As promised, this month’s Mailbag Q&A wasn’t going to be a traditional one. Instead, it was a live chat hosted on SKTCHD via JotCast, and it was a blast. As also promised, I was going to put up a transcript of the chat for those that missed it. Here that is for your reading pleasure. If you enjoy this, please let me know and maybe we can do another one in the future!
David Harper: Thanks to everyone for joining me for the first ever SKTCHD and Off Panel live chat! I have zero idea if this will actually be an occasional replacement for the Mailbags or just a one time thing, but it seemed like a fun variation at the very least!
We’re going to kick it off here in a second, but I figured I might as well mention: there was a very good podcast with writer Kieron Gillen that dropped the day after Christmas, and I think you’ll really enjoy it if you missed it. There’s a fun variation on my Ten Things column dropping tomorrow, before next week starts taking a macro look at the industry in a very me way to kick off the year. Lots of good stuff coming!
Anyways, to the chat!
Handsome Dan: If you were a sandwich, which one would it be?
David Harper: Probably a Club! It’s a lot like my writing. Very tasty, probably too many ingredients and sort of the over the top, but it all works out in the end.
Rich Wojcicki: given the recent pushes for comics unions and top tier talents leaving major labels for substacks: How do you feel about an artist or writers ability to make a living singularly in comics these days? Are these new formats leading to better possibilities for creators to ‘make it’? Or is the ‘using comics as a launching point for other mediums (film, tv, animation)’ method still seen the more lucrative way for creators to earn a living. Not talkin Kirkman $$, just “hey I have health insurance and I can still afford my weekly pull list” $.
David Harper: We’ll take this bit by bit, because it’s a lot.
In regards to the ability to live singularly off comics, I’m pretty uneasy about it. Stagnant page rates pair poorly with inflation and economic uncertainty, as do publishers simply not paying people. Unless you’re the tippy top of comic creators, it feels like it might be harder than just about ever to exclusively be a comic creator.
Granted, there are opportunities today that help support that – Patreon, Ko.fi, whatever else there is – and there are other ways to fund your work, whether that’s Kickstarter or Zoop or whatever, but that turns your life into an eternal hustle. Some are cut out for that, but others aren’t. And those are also not just comics, like we’re talking about.
I think there are new opportunities to get your work out there and new ways to find a higher ceiling, but it also feels like the odds on reaching those are lower than previously despite the opportunity being there. It’s a very tough environment, even if many are making it work.As for the using comics as a jump off to other mediums, I think that’s the dream, but from what I understand, option money isn’t nearly what it once was, and betting on your project becoming something bigger in this adaptation environment is a tough one. It’s a way to raise your potential ceiling as a creator, but again, its chances are a bit muted these days, I feel. It’s a nice value-add, though!
Mike Lanuzo: Couple of NBA Questions for you.
How was Jazz Spurs?
SGA is a top x player this season?
The east has 4 clear all-star front court players in Embiid, Giannis, Durant, and Tatum, but only three spots for starting. Who doesn’t start?
David Harper: Jazz/Spurs was great! It was a very fun game with zero defense and we had great seats. Very little to complain about there!
SGA = Top 15? It’s hard to put someone averaging 31.5 points lower than that. The guy is unbelievable. I previously compared him to Spider-Man and I feel like I might be underrating him! But there’s also a ton of great players out there.
East All-Stars: I’ve actually thought about this a lot already, and it might be Giannis, which seems crazy? Tatum is a lock. So is Embiid. That makes it Durant vs. Giannis. I’d say simply because the Bucks are better and Giannis leads him in key stats, I’d go Giannis, but that’s such a tough choice.
Cameron: With all the upheaval in social media these days do you get a sense from retailers about whether or not social media presence actually has a tangible impact on sales for creators? Or do you personally find that a creator’s social media or “personal brand” influences your willingness to check out their work? Or the degree to which you support that creator?
David Harper: I’ve actually talked to a number of people in comics about this subject, and it’s something I always meant to write about but have never made happen.
My understanding has always been that social media can impact Kickstarters, Substacks, Patreons, and digital comics tremendously (and immediately), but direct market comics, the impact is murky.
And that’s not a new thing. I had someone working at a top publisher tell me that what’s hot on Twitter has rarely been what sells.
So there’s always been a gap there. The upheaval on Twitter and the scattering of everyone to the winds undoubtedly has not helped.
That said, I will say, the presence of someone can make me pay more attention to their work. A great example is Liana Kangas, who I only discovered because someone tweeted me to visit Liana at ECCC, and since, I’ve been constantly astonished by Liana’s efforts. That has led to me supporting in a real way.
I’d say it’s a net positive for creators in some way, even today, but it isn’t the silver bullet solution some look at it as for selling comics. Unless it’s on Kickstarter or something you can immediately buy (or it’s on social media itself)!
Brandon Schatz: For what it is worth, I can quantify many instances through out the year of a creator’s social and branding endevours that translates directly into sales. Though I will say, retailers who aren’t great at socials or branding themselves don’t usually see a positive impact.
David Harper: There’s another take on social media from Brandon, someone who is way smarter than me (and owns a great comic shop)!
Brian KQ: If you were 18 again, and had to pick a college to attend in 2023, what would you pick?
David Harper: There’s a lot of context that would change my decision (I went to school with my four best friends from high school primarily to do just that), but if I was deciding purely for academic reasons, I’d probably make a different decision.
100% somewhere with warmer weather and better sports. San Diego State!
Or no college. That would be a real possibility.
Brandon Schatz: I’ve long thought the single issue format needs to change if the stories are to survive. The change over to $4.99 for a regular sized comic has already started, and I think might end up being industry standard by the end of 2023.
David Harper: There isn’t really a question here, but I tend to agree with Brandon. I could see $4.99 being a constant by this time next year. That door has been opened, and publishers are always waiting for doors to be opened, it feels.
That said, in regards to format, I tend to think some evolution is necessary, and we’re already seeing it. I do wonder how much that splintering has impacted how success is determined. It’s not as clear cut as it once was!
Question for the peanut gallery: for those still on Twitter, how often do you click the wrong button on a tweet because you’re used to the way things were before they started showing reach on tweets? My answer is 100% of the time.
Alex Chung: I’d really have to change my buying habits if regular comics are $4.99. I might have to start shifting more books to Marvel Unlimited and DC Universe.
David Harper: I’m with Alex. $4.99 might push me towards those platforms even more.
Elliot Metz: What’s your assessment of the current state of the “buffet” apps (Marvel Unlimited and DC Universe) right now – and where they’re headed moving forwards? Personally I’m loving DC’s “ULTRA” option that gives access to comics a month after release. Hoping Marvel does something similar.
David Harper: I think they’re both in a great place. If you’re a non-Wednesday Warrior with no history in the medium and you’re deciding between buying print comics and one of those, why would you ever choose single issue comics? That’s a great place to be in.
That said, I don’t think the reduction of the release window is as meaningful overall as it might seem. For one, until it’s day-and-date, it isn’t going to replace the typical comics experience in a real way.
The other is if you’re a fairly new reader, it’s all new to you! These platforms could keep you neck deep in comics for the rest of your life even if Marvel and DC never released another comic! It’s like streaming services for video, where new material is at least in part an advertisement to potential new customers.
I could see them becoming a bigger part of the mix for both, but to do that, they a) will need to start marketing them way better, and b) they’ll have to make some hard decisions about their product mix in the future.
I still haven’t converted heavily in that direction, but I could see it happening!
Danica LeBlanc: Re: Twitter. I’m still getting used to the fact they switched the reply and retweet buttons. My muscle memory gets confused.
Alex Chung: Oh I completely screw up the Twitter interface all the time. It’s shocking how I’m used to where a virtual button is placed on my phone.
I don’t know if that’s a good sign?
David Harper: I’m not alone!
Brandon Schatz: Definitely not smarter, but I do live and breathe comics retail to a (probably) unhealthy degree. 😅
David Harper: Don’t listen to Brandon. Subscribe to his Substack for many smart things being written about comics retail in the future! He’s way smarter!
Mike Lanuzo: Have you read Nice House 12 yet? If so do you think it stuck the landing?
David Harper: I have not! I was out of town so I have not bought comics yet. But I am excited!
Scott: Which publishers are in the best place to succeed in 2023? Which are not?
David Harper: The not: Those that aren’t paying people or are actively filing for bankruptcy!
Let’s just say, I don’t have a lot of faith in Aftershock these days.
A reckoning is coming for the publishers with little game plan besides “let’s make comics that we’ll sell to become movies and shows.”
Best place to succeed: Besides Viz, because Viz = $$$, and the others at the top, I actually think DC is unusually well positioned going into the year. They have a big initiative, they’re doing interesting things with their varying lines, they’re playing all the markets. They should be in a good position.
I don’t love their intense reliance on variants. But they seem to be making it work?
Honestly, though…and I’m going to write about this later, I have some uneasy feelings about 2023 in comics. I think it’s going to be a transitional year.
Phil: I’ve found I have a high standard for comic book stores, and I now live in a place where none of them meet that standard. Am I the problem for shifting to DCBS?
David Harper: First off, Brandon, please don’t yell at me.
Second off, no you are not the problem.
Read comics how you want. If that’s through a comic shop or digital or through DCBS or whatever, that’s fair. Pirating is something I’d bristle at. But if you’re spending your money on comics, do it your way. Trades or single issues, digital or print, DCBS or comic shops, back issues or new comics, whatever.
Do you, and lean into the way you like to enjoy comics.
Danica LeBlanc: Can confirm. Everything I know about the comics industry, and how to run a comic shop, is from Brandon. I’m his business partner, and I know what I bring to the mix, but absolutely could not have done it without his experience and knowledge.
David Harper: Danica is also very smart! Shop at Variant Edition!
Brandon Schatz: “I had someone working at a top publisher tell me that what’s hot on Twitter has rarely been what sells.” This is generally true in terms of the direct market. The books that sell the best are going to have pretty loud detractors. The most recent example I can think of is the rise of Tom King. Went from universal praise on smaller, struggling projects, to this louder mix on his current ones. Mister Miracle was essentially the tipping point – after that, more people were reading his books.
David Harper: There’s two sides to this equation. One is that, wow, it was wild how quickly Tom became polarizing. The other is that if you’re at a point as a comic creator that you’ve developed a genuine backlash to your work, you’re probably doing pretty well! (Just don’t check your mentions)
Alex Chung: DC has had some fun variants in the last couple of months. Like those 90’s foil embossed ones are insanely good.
David Harper: This is true! I am a sucker for those.
Rich Wojcicki: Loving this chat. Which brings me to a question: you read my book yet? That’s right I’m callin you out! 🤣🤣. J/k, I know ya busy (thank god because the pod is a wealth of comic insight). Real question: any previews on stuff we can look forward to from the pod in 2023?
David Harper: Glad you’re digging it! I have not, because I am the world’s greatest monster. As for the podcast, I don’t have tooooo far planned out, because it’s hard to go too far, but up first is Liana Kangas, then I plan to have Susana Polo on for our annual chat about five themes for 2023 (I haven’t reached out about that yet, though), and then retailer Patrick Brower returns for his annual look at the year in comics retail.
The only other plan is I am going to put all my energy in to finally booking Jim Lee for Episode #400, which is coming soon. Time to email DC Publicity, I guess…
Elliot Metz: Agree or disagree: I’d love to see more imprints from the Big 2. Loved Hill House Comics, Wonder Comics had some interesting stuff – and obviously Black Label is huge for DC. And I’ve always wondered why Marvel didn’t keep doing What If minis after Spider’s Shadow. That book was GREAT – and doing a 5-issue mini of a “What If” is a nice change from the one-shots.
David Harper: Agreed!
Big agree, really. I love the imprints, and I thought they brought some fun flavors to DC’s line. Marvel plays it way too safe for that kind of thing for the most part, but at least we’re getting something like Doctor Strange: Fall Sunrise. I know What If? was meant to be something they did more of, but I’d wager it was a pandemic loss.
I will say: I enjoy that Dark Horse is getting back to imprints too! They have a heck of a lineup of creators, and the more power creators have to do interesting things, the better, at least in my book.
I’d rather see Daniel Warren Johnson given the freedom to wild out on Wonder Woman: Dead Earth or Beta Ray Bill than try and fit him into the box of monthly comics. That’s what imprints allow.
Brandon Schatz: I would never yell at you, especially about DCBS. I’m happy with any way someone gets their content. Back when DC first went with DCBS/Lunar, and Midtown for distribution, I noted that they were already, according to those leaked Marvel numbers that came out around that time, the number 2 and 3 distributors of comics to folks due to their sheer volume. This industry DOES NOT FUNCTION without them.
David Harper: I support this message!
Elliot Metz: Where does the market stand heading into 2023 when it comes to the popularity of books for young readers? It seems like it’s still a huge part of the overall market – and some of the biggest publishers are really missing out by ignoring that segment of potential customers.
David Harper: First off, Danica and Brandon, if you’re still hanging around, I’d love to get your perspective on this.
Second off, I believe it’s still strong, but I also think it has plateaued a little bit and that it has become an overserved market to some degree. The big hits are still big. But it can be difficult to stand out in what is an enormously competitive market. The ceiling is still high, but the floor might be a bit lower.
Also, I think manga has kind of annexed a lot of that space? Manga has sort of taken over all the spaces, and for good reason.
I do think DC and Marvel in particular have dropped the ball by not being more aggressive in this market, but DC’s still doing its thing and Marvel at least was smart enough to outsource that to Scholastic Graphix, who is famously very good at this!
I do wonder how well the young reader initiatives of smaller direct market publishers have went. Are Wonderbound and Comet doing well? No clue!
I may have taken a short break to take a photo of my cat, who is sleeping on my lap.
Brandon Schatz: Also, I am surprisingly fine with piracy. While I would never suggest or condone it as a primary means of engaging with comics, for the most part, a pirate’s money was never going to go into the industry anyway. They were never going to read those books. BUT, access to the content MIGHT get them to buy their favourites – which in the end, is a net gain. While it’s not the same, piracy is the modern form of “kids sharing their comics”. The industry used to boast a readership, not of what was SOLD, but what statistically was SHARED.
David Harper: This is a good point.
There is some interesting evidence throughout the years of piracy actually leading to sales. Nothing deeply researched.
But there was that time Steve Lieber found out Underground was being pirated by 4chan and he shared a sales link with them and it did…really well?
Also, Jim Zub did some interesting things with Skullkickers I believe, and found some success.
That doesn’t mean everyone should make their comics free. But I think there’s a way to leverage that where everyone wins, because you certainly aren’t going to make people stop pirating comics any time soon.
Or pirating anything really!
Brandon Schatz: I think that DC has been doing a wonderful job with their attempts to reach the YA market. Sometimes they’ve even been a little TOO far ahead (and off the mark) with initiatives like their MINX line that had Moriko Tamaki and Cecil Castillucci that tried YA in a manga style format. That all said, I don’t think you’ll see DC doing much better than this mild success level or Marvel attempt to dig in on their own volition at all, and it all comes down to WHY they were purchased by bigger companies. Marvel in particular was purchased because Disney couldn’t crack the young male kids market. So they just bought the demographic instead. Marvel exists to perpetuate that specific chunk of content, and to build out movies on the cheap. Disney itself takes care of all the youth market, and doesn’t want or need Marvel’s lesser skills in attempting that reach. Hence, Marvel just outsources their all ages content.
David Harper: There’s another take on the young readers segment. These are good points!
Elliot Metz: When you look at the sales charts and numbers of the last year or so – what details and trends stick out to you? Any big surprises?
David Harper: So the biggest problem here is that sales charts are effectively extinct.
There isn’t really useful data because the splintering of distribution, outside of the Bookscan data that Brian Hibbs writes about each year.
You can look at what is released, but it’s always one part of the picture with no context around it. My opinion is that this makes sales charts not just less useful, but easier to be used in a negative way because it says less in a way that’s viewed as concrete fact.
That said, the fact that Gargoyles had six figure orders was pretty surprising, even if it did have…like…26 variants and was based on a license that has a lot of nostalgia surrounding it.
I really wish some sort of unified sales chart would come back together, but that isn’t happening. And I do know there’s some conversation at some publishers about whether there’s value in releasing sales data themselves. I don’t see that happening either.
Rich Wojcicki: i love the Panel syndicate method. The name your own price method seems very fair. If you pay cheap for issue 1, throw some extra cash on issue 2 if you dig it. Speaking of Skull Kickers and pluses of piracy, this feels like a successful method
David Harper: I love Panel Syndicate! It’s such a fun effort, and it’s a method that balances everything to some degree. I do wonder how much of a struggle it has become to maintain interest and momentum in their releases, but I also don’t think that’s the end all, be all for them?
Especially considering these books eventually get released in print too. It’s just their cash flow plan.
Danica LeBlanc: Manga has been more and more of a constant, especially when parents come in to buy for their kids and teens. The trick is finding titles for the “if you like this, you might like this” when you don’t know more about manga than a 14 year old. I’m slowly building our manga section with a kind of a “Top 40” title selection, plus specific things that have hit in our store. And always have Junji Ito in stock.
David Harper: I was just hanging out with a 9 year old who knew so, so, so much more about manga than me.
Talking to a kid about manga is like me as a basketball fan trying to talk to Gregg Popovich about hoops. We’re just operating on completely different wavelengths.
Is manga still being held back by supply chain issues? I’m still trying to find Chainsaw Man Vol. 1!
Brandon Schatz: The Gargoyles thing really is about Dynamite tapping into their typical business model (“remember this?” and “lots of covers”), colliding with a creator and concept that HAS built a following. Greg Weisman has been doing cult-favourite cartoons for YEARS and is pretty good at mobilizing them. That, and we’re in the era nostalgia book that always seems to hit hard 25 years-ish after it’s popularity… like when bellbottoms came back in the late 1990s early 2000s.
David Harper: Brandon, you better knock on wood right now. You’re going to make bellbottoms come back and I am not ready for that.
Alright, I think this is last call time! Have a few things in the queue, but it might be time for me to wrap things up here in a few, so let me know if you have any last minute questions!
Brandon Schatz: I encourage people to “stream” their singles. $3.99-$4.99 is a LOT for 20 pages of content, and I don’t think any of that is sustainable outside of collectors keeping blood in the machine. Take a look at the upcoming DC solicits, and their variant game has ballooned significantly. I don’t think this is a position any publisher WANTS to be in, but reality shines through in their actions: story alone isn’t moving the needle. The single issue format NEEDS variants and collectibility to keep things running for the current “single issue to collection” pipeline.
David Harper: Agreed with this. It’s tough but true.
But the question I have is this: if variants and collectibility are all they have and, from what I understand, those customers are getting burned out, are we seeing the steady reduction of single issues until they’re no longer viable?
They’re solving a problem and creating a problem in one move.
But that’s basically a direct market existential question, and one I don’t have enough coffee to consider yet.
Brandon Schatz: DC is in a very similar boat, although with slightly different masters. But you won’t see that much investment within Marvel and DC to crack this market so much as you’ll just see their need to make the next quarters. It’s sad, but that’s all that will be. As for OTHER publishers, Wonderbound has done quiet well for us, specifically because their YA line does two things that many others don’t: they STICK TO THE YA FORMAT, and they aren’t just mining current comic writers for YA content. So many publishers are either formatting and pricing their YA completely wrong, and/or building “HELLO FELLOW YOUTHS” content. And that will NEVER be successful.
David Harper: A vote in the positive for Wonderbound! I like it!
Danica LeBlanc: I think you answered your own question there, David. Single issues are the solution to the problem of their own making.
David Harper: Comics!
Mike Lanuzo: What nickname would you give to the Haliburton & Mathurin backcourt
David Harper: I’m going to instead name Haliburton and the Pacers larger younger core: Reese’s Pieces.
Terrible nickname! But this is why I’m not a nickname guy.
Elliot Metz: I gotta bounce David – but thank you for doing this!! It was a lot of fun, and I appreciate you doing something you encourage publishers to do: try something new! Have a good one!
David Harper: Thanks Elliot! And with that, I’m going to bounce as well! Thank you for joining me on this new adventure, and I hope you enjoyed it. The transcript will be going up in the next day or two! If you enjoyed it, let me know and maybe we can do another one in the future!
Brandon Schatz: The 25 year nostalgia loop applies to how the industry is dealing with their publishing. Companies are using the playbook that nearly brought things to a grinding halt and put Marvel in bankruptcy. Comics will survive this, they always do, but the how absolutely has to be a change.
Danica LeBlanc: Admittedly, still a little salty that DC removed the Ink and Zoom categories in under a year. They were good, and helped people identify what age group to pick for. Yes, there are “kids” and “young adults” written on the back, but spines are there for a reason. The spine is the information you get to even PICK UP the book from the shelf.
Brandon Schatz: There are still supply chain issues for the biggest mangas – but they aren’t anywhere NEAR as bad as they were a couple years ago. Publishers tend to be working on a “rolling reprint schedule” that more aggressively anticipates sell through – like when Scholastic set THREE reprint cycles over the course of three months for Heartstopper when the Netflix show obliterated their stock. That seems to be happening with the biggest mangas, waves of availability, but with WAAAAAYYY shorted waiting times.
David Harper: Okay, those were all smart answers to previous topics I wanted to work in. They’re in there for posterity. Thanks for joining me!