Tuesday, December 9, 2008

ARTICLE: Comics, the Banished Medium

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.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

the reaseon I thought they were suddenly popular was to do with how in the last year or so many films have been based off of them

Anonymous said...

I agree with just about everything you've said here. I wish comics were as well-known in the mainstream as are movies, books and TV shows.

I think you mentioned the golden age of comics as an example of when comics were widely popular. WWII contributed a lot to that, just as the space race contributed to our landing on the moon. Nowadays, NASA is only a pale shadow of its former self because the Russian competition has evaporated. Something similar can be said for comics. Their demand waxes and wanes with the changing times.

If the Big 4 to refuse to change their mentality, they will fall. Something similar is happening to the US automotive companies right now. Sooner or later, the laws of public demand will either force them to change their ways or destroy them.

As for what caused the downfall of comics... If you ask me, I think the internet was a contributing factor. If you can read thousands of webcomics online for free, why would you walk to a comic book store to buy them, instead? Don't get me wrong, nothing will ever replace a solid graphic novel you can hold in your hands, but I have to admit that the number of comic books I own is vastly overshadowed by the number of webcomics I read on a daily basis.

You raise a lot of great points here! I enjoyed reading your post.

Lis said...

Wow, I never knew the history of comics and have never involved myself to research it. This has opened my eyes a little with American Comics. Thanks for sharing your views. ^_^

Anonymous said...

One, out of many reasons, why comic sales are down these days is because the audience is changing. Back in those WW2 days, kids liked the comics. The characters were the icons kids wanted to be in those days. They weren't just superheroes running around with fancy capes as we see them today. They were actual heroes that kids wanted to model.

Now, we have kids and even teenagers all following after those silly, cheap icon figures you see everywhere you turn. Yes, everyone knows the Disney stars I'm talking about. I don't even have to mention their names. That's how popular they are. It seems like to get a kid to love a figure these days is just make them pretty, sing a little, and then put their smiling faces on every, single piece of merchandise they can poop out of factories.

Kids today are easily pleased with this method. They don't want to take the time to walk down to a comic store to see and follow the story of their favorite icon in a picture book. For them, that's lame. No. They want to turn on the TV and watch those daily marathons or go to any store and buy their favorite faces in bulk.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that kids and teens don't see comics as they used to. Yes, the TV has a lot to do with that, but I also think the generation is just different and that's probably from TV and the media. Kids and teens have always fallen under peer pressures and the like, but now I see them all conforming to one major blob of obsessiveness over the likes of High School Musical. I think their high standards went down.

The Big 4 I'm sure have already lowered their standards to try and accommodate their loss of comic sales. What big company doesn't? But if they want to appeal to the kid or even teenage crowd of today, they are going to have to lower them even more. But I don't think any of the the writers or artists are willing to do that. If they were willing, we'd see something along the lines of Batman: The Musical.

Jammer said...

I know a fair amount of comic history, but I don't know all these people you're quoting. I would love it if you could list why they're qualified to comment (job title), so I don't have to google them.

I read a LOT of comics during the 90s and have dropped to nil recently, including dropping my favorite title because they killed off my favorite characters. It's pretty sad. Honestly, though they like making everything SRS DRAMA, I don't like it that much. It gets too soap opera-like, and... if I wanted that I'd watch soaps.

Sad to say, but they do need to rethink their marketing. There are lots of people who still like the characters they used to read (looking at my own parents), which is why the movies do fairly well. But obviously the current stories aren't enough to keep or bring them back in to reading the books.

Comics are expensive too. There are various areas that need approaching.

Maoi said...

Yeah, its sad how comic sales have been declining so much. Only manga graphic novels seem to do any kind of sales anymore. I wish comics were not so looked down upon here. In Japan, comics are for everyone. I used to work in a comicbook store and our sales dwindled each year I was there. The thing that upsets me the most about it, is that no other form of art is so disregarded and cheap. I would love to be able to get into the industry, but I doubt I'd be able to pay any bills if I did.

Caroo said...

From my point of view. Working in another entertainment industry that’s going through it’s days of money making glory, videogames. I can suggest a number of things that would have contributed to the comic decline.

· The Internet: The Internet has given us access to a free flow of other people’s art, ideas and entertainment. With this however comes with the fact that it’s all free to view and save onto your computer. It may not have the production standards but most ‘casual’ comic readers aren’t to fussed about that. The free content on the net sates their desire for visual novel entertainment.

· Videogames: The early nities, Thanks to the efforts of the playstation is when video games became someone more then a plaything for nerds. It became serious business. Increased graphic capacity, the introduction to 3D, real audio sound and bigger development budgets have driven us to videogames with storylines and characters that can be as complex as your typical comic book.

There’s also a level of intractability with video games that can’t be matched by comics, movies or books which is it’s core draw.

· Cooperate Evolution: It’s a point to consider that, opposed to the gold and silver age of comics. The year 2008 provides us many ways to keep ourselves entertained. Movies and Videogames are the core benefactors, Followed by toys, followed by board games, followed by comics.

In the 50s a child with an imagination only really had comics to turn to. Toys and games back then where pretty conservative affairs, where as comics are edgy and interesting.

· Over saturation: In Melbourne Australia, A city with a population of about 1.5 million there are about 5 comic book shops. But the biggest one is huge and highlights something to us.

There are hundreds of comics in publication all vying for power, from your batmans to your sexually charged Conan’s it’s interesting to point out that, as opposed to the golden and silver age. There are more different comics then ever. And for anyone who is not a comic buff, finding the one you like is a mindfuck. Simple as that. I can go to the movies or video game retailer and I know from the back blurb on the DVD case what I’m in for. Comics use suspense, suspense is not good for profit. The casual person understands and likes to know what they’re going for.

Tygepc said...

WOW. Thank you. I never knew that about comics and really enjoyed learning about it. I'm sorry to hear of the fall. As always, good luck in your endeavor.

Arras said...

Hey Maoi- I would like to explain a point you made. You're right; unlike the U.S., there are comics everywhere in Japan. But that has a lot to do with a few basic cultural differences.

In Japan, there is a concept known as the "public life" and the "private life." Unlike here in the States, the Japanese expect people to have hobbies such as models, comics, collecting, etc. in their private lives. (They do not usually transfer over to the "public life," which is the domain of such dull things as work)

In the United States, however, many of these types of hobbies are considered geeky, eccentric, or strange, even signs of nonsocial behavior. As such, they are shunned and looked down upon. Comics, for instance, are thought of as something for kids. Many adults who would otherwise like to read comics don't, simply because they don't think it's "acceptable behavior."

Anonymous said...

"Kids today are easily pleased with this method. They don't want to take the time to walk down to a comic store to see and follow the story of their favorite icon in a picture book."

Especially when these days taking the time to walk down to a comics store can mean walking along a 4-lane highway with no sidewalks, if the kid's being raised in a suburban area with no comics stores or other stores near the residential zone Mom and Dad bought a house in.

"In the United States, however, many of these types of hobbies are considered geeky, eccentric, or strange, even signs of nonsocial behavior."

Which leads to people who are nonsocial thinking they're supposed to like comics and science fiction, which leads to this problem:

http://www.plausiblydeniable.com/opinion/gsf.html

"...However, in its pathological form, GSF1 [Geek Social Fallacy #1] prevents its carrier from participating in -- or tolerating -- the exclusion of anyone from anything, be it a party, a comic book store, or a web forum, and no matter how obnoxious, offensive, or aromatic the prospective excludee may be.

"As a result, nearly every geek social group of significant size has at least one member that 80% of the members hate, and the remaining 20% merely tolerate. If GSF1 exists in sufficient concentration -- and it usually does -- it is impossible to expel a person who actively detracts from every social event. GSF1 protocol permits you not to invite someone you don't like to a given event, but if someone spills the beans and our hypothetical Cat Piss Man invites himself, there is no recourse. You must put up with him, or you will be an Evil Ostracizer and might as well go out for the football team.

"This phenomenon has a number of unpleasant consequences. For one thing, it actively hinders the wider acceptance of geek-related activities: I don't know that RPGs and comics would be more popular if there were fewer trolls who smell of cheese hassling the new blood, but I'm sure it couldn't hurt..."

Anonymous said...

I feel that a major reason why comic books are not as popular today as they once were is that people have seemingly developed some kind of aversion to reading (and writing for that matter -- when one must write these days, language is condensed into acronyms and other "short-hand" items).

I have asked adults and children of various ages about their feelings towards reading, and the more docile response is a simple lack of interest, while in some cases the response has been all out contempt (as if reading were some terminal disease to be avoided at all costs). But this is most bizarre to me when such sentiments are expressed by aspiring sequential artists. I know many individuals who create or desire to create "comic books" who only rarely, if ever, actually read them (and most of them don't own more than one -- again, if any).

I suppose this could be just where I have lived (but I move frequently, so that seems unlikely). When it comes to reading, the average person that I encounter will lose interest if the literature is more than a few sentences long.

It actually makes me a little sad. I personally find reading to be very enjoyable. I wonder if hard-copies of any kind of literature will be available 30 years from now. Maybe it will all be outmoded, replaced by digital formats the way decent programming was replaced by "Reality" TV. (I shouldn't get myself started on that topic ... but you'd think that with such lousy television programming that people would be salivating over literature).

I will go now ... I could write on for another three days, haha!

Anonymous said...

I feel that a major reason why comic books are not as popular today as they once were is that people have seemingly developed some kind of aversion to reading (and writing for that matter -- when one must write these days, language is condensed into acronyms and other "short-hand" items).

I have asked adults and children of various ages about their feelings towards reading, and the more docile response is a simple lack of interest, while in some cases the response has been all out contempt (as if reading were some terminal disease to be avoided at all costs). But this is most bizarre to me when such sentiments are expressed by aspiring sequential artists. I know many individuals who create or desire to create "comic books" who only rarely, if ever, actually read them (and most of them don't own more than one -- again, if any).

I suppose this could be just where I have lived (but I move frequently, so that seems unlikely). When it comes to reading, the average person that I encounter will lose interest if the literature is more than a few sentences long.

It actually makes me a little sad. I personally find reading to be very enjoyable. I wonder if hard-copies of any kind of literature will be available 30 years from now. Maybe it will all be outmoded, replaced by digital formats the way decent programming was replaced by "Reality" TV. (I shouldn't get myself started on that topic ... but you'd think that with such lousy television programming that people would be salivating over literature).

I will go now ... I could write on for another three days, haha!

shortshanker said...

Wow I had no idea, and wow Dave you have an OVERLOAD of information haha. This is Shana by btw lol. Very interesting article and I agree with much of what you said! I used to actually want to make comics, but I chose a different route for the time being. Keep chugging away though it could come back in popularity.

Eli said...

There is actuallya high demand for comics..... IN JAPAN! the only thing these damn kids like is this anime crap. don't get me wrong, I like anime. but my point remains, people like anime more these days. wich saddens me when I see a teen reeding about some Japanies "slice of life" anime comic.

I also cant beleive no one has psted a comment in like 2 years.