The Current State And Future Of Comic Books, Part II

We looked at the current state of the comic book industry, which had been declining in recent years for many reasons ranging from too many products flooding the market to the obsession with variant comics. The industry suffered a brutal blow with the COVID-19 pandemic which forced most stores and industries to close in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus. This weekend, another annual Free Comic Book Day event would have taken place all over. That is gone, along with highly anticipated conventions, especially the San Diego Comic-Con.  But fear not, we will get our geek fixes at some point in the future.  However, as our society looks ahead and to reopening, many fans are wondering where the comic book industry goes from here or if it can survive.  Let’s look further.

The Coming Contraction

To be blunt, there are too many comic book titles flooding the market. Certain popular characters have multiple monthly titles; numerous crossover event books have overtaken the shelves; and every time a fan turns around a title is canceled, relaunched or rebooted just to produce a new number one issue for collectors. The hard truth is that this cannot continue. Once this crisis passes and the stores reopen, the publishers have to entice readers to buy their products. One thing to keep in mind is that too many buyers are now out of work and cannot easily afford comic books, not with current prices. It is not realistic to expect the average fan to buy all of your products as in the past.

Publishers need to determine what books to create. The obvious answer would be to focus their titles on their most popular and recognizable characters. And they should be limited to two or three titles at most. One thing publishers can do is to increase the amount of pages in a popular title and feature back up stories with lesser heroes. This was the norm back in the Golden Age of Comics and would allow for the publishers to keep employing creators as is currently done.

Look at the Downside

While contracting the amount of books published monthly goes against publishers wanting to put out as much product as possible, there are long-term benefits. Limiting the amount of exposure for a character creates demand. At the same time, the quality of the stories will improve as not every story angle will be quickly used up in a short amount of time by writers and artists pumping out dozens of titles per month.

Another benefit for downsizing comics is that it will be easier to coordinate events and continuity. An all-too-common gripe from readers is how they are pressured to buy every single crossover comic book and keeping up with what is going on. Too often, events are contradictory and repetitive. How many times can someone in the Fantastic Four or the Avengers die and come back? Think of how great it was to read the early Valiant comic books. Back when those comics came out in the early 1990s, only a few titles were published monthly and there was a tight continuity between the titles. They were easy to follow, yet for the most part we were not forced to buy every book. This helped create buzz for those Valiant titles. When an event like Unity occurred it was a big deal. Nowadays it seems as if there is some kind of weekly event. Speaking of events, what is the latest Spider-Verse thing going on now? Or is it Spider-Geddon?

Reduced Prices

There are many ways to cut costs aside from limiting output. The easiest way to entice buyers is through sales: BOGOs, discounts, subscription services, etc. Many of these sales tactics are used right now, which is often seen during the holiday season, Free Comic Book Day, or the release of major superhero films.

Still, these sales will only go so far. To keep people coming back and buying comics on a regular basis, prices must be lowered. Expecting loyal readers to fork out $3.99 per title is unrealistic given the state of the economy. One reason why comic books took off when they were first published was because of low prices. Everyday kids could afford to buy them for 10 cents at the beginning. They were even affordable when the prices eventually went up to a dollar or so. But current prices inhibit children from buying them. Publishers must entice new generations of readers to keep the industry alive; although publishers put out inexpensive comics geared towards young children, they are not adequately attracted to more traditional titles.

OK, so how can publishers lower prices besides limiting the amount of books published? One thing that can be tried is to change the paper stock and if worse comes to worse go back to newspaper print. It was only in the past couple of decades that the paper quality in comics took quantum leaps forward. No longer did collectors have to worry about yellowing pages or crumbling paper. But this came at a literal cost. Perhaps it is time to revisit the traditional newsprint, if only for a while.

Another idea is to use less pages per title. This could mean shorter and more serialized stories. But this should be considered along with the actual size of a comic book.

Most fans know that the Golden Age and Silver Age comic books were actually slightly bigger than current comics. The sizes were reduced eventually to diminish the amount of paper needed and therefore cutting costs. Comic books in the future will probably be smaller and look like those Best of DC comic book digests that came out in the 1970s.

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The Current State And Future Of Comic Books, Part I

It was well known by fans that the comic book industry faced declining sales in the past few years. Then this pandemic struck. Now, comic book shops all over are closed down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Major comic book companies like Marvel and DC will not release comic books digitally, and this has resulted in the entire industry coming to a standstill. We have not had any released comic books for several weeks and this has cascaded to lost jobs, revenue and products. On top of that, the San Diego Comic-Con and other conventions have been cancelled.

This crisis will pass at some point. But will its damage be too much for the comic book industry? Even without this pandemic the industry had many challenges and was running on inertia and good will from other media, notably the films and TV shows based on their comic book characters. It was in a fragile place and it may only take an outside factor like the coronavirus to be the kill the industry.

So, what happened to the comic book industry and where does its future go? If it even has one.

Modern State

When the American comic book first came into existence back in the 1930s they were aimed at children and at first reprinted newspaper strips. This changed with Action Comics #1 in 1938 as it introduced Superman, the first genuine superhero. After a lull in the 1950s superheroes dominated the medium to this day. However, comic books continued to change as new styles and ideas were introduced, and readers’ tastes changed, as well.

Currently, we are in the Modern Age and just as in the 1990s it is defined by an overreliance on speculators and comic books geared to please them. There are differences between the two time periods. The speculators during the Copper Age in the 1990s were mostly outside investors who hoped to retire by buying comic books with gimmick incentives like hologram covers, inserted trading cards, and numerous guest appearances by popular characters like Wolverine or Venom. This period was infamous for the Great Comics Crash of 1996 as investors were unable to sell their comics and left. Sales dropped so hard that comic books’ continued existence was in doubt.

Exclusive Variants

While those investors are long gone, today many hardcore collectors are encouraged to seek out very expensive variant comics. These are issues of certain key titles with different covers that are given out to retailers as incentives by distributors like Diamond Comics and publishers to encourage retailers to buy large volumes of comics. The retailers in turn sell these exclusive variants at premium prices, but are stuck with too many comics that will not sell. That is one of the reasons why comic book stores have so many sales with comics selling for $1 or so.

A new type of variants are blank cover comics that can be used for signatures or sketches by artists. This means that these comic books become unique pieces of art and thus more valuable. On average an individual title will have roughly eight to ten variant covers released. It can be hard to discern which is the regular cover for a title for a collector not interested in the variants.

These days collectors submit their coveted titles for grading to the Certified Guaranty Company (CGC). This company uses experts who thoroughly examine comics and assigned a number grade before the comics are sealed in hard plastic cases. This has led to collectors with large wallets to chase after these high-value items. Lately, CGC is selling comic books that are exclusives with black and white sketch variant covers of regular issues.

While some can profit handsomely with these graded comics, one has to wonder about the future of this niche market. After all, the average collector cannot afford to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars for these CGC exclusives, let alone the fee to have their precious comics graded.

Higher & Higher Prices

The current prices of comic books is an important reason why sales are declining. Let’s put aside the CGC comics. Those are a niche market for collectors with deep pockets and the average collector is not missing anything if he or she is just trying to keep up with a collection.

Anyone buying and collecting comic books will confirm that they cost too much money. This complaint has existed ever since the Silver Age when prices increased from 10 cents up to 20 cents. As publishing, printing and distribution costs went up so did the prices. Now, the average comic book costs about $3.99.

Lately, publishers released special anniversary issues that cost anywhere from 8 to 12 dollars. These particular comics are meant to celebrate the anniversaries of long-running successful characters. These special issues which feature assorted stories by many writers and artists sold extremely well, and is why more are coming out. The latest celebrant is The Joker who will have his own special 80th anniversary comic book that will ship directly later this month. Unlike the CGC comics, the average collector will seek these out even though they are expensive.

Where does this end? Think about it, where once a comic book cost only 10 cents now on average is nearly five dollars. Then multiply that with all the individual comics a collector will buy on any given month and what is left is an expensive hobby. Surely, most comic books today are not oriented to young children and publishers have correctly figured that the average buyers are adults who can afford their product. With that said, where does it end? It is easy to see comic books in the future costing ten dollars, even twenty dollars for an average issue. Will the average collector be willing to pay that much on a monthly basis?

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A Brief Look At Stephen King’s Cell

Stephen King’s Cell was written in the post-9/11 world and published in 2006. At the same time was a tribute to the horror sub-genre of lone survivors coping in a world overrun by maniacs, monsters and other terrors. Oddly enough the novel has some new relevance in today’s world in showing how society has abruptly been turned upside down by a “virus”. In the book’s case this virus is not biological but technological with devastating results.

On the surface, one might want to compare this to a flesh-eating zombie movie and the book’s dedication to George Romero (and Richard Matheson who wrote the classic post-apocalyptic thriller I Am Legend) adds to that comparison. But that isn’t necessarily the case, it follows the spirit of those zombie films but there aren’t any zombies in Cell. Rather it’s more comparable to Romero’s film The Crazies or 28 Days Later where civilized society is turned upside down when formerly normal people become raving murderous lunatics. Meanwhile, complete strangers band together to deal with a suddenly dangerous world. Note, although the film adaptation was not as terrible as most critics claimed, the less said about Cell (2016), the better.

The novel begins in Boston with Clay Riddell, a struggling freelance comic book artist who just caught his big break by landing for a graphic novel. He is on his way home to Maine, eager to break the news to his estranged wife and son Johnny when the Pulse hits. A signal goes out instantly over all cell phones everywhere that scrambles the brain of anyone who happens to be using a cell phone. Within seconds, anyone affected by the Pulse is turned into an insane murderer without any reason or intelligence. Clay witnesses to his horror seemingly normal people viciously attacking each other and those who weren’t affected by the Pulse. The sequences described are quite horrific and brings to mind the chaos and sense of being overwhelmed that the nation experienced during 9/11. People are running everywhere as explosions rock the city and no one can understand what is exactly going on.

As Clay evades the “phoners” (the people who turned into maniacs during the Pulse) he meets Tom McCourt and Alice Maxwell. They decide to get out of Boston,  and avoid any cities since the chaos is intensified in the urban landscapes. Eventually they reach Tom’s residence just outside of the city and discover after the chaos dies down that the phoners have developed a sort of hive mind. The phoners are seen migrating toward an unknown destination.  Clay’s own goal is to reach his hometown and find his wife and child. The other two decide to join him so they gather supplies and guns hike up north.

Along their journey, the group meets other survivors and battles more phoners  as the novel’s pessimistic mood gets even deeper. The reader is made to feel discouraged and broken by the characters’ hopeless plight as the phoners consolidate their grip on the world. They reach Clay’s hometown and discover his wife became a phoner during the Pulse but his son did not and fled further up north to Kashwak. Apparently the phoners are psychically herding all normal people up to this place by suggesting that it is a safe haven. During this trek, Clay and the others have had shared dreams that they were rounded up in a carnival-like arena surrounded by hordes of phoners. Despite knowing that Kashwak is a trap, Clay decides to go anyway in the slim hope of finding his son.

The ending itself is rather ambiguous and open-ended. Basically the reader has to decide what was the ultimate fate of the characters, although by the novel’s end the pessimistic tone seems to subside a bit to offer a glimmer of realistic hope.

Many have compared this book to Stephen King’s earlier book, The Stand, but there are diverse differences. While The Stand had an epic apocalyptic feel to it, Cell does not. Also the religious overtones and themes from The Stand are absent in Cell. Unlike his previous novel, this one focuses on a small group of survivors who are just trying to get by, whereas The Stand had a huge dramatis personae. One thing Cell has that the older book lacked are the 9/11 references, which adds a level of immediacy. And this is evident in the origin of the Pulse. Believed to be caused by terrorists, the incident represents the feeling of the world unexpectedly turned upside down.

The Pulse also shattered many illusions about our feeling of security in our civilization and the horror comes from learning how fragile our society is from how easy it falls apart. This fragility takes on an urgent relevance given our current situation. Of course, we are not on the verge of collapsing because of the coronavirus, but it has had a decided impact on how we live day to day. Despite its grim tone, the novel illustrated how human connections and relationships are key to our survival and why we will persevere in this crisis.

Top 10 Films About Isolation

Most of us are currently huddled away in our homes doing our part to help fight the coronavirus by social distancing and isolating ourselves. Doing so has brought up the issues of isolation, which can be a challenge for some of us. Since we have time, check out these genre films which dealt with the main character being alone in their situation, whether it was due to the collapse of civilization or related to space travel. Taking a look will remind us that our situation is not as bad as the ones faced by the main characters in the films. Also note that although in these films, the solo character at some point interacted with other people for a significant portion of the film he or she was alone.

 

10. Passengers (2016):

A hibernating passenger (Chris Pratt) onboard a colony spaceship is awoken prematurely and finds himself all alone in the mammoth ship. Unable to reprogram his sleeping pod and fated to live out the rest of his days alone, he unethically awakens another passenger (Jennifer Lawrence) and the two start a romance. Meanwhile, the glitch that caused him to awaken points to major problems with the ship itself. Solid acting and special effects enhanced Passengers, which rightly looked at the ramifications of his actions.

9. The Omega Man (1971):

The second adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend took major liberties with the source material, but the isolation film is an enjoyable romp. After a war between Russia and China leads to  a virus that kills most of humanity except for army doctor Robert Neville (Charlton Heston). He spends his days roaming the empty streets of Los Angeles, warring with mutated albino humans and perfecting a cure. Chock of full corny ’70s dialogue and action, The Omega Man still stood out for its introspective scenes of Neville as he dealt with loneliness.

8. The Martian (2015):

A major duststorm on Mars forces an expedition to abandon the red planet. However, one astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), believed to be dead, was left stranded. Using his ingenuity and pluck, Watney uses all of his skills and science know-how to survive on Mars and eventually make contact with Earth. From there, it is a riveting race against time and dwindling resources for Watney to stay alive until a rescue mission can retrieve him in this thrilling isolation film.

7. The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959):

Harry Belafonte (yes, that Harry Belafonte) portrays a mine inspector who survives World War III after being trapped in a mine. After escaping from the mine, he makes his way to New York City and discovers he is completely alone. Grappling with his predicament and loneliness, he eventually he encounters a woman (Inger Stevens) and the two start a friendship. Although she is interested in a romantic relationship with him, his inhibitions about their race keep him from accepting her. Complicating matters is that they find another survivor which leads to tensions between the three of them. While it is melodramatic and heavy handed, the film still has relevant messages about letting go of the past and is a fascinating look at survival and loneliness.

6. Silent Running (1972):

In the future, the remaining natural habitats are placed in greenhouse domes onboard spaceships near Saturn. Freeman Lowell I(Bruce Dern) is one of the botanists tending the biomes and rebels against orders to destroy the domes and return to Earth. After killing his crewmates, Lowell commandeers one of the ships and heads to deeper space; his only companions are a trio of non-speaking robots who help him tend the domes’ gardens. Silent Running obviously has a very strong environmental message yet it is very moving and also has an unflinching look at Lowell, who allowed his extreme protective views to push himself too far.

5. Love (2011):

In the near future, an astronaut (Gunner Wright) is sent to the abandoned International Space Station to restore it but becomes stranded there after a sudden war wipes out humanity on Earth. Now completely alone, the astronaut begins to lose his sanity and will to live until an event occurs that will lead to debates. Love stands out from many sci-fi films in its exploration of what it is to be human and connected to others through our emotions and memories. Also impressive is that the film while low budget was elevated by ingenious production design and direction. The final moments of Love in many ways rivals though-provoking finales such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris in that it brings up many questions about its conclusion.

4. I Am Legend (2007):

The third and most recent adaptation of Richard Matheson’s book stars Will Smith as Dr. Robert Neville. After a viral cure for cancer mutates into a virus that kills most of humanity, Neville lives alone in New York City; his only companion being his pet dog Sam. In between roaming the iconic New York streets, finding a cure and hunkering down in his fortified apartment at night, Neville wars with savage mutated humans who are light sensitive. This version of I Am Legend has some exceptional production which present a disquieting look at an abandoned New York that is being reclaimed by nature. Will Smith turns in a riveting and sympathetic performance as the haunted Neville and carries the film. If possible watch the film with its alternate, more ambiguous ending, which is more faithful to Matheson’s story and elevates this film.

3. Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1965):

This futuristic retelling of Daniel Defoe’s classic yarn, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a true underrated gem. Astronaut Christopher Draper (Paul Mantee) crash lands on the red planet and struggles to survive. Air, water, food and shelter are his main objectives. Once he solves those issues, thanks to luck and strong survival skills, Draper endures being alone (except for his pet monkey, Mona) without any hope of getting home. However, incidents arise which sets Draper off on a grand adventure that makes the most of its budget and follows many aspects of the Defoe book. and makes it more than a survival film. Despite its low budget and B-movie trappings Robinson Crusoe on Mars is very imaginative and a cut above the cheesy sci-fi offerings from that time, although its scientific inaccuracies (breathable air on Mars!) should be forgiven.

2. The Quiet Earth (1985):

Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) is a scientist in New Zealand who finds himself alone on Earth after his energy experiment causes humanity to disappear. Similar to The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, Hobson struggles with loneliness and his sanity until meeting Joanne (Alison Routledge). From there, they start a romance which is hampered by the arrival of another man (Pete Smith). But before a love triangle takes up all the energy in the film, Hobson learns that the experiment may be causing further damage to reality and has to find a way to stop it and possibly reverse its effects. Evocative thanks to its exploration of isolation and what it is like to be the last person alive, The Quiet Earth is further enhanced with its deliberately ambiguous ending. Its final images are truly jaw dropping and provides much to ponder.

1. Gravity (2013):

Sandra Bullock gives a powerful performance as Dr. Ryan Stone, an astronaut forced to survive on her own after a disaster destroys her space shuttle and kills her astronaut companions. Without help and on her own, Stone has to rely on her own will to live and smarts as one calamity after another threaten her. Gravity is one of those non-stop thrill rides that perfectly showcase the horror of being in space and why it is so inhospitable. At the same time, the film is a tour de force for Bullock whose character is put through an emotional wringer as she uses all of her will to fight past her fears and traumatic past to fuel her drive to find safe passage back to Earth. Unlike other films on this list, Dr. Stone has to grapple with immediate life-or-death situations and doesn’t have the luxury of dealing with boredom or loneliness. As with the other films here, Gravity showcases the power of the human spirit to endure and thrive in any environment even if one is isolated.