Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The future of comic books


I was having one of those idle fantasies about becoming a famous, in-demand movie director today, as I'm overly wont to do. In this one, I was pondering the notion of being offered work at comic book companies and thinking what kinds of things I'd use my clout to do.

Obviously, the idea of having someone more prominent into comics in order to give the medium a kick in the pants. Unfortunately, it never does all that much.

Sure, it'll boost sales on a title for a short time. The regular readers of the title pick it up, the big fans of the prominent person pick it up and a few other comic geeks who are only marginally into either pick it up because it's getting so much hype. Then they leave and sales drop again. Sure, a handful of the new readers stay with the title. It's not a bad venture, but it throws out so much potential.

Tom Clancy sells a lot of books, right? I believe he sells less than he used to, but still it's a lot. How many books would he sell, however, if one had to go to a specialty spy bookstore in order to get copies? Hell, how many would he sell if you just had to go to an actual bookstore and not grab one at the local supermarket?

So, in the current world of comics, if, as an example, Tom Clancy wrote a Nick Fury storyline, there'd be several groups of people who we could figure on to buy it. First would be the comic geeks who'd buy any Fury title. As he can't maintain a title in the current market, we'll assume that number to be significantly lower than 30,000. Second would be most, but not all, of the Clancy fans who would make the trip to the specialty spy bookstore. Third are the group of comic geeks caught up in the hype. Then there's a very small fraction of the group who would pick up the new Clancy book at a regular bookstore; the ones who happened to walk past the trade paperback section or go to the rare bookstore that displays it prominently.

I'm guessing between single issues, deluxe hardcover editions and trade paperbacks, it'd sell to a couple million people. Somebody with a better idea what high sales for trade paperbacks could correct my guesstimate there, but I'm sure we'll all end up agreeing that it would be a mere fraction of what a new novel would sell. Not to mention, that the boost does almost nothing to bring those extra readers to comics.

Look, here's a real world example, Stephen King is teaming up with Marvel Comics to do a comic within his Dark Tower world (the press release on StephenKing.com and on Marvel.com).

This will do approximately the same. Comic geeks who are casually fans of King (or big fans of artist Jae Lee) will pick it up. Big fans of King generally and fans of Dark Tower specifically will pick it up. If it's good, it could sell to a couple million readers. Something impressive for comics in general these days.

However, nothing close to what the Dark Tower novels sold and bringing next to no new readers to the medium as a whole.

Mind you, I'm hardly arguing that all comics projects should be done for the betterment of comics, whether it has a big name attached or not.

But just think how they could!


Going back to the hypothetical Tom Clancy/Nick Fury story. Imagine if, instead of going with the standard sales technique, it was released as a digest sized book. Marvel (as well as the DC Comics and others) is already releasing titles as digest sized books. They're merely failing to use the format as part of a successful play to get newer, more comprehensive distribution.

I'm going to say we skip single issues. In fact, I'd favor skipping over the hardcover stage and going right to the digest, but if the effort is being made to get a big push on this in major media and prominent position at bookstores, etc., then the hardcover could work as well. Sure, I'd produce and sell a larger edition for the direct market and to place alongside it at bookstores, etc., but I'd focus the attention on getting the digest sized edition in as many non-standard locations I could, such as supermarkets and convenience stores.

Now the book can sell to the people who pick up Clancy's books on a lark, "Oh, that's right. I always enjoy his books. Sure, I'll grab this."

Plus, I have a few digest sized editions reprinting Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos and the Jim Steranko run of Nick Fury to set along side them. But I focus on the Clancy connection. I'm a comic book geek, putting Nick Fury and/or Steranko prominently on the cover sells me more than Clancy ever could, but in this case I'd put "Nick Fury, star of TOM CLANCY'S 'Agent of SHIELD'" in great big letters on the cover.

The I'd follow-up quickly with a new volume by Clancy or at least another writer following the storyline that Clancy did and using the same artist and eventually definitely another writer following the storyline, but always with Clancy's name prominently featured on the cover. He already has an industry of books he didn't write with his name on the cover, why not?

Now, that title, at least, has a stronghold outside current distribution. You can use that as a foothold to sneak more titles on.

It obviously only works with a type. I doubt fans of his brand of Grisham-lite would leap to grab a copy of Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis or bond strongly with it if they did.

Nor do I think this is the only way out into the non-geek world and I know some small inroads are being laid, by the likes of Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, etc. But these are largely closed roads that lead only to their own work and don't generate a larger market in themselves.

I love Superheroes, but a market that's dominated so strongly by one narrow genre, so much that the industry around them would literally collapse if they ceased their tiny measure of success, is not one that fosters growth, brings new ideas or spawns exciting stories... Let's face it, not even exciting Superhero stories. The best Superhero stories, as a rule of thumb, have come when the comic market was healthy and Superhero comics had to kick ass in order to stand out against the horror, romance, sword & sorcery, western and/or crime books on the shelf.

In his old article Sermon on the Mount, Warren Ellis wrote, "I've said before that the superhero's cultural and economic dominance of the medium is the same as walking into a bookstore to see nothing but novels about nurses as far as the eye can see. I don't doubt that there are excellent nurse novels in there. But the fact that in our nightmare bookstore, 90% of all books published everywhere are about nurses tends to choke off all other genres and a literary mainstream."

Not only that, but it would turn bookstores into places that only people who were really interested in novels about nurses would go and so even the other 10% of books would reflect the other interests of the types of people who were interested in nurse novels.

By merely dipping their toes slightly into the water on every idea that isn't direct market sales of single issue comic magazines, the industry ensures that nothing be a breakout success. The problem is, jumping in means spending money, using up clout, taking a risk.

But if you could get a name on board, like, say, Stephen King. How big a risk would this really be?

You may ask why I used this made-up example instead of the real world Dark Tower, especially since I'm talking about expanding the medium and Roland seems unlikely to meet up with Captain America. Partly I just like hypotheticals. But, in the end, I don't think Marvel is prepared to follow-up with similar books and I certainly can't think what backlog of similar material they have. Dark Horse Comics has Conan now. DC, at least, could put out Jonah Hex and perhaps Preacher alongside it with a sign that says, "If you enjoyed Dark Tower, we think you'll like these."

Just some thoughts.

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