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.

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.

Gerry Conway on the Superhero Comics Crisis Part 1

by Gerry Conway

So I’ve been reading rumors (and had a recent conversation with a top exec at one of the Big Two) about the potential end of Marvel and DC as publishers of original comics, and I Have Thoughts.

These thoughts are the product of fifty years experience working in and around the superhero comic book business, writing and editing for both Marvel and DC. I’m no business expert. I’m not a student of publishing. I can’t analyze a spreadsheet or write a business plan. I’m not an MBA. The closest I’ve come to owning and running a company was helping my second wife develop her small business (though I believe some of the lessons we learned about the perils of expanding a business are relevant here).

No, what I’m about to discuss isn’t the result of a deep understanding of big business, market share growth, the realities of corporate politics, or any of the realpolitik aspects of modern day publishing as understood by the people who’ve brought both companies to this moment of near collapse.

I’m just a long-time observer who’s worked in the superhero field almost since its modern inception in the 1960s.

Perspective: when I started writing comics professionally, Marvel was publishing about 12 titles a month, and DC (then National Periodical Publications) was publishing about 30. Comics cost 15 cents and offered between 20 and 25 pages of story. (I’m not going to work with exact numbers because for my purposes here exact numbers aren’t relevant; like I said, I’m no MBA, and this is based on personal observation, memory, and experience. If I get a precise number wrong, sue me, it doesn’t matter.)

Background: How the 1960s and 1970s got the business to where it is today, and how that era reveals possible ways out of the current crisis.

It was during the 1960s, a period of modest output (compared to today), that almost ALL of the roots of modern superhero comics mythology were created. Modern incarnations of The Flash, Green Lantern, Batman, Robin, Batgirl, Aquaman and Mera, Wonder Woman, the Teen Titans, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Black Panther, X-Men, Daredevil, Captain Marvel, Black Widow, Thor, Captain America, Iron Man–

The list of characters and storylines and mythology created in the 1960s (with overlap from the 50s and into the early 70s) is just flabbergasting– especially when you consider the size of the companies and the number of creators who accomplished it.

When I started writing for DC Comics in 1968, their offices consisted of half a floor in a modest office building on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. Eight editors (or maybe seven, I’m not sure) and one editorial assistant worked under one editorial director and one publisher, with a production department headed by one production manager, one assistant manager who doubled as a colorist, one proof reader, and two or three production assistants, and a receptionist. Each editor was responsible for five or six books and only one editor had enough pull to have an assistant. (Mort Weisinger, who edited the highest selling range of books, had Nelson Birdwell “helping” him with the Superman line– in fact, Nelson did all the hard editorial work while Mort snarled at people.) Four of the editors shared a single office; two others shared an office; and the two most “important” editors had an office each. That’s how I remember it– I may be off on the specifics but the general picture is accurate. This was how the company that controlled the largest market share of the comic book publishing world, possibly more than seventy percent of sales, looked in 1967-68.

Marvel Comics was an even more bare bones operation. With most of its business operations handled by Magazine Management, Martin Goodman’s main publishing operation, Marvel Comics itself in 1968 operated out of a small office on Madison Avenue barely the size of a large modern conference room. The company had one editor and one assistant editor, one production manager, one assistant production manager, a part-time art director, a couple of production assistants, and a receptionist. The receptionist had a cubicle; the production staff shared a “bullpen”; the assistant editor and production manager split an office that wasn’t really an office, more of an alcove; and the editor (Stan) had a private office not much larger than an average editor’s today. This was the company that was revolutionizing storytelling in modern comics– and while its individual titles were selling extremely well, its market share, due to an onerous distribution deal with its chief competitor, National Periodical Publications, was much less than it might have been.

That’s how the superhero comic book publishing business looked in 1967-68. Prosperous but culturally insignificant (at least, not obviously significant). A pair of modest small enterprises, family owned and operated (NPP was bought by Kinney in 1967; Goodman retained ownership of Marvel until 1968), with rigidly controlled costs and a decent, relatively predictable profit margin.

Five years later, in the early 1970s, EVERYTHING had changed. Both companies were now controlled by larger businesses, and both were under pressure to expand market share and increase profits. Simultaneously comic book readership was dropping as the baby boomer audience aged out. The superhero comic book business was in a crisis– and each company responded in hysterical counter-productive ways. Marvel, no longer hampered by its distribution deal with its competitor, worked to expand its market share with an explosion of new titles in multiple genres– without proportionately expanding its editorial support structure and production staff. DC Comics experimented with new titles and new formats, without an overall publishing strategy or company-wide creative approach, continuing its tradition of independent editorial fiefdoms….

Join us tomorrow for Part 2!

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.