Yesterday was Free Comic Book Day, an annual event that happens on the first Saturday in May. Supposedly, it’s a means of introducing new readers to the comics scene by providing comics, free-of-charge, to anyone who wants to walk into a comic book shop. I suppose in theory, it’s a good idea and some places have a lot of success with it.
I’m just not impressed. Neither are any of the local comic shops. In fact, I think the few comic shops that remain in my local area have given up on it entirely, they had no displays, no free comics and no hoopla during FCBD at all. We just happened to have stopped by on FCBD and the shop wasn’t any busier than it usually is. There were a few people looking around, one mother with two kids buying Spongebob comics, but otherwise, it was a complete non-event.
I think the majority of the problem here is that the entire cost of FCBD is borne by the shops themselves, which are operating on a tight enough margin as it is. FCBD was originally come up with back in 2002 as a means for Diamond Distributors, the largest comic book distributor in the world, to sell more comics. Most of the major, and some of the minor, producers do make a FCBD comic available, but these are not free to the stores, they have to be purchased and then distributed free of charge on that day. That’s often a big investment with very little demonstrable return. Like it or not, the comic market in the U.S. has failed, fewer and fewer people are reading comics than ever before. Where the top titles sold close to a million copies a month 40 years ago, today they’re lucky to sell 80,000. The prices have gone up, the page counts have gone down, and as far as I’m concerned, so has the quality. As much as some people talk about how great the stories are, every time I’ve gone back to comics, hoping to find something… anything to read, I’ve been horribly disappointed. I can read comics from the 80s and still enjoy them. Today? Hell no.
I will be honest, I just don’t read comics anymore. My wife picks up a couple, my kids read 1-2 each, but I just can’t get into them. Back when DC introduced their New 52 reboot, I gave them a shot again, I grabbed a big handful of comics from both DC and Marvel, hoping to find something to enjoy. I came up entirely empty.
The specific problem with FCBD is that the comics are just short samplers and with the exception of the biggest companies, are usually attempts by publishers to garner a few more readers for their failing lines. Look at what was offered this year. Of the “big two”, DC offered a sampler and Marvel, predictably, an Avengers comic. Okay, I suppose that’s not horrible, although, while Avengers clearly is meant to tie-in to the movie release, Avengers isn’t the biggest or most popular comic that Marvel produces. The rest, though, really seem pretty pointless. I don’t care about Simpsons, although they’re Bongo’s only claim to fame. In fact, I really didn’t see a thing in the list that I’d read at all, or that got me excited to go to a comic shop to get it, free or not.
Now granted, I’m looking at it from the perspective of a 46-year old man, but one who grew up reading comics, who actively collected comics, on and off, from about 1972-2006. I still have thousands of comics in long boxes, massive runs of X-Men and Avengers and Spider-Man, mainstream and independent comics, things that are probably worth a lot and lots that are worth less than the paper they’re printed on. I’ve written in the past why I think the American comic market has failed and while I don’t want to go into tons of depth, I think there are massive problems that simply spell the slow, agonizing death of the American comic book industry unless the industry is willing to implement massive and immediate changes.
There are some things that are fundamentally problematic about the current American comic book system. First off, you have characters that stick around forever. They never change significantly, or if they are ever allowed to change, they get reset relatively quickly because you can never have a character that isn’t instantly identifiable to the non-comic audience, they might not run out to see the latest big budget blockbuster. The characters stagnate and the stories get predictable. Character A runs into a difficult situation, they dig deep, come up with the strength to overcome their obstacle and come out stronger and better than before. Lather, rinse and repeat next month. Continue until the character is just too strong and hit the big reset button to reduce them back to the beginning. Do it all over again. They’ve been doing this for decades because they cannot imagine not producing a comic book with these characters. They might not be able to sell it to the movies! So they crank out these million-times-told tales over and over and over again.
American comic book producers need to be introduced to the concept of a limited run. Tell a story and be done with it. Sure, you can have a limited stable of reappearing characters, but most comics ought to run a few issues, or a few dozen issues, and then go away. Wasn’t that a great story about Ricky the Squirrel Boy? Hey, what’s next? If someone comes up with a new story for Ricky, put that out. The need of the current industry to put out hundreds and hundreds of issues in any particular comic line is problematic.
The problem is, the comics industry gets easily distracted. Instead of making fundamental changes, they take any lifeline as an excuse not to really do anything different. Currently, that lifeline is movies. Over the past decade or so, comic book movies have become all the rage and have been the single element keeping the industry afloat. They don’t have to make a better product, all they have to do is keep licensing the characters to movie studios and reaping the fees. With their companies not being on the verge of imminent bankruptcy for the moment, they keep on making the same mistakes. There’s no impetus for rethinking their failed business strategies. Some day though, probably some day soon, the movies will go out of vogue and they’re going to be back in the hot seat with no plan on how to stay solvent.
But that’s another issue. While these movies do make tons of money, the comic producers are making almost no effort whatsoever to capitalize on them. These are big-screen billboards for their comics, yet they do absolutely nothing to get the mainstream audience watching the films into the comic shops to buy the comics. Surely there are people who want to read the further adventures of the Avengers after seeing the film this weekend, right? So how are they supposed to know that these adventures exist, much less where to find them? Even if they could find them, would they know what the hell was going on in a comic that’s been running for decades? What would make them want to keep buying month after month? If Marvel could capture even 1% of the movie-going audience for this weekend and convert them into comic book readers, their financial troubles would be over. My solution to this has always been simple, it just takes effort. For those theaters showing Avengers, produce a trade-paperback sized special edition comic that goes into the background of the Avengers, gives an overview of important events in the comic and provides a bridge between what they just saw on screen and what’s currently going on in the comic stories. Then put the Comic Locator website and phone number all over the thing so people know where to go get the comics! Have these things available for sale in the theaters and in comic shops during the month of the movie’s release.
There’s actually so much more to this, I’m going to have to do a separate post on all of the changes that ought to be made to save the industry. Otherwise, this is going to become a book in it’s own right. Look for a followup soon.
The comic book market was once fun. It once had lots of great art and amazing stories. It just doesn’t anymore, at least as far as I’m concerned.