The end of the year and start of a new one is often a time to look back at the previous 12 months, but as we head into 2010, Newsarama is also looking forward.
In a series we're calling "Outlook 2010," we're talking to the professionals who make and sell comics about the greatest challenges and opportunities coming as we head into the next decade of comic books. First, we spoke with retailers, who identified some concerns and hopes for the future of the industry. Then we spoke with the industry's publishers and their editors.
Today, we turn to a sampling of the people who create comic books to find out what they see as the biggest challenges and concerns for the coming year.
Just as retailers voiced concerns about the of comics in a changing economic climate, creators also called it one of the challenges for 2010.
"Sales are down (though, knock wood, healthier than a lot of other areas), retailers and readers have less money with which to try new titles or stick with old favorites, and everyone is feeling the pain in some way or another," said Christos Gage, writer of comics like Avengers: The Initiative, Dante's Inferno and Area 10. "Comics are an art form, but it's a far healthier environment for that art form when the business side of things is going well."
David Petersen, creator of Mouse Guard from Archaia Comics, said current comic book marketing seems to be counter-intuitive when there's such a struggle among readers to continue affording comics. Just when comic book fans need help making comics affordable, many publishers are instead trying to get them to spend more.
"With the economy cinching everyone's 'fun' money spending, now is not the time for companies to cross-tie their titles in a way that forces readers to be 'all in' or 'all out,'" Petersen said. "In that same way, companies that are fracturing fan bases with conflicting comic-show dates. I think if comic fans keep feeling like companies are forcing them to make decisions the easy decision is to walk away, and no one wants that. Fans should be fans of books and titles, and events because of what they are and what they have to offer in and of themselves."
Artist Brad Walker (Guardians of the Galaxy) said publishers seem to be grasping for readers by reimagining old characters and publicizing "major" death. "My interest in 'reimaginings' is wearing a little thin, and even rehashing and revisiting old stories, or bringing back and refitting old characters," he said. "Every time I see a new storyline announced, it seems like the majority of the speculation (from readers and creators) centers around who will die. It's lost all meaning, as a dramatic device, and it is starting to seem like a cheap ploy that annoys readers more than it interests them. We should try to thrill and entertain people, more than anger and frustrate them. So, I think if we take it off the table, maybe we'll think of some different types of drama and suspenseful situations to put characters in rather than just 'will he live or die, this month,'"
Reaching a New Audience
Many creators said the biggest challenge facing the comic book industry is the same one it’s been facing for awhile now: attracting a new audience.
"We can't just keep preaching only to the ever-shrinking fanbase that shows up at their local comic shops," said Ron Marz, who writes Witchblade and Angelus for Top Cow. "Those loyal readers are great, they're the backbone that keeps the direct market running. But they're not enough to grow the business. We have to reach out and find new readers, and I think in order to do that, the industry has to present a much wider range of material."
Chris Roberson, writer of Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love and I, Zombie, pointed out there two very different audiences that comics are trying to serve – older, long-time comics fans, and new, inexperienced readers.
"I think one of the biggest challenges that the 'Big Two' have been facing for a while now is the fact that they can’t survive on the Direct Market alone (the old school, 'Is it Wednesday yet?' fanboys like me), but they can’t survive without the Direct Market, either," Roberson said. "This leads to a lot of second-guessing and half-measures, in the attempt to do the kinds of comics that will appeal to the mythical 'mainstream' audience while not offending the traditional fanbase. The problem is that in the majority of cases, those two audiences are looking for different things, and the risk that publishers run in chasing that strategy is to end up pleasing neither while trying to appeal to both."
"[It's] the same as it's been for the past few years," said Keith Giffen, who's writing Doom Patrol, The Authority and Magog. "How do we become mass market instead of niche? I mean, we're making inroads but it's nowhere near enough. Oh, and movies ain't the answer."
Getting Readers to Try New Product
In a market where a huge chunk of the market share is held by one sub-genre – superheroes – it's difficult for comic creators to get readers to try any other type of comic book despite the wide variety of quality material available.
"The big worry is the sheer volume of comics coming out," said Jeff Parker, who writes comics like Avengers vs. Atlas, Thunderbolts and Fall of the Hulks: Red Hulk. "A few years ago, this used to be an easy call, only a small percentage would be worth getting, so problem solved. Now though, there is a ton of good work coming out from every area of the industry, and retailers can't afford or have space to shelve it all, and it' s hard to get the word out on this worthy material through all the cacophony of voices trying to be heard."
"I personally have over five creator-owned projects in the works, and getting readers and retailers to support them has always been a battle," said writer/inker Jimmy Palmiotti. "But with the steady books like Jonah Hex and Power Girl hitting audiences the right way, I'm hoping that some of those readers will give them a shot. We had a good year with Back to Brooklyn and Last Resort, so I'm staying positive best I can. But one hit on these projects can really put a dent in the output. At best, we hope to break even with books like Splatterman, Trailblazer, Triggergirl, Westport and Tattered Man coming in 2010."
Tony Shasteen, artist on the Stephen King/Peter Straub adaptation Talisman, said it's frustrating that some of the exact same creators who attract massive audiences if they create a comic about superheroes can't get retailers and readers to take a chance on their book that doesn't have a traditional superhero in it.
"I can't blame the retailers. Traditional books from traditional publishers sell, and retailers are in the book-selling business," Shasteen said.
"Take the Talisman for example. I don't really know what the numbers are on the book yet, but this is a book written by Stephen King, one of the world's most popular authors, being published by Random House, one of the worlds largest publishing houses, and I would be willing to bet that a lot of readers don't know it's out there because it's not being published by Marvel or DC. That just blows my mind," he said, then added with a laugh: "Granted, there's a hack drawing it, but whatever!"
"It's hard to get readers, retailers and publishers to take a risk on something that isn't a known quantity, whether it's an established character or a superstar creator," Gage added. "It's totally understandable why that's the case, but for comics to thrive, we need it to happen."
Currently, the vast majority of comic books are sold in a limited market, with one distributor that has a minimum order level.
"I think the distribution system is hurting," Peterson said. "Fans are unhappy with it, as are retailers and publishers. As a creator when your book can't be sold because a distributor can't seem to fill orders, or find stock, or want to include your book in their order system, it hurts everyone (even them). I think it's one of the reasons big box stores are gaining ground with larger comic and graphic novel sections, the opportunity was there."
Tony Lee, writer on comics like Doctor Who: The Forgotten and Hope Falls, said his concern is that more and more independent publishers will find that their books are cancelled by the distributor, and as a result, will grasp at gimmicks to get their books back in the stores.
"Many of them will fall back to smaller routes, maybe simply go online rather than print, and this is a worrying trend because it means that superhero spandex books will stay the norm and nobody will risk trying new things," Lee said. "There are a lot of great books out there and they're totally ignored because Diamond cancelled the book due to low figures. Publishers will stop concerning themselves with quality stories, and go for the quick buck - more licenses, more 'big name' or 'event' titles. Less solid story for story's sake.
"I've got hopes that the retailer world will start looking to alternative distributors like Haven to run alongside Diamond, as Haven is more and more becoming the 'go to' place for quality indie product," Lee said. "And by that I mean product that Diamond has cancelled or refused. Some of it might not be great, but then again this is the only outlet for some of the best small press companies out there. With luck in 2010 someone somewhere will enable both big and small to stand beside each other once again."
Joe Caramagna, letterer on comics like Amazing Spider-Man, said the current distribution model in comic books is also counter-productive to the need to attract a new audience, which is disheartening when there are so many potential readers being introduced to comics by films.
"In a direct-market world, it's nearly impossible to create more comic book readers out of comic book movie audiences," Caramagna said. "Comics, especially Iron Man comics these days, need to be available everywhere, but since unsold comics can't be returned by stores the way that magazines can, it's an uphill battle to get any stores with magazine racks to carry them and for retailers to order more of them. And even though the quality of comics is very high right now, the 'cost-to-time' ratio isn't as favorable to consumers as it is with movies and video games."
The comic book convention schedule is getting a little ridiculous, according to some creators, and many organizers are turning away from comics to the marketing opportunities with Hollywood.
"Honestly, this might be the year that the convention people will have to start paying the comic creator guests for their time," Palmiotti said. "The old days of hotel and flight are just not enough for the amount of shows being thrown. I worry about deadlines with work when there are more two and three-day shows announced each week.
"People forget we need a full day and a half traveling time and that a con can actually cost an artist or writer a weeks worth of work, besides cab fare and meals and so on," Palmiotti said. "I have been offered four cons in the same month and am deciding on which one to pick based on which one will treat me best."
Shasteen said he's also frustrated by the lack of attention comics get at many of the conventions. "Some of the cons have become so huge that it's practically impossible for comic book creators to attend," he said. "Support your comic focused conventions like Heroes Con in Charlotte, and The Baltimore Comic Con. If you love comics, go to a real comic convention."
Giffen also pointed out that there's a growing problem among creators with producing their work on schedule.
"[It's] my usual rant about the dearth of talent capable of handling a monthly book. That's writers as well as illustrators and how pathetic is that?" he said. "I think the whole misguided concept of comic book superstars, or just stars for that matter, has more than a little to do with that."
Attracting new adult audiences is one thing, but research shows that if children don't read a comic by the time they're age 10, then they're much less likely to ever pick one up. Creators said too few current comics – particularly superhero comics – are even able to be read by young people.
"My hope, and it's a long shot, is that all flagship titles go to an all-ages rating – and by 'all-ages" I definitely don't mean 'dumbed down,'" Caramagna said. "There's so much talent in the industry that we don't need bad language and sexuality to tell smart, relevant stories, and we can definitely do more so that current readers can pass their comics along to kids. A lot of people I know ask me for comics for their kids, and they're shocked to find out that most of the popular titles aren't age-appropriate."
Walker said a concerted effort needs to be made to make the regular, mainstream titles fun and entertaining for a wider age range, and once those readers are hooked by superheroes, they can try other, more mature titles when they grow up. But like Caramagna, Walker said the superhero comics can't be "dumbed down" or marketed only for kids.
"So many titles that I read lately are very good, yet they are so slowly paced and cerebral that I can't imagine anyone under 25 getting very excited about them," Walker said. "The solution so far seems to be creating separate titles that skew specifically to kids, but those don't seem to be working, and I feel like it's got to be because no kid wants to buy something that's skewed to them. From what I understand of kids, they want to look at things that are for adults."
With so many comic books being adapted into live action television shows and movies, creators hope the industry can capitalize on the attention.
"There seems to have been a minimal spike in sales from this craze, at best, and I think it's important to not be satisfied with that, and to really look at new ways to get people into comics, and comics to people," Walker said. "Someone has to already want to buy comics to go to a comic store (or even to that little section, in Barnes and Noble). So, I'm not sure what the best way is, but I think we really need to figure out how to get comics and books to a place where non-comic book readers are already going."
Shasteen said part of the problem is that people still only think it's superhero movies that are coming from comic books.
"Superhero movies are great. I love Iron Man as much as the next guy. Trust me, I'm not dogging on those franchises. Anything that can increase awareness for comics would be refreshing," Shasteen said. "I'm looking forward to Wildstorm's Red, Oni's Scott Pilgrim, DC's Jonah Hex, or Image's The Walking Dead. None of these would be considered typical comic books by the random guy walking down the street. My hope is they can increase readership and create a few more loyal customers."
Roberson was also enthusiastic about the new audience of readers that might be attracted to comics after the release of Scott Pilgrim in 2010.
"I fervently hope that Edgar Wright’s film adaptation of Scott Pilgrim is awesome, and that it leads millions of readers to discover the joys of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s masterpiece," he said. "Honestly, could there be a better “gateway drug” for the comics industry these days than Scott Pilgrim?"
A lot of the creators were cautiously optimistic about the future of comics through digital distribution, with a hope that it will get the medium into the hands of more readers.
"Comics have become a product that the audience has to seek out. They're not everywhere you go, like when there used to be a spinner rack in every grocery store and drug store," Marz said. "But with digital distribution of content, the audience is going to be able to find it with the click of button. And obviously I'm talking about legal distribution here, not the thieving, self-justifying a**holes downloading illegal bit torrents.
"The single-issue comic is pricing itself out of usefulness, at least to the mass market. I think there will always be a collector audience that shows up at the store every Wednesday for a stack of pamphlets, but that audience is shrinking. We're just in the infancy of online comics, we're still figuring it out, in terms of both content and business model," Marz said. "But that's where the future lies – initial digital releases, followed by collected editions you can put on your shelf. I like the tactile experience of having a book in my hands, though I mostly read trades now. But I think it's pretty obvious that in the coming decade, more and more people will get their content delivered digitally. That's the future. You can either run with it, or get run over by it."
Caramagna said he's seen digital comics already offer a lot of opportunities for new talent, and he hopes Marvel pushes the Marvel Digital comics so more creators can tell their stories online. "Especially exclusive digital comics," he added. "It could lead to a lot of opportunities for new talent. And the new digital reader on Marvel.com is terrific."
Nick Tapalansky, writer of Awakening from Archaia Comics, said he also sees challenges ahead as the industry begins to explore digital comics, so he hopes the technology is approached with care.
"Where once it may have been considered as a viable alternative to a copy of the book you could buy from your local comic or book store, now the technology exists, or will exist, which negates the need for a printed version at all," Tapalansky said. "As a reader, a book lover, and a creator, that's a scary thing to consider. Ten years from now, is it possible that the printed word will be as antiquated as CD's are 10-years after the digital music revolution? What does this mean for comic shops, bookstores, creators, and readers? How many smaller publishers will be able to make the shift safely and efficiently?"
Yet Tapalansky also sees the opportunities offered by new technology. "At this point, it's safe to say the shift is coming," he said. "While devices like the iPhone and iPod Touch may not be the most ideal way to read a comic, there is that rumored iTablet on the horizon. And, with devices like the iRex and the Plastic Logic Que on the way, how long will it be before a larger format color eReader exists at a respectable price point which can accommodate comics without compromise? Not long, that's for sure."
As an artist, Shasteen said the key to making digital comics work like real, paper comic books do is to have a way to read a full page. "Part of the appeal of a comic book is the design of the page, the way the reader's eye moves across the page from panel to panel, and the way it's intended to linger on certain panels," he said. "Great effort is taken by comic book artists and colorists to lead the viewer through a book. Most digital efforts in the past have attempted to force the participant along like they are watching a movie. Let's leave animation to the guys that do it best, and lets create digital comics that embrace all that is great about the comic book.
"With rumors of Apple developing a tablet notebook that resembles the iPhone/iTouch, this could finally give digital comics the opportunity it's been waiting for," Shasteen said. "Imagine having a device that allows you to see the comic full size on the entire screen. You could flip the pages with the swipe of your finger, easily zoom in and out, and pull up a navigational menu on demand. Under Apple, these comics could be as easy to download as third party apps, and it would give all books the opportunity to have a wider audience. In the end, it would be a great opportunity for the comic industry."
Parker said his greatest hope is that digital comics will offer a solution to the current problem of too many quality titles for one comics shop to handle. "My hope is that this is where e-readers and tablets selling comics digitally will take the reins and make a place for all of these titles," he said. "Then our plethora of material will be a strength."
"Done properly, I think that digital and print can not only coexist but benefit each other," Gage said. "Comics are not music. A song sounds the same on an MP3 player or on a CD, but I believe people will always want hard copies of their favorite comics. This industry was healthiest in the days when comics were considered disposable entertainment, when you'd roll up a copy of the latest issue and stick it in your back pocket, or read it on the train and toss it on the seat next to you when you were done. I'd love to see digital sales bring that mentality back for casual readers who don't or can't make the trip to comic shops, as well as providing an easy and inexpensive way for readers to sample a book they might want to start collecting. And then the hard copies and collections serve as a more tangible, permanent format for especially well loved titles that will be cherished and reread."
Creators were hopeful that comics will continue to offer a wide variety of genres and titles and opportunities in the coming year.
"If we want new readers, we have to offer those new readers something they're interested in, rather than trying to force decades-old superhero franchises on them," Marz said. "Superheroes are great, but they should be part of what we as an industry offer, not the lion's share of it. We should be offering superheroes, just like we should be offering a lot more titles featuring mystery, crime, romance, horror, science-fiction and every other genre you find in a book store."
"I think the biggest opportunity [for 2010] is what comics always has as its opportunity: the ability to tell any kind of story, with any kind of theme or tone, in any number of formats (size, shape, color use, etc.) with very little to alter the book's budget (no matter how special, special-effects in comics cost the same as nearly any other comic page...unlike movies and TV)," Peterson said. "Because there is no budget restricting what can and can’t be show or pulled of in the pages of a comic, we still get the opportunity to do awesome visual stories without being told 'that scene, actor, or look will kill the budget.
"And I think the comic market is opening up again in terms of diversity," Peterson continued. "I love that companies like Top Shelf, Archaia, First Second, IDW, Fantagraphics, and more are putting out books that are amazing and range in demographic, theme, size, format, and genre. I enjoy superheroes too, but it's nice to see the market showing that the other books can have a home on store and fan's shelves."
Palmiotti said he's hopeful the changes that are going on at DC and Marvel will produce more opportunities and diversity as well. "On a personal note, I'm hoping these companies can see the potential in Justin Gray and I and we get a chance to experiment more in multimedia," he said. "I really have a good feeling about what is going to happen in 2010…in spite of the economy and a convention every other week in this country.
"My biggest hope is that the people that buy comics start to see how diverse the books are these days and give new things a shot. Yeah, I wish this just about every year. It is actually getting better," Palmiotti said.
Roberson said he thinks the overall quality of comics has never been higher. "And the diversity of different styles, genres, and formats has never been greater," he said. "If we can get enough new readers onboard (and not just reclaim those lapsed fanboys who might have drifted away for a few years), then I think we might be in for some truly interesting times. I, for one, can’t wait to see what my favorite creators do next!"
"I only have one hope: that there continues to be even more variety in the comic book genres and thus also its audience, which I believe will happen," said Jonathan Luna, who creates the limited series The Sword with his brother Joshua. "It's been amazing to see the different kinds of books that have been released in just the past five years. It's very inspiring to be surrounded by so much innovation and creativity."