Monday, October 19, 2009

An Open Letter to Comics Publishers. A Rant

Modern comic books are 24 pages long. Some of that space goes to advertisements- everyone needs to make ends meet. What's left is usually only part of one story that may take 4 to 6 months of issues to complete.

What's the deal?

Forty years ago, a comic book was 48 pages long (and that was reduced from the previous standard of 64 pages. Still plenty of ads, but so what?). Each 48 page comic book sold for 12 cents and contained one or two lead features (usually 12 to 15 pages) and a few back-up features (6 or 7 pages each), a text story (one to two pages) and maybe a pin-up or a one-page humor strip. But wait! Each of those lead and back-up features was a COMPLETE STORY. I mean, in some cases we are talking about a three-act play in 6 pages! But now, a comics writer can't tell a story unless it takes 80+ pages ??

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the comics publishers want stories of a certain length that they can repackage a few months later and re-sell as a trade paperback. All you have to do is add a new cover, a few sketch pages, a forward by a comics or media personality, and BAM! you have a whole book that you can publish and you've already bought and used the text and art once and gotten money back by selling that in serial form.

Another part of the problem is that comics stories are intentionally spread out over months to keep readers coming back. Thing is, I'd just as soon have a complete story I can read now and another I can read in 30 days, as opposed to waiting 30 days and losing interest in the outcome of a cliff -hanger.

Now look, I have no problem with comics publishers making money, this is a business. But surely, there are other marketing strategies to use here.

I hear stuff all the time that comics aren't being bought by kids like they used to. No wonder. Somewhere along the way, the big two publishers (DC and Marvel) decided that the best way to sell their comics was to pitch to the collector's market. Comics stopped being distributed to grocery and drug stores and were sold through the direct market system of comic book stores. And since the people who shopped at comic book stores were grown-ups who bought more mature titles, but still loved their childhood heroes, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater and superhero comics were aimed at a more "mature" audience. And they are now printed on bright, archival (read as expensive) paper that drives the price up to $3.00 a pop.

Here's the problem. Kids don't have cars. They also have an irregular disposable income. That means that kids have to depend on someone to drive them to the Comic Book store, rather than bike over to the corner store for a few comics. And, they never know when they will get back to said comics store. All this means: The comics cost too much for kids, aren't aimed at kids and aren't accessible to kids. End result. Kids don't buy comics.

So now you're saying "okay, smart guy, how would YOU fix it?'

Well, first of all, I would publish comics for adults and comics for kids. This is already being done to some degree. I have seen that many titles have an age rating, I do not live in a cave. But, remember, the comics that got all those grown-ups hooked as kids were written for an average age of 13. Tone down the sex and violence a little. I'm no prude and nobody wants a return to the dark ages of the Comics Code, just use a little sense.

Second, print the friggin' things on newsprint and cut the price down. Stop hiring hollywood writers and cut the price down. Don't worry about the collector market. One of the reasons old comics are rare and valuable is that they decompose because they were printed on crappy paper. Heck, you're just going to reprint it in a collected volume anyway.

Third, get your product back into markets that are accessible to children.

There, I'm done.

Anyone who has any questions or comments please feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me through this blog.


  1. Boy, did you ever hit the nail on the head with this one!

    The "Big Boys" of Comics have really made a mess of their own industry. By focusing exclusively on what they see as their biggest market, they've abandoned a whole generation. I can't help but wonder if the big titles, like Superman, Spiderman, Batman, the X-Men and the like are only really kept alive because they make a killing in movie and marketing tie-ins. I doubt very much that the comic books themselves bring in much revenue, even at their inflated prices.

    The only real innovation in comics now seems to be online and in foreign markets - particularly East Asia. The average age of Con-goers, I believe, is somewhere in the mid-30s. To-day's tweens, teens and early-20s-types are getting their visual entertainment elsewhere ... cartoons, anime, manga, video games and, of course, movies - many through on-line sources. Most kids are forced by the schools to read things which hold little interest for them, so they don't read much outside what's required. This goes for publishing in general: most people I know get a big chunk of their news from non-print sources - either TV or the Net.

    It's a different media landscape, and these dinosaur publishers haven't figured out how to cope, so they just chase the same old familiar dollar, and milk their IP for all it's worth. But, then, this is sort of what American business in general has come to. (Very little innovation, just do whatever it takes to make this Quarter profitable, and worry about the future ... some time in the future.)

    Your solutions, too, are among the best I've heard - get back to publishing cheap books and make them widely available - put them back in places where they can be impulse purchases again.

    I'd be a hell of a lot more likely to keep up with a title if I could pick it up at the grocery store for 75¢ than I am to go out of my way to a specialty shop and pick up several $3 books. As it stands now, what little comics reading I do is online or in Trade Paperback form.

    As much as I like the Trades, they can't be helping the monthly books. I think most people would rather wait for a large collection than read a story in dribs and drabs. The same thing is happening with TV shows now - people are waiting for complete seasons before committing to watching a new show. Of course, that hurts the ratings of new shows, and so fewer fresh shows are produced. Instead, we get a fuck-ton of reality crap, and 50 different Crime Procedurals - many with the same name. (CSI: New York, CSI: Miami, CSI: Terre Haute, etc.)

    So ... yeah. What you said.


  2. It's bad enough having to buy six consecutive issues of a given title just to complete the serial/story arc. (More and more, one hears, "I'll wait until it's collected in a TPB.") Then, with all the cross continuity and tie-ins, you end up having to buy half a dozen issues of 3-4 different titles just to understand what it's about. With today's high prices, that is just not feasible.