The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 194 | Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: Examining emerging trends in comics funding, creation, and distribution

Leaving Proof 194 | Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes: Examining emerging trends in comics funding, creation, and distribution
Published on Monday, July 22, 2013 by
With another SDCC over, we turn our thoughts to how the rise of superhero films are affecting the way comics are made, the future of comics funding and distribution, and more.

So, are we all recovered from SDCC weekend, yet?

Two years ago, I put on my old-fogey hat and, in my best “get off my lawn, you damn kids!” voice, aired my personal disinterest in the goings-on at SDCC 2011:

My indifference to SDCC in recent years is an outgrowth of the fact that the signal-to-noise ratio as far as actual comic book-related dialogue in the Con seems to be trending downwards. There’s a lot of talk about comic book spin-offs in the form of movies, toys, video games, websites, and TV shows, but precious little about the actual comic books. I realize that the comics industry isn’t just about the printed product anymore, licensing characters out and making films featuring those characters are where the real money is at: During the nine month fiscal period ending September 30, 2009, licensing and film production accounted for 43.3% and 35.3%, respectively, of Marvel Entertainment’s total net sales, significantly more than the 21.3% contributed by the company’s publishing arm. But as SDCC inexorably makes the transition into what basically amounts to a showcase for licensors and licensees, I find myself paying less and less attention to it.

I appreciate it all, of course. “Marvel Comics” and “DC Comics” are the publishing arms of Marvel Entertainment and DC Entertainment, which are themselves subsidiaries of Disney and Warner Bros. Follow the money, and it ultimately leads to movies, television, video games, licensing, and merchandising. If nothing else, the cross-pollinating (incestuous?) relationship between comics and their bigger broadcast and interactive brethren will probably allow comics to survive the decline of physical print.

This year, it seems like comics are back in the spotlight at SDCC. “Content is king” is the new buzz phrase, and without comics (and for that matter, comics creators), all that precious content being funneled and translated into films, TV shows, and video games will dry up. But I can’t shake the feeling that now, more than ever, the ease with which a comic can be pitched and marketed for consumption as a summer blockbuster movie or hit mid-week TV drama is a significant factor in determining whether or not a particular comic is greenlit for publication. It’s an unfair presumption on my part, I suppose, and I’m normally inclined to believe editors, comics creators, and publishers when they say in interviews that they are firmly focused on making the best comics they can given the circumstances, above any other considerations.

An unnamed DC editor was recently quoted as saying that Watchmen would never have make it past the pitching process in today's DC Comics.

An unnamed DC editor was recently quoted as saying that Watchmen would never make it past the pitching process in today’s DC Comics because it doesn’t fit what the publisher is doing right now.

At the same time, it’s hard to ignore what industry veteran George Pérez said recently about how many of the Marvel and DC characters he grew up with were “turning into strangers whose adventures were determined by factors that had less and less to do with what made a good comic story and more to do with how these properties can be exploited for other purposes.” Former DC/Vertigo senior editor Karen Berger described the current state of affairs at the Big Two as a situation where they’re “superhero companies owned by movie studios,” hinting that if a comic doesn’t feature a company-owned superhero character and the comic can’t be readily spun off into a film or TV project, it faces an uphill battle as far as getting support from corporate. A DC editor who elected to go unnamed was quoted by Bleeding Cool’s Rich Johnston last year as saying that had Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons pitched Watchmen today, DC wouldn’t have picked it up because there wasn’t an obvious film, merchandising, or licensing hook to it. He was talking about Watchmen—a graphic novel whose continued popularity cannot be denied (the book placed in the Nielsen BookScan Top 20 as recently as May of this year, over a quarter of a century after it launched)—not getting a fair shake because its premise doesn’t neatly align with corporate plans. That’s really something to chew over: How many of our favorite and most acclaimed comics of the past several decades would never have seen print had publishers back in the day approved pitches on the basis of how they fit into some grand crossover “event” or how easily they could be made into blockbuster films and Happy Meal toys? Would provocative, self-contained DC and Marvel storylines such as Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ “Hard-traveling Heroes” run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow or Steve Englehart’s mid-1970s run on Captain America be even possible in the “event” and film obsessed milieu of today’s Big Two?

The rapid and spectacular collapse of "graphic novel-to-movies" publisher Platinum Comics highlighted the real difficulties of inter-media translation.

The rapid and spectacular collapse of “graphic novel-to-movies” publisher Platinum Studios highlighted the many real-world problems with crafting comics expressly meant for easy adaptation to film.

It used to be that the onus was on the filmmaker to adapt a comic to film, and not the comic creator’s job to make a comic that can be shot directly as a movie. But where does that leave those of us who are actually looking for good comics to read, and not comics that can be easily spun off into the latest film franchise? “Good comics” and “comics that can be turned into summer blockbusters” are not mutually exclusive categories, of course. But a corporate and editorial mandate that practically says that the only comics worth publishing are comics that can realistically be made into blockbuster films surely and needlessly limits what comics creators can do. Comics have an unlimited special effects and costume/prop budget restricted only by an artist’s imagination and talent. A comic book’s cast can feature anybody—living, dead, or wholly imaginary—and tackle any sort of theme or narrative without having to worry about test audience reactions or product placement conflicts or placating various special interest groups or any of the dozens, if not hundreds, of other limitations modern film productions have to work with. Due to the huge financial investment involved in their creation, big summer releases tend to be made according to proven, safe, storytelling formulas that produce occasionally fun but terminally forgettable films that are palatable to everyone, but satisfy no one. Do we really want all our superhero comics to have the same homogeneous, toothless, orange-and-teal, lowest common denominator quality as the typical summer blockbuster fare?

If you’ve ever read one of those comics adaptations of hit movies, you’ll understand just how wide the gulf can be between what’s possible to do in a comic and a movie—the worst of these comics adaptations of films embody the weaknesses of both modes of communication with none of their strengths, lacking the “high fidelity” impact of full motion and sound and with static visuals limited to virtual screenshots from the source film. I’m not saying that comics are “better” than films. Rather, what I’m saying is that they’re quite different in very important ways, and what works in one medium and industry may not necessarily work in the other. Writer Mark Waid said during his rousing 2010 Harvey Awards speech that “there are more ideas in one Wednesday in one comic shop than in three years of Hollywood,” and yet here we are, with the two biggest North American comics publishers seemingly intent on churning out glorified storyboards for next year’s primetime Wednesday night TV schedule or the next decade’s superhero movie franchise reboot.

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Marvel and DC continue to produce good, creator-driven comics, but many of them are in the periphery of their publishing slates.

Note however, that I’m not dismissing all of Marvel and DC’s current output out-of-hand as being worse in some significant way than whatever the smaller guys have on offer. I very much enjoyed reading Marvel’s recently concluded Fury: My War Gone By miniseries for instance, but I guess it’s somewhat telling that the version of the character in the book is the one that isn’t currently being pushed in Marvel’s multimedia products and its appeal to me is based on the inspired reprise pairing of writer Garth Ennis and artist Goran Parlov. It could have been a a revamped Ravage 2099 comic and I would still have bought it as long as Ennis and Parlov were making it. In fact, I’ll at least consider buying any Marvel book (or any DC book, for that matter) as long as it has one of my favorite comics creators (which is a long list) attached to it.

And if there’s one thing that we can be assured of when it comes to current Marvel and DC stuff, it’s that there’s generally a reliable baseline of technical polish and competent craft—some exceptions do apply—regardless of the merits of their more subjective features. I’m not offering that as some backhanded compliment, either. (Not that fastidious copy-editing can fix a nonsensical plot or good inking can salvage bad layouts, but many times, it’s the accumulation of little things done right that can elevate a merely “okay” book into a good one worth shelling out four dollars for.)

Change, from the outside in

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Chris Ware’s Building Stories was the biggest winner of this year’s Eisner Awards.

Last week, Publishers Weekly revealed the results of its latest informal Annual Comics Retailer Survey. In the article, various comics retailer talk about how well Chris Ware’s Building Stories graphic novel and Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ bimonthly series Saga are selling, the positive reception the “creator-owned” comics brand is getting from customers, and how many readers are experiencing “event burnout” from Marvel and DC. All this lines up with Friday’s Eisner Awards results: Building Stories took home four awards (Best New Graphic Novel, Best Writer/Artist for creator Chris Ware, Best Lettering for creator Chris Ware, and Best Publication Design for creator Chris Ware), Saga bagged three awards (Best Continuing Series, Best New Series, Best Writer for co-creator Brian K. Vaughan), creator-owned comics dominated the field overall, and outside of recognition for artists who worked on three of their books, Marvel and DC were virtually shut out of all the major award categories.

I think the Eisner Awards are as good a critical measure as any we have right now for awarding merit to comics creators and publishers. Sometimes, an Eisner (or a Harvey, or an Ignatz, or a Shuster)—in any category—is the only tangible industry validation deserving comics veterans get in their careers. But it’s also important that we do not overestimate the Eisners’ value as an industry bellwhether. It seems obvious to state it, but the Eisner blue-ribbon committee makes its selection of nominees based on what it perceives to be critical merit, not sales numbers, or readership reception, or anything else. And while it’s tempting to hold up the results of the Publishers Weekly survey as some sort of popular retail corroboration of critical trends, we have to keep in mind that the survey was limited to a small sample size of comic book shops with some having what could be argued as atypical distributor profiles.

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Saga trades have sold well in book stores despite no crossover media presence, in contrast to bestselling books like The Walking Dead and Avatar: The Last Airbender.

That doesn’t mean that a potential upending of the industry status quo isn’t in the offing. Yes, Marvel and DC’s “event” comics continue to dominate sales in Diamond Comic Distributors-affiliated comic book shops, and it’s probably safe to say that neither Marvel nor DC’s shareholders are losing a lot of sleep over their respective companies’ recent Eisner snubs so long as they can get a piece of that mad, mad movie money. But smaller publishers like Image Comics and Dark Horse have been doing more than just scratching out a sales niche for themselves in the area of graphic novels and in non-traditional comics outlets like book stores. Image’s Saga, in particular, is an interesting example of the little comic that could, in that it doesn’t have the television crossover presence of fellow Image title The Walking Dead nor the massive licensed property appeal of Dark Horse’s Avatar: The Last Airbender serial graphic novels (The Walking Dead, Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Promise, and Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Search are some of the best-selling non-manga trades and graphic novels of the past year in book stores). And yet Saga‘s trades have been a consistent presence in the Nielsen BookScan Top 20 these past several weeks—last month’s Saga, Vol. 2 was ranked third overall, behind only The Walking Dead, Vol. 18 and VIZ Media’s Naruto, Vol. 61 (it’s also worth noting that only one “graphic novel” from the Big Two charted in the June 2013 Top 20).

The $1.25 million raised on Kickstarter for the Order of the Stick reprint drive shows the massive potential for monetization that crowdfunding can offer comics creators.

The $1.25 million raised on Kickstarter for the Order of the Stick reprint drive shows the massive potential for monetization that crowdfunding can offer comics creators.

The emergence of viable crowdfunding and direct-to-consumer distribution models is also altering the comics landscape in all sorts of new and surprising ways. The Kickstarter reprint drive for Rich Burlew’s The Order of the Stick webcomic raised an astounding $1.25 million (from almost 15,000 backers) in just 30 days last year. That’s a crowdfunding number I think even those cynical of the webcomic genre’s standing as “real comics” would find impressive. In March of this year, the campaign for the first hardcover collection of Aaron Diaz’  long-running Dresden Codak webcomic raised over $530,000 from 7,500 Kickstarter backers. Those crazy folks behind the Penny Arcade webcomic came up with a most interesting Kickstarter project: They sought enough funding so that they could get rid of the ads on their website, and it worked. The campaign raised enough money ($528,000) that Penny Arcade finally torpedoed all the ads on its homepage. The multi-creator Womanthology comic raised $109, 301 from 2,001 Kickstarter backers, over four times its original funding target (IDW Publishing eventually acquired the publishing rights to Womanthology and subsequent Womanthology spin-offs). Paul Jenkins and Humberto Ramos’ Fairy Quest, a modern reinterpretation of “Little Red Riding Hood,” raised $95, 100 (from over 1,600 backers) during its Kickstarter campaign (the publishing rights to Fairy Quest have since been picked up by BOOM! Studios). Commercially-established, award-winning fan-favorite creators like Mark Waid, Greg Rucka, Warren Ellis, Mike Norton, Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin and others have all been experimenting with atypical monetization models which often involve making their work available for free online in some manner, with varying degrees of success.

I do think we’re looking at the beginnings of a slow but massive sea change in how comics are created, funded, distributed, read, and appreciated, but the indicators for that metamorphosis won’t be readily seen in places like comic book shops or the usual comics award ceremonies, at least not now, given how insulated they seem to be from developments and trends in webcomics, book stores, and alternative funding and distribution models. There’s a major shift occurring for sure, but it’s all outside of what many of us older readers consider as “the comics industry.” Whether or not the industry as we’ve traditionally defined it—basically the Diamond Comic Distributors-supported direct market—has the ability to adapt and grow with this change remains to be seen, however.

Some final notes

  • Speaking of Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin, the third issue of their “pay-what-you-want” sci-fi future noir comic The Private Eye dropped recently on PanelSyndicate.com. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There’s probably no monthly comic book out there, digital or otherwise, that’s doing a more entertaining and intriguing job of addressing contemporary concerns about Internet privacy and surveillance than The Private Eye. So go read it already.

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  • For further proof that comic book movies aren’t a sure thing financially, especially if they don’t feature Marvel or DC superheroes, one only need to look at the past weekend’s box-office receipts: Red 2 (a sequel to the 2010 action-comedy based on the 2003 DC/Wildstorm miniseries written by Warren Ellis) and R.I.P.D. (based on the 2001 Dark Horse miniseries written by Peter Lenkov) bombed hard, even with SDCC providing what should have been free publicity. I guess 2 Guns‘ producers are feeling more than a little anxious right now.

  • Finally, I’d like to extend a hearty and belated congratulations to the Comixverse’s social media guy Joe Milone, who got married to his long-time girlfriend last week. Here’s to a wonderful journey as the two of you build a new life together.
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