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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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