Sunday, 29 January 2012

My Monthly Curse (Part Fifty-Five)

Comics Lesson 23:

Have I talked about gimmicks? When comics became void of new ideas and the fans grew tired of the old gimmicks, a whole bunch of new ones were invented. We’ve talked about the various different versions of the X and Spider-Man books, this was soon followed by metallic ‘fifth’ ink covers, it wasn’t long before hologram covers made an appearance, plus lenticular (don’t ask, I don’t know) covers, wraparound covers, fold-out covers, 3D triptych, glow-in-the-dark, sparkle-in-the-rain covers! When fans got fed up with forking out an extra dollar or two for some enhanced cardboard, the companies moved on to other things… They went back to the future.

Back in the 1970s something unheard of happened – Superman met Spider-Man. The story was very contrived and just enough was included into it for Marvel and DC fans to think the difference between the two companies’ universes wasn’t that far apart. There followed a second meeting, then a meeting between Batman and the Hulk and before you knew it… they’d stopped. They didn’t really work and to be honest DC has never liked working with Marvel because the two companies have differing work ethics and, well, DC has ethics in general, Marvel would have to look the word up in a dictionary and then get someone to explain the definition. But by the mid 1990s the idea of comics companies working together to milk even more money out of the fans was rife. There was at one point about three company crossovers a month and most of them featured moderately successful comics characters teamed up with someone from Marvel or DC that would benefit no one really. The stories were often quite simply shit, the art was often rushed or done by a team of artists and the crossover became like a production line. New and more sophisticated gimmicks were needed.

In recent years these have included recruiting writers from popular TV. Joe Michael Straczynski, the creator of the award-winning SF series Babylon 5, Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hollywood scriptwriter Bob Gale, and probably most prominently independent film director Kevin Smith have all been attracted to writing comics and have obviously attracted interest or have drawn people with them, interested in seeing what they are doing next. I have no doubt that even more famous people have written comics in the last 6 years; but I don’t give a shit and neither should you!

Once upon a time comics didn’t need gimmicks to sell them, and in some cases the gimmicks weren’t gimmicks at all – Stan Lee used to make it seem as though special permission had been granted for one Marvel character to appear in another’s comic! But that was Stan Lee and his fantastic use of hyperbole and his understanding of PR.

What happens is quite simple, the wonder disappears. In 1965, saying on the cover that the Angel had special permission from the X-Men to appear in a Human Torch story was cutting edge; in 2005 [or 2011] the reader expects to be dazzled. He expects to believe he's impressed with the latest gimmick. Therefore, existentially there is no such thing as a gimmick comic, it's just evolutionary economic robbery.

With the exception of a few, I firmly believe that most comics writers aren’t. Writers, that is. I think a lot of them are failed writers in another field; some might have a go at a novel or some literature, but basically they were just in the right place at the right time to write comics.

But then real writers with genuine love for comics came along and the audience witnessed quality.

Comicbooks shouldn’t be derided, for all the faults in all the areas of comics, the medium is alive, kicking and in many cases rolling in dosh, in other countries. I don’t want this to sound like a conclusion because we have a little more to go through, but essentially it isn’t the people who read comics that have given the medium such a bad image in the US and UK. The behind-closed- doors stuff I’ve talked about, the rough ride the retailers get, the in-fighting and backbiting are not publicly known and even Rich Johnston avoids a lot of it, because, generally, no one cares. The fans don’t want politics outside of their comics. The commonest event nowadays if people start throwing hissy fits on most Internet forums is to just ignore the person, whether they have a valid point or not. Most comics fans are normal inoffensive people and have had a bad press for far too long. I recently was in London visiting relatives and we were driving near to Hammersmith Odeon and there was a rock band playing, I don’t know who, but the general assortment of weird looking people frankly made the saddest and most grotesque of comics fans look relatively normal. Yet no one ever looks at devoted followers of rock fashions in the same way as comics fans. We looked at punks in the 1970s, but they weren’t really derided and even if they were, it didn’t ingrain itself into the consciences of the public. Comics are derided by the public because of what they perceive the comics reader to be like, and most people when they’ve moved on in life think of comics as something from their childhoods and not something grown men or young adults should be devoting so much time and energy to.

Another major factor, apart from the cost and the soon-to-be-disproved fake stigma attached is the limited choice. This isn’t going to be changed. We no longer can afford to try and change the minds of people. Superhero comics will stay superhero comics, they are the bread and butter of the US industry and the smaller outfits will continue to flog their wares to these existing comics fans, attempting to persuade people that spandex isn’t the only option – even if that’s what most of these people want. When I launched Borderline, the CI forum, which by this time had become the ‘Comics Unintentional’ list – I decided to change the name because I didn't want to be associated with CI – didn’t really appreciate what we were doing. Most of the then 350 members downloaded it and probably read it, but the feeling from most of them was ‘there isn’t enough about the things we’re interested in, in it!” They still had their powers of observation, which was a relief.

But while superheroes are dominant in this little pocket universe we've been talking about, they aren’t everything. In 10 years I’ve seen non-superhero comics and trade paperbacks go from having just 4% of the market to nearly 10%. There is a reason for this and it kind of contradicts a lot of what I’ve said. But that’s for part of my conclusion; we have other fish to fry before we get to that, but it won’t be long – just a few more pages...

However you feel about them, comics have been part of our history since the beginning of the last century and part of our consciousness since Superman and Batman appeared in the States and the Beano and the Dandy appeared in the UK. Despite the perceived low opinion people have of comics they still have contributed a phenomenal amount to modern popular culture.

We have seen the creation of a new breed of comics characters, and we saw that take over the entire landscape of US comics. You can find funny comics, the other staple for many years, but they are as marginalized now in comics collectors’ eyes as anything that doesn’t fit into their own particular mindset. Plus funny comics are still available in Wal-Mart and the local newsagents – Direct Market comics aren’t.

Comics haven’t really changed as a format. We saw giant-sized comics from almost the first one, as many comics were actually 64-pages or more every month and they were all anthology titles, something that no longer has any place in the US industry apart from in the small press (they also cost just 10 cents). The USA had their annuals like the British had their hardcover Christmas stocking fillers. Comics were reduced in size to the point where extra pages were treated like a bonus rather than a right. We’ve seen 80-page giants, and we’ve seen coffee table styled Treasury Editions. We saw the creation of the trade paperback collection and the graphic novel and we’ve been introduced to the phonebook styled monster trades that originated from Japanese manga comics and were made popular in the USA by Dave Sim. But essentially for all the technological advances that have been made comics are still just pages of paper with artwork and words on them, that hasn’t changed. There have been bolt-ons to the concept, but the principal has remained the same.

But now, twelve years into the 21st century there is a school of thought that thinks that the comic as the most common form of the medium might be displaced by the trade paperback or the original graphic novel (35 years since the forecast was originally made, it’s made again!) and may become focused only on the characters that guarantee profit. This means that many, many characters that have become comics institutions and have existed for longer than most of us have been alive may disappear completely, with them only standing a chance of life again if a film producer finds the concept worth expanding on. I don’t think this is a particularly forward thinking solution and while there is no guarantee it will happen, people in this industry have a nose for forecasting the future. I’m not the only person who could and can be precognitive in this business.

I don’t think it will be the end of comics as we know it really, because if Marvel and DC go the trade paperback route exclusively then there’ll still be lots of other companies floating around producing comicbooks and probably grabbing a disproportionate amount of the market, but without Marvel and DC Comics most comics shops that specialise in comicbooks will either have to completely rethink their retail approach or face extinction. Change or die? You might think it’s a good thing, but instead of improving the image of comics and making them accessible to the masses they would ghettoise them even more – even Britain’s largest comic shop, Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue, London, has its masses of comics hidden away downstairs and if they had a back issue department it was pretty small and select. It might even be that it’s now retailers and people who run comics that view them the way I’ve been portraying them.

If comics change that way there will be less people emerging as new talents, fewer people trying to break into comics, barely any innovation, lots of traffic managers and the law of diminishing returns would suddenly become a law of downwardly spiralling returns. Marvel and DC might still produce a couple of dozen comics titles between them, but if you don’t like the X-Men, Batman, Superman or Spider-Man you’re buggered. It is possible that Marvel and DC might decide to sell off properties they don’t feel are viable enough for them, but the likelihood of this, although it has often been discussed, is pretty small. Marvel holds onto its characters like Gollum hold his Precious; while DC probably own more characters than you could shake the proverbial stick at, so it might not be such a stupid idea for them, but they still won’t do it. Even publishers display an unhealthy anal retentiveness that we normally associate with comics fans. It might make them money in 40 years time!

If my aunt had balls she'd be my uncle...

But for original graphic novels and the proliferation of these in the future, comics fan and former co-owner of the website The Comics Village, Craig Johnson summed it up quite nicely when he said to me, “The loss-leading function performed by comicbooks (singles to LPs if you like) is the most important part of comics companies trade programs. It allows them to amortize the cost of the trade over a period of months, whilst earning income (even if it doesn't cover the immediate costs) over a slightly deferred time period – then the trade can come out, and after printing and distribution costs, is almost all profit. If the trade is a relative flop, then it doesn’t actually have to make much money to cover manufacturing cost, so the chances of making a loss on a trade collection are slim.

“However, should the monthly not be there, then they would be faced with paying a writer and artist for six months without having any product to sell – then it’d enter the printing/distribution process, and you’d end up with books not actually seeing a return on investment for a much longer period. In this instance, a trade would have to sell far more to break even, and increase the number of flops and decrease the overall profit for the companies. It’s worth bearing in mind that most Manga trades saw print in instalments in magazines first – there are very few manga books that are specifically produced as books first and foremost.” And I think he’s right, comics companies can’t take the risk of not producing new comics and the ones who won’t produce new material are the ones who are picking up and repackaging old and archived stuff. What I think will happen over the next few years will be a gradual retraction of Marvel and DC’s comic series output. There will be even more 4 and 6 issue stories and mini-series. Failing characters will see even less exposure (unless a hot shot comes along with a great idea or an even better artist) and they might get replaced with the opportunity to make money again in another market in the form of short stories. The days of the single story comic are almost over now, only the independents seem to practice the art with any heart and over the coming years the idea of any story that isn’t of epic proportions will be greeted with rejection by the big two.

Marvel’s problem is simple – there is a genuine fear that selling a character or concept that is a complete and utter pile of wank might just make someone else some money, so they won’t sell anything. Remember The X-Men; they are the yardsticks by which every Marvel character is measured. It was a failure and yet it rose from the ashes and became the greatest thing since eggy bread, so how could they possible think of getting rid of any of their copyrighted characters? The future is never clear, but it’s always better to think positive!

DC went around buying up just about every failed comics character from Charlton to Fawcett and reinventing them (or not). DC has destroyed an entire history’s worth of its own history, but even though we will never revisit the past, they won’t part with it… Just in case. [And this might be born out with the news as I was editing this tome that the entire DC Universe is being revamped, or kick-started as some commentators like to call it. DC is trying to appeal to a new audience by making icons such as Batman and Superman more appealing. The cynic in me says that this will do what it says on the tin until it's failed or succeeded, when, either way, the icons will revert back to their recognisable selves.]

So for characters with half a century or more of history and the people who have followed them, the future could hold nothing. Marvel and DC will believe that if they cancel someone’s favourite title he or she’ll move onto one of their other comics, because they are comics fans – this isn’t like The Sandman, the real fans will not bail out. But why do you think the industry has seen a drop in sales of over 80% in the last 30 years? Because people are leaving and are not coming back – for these key reasons: they were driven away from them by cancellations, poor quality or high prices. And yet people in comics were telling me that all the major companies are doing what they can to attract new readers. Where? What is the evidence, especially when I can’t get a straight answer from either of the two majors about the amount of future investment they are placing on comics finding a larger audience, or even a new one?

Who do you think is the best person to convince others to read comics? Someone who reads them rather than works in them, for starters – the Internet doesn’t attract new readers for comics, really, it doesn’t. It just attracts the same people to them. It might just snare a curious ex-fan who’s having a look for old time’s sake, but for every one of him there are thousands who don’t even think of looking at a website or a sales catalogue or a comics magazine and to be honest the only way comics have of surviving the next ten years is by trying to attract back as many old, and not so old, readers and get them to stay and spread the word – maybe introduce comics to their kids. But how do they attract those who have left back? Nostalgia, basically. Touch the child in them. Hey, do you remember this? As far as new readers are concerned, well, we’ll get to that because every cloud has a silver lining, amazingly.

People in the comics industry will tell you that every way conceivable had been tried to increase the fan base, and they will cite other’s failures as reasons why they won’t try a similar thing themselves. It’s copout logistics, because publishers are scared of spending what little profit they make. The law of diminishing returns is the only law they understand or are prepared to adhere to.

We are missing a massive point and that is a company called DC Comics, the longest lasting publisher of comicbooks in the USA and, of course, the owners of Batman and Superman (and Wonder Woman, if you want some feminine interest). DC Comics is owned by the massive entertainments conglomerate called TimeWarner, which has money falling out of its corporate arse. Why hasn’t Warner Brothers Entertainment (under the TimeWarner umbrella) invested in comics the way it has in other forms of entertainment? Or have they invested the amount they see fit for an industry that the chief executives of the higher power might not see a future in? These are valid questions, but the sad answer is that DC has been so good at promoting shit for the last 30 years that the comics company regularly loses money anyhow. It is a sort of loss leader for TimeWarner; for every comic that makes them money, they throw more shit at the wall to see if anything else will stick. DC was pretty much rust proof in my humble opinion. The problem with them was they couldn’t see something good if it bit them on the collected arses.

Next up: the penultimate section; hyperbole and stuff

1 comment:

  1. craigjohnsonesq@aol.com30 January 2012 at 17:34

    He makes a lot of sense that bloke, wonder what ever happened to him?