Comics Surge Somewhat – But Will It Be Too Late, Will It Be Enough?

Mobs of people & comic books, reunited at last?

Fueled almost entirely by enthusiasm and public interest in DC Comics‘ bold New 52 initiative, the comic book industry is seeing what appears to be a mild turnaround from a 3-year sinking sales trend at local comic book stores. While pulling sales through comic shops into the black for the first time since 2008 is good news, it’s a modest victory that is already showing signs of diminishing returns in the long term. And what’s worse, it may be too little too late for people trying to make a living making comics.

The most halting example of this occurred late last week when a published comics artist posted a message to his personal Facebook page that many interpreted as a suicide note. Over the weekend, the comics community rallied to support him and arrange for help. This artist has provided artwork for the industry’s major publishers, Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Dark Horse Comics, and Image Comics, as both work-for-hire and producing creator-owned comics. But even with his resume, his calls for work were not being returned, his savings were on the verge of drying up, and desperation had sunk in. For most, creating comics is a lonely profession and few have the business acumen to market their creative talents. After working in the industry since the early ’90s, he seemed to think his career, the outlet for his great talent and passion, was over. Fortunately, he is now safe and getting some much needed support. But how many other stories like his are out there? And how many else are seeing their careers retract not because of lack of talent but because of a slowly vanishing market?

Writer Brian Wood is a critically acclaimed writer who has created memorable comics such as Demo, DMZ, Northlanders and more. On his Tumblr page, he recently spoke frankly about his career and the fluctuating state of the industry in the face of digital vs. print.

I’ve had series cancelled recently.  I’ve had pitches rejected for financial reasons.  I’ve seen my editors laid off. I’ve taken page rate cuts (a LOT of us have).  My income from royalties have dropped.  Most comic shops don’t carry my books.  I have very good reasons to suspect my career in comics may be drastically reduced in the near future. Things just plain suck, but I’ve taken these hits, figuring that everyone else is having hard times too.

This isn’t limited to writers and artists, the two creative roles typically seen as the headlining positions in comics production. Comics would simply not be comics without inkers, colorists, and letterers to make the finishing touches of merging the writer’s script with the artist’s pencils. And yet, they too are seeing less and less opportunities. Gerry Alanguilan wrote and illustrated the graphic novel Elmer, but he first made a name for himself in the industry as an inker for superhero and adventure comics published by DC, Marvel and Image. He too is seeing job opportunities vanishing. He wrote the following on his blog:

It’s a hard hard business. There has been a seismic shift in the comics industry that occured over the last 10 years. On one hand one can point a finger at the dire state of world economy, but at the same time, one can definitely point a finger at developments in technology that has affected the art and craft of creating comics.

Although many in the chain of comic book creation are affected, it is comic book inkers and hand letterers that I think are being hit hardest. With the development of new ways of producing comics, companies are starting to use inkers and hand letterers less and less.

He also links to inker Joe Weems and artist Sean Gordon Murphy echoing these concerns with their own observations as professionals in the industry.

It’s not just members of the creative team. As Wood mentioned above, editors and other staff members have found themselves unemployed. Marvel Comics, which until DC’s surge in September has been the number one comics publisher in North America for at least the last decade or two, has recently been placed under strict new budget requirements that resulted in layoffs of editors, executives and other staff among other cut backs. New comic book series in the pipeline have been taken off the schedule and low-selling comics have been cancelled. The publisher allegedly intends to double-down on their big-ticket properties (Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men) and simply publish more of the popular stuff instead of taking risks with new, unproven or inconsistent properties. Of course this means less available jobs.

Marvel is hardly the only publisher going through these kinds of changes. DC Comics made radical staff cuts and changes last year before storming the charts with the New 52. While multiple publishers have reported stronger sales since the New 52 launched in September, it was too late for some employees. Dark Horse was forced to lay off staff earlier this year due to struggling sales. Likewise, a number of comic book stores just haven’t seen enough improvements, such as Evermore Nevermore in Mesa, Arizona, which is closing after only 2 years due to the recession and not enough interest from the light downtown foot traffic.

The larger financial picture makes an immense challenge seem impossible. But until the industry makes a concerted joint effort in capturing new audiences with varied tastes, the bigger and bigger publishing stunts working within the same infrastructure will only go so far.

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