By Jared Gardner
No, I am not talking about Johnny Storm, whose death is made official today with Fantastic Four #587. The impending death in the comic book family I am worrying over is of a different—more lasting and more tragic—variety: the death of the comic book shop. OK. I am jumping the gun, and perhaps events going forward will prove I am misreading the vital signs, mistaking a bad cold for something mortal. But in the last couple of years we've seen more comic shops close than I hoped to see in a lifetime (B-Bop Comics in KC and Rocketship in Brooklyn come to mind, with Charlie's in Tucson recently announcing plans to close as well), and even the ones that will likely weather the recession aren't able to envision a bright future beyond. Now the reasons stores fold is almost always local on some level: changes in the neighborhood, in the lives of the owners, in the local economy. And certainly the recession is accountable for the downturn in the comic book retail market (as in all other markets) more than any other factor. So, what is striking is not that comic book shops are struggling: everyone is struggling and small retail businesses are hurting more than anyone. What is striking is that the comic book industry seems to be doing everything it can to make the bleeding worse.
Where is the stimulus for comics retail from the Big Two? And in its absence, one cannot help but suspect that not only do they not care whether stores survive. but they might even have a vested interest in seeing the direct market system fold altogether.
Alright, hyperbole alert. But let me focus today on just one reason why I think that paranoia is a perfectly rational response to where we find ourselves.
Last fall D.C. announced that it will be lowering the cover price on comic books in 2011 to $2.99. Fans largely greeted the news with delight (although the glee was somewhat muted when fans attended to the fine print that page count would also be decreasing). But retailers I talked with were not at all pleased. After all, the damage of the 2009 price increase to $3.99 had already been done. At 4 bucks an issue, casual customers had been driven away, succumbing to trade-wait and the heavy discounts available at Amazon. My informal surveys of dozens of readers in their teens and early 20s told a similar story: why on earth, they asked me incredulously, would you pay $19 for four issues when you can pick up the whole arc packed in a trade a few months later online for around $12? And why would you trudge out to the comic shop every week for a microscopic sliver of a storyline so complex and byzantine that it was best appreciated in collected editions in the first place?
This last point touches on the concern that is more ominous still for the future of comic shops: the $3.99 pricetag coupled with the over-labored Event has discouraged repeat visits from new, younger readers, intimidated by the pricetag involved in trying to catch up with the complex weave of an epic storyline or a long-running series. One retailer I spoke with told me of the genuine frustration of trying to work with the younger readers who come into the store looking to get up to speed on one of the titles coming to the big screen in the coming year. How do you get a young reader immersed in Green Lantern with no points of easy access, no one-and-done introductions, especially when the price of admission starts at four bucks for just a fragment of the larger kaleidoscope that is the ongoing narrative? They might pick up an issue, perhaps even a trade of Blackest Night, but they don't come back more than a couple of times. At a certain point, if their initial investment managed to hook them on the title, they will look to cheaper options: trades at Amazon or, more recently, digital editions offered directly from the publishers themselves.
Or illegal options: downloading from torrent sites and "trading" online. This, sadly, is where many of the younger readers I know get the bulk of their weekly comics today. Which brings us to another question: why have the publishers not gone after the "sharing" communities with anything like the ferocity with which music and movie companies have addressed the threat of filesharing to their bottom lines? In the not-so-olden days I used to assume that it was because even at their biggest, these were smaller companies without the technical and legal resources that the music and movie companies could bring to the field. But such an explanation patently falls flat when the companies we're talking about are Time Warner or Disney (the latter, of course, is just as likely as not to sue me for even dreaming about Mickey Mouse). Why have they essentially turned a blind eye (excepting a few careless bats of the clawed legal paw) to the brisk circulation of digital comics on torrents and even openly on sites like komics-live?
The answer, I suspect, is not the one that comics fans (or retailers) want to hear. Until they are convinced there is real money to be made from comics books, they Big Two are perfectly content to let them circulate freely through the ether. After all, it essentially boils down to another version of viral marketing. Comic books have become loss-leaders—even giveaways—for companies whose business is making movies and all that goes with them. Comic book publishers are at once the R&D department and the promotional arm (think Happy Meal toys) for the real products Disney and Time Warner care about. Marvel and DC aren't worried by the plummeting retail sales of monthly comics in 2010 because, frankly, they are growing more and more comfortable envisioning comic books as an investment in future earnings (earnings that will take place elsewhere). All of this might change if digital comics ever begin to take off, of course. Then, certainly, we will see Disney lawyers all over demonoid and komics-live (we have already seen some moves in this direction following the roll-out of the iPad). But this will be because digital distribution might make comic books profitable precisely by cutting out the comics retailer.
You know, now that I think about it, I take it back: I am talking about the death of the Human Torch after all. All credit and faith to Hickman, who is a fine writer and has done terrific work with FF in recent months, but it is impossible not to see a larger cynical plot in the killing off of Johnny Storm. The same Johnny Storm who was played by Chris Evans in the first two Fantastic Four movies (Fox), the same Chris Evans who will be starring in Captain America coming out later this year (Marvel Entertainment). The same Fantastic Four film franchise that belongs to Fox and not to the Disney empire. Kill off Chris Evans' character (yes, I called the Human Torch Chris Evans' character) in the rival franchise and reinforce his rebirth as Steve Rogers in Marvel Entertainment's Hollywood juggernaut. How you gonna handle that, Fox? Maybe the franchise isn't worth so much once you are left with a Fantastic 3? Tell you what: I suspect Disney would be willing to take the film rights off your hands for a song.
In 2009 Paul Levitz, then president of DC, defended the recent price increase to $3.99 because it would help fund more "co-features" such as Human Target, which was just then going into production as a TV pilot.
"We’re in the middle of filming a TV pilot of ‘Human Target,’ which was born in Action Comics as a backup feature,” Mr. Levitz said. “We have great hopes for the pilot. It reminds us that there are things you can do in the back of the book that you can’t do in the front: explore the work of an artist who can’t match the pace of a full-length book, or a story concept.”I love Paul Levitz, as both a writer and a lover of comics history in all its many facets. But we must ask: explore the "work of an artist?" Or, more honestly, explore the Hollywood potential of a story concept unworthy of a fully developed comic book series?
And now that prices are coming down again, we are told that this price change is in response to the demand from the fans? More plausibly, of course, they realized they don't need cover price to fund R&D: just write off the R&D costs in the monthly comics division and reap the rewards down the road for those concepts that prove screen-worthy. If serial comic books prove profitable on the small screens (laptops, iPads or whatever comes next) so much the better. But in the meantime, what Disney and Time Warner don't need is comic stores. After all, there are no comic stores in the strip mall next to the multiplex. The kids streaming out of Green Lantern hungry for more are going to stop in their Barnes & Noble or hit Amazon on their iPhone. Or better yet, download a bunch of back issues from Marvel or Disney direct.
In the meantime, dropping the price now that the damage has been done will do absolutely nothing to bring new fans into the stores. But it will enable the loyal elderly Wednesday shopper to add a few more titles to his or her pull. This will do nothing to help the bottom line of comic shops, being forced to take a huge hit on the lower cover price with what is now a smaller customer base. But it will get more titles into circulation to the loyal comics reader—we, the not-so-vast, devoted army of product testers who are not only unpaid for our input but are gratefully paying for the privilege.
Free Comic Book Day was the brainchild of a comic book retailer, Joe Field of Flying Colors Comics in California (still very much with us, knock on wood). But we may have cause to look back on that first celebration of what has become a major holiday in the lives of comic book fans with regret—not only for the way in which what should have been a celebration of comic books and the retailers who shepherd the flock turned into a promotional tie-in with that spring's Marvel movie, but for the way it began the long process which I fear is now reaching its final stages of convincing readers and publishers alike that comics should, in fact, be free. The death of Johnny Storm, in fact, has everything to do with the death of the comics shop by the end of this decade, I fear. And unlike the Human Torch, this one won't be coming back in my lifetime.