The Comic Book Industry! I have paraphrased and combine two rather informative articles, one by Edward Pontee and the other by John Byrne, on some of the trials and tribulations the industry has seen.
What has gone wrong within the industry and can it be fixed? The rape and pillage, in the eyes of some, may have left the comic book industry gasping for life support. It seems that for an industry that has seen so much success, the history of comic books, has apparently been confounded by seemingly dumb mistakes.
The first could have very well been the coining of the name “comic books”. The earliest versions of the so-called half-tab (for half tabloid) reprints of the Sunday funnies, you know as the comics, became known as “comic books”. This led to the thinking in general, that comic books contained comic or funny material, which we all know, is a far stretch from reality. Comic books can be very somber, dark or adventurous magazines. It has often been suggested that there should be another term coined to better describe this literary package we all know as comic books. To date, no other user-friend term has been suggested for use in the comic book industry.
A second misdirection came when magazine prices started to rise. Instead of increasing comic book prices, like other successful magazines did, the comic book industry decided to cut pages to keep the then current price tag of 10 cents. This brought on the impression that comic books were “cheap” by definition, and neglected the fact that a dime was a lot of money at one time (steak & eggs cost 35 cents). This presented the image that comic books were just for kids. It also made the product increasingly less viable for retail merchants to stock. Why take up the same shelf space, when a higher priced magazine would do more nicely. Again the perceived value of the comic book was loosing credibility.
Then as the 1950s rolled around, an individual by the name of Dr. Frederick Wertham, published a book entitled “Seduction of the Innocents”. Through the use of unscientific research and assumptions, he stated that all the nation’s ills were directly related to kids reading comic books (ah hmm, what?). Central to his thesis, was the misassumption that comic books were strictly for kids. The more adult material, it was irrationally assumed, was aimed at our sweet, naïve innocent children.
With this wildly irrational attack on the comic book industry and many congressional leaders jumping on the bandwagon, comic books were gaining a bad reputation. The comic book industry publishers at this point, could have banded together and declared that comics books, like movies, were not “just for kids”. It should have been stated that the wide range of comic book genres represented was target to as wide a range of readers. All but one of the publishers (William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics) buckled under to this Congressional Investigation and the Comic Code Authority was created. This governed the content of comic books and ensured that for the next 15 years or so, the literary content would not rise much above that of pablum for the mind. Therefore another slide into incredibility for the comic book industry took place.
Now, as luck would have it, the mid-50s through early 60s brought back a rebirth of the superheroes. This in itself was not bad, especially since I like superheroes. But as the publishers wanted to cash in on this rebirth, all other genres within the comic book industry started to fade. The romance comics, the westerns, the hard-boiled detectives, the war comics and science fiction comics all started to pass by the wayside.
This also led to another literary problem that in affect cast the superhero as the bad guy. More specifically, the superhero was driven by the market forces, which became to exist in the US comic book industry. Suppliers and consumers alike developed an obsessive preoccupation with superheroes, which ultimately became a detriment to the medium as a whole. By catering too much to the limited market of superhero lovers, a much broader audience became neglected. One analogy that has been presented is that superheroes are like really good desert. We all like desert, but who can eat it all the time?
Another concern with this market saturation was the aesthetic merits under the weight of the superhero longevity itself. Not necessarily the fault of the genre, but of the market upholding its lone cash cow, the very nature of storytelling within the superhero arena, was affected.
We all have learned from the time we were young, the fundamental elements of storytelling. There is the beginning, a middle and an end. The telling of superheroes defies these fundamentals. There is a beginning, a continuous middle and NO end. The most obvious (and arguably most drama killing) convention is that a leading superhero character can not die, at least, not for long.
Where is the sense of suspense in knowing the peril of the superhero against the super villain, will not last for long. Knowing that to sustain the market popularity, the hero must return issue after issue. While thrilling, it becomes and unconscious exercise in waiting to see how our hero survives. This does not command the drama of a character whose outcome you are uncertain of for any given issue. This leaves no ending to an otherwise great story line, and thus a paradox. How could our superhero character continue, as we would have him or her, if they were truly to die?
Cognitive psychology has demonstrated that memory retention is stronger with beginnings and endings. We wonder then, how can a story be memorable if there is no ending? It can be theorized then, that to keep comic books good, and this includes super heroes, they have to ultimately come to an end. It has been quoted before that all good things must come to an end. Would this help to keep the comic book industry on a more successful track? This can now only be to the speculation of each of us as individuals. Think about what your opinion is.
One of the easiest mistakes to spot that the comic book industry made, but the hardest to avoid, was the creation of the Direct Sales Market. This was intended so dealers could purchase direct from the publishers, for a lower cost and in bulk. This in turn would allow the dealers to make their own profits. Not a bad idea. Isn’t this how wholesale/retail transactions operate? Apparently though, this became the only method of distribution and eliminated mass venues and comic books were only sold through small isolated venues. What do you think would happen if Time, for instance, took itself off the newsstands and sold only through these small outlets?
Imagine, although pure profits for the publishers, turning a mass publication into a niche market publication. Who would deliberately do this? Who would be that crazy? Well, apparently the comic book industry that over 70 odd years had managed to always make the wrong decision, by looking at the shortest-term results and throwing every egg into that basket.
And if all this is not enough, the final mistake made by the industry was to shift from Product to Personality. This entailed the move toward selling who was doing the book instead of what the book was all about. Although a few bright lights in the comic book writing field shined for a while and some over the short term prospered, can an industry in general, continue to be successful? If none but the most well know and successful writers can prosper, what would become of the bulk of the comic book genre, if this attitude persists. Many otherwise excellent magazines may go down the proverbially flaming tubes. Do keep this in mind.
Can the comic book industry be saved? Very possibly, but when the individuals in charge of the saving are as eager as ever to make the same mistakes all over again, what will the outcome be? They don’t even appear to be cleaver enough to make new mistakes.
Although, I have paraphrased the two authors’ articles and added my own words, I believe it is appropriate to say a little about them.
Edward Pontee is the editor of all comic book related activities at about.com. His writing about the comic book industry can be found here.
John Byrne is one of the industry’s most noted creators. His work spans almost 3 decades and includes classic runs on X-MEN, CAPTAIN AMERICA, AVENGERS, WEST COAST AVENGERS, SUPERMAN, THE SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK and FANTASTIC FOUR. John’s official website is at ByrneRobotics.com.