Leading Questions: Keep On Rocking in The Direct Market

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 25, 2016.

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Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

Why do the good (comics) die young?

Oh boy, I feel like your question comes back to a topic that has become a regular feature in this column: The Direct Market.

We’ve discussed how certain properties dominate the market for decades by staying the same, how the market is driven by scarcity as much as quality, how many modern successes mimic the episodic nature of television, hownew publishing model mimic old ones with a fresh coat of paint, how many publishers are pushing what they already have with more force, how most of what’s available isn’t very good, and how unfriendly the market is to new readers, especially children. Of course, there’s more to discuss still, like the limited role of journalism and criticism for comics and the massive risk placed on retailers. It’s a long list that boils down to the same problem every time.

The Direct Market is a system that does not support ideal, or even vaguely good, outcomes for consumers and suppliers of comics in America. It doesn’t help create quality or potentially popular comics by limiting its own outlets and buyers. And to top it all off, there’s no easy or immediate source of change as distributors, the two biggest publishers, and some retailers do everything in their power to maintain the status quo.

Whenever we question the whys and wherefores of comics niche place in American culture and the problems facing the medium on an economic level, the core of the answer will remain unchanged. The Direct Market sucks.

As much as I like how you phrased this week’s question in the most romantic terms possible, it really does boil down to a question of economics. Some great comics may disappear due to a creator being unable to continue the project for a variety of reasons. People die, legal issues can cause big problems, and sometimes people just lose interest. But the most common reason by far is financial in nature.

You won’t find many artists who are happy to leave a meaningful and well received project. However, you are even more likely to find artists who appreciate being able to put a roof over their heads and food on their plates. When life makes you choose between necessities, most of us are drawn as if by gravity to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s damn hard to create a comic if you’re starving.

However much we like to discuss art as a higher calling, a passion, a necessity, it’s naive to ignore the necessity of commerce in life. People have to buy good comics in order for good comics to continue. Why do we get multiple revivals of the much-maligned Red Hood and the Outlaws at DC Comics, but barely manage to receive 12 issues ofThe Omega Men? A lot more people bought the former than the latter. That’s what it boils down to.

Does that mean people just have terrible taste? Absolutely not. There’s a sentiment you come across in comics that nobody can recognize what’s good. Even for a snob like me, that comes off as being a bit too snobbish. People like what they like and there’s nothing wrong with that. You shouldn’t feel ashamed if Red Hood and the Outlaws is your thing. I’m really into Batman ‘66; it’s all good. However, I don’t think that is a comic that would appeal to a wide audience. It’s steeped in associations with characters and a very specific style that appeals to an incredibly narrow market of entertainment consumers. It just so happens that this aligns with the segment of the population that the Direct Market targets.

Try selling that comics and, again, something like The Omega Men in a bookstore to readers unfamiliar with decades of DC Comics history and I bet you’ll get significantly different results. That’s not how comics are sold though. Instead of being treated like complete works like a novel or film, they are sold at an obtusely high rate every month to a very limited set of people. The odds of interesting, new concepts succeeding in that sort of arrangement is a lot less likely than in something like the current book or film market.

That’s not to say that these other mediums don’t have their problems either. Plenty of great works of art in prose or film fail to find an audience all of the time, and some of these problems can be traced to economic issues as well. I’m willing to say they are nowhere near as detrimental as those found in comics though. Considering how cheap it is to produce a comic compared to other media, there’s no reason it should be so difficult in comparison to succeed, but it is.

The problem ultimately comes back to having a market with a very limited number of consumers concentrated in very specific segment of the population. You put a movie in front of the eyes of every American in trailers and commercials, and the odds of people “discovering” it are much higher, than those of any given comic finding its audience in Previews or the shelves of a comic book store. That’s the reason creative, compelling new series likeThe Omega Men and C.O.W.L. wind up sinking in the sales charts. The people being sold to aren’t interested in meditations on violence or the failures of organized labor, even when dressed up in the excitement of superhero stories.

Of course there are alternatives to the Direct Market. There are lots of great webcomics being published everyday, some of which are eventually finding their way into the Direct Market as an alternative outlet. Image Comics is publishing Tom Parkinson-Morgan’s Six Billion Demons, providing a physical alternative to this great digital story. It’s not perfect, but it certainly helps to expand the potential audience by lowering barriers of price and discovery.

Some comic and book stores are also doing a lot of work to help expand the audience for Direct Market comics. Creating attractive storefronts, engaging in community and educational outreach, and promoting a diverse set of comics help these good comics survive longer. None of this is a permanent solution to the problems created by the Direct Market, but it helps.

You may want to ask what we can do to permanently fix the problems created by the Direct Market over the past couple of decades, but my honest answer would be “I don’t know.” You have to expand interest in comics, integrate them into more retail outlets, alter the standard selling packages (e.g. from monthly installments to complete stories), and promote higher standards of quality. How you do all of that is a question for someone far smarter than me.

For now we’re stuck in the current tradition of selling comics. It’s not even close to ideal, but very few markets in capitalism are no matter how much you may hear about the free market being a perfect solution to most ills. It’s a sad state of affairs with no easy fix. So we’ll see lots of good comics go before their time, leaving us with thoughts of what might have been.

What we can do is support the good comics we do find though. In addition to purchasing these comics we love, we can recommend them to friends, talk about them online, and promote them. It’s not our responsibility and it’s not a solution to these larger problems, but it may help us save one or two of the good ones. It can be the difference between something like The Omega Men ending at #7 or arriving at its conclusion at #12.

That’s not nothing.

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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