Tilting at Windmills

Fri, March 19th, 2010 at 8:58am PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer
31

TOO FAILED TO BIG?

So I'm wondering, and this is actually a fairly real question: are publishers trying to kill the periodical comic?

It would clearly make no financial or business sense to do so, and you have people in Positions of Responsibility asserting their Absolute Allegiance to the periodical, but still decision after decision is made that could have not been better constructed to run off the largest fans of the format; and not only do they repeat those faults, they're now starting to cascade them together.

I first started thinking this way after the recent "skip week" in the last week of 2009. No comics were shipped that week because of how the holidays fell and UPS' shipping schedule and the Direct Market's desire for the Level Playing Field - not every store could be 100% guaranteed of getting their comics at the right time during that holiday week, so let's skip the whole thing entirely to be fair to all.

That wasn't, really, a bad decision - most retailers I spoke to saw sales weeks that were 75%+ of their "normal" sales, yet without a new Diamond invoice to have to pay, making it a pretty profitable week. And, in fact, immediately in the aftermath, there was a pretty large push in the retail community to repeat this again the next year, whatever the shipping situation was.

We got our first shipment of 2010 on 1/6, and it was a pretty solid batch of things - including the launch of "Siege" and a new volume of "Walking Dead," but it wasn't the giant deluge of product I think most of us were expecting (especially with the skip week). The next two shipments, 1/13, and 1/20 were positively anemic, then we got deluged on 1/27. 2/3 and 2/10 were also really tiny. 2/17 was roughly "normal", and we got brutalized again at the end of the month on 2/24.

What I noted during the "tiny" shipping weeks was that walk-in traffic had slowed down substantially. And my fear is this: periodical comics are, as famously stated by Larry Marder, Habitual Entertainment. While we're clearly selling the content, the characters, the creators, the collectability (in some cases), we're also selling the very "habit" of buying comics - of getting sucked into these soap opera worlds of colorful characters.

Ask any drug dealer you might possibly know - you just don't break the habit. Breaking the habit is bad. Breaking the habit makes people question the habit, and questioning the habit leads to more breaking the habit, and it all cycles down.

The other part of a habit is properly fixing the habit. To stretch the drug metaphor possibly past all usefulness, you can't give someone pure uncut heroin one week, and 90% baby laxative (or whatever it is they use to cut that garbage) for the next three weeks, giving them uncut again at the next cycle. That will kill the users. Dead customers can't give you any more money.

Certainly no, multiple anemic ship weeks, followed by a double-wide donkey dong rackbusters, aren't killing any customers, but I think (and I see) it causing regular customers to question the need to come in every week, and that's likely to cause us severe long term problems as an industry.

So, what do customers want? Well, none of this may apply to you, the unique snowflake of an individual, but in my experience (heh) the collective mass Wants…:

1) …To be Entertained…

Look, I know that one is a bit of a no-brainer, and the definition of "entertained" will probably vary wildly, but I think most readers want to be surprised, by idea or incident, by what they read. They want to be transported, they want to be informed, maybe even incited. I think this all stems from creative vision, and I think more often than not that stems from character. Rather than plot, I mean.

The problem at Marvel and DC at the moment is that it feels like too many stories are being dictated by plotting rather than by natural character movement - both companies have regular "story retreats" where overall beats for the "universe" are mapped out for the next x months, but I think that robs much of the spontaneity from the resulting comics.

Y'know, I just read an interview by a Marvel editor discussing a particular writer, working on a spin-off one-shot tied to a major crossover, and he phrased his praise as something fairly close to "He's really a good go-to guy when I need This Emotional Beat, taking place between panels X and Y of issue #Z", and I thought, "Wow, that's everything that my comics store really really doesn't need on my racks right now."

Because comics that are This Emotional Beat, Taking Place Between Panels X And Y Of Issue #Z are not rare things. TEBTPBPX&YOI#Z comics kind of fill my racks, and like any midlist cash-grabby kind of thing they usually sell pretty in mediocre numbers, all things considered. And there are more of them coming in next week, too. And the week after that. I don't actually need any more comics that are simply TEBTPBPX&YOI#Z. We'll talk more about this in a minute, though.

2) …For a Reasonable Price…

This is also a nebulous one, in some ways, because some people are screaming "Digital, A buck or less an issue!", while others are "200 pages of manga for $9.99!", but I think the line for a standard format 22-page color comic really is $2.99 in today's economy. Crossing that line causes the customers to strongly question what they're buying, and if they're getting enough entertainment in the package.

While that questioning can come at the expense of the over-$2.99 book in question, some customers decide to stick with those books, while reducing the "lesser" books that they're buying. That is to say that simply looking at the impact of pricing solely on the higher-priced book isn't a robust enough of an analysis - the sagging fortunes of the "B-" and "C-List" books is also a response to higher prices overall.

What I'm finding at my individual store is that the "B-" and "C-List" titles are dropping off precipitously - where many of those books are starting to sell few enough copies that it probably isn't worth racking them in the first place. We try to rack them because we want to be a "full line" store, to have the chance of growing sales in the future, of exposing customers to new material, but if this material isn't selling much/at all better than breaking even on our investment, we're running to stand still.

3) …"In Continuity"…

(Or, rather, "the story must ‘matter'")

Obviously, the publishers are going to insist that everything "matters", but I think that consumers are getting pretty jaded by the number of things vying for their dollars, and they decide, in their own heads, about what has meaning and impact in "continuity" and what doesn't.

This is where the real dread of TEBTPBPX&YOI#Z comics comes from. While finding That Emotional Beat may mark it as "in continuity", that doesn't mean that it "matters" to the reading public, and they're, increasingly, voting with their feet. Not just with their dollars, but with their feet.

If you position something as Meaningful and Important, then it has to fit in well with other things that are also being positioned as Meaningful and Important. At the grossest level, when, say, Wolverine appears, in a single week, in crossovers like "Siege", "DoomWar" and "Fall of the Hulks", as well as his regular adventures, both solo and as a member of various X-Men teams, the customer is going to determine for themselves which of those are "real". (Across town at DC, the comparison might be between "Blackest Night" and the "New Krypton" storyline)

But here's the thing, most fiction is a matter of the Willing Suspension of Disbelief. If you take actions that cause people to question that Willing Suspension for some books, it is far far more likely that they'll start question it for all of the books that they read. Even in a superhero fantasy universe, not all of these things can be happening at the same time, so the reader starts to Question.

Again, in my individual microcosm, I'm finding that customers are less and less interested in things they don't perceive to "matter". This isn't the 1980s any longer, or, heck, even most of the 90s, where we weren't producing enough material to soak up every single discretionary dollar of the most involved fan. No, we're overproducing, probably by half or more, and even the most involved fan has a ton more entertainment options vying for their time now. As I said a few months ago, Attention is the true commodity of the 21st century market, and you're only going to capture that attention for things that are True and Meaningful.

4) …and in a reasonable amount/frequency.

Those two are really tied together.

If someone likes something, it is reasonable to assume that they might want more. But expansions have to occur in a sane and logical fashion, and have to be driven by creative personalities that are bringing their "A-game" to the work itself.

When I look at the catalog and see, since there is a new Iron Man movie coming out, that Marvel is releasing eight periodical comics title-featuring Iron Man (as well as ten different reprint collections) in the space of a month, I wonder who this could actually be helping. There are exceedingly few Iron Man completeists in the world, certainly not enough to make a viable publishing plan in and of themselves, and, perhaps more importantly, they're more likely to have been fragmented off from some broader collecting pattern, because of the deluge of product.

That is to say that once upon a time there were a lot of "Marvel Zombies" - people who bought each and every Marvel release in any given month. It didn't even used to be that hard to be such a creature. Spin offs and b-list character one shots and mini-series were reasonably viable in that environment, because there were a lot of people buying into the premise of the "Marvel Universe". But we started expanding the franchises, and people started being more likely to fall in to sub-groups. Now we saw a lot of "X-Men Zombies", and far fewer buying the whole line.

And now we've expanded lines to the point where instead of being focused on "families" of characters, people narrow-focus down even further. The problem is that each of these sub-groups become comprised of fewer and fewer people, and it becomes harder and harder to coax them out of their pre-defined boxes because of the sheer deluge of products facing them.

Let's say that I'm a new customer, and I walk in thinking that I want to check out Iron Man - I'm more likely to get bewildered by the myriad choices I have, than to embrace the totality of what I'm being offered. Quality staff at quality stores can certainly help the consumer navigate that maze, but in virtually all cases it comes down to creating more work for a smaller overall return. It is possible to have "too much" choice!

At least in the case of Iron Man you can sort of understand where the impulse might be - at least in that case there's a multi-million dollar film, and the attendant publicity and promotion and advertising that could (in theory) create new customers; far less logical is expansion of material that virtually no one is clamoring for.

Take Justice Society for example. I love the JSA, I really do - I have a series of commissioned sketches of JSA members drawn by Matt Wagner covering my store's walls. Hell, my "back in five minutes" sign has a picture of Hourman on it! But I don't want, as a reader, two different JSA books, with additional minis and one-shots at the same time. My customers don't either. Before the bifurcation, we were selling approximately 30 copies of JSA. Now with two books, we're selling under 20 copies of the parent book, and barely about 8 copies of the second title. Yes: we're selling fewer overall copies, while having a much greater risk and labor in handling the two titles. This is, I think, the exact opposite as we should be doing.

New launches have to be handled with kid gloves, as the audience isn't actively looking to add new titles because they are inundated with more material than they can/want to read right now. So I die inside when I see DC trying to launch the pulp hero books with what looks to be a well-conceived, well-promoted six issue mini-series like "First Wave", then immediately gut any possible audience by solicited for two (!!!) ongoing spin-offs ("Doc Savage" and "The Spirit") at the same time as offering issue #2 of "First Wave". That's called Strangling the Baby in the Crib, because people don't want a line. They just want to be entertained. And a line of books is signaling that these are commodities rather than entertainment units to you.

It isn't just DC and Marvel, to be sure. I was kind of excited when Dynamite announced "Kevin Smith's Green Hornet." That enthusiasm was tamped dramatically down when the next month brought news that there would be four other "Green Hornet" spin-offs coming right on it's heels. I really like the idea of BOOM!'s Disney-based kids line, especially Roger Landridge's "Muppet Show" comic - but the commercial strength of a book like that gets gutted when there's a second "Muppet" spin-off mini every month. I thought maybe I could sell IDW's "Transformers" and "GI Joe" books, but not when there are 3-6 of each every month. And so on and so on.

The customers can't (or won't) absorb all of the product coming down the pike, and the retailers don't have the shelf space for all of it anyway. We're killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

It isn't sustainable.

But as bad as all of this over-expansion is, it is made significantly worse when the publishers can't deliver the material in any kind of a rational pattern. While I don't really think that the market wants, or needs, say, four different "Avengers" titles, if we are going to produce four different "Avengers" titles, then they really have to ship one-per-week, and not all gang up together in clusters. I don't think we need two "Muppet" comics, but, if we do, make sure they don't come out in the same week!

I look at things like the February 25th shipping week where there were five different "Siege" branded comics. Then 3/3 and 3/10 had none, and 3/17 had three. Who is running the scheduling here? If, in a four-week cycle, you have eight things coming out, then you need to balance that shipping so we're getting two of them a week. Anything else feels contemptuous of the customer and the retailer, and it inexorably leads to lowered faith in your products.

And it's all about faith in the product - attention is the commodity!

It drives me insane when Wednesday customers come in during the "famine" weeks and say, "Man, really nothing out this week", even though there are actually 50+ comics shipping. But they're not the comics that they want to buy, or are excited to buy. Those won't come for two more weeks, when there are 100 different comics being published that week, and the customer might have to make decisions between which "good" comics they want to buy.

Customers want to be entertained for a reasonable price, by stores that are "in continuity" and that are released in a reasonable amount/frequency.

I'm not a publisher, no, but it seems to me that those are pretty easy baseline steps to achieve, and are entirely within their control at that.

But, instead, they pack their shipping schedules so that books cluster together in "feast or famine" shipping, over-extend their IPs by editorially-driven agendas, and publish far too much material that is TEBTPBPX&YOI#Z rather than genuine creatively driven stories.

We're heading in entirely the wrong direction, and it is a direction that I believe is doing more harm to the periodical comics market than any "threat" from Digital Publication could possibly bring.

Please, stop chasing the customers away, publishers.

Please.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase a collection of the first one hundred Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) from IDW Publishing. An Index of v2 of Tilting at Windmills may be found here. (but you have to insert "classic." before all of the resulting links)

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