SDCC '08 - Are Monthly Comics Dying?

SDCC 08: Are Monthly Comics Dying?

It’s a question that publishers, creators, retailers and fans have been speculating about for years now – are “comic pamphlets,” i.e. the monthly comic format, in a death spiral? While the answer varies depending on who you ask, there’s a growing consensus that the trade paperback and the graphic novel are on the rise while the monthly comic is on the decline. But don’t start the death march for “floppies” just yet.

Joe Keatinge from Image Comics, Age of Bronze creator Eric Shanower and comics retailer Carr D’Angelo, along with moderator Douglas Wolk, looked for the answer and raised a lot of other questions at the “Future of the Comics Pamphlet” panel at the San Diego Comic-Con last Thursday.

“My take on the future of the comics pamphlet is that there’s not much of a future left,” Shanower said. He predicted in 10 years, the monthly format won’t be the dominate form of publication for comics in the United States.

Shanower said Age of Bronze, which has been published by Image for about 10 years, hasn’t made money as a monthly comic for the past four years. However, it does really well as a trade paperback.

“That’s basically how I make my living,” he said. “If that’s all I was doing, I’d be just fine.”

He said order numbers keep going down for single issues, and he discussed with Image the possibility of ending the monthly series and publishing the book as a series of graphic novels. They decided not to, as long as it wasn’t losing too much money, because it provides visibility for him in the direct market. He also said it’s a good way to advertise his work at conferences or even comic conventions, and even had copies on hand to give out after the panel.

Joe Keatinge, however, isn’t so ready to drive a nail into the coffin.

“I love comic books,” he said. “I got into this industry and pursued this career because I love comics.”

In regards to the monthly comic, he said it’s not just a format, it’s a medium in itself.

“This whole notion as pamphlets or floppies drives me nuts,” he said. “It’s only been around for less than 100 years, and I think it’s got a huge future. The problem with it is, especially right now, is that it’s a ‘publish or perish’ industry. We launched black and white books five years ago, and now one of them is one of our highest selling single issues in sales – The Walking Dead – and they go up every month.”

Keatinge said a big problem is that there haven’t been a lot of single issues to excite readers who have left comics. “Frankly the industry really burned a lot of readers in the mid to late 1990s,” he said. He added that he’s at a point where he’s no longer excited about a lot of comics coming out from Marvel or DC, “and I love that stuff.”

But he added, “I think it’s possible to bring those readers back, but I think there needs to be something to excite them again. Look downstairs. I came to this con ten years ago, and it was nothing like it is today. If you go to a movie theater … most major films are based on a comic book.” He also pointed out that major news outlets like the New York Times are carrying stories not just about comic movies, but also about comic books.

“I think the future is there, but we need to deserve it. We need to work for it. And I think it’s going to take a long time,” Keatinge said. He also pointed out that he is seeing another generation of creators coming into comics who are excited to make monthly comic books. “I think it’s coming back,” he said, adding that it has the potential to “become the prominent format again.”

Wolk said there are a lot of readers coming into comics who “would never dream of buying things in the periodical format. They buy the books.” He then asked if there’s a way to draw those readers into a monthly comic.

“I think so,” Keatinge said, noting that there’s a whole new generation of retailers who aren’t running their stores like “Android’s Dungeon” from The Simpsons. He mentioned one shop in San Francisco that carries everything from records to comics to world lit.

He then added that he didn’t think it was an either/or choice; monthly comics, trade paperbacks, original graphic novels and webcomics can exist side by side. “I don’t think any of these things have to preclude the others.”

D’Angelo, whose Earth-2 Comics has been open for about five years in Los Angeles, then talked about what got him into comic retailing. He mentioned he was active on the old Warren Ellis forum about seven years ago and was inspired by Ellis and the other participants on the fourm.

“One of the themes at the time was, ‘Trade paperback! Trade paperbacks! Trade paperbacks!’ and I really bought into that,” he said. He said he and his partner visited other area stores and noticed they didn’t carry that many graphic novels – they were more focused on monthly comics.

When they started the store, their focus was on trades and graphic novels “I am surprised that five years later, our business is still split as evenly as it is between books and comics.”

He said he thought he wouldn’t be selling as many comics five years later, but “publishers sort of responded. Some creators responded, and they’re trying to maintain the need for the periodical fix. Because it is about telling a good story.” He noted that from a retailer point of view, “I am completely anti-death spiral.”

He also noted that publishing both has created two kinds of customers, saying some people go to the movies, others wait for the DVD. “There’s still a lot of health in the serialized comic, and I have people coming in every week buying them.”

Wolk then asked Keatinge what the break even point was for comics. Keatinge said roughly 3,500 for a black-and-white book and 4,600 for a color book. “At this point, most of them do break even (at Image),” he said.

Wolk then asked D’Angelo if there are certain kinds of serialized comics that sell more or less over time. D’Angelo noted what he called the “Vertigo pattern,” where sales of the trade are higher than sales of the individual issues. He said that pattern applied to most Vertigo books, as well as Invincible and Walking Dead, in his store.

“A hit is always a hit,” he said. “If Civil War sells a lot, the trade sells a lot.” But he said with the Vertigo pattern, the first issue sells well so people can “get a taste,” but they know it’ll eventually be collected and wait for the trade to read the rest of the story.

D’Angelo said this could lead to cancellation for certain titles – if people don’t buy the single issues, the series could be canceled and never collected because “nobody showed up for the single issues.” He then asked Keatinge if making a collection is part of the business decision in approving a new series.

“That’s a very big factor,” Keatinge said. “If the singles aren’t supported at all, there may not be a trade.” He encouraged fans to support creators they’re excited about, because making a trade is “not guaranteed.”

Keatinge said customers nowadays are trained to wait for trade, to the point where they know exactly when they’ll ship. “I think we should make people wait … I think we should make them want the single issues,” Keatinge said.

D’Angelo said what makes people buy a comic today isn’t the time lapse that occurs between the single issues and the trades – it’s having a story they can’t wait for. He noted books like Walking Dead, Invincible and Brubaker’s Marvel work are all books he’s seen sell better as time went on. “Sales go up on these books because there are people who were waiting for the trade who want to get back on the train,” he said.

Shanower then asked how people who don’t have the habit of going into a comic shop every week can develop that habit.

“Joss Whedon starts writing them,” D’Angelo joked.

Shanower then wondered if the next generation of fans is more likely to go to a comic shop or to buy comics at a bookstore or off of Amazon. Keatinge used the recent Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic as an example of a comic that fans of Whedon had to buy at a comic shop every month, rather than waiting for the collection at their local bookstore.

“Dark Horse did a great job of reaching out to those readers, and they were excited to pick up the comic book, and pick up a periodical, because they had to,” Keatinge said. “They couldn’t wait for it; they had to know what happened to their favorite characters. And I don’t see why we can’t translate that across the board.”

D’Angelo said that both Buffy and the Dark Tower comics from Marvel drove folks into his store. He also noted that other books like Absolute Watchmen, Blankets and Fun Home received a lot of media attention, which also drove people into his store. “If someone comes in for 300, we showed them Age of Bronze,” D’Angelo said. “If they say they want something like Watchmen, then maybe we showed them The Twelve by Joe Straczynski, which is sort of a similar rethinking of superhero mechanics.”

Wolk asked D’Angelo about difference between the return on investment between monthly comics and graphic novel.

“We call them our perennials,” he said, about graphic novels that always seem to sell. “If we can find a new product we can turn endlessly, it’s like what Scrooge McDuck wants, a machine that turns lead into gold.” He named Persepolis and Blankets as examples, saying his investment was virtually guaranteed when he ordered them – unlike with monthly comics.

“I can never have too many Y the Last Man trades,” D’Angelo said. “It’s an endless supply of business. But I couldn’t do that if there weren’t 60 issues in the first place, building up goodwill, and building up an audience, and building up reviews.”

The panel ended with a discussion on whether or not the price of comics discouraged kids from trying them out.

D’Angelo said Marvel, Archie and DC Comics have done a good job with their digests aimed at kids, which feature six comics or more for $5-6. “Most stores ought to be if they’re not, but most stores I know of are very encouraging when parents and kids come in,” he said. He noted Free Comic Book Day offered several good comics for kids, and added that his shop always tries to have something available for free for kids.

“Kids aren’t used to reading them or seeing them,” he said. “I think that’s the bigger issue than the price point of the product.”

Twitter activity