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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Contagion: A Harbinger For Our Time

 

Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion has sadly become one of those quasi-science fiction films that became a reality. Of course, this relates to the coronavirus pandemic that has upended our global society.

The parallels between the film and what is going on right now are downright eerie and disturbing. However, there are distinct differences between Contagion and reality, especially later on in the film.

Infections

Contagion illustrated how the MEV-1 virus easily spread from China throughout the world as Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) on a business trip in Hong Kong became patient zero, interacted with many people and infected them. Steven Soderbergh inspired direction discreetly showed how easy it was for the virus to spread as many shots lingered on surfaces touched by infected victims, which were then touched by others.

One way the film differed from reality is how quickly victims exhibited symptoms and the mortality rate. People infected with the fictional virus displayed harsh symptoms apparently overnight, though most likely this can be attributed to film editing. The timeframe shown in the beginning of Contagion has Beth Emhoff already sick when she arrived in the U.S. Careful observations showed that she had been ill for a few days, but we’re shocked when she dies horribly mere minutes into the film. These quick time jumps were shown of how other characters became ill and died. With the coronavirus the incubation period ranges from days to weeks and explains why the disease is more insidious and deadlier than the MEV-1 because many people are already infected but won’t show symptoms for some time. Meanwhile, they’re unwittingly spreading the virus. On the other hand, the MEV-1 virus had a mortality rate of 25 to 30 percent, which was dramatically worse than COVID-19. Imagine how much worse things would be if COVID-19 had that kind of mortality rate.

Deployments

A similarity between Contagion and real life is with the deployment of military and medical services to combat the virus and maintain order. The film turned out to be accurate in its depiction for how the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mobilized to study and combat MEV-1. We are seeing this played out in real time as scientists and doctors race not only to find a vaccine but at least some kind of treatment. Unlike the film and fortunately for us, the intense medical efforts have opened up promising treatments and even vaccine tests. In Contagion, these breakthroughs did not happen until long months had passed. But before anyone reading this starts celebrating, bear in mind that trials and tests need to be completed and we are looking at a vaccine being ready anywhere from a year to eighteen months at the earliest. So for now prevention is the best defense; that includes being as clean as possible and social distancing (which was mentioned in Contagion as means of slowing the spread of the virus).

Even more distressful is the way Contagion portrays the chaos and breakdowns as the fictional MEV-1 virus ravages the world. Thankfully, we have not seen the mass riots, looting and lawlessness that take place later in the film. But we must heed these important warnings of what we face if the COVID-19 virus is not contained and continues spreading. Already healthcare systems are on the verge of collapse in a several places like Italy or are severely strained in many others.

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Steven Spielberg No Longer Directing Indiana Jones 5

The news was not unexpected, but it was still disappointing. Earlier this week, we learned that acclaimed director Steven Spielberg will not direct the upcoming fifth Indiana Jones film. Now the only person left from the original Indy films is the star himself, Harrison Ford, who is still committed to donning the fedora and leather jacket one last time.

Even though the announced new director for the project, James Mangold, is a great director in his own right, this development cannot adequately inspire much excitement over Indiana Jones 5. James Mangold has a superb filmography, he directed the best Fox X-Men film, Logan, among other terrific films. By itself Mangold’s attachment (keep in mind he is only in talks to take over Indiana Jones 5) should be great news. But this is trying to follow up on Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest film directors of all time. Following up on the auteur is a near-impossible task. Just ask Joe Johnston when he directed Jurassic Park III.

However, Mangold will likely turn in a fine film, but it just won’t feel the same. This will likely inject some new blood into the franchise, but at this point, why not just recast the role and start over with the character?

With Harrison Ford out of the way, the new slate of Indiana Jones films could smoothly go back to the 1930s time period or even the 1940s and tell new stories. The films do not nor should they remake Raiders of the Lost Ark or the other Indiana Jones films. That would be blasphemous and invite unfair comparisons. There are plenty of mystical or sci-fi macguffins that the swashbuckling archaeologist could chase after. Doing a straight recast will be a good jumping on point for those who haven’t seen the previous films and fans, as well. Otherwise, why bother with the film?

Getting back to the original team behind Indy, George Lucas was already not going to be involved with the fifth film. So, right there Indiana Jones 5 felt incomplete without the original trio, though some may have celebrated that idea given the negative reaction to Lucas’ story ideas for the last film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Frankly, this was a shame since he co-created the character.

Harrison Ford has been itching to wield his character’s iconic bullwhip one last time. He is in his mid-70s now, and although he looks healthier and fitter than his contemporaries, his age would strain credulity that he can carry out intensive action scenes. In the fifth film, no one could see Indy outrunning a giant boulder without suspending disbelief. It could be worse than the nuked fridge scene from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or jumping out of a plane in a life raft during Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Frankly, given Ford’s age, an Indiana Jones 5 would have to be made very soon.

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The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy: An Honest Assessment

With the release of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy and the entire nine-film Skywalker Saga has come to an end. The film has had its share of controversy, scorn and praise from all parties. Despite what trolls hoped for, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is an actual hit film. Now as to its quality, that is another story. Personally, I truly enjoyed the film but am honest enough to admit the latest Star Wars film is riddled with plot holes and faults. Still it did enough to entertain me and others and provided closure to the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy. Looking at the three films in this trilogy it is fair to opine that on the whole, the trilogy was badly flawed and can be considered to be the weakest of the three Star Wars trilogies. And that is due to many reasons, especially one: it is clear that Lucasfilm and its owners Disney did not have a clear plan for the sequel trilogy and it hobbled the films overall.

Inconsistent Characters

Looking at the past three films (standalone films aside), it was difficult to tell what was the main story. The only consistent arc that flowed logically was Rey and Kylo Ren’s personal journeys in their understanding of the Force. Not surprisingly, this storyline is what received the most praise. Everything else, not so much.

future jedi finn

Look at Finn’s story in the films. He had a brilliant setup, the world of Star Wars told from the POV of a normal Stormtrooper, and how he comes to believe in a greater cause than his lot in life. As well as his story was set up in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it stagnated in the followup, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, where he became a bumbling comic relief shuffled off to a pointless side quest. Then in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, his story arc had a radical course correction as we are tantalized with him developing Force sensitivity, which hinted at his potential future as a Jedi.

Even more jarring was figuring out who was the main bad guy in these films. Kylo Ren’s story was fine and flowed smoothly as he struggled with his conflicting emotions. But he was set up to be the main villain according to The Last Jedi. In that film, he killed the supposed main boss, Supreme Leader Snoke, and took his title. Meanwhile, Snoke was dispatched too early and the filmmakers were left scrambling to find another villain for the final film. This is why director J.J. Abrams and others hastily resurrected the long-dead Emperor Palpatine. As great as it was to see him cackling and oozing evil on the screen again, his reappearance into Star Wars lore was sloppily handled. If he had been hinted at in earlier films, his revival would have made more sense and not come off as a desperate plot ploy.

Then there are the other supporting characters who were treated as disposable plot beats. Take poor Rose Tico, first introduced as an annoying and self-righteous wannabe crusader in The Last Jedi, which led to toxic online backlash from misogynistic and racist trolls attacking the actress. In The Rise of Skywalker, her role was noticeably reduced to that of a glorified extra and any hints of a romance with Finn alluded to in the previous film were gone.

Aside from Rose, the most contentious character introduced in The Last Jedi was Admiral Holdo played by a badly miscast Laura Dern. This supposedly brilliant military leader did not exude any kind of gravitas as a leader, which infuriated many viewers and emboldened Internet trolls. But hey, at least she had a cool death scene where she used her ship to take out the ginormous uber star destroyer.

Then there was Hux, the First Order leader who instead of inspiring dread and fear like Grand Moff Tarkin became an ineffective joke in The Last Jedi. His character was so mangled that he was mercifully killed off in The Rise of Skywalker after he nonsensically was revealed to be a spy working against the First Order.

Contrasting Visions

The fault for the way they and other characters turned out has to be with the scripts, which reeked of being written on the fly. Another important reason for the disjointed feel of the sequel trilogy was the contrasting visions of the directors of the films, J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson.

abrams johnson

Although both men are talented directors who brought good ideas to Star Wars, their viewpoint clashed wildly. With The Force Awakens, Abrams was clearly doing an homage to the original films, especially Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

A valid criticism of The Force Awakens was that it was too similar to A New Hope: both films opened on a desert planet where good guys and bad guys sought a droid that held vital information. The heroes run into an older mentor type who gets killed and the films end with a space battle to blow up a superweapon planet. Be that as it may, The Force Awakens was a fun film that served as a soft reboot and reintroduction to the world of Star Wars for a new generation. It also set up many plot threads that Abrams left for future directors to follow up.

The problem was that the next director, Johnson, obviously was not interested in doing that. Instead he had a mindset of doing a deconstruction of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker, set up as a long-lost would-be savior in The Force Awakens, turned out to be a bitter old man without any hope. His final moments disappointed fans who were itching for him to decimate the First Order.

rey the last jedi

Rey, who was to be the next generation of Jedi, had a mysterious past and was seeking to learn about her parents. Was she related to anyone in the Original Trilogy? Why was she so powerful with the Force? Johnson obviously did not care with the casual dismissive announcement that she came from a family of nobodies. Something that had to be retconned later.

Supreme Leader Snoke was introduced as a trilogy’s final threat was unexpectedly killed by Ren. Meanwhile, Ren was hinted at in the film of having a redemptive arc but instead turned his back on Rey and embraced the dark side of the Force.  Both films are clear evidence that there wasn’t a coherent vision with the trilogy.

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