Death of Comic Book Guy

From memory, this was the first issue I bought at the local comic shop, coverdated July 1987

A few weeks ago, my brother closed off our file at the local comic shop. This is a significant development. We’ve shared that file between us since 1987. I remember many happy train journeys in those early years, sitting by the window looking at fresh issues of Avengers, Aliens, Dark Horse Presents… Then over a decade later, a regular Thursday visit to pick up a few issues then settle into Eva Dixon’s to read the latest creative madness from Marvel (which, under Jemas and Quesada, was pushing the boundaries in every direction). Good times.

But those days are now done, and not just for me and bro. Comic shops are dying out. This has been going on a long time – industry-watch blogs have tracked the steady closure of comic shops and the shrinking of the market. And despite the occasional surge into this or that channel, comics retail is still mostly locked up in the comic shops. A whole creative industry seems to be dying on the vine.

Predictably, a lot of folks point at content to explain this downspiral. Inward-looking massive crossovers in the big superhero lines are eating the consumer base! But I think it’s obvious on its face that this is insufficient as an explanation. The biggest retail years ever were the continuity-ridden low-quality 90s, and the non-supers scene remains as vital and challenging and innovative as ever.

In fact, while the stores close, comics have finally gone mainstream. Bookstores carry graphic novels and trade paperbacks, from the dumbest supers collections to the navel-gazingest indie tome. Comics movies are big news (and the supers ones cross-market to toy stores and restaurant promotions and more). The Walking Dead tv show is about to launch with top-tier creative talent and major buzz. Decades of talk about how comics deserve greater appreciation have finally been fulfilled. Heck, the best sign of all is that newspapers no longer need to launch every comics-related article with “Biff! Pow! Comics aren’t just for kids any more!”

But at the exact same moment that comics content is has gone utterly mainstream, the retail channel for the artifacts themselves is going down the gurgler.

One big culprit is obvious: price. Comics are resource-intensive and modern quality demands are high. Comics hit the $3.99 US price point a while back and that was breaking point for a lot of people. With an already shrinking audience, economies of scale and increased production costs had devastating results. Industry death spiral. The value proposition just doesn’t work at that $3.99; it was barely holding at $2.99.

Yet all is not lost. Comics are going digital, in a big way. The big companies have been putting footprints down for a while; Marvel’s iPad app was a clear sign that comics are shifting focus to the screen not the printed page. This, again, is not a new development – Scott McCloud foresaw some of this a decade ago in his Reinventing Comics, and many creators have already gone to online publication. (Shout out to Dylan Horrocks, whose serial Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is on fire as a free online publication, after starting out in print.) Sales numbers for digital are promising, where even bookstore sales are showing a remarkable drop.

But – and here’s the thing – my brother and I aren’t shifting to digital for the content we used to get on paper. A general digi distribution model isn’t in place yet. Reading paper-format comics on laptop screens is still a frustrating experience. Tablets like the iPad are great, but they don’t have much market penetration yet. And what, to keep my conscience clear on the piracy front my brother and I now have to buy duplicate issues in digital form?

So it’s strange times for an industry. Just as it hits the big time in terms of cultural capital, the bottom collapses out of its infrastructure, while the lifeline of digital isn’t ready to take the weight. There’s some irony for ya.

Me? I’m gonna sit tight, wait things out, and see where we are in a few years. Comics stores won’t die, but they will need to change (and the good ones are already well on-track for doing this). I’ll still pick up the odd single issue, as long as they keep makin’ em -what can I say, I like my slabs of culture. But the old model is history for me personally, and soon enough will be for everyone.

And thinking about it again, it does blow my mind a little bit. “Old model” = the entire infrastructure for a creative industry. A whole medium’s falling over. That doesn’t happen too often. (And, just quietly? Broadcast television should be watching verrry closely.)

(N.B. Statements about comics industry here don’t apply to manga or to European b-d, which are both in a much healthier state by all accounts – not least for their use of formats very different to the 24-page “floppy” that has been standard in US-derived comics for 75+ years).

6 thoughts on “Death of Comic Book Guy”

  1. When I read the title of this post, I thought the man who voiced Comic Book Guy (Hank Azaria, a Simpsonian legend) was dead.

    . . .

    Don’t scare me like that!

  2. Price is what drove me away. I think that paperback books are way too expensive at $30, so what the heck am I supposed to make of a pamphlet that costs $8 – $10, is half ads, and takes 10 minutes to read?

    Also, the serial format really started to annoy me. Once a month was already a long time to wait, and many comics I was reading were coming out late, so it was a matter of reading a story in 10 minute bursts every 2 to 3 months.

    It also seems to me that not may people can write a good, coherent story in serial form like that. Too many stories became inconsistent or bent into strange shapes because the writers & artists are unable to reshape the early parts of the story in light of later developments.

    I love the medium, but nowadays I just wait for the writers & artists to finish the damned story – and then I get it out of the library.

    I actually play videogames instead of reading comics now – another intensely visceral medium that’s still in its infancy with regards to storytelling, but which usually gives me a lot more bang for my buck. (Though as far as I can tell there have not yet been any “masterpiece” videogames on the level of the best comics of Alan Moore.) I enjoyed the Batman: Arkham Asylum game a lot more than I enjoyed most Batman comic books.

  3. Yeah, my comicbook dropbox is on it’s last legs. I used to be all about getting the latest comics on the day of issue (at least the week after it was released in the States) but since I got all responsible and started having bank accounts with names like “savings” and “bill blaster” I now only have four titles that I have put aside. One of them comes to an end in a couple of months and I figure at that stage I’ll close my box and just get the occasional trade.
    The main reason for me is that I just don’t have the time to keep on top of things like I used to. There’s only a limited amount of coin in my comics bucket and I can’t afford to read a comic that I don’t enjoy. I used to spend a heap of time on the comics news sites keeping up with the storylines as they came out but now I don’t make the effort. I haven’t got my finger on the pulse of what I’ll enjoy or what cross-over issue of which X-comix I need to have read in order to have my purchase make sense. There are a lot of good comics out there but you need time to wade through the not-so-good to get to them.

  4. I gave up on buying comics sometime ago (they were too expensive and I ran out of space) – but if they started bringing them out on something like the Amazon Kindle (which would need colour, not in the Kindle 3), I’d likely get back in!

  5. Yeah, similar stuff coming through from you all: price, knowledge requirement, space… Its a general trend, I think.

    2trees: awesome link!

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