Some time ago I wrote about holes in my comprehensive overall nerdery. While I have a pretty comprehensive knowledge of movies and TV, for example, I had nowhere near that kind of association with comics. I hadn’t read anything since the early-mid 90’s before collectors and speculation nearly destroyed the industry altogether. Well, since I wrote that piece I have returned to comics in a rather big way. I’ve been reading new comics for about two years now and supplementing that with reading back issues and trades from the last decade in whatever format I can find. I’ve developed a basic picture of what comics have been for the last decade or so.
What I see is an industry that in its current form is unsustainable.
Let’s back up a bit.
I started on a whim with a couple of Marvel titles. Ghost Rider, since it was what I was reading back in the day, and She Hulk, because She Hulk is awesome. I liked these books ok. She-Hulk by far more than Ghost Rider. I then spread out to Ms Marvel and Captain Marvel since they were both relatively new titles. I found that these were good as well. I started grabbing up a bunch of stuff and trying to snag back issues of things that were already well into their runs, both from Marvel and from DC. It was a pretty solid couple of months of comics reading.
From Marvel I was getting She-Hulk, Ms Marvel, Captain Marvel, Daredevil, Secret Avengers, Spider Gwen, and Silver Surfer. From DC I was Getting Grayson, Batgirl, Catwoman, Harley Quinn, Gotham Academy, and a short run of Batman. Not a ton of titles, but I was enjoying what I was reading.
But then something weird happened.
A crossover event in Marvel called Axis happened, and a series in DC comics called Future’s End happened as well. Out of nowhere comics I was reading took one or two months off of whatever story I was reading (and enjoying) to take part of a line-wide mega-story. I’ll tell you what. I have no interest in line-wide megastories, and least of all tie-in stories that happen in a character’s title that only relate to the main event in a peripheral way. (The DC titles were not affected as badly as Marvel was, to be fair, but I liked the Marvel ones better).
I dropped most of the books I was reading. I stuck to obscure characters that seemed to be immune to the big deal events. I was still happy, albeit with a smaller pull list. I stuck it out with Ms. Marvel, and Silver Surfer, and with Grayson, although Grayson took part in a multi-title robin crossover, so that one went bye bye as well.
What happened next may shock you. Yes, more line-wide crossovers, this time leading to complete reboots of every major series. Everything gets a new number one, unless it wasn’t selling, and then it’s gone completely in favor of a totally new title. Marvel called it Secret Wars. DC called theirs Convergence followed more recently by Rebirth. In both cases, my series all ended. My waning interest ended. I decided that the characters I like, and/or creative teams that I trusted I would read in collected trade paperbacks. I would rather wait 6 months and get a whole arc. It’s cheaper, easier to read, and less of a pain to store at home.
The Direct Market
As it turns out, this practice is bad for comics business. As it turns out, this practice will get the books you like cancelled. You see, comics base all of their success on pre-sales of single issues to comic shops. Trade paperback sales are the comic book equivalent of DVD sales for a movie. Movies live and die based on box office, not DVD sales or merchandise.
This holds true for single issues of comics. If a comic series isn’t bought in single issues, it will languish and die after somewhere between 8 and 12 issues. Comic creators know this, and some even go so far as to lay it on us, the consumers, to support the books we like by buying the single issues. PRE-ORDERING them, as a matter of fact, not just grabbing them up off the shelf at the store or buying back issues. Once a store orders their copies based on customer pre-orders, the publisher’s job is done and they move on unless demand is overwhelming for a reprint. Backissue sales don’t count. Trade paperback sales don’t count. Digital sales don’t count.
There is a long and complicated history as to why this business model functions the way it does, which I will not get into here. But the point is that the system sucks. It sucks for comic fans, and it sucks for potential, not-yet-fans. Relying solely on presales predetermines a comic’s life or death far too quickly. Say a comic is fantastic, but not that many people read it from the beginning. By the time it’s 4, 5, 6 issues in, its sales numbers are already at a point where it will either continue or be cancelled. Even if word of mouth creates a renewed interest in the book, and people catch up via trade or digital version, the damage is already done. And unless you are already a fan, who has a store to go to, who knows what books are coming out, there is nothing you can do.
Are you a casual comic reader who finds paperbacks at Barnes and Noble? Those comics are already dead. Buying them and loving them will not convince the publishers to create more like it. Too intimidated to go into a comic shop and brave elitist nerds or confusing shelves full of titles? Go ahead and buy digital. The comic you love will still get cancelled, so why bother?
A book has to do gangbusters right out of the gate or it won’t last. This system has lead to desperation on the part of the big 2. Comics have to do well right away, so new series are heavily promoted over existing ones, and bombastic crossover events are constantly in the works. It isn’t about telling good stories and building a fanbase, it is about the quick dollar to keep the ship afloat.
NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME. PREPARE YOURSELF. YOU’VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE THIS BEFORE. A HOUSE DIVIDED CAN NEVER STAND.
Except that, yes it will, and yes, we have. Less than a few months ago, in fact. House divided? You’re telling me heroes will fight heroes? Where did all the villains go? Wait the villains are the heroes now? How original.
That She-Hulk series that I loved and thought was amazing lasted 12 issues. The Ghostrider one made it a bit longer. Ms Marvel actually gained in popularity, and is now a part of the Avengers, which really sucks because you know why? Now she has to participate in all those crossovers. I want to read about Ms Marvel, not an obvious cash grab like Civil War 2.
Occasional crossovers used to happen back when I was reading comics in the early 90s. Occasionally the Punisher would show up for two issues. Maybe once in awhile you would have to buy an issue of spider man to find out what happened to Ghost Rider in a two-part crossover. I don’t mind that at all. It’s fun seeing characters meet and interact. It’s not fun seeing whole giant teams of characters I love not behaving like themselves for the sake of some super huge universe-changing event that will ultimately lead to nothing, and it makes me not want to buy comics until I’ve heard if they are worth reading. But by then it’s too late.
This model is unsustainable. The market demands instant hits, which prompts sensational events, which alienates the readers which leads to lower sales which leads to increased need for hits which creates more sensational events which pushes readers away even further. Superhero comics are circling the drain. The only good thing is that I’ve been out of the game long enough that there is a ton of old material for me to read, so I guess I’ll start there. Maybe by the time I’m caught up, comics will have been reborn as something better than they are now, but I’m not holding my breath.