The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 112 | Surviving the Decline of Print: Do Comics Still Matter?

Leaving Proof 112 | Surviving the Decline of Print: Do Comics Still Matter?
Published on Monday, May 7, 2012 by

Do comics still matter?

The common refrain we’ve been hearing from within the industry and without, since around the time that Marvel declared bankruptcy in 1996, is that comics are in a slow but steady decline, both in commercial importance and in terms of their significance in the popular culture discourse, especially as the medium of print continues its supposedly inevitable downward slide into relic status. A cursory look at current sales statistics seems to bear the former out: The latest numbers (March 2012) from industry observer site ICv2 show that—discounting “event” mini-series titles like Avengers vs. X-Men—the three top-selling monthly titles hover around the 100,000 sales mark and monthly actual sales numbers for comics drop precipitously outside of the top eight sellers. To put that data into context, during the mid-1940s, the Golden Age’s top-selling on-going comic, Fawcett Publishing’s Captain Marvel Adventures, routinely sold 1.3 million copies on a bi-weekly publishing schedule (and if one were to take into account the “pass-along effect” commonly cited by comics publishers of the day, the comic’s actual bi-weekly circulation may have been as high as 6.5 million). Buoyed up by the speculator mentality and variant cover gimmick, 1991’s X-Men #1 sold over 8 million copies (a record for most copies of a single issue sold that stands to this day). Outside of Western comics, even Japanese publishers and their licensees in North America and Europe are not immune to the worldwide decline in print. According to a January 2012 report posted on io9, manga publishers have been reporting continuously and steeply falling sales since 1995.

And yet, coming from an event such as Fan Expo Vancouver and seeing the sheer number of people attending the various comic book panel discussions, lining up for artist and writer signings, dressing in comics-themed cosplay, and basically just milling about and talking comics, one can’t shake the feeling that comics are still a vital art form, despite the fact that the sales of comics today are a miniscule fraction of what they once were.

Popular and commercial interest in properties with roots in comics remains high, as seen in the continued success of comics-related films, video games, TV shows, and merchandising. Early reports indicate that The Avengers has set a new US opening weekend box-office gross with its $200 million take (breaking the record previously held by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 by over $30 million). And this cross-media success isn’t limited to superhero comics. Tintin, The Smurfs, 300, Sin City, The Crow, Men in Black, and The Walking Dead are but a few non-superhero, comics-based properties that have movie, television, or video game spin-offs either recently released and/or currently in production. The Penny Arcade webcomic has an estimated 3.5 million regular readers, and has spawned its own convention series called PAX (for Penny Arcade Expo), the largest of which, PAX Prime held last year in Seattle, boasted over 70,000 attendees and several hundred exhibitors and major sponsors. In 2010, Penny Arcade creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik were listed by Time magazine among the world’s 100 most influential people.

Cartoonist Ali Ferzat was beaten by police for his cartoons critical of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad

Comics and sequential art’s contemporary influence extends far beyond the box-office or the website hit counter. The Guy Fawkes mask that is a visual hallmark of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta has become synonymous with the various popular protest movements sweeping various industrialized nations. Regional cartoonists and comic book artists have played a significant role in calling attention to the events of the Arab Spring, even as their work makes them a target for death threats and actual physical attacks.

Going by these examples, it certainly appears that comics, in print and on the World Wide Web, are still relevant as a culturally (and even politically) salient art form and in terms of serving as a proving ground for story ideas and characters that can be monetized in more popular and more profitable media. But why doesn’t this seeming significance translate into comics sales? Are unit sales simply an outmoded metric for measuring the cultural and commercial impact of comics?

To more accurately ascertain comics’ status in the current popular culture and entertainment milieu, it is perhaps necessary that we extend the definition of what a comic book is to include permutations that are not normally considered variations of the format. As we’ve discussed here in Leaving Proof before, video games have become what some would call an unlikely, even ironic, venue for the expression of sequential art: If we consider the comic book-inspired, sequential art-style cutscenes found in the Max Payne video game series as some manner of next-generation graphic novel, then its reader exposure would rival that of the best-selling single-issue comics of all-time; 3D Realms co-founder Scott Miller estimates that the two Max Payne games sold around seven million copies combined, and the actual number of circulating copies of the games at the height of their popularity in the early- to mid-2000s could easily be double that once one takes into account pirated versions. Factor in used game sales and re-sales into the equation and we could be talking about an audience that potentially numbers in the tens of millions. Instead of a rival and contributor to the alleged demise of the comic book (as no doubt your local comic book shop’s resident Debbie Downer has opined unsolicited), perhaps the video game is a new forum for sequential art expression that deserves further exploration by both comics creators and comics publishers.

Regardless of how we try to reconcile the glaring disparity between sequential art’s continued cultural sway and the sales data of physical and digital comics, it is clear that the message of comics is in the process of outgrowing the medium of print and the traditional trade in intellectual property, even as the largest publishers desperately cling to old business models built on prior successes with the direct market. When, in a 1994 Wired article, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow described companies’ attempts to maintain the intellectual property status quo into the Digital Age as “a frenzy of deck chair rearrangement,” he might as well have been looking into the future of Marvel and DC’s early, flailing, scatter-shot attempts at webcomics and digital comics, their clumsy efforts at enforcing their intellectual property ownership rights, as well as their increasing reliance on ever-shorter business cycles to cash in on the temporary and unsustainable direct market sales spikes generated by their “events”. Marvel’s recent Infinite Comics initiative is a distinct technical improvement over their prior attempts at producing New Media comics, but the format’s proprietary technology and the publisher’s myopic insistence on recreating the equivalent of the direct market in the digital consumer space and what is essentially an agency model approach to pricing and digital publishing means it will likely never have a breakout digital comic hit on par with relatively low-tech, fairly low-maintenance, free-to-read, advertising and merchandising revenue-supported webcomics such as the aforementioned Penny Arcade (which averaged two million daily page views in 2006), Scott Kurtz’ PvP (averaged over 100,000 daily page views as of 2005), and Randall Munroe’s xkcd (according to a Cracked profile piece, xkcd receives up to 70 million page views in a month).

So do comics still matter? Yes, unequivocally yes, they do matter in the most important way: Maybe people aren’t buying superhero comics like they used to, but a diverse audience numbering in the tens, perhaps even in the hundreds of millions still reads comics, in one form or another, through legitimate or illegal distribution channels, on everything from cheap newsprint anthologies to gaming consoles to PCs to smartphones to hastily printed dissident publications. Certain superhero-centric comics publishers previously held up as the standard-bearers for the industry may struggle to come to grips with the changes brought about by digitization and what Barlow calls the “Economy of Ideas,” but the larger enterprise of comics and sequential art has already succeeded in adapting to the new challenges and opportunities offered by recent social, cultural, and technological developments, and it is as vital to the popular culture discourse as it ever was.

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4 Responses
    • Another great article Z.   Comics do matter.  The actual floppy might not matter as much, but the idea behind the genre and the art form still do matter and are still viable.  As much as we all like the direct market and our local stores, the self-creating niche of the direct market is not good for the long term health of the medium.  How many of us got started on comics by picking up those 3-packs in the grocery stores?  Probably a large number of us.

      The 3-packs in the grocery store won’t work in today’s world, but that doesn’t mean that something along those lines won’t.

      Including comic books as a digital download with the video game would be a start.  Getting a free comic with the movie ticket would be another way to look at getting the all important new reader.

      The reason that comic sales are in decline?  It’s the same readership and that readership stops buying and sales go down.

      • I think part of what informs the impression that comics are in decline is that we “traditional” comic book readers have been conditioned to be a fairly insular lot (I think it comes with our innate “fan-nishness”): If we don’t see a title in our LCS or it isn’t discussed in the larger comic book communities or if it isn’t part of our direct experience, it might as well not exist. So there are large pockets of comic book readers who have been blind to all the ways comics and sequential art continue to be relevant commercially and culturally.

        I think the webcomic phenomenon is a perfect example of this. There are old guys who hang out at my LCS who lament day in and day out about how the readership for comics keeps shrinking, but these are cranky old fart-types who don’t count webcomics as “real comics”. If they did and bothered exploring all the many of webcomics out there, they’d be absolutely floored at how many people still read comics and “comics-like” material online (heck, you could probably make the argument that more people read comics—in the form of webcomics—now than during the Golden Age). A similar thing is happening in manga with doujinshi (self-published manga). The big manga publishers like Kodansha report falling sales month-to-month and year-to-year, but I think to an extent, those losses are being balanced out by webcomic doujinshi gaining popularity not just in Japan, but outside of Japan as well.

      • Now that you mention the floppy, I suppose publishers being wedded to the floppy format (and by extension, the direct market system) contributed hugely to the state we find ourselves in right now, with webcomics as the dominant comic format in terms of raw readership numbers. The direct market floppy just can’t compete given all its limitations and its relatively high production/distribution costs.

        I don’t think print comics and print cartoons will ever totally disappear, though. As we’ve seen in places like Egypt, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, and other places where comic strips and cartoons recently played a prominent role as tools for popular dissent, print is an important medium where electronic communications are not economically feasible or are available only to a select few.   

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