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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.

Square One: How to focus your story

I got another question from a blog reader that may resonate with all of you out there. We all have amazing stories to tell, and often the story is huge, epic, world-shattering and life-changing. But how do we focus this and make it both marketable and powerful? You can do both. In fact, you have to. Less is more in many cases. So let’s look at the question and my answer, and hopefully this will help you reach your dream of telling stories that matter.

Q: I have 110 page script typed and finished, which is only the prelude to an even bigger comic. The bigger comic is the main attraction with over 3 seasons mapped out and 510 pages ready to go for season 1. Only submitted to one company but looking for advice and an opinion.

A: First off, we should talk about your project. Most of us have a huge story in our heads that we are eager to tell, but you have to chop it down to something bite size and marketable at first. Think of Star Wars. Lucas had a huge story in his head, but in 1977 he was a relative unknown pitching in a genre that was not popular, and he had to cut out everything that wasn’t absolutely essential. You have to do the same thing at first. What that means for you is you need to make sure your 110 page script is cut into 22 – 24 page chunks, and that the first 22 pages are a self contained story, and a good one, that makes people want to read more. Don’t worry about season 1. Make sure that issue 1 is just plain awesome. That’s where you have to hook people.

Good that you are pitching to publishers, but you must be realistic about what the market wants. Be aware that no one wants an epic. Publishers want a 3-5 issue story arc that they can sell as single issues and then re-package as a graphic novel. It has been proven that if people love the single issues, they’ll go back and buy the graphic novel because 1) it proves they are true fans and 2) the graphic novel is less likely to get damaged when re-read. So when you pitch, don’t pitch the epicness of the story. Pitch the sellability of a mini-series. The project I am publishing this year, The Rum Running Queen, is 3 issues, 96 pages. We will sell the single issues first, then release a graphic novel. The singles help create a fan base, and the graphic novel generates profit. It’s that simple.

I’ve seen a few publishers who are accepting projects – Rats and Crows Publishing has been active, and Monkey Brain Comics may have something. Firestorm Comics and Crazy Monkey Ink both recently put out requests for pitches. Scout Comics might be another way. (Avoid Dark Horse and Image – they are only taking established creators at this time.) In general however, comic book publishers don’t want scripts. There are almost no companies looking for scripts without art. You need art to pitch a project. So don’t rely on other comic book companies – they are all small presses started by people like you who just published their own book and picked up a couple other books. Get your work out there – I have a project that I wrote and desperately want to publish. It is called Ashes of Faith and it is an adventure about a Kurdish female soldier fighting for redemption. It focuses on religious tolerance, and most of the publishers out there sell super hero stuff, noir, horror, or sci-fi. I can’t find a home for Ashes of Faith. That’s ok though – your comic has to fit the company you pitch to. My suggestion –  self-publish and sell and network at comic book conventions, go on Comixology and a few other online comic sites. If you think you can meet the minimum order, you can go to Diamond, (only if you have a well know name doing the art and/or cover).

After finishing Sevara (and seeing really bad sales) here is my advice-
Make sure the story is perfect. PERFECT. Have dozens of people read the script, good people, not friends, who will give constructive feedback. (I have yet to find a good editor, I’ve paid them and they still suck.) The Chopping Block at Comixtribe is a great way to get your ass handed to you, but honestly the feedback is not constructive. So I can’t point you in the right direction but never let anyone who knows you read your story. Your friends and relatives will all praise it. Let a stranger give you an honest critique.
Go big or go small. Either make a very small cheap black and white comic and get it out there, or hire well known people to do the interiors and covers. Like people who have worked for DC or Marvel, or have a massive following on Patreon. Don’t go medium. For The Rum Running Queen, I am looking at getting a very well known artist to do the cover. It is a bit expensive, but in the long run it will make the work stand out. There are some wildly talented artists out there who will meet your price range, you just have to ask.

So like I’ve advised a few other people who wrote to me about their projects, cut the length down to something that is marketable. Focus on the quality of the first issue, not the epicness of the multi-season story arc. Make sure the basic message and story resonate with readers, and make sure you have some well know artists to bring your story to life.

For a 110 page story, re-read the whole thing and find those 22 pages that encapsulate the whole tone and message of your comic. You only get one chance, one issue, to hook your readers. So which 22 pages are the most significant? Pull those out and make a kick-ass issue.

Square One: Where to start in the comics business

Another Q&A from a reader of my blog. The key thing here is that writing scripts does not require a literature major. Comics and film scripts are written by storytellers. Scripts are not prose, they are the structural elements of a story, told with action and visuals. But then there’s the question – how do you get published? Different people will tell you different things, but here’s my take.

Q: Hi, Damian. I’m an aspiring illustrator with about 30 years of drawing under my belt and almost 6 different ideas that I’d love to see published or make it into film. I’m 28 and feel like my lack of knowledge about the comic industry is really setting me back…and my crippling anxiety of having to accomplish all this on my own, for now at least. I’m no literature major, but I have a way with words so I’m taking a stab at writing outlines and scripts so I can get these ideas out of my head and into text. I naturally gravitate to illustrating character line-ups and visual development but I was recently told that if you don’t have a script then the art is pretty much pointless. What would you say is “square 1” of the journey to prepping your comic for a pitch??

 

A: Getting the ideas out of your head is the curse of all us writers. I read an article by Stephen King, who says that he so many stories in his head that just need to get out, which is why he is such a prolific writer. He has no choice. The stories are just banging around in there until he can get them on paper. That’s pretty much the same way with me. Once I have a story, it has to get onto paper or else I go mad.

 

At the same time, the comic book industry is a particular animal that you have to get to know really well. Just like Hollywood or book publishing, the comic book industry has its own rules, many of which are unwritten. I’ve been luck to have gone through the process – I got a lot of rejections before finding a publisher, and I’ve had an inside perspective of the industry now that I have a friend who works at Marvel and another who worked for DC for years.

 

You are in an interesting position. Very few comics are written and drawn by the same person. David Mack did Kabuki all by himself, and Craig Thompson (Blankets and Habibi) works solo. I think Jeff Lemire does The Underwater Welder all by himself, and I think Matt Kindt does Mind MGMT all by himself. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, one person writes and the other person draws. So this could be very good for you, certainly cheaper.

 

That being said, writing and art use such different parts of the brain that it may be really difficult to pull it off – I mean with so many talented artists out there, why don’t they all just start their own series? Anyway, I’m a writer, and I have to pay people do draw for me. So if you can come up with a great story and good art, you are in a good spot to make your own comics financially, I envy you.

 

I taught myself how to write comics by reading almost every post on the Comicxtribe website and Jim Zubb’s website, and also by reading every blog post by FILM CRITIC HULK and reading his book Screenwriting 101. But writers don’t have it easy anywhere in the world, and comics are no different (basically, writers work with intangible elements and therefore get the short end of the stick in every market they are needed). A comic book script with no art is impossible to pitch. People want at least the first 8 pages of art, if not the whole first issue. Or the whole series. Plenty of people will take a completed comic book off your hands and make money with it! If you happen to have a 3 or 5 issue series already complete, and someone likes it, they will take it and sell if for you, there’s no risk to them.

 

So I’d say square 1 is a completed script of a 3- 5 issue series. No one wants a single issue, and 6 is too long. The reason – you’ll want to sell the project as 3-5 individual issues, then package it as a graphic novel and sell the book (a trade paperback really). And with the script, you need at least 8 pages of art and 1 cover. 8 pages is minimum, that’s what Image and Dark Horse want to see. (Note that Image and Dark Horse take projects for established creative teams almost exclusively). Don’t aim high. Aim at getting your book sold anywhere so you can build a fan base – sell directly to your local comic book shop or at comic book conventions. Aim for small publishers. Print your first issue and give physical copies to publishers at comic book conventions, and see if they will carry the book for you to other conventions. Having a well written 1 paragraph pitch, and a well written 1 page summary, is also necessary and way harder than it seems.

 

Your case is special. You can draw. So, you can do much more than just an 8 page pitch. You can complete entire issues! If you have completed issues, you don’t need scripts. Scripts are only when you don’t have art, or only have some art. But yes, people don’t want concept art. They want completed lettered sequential art. Letters can be re-done later, and letters are cheap, but good art is priceless.

 

You could make your graphic novel and sell via Amazon/Ingram Spark. Not a bad option, with very little investment from you. Ingram’s print on demand is very good. Sales will be low, but at least the work will be out there. But you want to build a fan base, and that means getting single issues into the hands of people.

 

Worst case scenario – make a 3 issue series and pitch directly to Diamond. The key this – hire a very famous cover artist and pay premium dollar for the cover ($200-$500 is normal for a cover by a well known artist, it can go higher). Diamond is hard to break into unless you have a famous name to back you up.

 

Breaking into comics is not easy, but the key is to create and get something out there any way you can. As a writer, I pay for my art, but to me it is an investment. I’m building a fanbase slowly. Just do what you love and follow your dreams!
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