How Do We Save Comic Books?

It’s not even a week into the new year and essays about how bad comic shops had it in 2017 have already been making the rounds, sparking a lot of speculation over what can be done to “save the comics industry.”

Actually, I’m not sure how these conversations manage to get to me through my superhero filter, because the speculation is actually a lot more specific. People want to know how the type of comics that are distributed by Diamond comics on a monthly basis are going to survive in the face of declining readership for the tent pole publishers, Marvel and DC Comics.

I think where it caught my eye is the number people suggesting that Marvel and DC have each of their individual issues be longer and cost less. In some cases, I have seen some people asking for as much of a change as twice as many pages of new story combined with cutting the cover price in half, because artists aren’t screwed enough in the industry right now... er… I mean because more content at a lower price would presumably allow for an increase in sales.

In my mind, that’s not a great presumption for a number of reasons.

The call for extra content primarily comes in a request for each individual issue to have longer stories. While it’s tempting to get into a conversation about how many pages an artistic team can effectively put out in a month and whether or not their page rates would change in the face of a cover price drop, the fact is that people are dissatisfied with 20 page stories for a $4-5 price tag. They also argue that current pricing for new material is a roadblock for speculative readers, who would… say… sooner drop $3 for 32 pages sooner than $4 for 20.

I think that it’s fair to say that people have properly stated what’s wrong with their reading experience: General dissatisfaction over the product at the current price. Their solutions, however, seem off the mark.

For one thing, “longer” is no guarantee of “better.” If you aren’t satisfied with a little of what you’re getting, what makes you think you’ll be satisfied by more of the same? Personally, some of my least favorite comic reading experiences have involved sparse ideas dragged out over too many pages. It’s the content of those 20 or 32 or however many pages of story that bring in and keep readers, in my mind making the problems more of an editorial and creative issue than one of raw production.

The solution of dropping the price seems like wishful thinking. I’m sure there’s enough wiggle room in Marvel and DC’s respective budgets to try something like a drastic cover price cut, but why would they? They’d have to be pretty sure of gaining enough new sales from the price cut to exceed the losses from price cut and the potential cost-creep of increasing production.

At best, I just don’t see Marvel and DC doing the work to even figure out if cutting prices would work when they have a price model that is slipping in sales but is essentially functional. Why would they take the chance?

So, if I were magically granted a vote on the subject, what would I suggest to save Marvel and DC's monthlies?

I think I would start by putting the marketing department on notice to come up with some ideas for reaching out to people who don’t already make a weekly trip to the local comic shop. Clearly new blood is needed, because the standby customers are buying less and less. Give your marketing people a budget for finding new customers. If they can’t do it, get some new marketing people.

I think the creative directors need to be told to step it up. What they are doing now isn’t working… They need to change how they are telling stories, because fewer and fewer people care about the stories they are telling. Give them the leeway to make changes… If the stories need to be longer each issue, OK. If the can make the existing stories more impact at the current page count, OK to that too. If their changes don’t work, find some new creative directors.

Finally, it’s probably time for them to consider dropping the existing monthly periodical format. There just may not be a length and price point that will remain viable in the long run. Leave it to us indies, big guys... We'll carry on without ya!

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