Sunday, 22 June 2008

Comic Book Confidential: DC = Downward Crash?

Comic book sales are down, attempts to make movies on any character whose name doesn't rhyme with Fat-Can are either trapped in development purgatory, or emerge as overpriced, bloated, whiny, rehash-jobs on previous cinematic incarnations (you know who you are).

Now I'm the first to admit that I am an outsider when it comes to the comic book industry, but from what I've been able to glean from my research into the industry and its problems, that maybe an outsider's view might help, it certainly couldn't hurt it any worse.

But for those of you who are even farther out of the loop than me, which is basically a goatherd in Kazakhstan named Ugash who is too stingy to upgrade from dial-up, I will offer a little history. (Please remember internet fanboy trolls, this is a blog, not a definitive history, so don't go nit-picking the way you do about the colour of The Riddler's tie. ;p)

Comic books started out in the early 1930s as basically nothing more than monthly collections of newspaper comic strips. However, dealing with the big newspaper syndicates were a pain in the butt for smaller publishers, many of them with, how shall I put it, colourful backgrounds to pay for the big name strips, so they decided to start making their own material.

Most of the early comic books featured detectives, spacemen, cowboys, pulp-style vigilantes, and funny talking animals but they were soon going to meet the character that was going to ultimately define the medium in the...


SUPERMAN, created essentially by two kids, Joe Seigel and Joe Schuster, was the first classical superhero, and paved the way for others superheroes like Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and Captain America.

Comic books were a major cultural force through the 1940s and were available on every newsstand in North America, even managing to survive during the paper rationing of World War 2 because of their importance as a propaganda medium, and morale booster.

But things changed in the 1950s.

Dr. Frederick Wertham, a German-American psychiatrist, came out with a book called Seduction of the Innocent. In the book he claimed that the fact that juvenile delinquents read comics was indisputable proof that comic books cause juvenile delinquency. (Overlooking the real fact that about 99% of children at that time read comic books, but only 1% of them actually committed any crimes.) He also claimed that comic books, Batman especially, created homosexuals, and that Wonder Woman was a lesbian. (The themes of S&M and bondage in Wonder Woman comics were intentional on the part of the creator.)

After Senate hearings and threats of censorship the Comics Code Authority was created to tone down the violence, death, and eliminate just about all references to sex, drugs, alcohol, infidelity, official & political corruption, cannibalism, rebellion to adult authority, and outright banned creatures like werewolves and zombies.

Superheroes dwindled in popularity, sci-fi became the craze, so the rest of the 1950s and 1960s saw Batman stop fighting gangsters, and start fighting aliens. Overall sales began to slip, and many smaller publishers folded, leaving DC comics and what became Marvel Comics as the two biggest players. But all was not lost true believers, because we were about to enter the...


The early 1960s saw a brash young writer/editor named Stan Lee play midwife to the rebirth of the superhero with the co-creation of Spider-Man (with artist/legend Steve Ditko) and what became a new model for the superhero. These heroes weren't all dashing millionaire playboys. They had realistic problems pestering them during their times out of costume, and often difficult choices to make when in costume.

Superhero titles saw a revival with both major publishers, creating new characters, and reviving others who had previously been consigned to the dustbin of history. However, they were still constrained by the restrictive Comics Code Authority in terms of content, but for the most part kids didn't seem to care as they went into the...


The Silver Age really didn't last that long. Demands were being made to make comics more relevant to the social turbulence and rapidly changing trends of the late 60s and early 70s. New writers and artists came in who wanted the visceral thrills the old comics gave them. The most obvious example being the team of Denny O'Neill (writer) and Neal Adams (artist) and their return of Batman from the campiness of the TV show to his roots as a gothic vigilante searching dark shadows for evildoers. More depth was given to characterisations, and plots became more challenging. (I remember this especially because I was a huge O'Neill/Adams Batman fan as a kid)

A lot of the titles that emerged during the Silver Age were cancelled, as the major players contracted their line-ups to more manageable sizes.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s titles were released that didn't have the Comics Code Authority seal of approval, and they were deliberately marketed to an older and more sophisticated reader. It also marked the rise of the "star" writers and artists like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and others. Also new "indie" publishers like Dark Horse emerged as we saw the beginning of the...


This time also saw the rise of the specialty comic book shop, and the collector's market, which sort of lead to the problems plaguing the industry today. The casual comic reader was discounted, with companies aiming their product increasingly toward the collector's market.

The collector's market reached the point of dementia in the 1990s. Prices, even for new books, went way-way-up, special "event" story lines and multiple "special editions" of the same comics were created just for the collectors. The market blew a gasket in the mid to late 1990s with people's collections plunging in value, comic shops closed, and the entire market contracted on an unprecedented scale.

Now we have entered a new age, where the comic book industry is facing new opportunities, but also dealing with long standing problems.

The opportunities are movies. Superhero films have never been more popular, and lucrative, and a well received movie can greatly boost sales of the original comic book.

But that's where the problems come in:

1. CONTINUITY: Comics have become a continuity nightmare. If you aren't a major fanboy with a full slate of subscriptions since birth, and want to get back into reading comics, you have a tough road ahead. Marvel has tried to combat this by starting the Marvel Ultimate line that essentially reboots characters to their roots, but so far DC's attempts to re-organize their 70 some odd years of convoluted and often contradictory continuity went from serious attempts like Crisis on Infinite Earths, to become mere marketing stunts, that have become so numerous that even the most hardcore fanboy feels mostly apathy towards them. To win back casual fans and earn new readers, something, potentially drastic must be done. Exactly what is a matter of debate.

2. DISTRIBUTION & MARKETING: The comics industry major blunder was transitioning from a mass-market business to a niche-market business. There was a time when you could buy comics at any drugstore or convenience store. Nowadays you have two options, you can either find a comic book store (which are usually only found in bigger cities) or shop for them online, something that's a real pain in the ample buttocks for wooing back the essential casual reader.

The days of a casual reader being hooked in by seeing a clever cover on a magazine rack were discarded by publishers in the 1980s. Comic Book companies have to do something major to get their products back in non-specialty shops, and tell readers that they are still out there, and available to read. The collector's market is not going to support a company, and pandering to that market will only repeat the mistakes that almost sunk the industry in the 1990s.

Price can also play a role in this. Comic prices are pretty darn high compared to when I was a kid and was outraged at a 45 cent price tag, but new technology makes production more efficient and cheaper. With gas prices eating away at disposable income, an inexpensive form of entertainment that can take them away from their everyday trials with tales of action, adventure, and over the top heroics can succeed. Remember the entire industry was born during the Great Depression.

So I guess I should conclude by saying that if the comics industry is going to thrive, let alone survive, they need to drastically rethink their business model and try to win back the mass audience.


  1. That continuity problem plaguing American comics is the main reason why I primarily read Japanese comics. Japanese comic series usually have the cohesiveness of long-running TV shows, and they usually keep the same author(s)/artist(s) throughout their entire run. (I abhor that word "manga" when used in English.)

    As a side note, the Japanese comic industry also took off mainly after (they lost) WWII and everyone was short on money.

  2. I have to agree that one of the big things damaging American/western comics is the rise of Japanese manga (sorry readerfan!) and anime. Its simply a superior product in virtually every way. Another great thing is they are usually cohesive stories with a beginning, middle and end. When the end is reached, the manga stops and they all go on to other projects.

  3. @ dark eden

    Absolutely. Yes, a few Japanese comics run for a very long time, but as a general rule, they do end.

    Anime, however, has been running into some difficulties as of late, with ADV Films stalled and Geneon having dropped out completely.

    But getting back to comics, the trick would be not to slavishly imitate the Japanese.