Friday, 3 February 2012

My Monthly Curse (Part Fifty-Six)

Have I talked about hype much? Hyperbole was reinvented for comics – with a genre such as superheroes you get hyperbole to match the fantastic premises. Someone, somewhere must have twigged that fans cum in their pants a lot at the prospect of anything that tickles their fancies, so all press releases have been written by someone who sounds like he’s cum in his pants just writing about it. The hype would be a joke if Americans didn’t write it, so therefore it takes on a sort of Walter Kronkite meets David Letterman meets the man with the growly voice who premieres blockbuster movies with lines like, “Just when you thought it was safe to open the fridge,” or “From the people who brought you rabid typhoid rats comes a new blockbuster that will make your hair spontaneously combust and your girlfriend’s nipples fall off...”

I have talked about the hype, of course I have... Without the hype there might still be a blooming retail industry, with comics shops adorning high streets in small towns and everyone skipping along, holding hands and cats and dogs harmoniously living in trees each reading Batman comics.

Unlike other places where the rats will desert the sinking ship – in comics everyone clings to whatever flotsam and jetsam they can grab hold of. Working in comics is like being paid for your hobby and what person in their right mind wouldn’t cling on to that? And that might be the root of why comics professionals choose to work in this industry. At that party I attended in Tarzana, hosted by comics writer Marv Wolfman and containing so many comics writers from my youth, the one thing that really struck me more than anything else was here were a bunch of middle aged men all talking with great love and affection for comicbooks – they all had the youthful exuberance of fans, despite many of them having seen their best days long gone. Working in comics is easy, even when it isn’t, it is.

For some becoming a star is more important than anything else. When Image Comics started, purely because the 7 artists felt they could make more money on their own than being work-for-hire at Marvel or DC, the industry was going through such a revelation in sales that if Image had failed then some serious questions would have been asked. Marvel built up these people and suffered the consequences when they left. The fact that most of the people involved in the Image split have ended up working back at the companies they left, for more money, effectively caused by their leaving in the first place, which in turn has made comics personalities hold the future of the industry in their hands, is quite ironic.

But let’s get back to the point; comics publishers aren’t just frightened about change that could dramatically alter the shape of comics publishing in the future, they’re scared for their very existences, because the choices are vague and are not guaranteed to succeed they are having to build for a future with one foot still rooted firmly in a medium they aren’t sure they need to remain in. Or, in other words, if Marvel and DC go the route of mainly trade paperbacks and originated graphic novel material, they will continue to produce comics, but only the ones that they are guaranteed to make money from. Prices will continue to rise as the customer base continues to dwindle. The most obvious thing, to me, about the decline of comics in the last 30 years has been price. Fabian Nicieza can talk about relativity; Craig Johnson can talk about amortising sales; but if there is no interest from the youth to buy something that isn't classed as value on their X-Box scale of cost over entertainment, then what future has it got?

Despite being told by everybody in the known comics world that I’m barking up the wrong tree, the most basic ‘entry point’ for new readers should be the price, but that isn’t likely to be changed unless many other things change and we’ve got to think that the industry isn’t going to change because I suggest it does. Publishers can argue and prove that comics need to be as expensive as they are, yet go to ‘poorer’ countries and look at their comics industry and tell me if having cheap comics has ruined their industries? The price issue is about greed; it’s about bumping up the profile of their creators to the point where they earn far too much money. The US industry has got itself in this mess by idiots with no forward thinking and a short term profit mindset. The 1990s have a lot to answer for. That era for comics heralded a time when creators were paid too much money. Had they not been given the earth by publishers, then the punter wouldn't have been expected to pay for it - comics are not gas and electric, you can live without them.

To use a well-worn cliché, at the end of the day (apart from getting dark) comics, or rather comics publishers, distributors, retailers and fans are not going to change comics. They aren’t going to make anything more appealing to the person who just might consider looking at a comic. Nothing any of them say or do will expand the horizons of the industry in any other way other than possibly artistically. The only real way a viable entry point is going to come from persuading people that comics are actually worth the human investment - the time, the effort and the expense.

Believe it or not, that is happening, but it isn’t happening because of the publishers, the retailers or the creators.

Comics Lesson 24:

Let’s lay our cards on the table. I like comics; I like the medium and regardless of what many people inside the industry are now feeling about it the format of the comicbook is never going to disappear. It might become ghettoised, and it might end up being a very specialised market, it might get taken over by many of the very small publishers, or it might encourage someone else, a self-made millionaire comics fan maybe, who decides he doesn’t like the industry as it is, so he creates his own company or buys up the majors.

The only life left in superhero and fantasy comics appears to be the ones that are still with us after 50 years. Image is the only real success story and it seems that even they are now always on the verge of closure – even Spawn which boasted sales of 100,000+ is a marginal indie at best now. If you take out the innovative independent comics producers, a group we’ve not really touched on because of its vastness, and leave the rest, we’re still left with most of the industry’s turnover and money. I don’t know how much reading tastes has changed in the last 12 years, but in 1999 superhero comics (or comics produced by companies that specialise in spandex) accounted for 90% of total sales – that really shouldn’t be ignored, nor should it be believed the market split has changed much since then – comics sales are roughly the same now (2011) as they were in 2006; there has been a shift in product loyalty, but it appears that the massive tail off in readership hasn’t materialised, yet.

“Most superhero comics are formulaic rubbish”, I heard this statement uttered at Caption 2002. Caption is the small press convention held in the plush surroundings of Oxford’s colleges. This is an expression you expect to hear from people entrenched in the small press. The truth is that statement is 100% accurate. Most superhero comics are formulaic rubbish, even today with the rising expectations of the reader for sophistication and forward movement in stories, comics companies have perfected the art of ‘illusion of change’. The need for something major to happen in the general status quo of a hero’s life or those lives around him has become a common plot used in most superhero comics, it adds some realism to the unrealism. But even these changes are formulaic, it doesn’t matter that a writer might be able to introduce a groovy new idea, most are planned months in advance and rarely now does anything exciting happen in a comic because the rest of the world, thanks to the Internet, knows every little detail about to happen.

I was a huge fan of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was a latecomer and had to play catch up using a mate’s video collection, by the time I’d caught up with the series around the middle of Season 3 I was hooked, as were lots of my comics reading mates. Buffy was like comics on screen and we loved it. One of the things that completely hooked me on Buffy was the fact that I deliberately avoided websites that offered plot spoilers, I deliberately avoided any conversations with mates who had seen all the episodes and knew what was happening in the USA, because they were 10 episodes ahead of Sky TV (when I was watching it). Therefore when major events or plot twists happened in that series I was blown away. They were, for me, genuine revelations and increased the drama ten-fold.

It is possible to do the same with comics, but the Internet and the cult of personality has made it very difficult for the comics enthusiast and net nerd to be able to avoid finding out the future. Take the death of Superman for instance – that even made national and international news programs (yet in real terms it was about the 15th time DC had killed the Man of Steel off, except this time he was dying in the technologically advanced late 20th century and it was a slow news week…) - everyone knew he was going to die before it happened and it lessened the effect dramatically. They handled the return of Superman much better, but to be honest by the time they milked all the spin-off concepts, no one really cared how he came back only that he had and DC could return to producing standard comics on a monthly basis. By the way, DC Thomson did a similar stunt first with Dennis the Menace and his hairstyle going punk, which turned out to be a very practical April Fool’s joke that had every major newspaper in the UK giving massive exposure to one of Britain’s oldest and cheekiest comics characters and it of course boosted sales of The Beano.

The problem with a lot of comics fans is they need to know what is happening next episode and this is something that comics publishers have always been able to exploit. Even back in the Seventies, a lot of editors and employees at Marvel and DC would spend hours on the phones talking to fanzine editors or amateur journalists who were trying to get hints and tips of what was going to happen in the future and when these conversations were turned into news in the front of newszines, these were the first places the fans looked at. Actually this wasn’t true, the first place many comics fans looked at was the ‘Next Issue’ caption on the last page of the comic or said comic's letters page – where the little teaser for next month often appeared. It was because fans loved to know hints that the newszines prospered and why Internet news sites have become the new comics magazines (with one almighty difference, CBR, Newsarama, Comicon, Silver Bullets all gave their promotional tools free of charge. It’s like a fan of Robbie Williams starting up a website to do nothing but promote Robbie Williams’ record company and music publishers!).

Marvel and DC have always given the potential buyer a synopsis of the upcoming issue. Once in next issue boxes and eventually through retailers catalogues and eventually the Internet, rarely do they give you more, but they might warn you that some revelation is going to happen – this immediately sparks interest in websites and news magazines and people are soon trying to find out what is going to happen. Someone always knows someone else who knows someone in that particular editorial office and before you know it you have a story, you can reveal to the fans what the revelation is going to be. It’s like the tabloids and Eastenders isn’t it? Yep, it sure is! Speculative news journalism has always been the secret link for success in this industry and the people who run the industry know that there are enough people out there who will do all their donkeywork for them, without payment – what better PR department than the fans themselves? They cover far more bases than a paid-for PR executive, cost nothing and you can shout at them if they get it wrong and don’t have to worry about employment legislature.

There are a number of people who believe this might be the problem, who feel that the Internet has too much power over comics and that the companies pander too much to the Internet and not enough anywhere else. It could be said that the major web sites are now powerful creatures indeed and have been allowed to become powerful because Marvel and DC let them.

I have to be honest, with hindsight neither Marvel nor DC ever appeared to really have fingers on the pulse of comics, they have relied too heavily on others for their success and the failures they have had. Essentially for two massive publishing houses they’ve freeloaded and exploited just about everyone they could and not even a twang of guilt has ever shown itself. Here’s some irony for you, comics publishers’ representatives despise comics fans – they wish for the day when the only comics fan left are sweet smelling yuppies with huge disposable incomes and the retailers are just huge conglomerations that order in the gazillion and never hassle them. That’s possibly one of the reasons why comics are up shit creek at times.

The Internet has become even more massive than it was when I launched Borderline and in many ways it has uncovered many more comics fans – either those returning or those swept up by some film’s hype – probably more than I suggested earlier in this tome. It gives the impression that comics and the Internet are synonymous and can now only co-exist together or not at all.

But let’s forget about the ‘net, it actually is a bit too self-important. In 2005, as soon as people in the comics industry found out I was writing a book about it I had all number of people email me, telling me that I need to include this, that and the other in my book or I couldn’t call it a ‘complete’ look at comics. I never said it was going to be that, but people, especially dedicated fans, believe that unless I cover the small part of the industry they are either experts in or have interests in, then I won’t be doing comicbooks justice. Guess what? I don’t think I set out to do comicbooks justice, it is a medium I have absolutely loved – it is one I’ve grown up with and I will probably end up leaving my wife… to decide what happens to the rest of my comics when I die! Just a small box with some personal favourites...

But I no longer feel that this book has to end up being a defence of a criminally inadequate industry that only survives on the blind faith of its dedicated and dwindling fan base. Comics need defending, but not to the people who are already reading them and comics is the biggest entertainment group that only preaches to the converted...

Next: who is the future of comics and the ever-lovin' end... Blummin' eck!

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