Comic books are successful. There, it was said. The last 20 years or 30 years or even 40 years, there has been one constant commentary on comics. They are failing and it’s because of their inability to adapt to a new world, where video games, television, radio, the Internet and enter whatever the new hot medium of day is, rule and just push over comics right over the edge just a little. Impending stories of doom and gloom is a staple of the comic book world and even The Comic Book Bin, over the years has contributed to that.
It’s hard not to argue otherwise. Comic book stores across the United States are closing at a rapid rate, comic books that used to sell 100,000 of units per month are now considered successful if they break even over 40,000 units. The number of comic book readers is continually shrinking and aging, with little replacement from younger readers. Publishers find it hard to publish a comic book and increase their prices, making them out of reach for many readers. Large distribution networks find it difficult to distribute nothing but comic books and increase the sell through threshold to force smaller publishers out of the network. Many pundits complain that only safe value propositions like super heroes sell well and innovation and attempt to produce any other genre that falls outside of the urban science fiction and fantasy niche carved by super heroes are doomed to failure or critical acclaim but little success. Oh and there’s more. Just look at the latest blog posting or “analytical article from your favourite non Comic Book Bin site, and you’ll see one of those articles about the impending failure of comic books. It’s all bad and it’s all going downhill from here.
That’s the story on comics. If you are a hardcore comic book collector, you’ve read a variation of these doom and gloom articles on the state of comics. You’ve read the many treatises on how to attract new readers, and how a variation of comic book films, digital delivery of comics through tablets and any other such non sense will save comics where older tactics have all failed in the past. On that point, The Bin has been stringent for years. We tend to focus on readers and sales. That’s our pet peeves. We believe in sales fundamentals and not a product base approach to comics. It’s not about the contents, or what you put in the comics, it’s about how you sell these comic books and how you address the needs of the people buying them. But even that has its limits and still to some extent focuses on gloom and doom, if you don’t follow our particular strategy.
Ah, strategy and tactics. Two interesting words that have come up so far in this discussion. There’s no strategy to the world of comics. No one has a vision of comics beyond 2 years, it seems. Ask any of the head honchos at the main comic book publishers and ask them about their vision for comics in 20 years. They don’t have one. Most will say the usual bland thing – comic will be around in some form or shape in 20 years and we will be at the forefront of that... That’s their strategy, to ordain a series of tactics to match whatever happens in the world of comic books, as of they had no influence and were just trying to save face. Tactics don’t require strategies, they only require a move be made to counter or influence a very limited objective. Strategies are about long term objectives and great tactics are derived from thought off strategies. At worst, a tactic, in that perspective is adopted as a stop gap measure to ultimately reinforce the grand strategy. The tactics used by the comic book industries currently make no sense and the only strategy a pundit can observe is an attempt to maintain the status quo for an indeterminate period of time – to save the furniture from the fire. That’s not a grand strategy with a workable design.
Comics are successful because they still exist. There are not macramé conventions in every mid-size city in North America at least once a year that draws upon tens of thousands of visitors and generate as much noise and media impact in the entertainment industry. Everyone recognizes Charlie Brown and Superman and know that they come respectively from the world of comic strips and comic books – comics in short. Most of you can’t tell anything about the most successful macramé knitting – is that even something that matters or an accepted term in the world of macramé? Yet, you can tell that Charlie Brown and Superman have different looks to them, even if you can’t quite say the name of their creators, or what kind of style they have.
Graphic elements from comics are borrowed by all media and incorporated with symbolic meanings to mean a variety of things. There’s a reason Comic Book Bin didn’t use a speech balloon (also known as speech bubble) in its latest logo. The symbol has been so overused within and outside of comics as a symbol for comic books that it has feels like a cliché. But to anyone who, they associate it with comics and a specific meaning about communication. The speech balloon is a universal symbol in much of North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Name me one common symbol for video games that is nearly as well-known and accepted across the world? Will a joystick do? How about an image of Pac Man? Now, name me a similar symbol for computers, smartphones, and the Internet. What’s the most universal symbol for a computer? Is it a computer mouse or a monitor? What about a smartphone? A square with a piece of glass or an rounded square symbolising an app icon? What’s the most prevailing symbol for the Internet? A globe? The letters WWW? A bunch of clouds, or even two computers with a line running between them?
Now what’s the symbol for a book? An open book. What’s the symbol for a bicycle? Two narrow wheels. What’s the symbol for a home? A house with a triangle-shaped roof. Comics have as strong symbols as books, bicycles or homes. They have a strong and unified icon that symbolize them better than video games, computers, smartphones and the Internet. See a pattern? We know what a comic book is and we all know what symbolizes them. Is it really doom and gloom for comics?
Comics were lucky, just like radio and macramé once were. They served a purpose at one time in their history without any direct competitor. Then, they faced competitors, Perhaps the real number of a successful comic book should be 20,000 units, not 40,000. Comics needed to adjust and they have been for quite a while. Tablets and computers won’t save comics. At most they will be a niche product that will provide a specific value for some users, but not all of them. Look at podcasts and radio. Not all of radio has transformed into podcasts. But podcasts are liked by many who probably don’t even listen to radio but find podcasting an essential part of their daily routine.
Comics may have found the just right balance they have sought for decades, but we are blinded by other expectations for comics to see that maybe they are doing just right for what they offer of value. Comics are only doing badly because we assume they should do better. Publishers and comic book stores are going out of business everyday now, and we see this as doom and gloom and not the refreshing of an ecosystem. People are losing jobs, their livelihood and businesses. This is not something to laugh about. But who’s to say that the current rate of attrition in comics is not the right one for the whole industry to be viable?
Comics are successful. Most of us just don’t know about it yet, because we expect comics to deliver something else then what we are prepared to reveal about their real success.
Hervé St-Louis, September 12, 2015
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