The Indiana Gazette published another of the Captain Comics columns where Andrew Smith talks in a sugarcoated tone, this related to how things are going now for the medium when COVID-19 has wrecked havoc:
So yikes! But worse, if Diamond wasn’t ready for this, imagine how the shutdown is impacting your local mom & pop comic book shop. Many comic stores run on very narrow profit margins. Many are in debt already. And with digital comics waiting in the wings to replace its print counterpart (as has happened in virtually every other print industry), could enough shops close to bring an end to the era of print comic books?
My answer, after a great deal of thought, and after consultation with my closest advisors, is … reply hazy, try again. In fact, let me go out on a limb and say … ask again later.
OK, you’ve caught me. I’m using a Magic 8-Ball. Because, honestly, no one can say for sure one way or the other. Circumstances are truly dire. But then again, they have been before.
Back in the late 1940s and early ’50s, comic books were selling like … well, things that sell really well. According to comics historian David Hadju’s “Ten-Cent Plague,” 80-100 million comics sold every month in 1948 America.
And among the best-sellers, nestled amid the jungle heroes and spacemen and teen humor books, were comics featuring gory horror stories and bloody “true” crime stories. Which caused a ruckus.
The dreaded triple-P — parents, preachers and prosecutors — found a scapegoat for every societal ill in the pages of “Tales from the Crypt” and “Crime Does Not Pay.” Magazine articles were written excoriating comics, speeches were made condemning the funnybook menace, comics were burned in church parking lot bonfires. A noted New York psychiatrist (another P!) wrote a book titled “Seduction of the Innocent,” which made the case that all juvenile delinquency was caused by comic books. Comic book publishers were even pulled before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to explain their iniquity.
Terrified, the publishers banded together to self-censor. The result was the Comics Code of 1954, a puritanical document so draconian that it instantly reduced all comic books to a level so boring that even children thought they were beneath their intelligence.
Oh, please, I wouldn’t go that far to suggest comics at that time had been so drastically reduced in entertainment value. But how ironic he should say it about the past, because superhero comics in the present have been brought down very badly to the point where they’re written in such hypocritical terms regarding sex as opposed to violence, or they were flooded with rampant leftist politics, as seen particularly in Marvel’s books under Axel Alonso (even before that, 2006’s Civil War under Joe Quesada was an earlier example, written as a metaphor for the Patriot Act). Artwork saw a horrible drop in quality too.
That there may have been some improvement in what artists draw for the covers lately does not necessarily extend to the interiors in all instances. The problem is that the stories inside are on such a boring level, you couldn’t expect the aforementioned youngsters to care. None of these recent present matters are likely to be brought up by a hypocrite who can only complain about the past, of course. And continues with this:
Which was bad enough. But there was another supervillain on the horizon: that newfangled contraption called the television.
Bedeviled from without and within, publishers dropped like flies. Artists and writers fled to other fields. Sales dropped off a cliff. And up arose Chicken Little with his first prediction that the sky was falling on comic books.
But the publishers, after a few years trying to write interesting stories where nothing bad was allowed to happen, came up with some ingenious workarounds. In the late 1950s, DC Comics re-created their 1940s superheroes in sleek, new, science fiction drag. And in the early 1960s, Marvel Comics — which wasn’t called that yet — also landed on the superhero genre, but focused on characterization and human interest. Both approaches, buoyed by some truly impressive talent, saved the industry.
For 20 years. Then Zombie Chicken Little arrived again. And this time, comics were doomed for sure!
If that’s supposed to imply we’re all becoming doomsayers, as it so happens, no intelligent person truly thinks the industry is destined for wholesale extinction. It will always survive in one form or another. The question is how long will specific formats and publishers be able to? And how long will specialty stores in their current form last? There may be less than 2000 by now, and that’s not a good sign.
Smith likely doesn’t realize, but he’s just described part of the Mary Sue situation today, where you have poorly written characters where little or nothing bad happens, or they lack any significant flaws and weaknesses, nor do they have particularly interesting personalities, if at all. And he calls the mid-50s boring? Even television didn’t steal away audience in that much of a hurry, though if it did, you have to wonder why he sees no problem with all the live action adaptations turning up today, and particularly why he has no qualms with the overt politics turning up in the Supergirl TV show.
And funny he should be telling us comics as we know them in the 50s were reduced to boredom when here, just 2 years after that Wertham atrocity, superhero comics saw a most colorful comeback with the Flash leading the pack after 5 years where superhero stories were few, and sci-fi thrillers mostly filled the void. We must really be missing something here, and maybe he did too in the following:
In the late 1970s, the traditional method of distributing comic books was drying up. Comics were stocked in drug stores, grocery stores and five-and-dimes the same way magazines were: The distributor would show up once a week, put the new periodicals out, and take the unsold ones away — which were sent back to the publisher for a refund.
It’s a terribly inefficient way to deliver a product, with returns often amounting to half a periodical’s print run. That’s a lot of wasted effort shipping the books back and forth. Not to mention the waste in unsold paper.
Worse than that, though, was that comic books were becoming unprofitable for the distributor. Back when comics began, they and magazines sold for the same price — 10 cents. But as the years flew by, inflation forced magazines to up their price … while comic books, fearing they would lose the kiddie market, kept the price down and cut pages instead. By the late 1970s, comics were down to a flimsy 20 pages that sold for pocket change, while magazines were bigger and shinier and cost more.
And, unfortunately, made a much bigger profit margin for the distributors. Who started leaving comics on the docks, undistributed. Why work hard to realize a few cents per comic book, when for the same effort you’d make 10 times the profit on a magazine?
I think he just gave a clue, why grocery stores and typical book shops stopped selling monthly pamphlets – the publishers didn’t really want them returned, as is the case today, where you have specialty stores whose bargain bins are plenty full with awful stuff like Captain America as a Hydra-Nazi. Which was definitely a waste of paper. Or hadn’t he noticed? Oh, now that I recall, he did but chose to look the other way 4 years prior.
Also, some comics of the late 70s were down to more like 17-18 pages at most. Which isn’t saying they didn’t have good stories to offer. They most certainly did. But it’s regrettable the page reduction had to occur, and it’s happened again more recently, recalling when both DC/Marvel started cutting pages down to 20, after many years where they’d been boosted back to 22, and in some cases during the 80s, 24-30, since Marvel Fanfare certainly had as many pages as those, even if there were 2 stories combined in one inside many of the issues. (And in the case of Marvel Comics Presents, it could amount to 48 pages comprising at least 4 short-stories, with the coolest part being no ads, any more than Fanfare had.)
If distributors really did abandon their deliveries, however, that constitutes a violation of business agreements, and they could be sued for leading to loss of income and other damages. If the distributors wanted to cancel their arrangements, that’s the legal way to get out of what they must’ve considered a bad business deal. Still, if comics really were becoming considered unprofitable by that time, one can only wonder why nobody lobbied for altering the formats into something more profitable like what I’ve insisted upon? They have only themselves to blame then, and shouldn’t blame the typical magazine for going a more profitable route.
Comic book sales fell off another cliff. And Chicken Little, dead for 20 years, arose from the grave. Comics were doomed! Again!
Until a retailer named Phil Seuling came up with the idea of the “direct market.” In this scheme, publishers could ditch the inefficient magazine distribution method and sell comic books directly to retailers. Not only would they cut out the middleman, but it meant the end of returns — retailers would agree to keep all the books they ordered, and the publishers would agree to a lower wholesale price.
And lo, the comic book store was born. Once again, ingenuity came to the rescue.
Nuh-uh. It’s unfair to the stores if they have to saddle so much unsold material. In fact, it only underscores the dishonesty of the publishers. They seem to care so little about story merit and more about profiteering that they’d dump so much trash onto specialty stores at their expense, and not make any effort to improve recognition and build audience better than they have in the past decades. I guess that’s what micromanagement is all about.
For another 20 years, that is. What went wrong in the late ’90s was a host of problems that all came to roost at the same time, a perfect storm that drove mighty Marvel Comics into bankruptcy in 1996. If you ever wondered why Universal owns distribution rights to the Hulk, and Sony has its clutches on Spider-Man, this is the reason. A drowning Marvel sold off its movie/TV assets to stay afloat. Meanwhile, Marvel was pulling down the whole industry.
But Smith won’t admit they still are. By pandering to social justice ideologies, while dismal art samples are still present, and even DC’s screwed up royally under the recently dismissed Dan DiDio. But there is a point to be made, even if Smith won’t make it clearly himself, that, for all their onetime cleverness in storytelling, Marvel would end up becoming a bad influence in more ways than one, as mismanagement after the end of the 80s would lead to a wounded industry where everyone seemed to absurdly emulate Marvel’s directions no matter how bad they could be. If publishers don’t have faith in their ability to sell their products on their own terms, and can only follow Marvel’s examples without even trying to build a new audience of their own, that only contributes to the downfall.
And now both major comics companies are nestled safely in the protective bosom of huge corporations — Marvel at Disney, DC at WarnerMedia — who transform the publishers’ IP into big bucks. The future seemed assured …
… until the pandemic. And you-know-who is now stalking the land, predicting doom.
Once again, the comic industry is in existential crisis. Once again, the bad guys have the upper hand. Once again, our four-color heroes face certain doom.
So, you know, business as usual.
Oh, you think so? Well I’m afraid it’s not so simple to assume all is going to get better for say, specialty stores if the floppies won’t be jettisoned as the common format. There do seem to be calls for some kind of positive change to marketing, but this article sure doesn’t make the case. It just fluff-coats and reduces everything to treacle of the most icky kind, without providing anything to think about. And that, I’m sorry to say, is apologia for those on the inside who aren’t making things better for the outside.
Originally published here.