Image Comics announced this past Thursday that they will now be offering a direct mail service to their US customers for over 35 of their most popular titles, including Rat Queens, Sex Criminals, The Walking Dead and Saga. Customers will be offered a 12 month subscription, at a 30-35% savings over the cover price. Publisher Eric Stephenson explains, “Given that there are fewer comic book stores than ever before, we’re hoping that Image Direct makes our titles available to fans who don’t have easy access to a local comic book store, or whose shop doesn’t carry the full range of Image titles.”
Marvel and DC have had this option for a while, but, it should be noted, those companies have a few more open revenue streams than Image. Their power within the comics industry and all its other lucrative industries make such a move very low-risk. In other words, no comic shop is threatened, fundamentally, by the idea that someone can get a Marvel/DC title delivered to their home. This move by Image to offer an option that bypasses the comic shop entirely seems to be indicative of the continuing evolution of the industry.
In biology, particularly in Conservation Biology, the first question asked is, “What are we conserving? What’s worth conserving? What represents the consequences of disruption and what represents natural variation and natural processes?” Ecology and Economics are really not that different in this sense (there’s a reason they share a linguistic root). The comics industry developed, as we all know, in response to political and economic forces over which it had little control. The imposition of the comics code had long-term consequences for where comics were sold, and what sort of people bought them. The “comic shop” as we know it is a mid-century innovation, a way of facilitating direct marketing. Of course, as often happens in biology as in the development of economic models, the system adapted, and comic shops themselves acquired, like a coral reef, an essential ecological function. They brought together readers, marketers and quite often creators under one roof.
This sort of direct mail service isn’t really any different from digital delivery in that it completely bypasses the comic shop. It takes the work of compiling subscription lists, stuffing bags, sealing envelopes and providing customer service and puts all in Image Comics’ house, and then sells to customers at a reduced price. I’m sure they’ve run the numbers: it must be profitable.
And their justification makes perfect sense to me. I lived for years in a community with no comic shop, so I developed a relationship with a comic shop about 800 km away and had them play the envelope stuffing game. The advantage for me is that I could get all my titles, from all the various labels, not just Image. But I must say, these days, about 80-90% of the comics I read come from Image. If I were a US resident, this system could appeal to me.
And what of comic shops? I bring us back to the biology metaphor. Coral reefs are extremely important in holding together these improvised communities, but they’re also extremely fragile. Almost the slightest disruption can bring down the whole system, and it takes a long time to rebuild. In terms of creating and preserving biodiversity, coral reefs are vital structures. But the question that we in comics have been asking, and must continue to ask, is how vital is the comic shop to comics? Are they like coral reefs? Or more like sunken ships, which also provide the nucleus for improvised marine communities but clearly aren’t “natural”? What’s worth conserving?
The debate continues. And Image has once again brought it to the fore.