Earlier this morning at the annual ComicsPRO Membership Meeting in Atlanta, GA, Image publisher, Eric Stephenson gave a speech to those in attendance, many being owners / operators of comic book stores, about the importance of the direct market, how to grow the industry, and what he sees as the detriments to continued growth. CBR has the entire epic speech (minus at least one word connecting the first and second paragraphs) up on their site, but we here at The Outhouse, your one-stop-shop for comic book CliffsNotes, have boiled the speech down to the comments currently setting Twitter on fire, not just because those are the most inflamatory parts, but also because we have to do SOMETHING besides just copy and paste it.
Stephenson began his speech by describing the relationship between comic book publishers and the local comic book stores (LCSs) and other direct market retailers:
This is my fourth year at ComicsPRO, and one of the reasons I keep coming back is because I feel like the retailers who make up this organization have a genuine interest in improving this industry.
….you know what, I’m going to skip over this part as it’s not what you are going to care about. If you want to read the methods section of his speech head on over to CBR, let’s move on to the parts that have and will cause the most amout of butthurt:
Now, you probably already know this about me, but I’m not particularly content with the status quo.
We know what this business was like in the past, and it’s plain enough to see how it is now.
What we should be focusing on is the future.
We should all be challenging ourselves to make things better, and I want to challenge us all to build a better industry.
One of the first things we need to do is stop looking at the comics market as the “big two” or the “big three.”
There are only two kinds of comics that matter: good comics and bad comics.
Everything else should be irrelevant.
You ready? Wait for it…
So stop letting publishers lie to you and deceive you and your readers so they can prop up their position in this industry in their craven attempts to appease shareholders.
The rest of the speech goes on to say everything many of us in the comic book blogosphere not named Newsarama or CBR have been saying for years: that events, variant covers, bi-weekly shipping, and a whole host of other marketing ploys are not in the interest of the direct market, and are not in the long term interest of the industry either:
Are $4.99 and $7.99 comics going to help our industry in the long run?
No, but they sure help the bottom line at the end of the year….
Everybody moans about variants, but here’s the honest to goodness truth:
You stop ordering variants; we’ll stop making them.
As many have pointed out in the past, comic books are not sold in a vacuum where the laws of supply and demand do not apply. You don’t like what publishers are doing, stop rewarding them by buying the product. Variant covers only exist, according to Stephenson, to “shore up market share” and when “used in conjunction with quantity-based incentives” they do nothing but flood the market with a quantity of books most stores and many readers don’t want.
Stephenson goes on to highlight the areas where comic books are growing, and it is no longer a superhero fanboy love fest. The books that are growing, the books attracting new – female – readers are not Spider-Man, Superman, or even Wonder Woman; they are books like (Image’s) “Sex Criminals, Lazarus, Velvet, Pretty Deadly, Rocket Girl, and Rat Queens.”
…I think we are among a select group in this industry who realize that there’s more to gain from broadening our horizons than by remaining staunchly beholden to the shrinking fan base that is supposedly excited about sequels to decrepit old crossovers like SECRET WARS II.
It is comics like SAGA that get new readers in your door.
I know this, because I have met SAGA readers.
They read SAGA, they read RACHEL RISING, they read Julia Wertz, they read FABLES, they read Nicole Georges and Kate Beaton, they read Hope Larson, Jeffrey Brown, and LOVE & ROCKETS…
They read all of that and more, but even better still:
They are hungry for more.
The market has evolved to where the general public is realizing that they can find sophisticated and mature entertainment in comic books, but if the industry continues to focus on “the Biff Bang Pow! context of Marvel and DC” and if stores only build displays for Wolverine or Green Lantern new readers won’t be interested because “ the vast majority of people have no idea whatsoever about how much the comics medium has to offer.”
As an industry, we still cling to the shortsighted and mistaken notion that presenting ourselves to the world as Marvel and DC, as superhero movies, is the key to reaching a wider audience, and it’s just not.
People know what Spider-Man is. People know what Superman is. They know Batman. They know the X-Men.
And you know what? They’ve already made their mind up about that stuff, and that’s why the success of those movies has yet to translate into an avalanche of readers into our industry.
We have trained the world to think of comics as “Marvel and DC superheroes.”
And the world has stayed away.
We need to fix that.
ANYONE who isn’t currently buying comics should be our target audience.
Since non-readers have decided that superheroes are not for them, it is up to publishers and stores to highlight that there are different (better) genres out there and that the infinite loop of licensing and trademarks isn't creativity, its regurgitation of someone else’s creativity.
We talk about being obsessed with expanding our audience, but if publishing lesser versions of people’s favorite cartoons, toys, and TV shows is the best we can do, then we are doomed to failure.
Simply reframing work from other media as comic books is the absolute worst representation of comics.
We can invite readers to innovate with us, but repurposing someone else’s ideas as comic books isn’t innovation – at best, it’s imitation, and we are all so much better than that.
New creativity that is native to comics is what makes this industry stronger. It shows what comics do, what comics can BE.
Using The Walking Dead as an example, Stephenson shows that non superhero books can and do sell. Even before the television show, The Walking Dead had a growing audience while most other books were bleeding readers:
THE WALKING DEAD is one of the most successful franchises in the history of comics – we have sold millions of units of comic books, trade paperbacks, toys, statues, apparel, and hardcovers – and it is completely homegrown.
It started right here, in the Direct Market, with new creativity – with your support of new creativity.
THE WALKING DEAD is a towering achievement, an incredible success.
He then names the next Walking Dead, Saga:
If you look at THE WALKING DEAD’s sales pre-television show, back in the days when sales were just great, as opposed to phenomenal, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ SAGA is just kicking the shit of those numbers.
The trade paperbacks, the comics – SAGA is a massive success.
And I will say it once again: It all started with new creativity and your support of new creativity.
Both of those books – THE WALKING DEAD and SAGA – have brought a lot of new readers into your stores.
It is not a coincidence that both of those books are published by Image.
Given that he is the publisher of Image, it is not unreasonable for him to pimp his product:
New creativity is the future of this industry, not the latest SPIDER-MAN #1.
Stephenson’s argument is not limited to Marvel and DC’s reliance on characters that are over 50 years old, but also the continued presence of properties licensed from other mediums:
Now [The Walking Dead] sells even better.
And that’s because the show made people aware of the comic – and those people came to your stores to get that comic.
Because they want the real thing.
TRANSFORMERS comics will never be the real thing.
GI JOE comics will never be the real thing.
STAR WARS comics will never be the real thing.
Those comics are for fans that love the real thing so much, they want more – but there’s the important thing to understand:
They don’t want more comics – they just want more of the thing they love.
Comic books are more than nostalgia, so much more than extra seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and so much more than appealing to the customers – fanboys – the direct market already has. Comic books must expand and stop allowing Marvel and DC to dominate the world's perception what a comic book is, because that's been the perception for decades and it's not bringing in new readers. A way to do that is for LCSs to be more inclusive themselves: throw parties, have more sales, invite creators – local and national – to stores for signing and workshops. Stephenson uses the examples of book clubs who focus on as many genres as their members want, fostering the creativity of existing customers by holding writing / drawing sessions to help cultivate the next generation of creators, and community outreach to help get rid of the creepy cave dwelling stereotype most people have of comic book stores:
If there are people in your community who aren’t comfortable going into comic book stores, ask them why. Ask what you could be doing that you’re not.
Comic book stores are one of our industry’s most valuable resources, and we should all be doing everything we can to make sure that continues to be the case for years into the future.
We don’t want people buying their comics in Targets or Wal-Marts, or as a giveaway with a toy. We want people to come right here to the very heart of our business.
We want them to come to you.
Damn, sorry, that was long. If you are reading just this line because TL;DR here is a summation – comics are not just superheroes, comics are not just thinly veiled advertisements for the next big blockbuster marketing event, a bad comic with a variant cover is still a bad comic, and no creative industry can or should survive on nostalgia alone.
Over the next couple of days we here at The Outhouse will, of course, find a way to make fun of this speech because that’s what we do. But there will, probably, also be OP-EDs from many of our writers, and we invite our readers to submit opinions and counter arguments if they wish. But, for now we are taking this seriously because this is the second time Eric Stephenson has become our hero for his refreshing candor and insight.