The American comic book industry sabotaged itself.

Comic books are not, contrary to the CW, being destroyed by competition from tv & video games. American comics have been very badly hurt by decisions in the comics industry over two generations.

[quote=me in another thread]
Not exactly heresy, but a snippy observation: Sequential art storytelling in America would be in noticeably better shape if at least two of the five following things had happened:[ul][li]Marvel/Epic had put Alien Legion on newsstands[]Harvey had stayed in business[]Phil Seuling had never developed the Direct Sales Market[]A better word than “comics” had been coined & brought into use before 1970 (other than the technically correct “cartoon”–see the next item)[]Walt Disney had died in infancy, sparing us from the association of his brand of sanitized pablum with cartoons.[/ul][/li][/quote]
That’s a pretty arbitrary list, I admit. One minor decision (but reflective of a certain attitude), a failed business, a cultural term that people didn’t offer a serious alternative to, & an inaccurate blaming of Walt Disney as a definer of cartoons as silly minor things (which is not only overestimating his importance, but considering how much non-bigfoot work his company did, but unfair)–& the Direct Sales Market. Which really is bad for the industry as a whole, even if “good” for individual fans.

But really, what it boils down to, is that comics have been persistently misdefined, & the diversity of comics has been hidden from the general public. And the biggest sinners are DC & Marvel.

You know, I could add an event to that list. American comics might be in better shape if one thing had happened: If DC had canceled Superman in the 1950’s.

(On that note, I leave you, cliffhanging.)

  1. Cut out one of the two major tentpoles responsible for keeping Superhero comics alive in the 50’s
  2. ???
  3. Profit.

I just get the eerie feeling that if the last item on that list had happened, we’d only end up with…

Er, not to say your argument is flawed or anything, just noting my belief in the universe’s tendency to try and screw everyone over, no matter the situation. :smack: :smiley:

The basic premise - that the comics industry’s decline is mostly a matter of their own mistakes - is, at least to an extent, true.

Several of your supporting points, however, are completely off the mark.

Gamera and Ranchoth have already covered two of them, so I’ll tackle this one:

While the current dependance on the Direct Market is certainly a problem, it was developed in a time of declining newsstand sales. It was the Direct Market that saved comics in the late 70s, and early 80s. It’s only now that newsstand distrobution of comics is almost non-existant - therefor keeping people from discovering comics through newsstand sales - and the people who did are starting to abandon comics (or :eek: die off!) without that new blood to replace them that the Direct Market is causing problems. And, as mentioned, the loss of newsstand space isn’t really the comics industry’s fault - they lost it through market forces in the newsstands. They’re trying to get some back, now that the DM sales are starting to fall and they hope to get some new readership that way.

Also, you’re ignoring the ‘investor’ craze and the resulting loss of readership as the big companies (particularly Marvel) began pandering to the investors, and when the investors left when it became clear they wouldn’t get the return they’d hoped.

The conventional wisdom has become that anything other than superheroes goes into the direct sales comic shops, where the general public never sees it. Thus, the superheroes (which dominate comic shops, built as churches to the cult of supertights) act as gatekeeper. This is suicide.

Should I blame Phil Seuling? Well, not entirely. I blame the superhero branding obsession of DC/Marvel.

But Direct Sales cannot be the primary outlet for any large-scale distribution. No new company or series which needs a readership other than existing fans is well served by the direct sales system, as it caters to existing fans alone. The rot is fundamental.

Look, there’s a whole series of bad decisions & unlucky events. I actually conceived this thread as a giant list, 'cos it goes on and on.

In case you’re wondering what I think the best way out is, I would seriously consider letting the comic-book industry die. Let sequential art continue to be reintroduced as “manga,” & let the old-school American businesses who ruined a good thing wither away. So much of the great stuff in the American comic strip is already forgotten, buried under piles of insipid superhero nonsense, that I think the final death of the homegrown American form isn’t much loss. The smart creators can still find work in the new paradigm, the direct sales/superhero system can degenerate into glorified fanzines, & later historians can find all the cool stuff that was tossed aside in favor of additional X-Men titles.

Radical? Nah, just what’s already happening.

On the other hand, I’d like to see some domestic companies actually reassert themselves as full-service comic-book publishers rather than superhero-trademark banks. They need bookstore presence, television advertising, & radically rethought lines. If I really didn’t care, I wouldn’t be whinging.

(Believe it or not, I like superheroes. But it’s like, just because I like guitar rock doesn’t mean I think all other music should be hidden from the non-guitar rock fans. I like experimental jazz, I like pop, I like Beethoven. And I respect other people not liking any given one of those things. The successful comic book company will be one that stops thinking that they should play to a single subculture/fan audience.)

foolsguinea, again - you’re blaming forces that kept the comics industry afloat for their decline.

Marvel and DC focus on superheroes because that’s what sold in the 70s, when their western, suspense/horror, police, comedy etc titles tanked. They’re superhero companies, because they wouldn’t currently exist if they weren’t.

Similarly, Archie concentrates on their teen-comedy titles (and, at least last time I looked, a couple kid-friendly licenced titles), because that’s what sold when their superhero, action, etc titles tanked in the 50s and 60s.

It’s because of their focus on superheroes that DC and Marvel were able to stay solvent in order to reintroduce more varied titles - and releasing the non-superhero titles (and non-traditional superhero titles) to the direct market meant that they remained financially viable. And smaller companies - such as Dark Horse, Kitchen Sink, Fantagraphics, Slave Labour, Oni, etc - were financially viable at all just because there was a direct market for them to sell through.

Of course, right now, newsstand comics are dominated by Archie’s teen-comedy titles, so Marvel and DC have fallen prey to market forces - but since neither company’s had a successful title in Archie’s mode for more than 30 years (actually, did either ever have a SUCCESSFUL title in that mode? I know DC had at least one Archie-like title, Swing With Scooter - an Archie clone right down to the art style - but I have no idea how well it did), they were pretty much screwed in that respect.

Viz is beginning to penetrate newsstands with Shonen Jump and…whatever they’re calling their Shojo title. It remains to be seen if this will lead to other companies going back to newsstands en masse (or going to newsstand for the first time) with more varied product - or even if Viz will be able to keep it up - and I can guarantee you the other companies will be watching Viz’s figures before they decide to jump back in.

It’s been proven in the past that Marvel and DC have to be very careful about extending their brands - putting titles that don’t fit into their superhero universes under the main imprint is generally a formula for failure (with a few exceptions), and they’ve had…a less than admirable success/failure ratio with creating new imprints (Marvel’s had more luck, but that was mostly because they were just spreading their superhero books out in different directions). So, Marvel and DC’s superhero comics will continue to be their backbones, their spearheads, and their public faces, because they really have no choice in the matter if they want to remain alive.

Primus, yes. Variant covers up the wazoo, issue #1s every other week, gimmicky “events” like the Death of Superman… all culminating with the birth of Image Comics. :stuck_out_tongue: I remember all the folks snapping Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 and “Death of Superman” and expecting them to pay for their kids’ college educations or something. :smack:

And as long as we’re talking the death of comics, let me toss out a few other things that aren’t helping:

  • Continuity backlog. It’s hard to find a high-profile title today that a total stranger and pick up and read without having to know the past ten years’ of continuity first. You can’t attract new readers this way.

  • Kid-friendly comics. Hook 'em young and keep 'em hooked. You can do that with kid-oriented titles (anyone remember Marvel’s “Star” comics line?), clever writing in the “regular” titles that happen to be kid-friendly, or both. Unfortunately, there’s not much effort in any of these directions now. I wish DC still had their Batman: The Animated Series comic around, that’d be perfect for my five-year-old today – but they don’t, and I sure can’t give him the regular Bat-titles to read instead. The only super-heroes he gets is from Captain Underpants, and that’s more prose than comic.

  • The TPB mindset. Everybody’s writing with plans to collect stuff in trade paperbacks, and that screws up the storytelling – you can’t do done-in-ones (great for casual browsers to buy and try), you end up artificially inflating weaker stories to six-issue arcs, and you screw longtime collectors by offering “extras” in the TPBs that the regular comic didn’t have (“Why should I buy this title? I’ll wait for the TPB, get everything in one shot, and have the extras to boot.”).

The only idea I’ve seen recently to help comics is “Free Comic Book Day,” but that’s just one day in an entire year. There’s gotta be more done to save the hobby…

Gee, sorry to be snarky but I would have thought the place to start was the half-assed stories and art. Every time I go into a comic store (generally a happy place for me through my life) I’m downright embarrassed by the titles, the cover blurbs, and the cheesecake. So many of the major titles down even TRY to make an interesting story.

And it’s not like it’s new. I remember the original death of the phoenix storyline (culminating in X-Men #137) and at the time I thought it was great. I recently bought the trade paperback (sometime in the last year) for nostalgia’s sake and upon reading it discovered that while the story itself was interesting the WRITING…the dialogue and expostion…was horrendous. I mean it was TERRIBLE!


Same for Crisis on Infinite Earth.

This, I suppose, is why when a comic writer comes along who can do both story and dialogue things can end up so wonderful. Dave Sim (before the bugs got his brain), Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman all are wonderful writers as well as storyboarders.

My fixes? Thanks…

  1. Find better writers.
  2. Eliminate ‘story or title’ by boardroom. The finest work by the big companies occurs when a title is handed to one person with vision with no interference.
  3. Keep the stories longer and more coherent. A good 10-20 issue story arc? Great…then collect for TPB.
  4. Believable characters who do more than act as teen power fantasies.

Feh. Good luck to us.

And lower the prices.

Something to that. Back in the forties, fifties, and sixties, the comics publishing companies were able to sell their product cheaply because they paid their employees next to nothing. As recently as the late sixties, comic books sold for ten cents. And back then the top comics were selling more issues in a month then the top titles now sell in a year.

Now it’s nice that artists and writers are finally getting a fair share of the money from the products they created. But the industry they’re working for is slowly sinking. The prices are too high to bring in new young readers and the older readers are dropping out. This decline was masked for a while by the collector’s market but that’s mostly disappeared.

slight hijack

I was looking over the shoulder of someone who was reading the original Fantastic Four comics and was rather astounded that every single panel had paragraphs worth of dialogue. (And I’m willing to bet that none of the dialogue read like it could come out of real people’s mouths.)

So, to add another line to the cardinal sins of the American Comic Industry:

*The dialogue. 'Nuf said.

That’s a sin more of Stan Lee, and the Marvel writers who imitate him, more than anything else. Not that DC of the time, or modern writers, are completely innocent on that count, either, but 60s and 70s Marvel dialogue is a whole different thing.

It’s bombastic, overdone, and…well, rather distinctively Marvel.

Other companies at the time tended towards expository dialogue, absurd levels of ‘hipness’ (30th century aliens using 1980s American slang, for instance), and general cornball stuff.

By the 80s, aside from the too-hipness (and a completely different brand of corn), most companies had gotten over their worst sins.

The number one thing that got me out of comic? The idiotic insistance on having 21 pages an issue. I spend 5 dollars and have finished before I get home. Instead I could rent a dvd or go to a movie and have at least 2.5 hours for not that much more money, or go the whole hog and buy a book and have the whole day filled if I want.

Number two: nothing ever happens! And if anything does ever happen it’s almost a guarantee that a few months or a few years later something’s going to reset it back to the way it’s always been. Batman’s been 39ish for decades, Spiderman’s grown all of 5 years, etc etc…

There’s a reason I only seem to find myself reading collections of Vertigo titles. Transmet can fill in a couple of days if I reread it cause it’s 65 odd issues and ends! Same for Preacher, Sin City, and so on. The only titles I read month to month are The Walking Dead and Y - The Last Man, and I’m still irked that I can’t just wait 4 years and read the whole thing in a couple of sittings.

Nitpick – you’re off by ten years. I was there. Comics wer selling for ten cents as late as the latwe fifties. By the early sixties everyone has gone up to 12 cents (although you could maybe find a 10 cent comic if you looked really hard among the second- or third-tier companies).

By 1970 comics had gone to 15 cents, followed very rapidly by a rise to 20 cents then 25 cents in a mastter of months.

I don’t think the superhero focus of DC and Marvel is self-sabotage; it was a good choice at the time, and as others have noted, it has allowed them to endure when others failed, and to go on and publish other sorts of things. DC’s Vertigo line, for instance.

Comics are a fundamentally niche market - and while I don’t feel they’re doing enough to expand that niche - the fact remains that they will never really be mainstream. It’s a wonder to me that the 90’s and 00’s have allowed so many other new comic companies to spring up, and seemingly endure, especially since Marvel, DC, and Archie had been effectively the entire market for so long.

I think the adherence to the superhero niche is starting to pay off again, though - we’re getting a steady stream of high-attendance Superhero movies, DC’s managed to have a lot of success on TV - maybe that’s how they’ll expand their niche now, by crossing to other, more mainstream media forms.

rjung, there’s a Justice League Adventures title that you might find interesting for your kid, based on the Justice League cartoon.

Before we go looking for solutions, let’s Define the Problem.

What, exactly, do you think is wrong with the American Comics Industry?

What would the ideal situation be?

Does such a situation exist in another country?
Now, I know a lot of comics fans think Japan’s model is the holy grail: fat books of Manga coming out every single week for seemingly every type of reader, from schoolgirls to elderly businessmen. But the American market is just not like that, for a number of reasons.

Let’s define some of the problems in the American market:

  • limited access; comics now are mostly available at specialty shops, not grocery stores, newsstands, etc.
  • high cost; comics aren’t 10 cents anymore, and many people question whether it’s worth it to buy them or something else; as with the newsstand problems, I think the cost issus is not unique to comics, but is something that ALL publications face now; I was in the magazine business for 8 years, and we were constantly fretting over the continuing loss of public interest in all types of magazines/newspapers, the rising costs of production, and the competition for people’s attention from other types of media (TV, Web, video games, etc.)
  • limited catering to specific demographics; American comics are largely of the superhero type and aimed mostly at teen-and-older male readers; exceptions include Archie, which is read pretty much evenly by boys and girls and sells some 800,000 comics a month, which is nothing to sneeze at
  • strict format rules; one reason the Japanese can crank out a paperback-sized Manga book each week is that most are in black and white; you could probably count the number of current black-and-white US comics on one hand; in the US, black-and-white comics are generally seen as low-class or counterculture or startup types–think TMNT, Cerebus, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, etc. The US audience, for good or evil, has come to expect that comics be in color (hell, even daily newspaper comics are now being printed in color!).
  • labor concerns; another reason US comics are high-cost and low-volume is that labor costs here (as for every industry) are higher than they are overseas; after decades of seeing comic artists treated often like sweatshop laborers, the artists and others have demanded better pay, more control, etc. for them; it’s hard to complain about improved worker conditions, but it’s also true that they inevitably increase operating costs and therefore prices.
  • creator prejudices; in my opinion, very few American artists WANT to make comics for girls, for housewives, etc. They’re mostly men, and they mostly want to make either (a) DC/Marvel superhero comics or (b) edgy, high-production-value comics suitable for glossy graphic novels. Where are the Sweet Valley High comic books? Where are the Harlequin Romance Novel comic books? Where are the comic-book equivalents of Soap Operas: High-volume, low-cost, and dealing with romance and intrigue that would interest women? What about Robert Ludlum-style thrillers? Agatha Christie-style period mysteries? Or comics about WWII, the Old West, the age of exploration, the Civil War, Vietnam, etc? Think the History Channel. The only historical comics we have today are about feudal Japan, and they usually involve supernatural ninjas. Or Bible Comics, for God’s sake. I know there are some out there, but I’d think publishers would be dying to tap into such a potentially huge market.

Sorry, got a little sidetracked with specific issues. Anyway, in my opinion, the Problem with American Comics would be:

Limited readership. The comics industry needs to expand its reader base outside of its current male-only, superhero-only niche.
Some might argue that the quality of comics needs to improve–better stories, better art, better printing, etc. Personally, I think there is enough quality work being done–at least in a few very narrow genres.

IMO, the comics industry needs much greater diversity, greater quantity, and, perhaps counterintuitively, LESS quality. Someone should try to crank out 100-page paperback comics every week. No, the quality won’t be as good (and, frankly, I don’t find the quality of a great deal of Manga all that good–it’s some sparse, hastily penned crap, IMO), but people want more (volume) for their money, and they want it more often, I think. There will still be beautiful graphic novels that take a year to produce, but there could ALSO be some cheap crap that hooks people in and keeps them coming back; there’s a reason why there are five gabillion disposal Romance novels on the shelf. People eat that stuff up.

So, solutions:

  • create comics for many more types of readers; focus esp. on girls, romance, teen drama, etc. There is just nothing for girls right now, except Archie and some scarce imported Manga. This is money that is simply not being pursued.

  • increase the page volume of individual issues

  • increase the frequency of issues

  • DECREASE the quality (most likely by going to black and white) of each issue to reduce costs and turnaround time
    But, there remain some harder problems without pretty solutions:

  • decrease labor costs; publishers, sadly, really need an army of drones to draw these things, a la the Korean animation factories; perhaps you could hire College-age Art students as low-paid summer workers or during their first year or two out of college

  • increase mainstream availability; this is the hardest issue for any publisher or manufacturer (not just comics), and is also a chicken-and-egg issue (once enough people are demonstrated as wanting them, any retailer will gladly sell them). I would recommend vigorous lobbying of retail giants like Wal-Mart (since the newsstand network of the 1940s and 50s doesn’t really exist today, outside of a few cities). But, obviously, this issue is a bitch of a roadblock.

No one’s mentioned Ron Perlman yet? He’s the #! person responsible for the collectable craze turning bad. I know a comic store owner at the time seeing the parallel with the stamp collecting craze of the 40s and 50s and speculating that a likely result would be comics would become just a small niche market. Also, Perlman’s mismanagement of the Hero’s World fiasco ensured that comic book prices would continue to rise.

I don’t know if it’s really responsible for the demise of the market — it’s a problem with deep roots that were apparent in the days of the 12¢ issue —but the storylines, the plots, all feel like they were fabricated one page ahead of time about 5 minutes before the ink hit the paper. They don’t know where they’re going and often don’t make much sense when they get there. Instead of interconnected subplots contributing to a developing whole, the world of any given comic series seems to be a huge clutter of semi-coherent details.

"Well, he came from another planet where they read minds, but that planet was destroyed by the Dark Ranger, who actually came from the future, although it’s a future that won’t necessarily exist because later on the Green Guy has five timelines captured in a glass thimble and he drops it when his girlfriend, who is the Dark Ranger’s younger sister, except not really (because the Dark Ranger wasn’t born in the ordinary sense, he came from the future but his parents are from the past that he destroyed, which creates a paradox-stream that is always constantly in the process of resolving…anyway, his younger sister was born mortal in the normal fashion, except that her kitty cat gives her powers because he was a witches’ cat), startles him, and when it breaks some of the timelines dissipate but we don’t know which ones yet. Anyway, he joins the police force and helps solve crimes which are committed by mobsters and robots who escaped from the prisonworld of Automatia, they were originally self-governing and moral sentient machines but Karoch the Destroyer permanently modified their n-Chips, and…
::eyes glaze over::