THE STATE OF THE INDUSTRY
Theres a saying going through the American comics scene these days. It appears in a number of variations, but the sentiment is almost universal: this is a wonderful time for comics as an artform; but a terrible time for the industry.
In September I spent a couple of weeks in the States, attending the Small Press Expo and International Comics and Animation Festival (SPX/ICAF) and doing a signing tour with three of Americas best young cartoonists. And everywhere I went, I heard the same thing. Retailers, artists, editors, critics - all agreed that the new creative freedom and changing ideas about what comics can do have produced an explosion of powerful, innovative comics and graphic novels. But the business of comics is in crisis, with some pessimistic commentators questioning whether therell even be a comics industry in 10 years time.
The problem is simple: the only people buying comics these days are fans - and there are less of those all the time. Casual newsstand sales have been in decline since the 1950s, which by the late 1970s had led to a similar mood of crisis. But then the Direct Market - comics specialty shops and a firm-sale distribution system to support them - stepped in to save the day. For ten years, it seemed that comics were recovering. Not only were profits up, but the shift of emphasis from the general mass market to more dedicated comics fans created an opportunity for greater creative experimentation. The big mainstream publishers like DC and Marvel started trying new approaches and formats and - more significantly - swarms of small publishers began to appear: Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Dark Horse and - as the nineties began - Image. Comics like Love & Rockets, Cerebus, Hate and Yummy Fur - which could never have survived on the newsstands - now had a niche in which they flourished.
But this was an illusion. The Direct Markets success was built largely on the collectors market - people who buy comics as a speculative investment. This naturally fickle and unreliable market reached a peak in the early 1990s, when a sales-gimmick like the Death of Superman issue could sell out enormous print-runs before it had even been hit the stores, to collectors who expected its value to soar. Of course, we all know what follows a speculative bubble, and as soon as it became clear that the value of such artificially hyped collectables would fall off dramatically six months later, the party was over.
Today, five years after the bubble burst, comic shops are still closing in frightening numbers, the number of major distributors has been reduced to one, and the sales of leading mainstream titles have dropped by up to 90%. The problem, of course, is that during the boom years most comic publishers, creators and retailers were concentrating all their efforts on getting more money out of that same pool of specialist fans; few were working on reaching out to non-fans and convincing them there were comics worth reading. Now that the fan market is disappearing, the industry is having a hard time facing up to the need to get its eggs out of that sole basket and getting them out into the real world.
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© Copyright 2000 Dylan Horrocks