If you have more than a passing interest in the comics industry, such as myself, you are probably aware of the maelstrom of conflict that the comic industry has been in 2020. Corona hit the comics industry particularly hard, disrupting shipping, publishing and release dates. The temporary shut down of distribution, crippling many businesses. The backlashes against DC Comics for their involvement in creating a new distributor or Diamond for being a monopoly with questionable concern for their clientele. A nerdy shitstorm if you will.
Lots of people have weighed in with different ideas, theories and blame, aimed at different figures and businesses throughout the industry. Well, since I'm a people too, and I might just have a couple of decades of experience in this industry, I might add my two cents and maybe give an insight into some possible resolutions that may not have been thought of.
First, let's all agree that comics is no longer the core of the business. What were once comic shops are now really pop culture and collectible stores, and have been for a long time. When comics publishers were just that, comic publishers, and not owned by media conglomerates, comics were the core of the business. That's all they did. They did it well and a successful comic book from a major publisher could sell 500,000 copies on the stands. Today, a successful comic book from a major publisher sells 20,000-50,000 copies. 150,000 copies is a run away success. In most cases, discounting advertising revenue, a comic book publisher is lucky if they are clearing $50,000 profit on any issue. I don't think it's any surprise that this has happened gradually, after all the comic publishers that were comic publishers were bought up by media conglomerates. Comic books are no longer the core of the business and haven't been for a long time. The comics are on the verge, possibly already there, of being an advertising expense.
Objectively, imagine you are the head of a multi-media monopoly that owns the rights to a prominent character. The production of a monthly comic book has stresses, headaches, time invested, unreliability of talent and at the end of it all you might bring in $50,000 for the company at the end of the day. If you are lucky. In contrast, movie and television projects, based on the same character, have a track record of bringing in multiple millions, even billions of dollars, for little to no headache or effort from the rights holder (in this example I assume the movie rights are licensed to a separate studio, in some cases, like Marvel, a different branch of the same company produces the movie but have similar expense and profitability scales). So if your job is to exploit these characters and intellectual properties to make the company profit, what's the better option? A comic that may make $50,000 or a film that takes less effort on your part and brings in $50 million?
The truth of the matter is that the characters and intellectual properties are much more valuable now than the actual comics that they star in. Part of this may be because of the shift in focus, from a dedicated editorial team trying to craft the best stories possible, to a corporate board who see the character as a profitable asset to be exploited. If this troubles you, perhaps you could take solace in the fact that if comics collapse and disappear tomorrow, the characters will live on. With this shift of focus and direction among the major publishers after being bought out, it's no surprise that comics have gotten less attention than more valuable delivery channels and slowly fallen by the wayside. At this point the comics barely generate enough revenue to even be worthy of notice to mega-corporate organizations. The comic book sales are not what made these companies attractive to media companies who bought them. Media companies buy comic book companies because the intellectual property is more profitable when exploited, licensed and merchandised to the hilt.
The fact is, even merchandising such as toys, posters, costumes, t-shirts etc. is more profitable than producing the monthly comic book.
Now that all these properties are being closely guarded by corporate giants, their biggest fear is that the weirdoes on the creative team of the comic will produce some kind of crazy story that will get negative press and damage the value of the intellectual property. So, the mega media overlords, like an overgrown fanboy, keep all the characters protectively sealed in mylar, to preserve their value. No major changes, no controversy, no touchy subjects and if we do tempt the fates and teeter on the edge of such things, we undo it in the next storyline as quickly as possible, as it if never happened.
Sounds like a fun creative situation, right?
Added into the mix of this is the recent upheaval at DC Comics and the rumors of an on-again, off-again, cancelled, re-vamped project that allegedly would have seen DC's major heroes stepping aside for a new generation of characters to take over the mantle of their heroic duties.
And of course people lost their minds at the idea that Bruce Wayne might be replaced...and by a black man instead of Robin. Oh the horror.
The shame of it is, that is what DC is good at. For decades, they were a company known for legacy characters that handed down titles and built a family dynamic and history. I feel fortunate that I grew up in a time when I could follow the adventures of The Flash. Barry Allen was a great character, and then I learned that he wasn't the first Flash, that was Jay Garrick. Then we were introduced to Wally West, Barry Allen's kid nephew who accidentally recreates the lab accident that happened to his uncle, giving him the same powers. We saw Wally grow up, mourn the death of Barry and take over his mantle to become a major hero of his own for a long time and truly step into the role and legacy of the Flash and become the Flash, not Kid Flash pretending to be the Flash. Look at Infinity Inc. A great team book that was entirely based on the idea of family and legacy, tied directly to major DC Properties like the Justice League, Justice Society, etc.
I've been blogging on comics and working in the industry for 20 years, and I can tell you I was one of the people clamoring for more diversity and inclusion in comics. Since then, some small progresses have been made. Some of those steps have been blatant pandering, just looking to get money out of people who are part of an ethnic minority or alternative lifestyle.
I think we're beyond the point of needing character change and development, I think we MUST have it if publishers intend to keep selling monthly comics.
Let's face it, these characters have become engrained in the culture and there is no shortage in demand for content, it just needs to be the right content.
As I said before, the comics are essentially an advertising expense at this point. Figures show that the comics bring viewers to the movies. Conversely, movies do not always being new readers to the comics and the response of movie-goers becoming comic readers is often inconsistent and unpredictable. It's a strange contradiction until you consider that any interest that the average movie-goer has in the comic content will be directed at the stories that inspired the film, which are often the early issues that may have been published 30-80 years ago.
There's a simple solution. It could work for any major publisher and save tons of money. Stay with me here...stop making the monthly comics.
At least, stop making the pristine, hermetically sealed cryogenically frozen versions of these characters that can't be sullied by negative press in comic book form. Stop making new stories of these old characters.
Let me elaborate using Batman and DC Comics as an example (I feel like I'm picking on Batman this week):
DC Comics could stop making new Batman monthly comics tomorrow and not lose any money. In fact they might even save some money. As mentioned his value is in licensing. They could literally just stop making new Batman comics and they could start reprinting single issues in chronological order every month, starting with his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 from May 1939, and they would sell. There is a demand for them. People want to read those stories and in spite of some limited re-prints of key issues, most people don't have access to them. DC could spend the next 80 years reprinting individual issues of Batman on a monthly basis and they would sell and they would never have to pay for new art to be produced again. Alternatively they could collect them into trade paperback graphic novel collections that release every 1-3 months for the next 20 years and still not have to pay for new art. On top of that, whichever method they choose, enough time will have passed that they can reprint the series and then start reprinting all over again from the beginning and fill the demands of a whole new generation.
Literally if we are being objectively honest, the top 3-4 comic publishers (with some minor caveats such as the fact that Image doesn't own their characters) are at the point where they may never have to generate new comic content again, they have enough content in their massive libraries that they can feasibly and realistically run a business that licenses rights to the characters and continues to just reprint the existing content in perpetuity.
Where is the room for new comics?
I'm glad you asked. If rights holders want to reinvigorate interest in new comics, they need to take the kid gloves off and let their properties out of their mylar bags. Let them take risks. Let them get dirty. If DC or any other company wanted to revitalize the interest in new comics, something needs to happen. something significant. I'm tired of the circles that Batman and Catwoman go through just to have everything go back to status quo in a few months.
New comics is a great opportunity to tell new stories, with new talent in new ways. Legacies, reimagining's, and handing over the mantle. New comics are the place for stories of Damien Wayne or Luke Fox or any of the many Robins as Batman. These stories would move on and be firmly set in the present or near-future and feature legacies and descendants of prominent characters in a cohesive DC Universe. 50 years from now people could be discussing their favorite Batman alter ego the same way they discuss their favorite Bond actors.
These comics could also be produced on a monthly basis, but wouldn't have to be, freeing them of the obligation of monthly scheduling. These characters could be featured in mini-series or original graphic novels instead. With hype, marketing departments and the tremendous vault of re-printable content, DC could still produce Batman related content with a new release published every month, just not numbered or presented as a monthly ongoing series. The beauty is that when you are done reprinting 80 years worth of comics, the new material that you produced in parallel can then be added to the end of the reprint content and reprinted all over again.
Reprinting the classics and switching up the new comics would also give creative talent more freedom to experiment with new ideas and interpretations. It would be a great space to also try out wholly new characters that the overlords may not be as protective of.
All it would really take for any major comics property holder to implement this is the right person who can respect and control the properties while implementing a sensible publishing plan for reprints and new content together, without becoming obsessed with just cranking out new content or balking at reprinting controversial stories that might cause a dip in profits.
I mean, that's my solution anyway, I've read lots online that I don't feel work as well, but I'm all ears if you've got one.
Meanwhile, here's some art that I did!:
Thanks for reading,