Well, it’s 2013, and we’re all still here. The world didn’t end and there are probably a lot of pissed-off people in bunkers trying to figure out what to do with the 1300 pounds of baked beans they stockpiled. The human race is going to keep going for a few more years, at least, but do you know who has a less certain future? The comics industry.
That’s a controversial statement, so let’s take it point by point. First of all, the obvious argument: comics are in the public eye more than ever before, thanks to movies, TV shows, and video games. Movies like Man of Steel, The Avengers, and The Dark Knight Rises bring in billions of dollars in revenue based on the properties that live and breathe on comic shop shelves.
But what those films didn’t do was put comics in new readers’ hands. You can buy two copies of a Marvel comic for about the price of a movie ticket (two for the price of a matinee for DC), but nobody sold two billion copies of The Avengers or Batman. Those movies and video games exist outside of the core comic audience, and that audience is tearing itself apart from the inside out.
I don’t want to talk about the infighting, the creator controversies, the he-said/she-said (or, more accurately, the he-said/he-said), the gender biases, or any of that. That’s all been covered exhaustively elsewhere, and it’s been done with more tact and skill than I could ever muster. I just want to talk about history.
The ’90s were a good time to be a comic fan. Well—I say fan, but really it was a good time to be a comic publisher. The early ’90s especially—according to the Comics Chronicles, comics were distributed to over 10,000 specialty shops around the country in 1993. In 1991, Jim Lee and Chris Claremont’s X-Men #1 sold a mind-boggling eight million copies. Nothing has come that close since, and it never will. Ever.
Things were pretty awesome, until they weren’t. By the ’90s, people had realized that comics from the ’30s and ’40s were worth enough to put kids through college, so at the time, funnybooks seemed like a solid investment. But economics ensued, and the vast number of copies printed of each issue led to a massive devaluing of these “investments.” The bottom fell out, about 6,000 of those comic stores went out of business, and even the mighty Marvel declared bankruptcy in 1997.
What does this tell us about today? It tells us that the comic industry is volatile and vulnerable, prone to unsustainable growth and plummeting loss. And it’s happening again.
Statistically speaking, you’ve heard of The Walking Dead, the soap opera on AMC that occasionally features zombies. You probably also know that it’s based on a comic book. Well, back in June of 2012, issue 100 of The Walking Dead sold about 335,000 copies, making it the top selling title of the year, and it wasn’t even close (the runner-up, Avengers vs. X-Men #7 pulled in about 175,000 copies). Remember X-Men #1’s eight million copies? Yeah, the industry never really recovered from the crash in the ’90s.
Why did WD #100 sell so many more copies? Well, it works like this. Publishers create rare “variant” covers for popular books. These covers are printed on a set ratio to the regular book, say, 1:10, 1:20, or 1:100. These variant editions, being rare, are highly sought-after collector’s items. With me so far?
Now, Diamond (the distribution company in the United States) will send comic stores variant covers based on how many of the regular editions they order. This is what’s known as the “retailer incentive”—the retailer will be able to make money back selling the variant cover at a higher price, but he has to order a higher number of the regular cover, with no guarantee that he’ll be able to move that product.
If a retailer doesn’t sell an issue, that’s it, tough luck—there are a few options for returning orders, but for the most part, a retailer is stuck with what he’s got. That means he has to sell that stock however he can, which means the quarter bin, the place where unwanted comics go to die.
Rich Johnston of Bleeding Cool said it best:
[R]etailers are ordering huge numbers of comics, far more than they can sell, to get these rare covers. Which means standard comics go unsold, or hit the quarter bins fast. Which brings down the perceived value of buying a new, standard, every day comic. And eventually the penny drops – why buy a full priced comic when in a few months you can buy it for pennies?
When these combine, and people stop buying the variant comic for a massive markup, leaving retailers stuck with tonnes of unsellable comics – because customers know that if they wait, they’ll get a bargain – then that is the end time for the comic shop.
So we’re going through a period of growth right now, built on the back of a house of cards that could collapse at any time, but there’s one more thing we have to take into account, and that’s the comic industry’s obsession with its own past.
If there’s one thing you can count on in comics, it’s that the people who write them are the people who grew up reading them, and they inevitably want things to be like they were when they were kids. That leads to a certain amount of cannibalization. Sometimes, it can work out—a good enough writer can take elements from his favorite stories and synthesize them into something brand new for the current generation of readers. In the hands of a mediocre writer, it devolves into a masturbatory glorification of the past.
In the ’90s, it was Watchmen, the groundbreaking superhero crime thriller from the ’80s. Every book wanted to be Watchmen, and the quality of the stories suffered for it. It took books like Starman and Kingdom Come to wrench comics in a new direction (and yes, that direction did involve no shortage of longing backwards glances. It was very nostalgic, is what I’m saying).
Today, with comics like Amazing Spider-Man and Before Watchmen echoing trends from the ’90s (killing major characters; Watchmen), we’ve hit the bottom of the barrel. We’re scraping last week’s Tubberware, trying to get that last bit of Brunswick stew on our plate. We can’t cannibalize the corpse any more—there’s nothing left.
And that—coupled with the sales data—is what makes the next few years so exciting.
Simply put, we’re going to get the best books we’ve read in years. We’re going to get comics with heart, comics that make us laugh, cry, and punch the air in triumph. They’re going to be fresh, and new, and exciting, and we’re not going to have to read a dozen tie-in books to understand what’s going on. To be fair, these books won’t last—but while they do, wow. I know this because that’s what happened last time.
In the dark years surrounding the big bust, DC put out some of their best work ever. I mean, in the history of their 75-year company, this stuff is near the top. Books like Aztek, Chase, and Hitman showed that you could make a mature superhero book without rape and violence (well, except for Hitman. That kind of stuff was all over the place). Books like Starman and Kingdom Come helped usher in the current “Age” of comics. A little later, over at Marvel, we got books like Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, or Judd Winick’s Exiles.
Do you get what I’m saying? Comics are heading for a fall, but just like Nolan’s Batman, that’s the best way to learn how to pick ourselves back up. The darker things get, the brighter the stories will have to shine to get the industry back on its feet. If we can stick it out, we’ll get some of the best stories we’ve ever read. And since we’ve already told all of the stories from our own childhoods, we’ll have to make something new.
It’s happening now, to an extent: books like Hawkeye, Daredevil, and Saga are some of the boldest books in years, and they haven’t touched a tenth of the numbers Walking Dead #100 pulled in. Some of these books will be lost before their time, yes—it happened to Aztek and Chase and it will probably happen to some books that won’t deserve it. They’ll be taken from us, and we’ll mourn their passing, but they’ll still kick unbelievable amounts of ass.
Change is coming. And when it gets here, I’ll be first in line at my friendly local comic shop, cash in hand.
Ross once Jell-O wrestled a roller derby babe for science, and pared down your home bar to the five essential mixers for a good time. Efficiency, baby! It’s what’s for dinner. (And for dessert: Jell-O.)