As the philosopher Heraclitus said, "Nothing endures but change."
As the comic book industry enters a new decade in a few weeks, the potential changes are many. From the possibilities offered by digital distribution to the promise of Hollywood's courtship, the business of comic books has almost as many challenges and opportunities on the horizon as the heroes who fill the pages of their stories.
In the first of a series of discussions with the people who make and sell comics titled “Outlook 2010”, Newsarama talked to comic book retailers to find out what the greatest challenges and opportunities are in the year to come.
With the United States still gripped by an economic downturn, some retailers wondered about how to retain readers when the cost of comics is rising.
"The average price of $3.99 for a comic isn't going to entice anyone to try a new one, and it's naive to think that comic fans won't look into a less expensive way to read them. Bit torrent files, anyone?" said JC Glindmyer of Earthworld Comics in Albany, N.Y. "And we're hearing 'I'll wait for the trade' more often. It may be time to borrow a page from the Japanese and start to put out an American version of Shonen Jump- an anthology type of book to act a loss leader to support the regular line."
Jason Pierce, owner of Alter Ego Comics in Muncie, Ind., agrees that his greatest challenge in 2010 is convincing current customers and new ones that comic books are worth the $3.99 that so many of them cost now.
"I know there's a theory that people are looking for escape during a slow economy, but they only have so much disposable income," Pierce said. "And what makes it worse is that we're raising prices. It makes us less competitive in a marketplace where there are lots of alternative forms of entertainment and escape."
Whether it's digital comics or big-box bookstores, retailers are aware that the access to comic books isn't relegated to just their stores anymore.
"I personally don't think digital will ever completely replace comics, but it's going to make enough of an impact that retailers are going to have to really step up and make their stores stand out," Pierce said.
"With Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon, why should a customer come to your store?" said Adam Casey, manager of Ssalefish Comics in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Sure, comics are a niche medium, so to get the monthly titles, a comic reader would go there, but what about paperbacks and hardcovers? The book trade is extremely lucrative for both retailers and publishers and with so many readers returning to comics, it's not unheard for a new customer to walk out of the store with the Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis, and Final Crisis collections or House of M, Civil War, and Secret Invasion in one transaction."
Lack of New Material
Several retailers voiced a frustration with the constant crossovers and lack of fresh, new content being released by the comic book industry, which they said makes it difficult to get new readers interested in committing to a monthly habit.
"The incestuous way comics are currently produced consists mainly of a spin off or reworking of an older established title," Glindmyer said. "It's time for publishers to be a little more daring and put out something different besides a new BatmanSpider-ManX-Men book."
"I frequently have people come through my door saying they stopped reading comics when they started college, got married or had children, and now they're at a position to resume their hobby," explained Charlie Harris of Charlie's Comic Books in Tucson, Ariz. "But when they ask where to pick up with their favorite Marvel characters I have to tell them that they'll have to read most of Marvel's titles for the past several years to get up to date."
Shop owners pointed out that titles like Walking Dead or Kick-Ass or many of the Vertigo titles are not only more successful at being ready for new readers to enjoy, but in generating excitement among current readers.
"When Kick-Ass debuted, it caused a stir and many people came into the store specifically looking for it," Glindmyer said as an example. "While it's definitely not everyone's taste, its popularity and its sales figures can't be ignored. We definitely need more books like this to compete for consumers' entertainment dollar."
There are dozens of comic books that have been optioned for film or are being developed to hit theaters. Retailers see this as a great opportunity to reach out to people who have never tried comics before.
"It's weird because just as the economy is bad, there's this new awareness of comic books," Pierce said. "It's this dichotomy that we're experiencing right now. Everyone's heard of comics and knows about superheroes because of movies."
Some retailers said they're more excited by the potential awareness and foot traffic they'll get from non-superhero movies than they are by the traditional capes-and-tights fare.
"Scott Pilgrim should be huge for Oni," Pierce said. "That's going to sell a lot more of those books than, say, Iron Man 2. People think they already know the deal with Iron Man. But then people are going to say, what? Scott Pilgrim is a comic book? Well, I want to read that! And once they experience comic books for the first time, we just have to be able to steer them toward more."
Harris said graphic novels should be on an equal footing with regular novels, and with the attention that has already been directed toward the medium by Hollywood, there's no reason that can't happen in the coming decade.
"A new audience is being created and that faction of consumers can become regular and loyal customers if provided with the good customer service that the chains and online vendors can't provide," Harris said.
Free Comic Book Day
The event that was created as a ground-roots effort in 2002 has expanded now to where many comic shops get significant attention from the media and their communities, an opportunity that should only be enhanced next year for the May 1st event.
"Free Comic Book Day is the biggest opportunity for the comics retailer out there," Glindmyer said. "It's the one specific day of the year where the attention is solely on comic books themselves and not as reference material for a new game or movie. Any retailer who doesn't take advantage of this golden opportunity to reach out and introduce new people to our hobby is definitely not looking at the big picture for his or our industry's success."
Pierce agreed, adding that it's the best way for publishers, retailers and creators to get their products in the hands of new readers.
"If we can tap into the awareness we're getting from movies like Iron Man 2 or Kick-Ass or Scott Pilgrim, then Free Comic Book Day is the best chance we have to get them to try out comic books outside those stories that they already love," Pierce said.
Retailers recognize that they have to differentiate themselves based upon their extensive knowledge of the medium and their customer service level, as well as refining their store layout and stock, or else they're not going to last in this competitive environment.
Harris said he offers a mail order service. Others mentioned that they go out of their way to know their customers' names and preferences, so they can make recommendations.
"As most of the retail outlets in America are now parts of conglomerates staffed by untrained and uninterested staff members, the few independent businesses left high levels of customer service is an unexpected commodity that brings steady clientele," Harris said. "Knowing the names of my 250 subscription customers and their children, remembering their birthdays and their favorite authors, artists and characters provides an experience that is largely unavailable at other merchants."
Casey pointed out that the days of the stereotypical "dungeon" store are over, because the "comic book guy" from the Simpsons will not survive in the new marketplace.
"Comic shops have to become better merchandised," Casey said, "but also become better stores. Retailers have to become more welcoming to parents of young readers wanting Star Wars and Spider-Man comics as well as casual customers.
"One of the simplest ways to be new-customer friendly is to drop the 'industry' jargon," he said. "We're trying hard to get away from the term 'trade paperback' and just say 'paperback,' 'hardcover,' or the oh-so-simple-why-didn't-we-think-of-it-sooner 'books.'"