Column by Rob Salkowitz
Posted by Rob Salkowitz on June 18, 2018 @ 1:17 pm CT
I feel like I’ve covered half a dozen of these announcements in the past year, and have still been getting an earful from publicists whose pet projects I’ve neglected to mention. Then I go into the comic stores and ask about the books (which all sound pretty good to me), only to be met by a shrug or dismissive nod from the staff.
Getting soft in the middle. More people publishing comics and more people paying creators to make comics is generally a good thing if you’re a comics fan or pro, but it’s starting to feel like Iowa the year before a Presidential election around here. You’ve got a bunch of loud, hopeful, interesting-sounding folks clamoring for attention, being followed by a van full of reporters trying to fill their story quotas, all chasing the same tiny pool of voters in a small sliver of the country. It’s all fun and games until Caucus Day, when cold numbers winnow the field down to the real contenders.
The comics market has been feeling glutted for a while now, though most of the attention has been focused on the antics of DC and Marvel, flooding the market with titles and variants to soak up fan dollars and monopolize retailer shelf space. That’s a problem, but at least DC and Marvel have relatively large and established fanbases to backstop their publishing strategies, deep-pocketed parent companies vested in their IP, and they have retailers by the short hairs. Say what you want about their bad behavior, they can get away with it most of the time.
Obviously a lot of the new entrants would love to get a slice of that DC and Marvel market, but that’s a tall order without the household-name IP. And it’s not like you can just conjure up a connected universe overnight or create a passionate fan base around a forgotten franchise without a lot of talent, effort and luck.
Image or mirage? Realistically the model – and the target – for most of the newcomers is Image: well-crafted, imaginative genre work by professionals with enough name recognition within fandom to convince readers and retailers to take a flier on a few shelf copies, and enough diversity in the creative ranks and the subject matter to make a sincere play for a broader audience. They are less predictable than Big Two’s superheroic soap operas but not as arty and abrasive as underground alternatives. If you are already in comics culture, this stuff is a validation of your superior taste without pushing you too much outside your comfort zone.
There’s a word for that sort of thing: middlebrow. You can sneer at the pejorative connotations if you like, but speaking as a fan of this material myself, I prefer the definition offered by the New Yorker’s Mary Halford in describing her own magazine as being "devoted to the high but also to making it accessible to many; to bringing ideas that might remain trapped in ivory towers and academic books, or in high-art (or film or theatre) scenes, into the pages of a relatively inexpensive periodical that can be bought at bookstores and newsstands [and comic stores] across the country."
All things being equal, that’s not a bad model. Image generally makes good comics, and some of them sell quite well, particularly when they go to trade. If you can’t do another Superman or another Love and Rockets and don’t want to publish pure crap and/or licensed properties, a ticket in the "next Saga" lottery offered by the cool creator-owned middlebrow mainstream looks like a decent plan.
The narrow mainstream. So are middlebrow comics a growth market? Even with consistently high standards, Image itself sometimes has a few books too many on the stands for readers to keep up with, or gets crowded out by established competitors angling for the same slice of the pie. Can we really sustain another half-dozen new imprints?
Let’s get specific about the audience for your typical offbrand middelbrow title, as packaged and presented by its many purveyors.
First, the buyer is already a comics fan and has probably been one for a while. They’ve aged out or lost patience with the Big Two but still want the same general storytelling style, as opposed to something more experimental or challenging. The big names from 80s and 90s comics still hold a mystique, despite whatever recent disappointments pockmark their resumes.
This reader will buy digital, but still goes to comic stores and conventions. They hear about the books from comic-oriented blogs or maybe from conversations with creators in Artist Alley. And most of all, they have not only the money but also the time and attention to follow a few dozen dense new stories month to (maybe) month.
Does that sound like a lot of people to you? I mean, beyond the group of people who are actually making these comics?
Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Every middlebrow imprint makes noises about trying to expand the market, and some books are definitely bringing in different readers. Aside from stuff that is specifically for kids, though, it’s hard to see how you get non-comics readers into material that is basically the same as what you can see on literally hundreds of cable channels or streaming services.
Still, the lure of doing good work with talented creators is seductive, especially when other people are paying the bills. Over the last decade, the US economy has been really good at funneling large amounts of money into the hands of nerdy or nerd-adjacent people who have always wanted to make their own comics just like the ones they grew up with – and now that the shares have vested, they can! It’s also created a lot of wealth and opportunity for big companies that wish they had Marvel’s IP, but hey, comics are comics and we can just do our own if we hire the right people.
All that money seems, for the moment, to be indifferent to whether there are actually readers for all these middlebrow comics. One of them, or ten of them, or none of them, might end up being the next Saga, and then it will all be worth it for somebody. In the meantime, a lot of investment capital is going into the pockets of comic makers, and indirectly subsidizing fans by producing lots of great reading copies to fill the quarter bins of tomorrow with above-average material, which is about as close to wealth redistribution as we’re likely to get under current circumstances.
Barring a rapid change in market dynamics, I feel like a shakeout is coming soon. In the meantime, enjoy the middlebrow golden age while it lasts.
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.
Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is the author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.