides to try aiming a comic at an under-served segment such as women or girls, the marketing people handle it the same way they handled the last 100 issues of Captain Steriod; they advertise it in Previews and plop it on the shelf at the Android’s Dungeon, where anybody who might be remotely interested in it would never set foot.
The idea of trying to sell a comic to the general public is now so far beyond their experience that they believe it can’t be done, despite the fact that the very same characters whose comic sales are dwindling can be found starring in TV shows and movies that have millions of fans.
Let’s do some math: The current population of the US is 325,700,000. The top 10 best-selling comics in America average about 300,000 copies, with the average comic selling about 1/10 that amount. The heavily-promoted Action Comics #1000 sold about 500,000 copies, which is half of what an average comic sold 30 years ago. You can bet that a significant majority of comics readers bought that issue, plus a large contingent of non-fans who mistakenly believed it would someday be worth something. It’s not unreasonable to assume that 500,000 is about the size of the superhero comics core audience. It may actually be on the high side, given how many collectors buy multiple copies. 500,000 is about 0.15% of the US population. Let’s be generous and round up to 0.2%.
The marketing people at DC and Marvel are content to fight to the death over their share of two tenths of one percent of the population that goes to comics shops, believing that the other 99.8% are adamantly resistant to the very idea of reading a comic book.
All of this has caused a problem for the publishers; by systematically trivializing their product, removing themselves from public consciousness, alienating half the population, and becoming a niche collectible, they have basically made sure that two generations of potential readers are unaware of comic books.
And the ComicsGaters are hell-bent on keeping the market for comics confined to that 0.2%, and reducing it even further by pushing out the few women and people of color still among them.
Where to from here?
I think a radical change is in order. Radical, from the Latin radix meaning “the root.” Go all the way back to the beginning and start over.
Not in story terms, I’m not talking about rolling back characters and plots to the so-called Golden Age, and I’m certainly not talking about eliminating any of the new characters in favor of bringing back their pale male cis/het predecessors.
I’m talking about the business end. Look at all the shortsighted, fear-based, greedy choices that were made, and go the other way. Extrapolate where comics would be today if the people running things had held a different view of their own industry, and then make the kind of comics that would have been followed on that evolutionary path.
- What if the price had kept pace with inflation, and instead of continually reducing the size, paper quality and page count, comics had instead followed the quality improvements other magazines embraced?
- What if the comics industry had decided to follow Gaines’ example instead of persecuting him?
- What if they had done as the music and film industries did and faced down the censors?
- What if they hadn’t been pushed out of the mainstream marketplace due to self-inflicted economic difficulties?
- What if they hadn’t retreated to the Direct Market and dramatically altered their content to pinpoint their tiny and shrinking core demographic at the expense of other potential audiences?
- What if comics had not embraced the speculator market, turning comics into the paper equivalent of the Hamilton Mint?
A smart publisher could most likely find a lot of success in answering these questions and creating the comic books that could have been; a magazine sized publication, with perhaps 150 pages, of which 40% were ads (like Vanity Fair, People, GQ, Car & Driver, etc.), that included several of the genres currently being actively avoided by the Big Two (horror, science fiction, humor, fantasy, mystery, true-life stories, romance, historic fiction, western, detective, etc.), that are accessible to new readers, marketed to the general public and sold in places where they actually go, with publications aimed at all ages (including some “all ages” titles, some mature, and healthy line of comics for kids), priced comparably to other magazines, and with a heavily-promoted digital version available for the impulse reader. Most of all, comics that are fun to read.
For the moment, the large publishers are still treating digital sales as an ancillary source of income, still looking at Direct Market numbers as the arbiter of success, and thereby the arbiter of content. Marvel’s claim that “diversity doesn’t sell” is based on precisely this, along with a couple of other ill-advised choices, such as completely ignoring bookstore sales of trade paperbacks. DC’s “Digital First” series, Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman, despite being widely acclaimed and reportedly selling extremely well for its 51 issue digital run, lasted only 17 issues in print, largely because nobody outside the comic shop customer base ever knew it existed. Devil Dinosaur and Moon Girl may not sell out at the local comics shop, but the trade paperbacks do brisk business at Scholastic book fairs on practically every school campus in the country.
The industry needs to, as a whole, keep a realistic perspective on the Direct Market. It may be the majority of their current market, but it serves a statistically insignificant fraction of the total population. Finding ways to get comics into retail outlets outside the comic shops should be a primary concern. The recent joint project with Walmart is a good start and should serve as proof of concept.
Letting the hardcore fans drive the industry is what keeps a billion-dollar movie from selling a million copies of the related comic book. Letting ComicsGate further restrict the field through their bigotry and harassment tactics is suicide for comics.
Publishing comics that appeal to kids, women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people, is not only smart marketing, it’s vital for the future of the medium. The continued existence of the industry depends on new readers taking up the hobby. Those potential future readers are most likely not going to be middle-aged white guys with anger management issues.
Make comics that the whole world can enjoy. And the whole world will enjoy them.
Disclaimers: I currently work for Disney Publishing, which owns Marvel. Any opinions offered here are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of Disney, Marvel, or any of its employees. This post is largely based on a document I wrote about 15 years ago in hopes of building interest in creating a comics imprint that would do what I described here. Unfortunately, personal issues caused that project to halt.