Honorary Reporter's Notebook: Comic-Con In The Tablet Age

by , Jul 25, 2011, 8:46 AM
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SAN DIEGO - Comic-Con hasn't become what it's become because of comic books, at least as far as the military-industrial-entertainment-media complex is concerned.  It's grown to the size it has through the promotion of movies and television, some of which use comics as their source material, some of which have tangential relationships to comics or animation, and some of which have absolutely nothing to do with comics at all.

I'm going to be sparing in my reporting on the movies and TV stuff. Other trade publications have done a decent job covering the celebrity-driven side of it, how Spielberg and Jackson appeared on stage together for Herger's "Tin Tin"; HBO's "Game of Thrones" had the most turnaways;  HBO's "True Blood" had lines before sunrise (appropriately); Teen girl angst juggernaut "Twilight" had lines before Comic-Con opened.  The biggest studios stepped back from the most dominant promotions, but mini-majors Lionsgate and Relativity quickly stepped up, etc., etc., etc.  There's no need for more reporting about the buzz and hype and excitement of the best the mainstream escapist entertainment industry has to offer.

But beneath the flash and celebrities, the actual dirty little secret of the comics industry is that the comics themselves are not doing so hot. Sales are down, have been falling consistently for the past couple years, and, after spending a good significant portion of my waking life at Comic-Con over the past four days, my conversations and interviews have convinced me that most people in the real comics business - the big publisher, the independent publishers, the distributors, and perhaps most significantly the comics shops -- are starting to freak, I think.

Can you blame them? All print material is gravitating towards tablets and other portable communications devices.  Marvel and DC both featured gleaming apps for a variety of platforms, and they are not alone. But designers of the user experience for the tablets are influencing the comics themselves. At one panel, a questioner asked a DC editor if the company was pressuring artists to confirm to certain dimensions after Marvel killed a two-page "Iron Man" splash, because it doesn't translate well to devices. Some comic fan was irate, asking about it.

People will always rant, of course, but I get where he's coming from. Still, in the end, I don't think that it's going to much matter.  The inexorable march of technological progress means the vast majority of actual comic titles themselves are probably doomed.

One of my key Comic-Con 2011 takeaways of the comics business is that that the majority of comics, actual 32-page color comic books, are now loss leaders for the trade paperback compilations that come after.  It's what most of their readers do, one panel said. It's what I do.

It was also just about the only thing that the four panelists at Saturday's 'Is the Comic Book Doomed?" all agreed upon: The money in print is in trade publications. Comics themselves are basically now considered disposable entertainment products. Read them and throw them away, "It's what I do," Vijay AIyer, an executive with Cartoon Books, which publishes Jeff Smith's popular "Bone" series. No one disagreed. 

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Disposable?  Won't that ultimately spell doom for the printed comic - it will be easier to put the stories online first and then compile them in TBP later, no? Panelist superhero writer Mark Waid, longtime DC/Marvel writer now writing "Irredeemable" for fledgling comics company BOOM! Studios, says it will. One of the big reasons, he says,  is that the cost of producing a traditional four color comic on decent paper has roughly doubled in the past five years to about $1.10. The panel's retail comic shops representative Amanda Emmert says it's 70 cents.  By print time, we'd not been able to determine for sure who is on the money; when we do we'll update.

But you've got to print a certain number of comics in order to get the business's lone distributor (that's a whole 'nother story), Diamond Comics, to deliver your material. The panel said that number is about 2,000. So you're in roughly $6K straight out of the gate for production costs. Unless you're taking a crazy fling on a one-shot, the strategy is four-to-six issues before you try a compilation. If you're not DC or Marvel, you're still talking some real money. And even then.

And that's the biggest fear, according to the panel, of the comics industry, and the great unknown.  In the big entertainment conglomerate perspective, the comic book business is but a pawn on the corporate chessboard.

If DC or Marvel's corporate parents, Warner Brothers and Walt Disney, see the margins thinning and the sale of physical comic books diminishing, at what point do they make the bottom line, Wall Street driven decision to just kill the comic books and move them online?

Already, DC has moved to streamline its offering and relaunch all of its storied titles at No. 1. But that's another story (See below).

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 The Entertainment Business of Comic Books - DC's "New 52" Go Back To No. 1

As the comic book business confronts a continuing downward sales trend amid threats of technology to the printed page, one of the two primary comic book companies, DC, is overhauling its entire line, scuttling  many decades of chronological issue numbering, killing some titles, and restarting all its iconographic characters - Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Swamp Thing --  back at issue No. 1.

Movies and TV and games and celebrity and premieres of all of these aside, it was actually this "New 52" vision and strategy - there are 52 active DC titles launching at #1 -- is the biggest actual comic book entertainment business news pimped at Comic-Con. It's also a retrenchment for the company, which openly acknowledged a drop in sales at an early presentation.

But in the  true comic geek culture, this was big buzz - was this just a cynical stab by DC to jump start sales? No. 1 issues have always been relied upon to sell more copies, and the industry knows they then drop off dramatically with the next one, and the one after that even more, until obscurity.

DC put a lot of effort into explaining what they're doing. They had at least two panels per day at Comic-Con for the "New 52," explaining the vision behind it, what parts of the DC Mythos still count and what have been discarded (there was one guy at a "New 52" Q&A session who was desperate to learn if the great Alan Moore Joker origin tale "The Killing Joke" is still part of the Batman mythos [it is]), with one sessions per day devoted to running down the titles that fall under  each hero and genre categories.

For example, Batman will have nine comic titles under his brand, the eponymous one, of course, and the one that started it all, Detective Comics. But then a bunch of other subsidiary Bat-brands, like the grown up Robin, Dick Grayson, who's now Nightwing, and then the real Robin (who I can't even recall  anymore; one died, another went evil or something, then there was another one when Dick Grayson took over as Batman when the real Batman was dead, but Batman wasn't really dead he was actually traveling through time, and that was a hassle but it all turned out okay and when he finally got back he went corporate and started some kind of Batman, Inc. thing, with Batmen all around the world, which was actually kind of intriguing, but all that doesn't matter now because it's out the window - fuck it,  we're heading back to #1.).

Among the too many Bat-titles, it's worth giving a shoutout for the GLBT-friendly Batwoman, the first lesbian major comic superheroine to have her own title. Whoop!

Superman's still straight, but as an indicator of how he's about half as popular as Batman, gets only four books. Another eponymous case, of course, but it's worth noting the other one the first ever relaunch from the original Action Comics, up until this moment the longest running of all DC titles, from the first appearance of Superman in Action #1, well past 900 issues, chugging triumphantly towards an historic one thousand issues.  Now back to #1. Fuck it.

To further mix it up, Action is going to be set five years before Superman, and the younger Supes is going to be wearing jeans. 

Other categories are The Dark and The Edge, with supernatural themes; Young Justice, with teen heroes, and something else I can't remember.

There was a line for questions, mostly cautiously optimistic but hero-centric. We asked one of the few business questions, suggested by Comics Examiner's Brian Steinberg: What's the burn rate on these titles? How many of them are still standing in a year and how do you define success?

DC Co-Publisher Dan Delio said they had a number but they weren't going to tell me. The other Co-Publisher, Jim Lee said 82.75%. If he's serious, I'm not optimistic for them. I think the move to tablets exclusively may be sooner than anybody thinks or thinks they want, especially now that the two dominant companies are both being run by huge entertainment conglomerates, Warner Brother for DC and Walt Disney for Marvel.

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Other comics stuff worth knowing from Comic-Con:

·         2011 Eisner Award Winners - The Oscars of the comic book world -- named after creator of the Graphic Novel and The Spirit, Will Eisner - were announced.  According to the Eisner Awards, the best comic book currently being published is the very darkly humorous supernatural detective title "Chew," by John Layman and Rob Guillory, story and art respectively.  It's about an FDA Agent who solves crimes through the psychic impressions he gets by eating things. Including people.

·         For true comics geeks, the real film event for Comic-Con was the world premiere of "Batman: Year One," a very faithful animated film version of Frank Miller's gritty graphic novel retelling of Bruce Wayne's first year in Gotham City. The story focuses as much on young Lt. James Gordon, and the dual (and dueling) lead protagonists set the story apart; it also lured a star-turn from Emmy winner Bryan Cranston as the tough but honest cop.

·         The film's producer Bruce Timm announcement at the panel afterward that 2012 would see a two-part adaptation of Miller's paradigm-shifting, "The Dark Knight Returns," which ignited the mainstream re-emergence of Batman in 1986.

·         Arguably the comic book's greatest-ever narrative genius and multiple Eisner winner Alan Moore ("Watchmen," "From Hell," "Miracleman," and a library's wall worth of other terrific material) released the long-delayed latest entry in his now centuries-spanning "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," series, the lone sporadic title that remains from his ambitious but lamented line of America's Best Comics, now published through fringe indie Top Shelf.

Tom Siebert is vice president-communications of Digitaria, and a frequently contributor to MediaPost.

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