Sharpening the Sword is a weekly column by retailer John Riley of Grasshopper's Comics, a 1,300 square foot comic and games store in Williston Park, New York. This week, Riley looks at the crystal meth of comic publishing.
In light of the news that periodical comics took yet another slide in sales, its time that we had an intervention with our big two publishers. So, believe it or not, let's talk about crystal meth for a second.
It's an interesting drug. The first time you use it it burns out part of your brain leaving you incapable of ever duplicating that first high. Users consume more, hoping to capture that feeling again, and each time it burns out a little bit more of the brain, causing a downward spiral with a catastrophic ending.
Comics publishing over the past few years has followed a similar path. Marvel launched Civil War to great enthusiasm and sales increased as fans bought extra tie-in titles as they were dragged into the "event." But each
"event" disrupts the ongoing storylines fans were following in individual books. When the event ended sales dropped to a point lower than when the event started, as a percentage of the original fans reading each title dropped the book since the story they were following had been "hijacked" into the event.
The publisher response? Release an even bigger crossover to drag more people into the hijacked mid/low tier titles and add a number of miniseries to the event as well. Since some portion of the fanbase wants to read the entire thing, its understandable that sales again go up temporarily (especially when combined with huge ordering incentives). But when its over sales again fall below the pre-event levels as disgruntled fans again drop books whose stories were hijacked for the event.
Fans have now been conditioned to view storylines as marketing events. When the Human Torch was recently killed fans weren't upset. They were insulted that anyone thought they should care when they all knew it was just a setup for the eventual "Return of the Human Torch" storyline. When a major crossover is launched readers have been conditioned to view it as nothing more than a lead-in to the next one. And when all the smoke has cleared nothing of note changes, except for one thing, fewer readers.
I mentioned this to one of the top people at the big two recently, and urged him to reconsider the massive events that have been driving so many fans away, to break this downward spiral in favor of stronger storylines in individual titles. His response: "Less events? We need more! And bigger ones!"
The best-selling title in our store doesn't engage in any of this behavior yet achieves all of Marvel and DC's goals. It has a phenomenally loyal fan base and sees constantly increasing sales. It sells extremely well front list and even better back list. And it constantly creates new comic fans/customers all the time. It does this without events, tie-ins, miniseries, or variant covers. It's had one creative team for over 75 issues and only twice has it even had a named story arc. It has even ended a trade paperback smack in the middle of a story.
What title? The Walking Dead... a title that offers up the same thing that comics back in the silver age did: a linear narrative with a long running creative team where the story elements were permanent and had long lasting repercussions on the characters. That drama makes fans care, knowing that the stories matter, they're not going to be constantly retconned or hijacked by the marketing department.
There's the temptation to say, "Well, sure, but The Walking Dead is unique." Sure it is, but you're telling me that talent like Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, Brian Bendis, and Matt Fraction can't do similar work? They're all obviously capable of doing the same, assuming that their books aren't constantly dragged into some unnecessary crossover every six months.
Comics are serialized fiction. You can trick me into seeing a bad movie with some great marketing and a killer trailer. But there's no way you'll trick me into seeing the sequel. Comics are all sequels. The only way to keep the reader coming back for more is to deliver consistent, high quality, long term stories. Its how the comics of the Silver Age created life long fans. It's how TV shows like Lost and The Sopranos built such a rabid fanbase. But would the fans of Lost stick around if there was a mandatory Lost/Golden Girls four week crossover every summer? C'mon.
I applaud DC for their relaunch, for the decision to no longer write to trade, and to reach out to the general public. I'm excited and hope that the relaunch will be refocused on telling exciting, dramatic long term narratives and avoide the mega-events that have driven so many fans away the past few years. Fans want to immerse themselves in your world. They want to hop on for the long ride. You just have to stop shaking them off every year.
If you're a comic shop owner or a fan and think there's merit in this argument, I urge you to comment here in the Talk Back section. As a shop owner, I understand that some type of smaller, perhaps title specific, events are exciting and desirable, but the drug is becoming all-consuming and burning the fans out. The publishers need to be called out on their addiction before its too late.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
Column by John Riley
Posted by ICv2 on July 27, 2011 @ 10:46 pm CT
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