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Comic-Con 2011 Part One - The Business of Comic Books in the Tablet Age

zack.travis | Digitaria
By Tom Siebert , VP of Communications | @TomSiebert
Jul 25, 2011

Comic-Con hasn’t become what it’s become because of comic books, at least as far as the military-industrial-entertainment-media complex is concerned.  It’s grown to the size it has through the promotion of movies and television, some of which use comics as their source material, some of which have tangential relationships to comics or animation, and some of which have absolutely nothing to do with comics at all.

I’m going to be sparing in my reporting on the movies and TV stuff. Other trade magazines have done a decent job covering the celebrity-driven side of it, how Spielberg and Jackson appeared on stage together for Herge’s “Tin Tin”; HBO’s “Game of Thrones” had the most turnaways;  HBO’s “True Blood” had lines before sunrise (appropriately); Teen girl angst juggernaut “Twilight” had lines before Comic-Con opened.  The biggest studios stepped back from the most dominant promotions, but mini-majors Lionsgate and Relativity quickly stepped up, etc., etc., etc.  There’s no need for more reporting about the buzz and hype and excitement of the best the mainstream escapist entertainment industry has to offer.

But beneath the flash and celebrities, the actual dirty little secret of the comics industry is that the comics themselves are not doing so hot. Sales are down, have been falling consistently for the past couple years, and, after spending a good significant portion of my waking life at Comic-Con over the past four days, my conversations and interviews have convinced me that most people in the real comics business – the big publisher, the independent publishers, the distributors, and perhaps most significantly the comics shops -- are starting to freak, I think.

Can you blame them? All print material is gravitating towards tablets and other portable communications devices.  Marvel and DC both featured gleaming apps for a variety of platforms, and they are not alone. But designers of the user experience for the tablets are influencing the comics themselves. At one panel, a questioner asked a DC editor if the company was pressuring artists to conform to certain dimensions after Marvel killed a two-page Iron Man splash because it doesn’t translate well to devices. Some comic fan was irate, asking about it.

People will always rant, of course, but I get where he’s coming from. Still, in the end, I don’t think that it’s going to much matter.  The inexorable march of technological progress means the vast majority of actual comic titles themselves are probably doomed.

One of my key Comic-Con 2011 takeaways of the comics business is that that the majority of comics, actual 32 page color comic books, are now loss leaders for the trade paperback compilations that come after.

It’s what most of their readers do, one panel said, just about the only thing agreed upon by the four panelists at Saturday’s "Is the Comic Book Doomed?”: The money in print is in compilations; comics themselves are basically now considered disposable entertainment products. Read them and throw them away, “It’s what I do,” Vijay AIyer, an executive with Cartoon Books, which publishes Jeff Smith’s popular “Bone” series. No one disagreed, and at least half the comics geeks I talked to at Comic-Con buy trade paperbacks (as does this writer).

But....Disposable?  Won’t that ultimately spell doom for the printed comic – it will be easier to put the stories online first and then compile them in TBP later, no? Panelist superhero writer Mark Waid, longtime DC/Marvel writer now writing “Irredeemable” for fledgling comics company BOOM! Studios, says it will. One of the big reasons, he says,  is that the cost of producing a traditional four-color comic on decent paper has roughly doubled in the past five years to about $1.10. The panel’s retail comic shops representative Amanda Emmert says it’s 70 cents.  By print time, we’d not been able to determine for sure who is on the money; when we do we’ll update.

But you’ve got to print a certain number of comics in order to get the business’s lone distributor (that’s a whole ‘nother story), Diamond Comics, to deliver your material. The panel said that number is about 2,000. So you’re in roughly $6K straight out of the gate for production costs. Unless you’re taking a crazy fling on a one-shot, the strategy is four-to-six issues before you try a compilation. If you’re not DC or Marvel, you’re still talking some real money. And even then.

And that’s the biggest fear, according to the panel, of the comics industry, and the great unknown.  In the big entertainment conglomerate perspective, the comic book business is but a pawn on the corporate chessboard.

If DC or Marvel’s corporate parents, Warner Brothers and Walt Disney, see the margins thinning and the sale of physical comic books diminishing, at what point do they make the bottom line, Wall Street driven decision to just kill the comic books and move them online?

Already, DC has moved to streamline its offering and relaunch all of its storied titles at Number 1. But that’s a story for another day.