The State of the Comic Book Industry 2 – A Fan Spouts Off (Again)

You know how you always mean to write something but then you forget until it’s too late? That was me in my last rant about the comic industy. For instance, I forgot to complain about Event Fatigue. For those of you who collect comics you’ll know exactly what I mean. For those of you who don’t…

The big two comic companies, DC and Marvel, have their characters existing in shared universes – Superman can hang out with Batman, Spider-Man can get into a hilarious misunderstanding with the Hulk. This is fine, and allows for fun character interaction and story opportunities. Problem is, once or twice a year, everything goes mad. Everything, including the kitchen sink, gets thrown at a massive crossover story That Will Change The World FOREVER! Typically these events will include:

  • A core title covering the main story;
  • A couple of spin-off titles telling side stories – not essential, but still relatively important;
  • Crossover stories in most of the regular titles. This could be something like twenty or thirty issues – ka-ching!
  • Death. All those second-string heroes and supporting characters you like? DOOMED. They’ll have their hearts ripped out in a graphic two-page spread at some point within the next six months. Sorry.

I was okay with events like this until 2005’s Infinite Crisis, which seemed to be one long slaughter, particularly of characters I liked. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against violence in storytelling, but there comes a point where it starts to be almost pornographic, and that’s why I enjoyed the flawed Final Crisis (which was pretty dark in places but, from what I can recall, had a limited death count) but had precisely zero interest in Blackest Night (aforementioned heart-ripping zombie story). Am I desensitised to it all if I just find it dull and annoying now? I’ve actually stopped expecting anything awesome in my comics, which is, I think, part of the malaise I mentioned in my last rant.

The comic industry currently seems to be based around these sort of events, which makes sense from a business point-of-view – they sell comics. Problem is, once again, they’re selling them to the existing comic fanbase. You think a new reader is going to be tempted by a story that takes upwards of forty, fairly expensive issues to tell? Well, maybe they are in small numbers, but I remain unconvinced that this is anything like a long-term business model. I’d argue that we need a lot more entry level stuff – stuff like Marvel’s Ultimate line (before it went mad) and the forthcoming Earth One books from DC.

But here’s the deal – does anyone outside of the existing fanbase actually know these books exist? For instance, I’ve seen Earth One advertised on DC’s website, on the Newsarama comic news site and in the trade press. Great. The entry level books are being advertised to people who are buying the hardcore titles. These things need to be in bookshops. They need press coverage. This may be a pipedream, but they could use some TV exposure (Craig Ferguson has a robot sidekick, can’t someone talk nicely to him?!). You’re not going to save monthly comics by hoping that a declining fanbase will always be there.

Of course, that’s assuming the medium wants to be saved. There’s an argument to suggest that monthly comics are just a way for media giants like Warner Brothers and Disney to hold on to lucrative copyrights – one good Batman film probably brings in way more than the books do over a given period. I mean, it’d suck to see the art form of comics to drop off the popular radar altogether, but in terms of the characters and stories, maybe it should be seen as a form of evolution – the rest of the print media are suffering and transitioning, why should comics be any different? There will always be a Superman; that doesn’t necessaril mean there’ll always be an Action Comics. Much as it pains me to say it, maybe that’s the longterm future – the larger comic shops already sell computer games, DVDs, books, posters, toys and clothing, and maybe it’s time to see the whole thing as being more about the survival of characters and concepts as it is about a particular medium. Heck, the shared universe thing could be that future – DC Online is already going to act as a World of Warcraft-type set-up, why not start looking at migrating the stories of the big characters there too?

Yeah, I know. It wouldn’t be the same and it stands a good chance of sucking. But the world’s changing, how we consume entertainment is changing, and the whole comic book set up has to change along with it. It’d be nice to think that the way in which consumer habits are changing is making things look grimmer than they are (for a similar situation, see the ratings for Matt Smith’s Doctor Who – at first glance they’re down on previous years because fewer people are watching on Saturday nights, but look deeper and the growth of things like iPlayer and Sky+ just means more people are watching TV at their convenience, not the convenience of production companies – Matt’s Doctor is really doing about as well as all the other reboot seasons except the absolute height of David Tennant’s popularity). That’s an easy answer though, and it ignores the work that DC, Marvel and the smaller companies have to do to ensure the long term survival of comic books. It’s a cautionary tale.

And on a personal note, I’ll always love Superman, Batman and the rest, and I have no real intention of dropping the comics I like in the near future. But my pull list at Forbidden Planet is shorter than it used to be, and I’m sorry guys, but DC can’t guarantee I’m always going to be here to buy their latest slaughter-fest that’s being raved over by an ever smaller group of fans. Either win me back or win some new fans over, and I’ve got to say, it’d probably make the most sense to do the latter.

So get on with it!

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