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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:




It’s funny, talking about what ails the comics industry. And boy, do we like to talk. We talk endlessly about impenetrable storylines that are barriers to readership, for all but a devout few. We talk about recycled concepts and the Ultimization of old universes in an effort to blingify them and enhippen them for all the youngsters. We talk about Spidey selling his soul to the devil so that he can turn back time, all Cher-style (minus the black fishnets) and he can mack out with the best of the swingin’ bachelors. We talk about shiny happy universes turned gritty and realistic, grimness caking four-color spandex like it cakes Appalachian miners working the seams. We talk about manga corrupting our precious bodily fluids (not me, mind you, but using the blogospheric “we” here) and keeping us from making the World Safe For Superheroes. Oh, and how could I forget the constant tension between artcomix and mainstream comics, keeping in mind that our “mainstream” is a number that could, at best, fill two good sized football stadiums. Maybe three.

In short, we talk about everything other than the one thing that really needs to be discussed. It’s the only issue. The. Only. One. There’s plenty of other related issues that are very shiny and heartstring-tugging, but all of those are symptomatic of something else. What’s that, you ask? Oh surely you can put your finger on it all by yourself. It’s related to the football stadium equation above, but you don’t want it to be.

The fact is, no matter how big SDCC is every year, no matter how many thousands of people go without hotel rooms due to Comics Being Huge and Everyone Wants To See Them, we’re still looking at a small industry. Every retailer is the master of their own castle, sure. Everyone is doing great, awesome even. We’re still seeing growth from month to month, right?

Only we’re pretty much not. And this is an issue that’s bothered me ever since I got back into comics five years or so ago. I’d look over the sales charts, and sure, you’d see growth in something like THE INCREDIBLE HULK, particularly when you had a big ‘ol crossover supporting it. “The numbers are up 200% from two years ago,” folks will say. Of course, two years ago the book was wallowing at the end of a storyline and now it’s riding high on Flavor Of The Crossover Month-ness. But the numbers were up.

Of course, the funny thing was that the numbers only ended up being up for about 15% or so of the books in any given month. The rest of them, all 85% of them had either flat sales or sales were down. Sometimes dramatically so. And I wondered to myself how folks could be so happy with (non-sustainable) increases on a handful of books when the rest of them were watching their numbers get sapped month in and month out. And it doesn’t matter if you’re Marvel or DC, your numbers pretty much follow that trend overall.

All this told me that things weren’t that great, particularly in the big picture of getting more comic readers. The usual reply to that was “Spider-Man movie” or “Comics in the NEW YORK TIMES – they really love us!” I think we’ve all grown up and can admit to ourselves that SPIDER-MAN 3 sells SPIDER-MAN 3 tickets and toys and Underoos, and it does precisely nothing to move SPIDER-MAN on a month-to-month basis.

Or to tell people about these neat things called “comics” that they can read. And really, why should a movie do that? Movies and comics are not the same thing. They’re different modes of consumption, and utterly different in terms of their phenomenology. Oh, same goes for GHOST WORLD. And BATMAN. And whatever small-press property that gets picked up and run through the development process.

I’ll even take that further. Running comics in the NEW YORK TIMES, while a great bit of visibility for the comics involved, won’t motivate readers to go out and hunt down a Direct Market store where the collections of these fine comics might be bought. They might get people to linger more on the cover of the new printing of ICE HAVEN at their local bookstore, maybe. That’s if the book can be found in the warren of chaos that is a typical big-box-bookstore Graphic Novel section. I’d even stretch this analogy to the Tokyopop manga that get run in Sunday comics pages. I don’t see much to connect one to the other, from Sunday strip to trip to the bookstore to buy the collection.

And if there’s a connection, does that connection lead to Borders or Amazon or Discount Comic Book Service or to a Direct Market store that’s mostly a gaming store or a Direct Market store that stocks the Big Two or a Direct Market Comic store that stocks a wide range of graphic novels or a Direct Market Comic store that has the resources to display not only the current crop, but a deep backlist? Or is there even a linkage? Or is the broader comics market actually on its own little peninsula with pretty much one way on or off? How do readers get connected with comics, and how are they supposed to learn about something new? And how on Earth are they supposed to be brought into the fold when the mechanics of the business, at least as the Big Two go, seem Hell-bent on audience conservation, ignoring the fact that they’re fighting over a smaller and smaller pool of readers?

There’s a lot of talk over how to win over the zealots, the Wednesday crowd that they depend on, and a baffling lack of plans regarding new readers, when that’s the one issue that’s real. Everything else is brass-polishing. And the brass is plenty shiny already. We’ve worn down the details and brought out a rich golden luster that itself is beginning to be rubbed out to a wan dullness. Market graying, double-dipping with trades, convention pre-sales, who was on top this month, which creator is exclusive, Narutomania, all of that stuff, it’s aside to the primary issue, which is getting comics into the hands of people who haven’t read them before. Getting more readers to replace those who inevitably fall away, that’s the issue. Otherwise we’re breathing the same air in a room that ain’t getting any bigger and the windows are taped shut.

Matt Maxwell

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