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.
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.