In a wide-ranging interview with Forbes, Image Comics co-founder/president and still fan-favorite writer/artist Todd McFarlane has broken what has largely been a quiet front among comic book industry leaders and breaks with some vocal comic book retailers over a controversual issue. Asked how the industry should respond to the near-shutdown Diamond's suspension of Direct Market distribution due to coronavirus has wrought, McFarlane doesn't hold back.
"I think the industry needs a consistent message," McFarlane replied, asked what the industry can do. "Whatever that message is, right or wrong, we need to be consistent, even if we have to adjust it. But we really need to speak with one voice, not four or five different publishers running four or five different programs and methodologies. It just ends up confusing the retailers and the customers.
"If they put me in charge – and no one wants that, I understand! – here’s what I’d do. I’d take Image, Dark Horse, Marvel and DC – the top 90% of the market – and make a message from the four of us as a unified front, one message."
McFarlane then argues for maybe the most controversial issues facing publishers, suggesting "at the very least" the major publishers can offer 10 new, popular top titles with the most demand for free as digital downloads.
"We can afford it," McFarlane argues. "It doesn’t necessarily help the retailers but we can’t allow customers to lose that exercise of being geeks, of getting their regular dose to keep their geekiness going with comics instead of moving on to some other thing like streaming video or gaming. Because they will. We need to engage people in comics, and if we’re not doing new comics, I don’t get how we can keep them interested."
And McFarlane is adamant about free and not a token amount like 99 cents.
"We’ve done ok. We can afford to give something back."
Then, once distribution resumes McFarlane suggests the major publishers can do three to five events to give readers a reason to come back into stores.
"Maybe we can coordinate the timing for once, so each company gets a turn in the spotlight," he suggests. "Maybe do some cross-company stuff, to make it sexy."
Newsarama has previously suggested DC and Marvel Comics should begin working on a major inter-company crossover right now using the same rational.
Following up on his digital suggestion, Forbes cites the concerns of some retailers who are fully against publishers embracing the platform, arguing it would hurt their businesses.
McFarlane disagrees with that stance, becoming one of the industry's first major figures to publicly take that position.
"Doing nothing can’t be the answer," he says. "If we all stand still and hold our breath, how does that improve what we’re doing now?"
McFarlane goes into great details to defend his position.
"If I put Spawn out digitally for free or at discount for a few months, does that mean customers won’t buy those issues at retail?" he asks rhetorically. "Maybe not. But I say to the stores, don’t worry about getting issues #307, #308, #309 that come out when you’re closed and can’t get printed copies anyway. Fans will come back for #310 when things reopen. They’ll come back for Batman or whatever they’re reading. Who cares about the number? It’s a comic you’re selling at the same price. Who cares if people get it a different way in the meantime?
"Here’s what I know about addicts. The longer they go sober, the easier it is to stay sober. We don’t want our customers to break that habit. Consumers will be filling their time somehow. Why let a competitor fill that with streaming media or games? We need to fill it."
McFarlane then cites the history of the digital medium, suggesting in 2011 retailers were opposed to day-and-date digital publication of print comics books, thinking it would "doom the industry," and argues retailers were wrong and that it helped sales.
"We have an industry that’s built around weekly gatherings - conventions - where people come to the conventions and get their books signed, not their iPads," he argues. "They need something physical. That’s never going away. We can’t look at other models like music and be afraid of what happened to record stores because of digital. We have uniqueness we can cherish and rally around."
Finally, McFarlane broadly suggests Diamond being the Direct Market's lone or dominant distributor has to be rethought when things return to normal.
"We have one distributor for print comics, and they decided for safety reasons to cease operations," he concludes. "Because we’re all tied to one person, that one decision affects the whole industry. It was probably was the right decision, but it’s not healthy in the long run for one person to hold the fate of the entire industry. We should be doing a reassessment when we all come out on the other side and ask some hard questions about how to buffer ourselves from this happening again."