There's been a lot of talk recently about the mainstream comic book business model, particularly as it relates to books being canceled for low sales. Here on The Outhouse, Gavin Dillinger wrote about the cancelation of Nighthawk, a fine series by a fine creative team, and included some tweets from superstar Marvel writer "The Great One" Brian Bendis which put the onus on readers to keep comics afloat:
This message is nothing new. I wrote about it back in February, when Newsarama was telling fans about the top ten titles that would likely be canceled if they weren't saved by fan support (read: preordering the comics). Outhouse Ace Reporter GHERU wrote about it back in 2014, when X-Factor was canceled, and writer Peter David said:
All I did was write a book that got tons of positive write-ups. Which I guess is enough to encourage people to buy it when it comes out in trades, oblivious to the fact that books get cancelled when you do that. Whatever.
To the best of my knowledge, digital sales don't count. It comes down to whether enough people are buying the book on the stands. And when enough people find alternatives and it kills the sales, the book goes away.
The belief that fans need to support books by consuming them in the way most convenient for the publisher has been around for decades, but it is now, and always has been, complete bullshit.
The problem begins with the "direct market," a system by which corporate-owned publishers like Marvel and DC sell comics to specialty retail stores through Diamond Comics Distributors. The direct market was created to solve a "problem" for publishers, and is beneficial to literally no one else in the comics food chain, other than perhaps Diamond itself. When comics were sold on news stands and in places like pharmacies and grocery stores, they had to be sold under the same conditions as other periodicals like magazines. At the end of a specified timeframe, any comics that were unsold could have their covers ripped off and mailed back to Marvel, who had to pay for the unsold stock.
Now, selling comics in grocery stores was fucking great, if your idea of fucking great is that lots of people end up reading comics. Having comics in places where things other than comics are sold is a remarkably effective way to clue people into the fact that comics are things that exist and which they might be interested in reading. I would venture to say it's the most effective way. More effective than massively popular superhero movies, more effective than hype campaigns on comic book websites, and more effective than shoving a million of them into the latest Loot Crate shipment.
The absolute best way to get someone interested in reading a comic book is to show them a shelf full of them and let them pick one up that grabs their interest, look inside, and maybe buy it if they feel the urge, and this method is also the easiest way. It requires no elaborate system of payola coverage on niche websites, no private distribution system, no constant carny hucksterism and shallow gimmickry to boost failing sales. All it requires is good comics, which coincidentally happen to be the best thing there is when it comes to getting people to like comics.
But as fucking great as it was to have comics in places like grocery stores, and to have millions of people reading them, major comics publishers (read: Marvel) had a problem. They had to make good comics that people wanted to buy, or else they would be returned to them and Marvel wouldn't make much of a profit. And you can't pay for the cocaine budget of a young Rob Liefeld if you're constantly paying for returned comics.
So the industry came upon a brilliant idea: get all the stores that specialized in selling comics, lock them into a single closed distribution system, and refuse to accept returns for unsold comics anymore. Now, Marvel didn't need to make comics that people want to read in order to get paid. All they have to do is convince retailers to buy the comics, and that can be accomplished with all that hype and gimmickry we talked about before. And that's exactly what happened, so that by the turn of the century, specialty shops (or occasionally a single, isolated shelf in Barnes and Noble) were the only places where anyone could purchase comics.
This was great for companies like Marvel. They could print smaller runs, sell 100% of the stock to shops, and call it a day. There's no risk at all for Marvel in this model. Even with the lowest selling comics, they're not losing money, especially at the rates they pay their creative staff. Books get canceled because they aren't making enough profit.
There's just one problem with this model, though it doesn't seem to be one Marvel really cares about: it offers absolutely no pathway to bring in new comics readers. 99% of the time, the only reason a person would ever enter a comic book shop is if they're already a comic book reader. As opposed to say, a person who eats bananas, who might find comics in the grocery store, or a person who drinks coffee, who might see one at a news stand, the overwhelming majority of potential comic book buyers for a specialty shop that sells only comics are the existing customers who are, as you have likely correctly surmised, people who already read comics. And on the off chance some unlucky soul wanders into that shop because they heard about Ms. Marvel on a TV show or something like that, they're met with prohibitively expensive books, incomprehensible numbering systems, wishy-washy continuity, invasive crossover events, and maybe even some dickhead with a neckbeard telling them they aren't a real fan.
Today, the very best selling regular monthly comic book sells around 100,000 copies. Occasionally, a variant cover bonanza, super-mega-crossover event, line-wide reboot, or Loot Crate giveaway might spike sales higher than that for a short time, but I'm very skeptical that even in that case more than the usual 100,000 people are actually reading those comics, and a quick glance through the back issue stock at any retailer will provide plenty of evidence for that assumption. And 100,000 is for the best of the best, your Batman or your Spider-Man. Once you're out of the top 50 comics, you're in the 40,000 copy territory, and outside the top 100 you're in the 20,000 copy territory, and the sales only get lower from there. And once again, I'll remind you that none of this guarantees an actual human being is reading these comics; all the Diamond sales numbers mean is that a retailer bought them, and is now desperately trying to pawn them off on their existing customers lest they go out of business, all while Marvel assumes absolutely zero risk and reaps the majority of the profit.
For smaller publishers, the ones who operate inside the superhero industrial complex set up by Marvel, DC, and Diamond, 20,000 can be a great number, but for Marvel and DC, that's near cancellation territory. And that brings us back to the original point of all this, which is the idea that it's your job, as a reader, to save comics from cancellation. That if you don't buy a Previews catalog, research all of the comics coming out two months from now, and then tell your retailer you want to buy one so that your retailer can purchase an extra copy from Marvel that month and Marvel can brag about it in a press release, it's your fault when the comic is canceled.
I propose a different hypothesis: it's Marvel's fucking fault when Marvel doesn't sell enough comics. It's Marvel's fault they didn't promote Nighthawk well enough to get retailers to buy enough copies of it. It's Marvel's fucking fault specialty shops are the only stores that buy Nighthawk comics in the first place. It's Marvel's fucking fault that instead of millions of people reading comics, there are less than 100,000. All of this is Marvel's fault, not yours or mine, and the propensity of comic book creators to guilt trip fans about preordering has to be classified as some kind of weird version of Stockholm syndrome.
The same thing applies sometimes to fans, who are constantly pressured by the industry to feel responsible for sales numbers and pass along that attitude to their peers. Don't want to see your favorite character's book canceled? Well, you better preorder and tell all your friends to preorder too. Want to see more diversity in comics? You'd better buy whatever half-hearted attempt at cashing in on diversity Marvel is promoting this month whether you enjoy reading it or not, or else they might get the idea that comic book readers don't like diversity, and that would be your fault, you see. Don't want to see your favorite artist die alone in poverty after creating some of the most successful intellectual properties in the history of American pop culture? Well, you'd better keep shelling out $4.99 for those comics Marvel is giving them a 1% cut of, or that's your fault too.
Can you imagine if Coca-Cola's strategy to get you to buy soda was to guilt trip you into believing they'll have to cancel Sprite if you don't let your supermarket know to order three cases of it for you in advance this month? This shit wouldn't fly in any other industry, but in comics, for some reason, we all just accept it as if it isn't completely fucking insane.
The direct market did a great job of increasing Marvel's profits in the short term, because Marvel had decades worth of equity built up in terms of interest in comic books from people who were introduced to them at news stands, pharmacies, and grocery stores. But as the readership dwindled, with no pathway to bring in new readers, Marvel has had to continuously jack up the price of comics in order to continue to see profit growth from fewer sales. Those jacked up prices in turn make comics even less attractive to new readers and some of the existing ones, causing the readership to shrink further with no chance of growth. New opportunities to replicate the model of the grocery store, such as digital comics, are hampered by a desire not to undercut the direct market, so digital comics remain as prohibitively expensive as paper ones, but with a lot less of the charm.
The result of all of this is that we are living in an age when the properties created by comics are experiencing an unprecedented level of popularity in movies, TV shows, toys, video games, and merchandise, but the entire regular readership of comics is less than the population of Davenport, Iowa, and the absolute ceiling, we're talking for a comic that has 100 variant covers and got into all the Loot Crates, is Yonkers, New York.
So the next time some Uncle Fester looking blowhard motherfucker deeply entrenched in the comics establishment lectures you on Twitter about how it's your responsibility to keep the comics you love afloat, politely let him know that it is, in fact, Marvel's job to sell comics, not yours, and for the past twenty years, they've been doing an absolutely awful job at it, regardless of their increasing profit margin.
Ol' Jude Terror has a counter proposal to the Brian Bendis method of saving comics: only buy comics you want to read, buy them in the format you prefer (trade paperback, digital, discounted back issue), and make the decision to buy them whenever you feel like, not based on Diamond's final order cut off. And if books are canceled and the industry declines because of that, then maybe that's exactly what the industry needs in order to learn that it's their responsibility to evolve their business model to meet the needs of the market, not the other way around.
I'm not calling for a return to the glory days of the news stand and grocery store rack. That ship has sailed. What comics needs to grow is a fresh idea, something new, and something affordable and attractive to a wider audience, and as soon as we all stop enabling publishers to live greedily in the past, they might be forced to start looking for those new ideas instead of blaming you for their failures. Then, and only then, will comics evolve into the 21st century.
Which is why I say: die, industry, die. Die, and be reborn as something less myopic. Honestly, it's for your own good.
BUT WAIT YOU'RE NOT DONE!!!
Read my follow-up, DOUBLING DOWN: COMICS IS BURNING AND I'M PLAYING THE FIDDLE, a rebuttal to critiques of this rant (especially if you mad, bro), and then read CROWN ON THE GROUND / GOOD KID, M.A.A.D. DISTRIBUTION by Emma Houxbois at London Graphic Novel Network.