The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 28 | On DC 2.0, the Decline of Print, the folly of Motion Comics, and more

Leaving Proof 28 | On DC 2.0, the Decline of Print, the folly of Motion Comics, and more
Published on Saturday, June 11, 2011 by

The sixth edition of the Basic Text of Narcotics Anonymous defines insanity as “repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results“. The somewhat glib definition has found its way into popular culture and has been mistakenly attributed to various luminaries, among them Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, author and activist Rita Mae Brown, and self-help “guru” Tony Robbins. It’s quite effective as a rhetorical and sloganeering tool as evidenced by its widespread usage outside of the original context of substance abuse recovery and rehabilitation. Of course, it can also be interpreted as an argument against persistence and perseverance in the face of hard times.

A little over a week ago, DC Comics announced that they would be reinventing their superhero line of comics, replacing their old standbys with re-designed versions that, according to a letter from Senior VP Bob Wayne addressed to comic book retailers, will “[ensure] that the updated images appeal to the current generation of readers.” DC’s campaign is seen by many as a gambit to wrest the position of top publisher from Marvel Comics (sales figures have consistently shown Marvel’s top titles outselling DC’s, with Marvel’s market share generally in the neighborhood of 40% to DC’s 27%) as well as a move to combat declining monthly comic book sales across the board (readers bought 6.9% fewer monthly comics in the first four months of 2011 than they did in the same period for 2010).

But outside of the synchronized, line-wide re-numbering/re-labeling of major on-going series, the launch of a number of new titles, and the attendant hype and hoopla accompanying the move, is this really a new strategy for DC? DC Comics and Marvel Comics have been re-writing origins, changing character designs, and “re-launching” titles to keep their superhero characters in tune with current trends and goose lagging sales (with varying degrees of success) since at least the 1970s, and this strikes me as nothing more than a cleverly packaged helping of more of the same.

I talked to the manager of a local comic book shop (The Comics Scene, with branches in North Vancouver and Surrey) about DC’s announcement and he told me that he doesn’t expect a new influx of readers to come in with DC’s reinvention campaign, despite its relatively high profile in the mainstream media. Having seen the solicitations for the upcoming titles in Previews magazine and noting the lack of pre-order activity or new customer inquiries the week after DC’s press release hit the internet, he figures that the only people whose interest has been piqued significantly by DC’s announcement are the people who are already buying or considering buying DC’s monthly comics. To me, it’s clear that DC Comics is doing the exact, same thing, over and over again, expecting things to change. What isn’t so clear is if this is a maladaptive reaction to current market conditions, or if they are working to persevere through economically tough times using familiar contrivances.

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It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. The public, by and large, is still enamored of the superhero. Major studio-produced superhero-themed films and video games, re-hashing familiar elements of the comics, continue to be made and continue to be profitable (if not exactly critically-acclaimed) for the most part. Superhero toys continue to populate shelves at Toys ‘R’ Us and Wal-Mart. It’s hard to put a firm number on the people who seed and leech torrents of unauthorized scans of superhero comic books but they probably number in the thousands at any given moment.

I’m convinced that the market is there, but it isn’t responding to the comic book medium, as it is currently devised, priced, and distributed in North America and elsewhere, to deliver superhero-themed content. Some people will point to the rise of the internet and the increasing popularity of video games as being major factors in the continued decline of superhero comic book sales (and comic book sales in general). Yet in Japan, where the per capita consumer spending on traditional media (such as print) vis-à-vis spending on internet access is less compared to that in the US (see graph above, right) and relative spending on various media formats largely mirrors that of the American consumer (see graph below, left), millions of people still buy and read shōnen manga, the Japanese equivalent of the American superhero comic book (in the sense that it features fantastical depictions of physical conflict and violence and is commonly viewed as reading material geared towards the juvenile—or juvenile-minded—male reader): The anthology shōnen manga Shūkan Shōnen Janpu (Weekly Shōnen Jump) alone has a weekly circulation in excess of two million, which is just about equal to the combined sales of the current top 35 monthly American superhero comics (all of which are published by Marvel or DC).

In essence, the picture seems to be that even though Americans spend much more on traditional media (which includes magazines) and less on internet access, they still buy fewer superhero (or superhero-like) comics than their Japanese counterparts. There are any number of ways this picture can be interpreted,of course. One thing to consider is the unit cost of a superhero (or superhero-like) comic book. Do the Japanese buy more shōnen manga (despite spending less per capita on print media overall) than Americans buy superhero comics because the Japanese ascribe more actual or perceived value (i.e., a fair return in “entertainment value” relative to the cost of the comic book) to shōnen manga than Americans do to superhero comic books? A typical weekly issue of Shūkan Shōnen Janpu, which costs about ¥250 (roughly $3.00), has anywhere from 400 to 500 pages (printed in black and white on low-quality paper), with as many as 12 to 15 serials running concurrently. By contrast, a typical monthly DC or Marvel comic book will feature only one on-going serial, have 22 pages (printed in color on high-quality paper stock), and cost anywhere between $2.99 and $3.99. Factor in the inflated cost of living in Japan and that difference in page count/unit cost ratio becomes even bigger.

To some degree, the decline in superhero comics sales can be viewed as just another manifestation of the decline of print media in the wake of freely available, digitized sources of information becoming more prevalent (see graph at right) and the associated drop in print advertising revenue. But whereas print newspapers and magazines face direct competition from no-cost, internet-based information outlets and periodicals (in some cases, their very own online editions!), it is more difficult to draw a connection between print superhero comics and their putative antagonist in the New Media, especially since even the most popular superhero webcomics don’t seem to be competing with print superhero comics for readers in any significant way (let’s leave the question of whether or not illegal torrents of scanned comics are significantly contributing to the decline of comic book sales for another column, but my short answer to the question is “no”).

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nom nom nom nomTo me, superhero comics publishers are in the position they are in not because of competition from New Media derivatives. Rather, they are losing ground to competing forms of entertainment because they have done a poor job of making the transition to the New Media (complicated by a belated move to a more profitable “book economy” from the moribund “magazine economy”). Marvel’s failed Dot Comics enterprise, which lasted from 2002–2005, exemplified the difficulties publishers face in making the transition and their poor grasp of what it really means to “go digital.” Dot Comics, and its successor, Marvel’s Motion Comics, are nothing more than shoddily animated versions of the printed material. If you’re old enough to have seen them originally aired or (like me) grew up watching the ubiquitous reruns throughout the 1980s, these “digital comics” are similar to the crudely crafted, low-budget Marvel superheroes cartoons from the 1960s (Dot Comics used word balloons, current Marvel Motion Comics use voice actors to read out the script). To quote Comics Alliance’s Chris Sims, “motion comics exist in this weird No Man’s Land between comics and animation; they’re essentially just the art from the comic being shown to you while a bunch of people literally read the comic out loud.” Sims brings up several salient points as to why the conceit of motion comics fails in his informative review of the Astonishing X-Men motion comics DVD. But don’t take his or my word for it, you can see for yourself how this bastard abomination looks and sounds like a free, web-based, Flash-animated cartoon (that somehow retails for $15!). Ironically, Motion Comics are less 21st century New Media than they are a throwback to cheap, mid-20th century animation.

At the very least, a proper digital adaptation of a print comic book, in my mind, should take full advantage of hypertext to provide the reader with more information on-demand and OCR technology to make dialogue balloon text search-able and indexable (OCR shouldn’t be necessary in the case of digitally-lettered comics, as the non-rasterized text would likely be found on a separate layer of the digital image file). This isn’t esoteric digital media mumbo-jumbo, it’s basic text and embedded image functionality that can be found in any professionally made HTML or interactive PDF file.

Another issue plaguing Marvel’s foray into publishing digital comics is that they don’t seem to have a clear vision of what they want their product to be. As of right now, all or parts of Marvel’s digital comics catalogue are found on six proprietary services/formats (not counting the Motion Comics DVDs): Digital Comics Unlimited (a subscription service for PCs and Macs), Graphic.ly (geared primarily towards Android devices), comiXology (an iOS app), the Marvel Comics iOS app (an iOS app that is similar to the comiXology app), Marvel Comics on Chrome (a paid service tied to Google’s Chrome browser), and Marvel Comics on the PSP (for use on Sony’s PSP portable video game console). All six services carry different content (with some overlap), pricing varies depending on the platform, and perhaps most puzzling of all, content purchased on one platform can’t be used or viewed on another platform. For instance, if a reader buys a digital comic book on his PC using the Chrome service, and later decides that he wants to read it on the go on his iPhone, he can’t just move the file from his PC to his phone. Nor is there a way for him to show his “receipt” so to speak, and indicate that he has already purchased said comic book (or more appropriately, the license to read the comic book), and simply re-download the comic book from the Marvel iOS for free (if it’s even available on the Marvel iOS app). Buying a digital comic book, in this case, is actually just purchasing the license to read a comic book in a specific format, on a specific device. Even Microsoft’s notoriously stringent Windows end-user license agreement allows a customer who purchased the full retail version of the Windows 7 OS to install it in and activate it on a second machine as long as he deactivates it on and uninstalls it from the PC it was originally installed in. Is it that difficult for Marvel to settle on a platform-neutral, secure file format for digital comics?

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A little over six months ago, I wrote a column on the NBA’s Miami Heat. With the Heat making the Finals, it looks like the team’s personnel have come together at the right time as I suggested might happen. Still, with the Dallas Mavericks one win away from the franchise’s first championship, the issue of the inability of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James to feed off of each other on offense in crunch time comes up again and again. Of course, if the Heat perform the unlikely feat of winning two games in a row against a Mavs team that has tasted blood in the water, all this talk will be forgotten. But right now, the two dominant themes I can see in these Finals are:

  • Dirk Nowitzki is one of the best power forwards, if not the best power forward, the league has ever seen in terms of offensive versatility. I know people like to compare him to the Basketball Jesus, but to me, the Diggler has a much more varied repertoire of moves in the low post and is more athletic. His mid-range jumper is unassailable, and sure, there are better post scorers (Tim Duncan), better ballhandlers (Chris Webber), and a scant few who can approach his outside shooting touch (Rasheed Wallace, barely), but I can’t really think of any other real power forward (and not just small forwards masquerading as stretch 4s) who can contribute to the offense in so many ways, from so many spots on the floor, with such a high level of skill.
  • The Miami Heat is still Wade’s team. Knowing what we know now and seeing how they’ve performed under pressure, all the talk during the regular season about how two “alpha dogs” like Wade and James could co-exist on the same team now seems silly. Whether James knows it or not (and whether he cares or not), he’s assumed the role of the sidekick on this team. He’s not exactly Robin to Wade’s Batman, it’s more like he’s the War Machine to Wade’s Iron Man. He’s bigger, faster, and stronger, but he isn’t running the show, and he still takes orders from the guy who is.

It will be interesting to see if the Mavs can close the show on Sunday.

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