Monday, August 22, 2011

While the World Burns... even Morrison doesn't think this mode is sustainable

A frog in a pot will not notice when the heat around them begins to rise, and will get cooked alive.

I'll be honest with you, in a lot of ways I think this describes the bizarre culture that's grown up around comics and its resistance to facing down the hard numbers of the state of the industry.  Nathan C. today forwarded me an article from Rolling Stone in which comics writer Grant Morrison, arguably one of the more successful and definitely one of the smartest guys in comics, talks more bluntly than I can recall seeing from in an interview.

Morrison is making the rounds promoting his book Supergods (my copy shipped today from Amazon), and perhaps he's a bit tired out or punchy from too many interviews, but its the first I've seen of Morrison not being asked to play shaman and reinforce our own mystical beliefs in superheroes.  Instead, Hiatt asks Morrison some straight up questions about the flagging American comics industry, and Morrison answers from his own script rather than from the cheerleading script, no doubt his employers would prefer.

DC is relaunching its entire line – is there some desperation there?There's always going to be a bit of that because comics sales are so low, people are willing to try anything these days. It's just plummeting. It's really bad from month to month. May was the first time in a long time that no comic sold over 100,000 copies, so there's a decline.
Is it frightening to you personally?Only in the sense that it would be a shame not to write superhero comics, but at the same time, I figure I'd just do something else, so it's not that frightening.  
Do you think this is the death spiral?Yeah. I kind of do, but again, you can always be wrong. There's a real feeling of things just going off the rails, to be honest. Superhero comics. The concept is quite a ruthless concept, and it's moved on, and it's kind of abandoned, the first-stage rocket. 
Abandoning comics?And moving on to movies, where it can be more powerful, more effective. The definition of a meme is an idea that wants to replicate, and it's found a better medium through which to replicate, games, movies. It would be a shame, because as I said in the book, one of the most amazing things about those universes is that they exist, there's a paper continuum that reflects the history, but people don't die, it's like the Simpsons, people don't age, they just change.

Its fascinating, as is his take on Chris Ware - and one assumes a lot of the indie scene (an argument I actually quite agree with), sexism at DC and his reading of Identity Crisis (a conversation i suspect we'll be having still in 15 years).  Honestly, the whole article is worth reading.  

In a lot of ways, the DCNu relaunch is going to be make or break for the industry as a whole, not because it means that DC will collapse completely if this relaunch fails, but because DC will have officially changed everything about the product to match what the guys in charge have wanted to do for a long, long time.  If the DCNu effort isn't selling more comics come next summer (and I see no reason it would), then DC will have to think a lot harder about both what they're selling and how.  And that's going to take honest-to-God work, work that everyone at DC seems incredibly disinclined to do, to deal with realities that nobody seems to want to admit.

Which is why its morbidly fascinating to see Morrison shrug and say "yeah, if you're desperate enough to let me do whatever the hell I want with Superman, why wouldn't I?"  And he is definitely doing something.

In the late 1960's and through the 1970's, folks were staying away from theaters in droves.  Studio heads, unsure of what else to do, adopted a "we don't know what works, so whatever those guys want to do"-attitude and accidentally created one of the greatest eras of American movie-making, from The Godfather to Star Wars to Dog Day Afternoon.  I don't think we're there yet in comics, and the line-up at DC looks too much the same in September as it did in August.  Its going to take the bottom falling out completely and likely the end of tenure for a couple of folks in management.

The interest is there.  Yeah, Hollywood reports that Captain America wasn't a roaring success, but a few million people still saw the movie.  Comics are lucky if a few thousand people pick up a comic.

Part of my cringing at Comic-Con is that its become a massive echo-chamber of cheerleading, of 20-something's getting very upset when you suggest that comic character they're dressed up as could go away due to an unsustainable business, but that same kid dressed up as Booster Gold won't actually pay for comics, downloading them from bit-torrent and posting comments about "why would I pay money for a five minute read?".  Its pretending that the 120,000 in attendance actually represent some portion of the readership, when there's no evidence half the attendees buy any comics on a regular basis, if sales are to be believed.

The shuttering of Atomic Comics should tell us something about the fragile state of the business.  Its been several years, but Atomic Comics was a pretty strong force in the comic business in the Valley of the Sun.

From the open letter sent by the owner of Atomic Comics (who has now also lost his house, by the way):

I think the catalyst for Atomics’ downfall, as some of you may remember, occurred in October of 2006, just as the recession was beginning,  when a 16 year old uninsured driver, drover her car through the window of our Mesa Superstore, our largest and greatest revenue producer. This in turn caused a flood as the water main had been hit. This caused such severe damage and loss that we had to shut down for over 5 months. The damages were so severe we lost close to a million dollars in product. The loss of revenue due to being closed all those months as we headed into retail’s busiest season was astronomical. What really stood out to me was how many of Atomics’ customers were lost as we rebuilt the store. It seemed as if half our customers never returned. The great mystery to me is what exactly happened to all those missing customers. I can only speculate that once you take away the habit of weekly buying-it is hard to jump back into it. Since there was not another comic shop in the immediate area, I can only assume customers found other means to obtain their comics, maybe they started driving great distances to hit up other stores, some possibly went the way of the internet and are now ordering their books online or perhaps even downloading their books illegally, or maybe even some stopped collecting comics altogether.

And now I keep thinking about all the readers who were buying comics at Atomic who won't get their comics at Atomic. These same readers will know they didn't "pre-order" their comics at any local shops other than Atomic, and because local stores in Tempe and Chandler (at last check) don't order more copies than they know they can sell (and they do this months in advance), any of Atomic Comics' readers will not have access to copies of DC's relaunch.

Which may just mean - DC loses the Phoenix area, one of the biggest metro areas in the country. And just a few hundred sales could be making a huge difference for an industry where sales are in the 10's of thousands.

That's really screwed up.  And largely because one new, liability-proof driver didn't know the difference between the brake and gas pedal.  We live in precarious times, my friends.

We'll see what happens in PHX, and I really recommend reading Morrison's complete interview. We need Morrison someone in the pot to point out that its getting a bit hot in here, and maybe we should consider our options, or at least make the most of the time we've got.

Good, topical stuff, and I guess he now believes Millar is a bit of a wanker, too.  In so many ways, Morrison and I are in agreement.


JMD said...

I remain curious about the new 52, an idea which intrigues me about as much as the Ultimate reboot did for Marvel. However, Marvel kept its signature universe intact, while DC is betting it all on the new 52. There's something bold in that.

I can't speak to the quality of the new 52 titles, as I know nothing about them. As far as I know, they could be terrible. However, the full reboot seems to ameliorate one of the most significant barriers to entry to reading comics: the long and confusing history of titles and continuity issues. There were too many titles, too many alternate universes, too many characters with Wikipedia biographies longer than those of some Presidents of the United States, et cetera. This move to simplify is appealing.

Now, I will say that the idea of 52 is probably a bad one. I don't know anything about the economics of the industry, but it seems like DC could have should have started with 12 or 20 new titles, rather than 52. Then casual readers could come in and buy them all. Only the die hards will buy all 52 titles. A limited number of titles would also seem to encourage quality.

The League said...

To me the hardest barriers are:
1) comics are not as easy to find as books or DVDs
2) for some reason, people still think the entire medium is aimed at children

But I get what you mean. You may be right. Just read a report that the new Justice League title has charted at pre-orders topping 200,000, or more than 2x the best selling comics in July.

Bottom line: give people an entry point.

DC says they'll keep around 52 titles, but if sales aren't where they could be, they'll drop titles left and right. So we'll see.

I think the "limited number of titles" has translated into a limited number of superheroes and a welcome move to bring in stuff like Frankenstein, Blackhawks, etc... things that are in the DCU, but don't fit the superhero mold.

That said, the 200,000 is great, but where will it be in January? Where will Blackhawks be in January? I'm watching this with the greatest hope for the future, but I can't suppress my skepticism beyond the first six months of sales boost. Once the novelty wears off... what then?

Anonymous said...

I don't know about everyone else but my problem with the new DC relaunch is that DC is not doing enough to explain to me why I should go "all in" to this relaunch.

It's a relaunch with a new continuity EXCEPT for the Batman and Green Lantern titles. EXCEPT that Batman has only been a superhero for about five years now, only recently joined the Justice League five years ago after meeting all the primary members but he still has developed an international crime fighting vigilante force based on his trademark. How? If the reason is to make new readers have an easier jumping on point, how does incorporating Batman, Inc. and the Blackest Night storylines make it easier? How do you explain that Blackest Night/Brightest Day epic resurrected heroes that didn't die yet according to the new relaunch continuity?

I get why Justice League has 200,000 preorders. It's being written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Jim Lee. Two of the executive editors creatively for DC. Their titles aren't going to be messed with by editorial mandate. They ARE the editors. What about poor JH Williams as he toils on Batwoman. Or Paul Levitz when he's working on the next Great Darkness Saga and then gets his Legion stories dragged into the next "crisis" for the summer?

DC hasn't demonstrated to me that if I go "all in" with the titles that we will get to enjoy the works of the creators we want without grand editorial interference for silly sales. How is this relaunch any different than the numerous relaunches over the years? We had a reboot after Infinite Crisis. We had a reboot after Crisis of Infinite Earths.

Also, WHY are some of these titles even being published as part of the relaunch? I'm a huge Legion of Superheroes fan. I still don't get why we need a Legion Lost title? Especially a Legion title set in the present day with some of my favorite characters. I want Dawnstar and Wildfire having adventures with the rest of the Legion, not going on a time traveling bender for no reason except to have a second Legion title that doesn't interfere with the main Legion title.

DC needs to demonstrate the value is still there. Because right now, the amount of money I would spend on conservatively 15 titles per month could net me a AAA pc game that will last me at least 30 hours of entertainment per month. I paid $45 dollars for Baldur's Gate roleplaying game. I've put at least 150 hours alone in that game. Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is coming out in November. I will probably play that game for at least 100 hours. Deus Ex: Human Revolution just released this month. For $45 dollars, I will spend at least 5x the amount of time I get reading 15 titles in comics and enjoying the heck out of the game. It's been terrific so far.

I'm reading A Dance with Dragons by G RR Martin right now. I'm reading The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson too. Each book was $25. Kings was only $8.99 on Kindle. Each book is at least 1000 pages of entertainment. It will take me the rest of the year to get through Way of Kings.

The problem is that DC wants us to pay 3 large on each 20 page comic but they're not exactly breaking the bank to get the talent to justify the cost. A fraction of my favorite creators are involved. Sorry DC but I'm going to wait for the inevitable trade.

I know creative expression is expensive. I have no problems with paying for a comic. The problem is that there is better creative entertainment out there cheaper, more available and longer lasting for the consumer dollar.