Titanic is the biggest box-office earner of all time.* Imagine if Hollywood said:
“Obviously, people want to see sinking ship romance pictures. Let’s not make anything else.”
What do you think would happen if that’s all Hollywood made from now on?
Let’s say that’s what Hollywood focused on. And as the new sinking ship movies made less and less money, Hollywood decides to cross them over with other popular genres. Like, have dinosaurs eating people on the ship before it sinks.
And let’s say that even though fine independent films were being made about other subjects than sinking ships, the theater owners didn’t order them because in their mind “No one wants those kind of stories. My customers only want sinking ship movies.”
And let’s say the press only reviewed and reported on sinking ship movies (with a few exceptions), and let’s say the Academy Awards only gave Oscars to sinking ship movies, with a few exceptions. And in fact, only awarded the same directors and actors every year because they are “the most popular”.
Would you think Hollywood was stupid then? Would you be surprised if the revenues Hollywood made kept shrinking and shrinking and the audience slowly disappeared?
Well, guess what? That’s exactly what’s happening in the comic book industry. It’s been going on for about as long as we’ve had the direct market. And instead of getting smarter, the industry seems to be getting dumber every day.
The problems started when the direct market formed because it was a market for fans and collectors. The retailers were mostly fans themselves, and their ordering patterns reflected their tastes and the desires of the customers they cultivated. They wanted superheroes, superheroes and more superheroes. The publishers responded by producing material for this new market. The direction of comic books became mostly oriented toward those who were concerned with things like continuity, crossovers and collectability. No longer were comics written for the casual reader.
Actual story relevance took a back seat. Way in the back. Single issue stories became a novelty. Now comics were focused on convoluted multi-part sagas wherein almost every character wore a costume and had some sort of “power” or “ability”.
Naturally, this made a lot of the comics inaccessible to the average person who only wanted a quick entertaining read. Unless you were obsessed with seeing character A battle character B, or finding out character C’s origin, you would find most of these comics pretty boring and childish.
In response, the independent comics movement was launched to fill the gap. But the bulk of retailers and fans greeted these books with derision and/or apathy. If it didn’t have Marvel or DC on the cover, if it wasn’t in color, then it wasn’t “real” to a lot of these people. The books had to be happy with very modest to low sales because many stores wouldn’t stock or support them.
In time, independent comics made some headway, but the industry was still very strongly oriented toward the one genre it worshiped. And the fan obsession with collectability led to speculator booms and crashes which drove many stores and distributors out of business.
So here we are today. There is only one main distributor now, and a shrinking amount of retail stores. Sales continue to go down. In spite of all this, the market still pays most of its attention to superhero comics and keeps trying to create hot books by rehashing their adventures over and over again in as many permutations of the same formula as possible.
It’s like watching people rearrange the furniture on a sinking ship.
There is hope. The hope comes from those books which offer complete reads in one issue, and stories that any person can enjoy. Stories that are not based on Byzantine continuity and obscure in jokes. But since the bulk of retailers and the fan press refuse to give these books any serious attention, they will have to fend for themselves elsewhere.
That is already starting to happen.
The internet is one place where comics will survive and flourish in time. Because now you can sample the comics for free on websites before you buy them, and order them online. My site (www.thehud.com) is one such place. More will follow. On the internet, you aren’t limited to comics fans. People from all over the world, with every interest and inclination, can be exposed to comics here. Internet shopping will be the wave of the future and the creators will be less dependant on middle-men like publishers and distributors to sell their work.
Other forms of marketing are also going to play a part in the survival of comics. Multi-level marketing may become a source of income for both the creators and the readers. In this way, readers can make money by distributing the comics they like to other people. People will have more of personal stake in the way comics are sold.
So, the future of the medium isn’t entirely grim. The ship called the direct market may be sinking under the weight of its own hubris, but the lifeboats are already in the water, sailing for new lands of opportunity where future generations of readers will be born.
(* originally written in 1998)