SDCC 2011: Is the Comic Book Doomed?

A comics news article

Everyone's been debating the potential success and basic purpose of the DC Comics relaunch, and San Diego Comic-Con 2011 brought (along with many other things) a four-part panel wherein Dan DiDio and the rest of DC's majors tried to convince the fans that yes, this is a good idea. Fearing discomfort, I avoided it (and, in light of recent events, I'm a bit sorry I missed it). However, a different debate was raging in one of the Convention Center's seemingly infinite meeting rooms -- a debate that questioned the very validity of releasing comics to begin with.

Moderated by critic Douglas Wolk, "Is the Comic Book Doomed?" dealt with the potential death of the comic book in its 32-page single issue incarnation. While at numerous times during the past couple of decades people have predicted that the single issue had only about five years left in it, several knowledgeable comics folk gathered to discuss if maybe now we were seeing the comic book in its death throes. 



Alongside Wolkin were Amanda Emmert (ComicsPRO), Laura Hudson (Comics Alliance), Vijaya Iyer (Cartoon Books) and famed comic book writer and strong-opinion-haver Mark Waid (Irredeemable,Daredevilover 2,000 tweets). It was a nicely balanced spread of comic book folk -- a retailer, a journalist, an indie publisher and a seasoned mainstream creator.

Unfortunately, the panel (lasting about an hour) was too short, with not enough time for the conversation to really blossom. Such is the nature of the convention, it was still an invaluable panel. For all the exciting announcements going on in other meeting rooms, film adaptations being previewed and wanton commerce happening in the exhibit hall, "Is the Comic Book Doomed?" was a reminder that all is not well in the industry.

The talk opened with some stats: periodical sales were down 8% in 2001. The highest-selling comic in 1991 sold 7.1 million copies. -- a number that's plummeted over the years to about 100,000. Granted, trade paperback sales have been up. Waid added an unforgettable fact: that comics sold millions upon millions when they cost 10 cents.

Iyer also provided circulation numbers for Bone when the original single issues were published in the '90s: Cartoon Books published Bone in a print run of 3,000 copies at roughly 30-40 cents a copy, with a $2.95 cover price. However, those printing costs would be much higher today, and Cartoon Books would have to deal with Diamond's high distribution thresholds, meaning that a comic has to sell roughly 2,000 copies for Diamond to be willing to distribute it. 

Waid laid out today's panic-inducing scenario of DC and Marvel being able to afford their huge print runs, while smaller publishers can't, asking the question of whether something as recent as The Walking Dead orInvincible (both started 2003) could even successfully launch today.



In response, Emmert pointed to the grind of consistently producing indie comics as something that isn't new to the world of comics, while Hudson added that the economic downturn isn't the only factor working against single issue sales.

This gave Wolk an opportunity to ask another question: at what point do declining sales obliterate the single issue? Nobody quite addressed this question, with Emmert using the "declining sales" bit to point out that more outlets for comic sales (i.e. shops) would surely help raise sales. There just aren't enough places to buy comics anymore. Iyer once again pointed to TPBs as the big moneymakers for comics, but noted that single issue sales subsidize the production costs on a comic -- in other words, the cost of paying the creative team, printing the book and marketing it.

Clearly, there was need for a more focused question: what would be the "extinction event" that puts an end to single issues for good? Iyer answered with declining numbers bringing about the death of single issues, while Emmert brought up something DC's Paul Levitz said about the downturn in the 1980s: people either tried to work through it or they quit comics and got another job. Waid assured that Marvel and DC would be fine in selling their single issues barring a situation where somebody tried to buy Diamond, Diamond went out of business, or one of the major publishers closed up shop.

At this point Wolk told the panelists to imagine a situation where Diamond was suddenly and completely unable to ship books for a month. What would happen then? Emmert denied the possibility of this scenario, confident that there would be an announcement about it, giving retailers time to react. Waid responded with some concrete examples of news blindsiding the industry, such as Marvel buying Heroes World and Disney buying Marvel.

Emmert, seemingly unable to accept the disastrous scenario, assured that retailers are savvy enough to figure out alternative ways to get their comics and get them in the hands of consumers -- an optimistic notion, but maybe not a realistic one. Hudson suggested that a month without Diamond would certainly affect comics' digital sales, while Waid claimed that the entire industry would first need to crash and burn before anything progressive would happen.

When Hudson asked what would need to change to prevent that kind of disaster, Waid pointed to smaller publishers finding success creating original intellectual property, presumably referring to publishers like IDW and BOOM!, which both publish a great deal of licensed comics based on popular TV shows, movies and other properties (though there are lots of even smaller publishers who have their one licensed property that may or may not keep them afloat). He went on to suggest that smaller publishers figure out how to successfully transition to web-based publishing.

Wolk then asked Vijaya Iyer what may have been the most focused, pivotal question of the panel: could Cartoon Books successfully launch Bone today?

"No," said Iyer. "Not in the way we did it back then." Ouch.

Emmert, using The Walking Dead's low single/high trade sales as an example, claimed that publishing single issues essentially works to promote the trade paperback collection. This prompted Hudson to ask why don't publishers resort to digital releases of single issues? Different methods work for different publishers, Emmert shot back. For example, the (hugely successful) creators of Penny Arcade release installments of their webcomic for free online.

Much of this panel was a verbal joust between the pragmatic Waid and the curiously optimistic Emmert. Rather than recreate the back and forth of the debate in wince-inducing detail, I'll tell you this: as the back and forth grew more intense, Emmert seemed halted in her tracks, needing to quietly compose herself and reform her thoughts. If you've ever grown flustered and needed to take a breather in the face of confrontation, you know what I mean. It was uncomfortable. While Waid expressed wild consternation at Emmert's opinions, it's not surprising that a figure representing the retailers side would argue for the retailers' ability to persevere.



Then came the Q&A. Unlike the big song-and-dance Marvel and DC Q&As, there's less tension here because the only people in the room are interested in adding to the conversation. Thankfully.

Over the past several years, we've seen companies in different media go out of business: Tower Records (music), Blockbuster (movies) and Borders (books). Why wouldn't comics, a much smaller industry, be next?

Emmert spoke up, answering that those cases involve very rich people having to resort to selling their private jets. Comics are a small, niche industry, and so the scale is different. Considering that digital sales have all been factors in those other business shut-downs, she expressed a concern that comics publishers will have to make their content fit digital mediums.

This made Waid raise his arms victoriously and exclaim, "Yes! Your fear is my hope!"

Surely the publishers are to blame for declining sales of their comics?

Hudson gave the deciding answer on this, pointing to the way that many mainstream comics are written to their dwindling sales. Waid supported this, using the example of an issue of Green Arrow steeped in decades of continuity. Few people would want to read that in print form, so why would a digital version be received any different?

When Marvel released the digital version of Invincible Iron Man Annual #1 on the same day as the print release, the issue was created with digital in mind, which means that there weren't any two-page spreads. With the growing popularity of digital, will elements like splash pages die off?

Emmert pointed out that the relaunched Justice League #1 (which will be released digitally at the same time as the print version) will have a foldout cover by Jim Lee, so tricks that work better in print form are still around. This brought about an interesting idea for the future of comics as it relates to the digital/print divide: publishers may want to use both mediums to their advantage, giving digital readers a version of the comic that works best on the iPad screen while the print version uses the physical pages to its own advantage. The two versions could then inform one another in interesting ways when read in tandem.

Harmony. Now there's a thought.

Community Discussion