Big Industry Thoughts, Most Desired Art, and Comic Innovation: It’s the November 2022 Mailbag Q&A!

I asked for a fun mix of questions to answer in the November 2022 Mailbag Q&A. You all delivered, and then some. Let’s dive into this laundry list of fun, thoughtful queries, with the whole thing led by some big industry thoughts.

I know being speculative is ultimately pointless, but nonetheless: based on your myriad conversations with creators and insiders, where do you think the industry is going? Are we going to see more people go the Brubaker/Phillips route? Are subscription services becoming the go-to for most readers? Will WebToon/Tapas keep raking it in? Is the long prophesied death of single issues imminent?!!! – Jenner Lathrop

This is an incredibly difficult question to answer, and for obvious reasons. I’m going to write a little bit about parts of this later, so I’m not going to go deep. Here’s what I will say, though: I think the direct market, but also the broader market to some degree, is going to have to take a hard look at itself in the next year, year and a half and make some serious changes to maintain or improve on its current state. I haven’t seen anyone really talk about it publicly quite yet outside of social media, at least in part because I don’t think everyone knows what it means precisely, but things are tough right now. Part of that is the economic environment, as several have pointed out to me. My take is it’s only a small portion of it. 20 to 30%, tops. The bigger issue is that most publisher actions are designed around maximizing revenue today, all with a bit of an insouciant, devil may care attitude behind it all. That’s not exactly helping matters.

I’ve been talking to people in comics about this, and one person alluded to a need to rethink how the direct market is doing things. What that means is for them to reveal, but they know they need to adjust to continue to succeed at current levels. Part of that necessity originates from changes in the market. From what I understand, the speculator side is toast and collectors are burning out. Given the increasing reliance on those as necessities rather than added value, belts could get pretty tight fast if that’s true. That said, I wouldn’t say single issues are dying. There’s a reason we’re seeing a shift towards graphic novels and crowdfunding already. They are surer bets in a time of increasing uncertainty. But dying is an extreme word. If it’s a death, it’s certainly a slow one, one we’ve been talking about for forever now.

So my not entirely useful answer to this question – especially considering yours is mostly about the medium rather than the industry – is that it feels like the industry is heading towards an inflection point, and one that will decide its direction in the mid-to-long-term. Choose right, and things will stabilize and/or improve. Choose wrong, and it could get worse. A lot worse. What that means or what that looks like is uncertain, but I’m really hoping we never have to find out. We shall see! That will decide the answers to a lot of the questions you’re asking, I’m guessing.

Do you think more barriers to entry – so fewer comics published – would be beneficial to the market as a whole? – Ryan Alcock

This is an interesting question, at least in part because I don’t agree with one of the core premises Ryan laid out: I don’t think publishing fewer comics is adding barriers to entry!

This is where I bring out one of my favorite pet ideas in life. I call it the Big Menu Theory. Have you ever been to a restaurant that has an enormous menu filled with tons of options for you to choose from? I certainly have, and I’m biased against them for two reasons. One is that having so many options makes the selection process more difficult, and rife with second-guessing. The other is that having so many options likely means less expertise in each because you have to be adequate at delivering each of them in a timely manner. It harms the process of ordering and the experience overall. My theory is that the bigger the menu, the worse the restaurant.

The Big Menu Theory translates to a lot of other fields, and the comic industry is no different. More comics published likely ensures more consumer paralysis and lower quality works, as top creators are stretched thin and perhaps not fully ready creators are thrust into the spotlight. Weaker quality and harder choices are bigger barriers to entry than fewer comics being published.

So yes, I do think fewer comics being published (while being more thoughtful about what is published) could be beneficial because it inverts those issues, allowing retailers of all varieties to better handsell the work, marketers fewer titles to focus resources towards, and creators a bit more space to deliver their best work. I’m not talking about a dramatic reduction either, and not even necessarily across the whole industry – I think Webtoon and the book market do fine with the current volume, as those are both larger markets that can sustain better – but in the direct market specifically, I think a bevy of key performance indicators would improve with a more thoughtful approach. More than that, there would be a cascading effect throughout the larger industry that would likely deliver better results. What’s not to like about that?

If you could change one thing for Marvel and one thing for DC going into 2023, what would they be?  It can be story related (more events, less retelling of origin stories, etc), direct market related (better paper stock, less variants and so on) or anything else that comes to mind! – Jonathan Bell

The easy answer for DC would be fewer variants, and for Marvel it would probably be to have a better, more consistent approach to art (or to improve paper stock). But my answer isn’t either of those. My answer would be to dramatically improve their sales and marketing approach. For example, the difference between The New 52 and recent comics isn’t quality by any means. It’s partially that everything was a fresh starting point, but I’d argue the bigger one was that it was the only time in modern memory that either of the Big Two put a concerted effort into broadly and specifically marketing their comics. And it worked incredibly well!

Now, the general expectation is for creators to do the marketing and for most sales and marketing messages to be directed at retailers and journalists to carry their water for them. Part of that is about resources, of course. These are big companies, but they don’t have infinite – or even very large, I’m sure – marketing budgets. But the current approach is somnambulant, with nothing feeling like a big deal at all, ever. Another example here is that Judgment Day was a great event comic featuring three of the most essential sides of universe, and the marketing for that was so limited I can barely recall what they did beyond sending the occasional email or tweet to be like, “Hey, this is a thing, I guess!”

Marketing feels as if it’s an increasingly troubling issue in comics, and it’s one without a clear answer due to those limited resources I mentioned before. This also isn’t a DC or Marvel only issue. But it’s a problem I’d love to see them try to solve, because DC and Marvel winning in the direct market results in everyone winning. We need a stronger, smarter approach there to help fuel better results across the board.

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