Neither Marvel Nor DC Has The Incentive To Save Comics

Comics need saving, but neither Marvel nor DC is going to be the ones to do it.

No, not that kind of B&W implosion.

Ever since the Direct Market saved comics from the crisis of newsstand instability, comics as a medium in the United States has been under a sword of Damocles.  Or, to use a more environmental metaphor, the industry escaped the problems of a rough river to take refuge in a nearby pond, but that pond is slowly drying up.  It's basically a demographic collapse: every year, the average age of comics readers goes up by an unpleasantly large number of months.  Eventually it may reach a one to one correspondence, and as the readers die off so will the medium.

Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.  The medium is not the message, as they say.  Just because you can't buy a new VCR anymore doesn't mean they stopped making movies, after all.  Even staying within the physical format of comics, there's a growing market for book-length works on the shelves of bookstores and mass retailers like Walmart.  But even though Walmart now carries a new version of the old "100 page giant" comics from DC, the so-called pamphlet format, 20-32 pages folded over and stapled, does seem to be doomed to consumption by only a shrinking and aging audience.

Keeping comics as we know them alive would take a major effort, and entail major risk.

Enter Marvel and DC, the Big Two.  Both comics companies are now basically IP-generating wings of larger media conglomerates.  As long as they're seen as a useful source of material that could be leveraged in movies or TV, they're pretty safe.  Even if they take a big chance and lose big, their corporate parents will make sure they stay in operation.  This is why the second tier companies are so eager to get hooked up with other media (although reportedly the TV arm of IDW hasn't been doing so great lately), because it would give them a safety net.

Is it 2004 again?
But if Marvel and DC can survive big failures, why are all their "bold new efforts" aimed at increasing the market and Saving Comics so...ineffectual?  Why does almost every new "this will bring in a new audience" rollout end with everything cancelled within 12 months?  They might say, "We'll emulate manga and succeed like they do in Japan," but turn out the same sort of expensive glossy monthlies in a new art style, rather than committing to the vastly different printing and distribution practices that let the weekly collections thrive in Japan.  It's as if these industry leaders, safe from having a bad roll of the dice eliminate them, stick firmly with penny ante and never really raise the stakes.  They hire a few new people, tweak a format here or there, run a gimmick or event for a while, and then it goes back to more-or-less normal.

Now, while my expertise in the study of human thought is limited to how people think about physical systems and not how they evaluate risk and reward, I think the answer is that the very thing that makes the company safe also demotivates its management.

Consider a standalone company that sees that they're on the slide to bankrupcy.  By the end of the year, they're probably doomed, unless they pull off a Hail Mary pass.  They have an incentive to go big, because the worst that can happen is that they fail a little earlier, and if it works they get to live.  Desperation combined with a real chance of reward means they'll have a good reason to commit to genuine change...or at least to pulling out all the stops and producing one last swan song that might grab enough market share to keep them alive.  (That's the legend told around the first Final Fantasy game: the company was going under, so they threw everything into one last game, one final fantasy, and rolled the dice.  The game was a hit, and the studio survived.)

Now look at Marvel and DC as they're currently constituted.  As long as they keep producing new properties that can be adapted by the profitable divisions of their respective owners, they get to live as a company.  But there's no such guarantee for any individual working there.  If an editor in chief takes a big chance and succeeds, most of the rewards belong to Warner Brothers or Disney.  If they take a big chance and fail, they're out on their butts.  The rewards for success are not great enough to balance the punishment of failure, so management has every incentive to take halfway measures.  Dip in a toe, then pull it back out when there's no immediate reward.

The Direct Market, circa 2036.
To go back to the river and the pond, the big risk would be to get out of the pond and crawl across land, hoping that you make it to the river before dying, and hoping you're even going in the right direction...not every bold move can succeed, even if you commit to it fully.  The halfway measures involve staying in the pond, but maybe getting someone to fill a bucket for you at the river.  Or slowly digging a small channel in the direction of the river, and it sometimes gets filled when there's flooding.  Or just learning to get by on less oxygen and fewer nutrients.

So, while they may have the occasional Bold New Initiative that meets with long term success and helps expand readership a little, neither Marvel nor DC managements have much reason to risk enough on change to have much hope of doing more than slowing the demographic collapse of the monthly comics market.  The creators will move to other formats, both physical and electronic, while the direct market slowly dies off, and in time "Marvel Comics" may no longer make any pamphlet-style books outside of occasional giveaway gimmicks for nostalgia's sake.  Scholastic could end up becoming the standard-bearer of sequential art in hardcopy form, if it isn't already.  (Business is also outside my areas of expertise, so I don't really know where to look for specific data on how much they make just on their comics, and the data on Marvel's own sales may be no easier to find.)

But no.  Marvel and DC may have the power, and the safety net, to let them Save Comics...but they won't, because they can survive the demise of the Direct Market in some fashion, but anyone who takes too big a risk along the way will not personally stay in the business.

It may well be that no one with the power to Save Comics has any real interest in doing so.  They've already moved on to focusing on markets beyond the Friendly Local Comic Shop, leaving the rest to slowly die in a drying up pond managed by a monopolistic distributor more interested in controlling the pond than saving it.

Dvandom, aka Dave Van Domelen, is an Assistant Professor of Physical Science at Amarillo College, maintainer of one of the two longest-running Transformers fansites in existence (neither he nor Ben Yee is entirely sure who was first), long time online reviewer of comics, is not sure how he feels about the impending demographic implosion of comics, is an occasional science advisor in fiction, and part of the development team for the upcoming City of Titans MMO.
Neither Marvel Nor DC Has The Incentive To Save Comics Neither Marvel Nor DC Has The Incentive To Save Comics Reviewed by Dvandom on Thursday, September 20, 2018 Rating: 5
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