Comic Books vs. Natural Selection

About a week ago, someone sent me an article which pointed out that, surprisingly, Disney had bought Marvel Comics for something like four billion dollars. This deal outraged some fans, irritated others, and gave great amusement to still more. Mostly, I couldn’t muster any ire. I’m a life-long comic book fan, and someone who extols the virtues and capabilities of the medium. Nevertheless, the news made a blip on my radar and then I got on with my day.

Then, yesterday afternoon, I saw a different article, which was that Warner Brothers were taking DC Comics and ‘re-branding’ it DC Entertainment.

Both articles — and the interview I’ve just linked to — are full of fairly sickening big-business gibberish talk. I mean, who really wants to grow up to “handle the strategic development of creative license opportunities’? Who talks like that? If someone talked to you in that fashion on the street, you’d call for the police and take them away for some sort of treatment. Electro-shock, for preference. But I digress.


Both of these occurrences in such a short period of time were very interesting to hold up next to each other and think about. The first thing you can’t help but notice is how little they actually have to do with comic books themselves. And if you define ‘comic book’ as a ‘periodical release of installments of a story’ then it has nothing at all to do with them. It’s especially clear how little comics factor into this whole affair when the name change is from DC Comics to DC Entertainment.

On the one hand, I can sort of understand the shift. After all, DC Comics is also responsible for video games like Batman: Arkham Asylum, and for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, also responsible for cartoons, and toys, and plushies, and Halloween costumes, to a pair of pajama pants I own which has a bunch of DC super-heroes on them (don’t judge me.)

So realizing that the companies are very multi-media these days, it makes sense to rebrand them. It even makes sense for Disney to snap up Marvel.

But comics. Ah, comics…

They’re pretty much dead.

The Problem

Alan Moore had some interesting things to say on this point, a few years ago in an interview. And I quote: “”There are three or four companies now that exist for the sole purpose of creating not comics, but storyboards for films. It may be true that the only reason the comic book industry now exists is for this purpose, to create characters for movies, board games and other types of merchandise. Comics are just a sort of pumpkin patch growing franchises that might be profitable for the ailing movie industry.”

I happen to agree with that, and I really wish I didn’t. I grew up on comics, and I adore comics, and I adore super-heroes as much as anything else. But increasingly, the mainstream comics field (and I put an emphasis on super-heroes here, because that’s a lot of the commercial brand properties they’re talking about, and a lot of where the problems lie) does nothing original, does little to push the boundaries of what the medium’s capable of. Super-hero comics are a lot like daytime soap operas at this point, in that you can come into them and go out of them with years in between and follow the stories. Not much has changed. The characters have died and been cloned and shot into space and turned into alternate-90’s-rocker versions of themselves and worn leather for a bit, and had alcoholism and whatever else you want…but it all tends to just sort itself out. And with a minimum of poking, you can pick the story back up and keep reading.

You can’t do anything truly interesting with Batman or Superman in the comics. For one thing, you can’t kill Superman, or Batman: not for good. And since we’ve killed both of them at least once now, what I mean is…you can’t kill them off and then end the comic. And the reason is…that would affect the Superman license, the Superman toys and creative properties.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that comic sales keep dropping and dropping and dropping? The individual issues can’t do anything interesting anymore, and haven’t for quite some time. On the fringes of the medium itself, comics are fine and dandy and doing all manner of amazing things. But mainstream comics? They aren’t doing so well. And they’re so irrelevant that the companies making them can be turned into DC Entertainment, or turned into a Disney offshoot, with no ill effects.

This bugs me, because comics matter, and super-hero comics should matter. But there’s no sales to say they matter.

The Solution

So what do we need to have happen to reverse this? Well, we need comic books to matter again. We need them to sell again, and we need them to become as valid an art form (commercially, mind you) that you can do things in them which is as talked-about and interesting as when you do something in the movies.

But how? The format is a problem. Individual issues of comic books sell abysmally. What money is made from comics these days mostly comes from graphic novel sort of collections. Never from the individual installments. Those are just things you wait to finish releasing so that you can buy it collected in a graphic novel format. And that, unfortunately, removes one of the delights and powers of the medium. And one of its tools in the modern age.

Serials and installment-stories are a great idea, right now. I have a quiet theory that in our fast-paced-high-tech-no-time-for-attention-spans modern world, the best thing you could do is get your audience just to read a handful of pages of the story once a week, or once a month, if you will. We see this working in the world of internet media, we see novel serials being released. It’s viable.

So what should we do for comics?

This:

Companies like DC and Marvel and their parent companies have some money to throw around. Maybe not a fortune, but I don’t think a fortune is needed. What is needed is for them to take some of that money and invest it in a fairly simple eBook Reader. With a color, high-resolution screen. And, ideally, some sort of clam-shell design which opens and gives you two screens, like a book lying open. Perfect for comic pages, and also-perfect for those two-page spreads that are so wonderful in comics.

Then, build a subscription service. The best way would be through something like iTunes, which already has an audience built in. But even without iTunes…something similar.

Ideally, I should have this device, and I should be able to, once a month, plug it into my computer. (Or perhaps it would have wireless?). And once a month, it would download the new issues of whatever comics I’m subscribed to, directly into my device, where I could read them happily. And heck, this might even help to reduce the cost of individual issues, which would help immensely.

I don’t think this is a startling prediction on my part. One only has to look at some of the Digital Reader which are currently in development to see that that sort of device is pretty close to the horizon. Asus is making one I’m particularly interested in, at the moment.

And I don’t think it’ll be terribly long after these things come into existence that people start putting comics on them. We’re already putting some comics onto our iPhones, after all.

I merely maintain that Marvel and DC need to get on top of this if they want to stay in the game. They need to look on this has a gold mine territory and put some muscle into the area. They could actually have comics be as useful and viable, in all aspects, as the video games divisions, or the movie adaptations, or the cartoons, or the Christmas action figure blitzes.

It’s inevitable that something like I’m describing is going to happen. It’s just a question of from where. I suspect that smaller comic publishers will get on with this idea pretty quickly, because they’re always looking for new and interesting things to do. They’re willing to try. I suspect that some individual artists and writers – and the web-comics crowd, in places – will be onto an idea of something like this pretty quickly.

But will DC Entertainment or Disney’s Marvel?

If they want to keep alive as anything viable in the comic book business, then they might. Personally, I don’t want them to sink. I like super-hero comics. I just wish they were doing better, and had a financial impetus to be more interesting all by themselves.

Unfortunately, I suspect that they’re too much a cog in a big-business machine at this point (something that really happened well before the official deals went through) for anything artistically interesting to happen there.

I wouldn’t bet my dog and lot on it, but that doesn’t mean I’m not extremely hopeful.

4 thoughts on “Comic Books vs. Natural Selection”

  1. I’m not as big a comics fan as you, but I’m sympathetic to the complaints and see parallels to the plight of genre fiction of the non-picture variety all over the place here.

    Your concept is there, but I think it needs a little tweaking.

    (BTW – someone has a patent for a two-screen, book-like e-reader)

    1. not monthly, not weekly – daily. One or two pages, daily.  OR you can get a weekly compilation or a monthly compilation.

    Popular blogs and other on-line services ought to be more than enough to prove the point that our ‘next-gen’ audience wants quick snippets of whatever on a daily basis, something they can turn into a habit-forming, don’t have to think about it activity.  They’ll add it to their daily que with the morning coffee, or during lunch, or right after they read the email

    2. forget a custom reader – format it to run on existing ones.  You may be wedded to (and enjoy and lament the loss of) two page spreads, but single (tiny) screens iz where its at.

    3. no “i-tunes” like subscription service – that gives too much power and control to the marketing types who want to ‘deal creatively with strategic licensing opportunities’ and quite frankly, one of the reasons we’re where we are at (with the loss of “real” comics, genre fiction, movies, tv shows, etc., etc) is because those marketing types have had way too much influence for the past two or three decades.

     

     

     

     

  2. Valid points both in the column and Davidson’s comment. But here is one of the main reasons why I and my husband stopped reading and buying comics, which relates to the iTunes issue — we couldn’t afford it anymore, especially with a kid on the way. When one elaborate storyline requires you to buy not one monthly issue but three to five of them a month just to follow it because Spiderman is not one comic line but some eight individual comics series or tied into three other series in a crossover, well then, you give up on buying Spiderman comics, or you buy only Spiderman comics and can’t experiment with other series, even series from Marvel or D.C., much less many other companies. (And when they keep changing the Spiderman story, invalidating everything that came before, it gets pointless to try to read any of it.) If you want to read a particular storyline and you don’t want that to be your sole comics buying experience, it then makes sense to wait until they bundle it all up into a graphics novel, which will be more durable than the throwaway monthly ones and will be, overall, cheaper. Or you stop reading comics altogether and go play the Spiderman game and/or go see the Spiderman movies to get your occasional fix. And so the percentage of comic lovers who are willing to go to comics shops once a month or order online and blow 50-200 bucks a pop on it dwindles, even as visitor numbers at ComiCons rise and web comics become popular.

    So if comics go electronic — which I would presume is an idea already in the works — they’re going to have to deal with the price issue that all electronic publishing is struggling with at the moment, and they’re going to have to deal with the price demands they are making on the customers for a specific product — the stories, not the superheroes themselves — relative to their costs. They also need to stop putting most of their promotion behind 70, 40 year old characters who are so iconic they no longer need it beyond just reminding folks that they are there — and which Hollywood does for them anyway — and start promoting other characters/series that could also become iconic and excellent franchise opportunities.

    Further, it wouldn’t hurt them to start promoting comic book writers and artists to people beyond the comic devotees who already know who they are. Do you know who is doing the Batman comic or the Spiderman comic right now? Which one out of a half-dozen series for the character? Why should anyone care what a comic looks like or sounds like when the writers and artists are indistinguishable and interchangeable unless you’re an ardent fan? What comics has to offer besides interesting stories is its art. And the comic companies have, except for making dolls and the occasional poster, made very poor use of that asset in recent decades. That’s why the comics adaptations of novels and t.v. shows are attracting interest — because it’s a different way to see those stories or add on to them with new stories through interesting comic art and the comics way of telling those stories.

    Right now, the number one complaint about book cover art for SFF titles not being quality for many people is because they look like comic book art. They like the comic book superhero characters okay enough to go to a special effects movie about them, but they think the comics art is cheesy. Many of them still think actual comic books are just soft porn for teenage boys. Comics needs to sell its art, sell its stories and do it at a price people can afford. Maybe putting them on e-readers will do it.

  3. The market for comics has been surplanted by the market for video games.

    Comics will never come back like they did simply becouse 12-20 year olds have something else that they like more and will overwhelmingly choose to spend thier money and time on.

  4. So you want webcomics. But for money.

    With, admittedly, a nifty reader gadget. Which you have to pay for.

    And all the corporate dross, for reasons I’m not clear on.

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