Sunday, June 14, 2009

Three Thoughts on the Comic Book Business

I don't usually write about the business of comic books, but the following three ideas have been rolling around in my head for a while now:

(1) The Comic Book Sales Charts

Heidi MacDonald at the Beat wrote this the other day when discussing the monthly sales charts:
a pretty strong faction of folks associated with the Big Two think that the Marvel and DC Sales Charts are gradually killing periodical sales . . . . I wanted to make sure that running an Indie Sales Chart wasn’t going to strangle a bunch of titles in their crib.

Really? Sales charts published on the Beat are gradually killing periodical sales? I guess the idea is that people never like buy a book that isn't selling like gangbusters because they know it will fade away quickly, but do the sales charts really hold that much sway over the buying public?

In any event, I've often thought that the sales charts on the Beat might make a person who cares about periodical comic book sales depressed, since after those first few big-selling titles, the chart is basically a list of book after book that is slowly losing sales on a month-to-month basis, and the bottom third of the chart tends to be books with teeny-tiny sales that aren't long for this world.

Here's my grand, thinking-outside-the-box suggestion to help people feel better: Reverse the order of the sales charts so that the lowest-selling books comes first, counting down to the top-selling books. I think this change will make people feel happier about the charts, because it will place more importance on the top-sellers and because the top-selling books will be the last thing that people read about, so they'll finish reading and feel good. Maybe then they'll go out and buy those floppy comics 'cause they feel so optimistic about the state of the industry.

(2) Weekly Comics

I think comic book publishers should release more comic books on a weekly, rather than monthly basis. And I'm not talking about doing more year-long series like 52, Countdown, and Trinity. Instead, I think the big-time summer crossover mini-series like Secret Invasion and Final Crisis should be released on a weekly basis. This change would address two of the biggest complaints that I've read about the summer crossovers.

First, it would fix pacing problems. Secret Invasion was criticized for moving very slowly through a very simple plot. If it came out on a weekly basis, people wouldn't have to wait very long for the next installment and the plot would feel like it's moving along at a faster pace.

Second, it would fix the problem that occurs when the big events for a comic book universe all have to happen in the main mini-series, forcing all of the other books to wait until those events happen. Now, the other books wouldn't need to tread water for months.

Finally, I think it just makes more sense to have the "summer crossover" mini-series begin AND end in the summer, rather than begin with a bang in the summer and end with a whimper in the dead of winter.

In addition to mini-series, this might work for ongoing comic books, with a series running more like TV seasons: a bunch of issues in a row, followed by a pre-determined break period (along with a release of a collected edition of those issues). This might help certain books build buzz so that when they return for their next "season" they've picked up new readers.

(3) Paper or digital?

I think many people assume that, like newspapers, magazines, and books, paper comics will eventually be replaced by digital comics; the only real question is how quickly it will happen.

I'd like to suggest that
the digital revolution will take longer than most people believe, for the simple reason that comic books are composed of both words and pictures.

While literature is certainly making the jump from print to digital, I think that the transition will be much slower for fine, visual art. The method of presenting words on a page matters much less than the method of presenting a piece of art. Don't forget that comics are both literature and art, which I think means that paper comics will be around for a while yet.


  1. I like the idea of publishing the lists in the reverse order. At the same time, the commentary on the low selling books has to be a lot better. Too often, the Beat's writers just say a book is continuing to fall, like it's naturally a given. The commentary is just as disparaging as the positioning on the charts.

  2. 1)While the sales charts themselves might not cause lower sales, there are noticeable drops in sales for a series that has been marked for cancellation, which is probably why Marvel has stopped doing it.

    Scott - The natural tendency for series nowadays is to lose sales, so it is a given.

    2)Marvel and DC would never make events like Final Crisis or Secret Invasion weekly because then they loose 7 to 8 months of tie-ins and increased sales. Not to mention that there is no way artists like Jones or McNiven could do the art for those series.

    Also, I doubt the season model would work, at least the way Marvel and DC currently run their shared universes.

    3)Comics have already made the leap to digital. There are thousands of webcomics out there. Thousands. Many of the problems have been solved, publishers just refuse to adapt.

  3. Scott - I'm not sure I agree about the Beat's writers; I think they do a pretty good job and sometimes there isn't much more to say than "this book is steadily losing sales." I think they're only being honest. But yeah, the low sales of books + the commentary pointing out the low sales is enough to leave readers feeling like many books are hopeless.

    Eric - You're right that publishers might miss out on tie-in sales when they can't drag out their crossover for eight months. I'm not sure how to get around that, unfortunately. Perhaps they could also publish the tie-ins as weekly mini-series? (Many cross-over tie-ins are already published as mini-series instead of being part of ongoing series.)

    But I disagree about the loss of slow-working artists for weekly books. The publishers would just need to give them more lead time. There is no reason they can't get Jones or McNiven to start working on a weekly crossover series eight months earlier than they would have if it had been a monthly.

    Finally, I agree about comics making the leap to digital - I wasn't trying to say that they hadn't or wouldn't. I was trying to address how soon digital might completely replace paper comics altogether. (I probably shouldn't have used the term "digital revolution.")

    Thanks to you both for your comments.

  4. I don't think point three flies.

    The ability to see images is pretty much the web's reason for being. Aside from considerations over image size, there is no barrier to seeing digital images with text on them.

    Now, if you were to say that the way the web works pretty much makes impossible all attempts at keeping the art out of the hands of people who didn't pay for it... and thus the print comic industry will continue to drag their feet on switching over to a financial model very different from the one they've learned to milk for all it's worth until they have no other choice... Then I could see where you're coming from.

    As Eric rightly pointed out: The problem isn't the medium of delivery, it's the companies' refusal to adapt.

  5. I agree that comic book companies need to adapt, as digital is where everything is (eventually) headed. But what I was trying to say was that I think that comic books are a whole will take longer than books/newspapers/magazines to go fully digital because they share properties with fine art. Maybe I'm wrong about that - I'm not exactly tuned in to fine art blogs, but I'm guessing that people who sell paintings in galleries aren't that worried about the web stealing sales. Of course, there are differences between original paintings and mass-produced comic books, but I think there is a substantive difference between books and comic books that will cause comics to take longer to make the conversion.

  6. I agree with you on points 2 and 3. I have always argued for big events (like Flash:Rebirth) should come out weekly. As you said, this would allow other titles to continue without delay story-wise.

    Blackest Night is going to be big, and I hope that the actual even won't hinder as you predict. This will just put DC off of anymore awesome events.

    What are your thoughts on Wednesday Comics? Good idea or waste of money?

    As for digital comics, all I want is more DC Universe straight to DVD movies. These seem to pair well with comic books, and it gives you something to watch while waiting a month for the next issue...hah, full circle.

  7. Interesting thoughts. I don't have much to say about sales figures, since I usually can't be bothered to pay any attention, but I did want to comment that the idea that their very existence is hurting sales is pretty ridiculous, if not outright offensive. They're just embarrassed about working in a fringe medium and seeing how few people actually pay attention to their stuff. That's my theory anyway.

    As for weekly events, I know some of the crossovers Marvel and DC used to do did come out weekly, like Final Night, Genesis, and DC 1,000,000, if I remember correctly. Or to go more recently, didn't House of M come out bi-weekly? That's probably a good idea, if you care about that sort of thing, but in the case of Marvel at least, they probably prefer to drag out their events as long as possible, with one leading into the next and no downtime in between. Works for some, I suppose.

    I do like the idea of "seasons" though; that's kind of what some books do now, like The Umbrella Academy or Atomic Robo. Or BPRD, although with the different creative teams, they keep those scheduled to be coming out pretty much constantly. I suppose they could wait until enough issues were in the can to bring a bunch of them out in quick succession, but that would make the gap between series much longer; it's probably best to do it the way they've been doing it. Again, opinions!

  8. Alan - I think Wednesday Comics is a great idea. I can't wait to pick it up.

    Matt - It's very possible that those crossovers were weekly or bi-weekly; I wouldn't know since I was AFC (away from comics) for several years there. And yeah, BPRD and the Umbrella Academy were certainly in my thoughts when I wrote about having seasons - I think those creators have the right idea about how to go about things.