Best of Times, Worst of Times, or Just Another Day at the Office?A column article, Manifesto by: Jason Sacks
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. But also it was just another day at the office."
- Dylan Horrocks on Twitter
It's such a weird time for comics, but then every time is a weird time for comics.
Heck, you can say that for any era, for any artform or really, honestly, for nearly everything else in history. Every four years we're told "this is the most important election in history" by politicians and their proxies, and every year we're told "this is the make or break year for comics."
You know what? Those pundits proclaiming the importance of the current era are both right and wrong.
They're right that there's never been a time like today. And thank God for that if you're a comics fan. Finally you actually can be caught in the subway or on an airplane reading a graphic novel and have people who are honestly curious what you're reading. And you, as a reader, have material that's not only interesting to you but that you can persuade your smart friends and family members to enjoy as well. Whether they care about Iron Man, Bomb Queen, the work of Jim Henson or serious works by Craig Thompson, Joe Sacco or Terry Moore, there is a work of singularly interesting comics are out there for them – if they can find that material.
But these are also times of profound uncertainty. Monthly sales are going down, down, down, to the point where we've gotten used to the bestselling Marvel and DC books selling fewer than 100,000 copies per month unless they feature various X-Men fighting various Avengers, or if they feature an only slightly radical reboot of the DC Universe. There is a real and legitimate concern that this drop in sales can create a vicious cycle for comics, where the poorly selling comics create a vacuum that sucks comic shop profits down with them.
After all, that scenario has happened before. Some of you oldsters might remember the black and white boom of 1986-7 or the boom of the early '90s, when comics were briefly extremely popular collectibles being sought after for their amazing collectible value. A virtual gold rush came to comics as speculators couldn't wait to snap up as many copies as possible of Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters or the special Death of Superman issue that shipped with the black armband.
In both cases, innocent retailers – okay, innocent isn't the right word – craven retailers stepped up to the trough to collect every nickel and dime from the speculators and allowed the bubble in comic prices to grow as quickly as a McMansion in Las Vegas. And just as in Las Vegas now, the bubble in comic prices caused vast problems as it laid waste to the comics industry for years.
So the professionals and pundits and shop owners worried that comics were dead. But look at comics now – they're far from dead.
This pervasive pessimism in the comics industry has literally been around forever – from the entrepreneurs who hedged their bets as they produced the earliest comics and exploited their talent, to the great crash of the Fredric Wertham-era comics witch-hunt, or the late '50s Marvel implosion; the bust after the uber-popular Batman TV series went off the air, or the DC Implosion of 1978. It goes on and on – the bust of '87, the bust of '93, the monopoly power of Diamond, the rise of the Internet and its ubiquitous and free content, the popularity of video games… on and on and on, enough to make any worrier bald with no fingernails.
And yet, somehow, comics have survived. We survived our early, awkward years. We survived Wertham and his backlash. We survived without Adam West and Burt Ward and we survived with a third of the DC line unceremoniously cancelled in one fell swoop. We survived the black and white bust and the breaking of Batman's back and the slow decline of the direct sales market and the internet and video games and all the other stuff that makes me gnash my teeth.
The fact is, here in 2012, comics are in a pretty decent place, considering.
While the top of the market is a bit challenged, the middle of the market is doing pretty dang well. Mid-range publishers like BOOM! and Archaia have thriving lines of comics. There's no sign that Dynamite or Avatar are having financial troubles (at least that I know of – but what do I know, I'm just some idiot who runs a website). Just the opposite. These companies are riding a different wave, taking a different path than what used to the normal way of doing business. They've found a way to stay alive and even thrive in a world where fewer people than ever before are reading actual text-only books.
The ability to quickly read a multi-threaded narrative is unique to comics in many ways, and it fits the way that many people see the world these days. Most of us are born multitaskers: tweeting, IMing and texting while watching TV or gaming, and we treat that fractured attention span as a normal part of life. Some worried experts believe that fractured attention span is leading to a lack of intelligence, but I'd like to think that it leads to a different sort of visual intelligence that allows people to take in and synthesize multiple threads nearly in real time.
Meanwhile the smarter or more inventive cartoonists are creating multi-tiered creations that engage the reader in a complex perception of reality that encompasses different canvases in ways that no other medium can encompass. Comics can get smarter because we can make assumptions about readers that could not be true in the past; a comic like Hell Yeah or Prophet that takes a self-reflexive approach to its storytelling that perfectly strikes the perceptive brains of exactly the kinds of readers who comics should be attracting these days.
This isn't new – Art Spiegelman experimented with multi-timed narratives in the 1970s, Jaime Hernandez created a world in the '80s that asked much from readers and Frank Miller was doing brilliant work with parallel narratives 30 years ago. But that approach has borne sweet fruit in our current era, when readers aren't just ready for complex narratives but are demanding them. Even rank and file mainstream books are embracing techniques that would have seemed avant-garde a decade or two ago.
Meanwhile the incredible growth in digital comics has been breathtaking and represents a real opportunity for comics. I think we were all blown away by the fact that Comixology has sold $50 million of comics since its founding, but all statistics show that book sales on mobile devices will just keep growing over the next few years as tablets get more pervasive and readers get more used to the convenience of online ordering and fulfillment. In my regular job I work at a company that creates custom eBook readers, and the demand for our services keeps growing like crazy as retailers and publishers continue to see increasing demand for digital reading material.
Digital is not going away, and while it's not a panacea for comics, it's certainly an amazing opportunity that is already doing great things in the comics market. When someone like Colleen Doran can basically make free money by selling digital copies of A Distant Soil in Comixology for 99¢ each, there is the tremendous chance for creators to speak directly to readers and make a buck or two while doing it.
Quite frankly, based on what I've seen at conventions lately, the problem isn't that there's not enough good stuff on the stands. The problem is that there's too much good stuff, that there's way too much quality work out there for all of it to get the attention that it deserves. It's the opposite problem from the black and white bust of the mid-'80s when the industry was flooded with crap. Instead there's too much great comic art available for any sane person to be able to consume it. I should know; I try to read the stuff that people are buzzing about but all too often fail.
This is another reason why we at Comics Bulletin are so bullish on the comics market, and are so committed to championing work that comes from creators' hearts. There are so many creators putting their heart and soul into every panel they create, producing work that can change your life. We'd like to help you navigate through the amazing web of comics available today, and want you to help us find some of those amazing works of art. Please let us know what you think we should be covering.
2012: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. But it was just another day at the office.