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B&N Week 150: A Very Brief History of Comics

| November 5, 2013

BoltsNutsFeatured-brief history

It’s Tuesday! That’s really all I have the energy for this week by way of introduction. Sorry.

This week, I wanted to take a brief-ish look at the history of comics. See where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and take a little peek into where we’re going. Let’s start, shall we?

Comic books have had an interesting history. There was a time in the 50s when comics were being churned out like clockwork, a single title easily selling in the millions to kids nationwide, with a host of genres such as horror, crime, romance, western, and superheroes taking up only the smallest chunk of that. These comics were generally aimed at kids and early teens, and they collected, read, and traded them weekly. It wasn’t until 1954 when Seduction of the Innocent was published by German-American psychiatrist Fredric Wertham that comic books got the worst reputation in the history of a medium. This was also the McCarthy Era, where there were senatorial hearings for everything.

During this time, Dr. Wertham connected juvenile delinquency with comic books, and through a series of mishaps for comics, publishers ended up having to appear before a senatorial committee. Not too long after this, comic book publishers adopted the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulating body that said what things could and could not be published under the Code. This was a blow to many publishers of crime and horror comics, basically putting them out of business. The Code gave rise to the superhero, with Superman being the first one to really catch on with children and their imaginations.

Comics were still selling in the millions on a per-issue basis, with two main companies coming out on top of all others: National Comics, which later became DC Comics, and Timely Comics, which was to become Marvel Comics. All other comic companies pale in comparison to the output and reach of these two publishers.

The demographics of comics have changed over time. Originally, comics were nothing but strips found in newspapers, until one company decided to collect a set of reprints and publish it as a book. This was the day that the comic book was born, and it wasn’t long until publishers stopped doing reprints in favor of new material. The strips and early comic books were aimed at children and young teens, usually boys, except for the romance comics, which were almost exclusively for girls. Once these children grew up, though, a lot of them stopped collecting comics in favor of other pursuits. Those that didn’t, though, continued to read and collect, with some of them getting into the creation of comics themselves.

There has never been a census done of comic book readers. It was estimated that during the 50s, a single comic that was bought could have been traded up to five or even ten times, so while a single issue could easily sell a million copies, the reach of that single issue could be five million readers or more. All of that was then. Today’s current market is a much different place.

Once, comic books could be found at a spinner rack at every gas station, convenience store, supermarket, and bookstore around. All of that started to change in the 1980s. Comic book specialty shops started to proliferate, with a dedicated fanbase, and the buying and selling of comic books began to change. The spinner rack comics were sold by a distributor on a returnable basis. If 1.5 million copies of an issue were sent out, it could be expected that .5 of those would be returned. Publishers didn’t get paid for these returned comics, and they were always looking for ways to lessen the returns and increase circulation, because that increased the money in their coffers. When the specialty shops arrived, a new distribution model was presented as well. This distribution model was all about guaranteed sales within a certain timeframe. Instead of selling one million copies of an issue and waiting six months for all the figures to come in because they had to wait for the amount of returns to be tallied, publishers could be guaranteed to sell half a million copies to a specialty shop and get the money back in three months. One was speculation over a long period of time, with the other being guaranteed over a shorter span. Most publishers went the guaranteed route, and stopped shipping to convenience stores, gas stations, newsstands, and the like. Since the lure of guaranteed money had publishers only selling to what was quickly becoming known as the Direct Market [comic specialty shops, or just comic shops], this shrunk the already contracting readership even further, for only die-hard collectors and readers would go to the comic shops in order to get their comics. What was once as easy to get as going to a convenience store now became a bit inconvenient to get to. Many readers fell away, lured by the mass arrival of video games in both arcades meant just for the playing of video games, as well as home consoles.

The demographics of comics changed due to a few factors. The first is the advent of the Direct Market. Not everyone could get to their local comic shop, because “local” might have meant a few miles, whereas the local gas station or convenience store was easily within walking or biking range. For comic shops, a trip in a car quickly became the norm, and not every parent was willing or able to take their child on such an outing. The next cause was the price. Comic books started out costing only five or ten cents, and you’d get a lot of reading material for your money. But then paper costs increased, new production techniques were introduced, color was added, and the cost of comics started to creep up from ten, then fifteen, and then higher increments of five and ten cents, sometimes a quarter or even fifty cents, until comics today cost about four dollars for what is hopefully a twenty-two page color comic.

The last factor that changed the demographics of comics was the fan-turned-creator phenomenon. These were comic readers who were fans as children, then turning into creators on their favorite books. As they had grown, they wanted their heroes to grow; as they became more sophisticated, they wanted their heroes to become more sophisticated. They began writing stories that they would want to read, so while comics may have started out being for children and young teens, they are currently being read and collected by men in their mid-30’s to early 40’s, and where there was once a strong reason for girls to collect comics due to the romance titles of the time, there are very few women who now read or collect comics.

One of the biggest blows to comics was the 1960’s Batman television show. Due to the weirdly comedic slant of the show and the larger-than-life sound effects of the fighting, alone with the long held Wertham-like view that comics were for kids and the cause of juvenile delinquency, comic books in America were stigmatized everywhere with the Pow! and Zok! of the Batman show. It hasn’t been until relatively recently—within the last decade—that comics have started to really be taken as the serious business that it is.

While Marvel and DC rule the comic book roost with 38% and 32% respectively, there are other companies out there that have a somewhat stable market share. Usually Marvel has the largest market share on any given month, with DC running a close second [although that has changed from time to time], the next biggest publishers are Image Comics with 8%, IDW with 5%, and Dark Horse with 4%. The next tier with at least a full percentage point of market share are Dynamite Entertainment with 2%, Boom! Studios with about 2%, and Valiant Entertainment with 1%.

Although the days of million copy sell-outs are gone [the best, most recent example of this is Spawn #1 by Image Comics, published in 1992, and selling 1.7 million units] and the market has contracted, there are signs of life and growth due to new technologies that increase the ease of buying, as well as better storytelling.

While there are only around two thousand shops in the US, and they sell the bulk of comics in the Direct Market, two different types of comics have come about due to the advent of the internet and the new connectedness society enjoys. The first kind of comic is known as a webcomic, and these are much like the newspaper strips of old in both form and frequency. Some creators of webcomics are able to earn a living by selling merchandise based on their comic, as well as selling collected editions of their comics.

The other type are digital comics. These are comics that are not strips, but actual books, but they do not have a physical form. They can either be read on the internet, on a device connected to the internet, or through an application on a mobile device such as a cellphone or tablet.

A few short years ago, the fear was that digital comics would be the end of the comic shop, because readers would be able to get the books on their mobile device and would not need to go to the shop anymore. However, the opposite has been true: readers get the books through their mobile device, and then go to the comic shop to get the physical copy if they like the book enough. The market has seen steady growth in the past couple of years, spearheaded by initiatives like the New 52 [DC’s reboot of their entire line and continuity] as well as digital comics. In 2010 and 2011, the estimated overall comic book market was $660-$690 million, but the estimated overall market for 2012 is $700-$730 million, with 2013 looking to be on track for the same or more market growth. This is a far cry from 2000, which was estimated at $255-$275 million.

The future of comics, where the best stories are being told and where readers seem to be migrating to, are in creator-owned comics. Publishers such as Marvel and DC are owned by corporations—Disney and Time-Warner, respectively—and they have their icons such as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Batman, and Superman. These corporate-owned characters have creators that are more shepherds than anything else, telling stories that only have the illusion of change or growth for the characters. The main publisher of creator-owned comics is Image, and they publish books like The Walking Dead and Saga, the former growing in sales for a decade and finally getting its own television show and making a good living for creator Robert Kirkman, and the latter being a newer comic, going through multiple sell-outs and also earning its creators a good living.

While these two examples are extreme, they are also becoming the norm. Big-named creators are going to Image in order to tell their stories outside of corporate control, and they are being rewarded for their efforts. Soon, the conventional wisdom will be that a creator will cut their teeth on corporate comics, but then move to creator-owned when ready. This will be a complete turnaround from today, where a creator gets noticed doing creator-owned work, and then graduates to do work for Marvel/DC.

That will be the future, and it is nearer than we think. It will be another step in the history of comics. This time, though, we’ll be paying attention. It will be televised, so to speak.

That’s all for this week. No homework. See you in seven.

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About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

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