I Think I Can Manage is a weekly column by retailer Steven Bates, who runs Bookery Fantasy, a million dollar retail operation in Fairborn, Ohio. This week's column is part one of a two-parter on the death of comics.
Comic books are dying. We know this, of course, because doom-bunnies and gloom-doggies have been telling us this for years. There was the DC implosion in the 1970s, the black-and-white Boom/Bust of the 80s, the great speculator exodus of the 90s, and now, well, now comics are just too expensive. So, we should all pack our bags and seek fame and fortune in some more lucrative line of work. Like day trading tech stocks.
The only problem with this Chicken Little scenario is, nobody remembered to tell the publishers. Marvel and DC alone are cranking out enough titles to stock a large comic book store's racks, with numerous derivations of the X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, and Superman families, not to mention all the team books, subgenre imprints, TV/movie tie-ins, and the ever-more-important trade paperback divisions. Add to these two giants the impressive offerings from Dark Horse, Devil's Due, Image, TokyoPop, and Viz, and you've got more comics in a month than most of us could read in a year. Hardly the kind of output you'd expect from a dying industry.
But are comics really healthy? Or just lingering in some twilight state, life support machines blipping a countdown to the inevitable pulling of the plug?
Most retailers rely on DC and Marvel for their livelihood. Without the substantial sales generated by the Big Two, the comic book industry would be hard-pressed to sustain itself. Diamond Comic Distributors probably couldn't operate without the revenue generated by Marvel and DC, at least not at their current size. Even those shops that are not as dependent on super-heroes would be potentially at risk without Diamond (though places like Cold Cut and FM International do a nice job distributing numerous alternative publishers). In many ways, DC and Marvel are the 'legs' of the industry, supporting every other area of the comics biz, even those publishers as diametrically different as Fantagraphics and IDW.
It seems unlikely that either of these legs of the hobby could topple in the foreseeable future; but we should examine how safe we are as an industry from the domino effect of a DC/Marvel collapse. Ironically, the biggest threat to our future comes not from outside the industry; it comes from the Big Two themselves. Their unrelenting attempt to dominate the market, with multiple titles telling, essentially, the same story with the same characters, is cannibalizing the marketplace, drawing away not only their competitor's customers, but feeding off their own. How many customers have you heard say they can't follow all of the X-Men books, so they just follow Ultimate or Astonishing X-Men? Or Batman readers who now read only Nightwing or Robin, because the continuity is a little tighter? And what of the once-monthly buyer who now gets trade paperback reprints instead, often released within days of the last issue of a story arc? Like the muscle-bound costumed characters they publish, battling Godzilla-like through the streets of a great metropolitan city, inadvertently wiping out the citizens they supposedly defend, Marvel and DC are winning the battle while losing the war.
Corporate rivalries are nothing new. Coke vs. Pepsi, McDonalds vs. Burger King, Wal-Mart vs. everybody else--such competition is natural, and usually the consumer benefits from the war. But unlike those combatants, DC and Marvel stand to take out nearly every other competitor if they fall. Fast food would survive without McDonalds (and everyone would be healthier), and soda drinkers would adapt to a world with only one cola. While the demise of Wal-Mart would send many Americans into sticker shock, Target and K-Mart would pick up the slack almost overnight, and discount retailing would continue uninterrupted. I'm afraid the same can't be said about the comics industry.
Watch for Part 2 next week!