Category Archives: Culture

The Decade in Comics Publishing, 2005-2015

At the end of August, Heidi MacDonald and Calvin Reid from Publisher’s Weekly asked me to participate in a survey about the decade of growth in comics and graphic novels, and mine and my colleagues’ responses are in an article that just went live on the PW site.

As the introduction says, in 2005 there were no ebooks or iPads, we were firmly in the middle of the graphic novel (and manga) boom, and even then it was clear that things were changing rapidly. For me, I’d been at The Beguiling a few years, we were just holding the second TCAF in Honest Ed’s Parking Lot, and Scott Pilgrim Volume 2 was debuting (I went to the printer and picked up the TCAF copies myself). I also blogged a lot more back then, just making the transition from writing about the way the industry to be, to doing all the work that I felt needed to be done. It was an interesting time.

For my part, in August when I was asked to participate in this survey, I’d spent the summer penning a few essays and participating in some panels that resonated with a lot of folks working in the industry, and really got under the skin of others. Essays about how, essentially, the graphic novel & manga boom really occurred largely outside of the purview of the medium’s then-gatekeepers, in both the superhero and art comics camps. I really feel the growth was almost entirely from new audiences, from work that was either ignored or denegrated, and I still do, so, it helps maybe explain where my head was at in general when answering. I also thought, and still think, that with more money coming into the industry, and more opportunities, it behooves those of us with a voice and a say in how the playing field is shaped to try and address some of the imbalances in the industry.

It’s a pretty good survey article, and the folks participating are generally the folks I’ve seen gain the most out of the growing graphic novel industry. I think I would like to have seen a few answers from the superhero folks and the artcomics folks, but perhaps representatives were invited and declined to participate. Despite 7 different people all answering from their perspectives, I don’t think there’s much in there I disagree with (at least from the perspectives of those answering), and my friend Librarian Eva Volin in particular ends the article with a great mic-drop. If you have the opportunity, go check it out, let me know what you think in the comments.

  • Christopher

Twitter: A two act play.

Act One:

@me: Hey internet! I like this thing!

@rando: That thing that you like doesn’t work for me. By saying this, I insert myself into a discussion I have just admitted doesn’t concern me.

@me: Wow, thanks for weighing in with literally nothing of substance.

@rando: Because I’m a rando who goes around telling people that their tweets don’t concern me, I will now take grave offence to what you’ve just said.

*SCENE*

Act Two:

@rando: Have you see my blog post, Tumblr, tweets, and FB update, where I have talked at length about how you have offended me?

@rando: I tagged you to make sure you saw it.

@me: Yeah I did. Curiously, you sort of glossed over the part where you rudely inserted yourself into someone else’s conversation, offered nothing, and took offence when called on it.

@rando: Wow, you just don’t learn, do you? Look forward to my harassing tweets literally forever.

@rando: But if you know anyone who’s hiring, I’m looking for work.

*FIN*

Queer Alt Comix History

“When Maggie sees Hopey, I know exactly how she feels. This story I’m doing right now is Maggie trying to figure out what boundaries she has with Hopey now that they are both with different people, and she’s kind of like, ‘We used to play around, can we still play around? Are we not supposed to play around?’ … Maggie is getting frustrated, and I’m just learning all this stuff about what Maggie is thinking about their relationship while they are together.

– Jaime Hernandez, on his current Love & Rockets story

I was so happy to be able to host a panel on queer comics at San Diego Comic Con this year. When I first started going to Comic-Con, it was important to me to attend the annual Gays In Comics panel at the show. The larger queer fandom wasn’t really accessible to me at the time, either online or in person (though I had some wonderful friends I could talk comics with), and sitting in the big room full of other people ‘like me’ was exciting. I’d dreamed of being on that panel for years, until the interests of the folks running that panel and my own interests as a reader and critic diverged to the point that I stopped attending… which meant that hosting a smaller queer comix panel with four comics authors whom I respect immensely–Mariko Tamaki, Gilbert Hernandez, Jamie Hernandez, and Ed Luce–was pretty much that dream come true. Thanks to Julia from D&Q for thinking of me to moderate.

The wonderful Brigid Alverson has a thorough write-up of the panel over at ComicBookResources. I thought it went really well, and I was happy to see that on reading Brigid’s article my memory lived up to the actuality of it! There’s some great commentary there on the importance of queer comix, but also, queer comix as they exist within the continuum of ‘alternative’ comics. Alternative comics and the scene around them have a really checkered history when it comes to queer representation. I got into it a little at the beginning of the panel, but basically while the undergrounds and early alt comix were certainly transgressive, queer narratives tended to be pushed to the side. nostraightlinesThe excellent anthology and history book No Straight Lines, edited by Justin Hall, does a great job at drawing connections between important works and putting together an overview of the queer alt-comix scene in the 70s, 80s, and 90s for contemporary readers. I recommended it on panel, and I’ll recommend it again here. But yeah, it was awesome to have Jaime and Gilbert on the panel  just come right out and say “No one was doing this,” when talking about their roles as straight creators of queer characters in the alt comix scene. They added a lot of continuity to the discussion! Having two out-and-proud creators on panel was also wonderful, particularly as Ed and Mariko have entered the field relatively recently and later in their lives, and they brought some amazing insight to the panel. It was amazing, and I could’ve talked to all four of them for another hour at least.

So yeah, please go check out the article! And the work of all four wonderful creators!

My thanks to Brigid Alverson for transcribing so much of the panel and writing it up, and sharing it with the readership of CBR.

– Christopher

P.S.: I originally posted a draft of this, and then finished it about an hour later. It may still be the old version in the RSS feed, sorry about that!

Shifts and living history

One of the things that I mentioned on the Inkstuds podcast with David, Brandon, and Robin, is an idea that’s been rattling around in my head for a long while now, and that’s the concept of the comics industry (and occasionally the medium) going out of its way to ‘other’ the success of books that they don’t like, or don’t want to be representative of ‘their’ industry. (If you’re not familiar with the term Othering, btw, this is a pretty good description.) I want to dig into that idea a bit more, because I think we’ve maybe just witnessed a real shift in the way the industry is able to deal with those successes.

So, basically, my theory goes that the manga boom in the late 90s sort of blew up every single thing that the industry thought about comics, and who the audience is for comics, and what comics can do. I’ve been writing about comics on and off since about 96-97, and I’ve been writing not only about the potential for comics, but then the realization of comics. It was a time of really quick change, a lot of it good change, sparked mostly by $10 trade paperbacks of Sailor Moon (big-ups to Tokyopop). The success of those books and the ones that followed like Card Captor Sakura, Peach Girl, Fruits Basket, and so many more, were the proof to the theories that comics could be for everyone, for women and for girls especially, and could sell in numbers that were comparable to how they sold overseas. Then Viz launched Shonen Jump, Random House launched the Del Rey Manga line (now Kodansha), Hachette launched Yen Press. The comics came out, the comics sold well, the comics brought in new audiences.  Sales exploded, sales leveled, sales crashed, sales leveled again, and just this year everyone’s saying that sales are up a little once more. Not just for girls and women, but across the board. This is all stuff that actually happened, and you can go back and look it up if you don’t want to take my word for it.

So how did the rest of the comics industry react to this sea-change? In the pettiest way possible of course, by othering the success of that material as much as they could. “Manga aren’t comics,” went the discussion. They were, and are in many ways, treated as something else. The success that they had, the massive success that they continue to have, doesn’t ‘count’. All those sales and new readers were just ‘a fad’, and not worthy of interest, respect, or comparison to real comics. It was the one thing that superhero-buying-snobs and art-comics-touting-snobs could agree on (with the exception of Dirk Deppey at TCJ, bless him): This shit just isn’t comics, real comics, therefore we don’t have to engage it. You can see traces of this attitude, in, for example, The New York Times Best Sellers list for comics, which split manga out into its own category after pressure from non-manga publishers, because the lists woulda been manga-dominated every week. Then the manga boom and manga bust and leveling could all happen off to the side, and no one would have to encounter scary ideas like “women make comics” and “women read comics” and “women buy comics” and they could keep the now-more-narrowly-defined comics industry the exact shape that they wanted to, albeit a little smaller and a little sadder for the exclusion.

(Side note: Sadder still than the people who insist(ed) that manga aren’t and can’t be comics are the poor brainwashed weebs who insist that comics can’t be manga. It’s a dumb argument. If comics is a language then manga is at most a dialect, at least slang, not a different language entirely.)

(Side note 2: At least alt-comix finally embraced manga to a degree in the mid 2000s. Although the gender split among creators of manga translated into English and published by alt-manga publishers is about 90% men at this point, which is not really very good!)

So, the comics industry was able to successfully ignore the massive success and new audiences that the manga publishers brought with them. But you know who didn’t? Kids publishers. Scholastic Graphix. Papercutz. Abrams. First Second. Kids Can Press. Even Yen Press’ arm at Hachette. They saw that with the right conditions, you could get someone other than males aged 18-49 to read comics, and have it be incredibly successful. These publishers paid attention and put together imprints to publish original work specifically for the audiences that the comics mainstream insisted didn’t exist: Kids, girls especially, tweens and teens. And the books sold well. Won new audiences. A whole industry of “original graphic-novel” based creation sprung up that simply did not exist before the success of manga, the success of Bone at Graphix, of Twlight: The Manga at Hachette, Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys graphic novels, Binky the Space Cat, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, American Born Chinese. Or Smile, by Raina Telgemeier. Smile, which sat on the bestseller list for a year and was largely disregarded by the comics industry. Incredible bestsellers, many with outside-of-comics media attention, largely ignored, deliberately ignored. Because their success didn’t fit the paradigm. They weren’t comics. They were ‘for kids’.

(Side Note 3: Still heard the old saw that ‘Kids Comics Don’t Sell’ at Comic-Con this year from a larger pub.)

“Those aren’t real comics, aren’t real graphic novels,” went the refrain around 2010, 2011. “They’re for kids. They lack sophistication, they lack nuance, they’re babyish.” So you can ignore the massive success of Bone and Smile and 66,000 copies of Twlight: The Manga sold on release week, or a 190,000 copy print run on Papercutz’ Lego: Ninjago graphic novel, because the books, if kids are reading them, can’t possibly be any good. Because the books in a publisher’s line are all the same trim size, there’s no art to them. Because they sell well, there’s no art to them. Regardless of who is creating them or under what circumstance. It’s a garbage argument that, once spelled out here becomes obvious and sad, but it’s still an argument that gets made all the time, with every book release.  And we can successfully other, again, the success of books aimed at anyone who isn’t a male aged 18-49, and the industry puts even tighter blinkers on and it gets a little smaller, and a little sadder still.

(Side note 4: Raina Telgemeier wasn’t considered ‘notable’ enough by Comic-Con to be a Special Guest at Comic-Con in 2014–even though SMILE and DRAMA had topped the NYT Best Seller lists for more than a year each, at that point. They realized the error of their ways this year and she was a special guest for 2015.)

Speaking of 2015… here we are. The past 20 years have been specifically depressing when it comes to how the comics industry, particularly what we think of as ‘mainstream’ comics and ‘art-comics’, have regarded the massive changes that have been happening in the larger medium of comics and graphic novels, and their perception and place in North America. It’s not all bad, there are some bright spots at traditional comics publishers when it comes to representation, diversity, and audience… but I think it’s mostly bad. But I also think that this year, 2015, is gonna pretty much put the nail in the coffin for the old way of thinking, because the ‘othered’ books, and the audiences for those books, and the creators of those books, are dominating any real discussion of the medium AND the industry, and the folks who haven’t gotten with the program look foolish as hell.

The optimism started for me earlier this year. The Tamaki’s This One Summer co-published by Groundwood and First Second Books took home the Printz Award and the Caldecott Award (among many other honours), a very big deal. Only the second time a graphic novel and won the Printz and the first time for the Caldecott. These were good, solid wins, that caused delightful controversy in library circles. Brought a smile to my face.

Last month Scholastic Graphix sent out a seemingly innocuous note that was actually a very loud statement: Congratulations to Raina Telgemeier for Smile being on the NYT Bestseller list for three straight years–oh and she’s also got the top four spots on the list simultaneously as well.

raina_three

It was, as the kids say, shots fired. Scholastic e-mailed this graphic to the press of the entire comics industry, and they wanted to say something very clear: “This isn’t a flash in the pan, this isn’t ‘just’ kids books, this is a writer-artist who has made a major achievement, who has won a huge audience and continues to win new audiences every single week, with every single book she makes. Pay attention.”

Flash back to a little over a week ago: This is the first year that Marvel Comics as a Publisher did not win any Will Eisner Awards for excellence in comics, and none of the creators who won individual awards like penciller, writer, inker, colourist (awards that were basically invented to recognize achievements by creators working on assembly-line big-two superhero books) had any substantial Marvel comics work this year. DC Comics’ recognition came for J.H. Williams III’s work on Sandman: Overture and a month’s worth of Darwyn Cooke variant covers, which is a very small showing for them. You know who did take home Eisners though? A lot of women, a lot of folks working on books with large or primary female audiences, and young audiences too. Emily Carroll, Evan Dorkin & Jill Thompson, Shannon Watters & Grace Ellis & Noelle Stevenson & Brooke A Allen of Lumberjanes, Ariel Cohn & Aron Nels Steinke, Cece Bell, Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki, Gene Yang, Raina Telgemeier, Fiona Staples, they took home Eisners this year. 

The 2015 Eisner winner list doesn’t look like other years, and even though the list has been trending in this direction for a few years, it was surprising to me. I smiled pretty hard at that one. The Eisner Awards are voted on by professionals working in the comics industry, and it’s pretty clear from the results that the professionals working in the comics industry AND the books that they think best represent the industry to the outside world have changed dramatically from even five years ago, to be considerably broader, and considerably more diverse.

(Side Note 5: I want to be clear: I specifically do not intend to denigrate the work of anyone nominated for an Eisner this year who didn’t win, either in my personal appreciation of their work or the larger recognition of their work. It’s intended to illustrate a larger shift in how Eisner voters are approaching the awards, and who the voters now are. Just needs to be said.)

I’ve been thinking about those Eisner wins for the last week, about Raina’s success, and about some great, important conversations I had at Comic-Con, and I can’t help but grin about it. Things aren’t just changing; things have changed. I think very much for the better. We are at a point where the success of traditionally ‘othered’ books and authors is so large, so in-everyone’s-face, and so displacing of traditional comics ‘successes’, that you simply can’t reduce the size of the industry enough, or tighten the blinders enough. You can’t other what has become the majority.

What finally prompted me to talk about this, to expand a couple of short sentences in the podcast into a blog post was actually this week’s New York Times Best Seller list for comics. The softcover list features female creators as 9 of the top 10 books (with a very women-audiences-friendly holdout by lovely male creators). The folks on my Twitter timeline had a nice little celebration when that list was released, and I’m really happy for them. Well, not really ‘them,’ actually. But us. All of us, including the superhero pubs and the art-comix pubs and even the sour fans and weebs; the industry is markedly, demonstrably better for more people right now than it has been in years, because we can produce successful books for women and men, for children, tweens, teens, and adults, and those books can sell, and we can celebrate our successes together, if we want to. We get more, different, successful comics. That’s a win.

The NYT list and the Eisners and basically every single benchmark we have in this industry are flawed, often badly flawed, but we can take all of these things together and pull out some very clear and important trends: We as an industry have made enormous steps in the last 20 years to not deliberately exclude women and young people from the comics medium, and to actively celebrate their accomplishments. That doesn’t mean that everyone is now suddenly enfranchised, or that the industry is done deliberately excluding audiences (not to mention creators, not to mention people working in the publishing industry), but real progress has been made.

Let’s recognize it. Let’s celebrate it. Most importantly, let’s keep it going, and keep pushing for positive, inclusive change.

– Christopher

 

 

Breaking into Comics [Conventions]

I know it sounds fake, but I’m legitimately humbled when I’m reading one of the various comic book sites on the internet, and I come across someone being nice about TCAF, the comics festival that I founded. We just had our 10th festival in May, and it went well I think, and we’re going to keep getting better and better every year. We’ve already started planning for 2016 (May 14-15 in case you’re marking things off on your calendar).

Twice in the last week I’ve followed a link about conventions and running conventions, and found TCAF cited as a show to aspire to. I can’t tell you how proud this makes me, as not only do we all work really hard on TCAF, but we actually do want to have a positive, transformative effect on the industry. It’s validating to hear from smart folks that we’re worth emulating, and it encourages us to try even harder.

The first link is this blog post by Dave Merrill, an occasional customer of The Beguiling and U.S. transplant who has been involved with convention running for almost 20 years, mostly on the anime and manga fan-con side of things. Dave got an email question about best practices for starting a new show, and apparently he wrote a ton, and then fashioned the whole thing into a blog post for us to enjoy.

http://d-merrill.blogspot.ca/2015/06/advice-to-young-fan-event.html?m=1

I think this article is full of solid, measured, practical advice that I’d probably give myself. It’s also really kind to TCAF, which was unexpected but appreciated. But yeah, plan for your first event to be SMALL, run a successful event that everyone enjoys, rather than going too big and risking a negative attendee experience. Maybe the only other advice I’d offer is to try and get some experience in working at or for a convention, if at all possible. Volunteering, that sort of thing. Being on the other side of the attendee experience, even a little, is a huge help.

tumblr_npe3b4iDFM1u4tp9ro1_500The other article I came across that was unexpectedly kind to TCAF is this preview of the first Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC) Festival that Tom Spurgeon, Vijaya Iyer, Jeff Smith, and company are putting together. I think they’ve got a fantastic model and some incredible institutional support in Columbus, and so I happily clicked through to see what they had to say:

http://www.newsarama.com/24862-jeff-smith-hopes-to-make-columbus-ohio-a-comic-book-destination-with-new-convention.html

I’m super excited about this show, even though Spurgeon and Smith are doing their best in that interview to try to manage expectations. Probably for the best. Like I said up top, starting small, running a solid and well-received event, and growing, is the best way to go forward, and I’m really glad to hear that CXC is progressing in that direction. Seriously, go read that interview and tell me that show doesn’t sound awesome.

Anyway, both of these articles are lovely and complimentary, but I’m happy to link them just because they’re full of great advice about con-running, and the ideologies behind putting on a good show. As I said on Twitter a little while ago, it’s not hard to look at the industry and see that things need fixing, and comic cons are a good place for me to exert some influence. I’m really honoured, and humbled when we get feedback like this, that we are making a difference.

– Chris

 

New. Now. Next.

Hey comics fans! Are you excited for 2016 yet? How about this winter? This fall?  Probably, because between today’s Image Expo, this week’s Fall/Winter reveal by Alternative Comics, and Tuesday’s ‘reveal’ of 45 outta 60 new Marvel titles, it’s pretty clear that the discourse is focused squarely on ‘things to come’ in the comics biz–and I think that’s actually a huge, huge problem that no one is talking about.

A little bit of history: Once upon a time, in the late 90s and early aughts, I ran a site called Previews Review, where I would go through the Previews catalogue and pick the stuff that I thought was best, occasionally with my pals James and Scott joining me for it. I did this in the hopes of imploring the reader (you) to think about their buying decisions 2-3 months in advance, so that you (the reader) would go to your local comic book shop and ask them to order those books in. Basically, during this time period and following the Valiant/Image busts of the mid 90s, comic book retailers were even more conservative and hewed even more closely to ordering Marvel & DC exclusively than they do now. Demanding pre-orders wasn’t just a tool in the toolbox for creators and small pubs working outside of the big two, it was a necessity if they wanted their books ordered at all! I became very focused (along with lots of other industry types) on the books that were on the shelves 2, 3, 4 months away. Books, companies, whole careers eventually thrived because they could effectively work this system of direct fan involvement into influencing overall retailer orders, particularly some smart retailers who could see which way the wind was blowing (Tokyopop and Viz had just started blowing up in bookstores, and the audience for comics overall was diversifying).

Of course, if you’re imploring customers to pre-order their purchases months in advance, then the sales component is attached to that advance press, and the system works! The ‘sale’ is made and you just maintain that forward-looking focus. But during my professional comics career I’ve seen that change though, from companies putting their press-weight behind books coming out that week or month, shifting it to the Previews catalogue 2 months ahead, all the way to this week’s Image/Marvel/Alternative Comics type announcements looking 6 months out or more.  I can tell you, the idea of your average fan knowing what was going to happen in their superhero universe after a big event crossover? It didn’t happen, until perhaps the last issue of that crossover was in stores. It’s something that was almost non-existent back in the 90s, and entirely commonplace today.

I think for further proof of this, you can look at comics retailers bitching that the Previews catalogue has gotten less useful as it’s moved from being a retailer tool to a reader tool. I’m on board in some cases–I think Image’s recent decision to pull solicitation text out of the catalogue almost entirely is a problem. Image has pulled solicit text and promotion from the catalogue for most of their titles, and the catalogue is the time at which retailers are actually ordering comic books, in favour of disseminating information online and through fan sites. It’s a bad move, giving retailers with an order form in front of them less information. Marvel and DC are no better, with their solicitations of projects with the ostensible creators of those projects “To Be Determined.” A title announced before there’s a story, a product offered before there’s anyone to make it.

(And I do want to be clear, there were other factors that led to this forward-looking change. First, the comics-related movies shifted focus forward a little, as that industry influenced (and continues to influence) publishing and creative decisions for many projects. Perhaps the largest though is the integration of the comics industry with the book market, which works between 6 months and 18 months in advance. The success of comics outside of traditional comics venues really did cause publishers to need to work and schedule further in advance in many cases. But if I had to pin it to one thing, it would be the discourse around looking at the Previews catalogue and beyond, and the explosion of fan-sites and blogs at that time all toeing the party line regarding preorders really kickstarting the whole thing, in my humble opinion.)

I think where this really became a problem is when the act of moving that ‘comics conversation’ ever-forward was divorced from the act of consumers being aggressively encouraged to pre-order that material. We’re now getting announcements, really BIG announcements with tons of press, for titles and books that we won’t even be able to order for months, let alone actually purchase and put into our hands. Anecdotally, we’re getting customers coming into the store on the reg asking for a book to be added to their pull-list before it’s in the catalogue, thanks to online announcements. We’re happy to try to accommodate those requests, but All-Star Wonder Woman has been sitting on one poor fella’s list for almost two years now, highlighting at least one problem with the advance hype cycle.

At the Image Expo today, more than 20 new projects with the publisher were announced–some of them sound neat, some of them do nothing for me, but the earliest any of them starts seems to be late this fall. Meanwhile, at the Image Expo that happened about a year ago today, a great new project was announced that is only just now being offered in the catalogue, for release in September. SO far as I can tell it wasn’t mentioned at Image’s big expo at all today, despite it still effectively being an unreleased book, but one that could certainly use a the strong promotion that event provides, since now is the time for retailers to actually buy it. Don’t you think it’s profoundly weird that the biggest bit of press a book might get is six months, 12 months, or more, before the book is a real thing? I do.  But you look around, and that’s where the discussion, where the conversation in comics is at.

It’s weird.

I also wanna talk about reviews a little. About criticism, and even about those conversations we have about comics. I was chatting with a publishing rep friend a little while back, and he was absolutely despairing a situation I’ve been hearing a lot lately: “I can’t get anyone to talk about the books I publish. ” I empathise, I really do, because I just came out of a marketing job where that was my exact job. I like to think I did a pretty good job of it, but it was also a little bit easier because the video game licenses of the game books and the educational content of the manga classics had built-in audiences to pitch to–pitching an original I.P. is infinitely harder (as I learned). And the thing about this publishing rep friend of mine? He has a lot of good books! Or at least as good as most of the other stuff on the stands, the books that are getting talked about. Tweeted about. Bought. And they feel like they can’t get a shake because the conversation is still about Nth generation superhero universe reboots, and Image comics. And they can’t even be mad at Image, because they fought tooth and nail for their spot at the table. So? Just despair, because they don’t know what to do. I don’t think anyone knows what to do. And I think that the disparity and distance between a project’s hype and a project’s availability, I think it hurts smaller publishers, publishers with more diverse lines, willing to take bigger risks, the most. The lack of good critics actually talking about (and creating a conversation around) good comics that are actually available is having a pretty profound impact on the industry.

These aren’t isolated issues either. I’ve heard significant complaints about the two publishers that I think are doing the absolute best job at promoting their lines of books, from creators unhappy with their promotion and marketing, or their sales, or the attention they’ve been given. I’ve met creators perfectly happy with publishers that I feel do a lousy job of promoting them. I’ve met all sorts of creators in between. There’s no guarantee that, even when you CAN manage to create a hype cycle around a work AND a critical discussion around that works WHILE the books are available for sale, that it’s going to make everybody happy. But I can tell you that in general, it isn’t happening, and no one is quite sure exactly what to do.

I’m not in a position to tell anyone what to do, but I can take a moment to at least point out the fundamental disconnect that I’ve been writing about here today.

There are more comics and graphic novels being released every week, right now, in North America than quite possibly ever before. Certainly within my lifetime. There are rumblings about the stresses that this is putting on the industry, about the low sales of many projects, the even lower wages, the comics (and publishers!) that are nothing more than Hollywood-bait-get-rich-quick schemes, and the aging retail base making it difficult for certain types of comics to make it into stores.  But I think if you step back and look at the situation, it’s not hard to see that the divorce of the hype and publicity cycle from the sales cycle, and the lack of a strong and trusted critical and curatorial voice coinciding with both, are really hurting comics more than they’re helping. Especially good comics, diverse comics, and the kinds of comics I want to read and to find success.

– Christopher

 

Convention Culture and the Modern Artist

So, I’d been meaning to write something about this since things erupted last month on Denise Dorman’s blog [link]. But the topic is a very, very big one, and I couldn’t wrap my head around the entirety of it, and still can’t, and so I’d resisted anything other than a few tweets on the subject. I do think, though, that there are a couple of very basic truths on the subject that I can get out here, so let’s dive in and see where this takes us:

1. The make-up of the attendees of comic book conventions is changing.

I’d say this is a no-brainer, but for those in the cheap seats: There are more fans of nerd-culture things, like superhero comics and science-fiction, than there have been in a very, very long time. The success of DC and Marvel’s movies, the easy availability of sci-fi and fantasy on specialty cable networks, the goddamned Big Bang Theory, all of it has contributed to ‘geek’ culture being embraced by the widest swath of people in history–with the possible exception of Star Wars and Star Trek on the big screen from 77-85.  Despite the fact that I have been going to comic-cons since 1994, and despite the fact that I have been going to Comic-Con since 1999, my mom finally figured out what Comic-Con was last year and that’s basically the only dividing line that anyone needs.

Because of this, the interest in comic-cons is increasing, attendance is up at most shows, and the audience is significantly different from the ‘initiated’ or ‘hardcore’ fans that made up the bulk of attendees as little as five years ago now.

2. The make-up of comic convention organizers is changing, too.

Here’s the one that’s not getting as much play. Comic-cons have always been half way between a labour of love and something resembling a scheme, but their incredible success has attracted a lot of people and organizations in recent years that had previously stayed away due to the specialized nature of the events. Because the sorts of material covered by comic-cons is now material that’s largely in the mainstream, it has gotten much, much easier for those sorts of organizers only tangentially in the know to put together a show that will draw a crowd. The ‘gentleman’ who’s running the Salt Lake Show trying to challenge San Diego’s TM on Comic-Con, or the large-scale trade show organization that has been buying up medium-sized and large-sized shows, like the one in Toronto a few years ago… Comics conventioneering has a long and great history of events being run by passionate businesspeople, passionate groups of fans getting together to organize events, and other only-vaguely capitalist types.  It has a history of hucksterism and scam artists too, but it’s getting a heckuva lot tougher to tell the well-funded and well-run show from the guy who’s trying overselling admissions to cram as many people through that door and who doesn’t give a damn about the exhibitors, attendees, or the fire code for that matter…

The person in charge of an event matters, a lot. Most fans don’t really do the research or even care who’s running the show, as long as they get the access that they crave (access to guests, access to goods, access to other fans). I’d even wager to say most attendees don’t really know the actual name of the show they’re at. Speaking from personal experience we still get fans, exhibitors, and artists that can’t tell the difference between TCAF (indy show, May every year since 2009, set in a library since 2009) and Fan Expo (fan show, August every year for a decade, at the convention centre). That sort of… undiscernment… is to everyone’s own detriment, but you can’t force people to be good consumers, and that lack of discretion always has collateral damage, as badly run shows negatively impact impression of all shows.

3. Professional Fans & ‘Personalities’, which is to say Youtubers, Professional Cosplayers, etc.

I think Denise Dorman’s railing against the ‘instagram’ generation is hilarious but actually has a point–she’s just not using the best terminology to describe what is an actual phenomenon–before 5 years ago, no one (in their right mind) would go to a show thinking that they were an ‘attraction’ without buying themselves an exhibition space, a booth, an artist alley table, something. However, in the last few years the number of people who think that a badge (whether paid for or comped) entitles them to an audience within a convention space is on the rise dramatically. It’s been pegged as cosplayers, and honestly there are more cosplayers at shows than ever, and more professional cosplayers who are going to shows to make money and build an audience. Cosplayers attending shows as businesspeople, who aren’t contributing to the economy of the show.

But professional cosplayers (and I think there’s an important distinction there between people who cosplay and people who earn money cosplaying) are literally nothing compared to the other social media personalities who have begun to call comic-conventions theirs. Where previously you had nerdlebrities like Wil Wheaton building a social media empire out of their cred, today’s social media personalities have amassed huge followings through their postings, videos, and photos on YouTube (largely) and other video and media services. They are the product, they have 100,000, 200,000, 300,000 subscribers on social media, and they announce that they’re going to COMIC-CON X and all of their fans should meet them there. It’s easy to see how that’s a boon for a convention looking to sell tickets… they get a crazy-popular ‘guest’ and they don’t have to do any of the work of actually bringing this personality as a guest. The dude with the media badge AS the thing being covered. But tell me that a fan motivated to go to a comic show to see a dude who talks about shit on Youtube is gonna buy the same way, at the same level, as the fan motivated to go to a comic show because she likes comics.

(This also includes the type of Pro-Fan who has a thriving eBay store, an Amazon store, who is a toy-hunter or exclusive-hunter, basically any sort of fan actively deriving income from attending a convention)

Which brings us to point four.

4. Comic Conventions Are Filling Up And Selling Out, Earlier and Earlier

So all of the above, all of it, almost-completely doesn’t matter at a comic convention with infinite size and infinite space. In that situation, then, yes, it DOES come down to how good of a salesperson Denise Dorman’s husband is, because (in theory) every potential customer will walk by his booth and make a decision about purchasing his wares.

But comic conventions are not infinite. San Diego sells out the year before. New York sells out months out. Emerald City sells out eight months out. I could name a dozen more shows that sell all of their tickets well before the doors open. What that means is that demand is higher for tickets than there were tickets available. So when that happens, you’ve got to ask yourself, what ‘type’ of fan got the tickets before they sold out? Probably the most-dedicated fans. The fans most-in-the-know about how shows are run these days. And, probably, The Professional Fans, who while not exhibiting nonetheless derive income from being at that show.  And when your casual buyer who just wants to go to a show and maybe drop some money on comics can’t make it, because she didn’t want it bad enough, well sir I think it’s safe to say that it’s going to be a different kind of sales show for exhibitors, that’s for sure.

Now until this point, all of this has been more or less neutral, as far as I’m concerned. Like I said, I believe that these are truths about the business–the way things are. I don’t particularly think these new fan economies within shows are good or bad, because there’s clearly a give and a take between all involved. Capitalism, you know? It’s where advice like the somewhat facile “Adapt or Die” comes into play… If the economy of shows is changing, adapt to it and make your money. Sure, why not.

However, I actually do have opinions about this stuff, beyond the statement of simple truths. Here goes.

The changing convention landscape is inherently shitty for people who make comic books. Art comix, indy comics, mainstream comics, whatever comics, the changing makeup of conventions is hostile to people who want to make and sell comics at comic conventions. And let me be clear, this is comic books and graphic novels, as opposed to ‘prints’ or crafts or whatever manner of tchotchkes makeup most exhibitor tables these days. Basically, comic book conventions are aggressively attracting an audience who don’t necessarily value books, or comic books.

This is sure to be controversial, so before you scroll down to leave an angry comment, please hear me out.

Let’s go back to points 1 to 4 a bit, and talk about those points okay?

1. I think it is a very safe assumption that people who come to comic books, sci-fi, or fantasy through adaptations in other media like television, film, video games, don’t necessarily place the same value on the medium as the message. Sure, some of them become converts–it’s hard not to! Comics are great. Novels are great. But I’d say a large percentage don’t really care about the original media, they’re just interested in the story (or if I’m being less generous, the ‘property’). This is bourne out by my experience as a comic retailer and convention exhibitor for the past 20 years or so.

2. The changing make-up of convention runners means that more and more people are entering the field who could give two-shits about anything other than paid admissions and filling the con floor with whomever has the money to pay. There are still lots of great shows, lots of great con-runners, but their are very few shows at all with an ideology, particularly one that values comics. This has a pronounced effect.

3. I don’t mean to beat this particular horse any further, but let me just say there are no vloggers or YouTube personalities with 300k followers regularly talking about comics, to my knowledge.  Games, current events, their own lives, but if there’s some sort of comics vlogger out there that’s defining a generation of criticism and winning new fans, please let me know! I’d love to subscribe. Professional fans, again, are there for their own reasons.

4. I’d say hardcore comics fans are just as likely to be extremely motivated to jump through the necessary hoops as Pro-fans, as personalities, as people heading to shows like they’re a “Nerd-Happening”, to attend sold-out shows. But that does leave the casual attendee or comics fan out in the cold, and being able to convert those casual attendees is what the prior economy of shows is built on.

All of this adds up to fewer folks that actually care about getting comics at a comic con. Again, I want to stress: I have 20 years of exhibiting at shows, including Comic-Con, backing this up.

When you have people who are attending and otherwise interacting with comic conventions who aren’t coming at them from the direction of comic books (whether physical or digital, I should clarify), then the folks who aren’t selling books are at a tremendous advantage in battling for the dollars to be earned from an attendee’s wallet. There is a very different perception in value of a book or a comic book, or a print/craft/tchtchoke. At a show like this, if you’ve got a $20 Punisher comic on a table, a $20 Punisher action figure, and a $20 11×17 colour photocopy depicting The Punisher next to each other on a table, you are going to sell that 11×17 Punisher colour photocopy 7 times out of 10, the toy twice, and the comic book once. And it doesn’t matter if the comic is full price at $20, half price at $20, or if the artist himself is there and selling the Punisher comic with an autograph. The print, almost always the print.

Example: I have exhibited at shows for UDON, and had a $40 (really nice lithograph) Street Fighter print on the table, and a 200 page Street Fighter book which contained the image on the print and 190 other images, also for $40, and the print always sold first. When I asked the customer why they didn’t go for the book with the image they loved (reproduced at a nice size, I should add) instead of the single image, the answer always came down to the print feeling like an object with higher perceived value.

The same goes for other merch. There’s a thriving world of grey-market collectibles based on other peoples’ intellectual property out there, and honestly as long as the creators (if not the IP holders…) are fine with it I don’t really care. But being an exhibitor, or being in artist alley, and having a book versus having a piece of merchandise is not a level playing field, it just isn’t. Which, again, is not to say that the unleveled field cannot be overcome. In a vacuum, again, that’s fine, that’s capitalism, but:

  1. It’s not a vacuum, because of points 1, 2, 3, and 4, and
  2. Comic-cons have traditionally (and until very recently) been places that have been immersed in book-culture, have been pro-book, and whose attendees value the medium.

Saying “Adapt or Die” to someone who has been placed at a severe economic disadvantage by forces entirely beyond their control in the space of 2 or 3 years is, at best, terribly unsympathetic. And I don’t mean to pick on the writer of that piece specifically, but that response is emblematic of the responses I’ve seen to Denise Dorman’s pieces, that (without knowing anything about her or her husband’s con setup) they just weren’t trying hard enough, ‘and have you considered making eye contact with people and not hating cosplayers.’ I mean… ugh. That poor woman. Anyway.

So, in short: The makeup of contemporary comic conventions has changed dramatically, and is changing, at every single level. The deck has become stacked against people selling book product (and particularly original book product versus licensed or tie-in material, in my opinion). I think every creator out there should think long and hard about the shows they do, how much money is being charged of attendees, who their fellow exhibitors and guests are and what that says about what sort of show they’re likely to have. Moreover, it would be nice if more comic book conventions made a concerted effort to privilege comic books (and novels) in the make-up of their shows at all levels, to at least attempt to level that playing field a little. Creating an environment where comics, and their creators, are celebrated is positive in a great number of ways, not the least of which because those television shows, films, and video games are going to have to come from somewhere, and it would be nice if comics creators could at least break-even at a show where they’re trying to promote their work, and the medium.

So those are my thoughts–a few things that I don’t think are being talked about, and some conclusions I’ve drawn from them. I’ve enjoyed reading other folks’ responses to this issue, and if you’re reading this 2500 words later I appreciate you taking the time to read mine.

Thanks,

– Christopher

P.S. and Full Disclosure: For those of you new to my writings, hi! I Manage a shop called The Beguiling in Toronto. I co-founded and am Festival Director of The Toronto Comic Arts Festival. I’ve also been involved in the running of comics conventions, and have been making and promoting comics for quite a while now. 

Comics Alliance is back online

Happy to hear Comics Alliance is back this morning. It’s a website that went away in the midst of a weird corporate reshuffle, and while I’m always happy to see an opportunity to remind people in the comics industry to own what they create so this sort of thing can’t happen, I think the site was more valuable than that.

Essentially, Comics Alliance’s greatest strength was the way it trained its readers to care about a wider medium.

All websites train their readership to expect things, and with enough time influence the way its readership views and understands things. Most comics related websites pull hard (HARD) for Marvel and DC, announcing literally every single piece of promotion from either company with equal or greater weight to legitimate news stories from the rest of the medium or industry. Marvel releasing a pictureless image with a piece of text on it for a second- or third-tier book is given the same ‘news’ weight as cartoonist imprisonment in Egypt, as a feature-length interview with a comics master, as a Hollywood casting rumour (when they bother to cover the middle two). This isn’t a direct criticism, just an observation. Today it’s “Villain Month” at DC, as if the other 11 months of the year were somehow “Villainless,” but that’s the game and that’s how sites choose to play it, all the luck in the world to them.

In running their content this way, sites have trained their readerships over time to treat all news this way, that what Marvel and DC are doing at any given time is equally as important as literally anything else happening in the industry or medium. And, very much for the better I think, Comics Alliance got in there and changed the focus significantly towards a much wider view of the medium and industry, and was very successful at it. It tackled gender and sexuality in a way that most sites did not, it tackled webcomics & tumblr comics culture (Adventure Time & pin-up art in particular) in a way that most sites did not. It was generally a fun site to visit, and the tone was consistent. Granted, it wasn’t perfect by any stretch–on the day the site went dark, only 1 of the 12 articles posted was actually about an actual comic book–a pretty poor send off for the site and an unfortunate billboard to leave up for critics happy to see it go. But generally half to three-quarters of the content on the site on any given day is about comics and their creators, which is a pretty good mix when you want those general-interest geek-culture eyeballs powering your ad dollars. Marvel and DC promo stuff gets a nod, but generally only when it is something largeish (reboot, multi-month marketing event), and apparently literally anything at all that Chris Sims wants to write about is given equal weight to that. It basically put forth a vision of “comics” that didn’t really exist beforehand, one that included young people and queers and webcomickers and ladies and POC, and that’s very much to its credit. That is a good thing.

It, understandably, doesn’t do much for people who have a deeply contrasting view of comics. Tucker and Abhay over at TCJ ripped Comics Alliance a new asshole last week on news that it would be returning, in the grand style of TCJ ripping new assholes out of things that it doesn’t particularly appreciate. With all due respect to Tucker and Abhay, I don’t think they get what’s important about what CA did, and will apparently continue to do. I mean, I don’t care about 75% of what Comics Alliance posts about either (gasp!). I don’t ever want to read a story about a Batman car seat, it’s a waste of where an intelligent article could go. But the industry and the medium needs that readership and the comics that Comics Alliance caters too–and most other sites ignore outright, TCJ included–just as much as it needs a regular column for people to be snotty about things that aren’t to their taste. Insert smiley-face.

So! Comics Alliance is now back online at http://www.comicsalliance.com. They’re currently undermining this entire post by running a review of a 2006 titty-movie based on a video game as their top post. Comics!

– Christopher

No more gatekeepers

I feel pretty good about comics right now. This thought was spurred by the news that, the week after the Batman movie opened, the bestselling graphic novel in the country was Raina Telegemeier’s Smile, a semi-autobiographical account of a young girl finding her way through middlegrade. It’s a full-colour graphic novel for kids, girls in particular, and it’s been on-and-off the top of the bestseller lists for the better part of the two years since it was released. Telegemeier’s next book, Drama, arrives at the end of next month and is likely going to do just as well.

Smile started out as mini-comics, and as web-comics, quite a while back. Raina has been making comics and putting them out there for people since before there was a ‘professional’ avenue for her to do so. She was like hundreds of other creators out there in that way, doing work that is (by every other measure) in a popular genre or mode, but where a professional delivery system for that work did not exist in the comics industry.

It does now.

I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t work to be done of course, but we’ve hit a point where the lie espoused by the industry gatekeepers, that “there isn’t an audience for kids comics” or “there isn’t an audience for girls or womens comics” has finally been put to rest. Oh, the gatekeepers hung onto it as long as they could, “webcomics aren’t comic books” or “manga aren’t comics” or whatever nonsense they dug up. They’re still espousing it to some degree or another–I particularly liked this article by Heidi MacDonald on why superhero publishers will never “get” women–but it’s demonstrably false. Comics for kids sell now, the Lego Ninjago comic has a 425,000 copy first printing, a number that dwarfs most others in comics… and DC had that license at one point btw. Comics for girls (and boys) like Smile continue to sell very well. Despite the gleeful hand rubbing over the demise of manga, it still sells quite well, thanks. And the internet…? The internet is home to a fantastically diverse array of cartoonists either making their living or a significant chunk of it from the online serialization of their work–and they’re coming for print too.  They are COMING FOR PRINT.

Basically, the gates are down. There are smart publishers, and they aren’t turning down projects by rote anymore. Projects with queer characters, for girls, for women, for kids, for people of colour. And where there aren’t publishers, there are now distribution systems for creators to put their work directly in the hands of readers. If your sole desire is to write/draw Spider-Man or Superman (or god help you Batgirl) then, yeah, the gates are tighter than ever. They probably aren’t going to loosen, either. But if your goal is to do comics, and tell stories that reach people, then that’s at least possible now. There is an industry now, where there wasn’t 10 years ago.

It’s bogus to be denied access to the market do to age or gender or ethnicity or sexuality, and those are the gates that I feel have fallen. Now the challenges of these creators are the same, legitimate challenges that established creators have been facing for years–finding and connecting with your audience, digital, piracy, contracts, publishers, distribution, all of that. It’s not easy, and I doubt it ever will be, but I do finally feel that everyone can finally face those challenges together.

– Chris