Gerry Conway on the Superhero Comics Crisis Part 3

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

And now, the much-awaited finale:

by Gerry Conway

The superhero comic book business is in a death spiral, and everyone in the business seems to know it. A crisis as serious as this cannot be addressed by fixes at the margins. We need a fundamental break with the business practices that have brought the companies to this point. A radical solution to a radical crisis.

Both Marvel and DC need to redefine themselves as creative entities. What is their CORE purpose? What is their CORE contribution to the larger enterprise of creating superhero mythology for mainstream media?

Is their core purpose publishing paper pamphlets for sale to a small readership of tens of thousands? Or is their core contribution creating stories and characters in comic book format that can be transformed into other forms of media?

If it’s the first, their business is a dead end, and nothing they do will extend its existence past the next few years. The direct sale market is dying. There’s no time to develop other methods of distribution to profitably replace it. The publishers have tried expanding into bookstores, which, like the comic book stores, are dying. They’ve tried expanding into big box stores like Walmart, but that experiment seems to have failed. They’ve sought sales in digital format, but judging by reports of my own sales in that medium, it’s not a panacea– yet. Traditional comic book publishing for profit by the Big Two seems hopeless, by all the available evidence, at least as presently constituted. Maybe, if both companies scaled back overhead and production to 1967 levels– Marvel producing 12 books a month with a small office and a skeleton staff, DC producing 30 with a slightly larger editorial footprint– they might survive as pure publishing entities.

But survival shouldn’t be a goal.

Instead, I suggest both Marvel and DC dramatically redefine themselves as creators of comic book content first– and profitable publishers second, if at all.

One advantage both companies have as corporate subsidiaries that they never had as independent family businesses is something they need to embrace and promote to their corporate masters as a positive principle– neither company needs to turn a profit, at least not in the short term, and not as publishers. Instead they should redefine themselves primarily, in the modern lexicon, as IP creators. Intellectual Property is one of the most important drivers of modern corporate media success– if not the most crucial component. Comic book publishers are easily the most cost effective creators of IP in modern media. For a media corporation to require profitability of an IP generator like a comic book publisher, when even the highest levels of publishing profitability pale beside the far greater value of the IP itself, isn’t just short-sighted, it’s counterproductive and self defeating.

Marvel and DC should see themselves primarily, if not solely, as IP generators, and sell themselves to Disney and Warnermedia as such. Publishing should be the tail of the dog; the dog is creation.

If the companies do follow this path, they’ll also need to radically rethink their approach to publishing– ironically, with potential benefit both to themselves as profitable enterprises and to their customers in the direct market.

For example, if your goal as a company is no longer to increase or maintain market share in the direct market, but instead to generate exciting and long-term potential IP, you don’t need predatory publishing practices like variant covers, or twice-yearly “events,” or extortionate pricing, or required pre-orders. You could even begin to accept returns, lightening the financial pressures on dealers and encouraging them to risk new series. You could reduce the number of unnecessary spin-offs and reboots. You could devote energy to nurturing creatives and long-term storylines.

At one point in the mid 1970s I had a dust up with Marvel’s production chief, the late John Verpoorten. I was complaining that a revision to the production schedule would negatively affect the aesthetic quality of a book I was writing and how could he justify that (I was young, naive and arrogant). John looked at me and growled, “From an aesthetic point of view we can maybe justify ten of these books.” I was gobsmacked and obviously never forgot his point.

Redefining their core mission as IP generators would allow both Marvel and DC to address John’s point positively: is there an aesthetic reason to publish this story? Does it say something new and valuable about our characters, or is it just an effort to increase market share? Does it add to the mythology, or diminish it? Is it good?

Publishing sales success has rarely been a reliable predictor of a superhero story’s viability in other media. Venom is a popular comic book character with mixed success in sales– but a worldwide hit as a movie antihero. The JLA Detroit era heroes ended ignominiously in a market driven by direct sales, but individually have provided useful source material for CW TV shows. The Green Arrow was never a sales leader in comics. Before the Batman movies, Batman was a mid-level but important DC comic. Deadpool was a popular second string character but again never a sales leader before Ryan Reynolds put on the mask.

There’s a way forward for both the superhero publishers and the direct market– but not if the publishers continue to define themselves first as publishers. That day is past. The publishers will have to be bold if they’re going to thrive in the post-direct market world. The first step is for them to decide what they do best. In my view, what they do best is create comic book stories. Those stories transcend the traditional sales platform that produced them. It’s time for the bird to leave its nest.

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.