Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Prophet of doom

Being some disjointed ranting on the state of mainstream comics...

According to The Beat's analysis of DC Comics monthly sales here, the best selling comic of December 2006 was Justice League of America #4 at over 130,000 copies. The top comic of the year was Justice League of America #1 which broke 200,000 copies.

The typical DC superhero book seems to be orbiting in the range of 20,000 to 40,000 in sales. In the early Seventies -- when I was a child and therefore everything about life was perfect -- Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" books (New Gods, Mister Miracle et al) sold in the neighborhood of 200,000 to 300,000 copies and were cancelled as failures.

It would have been typical for an issue of Superman to sell over 400,000 copies during the early Seventies. That would be an average regular issue, mind you, not a "first issue" or "special event" issue. More historical perspective on patterns in comics sales can be found here.

(Why were Kirby's books considered failures? This is a source of great contention among Kirby fans -- ah, but what isn't? -- but the general impression is that it was because his books were selling less than 50% of their print run. DC could simply have lowered the print run to match demand...but the real problem was that their expectations had been unrealistically high in the first place. If you're expecting the absolute biggest success in comics history and get merely a respectable success, it seems like a failure. But I digress.)

You may rightly point out all the other ways today isn't like 1971 -- comics cost more, they aren't sold at newsstands, I'm old enough to shave, and there's now such a thing as "waiting for the trade paperback" instead of buying mothly issues. Be that as it may: we still have an idea that the current "universe" of mainstream monthly comic book readers is going to be something considerably above 100,000 readers.

DC has a number of books that start above the average in sales and then lose one or two thousand readers per month. A lot of them seem to have had a surge from the "jumping on board" aspect of the "One Year Later" scheme...but failed to hold those readers, and didn't continue bringing in new readers to replace those defections.

Here's a really important clue for comics publishers: "Jumping on" issues don't work, and if you have to have one in the first place, you're already doing something wrong. People do not mind coming into the middle of a story, if it's a good story and being told well. You catch the tenth or twelfth episode of a TV series and say "Wow, this is really good, I gotta start watching this"? Or flip the channels and come across the middle of a movie that hooks you, and you realize you want to watch it from the beginning? These things happen all the time. I've opened up novels at random in the middle and gotten an impression of the writing that made me want to get the book. Not knowing who the characters are or what the situation may be offers no impediment to the newcomer provided you see some spark of entertainment that makes you want more. All your "jumping on" issue does is service the new reader who already knows this is a "jumping on" issue -- which assumes a higher level of familiarity with that title among people who aren't already reading it than one ought to assume -- or the few who happen upon it that particular month by chance. You expect every potential reader is that person? What manner of god are you, comics publisher, that you may control destiny thus?

Several of the lowest sellers are Cartoon Network tie-ins. Krypto the Superdog is selling under 10 thousand copies. Scooby Doo is under 5 thousand. Looney Tunes under 3 thousand. CN Block Party less than 2 thousand. These numbers are appalling. If I were a higher-up executive at Warner with no interest in comics, looking at DC's performance with these books that are essentially getting constant free advertising on television, I'd have to conclude DC was incapable of selling bowls on a day when it was raining soup.

Kids who watch the cartoons are not going into the comic shops and/or not finding those comics. I'm not saying the comics aren't there; I'm saying the kids aren't finding them. And you know what? If I were a parent, I wouldn't let my kid go into a comic shop alone. Assuming there was even one in our town, which (statistically speaking) there probably wouldn't be.

But every time I go to one of the supermarkets in my neighborhood or to the local K-Mart, my attention is always fixed by the rack of Disney and Archie comics digests in the impulse purchase racks at the checkout lines. They look appealing, they look affordable, and they look parent-friendly. Attention DC, another clue approaching: put your Cartoon Network tie-in titles into digests and do whatever it takes to get them onto those racks! I bet you'd sell more than 2000 freaking copies.

(Update: Kevin gently points out something I have overlooked about this in the comments section.)

There are two issues raised in the above: one is how small the total universe of current comic book readers has become relative to its size in the past, and how the mainstream publishers have failed to enlarge it...and the other is how well or poorly that shrinking universe has been served by the publishers. Price and availability are the keys to the first issue. Blaming video games as competition for reader dollars doesn't really cut it. There are always things competing for your prospective customers' wallets, and there always will be. Suck it up and accept that; don't use it as an excuse for failing to get your product in front of people. And if there's so much pricey competition, how does continually raising the price help? As to the second issue...

It's not an artistic or aesthetic value judgement to say that Marvel and DC are simply not giving the existing comics reading audience what they want. It's a statement of objective fact, demonstrated empirically by sales figures. This is axiomatic when you see two thousand more people each month saying "you're not giving me what I want in this comic" and an equal number aren't replacing them. Finding out what it is they want and giving it to them is the job of publishers and editors and their creative personnel. And it's a job the majority of them just aren't doing.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

I'm having another flashback...

While I've been AWOL from blogging, the good folks at Flashback Universe -- about whom I've written previously -- released three new comics in fairly rapid succession. It was a long wait since their first release way back in August and I'm glad to see that logjam broken...not least because if you're trying to build a new business model for comics publishing (or anything else) it's good to give your audience reason to keep coming back on a steady basis rather than giving people a brief taste and then allowing them to drift away, with the novelty and initial enthusiasm slowly dissipating.

This is a problem also facing ComicSpace -- about whom I've also written previously -- having gone through massive initial growth following a plug from Warren Ellis and a surge of promotion on countless blogs, only to leave its users saying "great, we're here, now what do we do with the damn thing?" Well, look, building new things isn't easy, especially when you have no way of judging in advance what the public response will be and you want to have a slow, careful rollout. And success is delicate, especially online: this year's MySpace or ComicSpace could be next year's Tribe...or even Friendster. You can be poised to take over the world a la Google, and then make one bad decision that drives away your users en masse and destroys all the buzz you've developed. Whether you do too much or too little, too quickly or too slowly, people are fickle. I'd urge everyone to be patient with ComicSpace: it's there, it has untapped potential, and uses for the site that its creator never foresaw may well bubble up from the user base. A little slow deliberation on his part is no bad thing.

But I digress; we were talking about Flashback...

I can't claim to be remotely unbiased, for reasons that will be obvious to the keen-eyed reader who takes a look at their download page...but I genuinely enjoy the books they've released. When they made their debut, the format and distribution method seemed like the most interesting thing. Comics designed to be downloaded and read on screen, with transitions and storytelling techniques that just wouldn't be the same in print, and readable at your leisure from your hard drive rather than through the intermediary of a website. And the downloads are free, the whole venture being supported by voluntary donations. Jim Shelley says he's broken even on the first issue, which isn't something many (if any at all) self-publishers of print comics can ever say. Is reading a comic book onscreen inherently less good than reading a paper comic book in your hands? Well, having highly affordable comic books on really cheap newsprint was better too. Having 25 cent comics on sale at every newsstand was better too. Come on, grandpa, comics have to reach a freaking audience somehow! Cost and lack of widespread availability is smothering the medium, and I don't think the remaining comics readers realize just how bad the crisis has become.

So: Flashback has come up with most of the pieces of the solution -- I await the day when they add more potential revenue streams, like Flashback t-shirts and caps and action figures, not to mention the day when Hollywood buys the animated film rights -- and they've used the format in a way that capitalizes on its strengths, vis the storytelling techniques alluded to above...but you'll have to read the comics themselves to get a sense of that. (Come on, it's as free as reading this blog. Could it hurt to give it a try?)

What really drew me in, though, is the unashamedly retro joy that Jim and his Quebecois artist Pierre Villeneuve bring to the stories. It's something that can't be faked. Too many attempts at "comics like they used to be" are tainted by archness or self-conscious irony. (This is what spoiled Alan Moore's 1963 for me; the sense that it was a pastiche whose message was "look how loveably awful those grand old comics were," an effect achieved by making stories that were deliberately more awful than the best of those old comics actually were.) Or they're done by people who turned to "retro" style by default because they weren't quite skilled enough to pull off more modern styles, or out of a rigidly conservative refusal to admit there might be some good in comics other than the ones you read when you were twelve. My point is, these guys are doing this style out of a genuine affection for the comics of the late Sixties and early Seventies -- the same impulse which informs the very different Astro City -- and their affection isn't at all condescending. As comics mature as an artform, there has to be room for us to go back to approaches from the past and try them on...not for pastiche or homage, but to find what may still work and what can be brought back to revitalize the future. Particularly when I look at Marvel these days, I have to wonder where mainstream comics may have gone off the rails and wonder how we might retrace their path and get things going in a more healthy direction.

My friend Howard just read one of the recent Flashback titles -- it was the League of Monsters story "By Butterfly Betrayed" -- without reading any of the backstory of the characters or additional info on the site, and he compared the in media res experience to picking up, say, a random issue of Marvel Team-Up from the mid-Seventies, and trying to figure out who all these characters were and what was going on. The mere fact that he can get that feeling from one of these books -- and doesn't feel the same way when picking up a random Marvel or DC book of today -- tells me that Flashback is definitely onto something here.

Monday, January 15, 2007

A page from history

From Justice League of America issue #57, cover dated November 1967. Script by Gardner Fox, art by Mike Sekowsky and Sid Greene.

"Asked what reward he wanted for saving the life of a wealthy garments manufacturer -- Joel Harper, a young Negro, requested only -- a job!" we learn from the Flash as this story opens.

"I'd sure like to know why -- of all things he could have had -- Joel settled for a job!" wonders Snapper Carr.

Not much of a job, either; when we meet Joel after this introduction, he's pushing a wheeled rack of menswear along a street in the garment district. Way to show your profuse gratitude, mister wealthy garments manufacturer!

And then, mister wealthy garments manufacturer turns around and fires Joel for helping a temporarily blinded Flash stop a quartet of bank robbers...because the rack of clothes got ruined in the melee. And you blame Joel for his bitterness? The Flash, however, is impressed with Joel's powers of observation...and suggests his friend Barry Allen will help Joel get a job as a policeman in Central City.

However it may look to modern eyes, this was pretty heady stuff for comics in 1967...when Dr. King was still alive and still considered a subversive threat by the establishment (as much for his opposition to the Vietnam War as for his views on race relations) and having a black person on the cover of a comic book seemed like an invitation to having that comic banned in large segments of the country.

Also in this story, Green Arrow helps an Apache boy, and Hawkman assists a philanthropist trying to aid impoverished people in India against local opposition. All for the sake of helping Snapper finish his term paper on National Brotherhood Week...