Last year, comics were arguably holding ground through one of the worst economic downturns this generation has ever seen, but it looks like ground is finally being lost. It became pretty clear from two recent news items: yesterday’s layoffs of 7 employees at Dark Horse Comics, one of the premiere American comic book publishers; and slipping sales for the first quarter of 2011.
By themselves, these two items are worrisome, but when you add in more recent history, it starts to paint a bad picture. Since the new year, the comics & pop culture publication Wizard Magazine folded, Image Comics studio Top Cow Productions faced layoffs, and Borders stores are closing, along with several of their distribution centers, without any promising signs of the book chain making its way out of reorganization. I was talking about the sales stagnation of comics over the past decade just last month. And before the new year, the largest comics distributor Diamond Comics closed their Los Angeles warehouse, and #2 publisher DC Comics had a lengthy process of reorganization and layoffs of over 80 employees, as well as their closing of several imprints. Despite some reports of comics retailers having better sales than in the recent past, there are also just as many, if not more, reports of comic stores closing. I’ve also been seeing anecdotal reports of comics creators being released from their contracts with big time book publishers that were dabbling in graphic novels over the few years. Newspaper comics continue to contract. Web-comics continue to flourish creatively but for most they don’t pay enough as a full-time job. The only growing sector of the industry is digital comics on mobile devices like the iPhone/iPad, Android and the web, but that’s still so young it’s but a fraction of print sales.
So is it time to jump out of your nearest window? Is it time to write off comics as over and done with? It depends what floor you’re on but I say no. In their most pure and basic sense, comics will never go anywhere, just as music will never go anywhere even if the big record companies fold. People will always create in the way that speaks to them the most, and there will always be people who will appreciate and enjoy it.
The real question, then, is whether a comics industry should be written off. Again, I say no. There are signs of the economy recovering, however sluggish. So I think a bounce back is possible, maybe even likely. I’m also optimistic that in these times of retraction, others will step up and bring innovation.
Something like Four Star Studios and their original digital comic Double Feature, which has complete stories in a variety of genres with great bonus features for just $0.99. And these stories are created by experienced comics creators like Tim Seeley and Mike Norton, who have worked for major comics publishers. They have contributed to proven properties like Young Justice (DC Comics), GI Joe, and Voltron; and have created successful comics like Hack/Slash, The Waiting Place and Battlepug. It’s a very safe bet. The first issue is now available. You can download for keepsies as a PDF, or download it for your iPhone, iPad and other things with the letter ‘i’ in front. Is this going to save the industry? No. There’s no single solution. But that proves that the industry has some very creative, clever and industrious people ready to experiment and offer smart alternatives.
It’s not going to be easy but I’m excited to see what comes.