The Near and Distant Horizon

Timeliness is next to prescience, or something like that.  Here I was preparing this screed when I chanced upon an article by a person who insists that the survival of comic books is dependent upon their being wholly and fully “aligned” with their movie and television brethren.  Naturally, they use sales of The Walking Dead as proof of… something, I’m not entirely certain of what, but they fail to take into account that TWD is a self-contained phenomenon; a thing of but apart from the rest of the business, analogous to the high-performance sports car business and what you find at your local dealership or used-car lot.  It’s also distressing that the author seems to just love everything, dropping superlatives with abandon; such uncritical enthusiasm does little to support an argument.  So.

There comes a time when, in exasperation and defeat, you must throw up your hands in surrender or wash them entirely of what is and will be.  Welcome to today’s Comic Book Industry.

From the time that Marvel inadvertently created the “Event” series with the Avengers-Defenders War in 1973 to DC‘s initial Event, 1985′s Crisis on Infinite Earths, with it’s (intended) company-wide ramifications, we’ve been on a gradual downhill slide that gains and loses momentum with the only inevitability being the crash when things bottom out.

In between we’ve witnessed some remarkable highs including the dawn of many great talents who have provided us with the finest storytelling in the eighty or so years of this or any medium, no matter your taste.  From voices as diverse as Enki Bilal to Koike & Kojima, from Grant Morrison to Frank Miller, readers have been amply rewarded.  Alas, such pinnacles are always the exception and The End draws ever closer.

The belief that any well is bottomless is a conceit that humbled DC Comics in 1978, the Black & White boom industry in 1986, First Comics in 1991, Eclipse Comics in 1993, and Marvel in 1997.  Fill-in other publishers and genres as you wish, while the decline and fall of the briefly successful distribution industry is a story unto itself.  Whether through market forces, mismanagement, or malfeasance, the only certainty is that nothing lasts forever.

What we’re faced with at the moment is over-saturation.  Whether the absolute glut of comic book related movies and television programs will burn out or fade away is immaterial, only the fact that it will happen is important.  The evidence is implicit in our ongoing cultural shift; we tire of things and what was recently spectacularly popular (and profitable) is replaced.  Not necessarily with something “better” or even all that different, at least thematically, but different it is.  This evaporation of revenue and exposure will be the greatest single disaster to befall the industry as it stands.  Once the ash has cleared, however, followed by initial renewal and rebuilding, we may at least be able to look forward to a return to true experimentation, risk-taking and, however briefly, excellent stories excellently told rather than formulaic, assembly-line stories-by-committee.

Events are what sustain Marvel and DC, having become their core business model.  If not for the annual-or-so crossovers, tie-ins, and ret-cons, the centre of the market might have disappeared years ago, presuming that a return to individual storytelling couldn’t be successful.  This targeted success allows for some experimentation, but however much one might enjoy, say, Squirrel Girl, it wouldn’t exist without the core business.  If either or both of the Big Two fail, so fails the distribution network and so ends an industry as we know it.  There’s some irony in that many of the most talented creators have exclusive or nearly so agreements with smaller publishers, yet are completely reliant on Marvel and DC’s continued success for their work to see the light of day.  Without the Events, in other words, there’s no Saga or Lumberjanes or even The Walking Dead, as there are no comic book stores to sell them.

We’ve also witnessed the upper limit to the success of Events, with sales of core books having peaked (with the usual exception of certain individual issues or limited series).  As I commented elsewhere, recently, publishing is a very expensive business and, beyond a very basic level of involvement, publishers must continue to grow merely to support themselves, hence the truly heroic expansion of Image Comics in recent years; expansion is the price of doing business beyond a minimal level.  Most of the Big Two’s recent expansion has been the launch of movie and television related titles such as the Marvel Universe books.  It’s unlikely that these titles were expected to be particularly successful, their existence was predicated upon the need for more, where “more” means greater monthly cash-flow, the lifeblood of publishing.  Marvel has also been the recipient of a bonus in the form of the Star Wars universe but whatever arcane in-house licencing agreement that naturally exists within a conglomerate means that they need to sell an awful lot more of those books to make the same money as this month’s Ms. Marvel.  Nevertheless, it is more.

Having reached peak Event, and the cross-media tie-ins performing as well as is likely, and with no more Star Wars sized properties upon which to draw, the next attempt at expansion will almost inevitably be that other author’s Holy Grail:  full media alignment.  Except, as I’ve noted, the underlying success of which is dependent upon the continual expansion of those other media, a thing that’s simply not possible given our cultural impermanence.  Whether in six months or five years the hammer will drop; studios and producers may well continue to mine the comics industry for source material (they have for years but only a small fraction of options result in something tangible) but the success presently enjoyed from The Dark Knight, The Flash, The Avengers, or (to much lesser degree) Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be replaced with the Next Big Thing, or the next set of little things.  Which will leave the comic book industry in a bit of a pickle as losing that exposure can only result in a contraction of readership.  Not a huge contraction, the long (as in decades long) hoped for correlation between the big screen, and to lesser extent the small screen, and monthly book sales has never come to pass and, thus, is unlikely to occur in the near term, but enough to warrant corporate restructuring, which always includes downsizing, which will trickle down to the retail level and shutter some, with luck not too many, doors.

This leaves us with the elephant in the room:  Diamond Comics Distributors, Inc. My passing familiarity with American anti-trust law says that such an entity shouldn’t even exist.  Diamond is a full-blown monopoly which, so far as I understand the law, is illegal.  It’s also terribly impractical as, the notion of competition notwithstanding, should Diamond stumble it would take an entire industry with it.  Marvel and DC have the luxury of corporate ownership which could allow them to survive on some level, but even if they were to create their own distribution channels in a timely manner, it would leave everyone else, from printers to retailers, on the hook for losses that many if not most would not survive.  Again, publishing is a cash-flow business and any interruption, no matter how brief, creates ripples and repercussions all the way down the line.  A sudden contraction in the comics industry spawned by the ongoing changes in the television and movie industries might indeed cause irreparable harm to Diamond and, thus, the disappearance of most publishers and retailers.  A more gradual contraction might allow them time to restructure and keep their footing but history isn’t on their side as the larger the entity, the less fleet of foot.

I know how this sounds.  Buk-buk-bugaw! The sky is falling!  It really isn’t.  If the entire comic book industry disappeared tomorrow, it would only be a matter of time before it returned, possibly even reinvigorated.  It would be different, but it would be.  No, the sky’s not going out, but the world as we know it is growing dim, the only variable being how quickly it fades to black.  In a very real sense it depends on you.  You, right there!  Yes.  I’m sorry to say that the solution isn’t a new one, but if you want your local comic book store to survive, let alone thrive, you have to diversify your interests.  Super-heroes are the industry’s meat and potatoes but nearly all of the gravy flows to two publishers and, to beat a dead horse, the entire industry lives on the scraps that fall from the table.  I love those colourful punch-em-inna-face books as much as the rest of you but we’re getting closer and closer to a contraction because of the basic contradiction in our humanity:  the desire for the familiar and the need for change.  If you want to ease the effects of contraction and keep the industry afloat, you’re going to have to spend what little money you have not on this week’s Super-Thing but on some independent imprint’s not at all Super but possibly much more interesting Thing.  And bring a friend, maybe a couple of friends.  Maybe make some more friends, too, and then bring them.  Sure, buy the bright, shiny, violent things but only if you (and they) leave room for something from the à la carte menu.  There are plenty of articles and interviews and reviews out there to guide you, and perhaps engaging in a dialogue with your retailer or fellow customers would open new doors.  Or do nothing and let the contraction suck the whole thing down the drain.  You’ll still be able to find a copy of this month’s Super-Thing at your local supermarket as the corporations will continue to demand profit from the comics division; and like it or not it’s likely to be exactly like what you used to watch on TV or at the movies.  Like, totally.

Geez, this wound up in a whole different place from where it began.  Try to hang on to the central premise:  human nature and impermanence.  All things, good or bad, come to an end, and everything is cyclical.  It’s not “deep”, it’s just life.  Perhaps this time next year the movie and television landscape will be filled with westerns and we’ll all be hooked on hard-boiled pulp fantasy comics.  Whatever it is, it’ll be something else.  Then it’ll be this again.  Whee!

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Mark J. Hayman became a professional writer at the age of nineteen, composing and editing Point of Purchase price cards for the Canadian Tire Corp. It’s been all downhill from there. He remains a sometimes editor, occasional writer, and infrequent illustrator currently living in the no man’s land between creeping urban oppression and dwindling rural bliss. As the most interesting person he knows, it’s been strongly suggested that he get out more.

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1 Comment

  1. Mario Lebel says:

    Well, this was an excellent read. I don’t need that extra push to diversify my reading habits or my entertainment consumption, but those who might could be convinced by this article.

    Hope to see more writing from you in the future.

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