It was kind of a weird week for news, one that didn’t have any big items dropping that would typically lead us off. So instead, this edition of Comics Disassembled — a look at ten things I liked or didn’t like from the week of comics — starts with a big name with some big takes, and my thoughts about all that.
1. Mark Millar Isn’t Wrong, But He Isn’t Right Either
When I was a kid, I loved the Damon Wayans movie Major Payne. It wasn’t because it was a good movie, necessarily. It was more that I was 11 and there was something about Wayans that was impossibly funny to me at that age. But there were a few scenes that stuck with me, most notably the very first. We’re introduced to Major Payne in a way that’s meant to help us understand how intense he is. A soldier has been shot in the arm and is loudly complaining about the wound when Payne offers to teach him a little trick to make the pain go away. It’s simple. Payne breaks the soldier’s finger, and suddenly, that’s what his focus is on as he repeatedly complains about his finger. “Works every time,” Payne says as he walks away from the now even more injured person.
Anyways, that’s what I thought of when I first read Mark Millar’s plan to save comic shops.
For those that missed it, Millar went on a livestream and talked about — amongst other things — this moment in time for the direct market and how a lot of shops are struggling. He didn’t just talk about problems, though. He offered solutions, as the writer pitched his idea that the biggest writers and artists need to go back to DC and Marvel for two-year tours of duty on big books to help enliven the market. His theory is wherever those publishers go, the direct market follows.
He’s not wrong about that. A slumping Big Two has an area of effect that impacts every other direct market publisher. I saw some people bristle at this suggestion, in that Scholastic Graphix and Viz and Webtoon are actually the biggest names in the game so why focus on Marvel and DC, and sure, that’s true as well. But it isn’t necessarily true for comic shops, a domain in which the success of DC and Marvel still has an outsized impact. Those publishers struggling means others in the direct market struggle as well, as Millar mentioned (and we’ll get to).
And the idea itself is sound to some degree. If you had all the biggest creators in recent memory hop on major projects at DC and Marvel simultaneously, a) it would be a big story as just talking about it in theory proved and b) it could drive a bunch of lapsed readers into shops. It would likely be a substantial plus to the direct market, and one that could help shops a fair bit over that timeframe. It’s an idea that could pay dividends.
There are two major problems with it, though.
The first, and the biggest, is that this solution would merely mask the problems at the heart of the direct market. It reminds me of how retailer Joe Field described the surge of variants: “It’s epinephrine for a patient who’s in a coma.” It would keep the direct market going for a time, but it’d be papering over the problems that are causing the rot to begin with. This solution would likely bring certain readers back to shops. But it would also, to some degree, just be leaning into the very same audience that’s already disappearing, and when these creators leave the same problems would still be there. It’s the broken finger distracting the direct market from its bullet wound.
Bizarrely, this is sort of what the pandemic proved to be for comic shops. Once feared to be the end of the direct market, that stretch ended up being a resurgent one. People were trapped at home and flush with money, so they dove deep into collecting and variants and all kinds of other things that reminded them of their youth. It made the problems that were evident in the direct market before the pandemic go away simply because there was so much money coming in no one cared. But when that high time ended, those original problems returned with new ones on top of them. Bringing top creators into the Big Two might buy time for the direct market to fix its problems, but the issue there is, we have ample evidence that resolving these troubles wouldn’t be a priority for anyone involved. So, what’s the point, unless there’s a larger plan to fix the systemic issues behind it?
And second, that is if the creators we’re talking about would want to do that and if the Big Two want to pay the rates these creators would expect. Do top creators doing just fine with their current projects really want to write or draw more superheroes? And on a likely discount? Probably not, especially considering they’re smart enough to know that this would be a temporary solution, at best.
Don’t get me wrong: Millar’s plan could make a difference in the fates of comic shops. They would greatly appreciate it. But when it’s all said and done, they’d still have a bullet wound waiting for them, and this problem would start anew. Short-term thinking like this is what got the direct market to where it is now; long-term solutions are what’s necessary to move forward in a healthier way.
2. Let’s Talk About the Other Side of This
The sidenote of this whole story actually proved to maybe be more interesting than the main event, if only because of what it led to. Here’s what Millar said that inspired this side of the tale.
“In reality, in the last ten years, there hasn’t been any big, blow-up success in the creator-owned world. Saga was probably the last one that went crazy. Things have done well, done nicely, but Saga was the last time that there was a phenomenon, and The Walking Dead prior to that. There’s been a few, but the real success comes from the industry — I’m not talking about as individuals, as creators…The honest truth is that creator-owned growth comes from Marvel and DC doing well.”
This led to Rich Johnston publishing an article at Bleeding Cool about a “list” that had “been circulating” of Image’s 25 most ordered debuts since 2012 the past few days. This chart highlighted how of all those Image launches — the year that Saga arrived — Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ long-running series wasn’t even one of the 25 most ordered. In fact, 18 of the 25 biggest launches came since 2020, with the top four all belonging to the broader Spawn Universe. So, yes, Image has had hits since Saga, so you be quiet, Mark Millar.
The problem is, I…kind of agree with Millar here. I’m not saying there haven’t been creator-owned successes over that timeframe. Something is Killing the Children certainly belongs on a level near Saga, even if it’s a couple steps down from it (and some might say it’s not truly creator-owned). I’m not saying Marvel and DC are solely responsible for creator-owned growth, because they aren’t. I’m not even saying there haven’t been significant creator-owned debuts. What I am saying is the reason Saga is a smash hit that shops want more of is that it didn’t just launch big; it grew and grew and grew and became a stable sales monster for comic shops, one that customers return for every time an issue arrives. Saga’s superpower wasn’t its opening box office, it was (and is) its legs.
And during the past few years fueled by the pandemic surge of collectors and speculators, launching comics has not been a problem. The problem has been what happens with #2 and #3 and #4 and god help you if you make it to #5. Attrition — or effectively how sales decrease issue to issue — has been the killer, and the one that Saga and Saga alone has seemingly been impervious to. There’s another thing to keep in mind. These launches are about orders from shops — with many on that list bolstered by that pandemic surge as well as variant covers and returnability — not sales to customers, and attrition is defined by whether the comics sell to customers once they get into stores. That hasn’t always happened with those big debuts, as my shop’s recent back issue sale that was positively laden with copies of Gunslinger Spawn and The Scorched at a rate of $0.50 per issue underlined.
And part of that likely stems from the fact that the direct market’s position with customers has been weakened by a Big Two that has inconsistently inspired its readerships to actually visit a comic shop. There’s a reason that Image’s big surge in the early 2010s came after DC’s The New 52 initiative sent thousands of new customers to shops. Yes, it was a good time to read Image titles, so The New 52 wasn’t the only reason the publisher’s line popped. But people were excited enough by DC’s big swing that they stopped by a comic shop to check it out. Once they got there, what they fell in love with wasn’t Hawk and Dove or Men of War, but Saga, Chew, The Walking Dead, and other Image releases. That kind of area of effect lift from the Big Two isn’t happening as often today, and it is an everyone problem, not just a Marvel and DC one.
Anyways, the point is this: there have been a lot of successful creator-owned books in the direct market over that stretch, but saying Saga is the only one that was a phenomenon is not out of pocket, nor is suggesting that DC and Marvel’s success can help creator-owned comics. I don’t agree with a lot of what Millar has to say. But he’s not wrong there.