The Basement Tapes: Issue #62

Tue, November 22nd, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Joe Casey & Matt Fraction, Columnist

Sometimes, this is what happens when two writers e-mail each other:

An ongoing conversation behind closed doors, equal parts experience, opinion, critique, and outright rambling, THE BASEMENT TAPES are an attempt to present somewhat serious discussion about the somewhat serious business of comicbooks between two writers waist-deep in the perplexing and ever-evolving morass of their own careers.

It all comes down to the almighty dollar. Who's Number One? Which books have landed in the Top Ten this month? Which company dominates the market share? And by what slim margin? Should creators give a damn about the state of the industry or is it part of the job to worry about it? Casey and Fraction make a pretty good showing of giving a damn…

CASEY: I dunno, man... there are some days when I just get slightly depressed. It's those rarified moments when the "business" side of the comicbook business decides to engage me in a staring contest... and I end up blinking.

Two guys who seem to have a decent Internet presence are Marc-Oliver Frisch and Paul O'Brien. Every month, these two post their analysis of DC and Marvel sales. Frisch tackles DC while O'Brien looks at Marvel.

Now, don't get me wrong... I think these guys do a pretty good job of month-to-month comparisons and I definitely think they're providing a service for anyone who's at least marginally interested in seeing what I generally believe is an unbiased look at what's going on with the Big Two publishers.

The disturbing thing about their analysis is the way certain phrases keep cropping up to describe sales on certain series. Well, most of the series discussed, actually. This is only a partial list from the linked pages (detailing sales data for September 2005)...

"another slight downward correction"

"resumes its decline"

"Perfectly average limited series drops"

"average drop-off"

"Standard attrition"

"continues its slide into oblivion"

"sales are still drifting downwards"

"Drifting gently down"

"Dropping off the radar"

"Sliding slowly"

"Continuing the gentle downward slide"

"Dropping like a stone"

That's some sobering shit, there...

So, what can we glean from this? I don't blame Fricsh or O'Brien for having to constantly resort to this kind of terminology, given the figures they're analyzing. But it suggests -- or confirms, if you want to go that far -- something that's always confused me about retailers and their ordering patterns: the notion that most books will go down in sales each month. Sometimes by as little as 100 copies, but that's still less and less each month. And that shit does add up over time.

So, these retailer ordering patterns... whaddya make of 'em, especially now that you're about to dive into a monthly comicbook your own self...?

FRACTION: What's most remarkable to me is that while the numbers on the top 10, top 15 books continue to rise-- thanks to big icons, big creators, big events, big intra-industry press and support, multiple covers, the whole nine-- everything outside continues to sink. I think it's impossible to ignore the top 10% cannibalizing the numbers off of everything else. I know the standard thinking has always been a high tide raises all ships-- I tend to believe that myself-- but looking at these numbers month in and month out leaves you with no other real option.

Anything that's not one of Those Books will tend towards atrophy-- especially as the Butter Battle of one-upping the other guy goes on at the top of the charts between the big two. I think it's just a kind of market reality. Anytime a book bucks that particular trend it stands out as a rare creature because it's so counterintuitive.

CASEY: Y'know, at this point I can't even subscribe to the notion of Comicbook Darwinism, that only the strong survive. Of course, if by "strength" we're talking about variant covers and shock stunts, then maybe it's true. We do tend to go through certain phases in this industry where Quality is not a great priority for publishers or retailers. It's as though the struggle to produce, support and sell comicbooks that are of genuine artistic quality becomes too difficult to do, and it becomes much easier to just allow for the manipulation of the marketplace through a variety of time-tested methods.

But that's not my idea of "strength" by any stretch of the imagination. My idea of Comicbook Darwinism is that it's the quality material that will stand out, that will last, that will truly impact readers over the long haul. But these ordering patterns make even that idea more and more of a pipe dream.

And if this is indeed the case... has it become so solidified in its pattern that everyone down the line is now playing up to it? In other words, do publishers expect downward trends now with most of their monthlies? And, if so, operating from that defeatist attitude can't be good, can it...?

FRACTON: I don't know how you can not expect a downward trend with most books, just going over the numbers for the last year and a half. I don't know if it's defeatist-- if anything, it's just realistic. I think a publisher that understands these specific vagaries of the market and anticipates them knows, then, what that mild decay really means-- X-hundred people didn't stop reading INDEPENDENT MAN this month necessarily; following the trend up the charts, you'll see that Extra-Media Celebrity Y is writing ALL-ULTIMATE CRISIS HOUSE with a variant cover that's jacking up everyone's numbers.

It seems to me that the battle for survival any book that falls out of the top 100 will face can be better-fought with that understanding.

Can it be good for one's overall je ne se quois as it relates to comics and the comics industry? Probably not.

CASEY: But does that mean that it's merely a given that if a customer is reading INDEPENDENT MAN regularly and enjoying it, but then in the summer months the BIG COMPANY CROSSOVER ORGY mini-series hits... then that reader will automatically abandon his INDEPENDENT MAN purchase to make room for the ORGY mini-series in his own figurative long box?

Because that's what the ordering pattern you're talking about suggests. And I'm not saying that any readers would necessarily do that... but that retailers would have to assume that a reader would do that and adjust orders accordingly. Meaning, cut back on INDEPENDENT MAN orders so you can order bigger on ORGY...

And I'm not placing blame on the retailer, per se. These guys are busting their asses in the trenches every week just to make a living, they have limited funds with which to order books for their shelves, for their customers. They need to bet on the sure thing sellers whenever they can. But, still... is a customer who's been buying INDEPENDENT MAN since issue #1 and showing no signs of stopping any less of a sure thing than the perceived customer rush to devour the ORGY mini-series?

FRACTION: Exactly-- like, nobody's saying well, kids, sorry, I'm just not gonna order INDEPENDENT MAN #91 this month-- but rather any rack copies get cut down to 1, or even none except for subscription customers. When the market's being manipulated like this, you gotta take the sure money, I suppose-- at its core, comics retailers are in a service industry and its their job to have what people want.

So would it matter if DC or Marvel pushing, say, LOVELESS or BOOK OF LOST SOULS with as much oomph and firepower as they've pushed their summer crossover books? Are the big two ultimately just designed to produce Big Superhero books, to release into a market designed to support Big Superhero books? There are other markets out there, and there are audiences for those other kinds of books-- manga, hi there-- but not much of it seems to be happening in the direct market. Is this just the wrong windmill to be tilting at, period?

CASEY: Well, I think that DC and Marvel are superhero comicbook publishers. That's what they do best and when they step out of that box, it never really works all that well, does it? Nothing is going to surpass Superman or Spider-Man on the cultural or retail radar. Certainly nothing from Vertigo or Icon.

At the same time, a lot of those series on the charts that end up garnering those withering comments from these self-styled Internet sales analysts are superhero comicbooks. The attrition that's occurring start to look like the Big Two are eating their own young, doesn't it? Both of them are certainly likely to throw an occasional life preserver to these more under-performing series... just slap and INFINITE CRISIS TIE-IN logo or a HOUSE OF M or DECIMATION logo and cross your fingers for a momentary sales bump.

I dunno... it's not like it's our job to have a definitive answer to this situation, but goddammit, I hate not even having a clue -- a realistic, rational clue -- as to a way out of this. It's like a pattern that might never be broken...

FRACTION: I guess I'm feeling like several of the oldest nuggets of conventional wisdom-- girls and kids don't read comics, etc.-- have gotten obliterated over the last couple years. The pattern's done broke, you know? There are bags of money sitting by the road and a gross ton of readers looking for things to read... and the DM is, as you say, eating itself.

But, okay, let's say that's calling the glass half-empty. Looking at things optimistically, it looks like the big two have really mastered the art of tent-pole events. The talent, the titles, the icons and most times the stories get people riled up, get people talking, reading, and buying. If there's a comics equivalent of sweeps week stunts, they've been mastered. Exploding high-fives all around.

It's hard to shake the feeling that there's not much interest or skill in nurturing books that fall outside of that realm.

CASEY: That's because anything that falls outside that realm is a risk. Of course, for any creator worth his or her salt... that's always the most exciting place to be. It's a situation where art and commerce simply do not intersect at any level.

And again, that's nobody's fault... neither art nor commerce really have any relationship -- or, more importantly, a responsibility -- to each other anyway. Publishers aren't out to "nurture" anything except their own bottom lines, which is as it should be. Bring it down to the individuals involved and you're bound to find varying degrees of compassion. But as far as publishers in the monolithic, corporate sense... no way.

But that's the frustration. You're right... the Big Tentpole Events are all the rage right now. But that tends to only happen when publishers reach a dead end... when they run out of real, more forward-thinking ideas. They turn inward. They tend to their own Universes. It's reductive thinking. Thus, the decay of even a significant portion of monthly superhero sales. Sides get chosen. Creators offer themselves up to pitch in on these Tentpole Events because it keeps them employed and, some might say, valuable to their employers. Quality becomes something even less than subjective. It becomes superfluous, because if these Tentpole Series end up actually being good, it's only because the creators involve make an effort to make them good... not because the market demands they should be good.

Scary stuff... and I wonder how much longer it can possibly last...

FRACTION: Well, even Hollywood studios play summer and winter games-- and it's bit them in the ass this year, but I'll come back to that in a minute-- where summer's for popcorn flicks, big thrills and budgets and glorious piles of brain candy. Come November they roll out the Serious Adult Films, the Oscar contenders, or whatever passes for art in Hollywood these days. And, I mean, the subjective merits of either side of that equation aside, it's a double-sided paradigm. Exceptions to the rule-- something like CINDERELLA MAN opening in May or KING KONG opening in December-- only prove to reinforce the model.

So if the superhero mainstream has really mastered the art of Big Crossovers, of Annuals and whatnot events, what's next? You can't wildly usurp your continuity and reinvent your whole line time after time after time-- even if it looks like that's what might be in the offing up ahead-- before burnout hits max and, like Hollywood has seen this year, people are OD'd on the noise and sick to their stomachs from all the candy... publishers are going to need to start looking at producing actual, uh, nourishment soon.

CASEY: Listen to what you're saying. What an idealist you are. Allow me to answer your question... what's next in the superhero mainstream when actual nourishment might actually be what's needed...? The obvious answers…

"another slight downward correction"

"resumes its decline"

"Perfectly average limited series drops"

"average drop-off"

"Standard attrition"

"continues its slide into oblivion"

"sales are still drifting downwards"

"Drifting gently down"

"Dropping off the radar"

"Sliding slowly"

"Continuing the gentle downward slide"

"Dropping like a stone"

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