Monday, August 21, 2023

Stick Your Variant Covers Up Your . . .

I recently picked up preview publications for DC and Marvel at a local comics shop.


It was grim.

I suppose that's to be expected given my age (I used to participate in the Comics Buyers Guide annual reader poll, and every year, the average age of the participants seemed to increase.  That was great because comics grew along with me--this was the age of Watchmen, Maus, and Dark Knight Returns-- but if continued indefinitely, it leads to the death of the industry), but the companies are selling the vast majority of their comics to adults these days, so it's still disappointing to see so much stupidity.  DC was offering Justice League Vs. Godzilla Vs. King Kong, which if the average age of comics readers were still ten would be awesome (it even has a variant cover with a roar sound effect), but there probably aren't many ten-year-olds who can afford to drop $14.99 for a 40 page comic book (10 of which pages will probably be ads for other comics) that roars (the non-roaring version is $4.99 though--I suppose you can roar yourself and you might have more fun and save 10 bucks).  Marvel was offering some sort of cosmic crossover that after reading numerous other cosmic crossovers was about as exciting as watching paint dry.

One of the reasons I started doing my own comics was that I couldn't find enough interesting comics these days.  The industry has never been great, but it was probably never this bad before, despite all the celebrations of graphic novels in public libraries and superhero movies in movie theaters and whatnot.  I don't know if these problems can be fixed, but here's a to-do list to start with if they want to salvage things:

1) Comics are too damn expensive.  That's why the readership is aging (and increasingly dying).  Mainly only older folks such as myself who caught the habit early will still buy these things (and even I probably will tap out once the monthly comic books go above $5).  But graphic novels are even more expensive.  Webcomics may help because they cut out a lot of expenses and the companies may be able to pass on the savings (something they're loathe to do currently for fear of alienating their cash cow print customers).  Right now though it's just a journey of slow but inevitable obsolescence.  In 1938, when Superman first appeared and the modern comics industry was born, the comic book had 64 pages (some with ads) and cost a dime.  Today, with inflation, that same comic should cost $2.08 according to an inflation calculator I used.  Instead, the average comic costs $4.99 and is about 32 pages with ads (there has been some loss of advertising, perhaps because the medium has lost its appeal to advertisers outside of the comics industry or maybe the publishers are too lazy to actually go and solicit advertising).  One reason for this is that the comics companies are overstaffed.  There seem to be about five times as many editors as is needed (Stan Lee somehow managed to edit most of the 1960s Marvels by himself).  Whatever the cause, the companies need to reduce the price to attract a wider and younger readership.

2) The industry needs to respect creator rights more.  Companies such as Image and Dark Horse seem to allow creators to own their copyrights and profit from their creations.  The two largest companies are less likely to do that.  The result in DC and Marvel has been a slow stagnation in creativity.  Instead, they just tell the same stories over and over again with the same characters from the 1930s or 1960s, probably because not many comics creators are going to put a lot of effort into creating a new character that the company will own.  If the companies allowed more creator rights and royalties, the creativity would no doubt flourish across the industry not just in self-published and other independent comics.  But since they don't, we get 15 different Batman-related comics this month.  I like Batman as much the next comics reader, but the great Batman stories have mostly been told.  That's now reflected in the sales.  In 1960, DC could sell half a million Batman comics (and since he had two titles and also appeared with Superman in World's Finest and in The Justice League Of America, he probably helped to sell close to a couple million comics a month).  60 years later, the character is still selling, but it's fewer than a hundred thousand an issue in his main title and probably 800,000 total spread across a dozen titles or so a month.  It's clearly flogging a dead horse at this point.  

3) The damn variant covers.  Obviously, more art is good (they could just do pinups though in the back of the book), but the industry decided at some point that since the readership was dwindling, they needed to milk the remaining readers even harder for cash.  The result was a bunch of different covers for the same issue in hopes that multiple copies of the same comic could be sold to each reader.  If I were a collector and buying back issues, then this would drive me crazy because I usually went by the cover to know if I hadn't read an issue yet.  Today, I'd never be able to do that because I would end up buying the same comic several times.  Imagine if the industry put this same effort into writing better stories . . .

4) Publish less.  As a kid, I couldn't afford to buy all the great comics coming out (today, I catch up by buying the ones I missed out on in dollar bins--sometimes even saving money, whether through inflation for a dollar comic from 1977 or the more expensive comics from 1990 on or so--or reading collections from the library), but today I could probably afford to buy all the comics I'm interested in, but very few interest me.  I found two comics in both the DC and Marvel booklets that I hadn't read before that I would buy.  That's two out of over a hundred publications each for each company.  Maybe there just isn't enough talent going around nowadays (it's possible also that I've just read too many comics and I'm harder to please in the same way that a Britney Spears song might please a kid who hasn't heard much music before but might annoy me), so maybe the companies should concentrate on generating more great comics such as Sandman, and they might make more money in the long term.

Well, at least the comics industry still exists.  But given what seems to be out there currently, that might not be for long.  But if the commercial companies go out of business, then that might provide more proverbial sunlight for the better self-published and other independent comics to reach a wider readership.  And, whatever happens, at least the art form can never die.  Even when I go, I bet one of you will be crafting something fun out of words and pictures.

To read some of my comics, click here and scroll down.  To read what happens to a superhero when the end of the story is allowed to be told, read Fast Guy Slows Down.

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