On my Analogy to Understand the Decline of American Comics post (click here), I had a conversation with commentor Machine Trooper(http://www.virtualpulp.net/) where I mentioned an essay released in 1997 by John Workman discussing the problems of the comic book industry. He said:
I would like to read that, but probably never will unless the article is available online somewhere.
Since I happen to own a copy of the Comics Journal #199 where this was published and it’s impossible to find on the Internet, it’ll be reprinted here in it’s entirety. Ask, and you shall receive…
The Comic Book Crisis, and What Can Be Done About It
By John Workman
The capacity of people to stand with their noses firmly planted against the hard bark of figurative trees while ignoring the forest of reality that encompasses their world is a constant reminder of human fallibility. It’s something that I’ve often encountered during my 25-plus years’ involvement in the creation of comics-related material. I still find it hard still find it hard to believe that so many people working in the same business are so completely ignorant of what goes on outside of the little niche they’ve carved for themselves. This lack of knowledge has had a detrimental effect on both the art and business of comic books and, together with numerous factors that have been ignored in the past, threatens to assure a slow and lingering death for the unique comic book form in the United States.
People who should know better are unable to foresee even the most obvious editorial problems because they lack experience with and understanding of the myriad parts that make up the production of a comic book. Their perception of the readership, whether those readers represent the nearly-gone general audience or the rapidly-shrinking group of direct sales buyers, is certainly not based on reality. Incredible ignorance is the only possible excuse for their seeing the now very real long-term sales slump (and slow spiral to eventual oblivion) as part of some imagined business cycle with any references they may make to precursors of this “cycle” being representative of a readership, distribution system, and world that no longer exist and, therefore, have no bearing on the current prospects or the limited future of comic books. For all those people with their eyes firmly on one single tree while the forest burns around them… and to those who see the fire and have a few ideas about what might be done to snuff out the flames… I have written this analysis of the crisis that faces one of the liveliest of American creations.
Part One: Distribution Problems
Comic books are an American story. For over 60 years, they’ve both reflected and influenced life in the United States. And, like the lives of those they’ve touched, comics, have gone through amazing changes during relatively recent times. These changes threaten American comic books with the certainty of oblivion at a’ time when such a unique visual medium could offer so much to the future.
In the post-war world of the 1950’s, a business process began that continues to this .very day and has been responsible for the ongoing decline of comics readership. Publishers of the period, used to the booming sales of the World War II era, were worried about competition from television, but the smarter ones knew that TV’s ultimate victim would be network radio programs and that the huge, captive audience that the War had provided for them was a profitable aberration that would not come around again. They set out to find new concepts and characters that would appeal to a large, general audience. The publishers of the best-known character in all of comics made use of television to promote their books by way of a TV series that they both produced and owned. With a couple of exceptions, all publishers made the debatable assumption that their audience was made up of children and they decided to keep the books priced as low as possible for as long as possible to accommodate those supposed buyers. All attempts to offer a standard, 32-page comic book for more than a dime were short-lived and the ten cent cover price was maintained until publishers bowed to the inevitable in 1962 and the cost of comics was raised to 12 cents.
While publishers in the early 1950s were doing all that they could to hang on to regular readers and to acquire new ones, a juggernaut that is still on the move began to roll across every town and city in the’ country and to threaten comics’ ability to reach the majority of their potential audience. Starting in larger cities in the 1950s and reaching into smaller towns by the 1980s, malls and shopping centers were systematically fragmenting and destroying the downtown areas of these varied population centers. Traditionally “anchored” to the larger chain stores (Sears, Penny’s, Montgomery Ward’s) that were found in most towns in the U.S., small, family-owned businesses found themselves “cut loose” when those chain stores moved from the downtown area and took up residence in malls. Surrounded by large, empty buildings situated on land that was visited by fewer potential customers and facing insurmountable competition from chain discount stores (who’s management was often made up of people from outside the area), the smaller businesses capitulated to reality and either permanently closed their doors or endeavored to offer the local populace a service that the “big boys” had no interest in providing. The closing of so many businesses severely hampered the marketing of comicbooks to the huge, general audience they had sold to since the 1930s and the decrease in the number of outlets for the books caused huge declines in sales of as much as 50% from 1960 to 1970. The only ray of sunshine could be seen coming from the individuals who began to set aside space in existing businesses… or to open new shops devoted to sales of the most recent comics and back-issues to the “fans” who had come to represent roughly one-tenth of all comic book buyers. In some localities, however, the sad reality is that the disparity between the closing of traditional comics outlets and opening of the “fan” oriented shops was as high as 40 to 1. A second threat to the stability of comic book sales came into being during this same time. For nearly 20 years after comic books began to regularly appear on newsstands, they were on an economic par with other publications. There was no real difference to a news dealer in the sale of an issue of Time magazine and the sale of any comics magazine. By the time comic book publishers reluctantly decided to raise the price of their products, the news dealers no longer considered comics to be magazines’ and they were well aware of the difference in profit between Life and Life With Archie or between Playboy and Superboy. The stores that had taken over for the closed comics outlets saw no pressing reason to carry such low profit items. They would take scores of copies of the 15-cent TV Guide since they made money on it due to the sheer volume of copies sold, but the popularity that the low-price television magazine enjoyed did not extend to comic books. At best, the comic books were an attractive nuisance and the chain stores decided that they did not need them. Since profits on comics were also low for the distributors, they, too, saw no reason to aggressively seek out new outlets and it was no surprise that by the mid-1970s, as much as 50% of a comic’s print-run never made it out of the distributors’ warehouses.
Comic book publishers were at the end of a 40-year ride and running out of gas rapidly. They made a few, real attempts at printing in different formats and creating new markets. Realizing the tenacity of the minority of their buyers who were hard-core enthusiasts, they enlisted a group of those “fans” to monitor sales at various points in the country and to prod reluctant outlets and get them to agree to sell comic books. Sales continued to slide. A new decade… the 1980s… was just around the corner and it looked like the only sensible thing to do was to cut back on the number of books and, make the most of the extensive backlog of pages from past decades that could be cheaply repackaged and foisted off on the always-shrinking domestic market while rights to this same material could be sold and resold for decades to assorted foreign publishers of comic books.
DIRECT SALES TO THE RESCUE
While the general audience found it increasingly hard even to find comics that they might want to purchase, the “fan” interest in the publications continued unabated. Since the mid-1960s, there had been articles there had been articles in newspapers and national magazines concerning the people who were paying high prices for decades-old comic books while continuing to follow the current output of their favorite artists and writers. Most of these articles took a tongue-in-cheek viewpoint, giving some grudging admiration to those who were making money off the phenomenon while deriding those who shelled out anything more than cover price for such nostalgic reading matter. Comic book “conventions” began to be held regularly in large cities with well-known artists and writers attending to speak to their fans while numerous dealers of used comics piled tables high with treasures for these same fans. Many of these dealers traveled parts of the country in vans, buying and selling old comics in town-after-town and making their big sales (and important contacts with customers) at the big-city comics conventions. They quickly opened one or more stores to give a central location to the sales part of their business. The more savvy of these business people, realizing that they would have to diversify to survive, offered their customers more than comic books. Since their own love of comics had often been the reason behind their chosen careers, they were able to quickly establish a camaraderie and a loose business network with others who sold comic books for a living. Some people in comics publishing who were aware of this small, nationwide group of comics’ specialty shops began to wonder if things might be done to take their books directly to these stores and completely bypass the nearly-useless magazine distribution system that had shown such disdain for comic books.
Most comics shop owners got their stock of new books from the local distributor, often going to the warehouse themselves or making friends with a jobber, letting that delivery person know that they wanted certain comic books for their store, and keeping any unsold copies as part of their stock of higher-priced back-issues. This assured the jobber of a total “sell-out” of all comicbooks delivered to their store. Some people at the publishing companies felt that if these stores could be offered books at a lower unit cost and on a non-returnable basis, then the print run could roughly equal the number of orders and the expensive waste involved in newsstand distribution could be eliminated. A test astounded doubters by showing that a “direct-sales” book could sell over 100,000 copies. Further tests of this new distribution system went smoothly. While still maintaining their precarious foothold on the newsstands, all titles eventually found their way onto the direct sales route, most of them very quickly selling more copies through the directs than by way of the older method. Before long, certain comics were by-passing newsstands entirely and being sold only through the comics specialty stores. New publishers entered the field with titles that never appeared on any regular newsstands. Black-and-white comics, unthinkable on the newsstands aside from “magazine- format” titles such as Mad, became an even more inexpensive method employed by publishers aiming at the direct sales market. Sales figures that would have been an embarrassment calling for immediate-cancellation just a few years before instead indicated true profitability in this new, unexplored territory. The road ahead looked bright, but some very clear road maps were available and those who could read them saw that the only possible future for comic Books in the United States, barring some sort of miracle, was a slow ride to ignoble oblivion.
In the 15 years since the advent of the direct sales market, the promise of a “safe harbor” that the comics shops offered to a medium buffeted by the storms of newsstand distribution has turned into the reality of a “backwater port” visited solely by a relative handful of the already converted. The ease with which new readers once found and purchased comic books has been replaced by a demand that the potential comic book buyer do some traveling in order to find the title he may be interested in reading. While some better-known titles may still be obtained from newsstands, these sales outlets are not as common as they were 20 years ago. For any of the direct-sales-only titles that are now the standard of the industry, a potential buyer must locate and travel to a comics shop. And if the newsstand outlets are not as plentiful as they once were and are, therefore, a lot harder to locate and visit, then the comics shops more often than not force the reader to make a weekly journey that is beyond the ability or the interest of most human beings. Even in large cities where there are several comics shops, the logistics involved in getting to those stores prove to be too much for all but the true comics fans. In areas not served by local comic? shops, a 100-mile round-trip to purchase direct-sales-only books is a harsh reality to those “fans” who continue to buy comics and an insurmountable obstruction to all the potential consumers of comics material. Even among people in the business who should definitely know better, there is an idea that comics shops are-to be found everywhere and that they are easy to get to for a person of any age and of any economic circumstance. This is an incredible fallacy. Because of the inconsistent business acumen of the comics shop owners, there is a constant number of closings of shops that is not really offset by the opening of new, often equally ill-fated stores. This makes a realistic appraisal of the number of such outlets for comic books hard to determine and leaves any researcher at the mercy of marketing people and distributors who offer a figure of 3000 to 6000 when they are asked about the true number of comics shops in the United States. Even generously throwing another couple of thousand possible stores into the mix leaves one less than thrilled about the level of saturation of the potential audience for comic books by those stores when this made-up figure is compared with the documented reality of over 10,000 commercial radio stations in the country. It would seemingly make more sense to have comics readers drop into any local radio station to pick up their books since those places are far more widespread and easier to get to than the comics shops. While the” fans” continue to buy their books at the relative handful of comics shops that are found around the country, the huge potential audience that exists in the “real world” is dangerously close to being completely unaware of the existence of comic books. Ill-served by a newsstand distribution system that is not interested in providing low-profit comics to an ever shrinking number of outlets that have no interest in carrying them, the would-be comics reader/buyer either gives up or becomes a victim of the less-than-accessible comics shop system. It’s a system that immediately writes off an audience that could easily be ten times its current size. It’s a system that fails to acquire new customers. It’s a system without a future.
Part Two:Incredible Editorial Blunders
Even with the finest possible distribution system in place, it’s possible that anyone who might develop some interest in reading comic books on a regular basis would be repulsed rather than attracted by the typical comic book being produced today. While comics once were aimed at the widest possible audience with a diversity of material that reflected the interests of that audience, current comic books are overseen by people who are so accustomed to the truly small “fan” community that they tend to aim the books they put together solely at this determined and avid group and to ignore the much larger general readership that once made comic books a true mass medium.
There is a correlation between the end of the time when comic books offered such “plusses” as puzzles and text features to go with the plethora of distinctive, individual short stories in pictorial form that filled each issue and the death of the perception that these publications were magazines. As the number of pages dropped from 64 to 32 and all these extra features slowly vanished, comics still managed to maintain a feeling of variety by featuring several short items in every issue, each one usually created by a different artist and writer. Because of this system, even books devoted to the adventures of a single character or theme were able to provide a visual uniqueness for each tale that made the entire package continually appealing to a general audience. Because each story stood on its own without any particular relevance to the others appearing with it, stories could be “juggled” during any deadline-threatening situation so that a feature already completed for an upcoming issue might be substituted for an unfinished one in an issue that was nearly ready to go to press. This alleviated the pressure on all involved in the production of the books and made the failure to meet contractual obligations to printers and distributors an extremely unlikely possibility. The results of all this offered true variety to a divergent group of people by way of a series of publications that were “accessible” to a huge general audience.
Most current American comicbooks are made up of a single story running 22-to-24 pages gut of total of 32 interior pages. There is usually a letter column taking up one or two pages with the rest of the book being devoted to a very few paid ads and to house ads promoting certain of the company’s other publications. It’s interesting to compare the advertising found in comic books from the time when they were considered to be magazines to current paid ads. In the earlier time period, advertising in comics was often indistinguishable from that found in non-comics publications. General Electric, Goodyear, and other major businesses often advertised in the comic books, aiming their ads at a variety of people of differing ages, interests, and economic categories. The majority of current advertising reflects a youthful reader’s interest in video games and action-oriented movies combined with the eternal desire to rid one’s face of unsightly pimples. The small “classified” ads, once covering an amazingly wide range of categories, now seem dedicated to those who want to attend regional comic book conventions, receive their comics through a mail-order service, or purchase recent comic books at inflated prices as an economic investment.
One type of house ad found in each comic book deserves special scrutiny. Subscriptions to ongoing comics series are offered in a colorful ad in every issue. When told of the definite problems that would hound every potential comics buyer, one of the marketing people at one of the oldest comics publishing firms offered subscriptions as the best possible solution. The problem with this answer can be found in the nature of the comic books’ stories. In each issue, rather than offer at least one complete story within the 22-to-24 pages of comics material in their publications, the publishers instead foist off a piece of a puzzle… a story that has been continued from the previous issue of that comic book or from another related comic and that will be continued in the next issue of that book or perhaps in yet another title. Reading the rambling adventures of the hero who fights for truth, justice, and the American way can call for an outlay of over $100 from anyone willing to studiously collect all the puzzle pieces for a year’s time. This is not conducive to acquiring the new readers needed to build a true mass medium.
Adding to the catastrophic result of this editorial and marketing blindness is the, undeniable fact that, in addition to the departure of the general audience, publishers must now acknowledge that the “speculators” who provided years of good-to-spectacular sales have awakened to realize that the comics they’ve acquired will not make them independently wealthy and have abandoned the field, leaving a tiny audience of “fans” to support all comics publications in America. This group, numbering roughly a quarter of a million (after losing perhaps 50,000 in recent years) and made up almost exclusively of young adult males is responsible, through some buying of multiple copies, for sales of the current best-selling U.S. comic book, a publication that gets 250,000 copies of each issue into the hands of buyers. The more discerning of them contribute to the sales of lesser publications whose circulations are well below the 10,000 copy level. The majority of readers follow certain books and contribute to the 40,000-60,000 copies sold of the “mid-level” comic books produced by the major, comic book companies in the United States at the end of the twentieth century. Sales that would have been seen as embarrassingly low in the recent past are now acceptable to the comics companies who rely more for their profitability on licensing of the comics characters they control for use in TV, movies, video games, toys, and consumer products. Often, the actual comics publications are kept going despite being unprofitable or only marginally profitable because of the fear that the loss of the comic book would mean the end of the lucrative licensing possibilities. The fact that the purchasers of a licensed product often greatly outnumber the readership of the comic book that provided the impetus for that product points out the false logic in this assumption. Consumers often buy a licensed product based on their fond memories of the character and not because of any recent involvement with that character. If there is any recent involvement, it has more to do with a movie or TV show, the audience for which outnumbers the current readership of the licensed character’s comic book by several million.
Between 1946 and the current time, the weekly audience for theatrical motion pictures has shrunk to 20 per cent of its post-war high. However, because each film is resurrected on video tape and disc, on cable, network, and syndicated television, and in equally diverse elements of various foreign markets, the real audience and the monetary possibilities have actually grown. This success story has not been repeated with the American comic book. Over 60 years after its creation, the comic book is no longer a part of the mass media. Its sales are at a ridiculously low level, its readership is almost non-existent, and its producers continue to print books only because they hope to ultimately share in the bounty provided by the sales of the rights to their characters to those who make movies and toys.
Part Three: What Can Be Done
In order for the comics form to succeed and to thrive well into the next century, it is imperative, that material that consumers would truly want to buy be delivered to those consumers by distributors and retailers who have the proper financial motivation. Editorial and marketing departments must acknowledge reality and start to offer material that is easily accessible to a large, general audience. Distributors and retailers should never again be sent “into the trenches” with something as impossible to sell as the currently-produced 32-page pamphlets with a $2 (or higher) cover price. The futile practice of selling comic books primarily through the comics specialty shops remaining after a recent series of closings must be seen as a place to sell only to the hard-core fans and to offer experimental material that may not work within the larger newsstand distribution system. To see how tiny, useless, and unable to do more than scratch the surface of potential comics sales these comics shops truly are, one need only understand that there are over 78,000 elementary schools and 20,000 high schools in the United States, a number that dwarfs that of the currently-existing comics shops by, conservatively, 20-to-one. These direct-sales outlets are, in truth, reaching almost no one and offering no hope of any growth in readership of comics material. Their uses as outlets to the general public are extremely limited and their future possibilities are almost non-existent.
Of most importance is the fact that certain timeless truths must be discerned both in the creation and distribution of comic books. The things that interest, the general public really, change very little over time with true success found in those things that do not rely on what is topical or “trendy” but, instead, look constantly toward the future and manage to appear fresh and new to succeeding generations. In the area of distribution, care must be taken to not fall victim to the belief that there are certain economic cycles that constantly bring good and bad times to the business. The world we live in is far different, economically and technologically, from that of the World War II era, the 1960s, or the comics shop/speculator days. The possibilities inherent in the’ distribution of comics material by way of computers offer some hope for the not-too-distant future but very little solace for those seeking to produce profitable material today. And, while the comics shops offered a respite from the treacherous newsstand distribution, the safety of that nearly two decades-old system must not dissuade publishers from creating something in comics form that would sell to the much larger newsstand audience, for to hold on tightly, to this failed system is to ensure the ultimate death of comic books in the U.S.
In the end, it all comes down to-a choice between the creation of worthwhile comics material sold at a price that, while not unreasonable to the consumer, provides an economic motivation to the distributor and retailer… of the total loss of a unique and wondrous form of entertainment and communication.
I wrote “The Comic Book” Crisis” after discovering that my compatriots in the comic book business were the victims of incredible ignorance concerning the nuts and bolts of the way in which we made our respective livings. I hoped that knowledge would give them power and, with it, the impetus to be bold in making the needed changes that must take place in order to lift a faltering form of story-telling to its merited level of importance. A few years down the road, my single most surprising discovery is the inability of a lot of those same people to face reality. Even after acknowledging the low sales, the impotence of the comics shop system, and the lack of profitability on the part of individual comic book companies, they attempt to put a happy spin on the situation by pointing to the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Indeed, this Vietnam-era manner of excusing bumbling mistakes of the past, doing nothing about current problems, and pretending that the future is bright with promise seems to permeate the thinking of many who toil in this vanishing medium.
For there to be a true light at the end of our particular tunnel, multiple thousands of people who have never shown any inclination toward reading comic books must suddenly decide to begin purchasing large numbers of such publications and must continue to do so for a long time to come. In truth, there is no indication of the imminent arrival of such a miracle and very little is being done to present the comics form as something pf worth and importance to the lives of real human beings.
For over 25 years I’ve made a comfortable living from comics, and I’d like that comfort to continue until the day I pitch forward onto my drawing board and catch one last breath of inky air. Chances of my checking out and leaving a strong, vital comics medium to entertain (and even inform) huge audiences seem pretty slim, though, but I don’t ever want to feel that comics headed south because I didn’t try to rally those people in positions of authority to get off their rear ends and actually do something.
Likewise, I don’t want to be blamed for presenting reality live and in color to those people who-cling to the imagined glow of that ‘light at the end of the tunnel. There has always been a strange need on the part of people who’ve been awakened from a deep and comforting sleep to bash in the head of the guy who woke them. I don’t believe that’ll happen in this case I’m merely telling people things that they didn’t know, reminding them of what they’ve always been aware of, and challenging them” to find some answers to a riddle that must be solved if we are to move forward together.
The worst possible thing would be for my little booklet to have no effect at all. It’s entirely possible that, “them’s the conditions that prevails.” One of my heroes, a man who had already put in years of noble endeavor in the comics field by the time I got around to being born, recently assured me that comic books would be gone by the turn of the century. If he’s right, then my “Comic Book Crisis” amounts to little more than the imparting of a cold and analytical explanation of the ramifications of being caught in the midst of an exploding volcano to the victims of such a catastrophe.
Another friend who left comics several years ago looks with scorn on his former employers whom he now considers to be complete fools. He was originally of the opinion that my booklet would merely hasten the inevitable time when some gung-ho corporate vice-president will look askance at several floors of an office building filled with people putting out little pamphlets that don’t sell and who will then replace all that with two guys. One company-owned fellow will, each month, put together a couple of reprint books culled from a huge inventory of published material; the other will spend all of-his days on the phone making licensing deals to put the company’s characters’ images on socks and lunch boxes and will, in his spare time, attempt to sell those collections of reprints to the relative handful of merchants dumb enough to buy them. If my friend is right, we can all gather up our gloves and bats and go home.
A third friend, also no longer connected with what is laughably considered the “major” comics publishers, dared to write a short letter to the New York Daily News. The letter concerned what had already been touted… and taunted… in several mass-market publications as yet another clumsy and ill-considered attempt to raise the sales of a comic book. My friend lamented this fact in his letter, commented on the “dismal sales” of comics in the USA of 1997, and expressed apprehension for the future of the medium. I know for a fact that this person has a deep love for the comics form and wants to see it grow and prosper, yet his letter was viewed with hitter outrage by various representatives of the comics publishing company in question, some of whom even denied his right to post such a missive and castigated him for not being a “team player,” though he had been forced off the “team” over a year earlier. In all this, there were echoes-of another mindless Vietnam-era chant: “America.*Love it or leave it.” This man is right in his estimation of comics’ sad situation and those who question his veracity should be ashamed of themselves.
Being right, of course, will get you a cup of coffee only if you toss in a dollar or two. I take no great satisfaction from having been correct in my decades-old warnings about the future of comics, whether they were issued privately to friends and business, acquaintances or publicly (as in issue #100 of The Comics Journal). It was always obvious to me that you didn’t have to be Albert Einstein to comprehend the ultimate results of painting oneself into an-inescapable comer by creating material that is of interest to only a tiny fragment of the potential audience and then attempting to distribute that worthless stuff by way of a marketing system that couldn’t even reach all those who would accept such drivel.
So what has happened… good and bad… to comics since “The Comic Book Crisis?” Quite a lot, really. And since I stand firmly by my assertion that the only way out of the dark forest is to offer worthwhile material in a form and at a price that will please buyers and readers as well as distributors and retailers, let’s look at things from the standpoint of those who must originate the needed changes.
EDITORIAL AND PRODUCTION
Those publications that make use of the comics form as their predominate editorial content continued to reach a general audience on a level beyond most regularly-published, comic books. “The big news is that Disney Adventures, Mad, Cracked, Heavy Metal, and the Archie comics digests were joined in the real world by DCs 100% True and Dark Horse’s Barry Windsor- Smith: Storyteller. The DC magazine, with 64 black-and white pages and a cover price of $3.50, is filled with material gulled from their bookstore-oriented “Big Book” series. It’s a great read for anyone wanting to get their money’s worth from a plethora of–humorous and intriguing comics features done in a variety of art styles by numerous artists. Designed to “piggy back” on the shoulders of Mad, the DC publication seems to have begun as a way to cover corporate rears. Instead, through no great initiative of their own, the suits’ intended whine of, “Well, we tried it and it didn’t work; better just keep selling costumed pinheads to the direct market” may be replaced by’ the realization that the book is selling well enough to a general audience to warrant putting some real money and time into its continuation.
The same cannot be said of the beautifully produced, oversized Dark Horse magazine. At 32 color pages, the higher-priced Storyteller asks more of its buyers while delivering less than DC’s product. The three visually indistinguishable continued stories that make up each issue merely prolong the nearly two-decades-old comic book tradition of being incomprehensible to the occasional reader. While anybody can pick up 100% True at any point and instantly understand it, those who stumble on the Storyteller after the first issue will always feel cheated. Barry Windsor-Smith’s book will probably do better through direct sales than DC’s, though the-stupid resistance to anything not in the “traditional” comics form will certainly dampen its possibilities. Between its limited newsstand distribution and the eccentricities of the comics shops, the book will have a hard time covering its production costs. With all their faults, these two publications still represent a tiny step in the right direction. Perhaps the future will bring a book that makes use of a couple of universally-known comics characters in well-conceived, beautifully-colored short comics stories that act as bookends to a series of features printed in black-and-white, two color, and four-color on various types of paper that accommodate the individuality of the artwork. Aimed at an audience of real human beings, handled correctly on an editorial level, and offering profitability to both distributor and retailer, something like that just might sell.
Two other publications are worth mentioning, though they both retain a definite degree of mystery surrounding their actual effect on both the newsstand and the direct markets. The X-Files Digest and the various Penthouse Comix magazines both made appearances in venues far afield of the places where you’d find most comic books. I suspect that the -digest-sized X-Files did okay, though it’s questionable whether it was any more successful than its good-selling (by today’s standards) traditional 32-page monthly companion publication. Some earnest design work on the incorporation of the reprinted material that made up the latter half of the digest may have made things better. One sad truth is the fact that both X-Files and Dark Horse’s Star Wars depend heavily on thriving, already-existing properties from other media for their own successes as comic books. Information about Penthouse Comix is hard to come by, though anecdotal evidence suggests that its sales do not portend the second coming of comics as king of the newsstand.
Toss into this mix the various “graphic novels” that seem to have made a niche on the shelves of chain bookstores and you have the few public cations that found their way into the, real world since the time I began work on “The Comic Book Crisis.” Those “traditional” comics that appeared on newsstands and shared wall space with the” much more extensive direct-sales-only books in the remaining comics shops are worth mentioning only for their faults, ongoing errors that must be corrected if the people who produce them are ever to turn their attentions to reality and find any kind of success.
Editors en masse have failed to ever learn that most people are incapable of turning out, on a monthly schedule, the 22-24 pages of what passes for a comic book. Instead of solving this problem by creating a second (or even a third) feature within the individual publication (and, in doing so, coming up with a place to use out-of-work, talent while simultaneously-diversifying the material and giving themselves another time “at bat” with the few potential readers they have left), they continue to bore people to death with the same old stuff while making certain that the dull results will eventually show up late. A few things like the Batman Black-and-White issues and the Batman Chronicles indicate what can be done when the individual humanity of artists is recognized. If sales of these books are no better than the same-old-same-old stuff that surrounds them in comics-shops, it is less a repudiation of diversity, individuality, and uniqueness (collectively derided as “anthologies”) than ibis the logical outcome of trying to reach an audience by way of a useless distribution system.
The “Marvel method” of creating comics, a useful tool in the hands of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and a handful of others, proved to be too much to deal with for most creative teams. Unstructured and without the “flow” necessary to the comics form, it fell apart when creators of lesser ability failed to bring the necessary seamless quality to the overall project. What resulted was a clunky, disjointed effort in which plot, dialogue, pencilling, inking, lettering, and coloring never achieved the unity necessary for good comics material. Editors, not wishing to place any “unnecessary restraints” on the creative vision of their people, continued to allow this silly practice and never saw the whole thing as the artistic equivalent of standing idly by and allowing a group of blind people to fall down an open manhole. Saddest of all, it pretended to be an artistically liberating experience for all concerned while actually being the exact opposite. Its ultimate repudiation of human individuality also made inevitable still more missed deadlines and late-shipped books.
The coloring in comic books, so very primitive less than ten years ago, has made a giant leap into the future only to fall victim to its own technicians. They tossed a bright yellow, overrendered banana peel in its path and caused it to slip and slide over countless comic pages, turning those drawings into a brownish-gray mess. It’s difficult to tote up the number of artists and editors from whom I’ve heard complaints about the truly lousy coloring found in most comic books. They seem unable to defend their stuff against the people who make use of a wonderful tool to do things not because they should do them, but because they can do them. One low-level person even whispered his trepidations during a phone conversation because he didn’t want others in the office to realize that he’d discovered the truth… the Emperor, though splashed with color and rendered with shadows, modeling, and highlights, was really just a naked guy.
It pains me to even think about the covers of comic books and what little information they actually impart to a potential buyer. The lack of communication with readers that is displayed by these dismal examples of conformity to a dull, gray, grim ideal says a lot about the total absence of imagination on the part of those who have produced the covers. Even if these books had the finest possible distribution-and were found in every store in the world, who would give them a second glance? Though I don’t really want to haul the ugliness of it out and ponder it too much, one facet of editorial blundering should be made public, if only because of the mean-spirited and callous cruelty often associated with it. There is a definite and none-too-subtle editorial refusal to work with some creators because those people have passed beyond an unspecified number of birthdays and are considered too “unhip” to be doing such important work as conjuring up comic books. Certainly, factions among comics creators have always searched aimlessly for the unattainable and ever-changing “hipness” while ignoring the much more creatively and financially rewarding results of tapping into the eternal and universal. In the past, their various searchings have sometimes brought forth unintentionally humorous and even charming evocations of an era; today, their often bizarre ideas of what the readers “want” are joined with the, dismissal of anyone with a touch of gray hair. While editors should certainly be able to choose their own group of co-workers, the idea that older creators should be jettisoned is as ridiculous as the assumption that no young person could possibly create anything of substance. Both the young and old Orson Welles could probably have told us plenty about the stupidity of those opposing views.
There are a number of dedicated people who work as staffers and freelancers in creating comic books. I hope that a few of them will break away from the herd and do things that are interesting enough to be noticed by an audience of real human beings. A few nights ago, I watched Michael Eisner talk about his early days at Paramount Pictures. After losing their shirts on several dud movies, Eisner and his pals “looked around and decided to do what no one else was doing.” They found an audience for their stuff and started making money. There’s a lesson there that can be applied to comic books.
It should certainly be noted that what I see as the future of comics does not mean that one company could successfully produce a “line” of such material. At most, perhaps two monthly publications (equal in page numbers to eight or ten current comic books) could be successfully offered to a 90% newsstand/10% direct audience. Adding a couple of special issues would bring the yearly total up to between 104 and 130 current comics. This would certainly bring the number of staff people and freelancers heeded to produce the books down from current levels, but not to the degree that a near-complete collapse of comics would produce…
The low sales figures that I highlighted in “The Comic Book Crisis” now seem like a comic book publisher’s idea of heaven. Every time I find out the circulation of any current comic (not an easy thing to do, given the secrecy often surrounding such information), those numbers are almost always lower than I would have-imagined. At about the time of the cancellation of the original, run of Marvel’s X-Men, that company’s policy seemed to be to cut any book that fell below 200,000 in sales; if that same rule were in effect today, most regularly-published “traditional” 32-page comicbooks in the United States would cease to exist. Comic book sales, through traditional newsstands are nearing non-existence while the direct distribution system-has become so very conservative in its ordering that the majority of comics publications could rightly- be considered, to be “fanzines.” A number of these books are either independently published, by creators themselves or done through the auspices of a small company.
Though often superior in content to what is being offered by the “mainstream” publishers (or, more appropriately, the “trickle of water that dries up in the desert” ones); these mostly black-and-white books rarely sell more than 3,000 copies. At that level, an independent creator can break even or make a small amount. For any “big “company with its high overhead to manage the same thing with full color books calls for sales of nearly ten times that number. The comics shops, often independent of one another, all seem to be writing off any possibilities of attracting new customers. Instead, they are attempting, through various machinations, to get their regulars to provide for them a list of the books that these customers want on a steady basis. This makes the ordering much easier for the store owners, since they then adhere to their customer’s lists and buy only the books that they know will sell. This practice has hit new books particularly hard. Some recently-begun, regularly-published comics have had initial sales of around 30,000 which then dropped to the money-losing level of less than half of that by the time the fourth issue rolled around.
During a talk with a representative of one of the larger comics publishers, I was subjected to a long tirade against the comics shop owners. The person I was speaking with felt that there had been a lack of effort in making use of the company’s offer to share the advertising and promotional costs involved in, obtaining new customers. He proposed a deal made between the company, the store, and a local theater wherein “kids” “who attend an upcoming release of a. comics-related movie would bring their ticket stubs into the shop and exchange them for free comic books. The “kids” would then, of course, take up comic reading (and buying) as an activity second in importance in their lives only to breathing. I began thinking of the flurry of activity surrounding various people’s acquisitions of “The Death of Super-man.” Somehow, most of those greedy characters who made an appearance at a comics shop and picked up their “valuable collector’s item” failed to become devoted customers of those stores. They also never bought another comic book.
The fellow further proposed that any comics shop located near a college or high school should advertise in that institution’s newspaper; It sounded like a reasonable and even inexpensive way to get the word out. I’d even been a part of such a project years earlier during my tenure at Heavy Metal. Still, there’s a million-mile divide between letting the uninitiated in on the news about what they might consider to be an art magazine and filling them in on the fact that they can find comic books just three blocks off campus. It’s one of the unfair realities of life that the comics form must be introduced to people at a rather early age. The older you are, the harder it is to get you interested in comics. People at or above high school level who encounter the Silver Surfer for the first time see only a ludicrous clown where their more acclimated peers see a hero. Those attempting to advertise their super-heroic-wares in a high school or college paper would be noticed only by the already-initiated.
Similarly, a recently-begun 1-800 ‘number designed to let potential readers know where they can find comics reaches few of the uninitiated. In order to find the number, you have to see it in a comicbook or in an ad for a comics store. If you’ve seen the number, you know where to find comics. If you haven’t seen the number, you don’t know about comics and you probably don’t care. Just for the heck of it, a friend of mine (who knows about comics and where they can be found) called the number and was given the locations of three’ “local” shops. One was 14 miles distant. He visited all three and found out that they had-little current material to offer to anyone who hadn’t given them a list of monthly wants, but that they did have lots of relatively recent books at 50 cents each or three for a dollar.
My knowledgeable friend wondered how much of a collector he would’ve become if he’d had to operate under, such conditions when he has 10- or 12- or 18-years old. That 28-mile round trip to the most distant comics outlet would’ve worn down his Schwinn and his parents would’ve had a couple of hemorrhages each when he told them how much money he’d spent. The guy makes a six-figure income, but his wife would’ve killed him if he’d bought the same number of comics that he’d purchased during the days of 12-cent funny books. Still, he did pick up a few things at three for a buck.
It’s hard to know what to tell a comics shop owner when he informs me that he’s afraid to order even one book that won’t sell. Does he then put it in the back issues bin and jack up the price another quarter or does he toss it in 50-cent pile and take the loss? I always urge shop owners to really be up on the material they’re selling and to be able to guide their customers in making purchases of worthwhile comics material. Offering such advice takes me back to the time when worked in a bookstore and had to place several reorders for National Lampoon’s High School Yearbook Parody because my advocacy of its zany wonders caused a demand for it from our customers. But when applied to the number of comics publications currently available, I know that I’m suggesting the impossible. I have a hard time getting through the relative handful of stuff that friends send to me for comment or that I’ve picked out of a pile of complimentary copies or that I’ve actually bought with the intention of reading. Can I really expect anyone to keep up with the hundreds of comics publications extant and run a business and lead some kind of normal life?
So I tell them to diversify. Sell other things. Related things. Sell hobby supplies and toys and paperback books. Sell-coins and baseball cards. Sell records and CDs and T-shirts. Some of them do this and are able to make a go of it, but the comics (the reason a lot of them opened a shop in the first place) then become a minor part of the whole enterprise and sometimes the incredible stupidity of dealing-with the comics-related problems causes them to stop selling those things that they once loved. A friend in Maine told me that this had happened to his local comics outlet. One day the people who ran the place got tired of messing with the comics distributors” demands and turned their energies to other things. Now he has to spend two hours driving to the nearest comics shop and he’s not sure how long he’s going to be making that four-hour round trip because he doesn’t even get to read his comics in the back seat, losing himself in the varied adventures of superheroes and detectives and ‘talking ducks and pretty teenaged girls with goofy boyfriends while his parents chat amiably-during the long drive home. He’s- the adult now and ‘the comics, supposedly created just for him: simply aren’t fun anymore. That might be a part of the “secret” of any future that the comic book form might have. Make them economically worthwhile for the distributor, the retailer, and the purchaser. Put them in as many outlets as-possible; they should be easy to find in any community. Don’t “dumb them down,” but make them as accessible and as attractive to casual readers as any novel or movie or TV show should be. Promote the comic form’s individuality by acknowledging that of its creators. And, perhaps most, important of all, make comics fun.
John Workman’s 25-year career in the comics industry includes stints at DC Comics and editor of Heavy Metal magazine.
By John Workman
There’s a great story about the writer Paddy Chayefsky. He was visiting Poland a few years ago and was speaking before a group of young writers. The moderator of the talk introduced Chayefsky as an American author of Polish descent whose works reached millions of people. During an informal question-and-answer session after Chayefsky’s speech, a young playwright approached the older man and said, “Tell me, why are you so impressed by large numbers? If I write a play and 40 people see it, I’m pleased.” Putting his arm around the younger man in a grandfatherly manner, Chayefsky smiled and said, “Tell me, why are you so impressed by small numbers?” A lot of what Chayefsky told that young creator by way of his simple question can be applied to both art and business. No author ever took the time to write a story or paint a picture or compose a piece of music with the intent of hiding that work away in some closet. The true reason for the creation of art is to communicate, to shout to the world about the thing that you’ve discovered existing within yourself, and to boldly offer this miraculous piece of personal reality to all who will accept it. No artist wants to wind up standing in a corner, mumbling to himself. Likewise, no businessman wants to be located away from his potential customers. He wants… and needs… to be where the people are and to know that they are aware of two truths: that he exists and that he has something that can be of importance to their lives. If the businessman hides himself and his goods away from the people, both he and those people lose. The combination of art and business that we know as comic books has, for far too long, been hiding away from the, people and mumbling incoherently to itself. That this silly situation is perfectly all right with a couple of people who have commented on my “Comic Book Crisis” booklet is inconceivable to me, though that seems to be the case with Brian Hibbs and, to a lesser degree, my old friend Batton Lash. Certainly, there are areas of contention between my beliefs and those of the others represented in this little group of essays, but we are really so close in our appreciation of the comic book form and our hopes for its future that to make any comment on, the rather picayune differences we have would only serve to bore the reader. Indeed, I find myself so in agreement with Kurt Busiek’s comments that I would urge any reader who has doubts about the advisability of slogging through all this material to save some time by perusing only Kurt’s piece. It covers everything from both the business and creative ends, is completely correct, and has the benefit of being both well-written and highly entertaining. My “Comic Book Crisis,” on the other hand, was never meant to be entertaining. It was simply an answer to some of the ridiculous statements that I’ve heard during the past couple of decades, including such knee-slappers as “Comics don’t sell because there aren’t as many kids as there used to be” and “Comic books are selling better right now than at any other time in their history.” To my list of totally incorrect declarations, I’d have to add Brian Hibb’s observation that “The direct market understands the product, has the resources to separate the wheat from the chaff, and has a sophisticated way of getting the product to market that is hard to beat.” Any truth found in this exists only for those who are, content to, on a business level, stand in the corner and mumble quietly to themselves. In sticking with direct sales as the primary provider of comic book material, Mr. Hibbs and those others who feel as he does are turning their collective backs on a huge potential audience that just might embrace the comic book form if they could just get a look at it. Later in his essay, Brian opines that within five years, there could be 5000 of what he refers to as “good comic shops.” Let’s be incredibly optimistic and say that by the time those years have passed, there are 10,000 such shops in the U.S., all of them “good.” Big deal. Spread those 10,000 comic shops out among the 100,000-plus communities in this country and you still have the undeniable fact that most people will have to do some real traveling in order to find comic books. Don’t tell me about 5000 comics shops catering to a clientele, of “fans.” Let me know about 100,000 outlets for comics material, and I’ll begin to be moderately impressed. That number could at least begin to reach a few potential comic book buyers. Of course, if purveyors of magazines lose their minds and start stocking their shelves with what currently passes for comic books, they’ll also lose their shirts since they’ll find few buyers for such obtuse drivel. Brian even acknowledges this himself when he refers’ to non-fans as “civilians,” takes a kind of proprietary delight in offering material that is aimed at such a tiny audience, and dismisses “worthwhile material in venues other than comic shops” by saying, “We have that. And they don’t sell well in those other venues.” That last bit is going to surprise the publishers of Mad, Disney Adventures, Cracked, the Archie digests, and Heavy Metal (to say nothing of those who’ve produced Garfield, Peanuts, Dilbert, and Calvin and Hobbes collections). Though the magazines listed are not currently setting the world on fire, each of those publications reaches a much larger audience than any American comic book. The books noted have, of course, found a readership and a number of buyers” that comics shops can only dream about. The important thing to note about all these publications is the fact that they’ve achieved their successes outside of the direct market. So what’s to be done? A couple of friends recently asked me what I would do if I were in charge of a comic book company. After chuckling over the idea of my charting a course for Marvel or overseeing DC (though the latter event came uncomfortably close to happening in the early 1980s), I told them that my initial efforts would involve stabilizing the only real market these companies have left… the fans who keep the comic shops alive. Years ago, at the urging of a corporate vice president, I had written a paper concerning the need to reach a large general audience with comics material while doing nothing to mess up the fan audience that would soon become the only buyers of the much too “fan oriented” publications of American comicbook companies. Referring to the direct market, I told the fellow that this was a “boat that must not be rocked.” In the intervening years, that poor boat has had holes blown in its bottom and its been run-aground. The faithful fans have had to put up with being relegated to a secondary position while companies catered to greedy speculators. They’ve since been led around by their noses and forced to go from book-to-book in order to follow a bloated, overblown “event” that runs through a series of comics. This transparent attempt to force the remaining readers to buy books that they might ordinarily leave on the shelf has caused many of those reader to, instead, leave the whole silly mess on the shelf and walk away from collecting and reading new comics. I’d start offering those readers something that they’d like to read. And, since I still believe that the future of comics waits outside the comics shops and the comics conventions (despite the “energy” that Mike Friedrich finds at such doings), I’d begin working on several things that could appeal to that enormous audience. I’d make use of the traditional newsstands. I’d tailor comics material to bookstores and “piggy-back” comics material in these sometimes odd formats on nonrelated products through already-existing distribution systems. I’d re-introduce comics to an audience that doesn’t even know it’s been waiting to read and enjoy them. As Steve Geppi correctly pointed out, the “adversary” relationship between newsstand and comics shops is totally without reason or merit. Some comics material can successfully be offered through both venues. In this hypothetical comic book company that I’d be running, I would treat the direct books as the “farm club” and use them as a way of developing talent and properties that could successfully appeal to the much larger general audience. At the risk of running my earlier references to the Vietnam era into the ground, I’d have to say that Lyndon Johnson was right when, borrowing from an ancient source, he said,” Come, let us reason together.” All of us who love comics (and that includes each of the people who commented on “The Comic Book Crisis”) can work together in presenting this unique form of expression to a whole lot more people than are currently aware of it. Let’s just hope we have better luck than poor ol’ LBJ.
A COMIC BOOK TIMELINE INDICATING SALES AND READERSHIP
Earliest comics reprinting newspaper strips. Cover price of 10 cents for 64 pages.
Debuts of Superman and other popular characters. Radio, movies, toys license comics heroes.
Boom period during TV when comics had a huge captive audience. Publishers often see entire run sell out. Page count at 48 or 32
Superheroes replaced crime, horror book, leading to self-censorship of Comics Code. Numerous comics versions of TV shows appear. Superman syndicated TV show aids in sales of Comics. Several companies close.
Downturn in sales offset by return superheroes. Price rises to 12 cents for 32 pages. More companies go out of business.
Spider-Man and other Marvel Comics characters appear. Dormant licensing of characters for toys and games gets new life. Fan interest in comics is noted by publishers and media
Batman TV series creates sensational sales for all comics. New companies publish but close when fad ends. DC Comics bought by company that will become Warner Communications. Cover price reaches 15 cents.
Marvel Comics is bought by conglomerate, becomes best-selling line. Dropping sales drive ACG, Gold Key out of business. Atlas fails after publishing for less than a year. Movies and TV versions of comics have no effect on sales. Cover price continues to rise.
Direct sales to comic shops cuts waste, makes smaller print runs profitable. Most comics bypass newsstands completely. Licensing is source of companies’ profits until “speculator* boom inflates sales thanks to those who buy comics with future value as collectibles in mind. Cover price hits $1.
Several books hyped as collectibles sell in the millions. New companies begin publishing, hoping to enjoy huge sales and join others in licensing new characters to TV, movies, toys. Batman movie has a positive effect on Batman books. Speculators find no real market for their “rare collectors’ items” and abandon the field.
The number of comics stores drops from a pitiful 7,000 on a national level to roughly half that total. Sales take a tumble. Many companies make their profits from product licensing with the comics either losing money or making only a token amount. Even books optioned for movies “temporarily” suspend publication. Staff people are laid off-arid freelancers are out of work. Price range from $1.50 to $2.95 for 32 pages.
AVERAGE PER ISSUE
This figure denotes only the direct sales and is taken from the distributor’s list for October, 1995. Newsstand sales would make the total higher. A rough estimate of those sales can be made from noting that in 1989, newsstand sales of individual issues of Superman amounted to only 40,000 copies. In 1993, DC Comics’ newsstand sales dropped by 34% and Marvel Comics lost 43%.
With the exceptions, of those most recent sales indicated for Batman, Showcase, and Swamp Thing, all figures are taken from Federally required yearly Statement of Ownership for publications that offer non-first-class mailing of subscriber’s copies. Several years ago, DC Comics changed their’ subscription mailings to first class. They no longer are required to print yearly accountings of their sales
Click here for Kurt Busiek’s reply that John Workman mentioned. Kurt’s reply is well worth reading on it’s own merits, so check it out!