Graphic Lit: On comic books and the bad economy
Is the comic book dead?
Not comics the artistic medium; that’s never been better.
No, I’m talking about the comic book pamphlet. You know, 32 pages, glossy cover, staples in the middle, comes out on a monthly (or semi-monthly) basis? I’m talking about the physical, periodical format.
Is it dying?
That’s the question that came to my mind while reading “Love and Rockets: New Stories,” the latest collection of work by indie cartoonists Jamie, Gilbert and Mario Hernandez.
For decades, the brothers have serialized their stories in pamphlets before collecting them into trade paperbacks. Now, however, in an attempt to expand their reach into book stores, the publisher Fantagraphics has rebooted the series as an annual, 112-page graphic novel.
“It’s not eliminating the comic shop at all but just opening it up to book stores and any place that can rack books,” said Fantagraphics Director of Promotions Eric Reynolds, “We could have kept [publishing it as a pamphlet], but we saw the way the books sell relative to periodicals and it was kind of a no-brainer.”
(By the way “New Stories” is a fantastic collection. Gilbert and Jamie are at the top of their form.)
The format change signals a shift of some sort in my mind. There was a time, say, 15 years ago, when you could go into a comic book store on a weekly basis and had a wealth of indie titles to choose from.
Now, most of those creators have either abandoned the medium entirely or moved to a “graphic novel only” strategy.
“For [‘Love and Rockets’] to switch to book format is a vote of no confidence from guys who were there first in alt-comics market,” said Tom Spurgeon, who runs the Comics Reporter Web site.
But is this change exclusive to the small-press scene or will it affect larger publishers as well?
I’m not the only one who’s been asking this question. In a recent interview, Dark Horse (publisher of “Hellboy”) CEO Mike Richardson said “As far as pamphlets — especially with what I see happening with the economy — as much as we all love them, the traditional comic book is going to be harder and harder to sell, and harder and harder to make work.”
Here are a few reasons:
An aging fan base. Despite the popularity of films like “Dark Knight,” comic books seem to appeal to a largely older, male readership and there aren’t a lot of new readers coming in.
Emphasis on event-driven titles. Right now, big crossover events like “Final Crisis” and “Secret Invasion” are climbing up the sales charts. But how many times can you return to that “everything changes” well before readers get bored?
The economy. People like to say that comics do well in recessions, but if gas prices go up again or the economy worsens, will fans have to choose between heading to the comic store every week to get the latest issue of “Trinity” versus a trip to the grocery store?
Rising prices. Comics aren’t really disposable entertainment any more. Your average issue runs about $3-$4, and there’s every chance that price could rise even higher.
I called a number of local stores to see if the worsening economy had affected them or if they had seen a movement away from periodicals towards graphic novels and trade collections.
Most of them said that while they may have lost a customer or two, they haven’t experienced any significant drop in sales.
“Pamphlet sales have been up every year for the last six-seven years, even though prices are going up,” said Bill Wahl of Comix Connection in Mechanicsburg, noting that sales of graphic novels also have increased.
“The people who have money or credit are still spending. People living paycheck to paycheck are cutting back,” said Bob Newbury of Cosmic Comics in Harrisburg.
More significantly, several of them noted that superhero fans in particular felt the need to keep up with their favorite series on a weekly basis.
“We sell 40-50 copies of ‘X-Men’ but not a single graphic novel. Fans still want ‘X-Men’ on a weekly basis. There’s not a person waiting to buy it after the story arc is done,” said Ralph Watts of Comics and Paperbacks Plus in Palmyra.
And what would the death of the periodical mean for comics shops?
“What I tell people is the day that happens, we’re all done. There will be no more comic book stores,” said Newbury. “We need that repeat business.”
If you’re DC or Marvel, the periodical remains a viable publishing format, though that’s not necessarily the case for other publishers or genres (DC’s Vertigo line, for example, seems to sell much better in trade than pamphlet).
If this trend continues, or if longtime fans are forced to make tough economic choices, the traditional comic book format may go the way of the blacksmith and long-playing record.
“Just because something’s outmoded doesn’t mean it should be abandoned,” Spurgeon said. “I hope they don’t abandon it. There’s still money to be made.”
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008