Tag Archives: comic books

The decline and death of comics as we know it

Comic book circulation is falling, and although digital is picking up some of the slack, when print dies, so do comics as we know them. The number of comic book shops is in decline, and with the number of titles increasing, the print runs are getting smaller. That’s bad for comics who rely on advertising to generate income. And as print runs go down, prices go up and profits fall. We are facing the death of comics as we know it. How did we get here?

The comic book industry is a strange animal.

It is one of the few industries I know that does not sell the product it makes. Let’s talk DC and Marvel. The big two make their products, but aren’t part of the system that markets and sells them. Would Coke or Nike do the same? Nikon cameras have sales reps that travel from shop to shop, showing off new product. Opening a camera shop is easy – contact the nearest Canon or Nikon rep, and they will set you up quick. Most businesses have a way to sell their product and expand their reach, and do so aggressively. But not comics.

Comic book companies make a product that is immediately handed over to someone else to sell.

It is a passive system. I’m trying to think of an analogy. Perhaps car dealerships work the same way as comic shops, and yet I see car commercials on TV all the time and ads for dealerships in every newspaper. They are working hard to get your business, tell you where the shop is, and sell you something. But the people who are distributing the comics and selling them are not in the best position to increase readership or expand distribution, or do not feel there is a need to panic. They should be.

Diamond is the sole distributor of comics, until some small West Coast start-up knocks it down.

Until that day, we rely on them to distribute comics. But since they have a monopoly, they set the rules, and the rules are not geared towards success or expansion. If you have a shop of any kind, there is a barrier to entry if you want to sell comics. For example, you own a Dunkin Doughnuts or candy shop. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a rack of comics to sell? Call up Diamond and see what happens. Their business model prevents small shops from carrying comics. The door is shut in your face.

And if you’re a creator, things are equally hard.

Diamond can promise to carry your title, and shops will start ordering out of their catalog. But if not enough comic book shops order your comic, then they will cancel your order and no one receives the goods.  So the comic gets screwed and so does the customer who ordered the comics. Why? Because a comic book shop is not like a grocery store.

When you walk into a grocery store, and all the items on the shelf have been ordered by the store managers. They take a look at how many of each items they sold the last period, and order more based on that. So what’s on the shelves is all there because of past sales. Not so in a comic book shop. What you see on the shelf is overflow. It is risk in the portfolio. How? Because comic book shops pre-order comics for their regular customers, and hold those books in a bin behind the counter. A customer will walk in and grab the titles that they’ve ordered beforehand, probably because they just got a subscription. This is risk free sales for the comic book shop. These are sales that are %100 guaranteed, the customer just has to walk in. And as they customer makes their way to the checkout counter, maybe they’ll pick up a new title or two to try out, usually a number one. So the store will order a few extra comics, comics that are not pre-sold, just to have them out there on the racks. These are the risk comics. These are the ones that have to sell in one month or else they go into the bargain bin labeled ‘back issues’.

But the number of these shops is declining, and it is a race against time.

The machines that print comics take hundreds of sheets of paper just to calibrate. So when the shops drop below a certain point, and print runs get too far below a drip wire, it won’t be profitable to even print them. But Diamond is not out there trying to open new stores or find new distribution points. They aren’t building comic book vending machines or building partnerships with Chuck E Cheese or Regal Cinemas (I can’t for the life of me figure out why not). They aren’t working with Amazon to get print copy of Z-MAN comics as an add on item when you buy a Z-MAN superhero toy. And they aren’t adjusting to changes. They aren’t making mini racks of comics to put in shops, they aren’t providing ways for entrepreneurs to open a cart in a mall. They just aren’t hoofing it to open new venues.

But since there’s such a distance between the comic makers and the comic sellers, the comic companies aren’t adjusting either. There’s no communication between the creators like DC and Marvel and the sellers and distributors. If a comic book shop wants DC to make fewer Batman titles and Marvel to make fewer X-Men titles to boost sales on a single issue, who would listen? If Diamond wanted DC and Marvel to make a lineup of 10 key titles in order to make a portable comic stack that could go Game Stop, who would they talk to? Because comics have become event crossover catastrophes, forcing the reader to read ten different titles just to figure out what’s going on. It is a scam. But if that’s the way the comics are written, how can Diamond do anything but push those 10 event titles?

When a car manufacturer purchases their fuel injectors from a third party overseas, it requires a long arduous process to get the third part to make a change to the fuel injector. But that’s where we are with comics. Comics are printed in China (without the comic book company doing any marketing), shipped to a distributor (that does not work to expand the number of sales points), and then shipped to tiny mom and pop comic book shops that don’t have the money to advertise much at all. Three parts of a machine, creator, distributor, and seller, don’t communicate with one another. But what happens when the comic book shops just all close down? Will DC and Marvel still make comics? I wonder.

So where do we go from here?

We need silicon valley type of thinking here. We need Elon Musk type of thinking. We need to move everything in-house. Comics must be printed in America on low cost machines, so someone needs to build a better printer. Then they should be shipped to sales points that vary in size from a large store to a small rack in a Burger King.  So there needs to be a distributor that can handle small orders, and that is out there on the street getting shops to put in a small rack of comics. And the big companies, Marvel and DC, need to take note so that there are titles that are stand alone. And the mom and pop shops need to be part of this for when customers want the other titles in the series – they have to be easy to find.

I’m passionate about comics because comics are stories, and stories are how we understand the world. We understand our life as a sequence – there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end  – just like a comic book. And stories shape our morals, our outlook, our understanding of what is possible in life. We need stories to live. We need stories to learn how to breathe, and what breathing means. And when our best stories die, and our storytellers no longer have an outlet, marketing and Hollywood will fill the gap left behind. And we can’t have that. We need original voices telling bold stories on the pages of comics. We need a new company that is not afraid to think different.

Q&A about comics and breaking into the industry

I recently got an email from a young man (I can say that now that I’m 40!) who dreams of breaking into comics. I don’t blame him, comics rock! Here’s his email and below I’ve put my response so that it might help others. The kid sounds a lot like me. And yes, I answer all emails!

 

Q: I’m a young writer looking to someday have my comic book out there for people to read. I’m 19 but I’ve been working on this story since the 8th grade. I’ve started over numerous times and scrapped a lot of work and ideas. One thing I’ve never changed is the main character’s name, personality, and what he fights for. Just this year I started writing the script for my story and I’m nowhere near finished. One thing that scares me and is always on my mind is, how am I going to get this published? How am I going to turn this into a book? What do I do after finishing this script? I read your article and I was hoping I could get some more information on how you got to where you are now. Maybe through you i can get one step closer to my dream.

 

A: First off, ideas are a dangerous thing, and they are rarely, if ever, finished. I’ll use the analogy of the original Star Wars because that is so well documented and so easy to relate to (and has a lot to do with the problem you are having). Lucas’ original script for the film was massive. It was way too long, and had enough story for 3 or more films. It was cumbersome, but he had all these ideas in his head and could not let them rattle around up there. He had to put them all down on paper, which is fine, but once Fox gave him the green light, he had to cut down the ideas into something that he could actually film (and the studio could actually make and distribute).

 

This is much the same way with comics. It starts with an idea. We have tons of ideas pouring into our heads at all times, that’s just what happens to creative people. And then we go to put them down on paper, and it goes nowhere (or it’s so huge you can’t pitch it!).

 

What Lucas had was a huge problem. He had a big pile of nothing. So he cut out the last 2/3rds of the script and filmed just the first part, assuming that it would bomb and the second and third parts would never be made. Sci-fi wasn’t popular back then. He had a frame to work in – he had to make a film about 2 hours long. Comic books are the same. No matter what, you have to limit your story to 20-24 pages (depending on the publisher), and each page or series of 2-3 pages needs to be a compelling story within itself. The problem is, how do you do that?

 

I don’t know what your comic is about, but comics are a visual medium, so there needs to be something happening on each page. I’m not a fan of comics that are just 2 people talking, although if the visuals are telling a story or the writing is compelling and compliments the art, it can work.

 

For your specific case, I’m going to recommend that you completely throw away the concept of ‘idea’. Why? Because comics are not ideas, they are concrete people, places, and situations. Each page takes place in a location, filled with characters, so let’s start there. And I’ll go ahead and use a Star Wars analogy, since we’re already here.

 

Think of Star Wars. The original 1977 film, the one I called Star Wars growing up, but is now called Episode IV, a New Hope. Anyway, let’s look at the film in terms of actions, not ideas. I’ll break down the whole film from memory (’cause it’s that easy to do).

 

  • fight scene (very short, 1 second)
  • chase scene (again, 1 second)
  • capture scene
  • break in
  • fight scene
  • rout
  • interrogation
  • capture (of Leia)
  • escape (of droids)
  • interpersonal conflict (droids argue)
  • capture (of both droids)
  • escape (droids sold to Luke)
  • escape (R2 runs)
  • chase (Luke chases droids)
  • fight
  • conversation
  • run (Luke going home)
  • entry (to city)
  • fight (in bar)
  • fight (in hangar)
  • escape (from planet)
  • training
  • capture (by death star)
  • escape (in Stormtrooper armor)
  • rescue
  • fight
  • escape (to trash compactor)
  • escape (from trash compactor)
  • fight
  • run
  • fight
  • escape (death star)
  • fight (battle of Yavin)

 

That’s basically Episode IV. I left out a few conversations, which are very few, very tight, and serve to show character and also move the plot forward or explain things to the audience. As you can see, the action is constant. Things happen, not ideas. Although the ideas are there, and the action carries the story of a boy trying to be more than he is. But since your problem is you have a huge idea, I’m rolling everything back to square one and breaking it down to the basics.

 

Fight, run, escape, run, fight, break in, break out: this covers almost everything in Star Wars. Instead of rescue you can say break in, instead of escape you can say break out. There are a few common elements missing, namely the seduction scene (not sexual, but simply when one character tries to convince another character to do something they don’t want to do) and a few others.

 

As I said, I’m leaving out a lot here. The key to Star Wars are the 4 connections between Luke and Obi-Wan. First in Obi-Wan’s house, second the training scene on the Falcon, third is Obi-Wan’s [spoiler alert] death, and 4th is Obi-Wan’s voice during the trench run. Take those elements out and the film/story fails. Star Wars is about a boy with no father who meets a father figure that allows him to be the man he always knew he was. Those 4 moments seal it all. So don’t think that this is about action and more action. The story has to be solid. And it doesn’t take much, just a few moments between two people will drive your story. But if you’re stuck, start with the action. You can move to plot, character and story later. This is just one method. There are other ways to go. But the ‘scene by scene’ method is a good place to begin if you are stuck.

 

Here’s my suggestion. Take a piece of paper and make 22 bullet points, each square representing a page. Then map your story in terms of action. Characters break in, fight, get captured. They steal something, they run. This will force you to set the location and time. And it will force your characters to make decisions – remember that your characters make the decisions, not you. So you can build this comic organically. Put the characters in a tough situation, and then let it play you. What would your characters do if they were in a fight? How would they act? Let the situations unfold naturally.

 

Map out one issue. Start with the characters in a tight spot, and end in a cliff hanger. Remember, you want people to be dying to read the next issue. Start right in the middle of the action, which usually means writing a story and then cutting off the first few pages so that we land in the middle of something that is ongoing.
Work on your script and polish it. Get that done before looking for an artist and a publisher. I recommend self publishing at conventions or POD at first, but you’re a long way away from that. I have tons of tips for that – my second graphic novel is being produced right now. But it took me years to develop my first script, so I feel your pain.

 

Let me know if this is helpful. I wrote a whole book about the entire process and put it on Amazon for 99 cents. I also recommend in your case that you go on Amazon and buy Screenwriting 101 by Film Critic Hulk. Do the character map described in that book, it will work wonders I promise.

 

And when you have a new 22 page script, send it to me. I’ll take a look. I hope this helps!

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