Friday, September 05, 2008

The End of Comics – Or the Secret Crisis of the Digital Age

I have for the last 10 to 15 years wondered how comics will survive and if they can survive long term. When you look at that statement it becomes almost a parody of itself as obviously comics have survived the last 10 to 15 years and are doing very well and in some ways better then they ever have in the entire life cycle of comics. Still we are possibly staring at the last gasp of comics, as we know them.

The monthly comic and the direct market I predict are a dying breed and we will see the end of this market place within our lives. There are many and various forces that are playing into why I believe this to be true.

Let’s look at recorded music as an example of what has happened. We went from hand cranked Victrolas, to stereos, to 8 track player, to cassettes, to compact discs to MP3 players to IPODs and beyond. Bottom line the sales of music are weighted more and more to just buying a song online. Movies are moving more and more the same way. Many stores have cut back or moved the DVD and CD sections to the back of their stores as the product mix in their stores says these are not their money makers.

Comics are not only moving to the digital age more and more, but we also have trade and hard cover collections. From a dollar and sense standpoint there is more profit in the trades and digital distribution then there is in the monthly comics sold to the direct market.

Look at a DC or Marvel comic. In X-Men Legacy #215 every ad in the comic was a house ad for another Marvel comic. The inside front cover was for Marvel branded products from FAB Starpoint, the inside back cover an ad for Universal Orlando which has Marvel themed rides and the back cover was for Chaotic Card Games, the only non-Marvel related ad. Catwoman #82 did a lot better with ads for the AST Dew Tour (DC is sponsor), a Navy ad, Overcome CD ad, ads for 2 Fox TV shows and an Army ad and house ads. Per the July sales estimates X-Men Legacy sold 69,844 and Catwoman sold 17,761(that is not in the hands of consumer, that is what the store buys). As an advertiser why waste your money on such small numbers when you are trying to find a market of millions. Of course the ads are sold to run in every book and then they can say it will be in 600,000 units and it sounds good until the guy realizes it is the same 50,000 people buying all of these books in a month. Bottom line it is evidence of a market that is in decline when you do not have advertisers clamoring to be in your books.

Trades are a better deal for the companies. Number one all the reprints or trades of monthly material have various royalty payment structures, but it is a residual and not an owed amount. In other words I have to pay you $5,000 to write Superman for one month. When I collect it in a hard cover or a trade I only owe you for the units sold at a greatly reduced rate. So the issue loses me a couple dollars or nets a few bills, but the trade is almost a guaranteed profit. Plus with the trade I do not have to depend on Diamond. I can go to Barnes and Noble, Amazon and other distribution outlets to have my product on the shelves and those numbers are never as clean or given out by the publishers.

Next is the pressure of digital distribution. Marvel has a huge library you can pay a fee to view, they have free books online, DC has free issues on line, Newsarama has been running the Pilot Season free on line, BOOM, Arcana, Th3rd World, Catastrophic, Zuda, Sarah Ellerton, Gina Biggs and on and on. We have free webcomics and free regular comics all over the web. Now we are getting comics for your IPhone, motion comics with actors doing the voices. For myself and many others these choices are an ancillary form of enjoying comics, for the next generation it maybe the main way they buy their comics.

If you had a fantastic digital reader and could download you favorite book for a $1 as opposed to paying $4 for your favorite book what would you do. Think about the digital reader being the same size or a little large then a comic when opened. Also think about being able to zoom in or zoom out to get different perspectives of your favorite comic. Now think about the fact that what you are buying today is not going to be worth $100,000 in 40 years because every other fan owns it and has it sealed in a plastic bag and it is printed on acid free paper. Your comic budget per week is $40, so you can download 40 new books or buy 10 comics. You can ride to the store that is a 20 mile round trip, waste an hour, spend $40, $4 in gas and have 10 comics or sit home download 35 comics, save $5 in comics and $4 in gas and have an extra hour to spend reading your books.

From the publishers stand point no distribution costs, no printing costs and $1 is more then they probably see on a $4 book anyway. They would have to restructure how they pay the talent, but even if it is a secondary outlet at first, how long before you switch over to digital. The brick and mortar retailer will be hard pressed to withstand that competition and will ultimately have to change or die.

Another thing about the digital age is it will be a hell of a lot easier for the little guys to compete as the direct market set-up is a horrible barrier for a small press publisher. Also the distribution just went world wide and I can tell you just from the hits on this blog, it really is the world wide web.

Are comics dying? No! Our industry delivered movie ideas that generated over 1.2 Billion dollars in ticket sales last time I checked this year. The Cartoon Network and merchandising of these characters are greater then ever before. Graphic novels are slowly becoming more and more accepted by the public at large (there are some old hold outs that books with pictures and words can’t be anything worthwhile).

Is the monthly comic dying? No! It is changing and it is morphing and soon it may go into a cocoon and come out as something different, but it will still be here.

Is the direct market becoming a thing of the past? Yes! The thing that saved comics is starting to strangle and kill itself.

Is the paper comic dying? No, but it is going to need a walker soon. The circulation of all paper products is getting less and less (I’m sure there are a few exceptions) so comics are not going to buck that trend. Plus what will replace them are OGN and more comics are just going straight to a trade format and skipping the monthly.

None of this is going to happen overnight and you may see blips that defy what I believe is going to happen, but I’m willing to bet that I’m right and it will be a great day for comics. If comics become more and more digital and the big companies and small companies are competing on a more equal playing field, the quality of the entertainment we get will be better and more diverse. This means Left on Mission, Creature Feature, Scalped, Criminal get to be on the same shelf space with Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and the X-Men and be presented to the public at large. Now let’s see what is the best selling comic.

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