Doomed to Repeat History. Stephenson’s speech included a lengthy history lesson in the ups and downs of the comics business from the dawn of the Comics Code through the “Chromium Age” boom-and-bust of the 80s and 90s, down to the current moment of opportunity and peril. Said Stephenson:
We've outlived the Comics Code, we've outlived the newsstands, we've grown up -- but for all the lessons we've learned along the way, we somehow still can't bring ourselves to think responsibly about the future.
We worry too much about what we don't have instead of focusing on what we've got, and we keep marketing the fear of missing out as excitement.
So we've gone back to gimmicks, to variant covers and relaunches and reboots and more of the same old stunts disguised as events, when really all our readers want are good stories.
True, true and true, right up to that end bit (in bold). And that’s where the problem lies.
Readers, brand loyalists and collectors. Stephenson is of course correct that oversaturating the market is a lousy idea, that gimmicks are stupid, and good comics are better than bad comics.
Unfortunately for Stephenson (and most of us), all readers want a good story, but it’s not all that customers want. There’s still a portion of the comics market that remains motivated by collectability, brand loyalty, fear of missing out of continuity events, force of habit, shiny objects and “torture variant” covers.
There’s every indication those diehards are being outnumbered by new fans with more diverse tastes and consumption patterns. Outnumbered, that is, on every front but one.
The direct market dilemma. Ironically, the explosion of creativity and diversity in comics is a high tide that is lifting all boats, but is also turning the retailers that were once the “mainland” of the industry into islands that are just managing to stay above the waterline.
Today you can buy graphic novels at the bookstore, on Amazon, or borrow them from the library; you can read comics on paper or digitally, one at a time or on all-you-can-eat subscription plans. You can go to conventions or eBay to buy limited edition and back issues. The only thing you can uniquely buy at comic stores is individual printed comic books.
In other words, people who want good comics have lots of places to go, but the people who want “bad comics” (variants, gimmicks and the like) have to shop at the comic store.
Cutting off your nose… Because this is the only place where the local comics shop enjoys a clear competitive advantage, it leaves direct market retailers highly dependent on customers with, let’s say, less discerning taste. The reality is that publishers wouldn’t be dabbling in gimmicks and variants unless enough direct market customers were interested. And it’s often these same customers who leave each week with armloads of regular titles, not the occasional impulse buy. What do you suppose they are buying?
If you’re a retailer lucky enough to have a couple of reliable $200+ per week customers, you’re going to do what’s necessary to keep them happy, even if that means indulging the worst impulses of publishers. If publishers were to stop doing these tricks, what replaces the revenue from those customers?
Everyone, especially retailers, understand it’s bad for the industry as a whole, but it’s also simple survival for businesses that face competition in every other market segment, escalating rent and labor costs, and reliance on a single distributor for their product and payments.
The Image model works… for Image. Stephenson rightly observes that the collective good suffers when too many people pursue short-term profits – always a point worth making whether in politics or in business. But just as a revolution that plays well in small New England states might not scale so well to the rest of the country, the lessons of Image hold only so much validity for publishers whose business models depend on corporate ownership of their characters or capitalizing on the appeal of licensed properties from other media, and retailers stuck catering to fans who don’t stray far from their comfort zones.
The company’s recent gains in market share show that there is definitely an appetite for well-told graphic genre fiction that’s unique and unpredictable. To the extent they have influenced others to focus on quality creator-owned work and provided an alternative to the corporate, brand-managed stuff coming out of DC and Marvel, they are doing the Lord’s work.
They’re also helping out those comic stores lucky enough to have a customer base that is persuadable, quality-conscious and diverse. Everything Stephenson suggests in his address would improve the outlook for those stores tremendously in addition to making the industry as a whole more sustainable.
But until that is most stores, the direct market is still going to have the same old problem from the 1990s, despite the dramatic change in the stature of comics culture over the past 20 years. Without an unprecedented shift in consumer behavior that transforms the American comic-buying public into something more closely resembling France or Belgium – where all comic readers routinely buy their quality graphic literature from local, independently-owned shops and old-style collector-fans don’t drive retailer strategy – the hope that publishers, distributors and retailers will call a halt to the cycle of self-destruction remains just so much Image-ination.
How do we get to that place? Well, that would make an excellent ComicsPro speech.
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.