Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Optimism and pessimism at the Byrne Board 

There was a big thread on the Byrne board over the weekend, dealing with the future of the comics industry and the comics medium. Here are a couple of my contributions, addressing why I'm optimistic.

"There's a lot of doom and gloom, and for the life of me, I don't see why. I don't think there's ever been a better time to read comics. An enormous amount of the best work of previous decades is available in affordable reprints or archival editions that you can borrow from a library. There's a flood of fine work from other countries available in English. Cartoonists who want to undertake a big, ambitious project know that there's a market for such things. As a result, we're getting more good long-form comics for adults, and we aren't losing the readers who want something besides escapism and fun. And the cartoonists who want to do such things are sticking with the medium and getting better.

Thanks to manga, there are more women and girls buying comics than there have been in many, many years, and these women are already producing their own comics by the truckload. We're going to find out soon how receptive the manga market is to domestic comics. Everything I've heard says that they love Wendy Pini's work when they see it, so there's every reason to believe that when they're exposed to other comics that offer that sort of intense immersion in an artist's imagined world, they'll be similarly drawn in.

For example, this spring, Scholastic released the first of nine Bone reprint volumes in color. This has already sold over 100,000 copies. That's for ten year old material that's been available continuously for a decade in a wide variety of formats. They've got an entire line of all-new, all-ages graphic novels on the way.
They also published the eight volumes of Dav Pilkey's "Captain Underpants" books, (which are comics sold as children's books.) These have, as of 2003, sold over 25 million copies. That's 8 books at 3 million copies each, and there's every reason to believe they can sell every one of those readers a bunch of graphic novels.

Comics have made the big move into libraries over the last decade, and thanks to high circulation numbers, they're getting more popular with librarians every year. There are 16 thousand public libraries in the US and 93 thousand school libraries. This is an enormous market for all comics, but particularly those for children, and (for those of you worried about rising cover prices) it knocks the price of entry down to zero.

Yes, superhero circulation is down and it's harder to make a living working in some genres than it was in 1965. But there is a ton of good news out there, and cartoonists overall have more and better options now than they ever did before."


"I guess it depends on how broadly or narrowly we define "comics industry." I think that if Tokyopop, Viz, Pantheon, First Second, Lerner, Andrews Mcmeel, Vertical and Scholastic are publishing comics, they're part of my industry. If the discussion is only about North American direct market stores serviced by Diamond, there's gonna something to be worried about. That system serves one particular market very well, and a few others indifferently. I'm optimistic because I think there's a lot more to comics than that one particular market. And thanks to the emergence of the library and bookstore markets, comics are going to be even more accesible now, to both kids and adults, than they were when we were growing up.

Just to add perspective, when I was a kid, there were two newsstands nearby selling comics, a library, and one bookstore that carried a couple of strip reprints and maybe "Origins of Marvel Comics." The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh had fewer than 3 dozen comics-related books. I read them all, repeatedly. I just checked their on-line catalog and there are now over 3 thousand different titles in the system. They have programs about graphic novels, and displays of recommended ones. The bookstore across from the library now has a graphic novel section with several hundred titles. One of the two newstands is still there, and it still has the same comics rack. The music and video game stores carry Shonen Jump magazine and some Tokyopop titles. And of course, an adult can buy any comic he or she wants over the internet. These things to me describe a huge net gain in accessability.

Note that this isn't some hip, happening west coast enclave I'm describing. It's a neighborhood in rust-belt Pittsburgh. If you can, do a little survey of how many places someone in your old neighborhood could get comics to read back when you were growing up, versus how many places they can get them now.

Here's what I see: while the numbers in one part of the industry have contracted, the readership in other parts is exploding, and unlike the way it used to be, there's no reason to expect that we'll lose most of our new readers every few years. I can honestly say that the business looks better to me now than it did when I was a inexperienced 20 year old entering the Kubert School."

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