Held Back: A Frank Look at the Comic Industry

Author’s note: The following is a rather long-winded examination of some of the problems the comic book industry faces. I know we’ve all read it before and you must be wondering why this article is any different. It’s different because I actually present, in detail, what I feel is a solution to some of these problems. I encourage everyone to leave their comments and request that if you agree with this, share it with your comic friends.

There is not a time in my life where I don’t remember comic books being a part of my life. I grew up with Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe, I was there when Sue Storm struggled against the influence of Malice, and I remember when Superman fell to Doomsday. So it fills me with sadness to say that I don’t see the comic book industry thriving without a major change in attitude and approach, not just by the industry but by the readers as well. While some people will try to lead you to believe that an increase in online piracy and the inability to attract the youth audience are the problem, they are merely a symptom of much larger issues.

We know without a doubt that the issue of attracting younger readers isn’t with the character or content. Comic book based movies, cartoons, toys and video games consistently perform well with kids and in many cases even adults. With many of today’s comic book creators being involved with these projects, we can also assume to an extent that it’s not a problem with the writers and artist. It’s clear that there are people out there thirsty for comic book adventures. Also we can factor out that “kids don’t want to read” as being an excuse. The success of Harry Potter, Twilight and other books aimed at the young adult market show that there is a willingness to read if the conditions are right. Since the problem isn’t with the creators, the characters or the story, what is causing this divide?

As an industry and a community of fans, comic books are stuck in the past. With the exception of a few poor attempts of modernizing, comic book collecting is stuck in a rut decades in the making. The idea of comic books being collectibles is an issue in itself. In my room are boxes upon boxes of loose comic books, each one wrapped in a plastic bag with a piece of cardboard and organized to my own liking. The problem is, many of these comics that I am taking great care to archive are barely worth the bags and boards that protect them. Comics that I bought for dollars are only worth cents in a practical real world situation. So the real question is why do I have piles of comics that I will likely never read again and are more or less worthless? Because that’s the way comic books work.

One of the largest issues is just how we as comic fans have to approach our hobby. If I wish to read comics, I am forced in one way or another to collect them as well. Loose comics or trade collections, the culture of comic books is almost solely focused on collection. The problem is that the ideal of “collecting” is a thing of the past. How often do you see people, especially children or young adults, collecting things such as baseball cards, stamps or coins? Why are comics any different? The youth of today are becoming ever more digital. Flickr has taken the place of photo albums, iPods have replaced record collections, and websites have all but made newspapers extinct. Every year people have less interest in collecting physical items and comic books are no different.

To compound this problem, a few rare cases has made people believe that their comics might be worth money someday. The fact of the matter is most of the mainstream comics you buy will be lucky to retain their cover value in ten years. There are exceptions, but they mainly come in the way of artificially created demands; limited printings of variant covers, convention only release and the like. Even then, the demand is doubly artificial in the way that only other serious collectors value these comics who are equally taken with the idea that a comic book will be worth more later. The idea of turning a profit some day on a comic collection is a pipe-dream for most and this continued charade only further harms the industry.

Is that to say that comics are without value? Not even in the slightest. I would dare say the case it quite the opposite. Comics are incredibly valuable, but we’re focusing on the wrong part of this exchange. The value isn’t in the comic itself, but rather the story and art that is inside it. Over the years we have been conditioned to value the delivery system more than the content itself. How can you justify the notion that comic book sealed in plastic has more value than a comic that has been thoroughly read and enjoyed?

I believe that physical comics will always have a place in the community. There will always be people that favor a physical copy of Green Lantern in their hand, just as there will always be people that prefer a vinyl record to .mp3 and people that prefer a book to E-readers. I also firmly believe that most the people that are interested in buying physical comic books have no desire to quit doing so. With that in mind, I think the industry can safely move forward and not have to worry about alienating comic shops and physical retailers. While there is some overlap in audience, I believe that non-traditional distribution will not completely cannibalize the current market. So with this renewed focus on content and removal of the fear of progress, we can finally learn from other mediums of entertainment.

Lets take a look at digital distribution as it currently stands. Services like ComiXology and Graphicly are a step in the right direction, but at times it’s hard to take the attempts of the larger companies to use such services seriously. New releases delayed three months before digital sale, full cover price for a download and overall lack of selection make it feel as if some companies are only attempting to make it seem like they’re simply trying to look like they’re trying. Though the recent sale of the Planetary digital omnibus on ComiXology does hint at some promising changes at DC, nothing official has been announced that would support that this will be an ongoing trend for the company.

Now some of what has been presented so far has been said before, so you might be wondering what makes this article different. The difference is I’m willing to offer a better way. By addressing the multiple needs of the various comic reader, I believe that the industry could not only get by, but excel and soon rival video games when it comes to prosperous entertainment markets. In this plan, the market is broken into three separate markets: physical market, digital premium, digital value. The reason being that there will never be a single solution for all customers and to think so if folly. A mainstream movie is released on the screen, then to DVD and Pay-Per-View, then to premium channels like HBO and then finally basic cable. Why limit your potential earnings by releasing content a single way?

The first market speaks for itself. It is the traditional physical market and will function more or less as is. There’s nothing wrong with having physical comics sold at specialty stores. There will always be a market for it. Perhaps the only addition to the physical market would be the addition of retail cards that could be redeemed for digital services much like prepaid iTune and Xbox Live cards. This would allow people uncomfortable with sharing their credit card information online to still get digital comics and also allow comic shops to still have a chance to profit off the digital market.

The second market is digital premium which would be comprised of services like ComiXology or publisher’s proprietary service. In this market, comics are released the same week as physical comics, but at a reduced price. At this level there are multiple ways for customers to buy their comics.

Firstly, they can buy individual issues. This is the most costly, but most flexible way to purchase titles. For the sake of discussion lets say comics are $1.99 on release. Six months after an issue’s release the title drop down to $1.49. This option is good for trying a comic or purchasing a missing back issue that is hard to find.

The second option is a subscription. Unlike Marvel’s Digital Unlimited, this is a subscription to an individual title. For example, if you know you will be reading Captain America every month you simply buy a set of issues ahead of time. So for $8 you will get the next six issues or for $15 you will receive the next year of a selected comic. This option could even be applied to mini-series with a flat rate being offered to purchase the entire run.

The third option is backstock. This purchasing option would work much in the way of the physical market’s trade paperback. This way you can buy entire story arcs for a set price. Older comics could be offered by the year. So if you were interested in what was going on with The Uncanny X-Men in 1994, you can purchase the entire year for $12. Comics with smaller runs, such as Planetary could be sold in Omnibus packages for around $1 an issue. This would be a great way for the industry to address the issue of “there’s just so much backstory” and allow new readers to catch up on their new favorite heroes.

The last market is the digital value market. Piracy is an issue for all forms of entertainment and comic books are no exception. The comic book pirate does not hate the comic book industry despite what some people will have you believe. For whatever misguided reason, they’re people who want to read comic books but either can’t or won’t pay for them. So how do you stop people from giving away your content for free? Simple, you give it away for free and cut out the middle man. If television has taught us anything, it’s that advertising can support an industry. From over the air broadcast to more recent digital services like hulu, the television industry has been delivering content for no cost to the viewer for decades.

With the digital value market, publishers could make the most recent three issues of their popular comics available via their website. To support this, readers would have to sign up for a free account and read the comics directly from the website. Approximately ever five to ten pages the reader will have an ad pop up that they are not able to skip, much the way hulu operates. This would provide readers that are unable, or unwilling, to buy comics an option to read some comics and publishers would still be able to collect ad revenue for these readers who would otherwise not pay a single cent to read a comic.

I believe that with these few changes to the distribution of comic books, the industry would see an increase in revenue across the board. The major publishers would finally tap the audience that their movies and shows have, smaller publishers’ sales would increase from the general increase of interest in comics and more people would be able to legally read the comics while their creators would get paid for their hard work. This is a win/win/win situation. If simple steps to move towards commonsense distribution like this were taken, the future would in fact be so bright we would need to wear shades.

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