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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Digital Comics Rising

It’s pretty obvious that the world of digital comics is expanding at a phenomenal rate. As tablets and smartphones become more commonplace it won’t be too long before the number of readers of digital comics could eclipse that of regular paper comics.

Companies like DC and Marvel sell digital downloads and even offer free downloads to sample their comics. And it’s very easy to download comics. Just download an app with Comixology, iVerse Media’s Comics + or even from comic book companies themselves. In fact, Marvel, DC, IDW, Dark Horse and others also offer free apps.

After downloading the apps, just sign up for a free account. Readers are taken to the sites’ main menu where they can buy comic books. There are literally thousands of titles to choose from, no more running around to different comic book stores to find that elusive issue that is sold out everywhere. A simple search button will yield instant results. At this point the sites don’t have complete collections but the library is growing so it won’t be inconceivable to have a complete collection of Fantastic Four digitally.

Once they’re downloaded, the comics go into the cloud so they can’t be lost even if you’re device is damaged. Anyone can go into a friend’s laptop or desktop and view their own comics. While comics can be read on traditional computers, reading them on mobile devices is the way to go becausenow the digital comics are as portable as regular paper comics. What’s more is that images can be enlarged to better appreciate the art and a simple swiping of fingers allows page turning to be easier than regular comics. Plus readers don’t have to worry about being careful with reading mint comics and the online comics don’t have any ads to skip over.

Before buying comics, readers are given a preview of a couple of pages to sample the comic. This can be a disadvantage to regular paper comics where a reader can conceivably skim through the entire issue before deciding to buy the comic. But many times, companies offer several-page previews or even an entire first issue which gives one a better idea of what they’re going to buy.

These free downloads are an excellent way to preview comics or characters. DC jumped at this opportunity by offering downloads of popular characters and calling them for example Flash 101, which offers origins and first appearances of characters, complete with cover galleries. It’s a great introduction for new readers and DC should use this concept more with their lesser known characters.  One can only wonder why Marvel isn’t doing this.

DC certainly has the edge when it comes to digital comics. It seems as if they wholeheartedly embraced the concept especially when they launched The New 52 earlier this year when they relaunched their titles on paper and digital on the same day. These digital comics revived DC’s sales, in fact, for September 2011 they were the only company to have reported a sales increase of 1000% that is simply incredible.

However, not all is perfect with digital comics. To really compete, digital comics must offer more for the same price. For example a paper comic is $2.99 or $3.99 and that is supposedly due to production and print costs. Then why are online comics the same price? Sure if one is patient, individual issues usually drop in price weeks later, but why should the costs be the same on the first day of issue? If companies are to charge the same price then incentives should be offered. This could include creator commentaries, scripts, galleries and sketches. The comics should have a toggle button pencil inks and even one to remove the word balloons so readers can really appreciate the artwork.

Companies need to take advantage of the interactive features that are possible with online comics. One thing that can be done is to include live, real-time reader comments and updates. This means that a reader can finish a book then be able to comment on the issue which will show up immediately in that book’s commentary section.

While currently downloaded comics offer suggested links to similar titles, the comics should offer a link to a superhero homepage, that is that homepage would explain who is the character, show maps and galleries and databases on characters and story arcs. In DC’s case, offer a link to their 101 introductions or include it with the initial download of a particular comic. Annuals should be annotated with sound f/x which could be an incentive to buy them.

Perhaps the Justice League annual, the deluxe edition, can have voice actors, CG effects, sound effects, original music composed and conducted for the annual; the penci/inlk/color/word ballon toggle, interviews with the editor, writer, artists, dropdown reader commentary (the letters page), link to the Hall of Justice where you can get a converged version of the 101s, like Superman 101 will present not only comics, but TV shows, animation, gaming, trailers, and movie versions. Also polls asking for opinions of a particular issue, character, or villain, etc.
Also, DC Universe online should converge with the New 52. And of course, any new mass media creation should be cross compatible with other media, meant to tie unto an integrated universe. 
They could have started with the Green Lantern movie and linked him with the future formation of the Justice League. DCUO could have merged the Ryan Reynolds GL into the game. That’s the big picture examples of how digital comics can further evolve.
Check out this video from the annual big idea conference TED, which stands for Technology, Enternatinent, Developers:
Here they show what an ebook can do. DC & Marvel really should exploit the best that tech has to offer to show that a superhero story can envelope a convergence of media.

There is still room to grow with digital comics. Perhaps some of these suggestions could be utilized to fully realize digital comics’ potential. In the end this could be what saves comics.

José Soto and GEO

DC’s Digital and Print New 52: The Game Changer

DC  Comics unveiled this Wednesday their reimagined universe with Justice League #1, (written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Jim Lee and Scott Williams). This isn’t an ordinary reboot per se.

Variant cover to Justice League #1 by David Finch

Rather it’s the next evolution for comic books.  As every comic book fan knows, on August 31, 2011 DC simultaneously released print copies of Justice League #1 and digital downloads of the same issue. While comic book shops received their copies on Tuesday, they weren’t allowed to put them up on shelves until their stores opened the next day. With the digital downloads, however, they were ready for consumers at 12 am  midnight on Wednesday.

That already is one plus side for downloads and in theory this means that everyone, anywhere with Internet connections can get a copy of their favorite comic book.  If you lived in big cities like New York that have many comic book stores it’s fairly easy to find any kind of comic book. But if you live in small towns, often you’d have to travel many miles scouring the landscape for a new release and hoping that the small store you find still has a copy of the release. That is if they even carried it in the first place.

Upcoming Detective Comics #1, Cover by Tony S. Daniel

This could spell trouble for comic book stores. But if they’re smart they can re-tool their business model and possibly gear their stores more to sell merchandise based on the comic books. That’s just one idea. Either way, they need to adapt or go the way of travel agencies and record stores that were decimated by travel websites and iTunes. But for fans and publishers, digital downloads are the way to go. But it’s not without its drawbacks.

First of all, it’s one hundred percent web dependant. If your Internet connection is poor or the signal is cut off you can’t read the comic book. See, if I was living in the Legion of Superhero’s perfect 30th century world where technology was very advanced this wouldn’t be much of a problem. But today, it is still easier for me to walk five feet over to my bookshelf and pick up a print copy than to turn on a computer or tablet or smartphone and search for the same comic book in digital form. Also, there’s no interactivity with the Justice League download. The word balloons and art are static, but on a plus side, there are no ads and the images are hi-res. In fact, the final four pages consist of costume sketches by Lee and Johns.

Being that it’s a protected download, you cannot copy it and send or sell it to a third party. If your friend wants a copy, he or she can’t just borrow a print copy and give it back to you; it has to be bought. For publishers this is a godsend since I think this may help boost sales.

Speaking of that, I believe that the downloads will wind up selling five times more than print copies. Eventually we may see sales totaling about 500,000 per issue versus today’s dismal 20,000-30,000 figure. Of course, I doubt it will equal or top the World War II figures of millions of copies per issue and that’s because there is so much media for comic books to compete with.

Upcoming Action Comics #1, Cover by Rags Morales

A good ripple effect from downloads is that poor-selling titles may have a longer life. Ordinarily, a comic book with low sales would be canceled for economic reasons. But if it switched to being solely a digital download then production costs will be low enough to keep it going. While fans of that title won’t be able to own a print copy, they can at least follow the title on-line.

As downloads and new apps and technologies emerge and come of age, it will be easier for new generations already accustomed to the new technologies to buy downloads and actually prefer it over running down to the store to buy a print copy. This is truly a game changer not only for DC but the comic book industry at large. Now for the perfect connectivity, what’s the name of that 30th century Internet service provider?