Gerry Conway on the Superhero Comics Crisis Part 2

NOTE FROM LB: This is Part 2 of a 3 part series. You can find the first part HERE.

And now, on with the show:

by Gerry Conway

For most of the 1970s, in other words, both companies, Marvel and DC, faced creative and economic chaos. That chaos produced memorable and influential work– Kirby’s Fourth World was born, I killed Gwen Stacy, the X-Men were reborn under Chris Claremont, Jim Starlin created Thanos and killed the original Captain Marvel, Batman began getting dark– but the companies themselves were flailing. Management at both Marvel and DC were clueless how to proceed. (As someone who held editorial positions at both companies in the 1970s I can attest top executives at DC and Marvel were way out of their depth.)

No one working in comics in the early to mid 1970s had any realistic expectation the business would even exist by the end of the decade– news stand sales were that bad and getting worse every year. Cost cutting was rampant. Marvel reduced page count to 18 pages (and tried to hide it by paying writers and artists for 1 page that was printed as a “double page spread”). DC maintained a higher page count while adding reprint pages in order to increase the price. Short term fixes for a devastating long term crisis.

Two events saved superhero comics from disappearing in the late 1970s, and each produced effects that fundamentally altered the economics and creative direction of the business up to the present day.

The first event was the creation of the Direct Sale Market by entrepreneur Phil Seuling in 1973. There are many articles available describing how the direct market expanded through the 70s and 80s, so I won’t repeat the details here, but in a nutshell, the direct market offered comic book publishers a way to guarantee the profit on individual titles compared to newstand sales. Comics sold through newstand distribution were returnable; sales to the direct market were not. Returnability meant most of a title’s print run was wasted. (Typically in that era a publisher would print, say, 200,000 copies of a title to sell 70,000.) In addition, the direct market offered predictability– eventually publishers would learn in advance how well a title might do because of pre-orders. These positives, of course, have a downside, but we’ll get to that later. By the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the direct market for comics was viewed by almost everyone in the business as a god send that saved a dying business.

The second event that saved superhero comics was the arrival in 1978 of the first mainstream superhero blockbuster movie– Superman. That movie and its sequels, followed by Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, fueled the growth of “serious” superhero mythology in mainstream pop culture (as opposed to the kid-friendly Superman series of the 1950s and the camp comedy of 1966’s Batman TV show). Those movies (and other baby boomer inspired genre entries into mainstream culture like Star Wars and Indiana Jones) began the gradual colonization of pop culture by superhero mythology which exploded into fruition in the 2000s. In the 1970s, however, the main effect Superman the Movie (and later, the Batman film) had on comics was to temporarily increase sales and thus allow both companies to avoid dealing with longer-term creative and economic questions about the fundamental viability of the industry’s business model.

The combination of both events, the development of the direct market and the arrival of the blockbuster superhero film, saved the comic book business as such in the 1970s– but at the same time created and reinforced conflicting tendencies that today have produced a potentially fatal contradiction in how super hero comic book publishers approach their business.

On the one hand, the growth of the direct sale market into the de facto sole distribution point for superhero comics (the recent Walmart experiment and the digital comic market notwithstanding) has resulted in an incestuous and shrinking niche market for the sale of physical comic books. As recent reporting makes clear, this is unsustainable as a business model. Both Marvel and DC have resorted to increasingly desperate and counterproductive marketing ploys to maintain market share and profitability in a decreasing pool of readers– a ridiculous explosion of variant covers, “special” events, crossovers, mini-series, extortionately-priced first issues, reboots and rebirths and renumberings, spin-offs and multiple versions of the same superhero teams, more events, more crossovers, more tie-ins. What all of these efforts have in common (despite some high-quality creative work on individual titles) is a complete absense of long-term strategic thinking in either the creative or business sense. What’s the plan here? How is any of this short term market share maneuvering going to build and sustain a stable long-term readership? And, in particular, how does it fit with the other, even more significant development in the superhero comic book business– the ascendency of superhero mythology in pop culture?

That second fact– the mainstreaming of superhero mythology, begun by the Superman movie in 1978– is the most significant development in the modern history of the comic book medium, and NEITHER company has developed an effective strategy to address it in their creative approach or their business model. The primary reason they haven’t, I believe, is rooted in the first of the two events that saved comics in the 1970s, and is at the core of the contradiction that’s crippling the superhero comic book business today– the direct market and its lock on the distribution of comic books.

On the one hand, you have superhero mythology in mainstream media– a mass market appealing to millions upon millions of consumers world wide, a potential audience beyond anything imagined by comic book creators half a century ago in our most weed-enhanced fantasies. And on the other hand, you have superhero publishing in the direct market– a shrinking niche market numbering in at most a hundred thousand, dominated by a core readership of a few thousand, whose financial support is strained to the breaking point and beyond by ruthless and extortionate marketing of low-value-added gimmick publications that thwart long term emotional investment.

In a rational universe, both companies would be examining their core business strategy to stake a claim in the mainstream market– a claim they have a moral, creative and financial imperative to demand as the originators of the mythology being celebrated. If ever there was a moment for the Big Two comic book publishers to think outside the traditional box, this is it. Instead, they are consumed with chasing the diminishing returns of the direct market– creating properties to exploit a readership exhausted by the financial and emotional demands of predatory publishing techniques designed to milk as much profit from a shrinking audience as possible. This isn’t only cynical, it’s stupid and counterproductive– not to mention ultimately an expression of creative bankruptcy.

So, having analyzed the problem from my own admittedly limited viewpoint– a viewpoint privileged, somewhat, by fifty years of experience– do I have any solutions to propose?

Yes, I do….

Join us tomorrow for Part 3!

Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.