Fact: Comics are a marginalized medium in our society.
Now, before you dash to your coffee-table stack of ‘Savage Dragon’ to prove me wrong, keep in mind you may not be representative of the rest of society. Believe it or not, there are people out there who don’t give a hoot over steroidal, midget-legged, jaw-clenching, head-finned compensations for masculinity.
Just think - how often do you see television ads for upcoming gaming platforms, or movie actors interviewed on talk shows? How many newspapers have regular sections devoted to reviewing new novels and literature? When was the last time you saw a trailer for a new film? Unless you live like Osama Bin Laden (or a devoted ‘Green Lantern’ fan), all this stuff is commonplace.
Now, compare the constant publicity of films, books, and TV shows with the mainstream attention paid to comics. (And remember, Wizard magazine is only considered mainstream by it’s editors and the staff of Marvel.)
Quite the contrast, isn’t there? Comics and graphic novels today are the invisible shunned runt of the entertainment industry. Kind of like Ron Paul in the ‘08 elections. The only time comics are noticed is when smarmy Hollywood executives, paid to think up ideas, need to find some. Sequential art wasn’t always the underdog in culture, however.
Once upon a time, comics were overwhelmingly prevalent in the U.S. In fact, they were so wildly popular, that Congress took it upon themselves to consider laws censoring their content and restricting distribution (If Congress is trying to abolish it, you know it’s something popular like alcohol or the Constitution.) The sensational spread of comics was so feared and resisted by the establishment of the day, that public book burnings were organized across the nation. Long story short, comics were everywhere, the emerging generation was charmed with the stories being told. Icons were born - Batman, Superman, Captain America - icons that were recognizable before debuting in TV or film.
That prevalence is gone, G-O-N-E.
Now, I know what you’re saying… ‘Dave, you must be mistaken - I read in WIZARD that Marvel is SOLD OUT of their latest printing of blah-muscle-breast! They’re selling out of their books, they’re so popular! You must be out of touch Mr. Dave, because readers are clearly going crazy buying up comics if they’re selling out!’
First off, why is your voice so high pitched? Have you ever heard a recording of yourself? And second off, well, I hate to burst your bubble, but Marvel is a big fan of this little thing I like to call… What is it? You know, it piles up, and - oh, that’s it! Bullshit.
In the 1970’s, a monthly edition of a typical Marvel comic would sell many hundreds of thousands of copies, no sweat - millions if it were popular. These days, a comic is considered extraordinarily, exceptionally popular if it sells close to 30,000 copies. 30,000. That means pedophiles outnumber our current mainstream comic audience by, like... Well, I didn't even know there were that many kids in the United States.
Then how does Marvel magically sell out of its oh-so-demanded issues, you might ask? Well, there’s been a lot of selling-out going on, but not the kind you’re thinking of.
Have you ever heard of Diamond Distributing? No? Basically, they have a complete monopoly on the comic distribution industry. (Jealous yet?) They pre-sell retailers on all their comics, and the publishers tailor their print runs to fulfill only what’s been ordered. When you only print off enough books to fill your orders, it’s pretty easy to sell out. And even easier to fabricate false publicity from it, in the desperate hope of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Well, the tactic doesn’t seem to be working so far. Even though graphic novel sales are slowly rising, the plummeting monthly comic issue sales are dragging the entire industry’s numbers down. The downturn isn’t just some abstract idea on paper - since the mid 1990’s over half of the comic shops in the nation have closed their doors, and all but one distributor has crashed spectacularly into bankruptcy.
“Finally being able to glance at the 'actual sales' of the direct market has turned the low speed train wreck of the previous figures, which only calculated pre-orders, into a high speed one.” - Brandon Thomas
In fact, the mega-comic publishers like Marvel, DC, Image, and Dark Horse are surviving exclusively by licensing out their ‘properties’ (That‘s what they call their ‘characters‘) - hawking off deals like a peddler in a fish market. Merchandising rights, movie rights, Halloween costume rights, undergarment decoration rights, dishware rights - selling off ANYTHING, namely, except for their books. If these companies had to support themselves on their actual book sales, they’d implode faster than the Soviet Union during the 'Popples' era.
This isn’t just generalization - let me hit you with some numbers: In 1991, 86% of Marvel’s revenue was from publishing (i.e., selling books.) Just 5 years later in ‘96, publishing only brought in 15% of it’s revenue. Obviously, something besides making quality books was taking precedence for the industry bigwigs. (McAllister, 2001)
“…Because the fact is, month on month, comics sell less. There is no comics sales graph that goes up -- they may start high, they may get boosts along the way, but they trend downwards. Always.” - Alisdair Watson.
Although the ’Big 4’ (Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse) have a stranglehold-death grip on the public perception of comics, nobody actually wants to read their repetitive pulp. Well, except for the 30,000 strong (and dwindling by the day) pack of humans remaining on earth who still possess the mental conditioning necessary to survive the experience.
"The bottom line is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the comics industry as it is being run right now. Numbers have been on the decline, shops are closing up and no one seems to know why.” - J. Hues
So, here’s the Golden Question, the crux of the matter: Why did comics go from the pinnacle of popularity to the cultural dumpster? How did they transform from a cherished house of American heroes into a mildly embarrassing fringe medium? What happened!?
No, before you answer, it wasn’t global warming. Good try though.
My next article will have the answer to that question - as well as a fascinating story of greed, dirty deals, and idiotic corruption.
…And, good try again, but I’m not talking about the IRS. Try to stay on topic with me here.