Imagine that you're a kid. You have one dollar burning a hole in your pocket, and you want that dollar to go to an afternoon's entertainment. You *want* to buy a comic book -- but you're out of luck. Because the days of the 35-50-or even 75 cent comic book are gone forever, you can't touch a comic book for less than a buck ninety-nine. Fortunately, there are LOTS of places where you can rent a movie or a video game for that amount of money - so your afternoon's all set.
Let's up the ante: say you have TWO dollars. You're rich, now: you can even afford a comic book. But here's where content (or at least volume) comes in. You can rent TWO movies or TWO video games, or you can buy one comic book. The movies will fill at least three hours, the video games will fill exactly as much time as you want them to fill: but you can read the comic book in ten minutes flat. If it's an Image comic book you can read it in two minutes.
Who gets your two dollars?
Until recently, comics could always attract new readers because they were dirt cheap entertainment. In the late seventies you could buy three comic books for just over a dollar, and there were no video games, there was no such thing home video - just about the only competition comic book publishers had for your entertainment dollar was candy (or movies -- and movies for the most part didn't come close to offering the scope of a comic book story).
Comics are now a hobby for WEALTHY PEOPLE, people who can afford to blow ten, twenty, thirty dollars a week for an hour's (usually not very engaging) entertainment.
History and economics have been against the comic book for the last twenty years, and in an effort to compete with things like video games, home video and trading cards, comic book publishers have inadvertently shot themselves in the foot. They can't help the rising cost of paper, so presumably they can't lower the cost of their product, at least not that way. The obvious solution is to offer more: more *content*, more interesting characters, better plots.
In short, more *entertainment* value.
Instead, publishers have driven the price of their product up even further by using fancy production methods, computer coloring and the like, that make the product flashier without offering anything in the way of entertainment value. At the same time, they have in one way and another allowed the *content* of their magazines to become more and more attenuated: like those starving Etheopian children you see every so often on television.
So here's the equation: comics COST more than they used to, and offer us LESS VALUE for the money. No wonder sales have nose-dived.
I have some great friends. Every time I'm ready to write comics off as an art form, these friends of mine toss something my way that I haven't seen before: something like BONE or HELLBOY that briefly renews my faith in the art form. But here's the problem: even the comics that I *like* don't offer me the entertainment value that they used to. I can read an issue of BONE or HELLBOY in ten minutes -- and when I'm done with it I'm aware that although I enjoyed the reading *I have no desire to go back and re-read.*
As others have pointed out, the Marvels of the sixties and early seventies were so good that you wanted to read them again and again until the damn things fell apart. There is NOTHING, nothing at all on the market these days that makes you feel like that.
You really want to know why comics are facing such bad times? Answer the question yourself:
You have ONE DOLLAR. How are you going to spend it?
The best response to my first column came from Mike Triggs at Arch-Type Studios, who in answer to the question "You have ONE DOLLAR -- how are you going to spend it?" wrote: "On a small coffee. That's the other problem with comic books. You can't drink them, and they're not loaded with caffeine."
On with the show:
Last time we discussed the price + value equation as a factor in the decline of comic book publisher's fortunes. The lopsided growth in cover prices vs. shrinking entertainment value is perhaps the single most damaging factor in that decline, but it's made worse by a slew of complications, many of which, like the one I'm about to mention, are self-inflicted wounds on the part of the publishers.
Once again, I'm going to ask you to imagine that you're a kid.
You have a craving for comics, and just for the sake of argument let's assume you can afford to buy them. Time was when no matter where you lived (excepting only the most extreme rural outposts), you could hop on your bike and within some more or less easy riding distance you could be assured of finding SOMEplace, some Mom & Pop store that had a rack of comics just waiting for you. In my case, living in suburban Maine, such a store was five minutes away. Once we moved up north, that bike ride to the local store turned into something more like a half-hour -- but I could still manage it; and I did.
Every corner store in the nation that carried magazines also carried comic books. Comics were almost EVERYwhere. They came from the distributor with the other magazines, and because they were fully returnable the owners of the stores paid only for what they sold: so there was no risk in carrying comics.
It was a great system: it worked well for decades. Then in the late seventies the combination of a national economic recession and rising paper prices began to hurt the comic book industry -- and, as is only natural, the industry began casting around for solutions.
The solution that they found had been serving Underground comics well for a little better than a decade, and depended upon the rising number of comics specialty stores that simply hadn't existed ten years earlier. It was Direct Sales: a new avenue of distribution that supplied comics shops directly, not only bypassing a middle-man or two or three, but selling the product on a non-returnable basis.
Direct Sales must have seemed like a great idea to comic book publishers. Instead of printing an articially high number of copies and then having to deal with (and swallow the costs of) unsold returns (which could prevent them from having a clear sales picture on any given issue for three months or longer), a publisher could take advance orders, print only enough to cover those orders, and be assurred of selling everything that they printed: no returns, no muss, no fuss.
But to both retailers and fans it had several devastating consequences. I'll talk about the impact on retailers next time; for now I'm still addressing the kid in you.
Because all of a sudden comics disappeared from the Mom and Pop stores. At the same time, prices went up yet again, to cover the immediate cost of lower print runs. This was a huge change in the whole paradigm of comics publishing. It changed *everything*. You could still get your weekly comics at that relatively new invention, the comics shop, but there's a problem with that: comic shops are not nearly so common as Mom & Pop stores -- to this day, the comic store nearest to me is an hour away by car, impossible by bike.
In suburban and rural America, if not in the cities, comics suddenly became a Specialty Item that you had to travel out of your way to buy -- or, if you were a kid, you had to convince your *parents* to make that special trip.
Which has two consequences: if you are already a regular reader of comics, your buying habits are bound to change, and chances are you'll become more conservative, not less. I certainly became more conservative in my buying habits as a consequence of Direct Sales, and so did my friends. Repeat that scenario exponentially across the whole country and you've got a problem.
Worse that that: if you don't already read comics, you may never start.
Children generally have the freedom to travel all around their own neighborhoods: but when the time comes to go beyond the neighborhood, they can only go where where their parents take them. Unless their parents are comic book fans, most kids are never going to see the inside of a comic shop. Which means they won't be exposed to comics at all, because unlike the bad old days of returnable distribution they won't find comic books in a rack at the local drug store.
So where are new readers coming from? A few, mostly in the larger cities, will still find a way. But it will require a definite effort of will, and the numbers of new readers will continue to dwindle. In rural and suburban areas, the percentages of new readers must inevitably plummet.
Direct Sales may have helped the bottom line in the short term -- but by refusing to pay the "insurance" of returnable distribution, which kept their product available to as wide an audience as possible, comic book publishers cost the industry its future.
As a long-time comics fan, my reading options were severely reduced by the Direct Sales "boom" of the eighties. For nearly a decade following the closing of my own comics shop I worked for a local chain of book and magazine stores, and during that time there were fewer and fewer comics available to me. A trip to the comics rack became a depressing thing: at one point I remember seeing just six Marvels on the rack (all X or Spidey books, boring enough and incompetent enough make your brains dribble out of your ears) and fewer DCs.
A tiny handful of titles existed (BONE and Chris Ware's ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY series) that I was willing to travel out of my way to find, sometimes. But to drive as far as Portland or Boston just to get my hands on an average comic book? Forget it. Life's too short. It was time to move on.
Some of you, I'm certain, have a different story to tell of those years. You lived in a metropolitan area, or else you had a comics shop nearby, or else you dealt with mail-order concerns: you got beyond the notion of Marvel and DC as being the only "serious" comics publishers (something I've never been able to escape: for me, it's Marvel, DC, maybe Dark Horse and Kitchen Sink, and everything else is just vanity publishing -- at varying scales, of course: Dave Sim and Eastman-Laird may have been grotesquely *successful* vanity publishers, but they were vanity publishers nonetheless), and you spent a hell of a lot more money than I did. Was there an Eighties Boom? I don't doubt it -- but I acknowledge it, at best, with cynicism.
I'm not trying to make a case here: I'm telling you what happened. Mainstream book and magazine dealers stopped carrying a full range of comics. Some stopped carrying comics altogether. To a great extent, they didn't have any choice.
Let me take you back, once again, to the bad old days just before Direct Sales became the industry standard. New comics were not a big money maker for ANY retailer, but to some extent they kept people coming in, and as long as people were coming in they might buy a few higher-profit items. A dealer could, on principle, afford to stock every mainstream comic book published, Harveys and Gold Keys included, because new comics came on a returnable basis from the local distributor. You didn't have to front the money, and anything you didn't sell (or buy yourself for backstock) could be sent back for credit.
Then Direct Sales happened. Hoo boy! Suddenly, anyone who cared about stocking comics had to 1) find a new distributor, 2) front the money for each week's comics, 3) pick and choose the titles and quantities based on actual store traffic rather than browsing potential, and 4) eat the loss if they guessed wrong and stocked something that did not sell out.
The industry as we knew it up to that point simply came to an end. Mainstream book and magazine sellers, much less Mom and Pop stores, never got past step one. And why should they? For them, comics were just a hideously low-profit item, a come-on item to get kids into the store. Most of them probably never realized that the comics were gone.
Comic shops changed, too. Back issues were no longer the main reason to go to a comics shop. Dealer backstock began to consist not of desirable back issues, but of the stuff they hadn't been able to sell in the first place. Far from stocking every comic book that was published, dealers -- quite rightly -- began stocking only the things that they knew would sell.
Why is all of this bad news for you? Because dealers and other Keepers of The Bottom Line -- NOT creative people -- are deciding what will be available for you to read. This is nothing short of a moral outrage. It may be very good business but it's damned poor art. Or, to put it another way, what protects the publishers from taking a bath also protects readers from quality.
Direct Sales was a great short-term solution. It helped feed that ten-year boom (at least I'm *told* it was a boom -- I never experienced it, either as a retailer or a reader) that ended around 1993-or 4. But the short term is over. We are now seeing the disastrous consequences of short-term thinking. It's time to find another way.
But CAN we find another way? At the moment, I'm unconvinced. Comic book retailers are too busy pointing fingers and the major comic book companies are too focused on the immediate bottom line. In a creative sense, the comics industry is stalled and choking to death... but that's a subject for another column.
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