Monday, January 7, 2013

Industry Year End Thoughts

Last time,  I took a look at what 2012 held for me personally and I got immersed in a couple of conversations about the industry as a whole so I figured I’d take a look and give my impressions of the entire comics market.  Of course, this is just my opinion and comes from my little corner of the comics world and yes, mostly anecdotal. On one hand, I’ve been involved in many aspects of the industry- as a creator, as a publisher, a freelancer, did work for hire, conventions, retailing, VP of a toy company, dealing with licensed properties, etc.  On the other hand, even though I am “part” of the comics industry, there are huge portions of it that I know next to nothing about, i.e. - what goes on in the current releases of Marvel and DC.  

I guess that’s the first point I want to make.  The comics industry is broken up into a lot of small arenas and oftentimes, one group has no awareness of the others.   You have web comics bringing in readers that Marvel would be jealous of yet most people in the “biz” are unaware of them.  You have creators who work on small projects that primarily sell at conventions and they seem to have their own network yet it is far removed from what you might read on the popular new sites.  It’s a very fractured market in terms of product and creators.  There are all these little pods of comic creation that may overlap with some but will often be completely oblivious to others.

I don’t know what the major impacts on the market were this last year.  I know Karen Berger leaving DC (or DC evicting Karen, not sure what the actual story is) was a major event but not sure if it’s more symbolic than actual effect….at this time.  Obviously, her impact in the beginning days of Vertigo was immense and as a retailer and reader, to me, Vertigo epitomized what comics could be.  But I’m not sure of the influence it carried in recent years but it surely does signal the end of an ear.

I do think that one thing the incredible success of movies like Avengers, Spider-Man, and Dark Knight that built on the previous success of X-Men, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, etc have shown is that the comic book hero is attractive to mainstream America.  However, the lack of any kind of dramatic crossover of those fans into reading comics will, I think, cement the idea that people are aware of comics; they just don’t have a strong desire to read them.  I do wonder how much the self indulgent universes of Marvel and DC restrict the entry of new readers.  I’m familiar with the two universes from a long time ago and even though I haven’t read any of them in well over a decade, I at least have a basic idea of the heroes and titles.  But when I’m in a comic shop, I get dazed and even if I wanted to check something out, I wouldn’t even know where to start.  One thing I do know, from keeping at least a fraction of interest in the goings-ons, is that whatever is happening in the titles right now is irrelevant because next year, it will all be different.  Heroes will die, dead heroes will return…revelations of who is who’s father will be revealed and then it will be found out to be a lie…so and so will turn evil and another so and so will turn good, and then in a year or two, it’ll flip flop again.  I think Marvel and DC would’ve been better to just expand their “What IF…” and “Elsewhere” worlds and left a more streamlined canon.

But then again, the word is that comic sales are up and not just over the near extinction of the late 1990’s but sales are heading to the levels prior to the implosion.  That’s in sales, not units…and with cover prices just about doubling from some 20 years ago, plus the heavy reliance on trade paperbacks, it’s safe to say that there are a lot less readers and issues being sold.  But that’s okay as fewer units produced and high sales mean more profits.  Perhaps.  Costs have escalated as well, not only in printing but shipping.

I don’t see a big shift (and I’m not privy nor inclined to investigate deeply- again, this is just an anecdotal observation) of new readers coming in.  I’ve done a number of signings this last year and most of the customers I see are older…in fact, I often come across a number of customers that used to shop at my stores and I left the retailing business around 1999.  Sure, there are some new readers and one store I been to on multiple occasions consists primarily of readers who are under 30 and never really bought comics until the store opened.  But I don’t see that at many stores.

This last year had another renewed call for some kind of organization for creators and whether it’s called a guild, a union, a consortium…whatever, it’s not likely to happen.  It would be like all actors forming a new group that would include everyone from film stars to TV to Broadway to the guy that performs at the local kid’s event…all becoming into one entity.  That’s what comics are in terms of creators; they’re all over the place in terms of what they’re doing and what kind of audience they have.  I get asked often about joining some kind of group or coalition regarding comics and it always comes down to when you have to include some, you also have to exclude others and what determines the criteria?  A creator who produces his creator owned titles has a different reality than a work for hire artist at Marvel or a webcomic creator or a colorist bouncing from one small press comic to another.  I get the idea and can appreciate it but it seems way too much dialogue is given for something that structurally just wouldn’t work.  Perhaps some kind of voluntary group with a small membership fee and strategies for building up methods of health insurance or something (but I guess Obama Care will take care of that).  As for setting some kind rates in the industry, that will never happen.  

A more amusing aspect of the industry was the attack on the fake fans and cosplayers which spiraled out of control in tweets and facebook.  It seemed odd that someone would be against any kind of fan of the industry and one thing the movies have done is to bring in new fans, yes, even ones that don’t read comics.  It reminds me of the “Sports talk” fans that always complain of fickle fans…fans that only support a local team if they’re winning and leave them when the team starts to lose.  Well, those fickle fans buy a lot of tickets and memorabilia and the sports leagues would have a lot of financial difficulty if it wasn’t for them.   How many sports teams are ready to fold or move until a winning season props them back up for a couple of years.  A good example is the Detroit Tigers.  In their record setting season of losses, they had attendance of 1.3 million but last year, as they headed towards the World Series, attendance double to 2.6 million.  I think the “true” sports fans need to recognize the importance of fickle fans and the comics industry should as well.  Being involved in the Detroit Fanfare convention, all those cosplayers buy tickets which help support the convention(and so afford to bring in “real” comic people) and many of them buy original art sketches from the creators.  One thing I’ve noticed is that they will buy from anyone that draws something they like and they don’t really seem to care about the artist’s credentials.  They like the piece, they buy it.  I think that has provided a lot of unpublished artists a great revenue stream.

Creator rights continue to be topical especially with the ongoing lawsuits about who owns what.  I’m always torn on this as I recognize creator rights first and foremost…after all, Caliber Comics was one of the leading companies for creator owned titles during the 90s and after Caliber closed, some 25 titles from Caliber stayed or renewed printing because the creators owned them not Caliber.  Of course, I was also a creator but I am and always was, separate from Caliber.  Yet, I get the idea of “work for hire” and have done it and also contracted for it, so I’ve been on both sides.  Perhaps the problem comes from not being clear cut yet in some of these cases that occur, it does appear everything was spelled out.  If I were to do more work for hire, I would understand that I do not own the characters that I create under payment for someone else.  Obviously, I would try to include some kind of royalty payment on any ancillary revenue on those characters but each situation would be different.  I don’t know what happened in the past so it may not have been so concise on what was the actual structure of those contracts.  With Deadworld, I worked with a number of creators who wanted to do some “creation” within Deadworld and over the years, I avoided any kind of problems by not incorporating those characters into the official canon of Deadworld.  I get asked numerous times from creators who want to write or draw Deadworld and I am now reluctant to do so because I don’t want it to become a problem later.  I may have solid ground contractually but that doesn’t mean some lawyer won’t pull it into a lawsuit.  On the rare occasions that I bring a contributor in on anything I do, the only characters that will be officially part of anything I write will be ones that I create.

It is great to see so many creator owned books having some success in the market.  I am quite surprised though at many fans lack of understanding that even a successful creator owned book is not likely to provide a good income for a creator.  There seems to be a tremendous shift of reality in evaluating sales and how much a creator actually makes to many fans.  This topic has been covered quite a bit recently with some numbers floating around that will hopefully fill in some of those false impressions.  But still, it’s great to see that some creators can at least venture into creator owned territory and sufficient sales to keep doing it even if they have to go back to one of the big companies that pay a page rate to subsidize their income.

Kickstarter has given quite a bit of opportunity for the creator owned comics and some of those campaigns have delivered incredible support.  I worry the bubble will burst, any by worry, I mean before I launch a couple of projects using crowd funding.  There’s a lot of negative rumblings from a lot of creators protesting that too many “big” name creators are sucking up the dollars by launching their campaigns and thereby making it tougher for the lower tiered creators have a shot.  I figure everyone’s entitled to do what they can and so don’t really understand the complaints.  However, I know of a couple of cases of relatively known creators who have collected their funds and as of yet, have not produced the work that they were paid for.  One of them is at least a year overdue.  Now, this is what will kill the crowd funding aspect…if supporters start to feel like they can’t count on the material to be actually delivered.  

And of course, the digital world continued to be the top area of conversation in comics.  As of yet, it’s still hard to get a handle of not only how much money comes in from digital but how its filtered down to the creators and what kind of impact, if any, it has on the print market. Sure, print sales are doing well at the moment but how many bags of tricks do the publishers have to keep pushing out these event comics?  With the publishers jumping into the digital market so they won’t get left behind, it seems that they are the ones accelerating the growth in order to ensure that they benefit from the anticipated windfall.  I wonder sometimes if it will end up like the bookstore market where everyone jumps in big time only to find out that the new market can only support so many.  I remember the days when getting graphic novels into the book chains was the savior of the comics market.  Will digital follow suit in that the digital suppliers focus on what works in the comics market is what they’re push in the digital market so it will be constructed around the superheroes?  I hope not because I think that’s shown already to have a limited appeal.  It may be the 300 pound gorilla in the direct market but it is not the growth outreach that will bring in new comic readers.

I guess it comes down to 2012 being another year of flux in the industry but that’s the way it is, not only in comics but in all aspects of life.  Everything is at an accelerated rate compared to the past.  I look back at the early days and it astounds me how much things have changed and how quickly.  But overall, the medium of comics is still here and while I don’t like some of things going on in the comics world, I still love the medium.  To me, it is the best way for a creator to tell a story and I enjoy immensely the process of creating comics.  I really do believe that creatively, the industry is at the top of its game right now and it’s great to see comics heading towards a status of going beyond superheroes to tell stories of any genre or any topic.  As we continue the shift of labeling comics as a method of telling stories rather than a definition of the entire medium, it can only get better.  More profitable?  I don’t know.

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