There’s been some brouhaha lately around the Internet about a push for more support of creator-owned comics and for more creators to go in a more independent route.
Steve Niles, whom I had the pleasure to meet last year, has been a big factor in this. He’s been blogging and tweeting regularly about the issue. His first post, which is a good summary of his position, is right here. It’s a nice, positive position that boils down to readers spreading the word about what they like rather than trashing what they hate.
Eric Powell, creator of The Goon, posted a video on YouTube that has since been pulled. It was a bit crass, but I think it came across more harshly than Powell intended. For some background on the video and the movement (and the source of that ridiculous image at right), there’s a nice summary at The Beat.
There was also a post from Dean Haspiel that went a little farther:
Being published by someone else does not legitimize your hard work. And, the financial advance hardly pays the rent. Think about that the next time you sign a contract for your original ideas.
I am a comics creator, and so far I’ve only ever done creator-owned work. And there’s some absolute truth to the fact that making creator-owned comics is a hard living at this time, at least unless you’re Robert Kirkman. New people to comics are always surprised at just how hard of a living it is (as I am not Robert Kirkman, I hold down a day job).
I definitely support what Niles and Powell are doing. Any advocacy is great and can only help. But is it enough? And what can we do to get creator-owned comics to a place of being financially viable?
The problem, for starters, is not Marvel and DC. A lot of criticism centers on the big two superhero publishers, but I don’t think it’s deserved. Marvel and DC haven’t done anything to limit the proliferation of creator-owned books in the past 20 years. Yes, they dominate the direct market, but they also provide tons of work to lots of great comics people. And by keeping the direct market viable, they have helped maintain a market for creator-owned books.
The problem also is not diversity. Comics are incredibly diverse today (at least in content, if not in those creating them). In recent weeks I’ve read work by Brecht Evans, the brothers Ba and Moon and the fantastically different Return of the Dapper Men, just to name a few. There are comics being made that anyone and everyone can enjoy.
The problem is connecting with those potential readers.
Estimations are that about 300,000 people make up the core American comics market. A glance at any sales chart from the direct market shows that these people are spending the vast majority of their cash on Marvel and DC superhero books.
Indie books like mine, the Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer series, are considered a success when they sell several thousand copies. Not tens. Just several.
There was a recent graphic novel release — I won’t say which book it was, but it wasn’t from Marvel, DC, Image, IDW or Dark Horse — that sold about 200,000 copies in just its first few months. Two hundred thousand!!! And yet it wasn’t listed among the top-selling books in the direct market charts. In fact, fewer than 1,000 copies sold to the direct market.
So let’s think about those numbers. We say that about 300,000 Americans are willing to buy comics, based on direct market figures. Yet this book sold 200,000, with essentially none of that going to the direct market. So, right there, this one book has revealed another 199,000 people who will buy and read comics.
That’s just one example, and graphic novels like Maus, Persepolis, Watchmen and Blankets each illustrate a similar point. There are millions of people out there who will read comics.
The question becomes, why aren’t they reading comics more frequently?
I suspect that it has a lot to do with Wertham and the Comics Code and a whole generation of American children (and parents) being taught that comics are evil and juvenile. I won’t go into all the details. Just go out and buy David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague, if you haven’t already.
I think we in the comics community tend to lose perspective of the limited place of comics in culture. I still regularly meet people who are surprised that I write comics. They imagine that it’s all superhero hijinks. They have no idea that a work of brilliance and complexity like Eddie Campbell’s Alec is out there.
I remember the book that won my mom over — Drawn & Quarterly’s Aya. My mom spent quite a bit of her 20s in Africa, and the book related to her in a special way. “I didn’t realize there were comics like this,” she said.
And why would she? We in the comics community tend to do a horrible job of reaching out to the uninitiated. Instead, we fight over the dwindling direct market buyers. They’re the safe route, the audience we know.
If we’re to have any success building up the comics industry, it needs to come through creative methods of reaching out beyond that audience (though never ignoring it).
Digital will be part of the answer. Some initial research has shown that the digital readership differs in its tastes from the direct market audience, which means we’re getting to a few new readers. That’s still a nascent area, though, and it will never be a panacea. Web comics, though, are doing wonders in getting more people engaged with comics.
We need to push to get more graphic novels/comics into new outlets. Independent bookstores should be a great fit for comics, though many in that community are still resistant. That comes through partnerships with trade organizations and simple local outreach. There are plenty of places left out there that sell books but not comics. It’s time we gave them a hard sell.
We need to support the push for comics to be part of the cultural landscape. No, that doesn’t mean buying a ticket to see Thor. It means building up more comics-related curriculum in colleges and even high schools. It means creating graphic novel clubs and participating in events like Read Comics in Public Day.
And we need to do everything we can as creators to expand the audience with each one of our books. This comes down to marketing. Yeah, it’s great if your new comic gets mentioned on The Beat, CBR and Newsarama. But that crowd would’ve heard about the book through Previews or just seen it on a Wednesday outing anyway. With the Pinocchio books, I’ve tried to think about what non-comics people might like the books and how I could bring them to their attention. That meant spending a lot of time marketing the comics toward nontraditional outlets like horror magazines and blogs, vampire fan clubs and fairy tale fanatics.
I feel like comics have come an awful long way just in the past decade, but we still have a lot farther to go. Fighting each other isn’t going to make the industry more stable. And simply recommending books that we like — by the way, the all-color Owly book is awesome! — can only go so far. It’s going to take hard work, but it’s well worth the effort.