Friday, June 3, 2011

A Tipping Point?

Is this a Tipping Point for comics? Either tipping upward, or tipping downward?

Why are all these new endeavors happening now?

Pretty clearly, the huge success of the movies and superhero ubiquity in the modern pop culture has completely warped everyone's view.

Do I think these ventures are going to work?

First the positive, then the negative.

A little background.

Comics don't sell well. They have been declining with every decade of their existence. Which is why us little comic shops can exist, because the money just hasn't been there for the mass market. The mass market threw comics out; we picked them up.

Up until a few years ago, there was joke that the DC comics division of Warners would do everything they could to fly under the radar of the Warner muckymucks.

Until recently, DC could be the Research and Development arm of Warners.

However, recently, things have changed dramatically. Marvel was purchased by Disney. DC was brought under the umbrella of the Warners media division.

Marvel didn't make most of the money off of the X-Men or Spider-man because they sold those rights (for a pittance) long ago. They were just emerging from bankruptcy when the first Spider-man movie came out.

Iron Man and Thor and Captain America and Thor were all considered secondary characters -- and gambles as a movies, but Marvel has managed to pull it off. (With a few misfires -- Daredevil, Elecktra, etc.)

Superhero movies have performed monumentally.

But comic SALES even on these big titles haven't budged. No one quite knows why.

I'll be willing to bet that in boardrooms of Disney and Warners, they are asking the question.
With steely voices and grim faces. Why are we making hundreds of millions of dollars on movies, and you can't sell 80,000 copies of the same comic? Huh, huh?

Personally, I don't think it's anyone's fault. Comics are a hard sell in this modern world.

So -- given that.

It's at least possible that constant exposure to actual comics, in B & N and online and in direct comic shops will increase readership. It is at least possible that enough publicity, done in a timely manner, may grab some curious customers.

I think it would take a long term commitment -- millions upon millions spent on advertising (which up to now, they have not been willing to do). Millions upon millions gambled on mass market efforts. Millions upon millions spent on digital efforts.

At the same time, knowing that they might actually be destroying the actual existing market. Comic shops aren't huge moneymakers. Many of them can't stand too much strain.

I can kind of understand why the Big Boys are doing it. My DC comic sales are pretty small, really. What have they got to lose?

You know what? Superman and Batman and Spider-man and Hulk and all the rest DON'T need comics. They are iconic. They will exist forever in the imagination.

So, I'm sure the thinking is -- nows the time. Fill the airways, fill the shopping channels. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Now the negative.

I don't think they'll be able to break through the resistance of the public -- who have a strong bias against or a total misunderstanding of what comics are, how they exist nowadays. The really interesting comics, the cutting edge, are NOT the superhero comics.

Superhero comics are been floating around for a long time now.

I always joke that I could grab a 100 random people off the street, hand them a comic, and 90% will end up in the first garbage receptacle they find. That's if they are free. I could have a one on one session with customers who actually express mild curiosity about comics -- and use every sales trick I know, show them every comic and explain what they are about; and -- I probably wouldn't create a single ongoing comic reader.

How can it be that I haven't sold a single Thor comic to a new customer? The best explanation I've heard is someone used the example of a Western movie -- is my first response after coming out of The Unforgiven to go look for a western novel? Probably not.

So comic customers come in my door already primed to buy a comic. Simple as that.

I know this, because over the last 30 years I've had thousands of customers express mild interest and haven't turned more than a handful into regular readers.

I could fill an auditorium of people off the street, play them the best Opera I know, explain to them about Opera, and -- how many Opera fans would I create?

Readers come from brothers and parents and best friends, and happenstance and accident and quirks of fate.

But the perception is that these movies are creating masses of new readers. There is an easy way to expose the fallaciousness of this -- I simply ask to the person saying it, "Oh. Are you going to buy a Thor comic, then? (or a Green Lantern, or and X-Men, whatever...?) And the answer is always -- No.

So I ask all of you who aren't currently reading comics. Are you more likely to buy a comic now? Really?

So. The danger is that they will take what is a relatively weak market and destroy it trying to create a bigger market.

This could be a Heroes World moment: A near death experience:

Comics experienced a huge speculative bubble in the early nineties, which like all bubbles (we all know about bubbles, nowadays) collapsed.

Marvel freaked, decided it was the fault of wholesalers and retailers, and decided to market their comics to retailer through their own distributor.

Suddenly, the entire system was missing half of the comics they used to sell. It more or less collapsed.

At the end of the wreckage, there were one third as many comic shops, only one national distributor (Marvel proved to be hopelessly inept and went bankrupt-- another reason I think that 'New' distribution schemes may not work...) and sales just barely -- barely --- enough to keep what was left afloat.

We have never really completely recovered from that. We are like polio sufferers who survived, but have spindly legs t0 get us around. Now -- we are being asked to run a marathon.

I don't think it will take much stress or strain for it to all come tumbling down.

Me? I long ago decided to diversify, diversify. I sell books, new and used; comics, new and used; graphic novels; toys; sports cards; non-sportscards; t-shirts, buttons, posters; boardgames; role--playing games; customizable card games; anime; used dvd's; and so on and so on.

Because I have learned that those above me on the food chain are inclined to do very stupid things....

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