Monday, January 07, 2008

Are We Headed For Another Comics Recession?

Ye Olde Comick Booke Blog questions whether the current state of the comic book industry is not mirroring the way it was in the 1990s:
Don't you see it? Let me explain. When was the last time the Punisher had two monthly titles? (Uh-huh.) When was the last time Marvel and DC took part in the variant cover fan-scam game? (Yep.) When was the last time we saw Onslaught, and the supposed death of Captain America? (You're getting it now!) When was the last time both Marvel and DC had such a casual disregard for the characters and their continuity that have driven the company for decades? (Bingo!) And do all of you remember what happened then that I fear might be happening again very soon?
God forbid we really return to that halcyon time of lore...

I remember the early 90s. I bought tons of comics a week, read none of them besides Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol. Every comic I bought was for investment. I regularly bought two or three of the same comic at a time. Bags and boards.

I was still actually reading comics in the late 80's. X-Men, Batman, Justice League. Then all the spinoffs started. My plan was always to buy every X-book that came out. But there were suddenly too many and I gave up. Ditto with Batman, a boom spurred on by the movie coming out in '89. And while I loved Giffen's JLA, once he left the title was dry for me (plus the glut of other JLA-inspired titles produced to cash in to something that was no longer there.)

This being said, it should be remembered that the investment fever that gripped the populace at that time had spread far beyond the fanbase and infected the non-reader. Comic books were considered a solid investment, something to stash away and pay your child's college tuition with. In fact, that phrase I heard bandied about quite a lot back then, used to assuage the fears of skeptical wives: "this will pay for our children's college tuition."

There was also quite a bit of small-time crime intertwined with the comics speculation boom of the 90s. Comic shops in Brooklyn were getting robbed left-and-right, either by teenagers shoplifting in bulk or out-and-out heists after hours.

However, I really don't think what we have now is equivalent to that golden time. I think the general comic- and non-comic-reader population realizes that modern comic books are not a "sure-thing" investment. The need for single back-issues have largely been replaced by a healthy trade-paperback publishing program. While there are popular fan-fave artists, none have really inspired the sort of utter hysteria Rob Liefeld or Jim Lee did back in the day.

However, I do agree to an extent with Ye Olde Comick Booke Blog on this point:
...instead of figuring out how to better market their product to the world at large they seem content to wring every dollar they can out of the fans who are still here, bleeding them dry with redundancy. If the sheer number of titles isn't audacious enough there are the dozens of mini-series that clog the racks every week...
I think the biggest way to "kill" a hot property in comics is to bloat it with spinoffs and redundant titles. It's a scattershot, short-term investment business strategy that operates on the cynical notion that if they love the One, they're going to buy the All. Now, if such a strategy was accompanied by honest-to-God awesome creative teams and stories, that would be great. But that's not usually the case. What ends up happening is this:

Original Hot Comic

Second-String Highly Promoted Spinoff Series With Decent Creative Team

Several "Meh" Rushed-Out Tertiary Spinoff Series

Boatload of Crap

After Boatload of Crap comes reader apathy, 25-cent bin, etc.

However, the "glut-the-market" strategy works great if you plan on just getting in, glutting the market, and rushing out.

What comes after the Glut is...

The Recession.

Recession = chaos. Books are cancelled in droves. Editorial & creative teams can change wildly. Scorched-Earth. "Who's in charge here?" Nobody knows. The future is in doubt.

In that sort of environment, some of the best, most original comic book material can sneak through. Because nobody's watching too closely. Because those carefully-laid plans are temporarily shut-off. It's about operating under-the-radar.

Alan Moore wasn't "planned." Grant Morrison wasn't "planned." Nobody sat in a room way back when and said: "we're going to put Miller on Daredevil and it's going to sell a zillion copies and inspire all these people."

Will a Recession comparable to the 70s and 90s happen again in comics? I really don't know; I certainly can't see into the future.

But where might the next "big thing" in comic books come from?

I'm reading a book right now called "The Black Swan: The Impact Of The Highly Improbable." It's about how sometimes the biggest successes and innovations come completely out of "nowhere."

I believe that the next golden phase in mainstream comic books will not come about as the result of a boardroom meeting or writer's summit. I believe the next "hot thing," the next comic book bestseller, is right under our noses. And what the comic book companies need are editors with vision to recognize this when they see it and nurture it and bring it out into the world.


  1. This is hilarious. I can't believe that someone is gonna compare the Brubaker run of Captain American to the material from the 90's.

    X-Men as a line is no where near the spectacle it was before. The only thing that someone can compare to the 90's is the Countdown off-shoots which are dying as they get released. DC already says it's next weekly will have no tie ins and be self contained. Even Variants are completely subdued.

    This just sounds like a complete mis-reading of the current comics market.

  2. I'm no fan of mainstream superhero comics and I've been vocal about that. However, truthfully, I still want them to be published and be as good as they can be. A healthy Big Two economy means the independent books I love so much can be supported in the market place. Also, as much as I may talk about the crappy stories being made today, who doesn't want superheros like Spider-Man or Batman to have great books that sell well?

    I was reading the comic sales for DC this morning, and things look bad. Their average book sells between 30 - 50K. Marvel is going to be in for a wake up call once people get tired of all their big events with no lasting repercussion.

    The point you disagreed with, that the Big Two are trying to suck every last dollar out of the customers they have rather than seek new may be wrong, but it feels that way, you know? It feels like they're trying to find a way to get every spare dollar.

    I dunno. I think a comic recession is going to happen any month. My biggest worry is, without the cushioning from a healthy boom, how will the retailers survive a crash?

  3. I think a lot of the retailers will be fine -- my LCS, for instance, geared themselves to be a games shop first, comic shop second during the last comics recession. So they'll sail through, I think.

    The Big Two will make it as well -- a huge chunk, if not the majority, of their income comes from licensing. Hopefully another recession will prove a healthy slap in the face for them.

  4. Weird...I just took that book home.

    If there is a recession? I see if for the big two. The little guys will keep growing.


  5. A comics recession will be good for business in the long run. It'll force the companies to examine their policy of tying themselves into specialist marketing and distribution when this is the first thing they teach you not to do when setting up a business.

    On the other hand, maybe they'll just assume that they aren't doing enough 'event' books and the writers have too much freedom to go off-message. Needless to say, if a recession does hit, the fans will be to blame.
    Probably the ones on the internet.

  6. I've been reading The Black Swan, too, and I agree that much of what it says can be applied to the comic marketplace (or any marketplace, for that matter). Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point is also useful here. I think that the upward turn is going to come, if it comes at all, by someone putting something like Scott Pilgrim into the right hands of trendsetters. And by "something like Scott Pilgrim," I mean something cheap, thick, portable, and cool (cool being the intangible factor that can't be controlled). But, as The Black Swan points out, this moment of exchange will only be recognizable as significant in retrospect.