Printed comic books have existed for most of the 20th century, and in one form or another probably since the invention of the printing press. There is anecdotal evidence of comic book like art forms throughout the ages, with even Egyptian hieroglyphics being distant cousins of the modern comic.
So it may be presumptuous of me to say that comic books are dead, but bear with me, and I’ll tell you why.
Eric Alterman writes Out of Print: The Death and Life of the American Newspaper and as goes the newspaper so goes comics. Newspapers are losing millions of dollars a month, they are losing advertising, writers, and even the venerable classified system has moved online, something that provided newspapers with a massive revenue stream for decades.
The economies just don’t work out. Consider that the publisher charges about $1.00 for a copy of a comic book to the distributor, when you factor in the cost of paper, the fact that the print runs are dwindling to the point where 5000 units is a fairly large order (when ten years ago 25,000 units was the cancellation point of any mainstream title), the cost of creators, the in-house costs, shipping from the printers to the distributor’s warehouse, the cost of warehousing the comics themselves, etc, it just becomes impossible to see how anyone can make a profit (and some have argued that if it weren’t for movies strip mining comic ideas, they wouldn’t make a profit).
Its the comic industry’s own fault that it is in this predicament. The big four publishers Dark Horse, DC, Image and Marvel put out more than 450 titles PER MONTH! All told there are over 2000 titles in the monthly Diamond catalog that we order from. With the best selling title doing less than 200k units a month, the economies of scale just aren’t there anymore. Comics have become such a niche product and within that specific niche there are even more specific niche’s.
What’s more comics speak to an increasingly dwindling audience. For the first time in MY life comics no longer speak to me, they’re being written for people who are five and ten years OLDER than me! Marvel and DC have gone to a nostalgia well that isn’t comfortable for me, bringing back storylines from fourty years ago in an attempt to make the 40+ fans happy.
Mainstream comics aren’t being written by the hot young up and comers anymore, they’re being given to the Orson Scott Card’s, the Jodi Picoulet’s and the J Strazynski’s of the world, guys who are ten and fifteen years older than the Bendis/Millar/Morrison combo which ten years ago breathed new life into the industry after the massive collapse.
Retailers are also aging, and while a few entrepreneurs have come along who actually have a different, and better idea of how to run a comic store such as James Sime who’s Isotope Comics Lounge is what stores should aspire to be. However most comic store owners simply would not be able to hack it in any other industry, and their stores are just glorified junk stores. You see it in the signage on the stores, and their half hearted attempts at websites.
The deck is stacked against retailers though, the publishers have exclusive distribution deals with one supplier, the terms that the supplier gives comic stores are not nearly as generous as the terms they give the big book stores, and comic shops don’t get to experience the benefit of “return ability”, we gamble with product every week and hope that we come out on top.
There are retailer organizations like Comics PRO, but it is a perfect example of how out of touch the industry is. They do not allow internet based retailers to be part of their organization, and everything from their website to the public personae they project suffers for this fact.
The internet has created phenomenon like Penny Arcade and PVP, and eventually someone will figure out how to distribute comics digitally. Of course digital distribution will entirely remove the need for the retailer infrastructure.
Comics will likely make their debuts digitally and go to TPB and Hardcover nearly immediately where Barnes and Noble, Chapters, and Amazon will take over with the distribution of the paper product.
This should make me angry as a comics fan, but it doesn’t. At this point though it kind of makes sense to me. I think it’s right that comics as we know them die. After all, sometimes death isn’t truly death, it’s just a different sort of life.