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Tilting at Windmills #190 is up

Brian Hibbs

Thesis: Are the publishers trying to kill the periodical comic?

Go read it at Comic Book Resources!


19 Responses to “ Tilting at Windmills #190 is up ”

  1. All good points Brian and completely correct. I’ve sustained a weekly habit for 19 years and here’s my breakdown:

    I’ve begun to question the drive on Wed when I have 2 books to pick up. Also, I’ve dropped a few titles (or passed on new series) when I have 14 (gasp!) books to grab on the last week of the month.

    First Wave – thats EXACTLY why I didn’t buy the book. Same thing with Green Hornet. Same thing with Hulk. I also dropped Web of Spider-man primarily because it was always shipping on the same day as Amazing. If Web had consistently shipped on that 4th Wed where there wasn’t already a thrice monthly Amazing – well, I wouldn’t have been so quick to kill it. I also dropped all 4 Superman books because I just don’t have a 4 book a month interest in Superman. I was just fine with Superman and Action (particularly when they had their title character) but it all got bogged down with the extra 2+ books. And yeah, I’m not sure my Green Lantern habit can support a 3rd ongoing (featuring Guy Gardner no less!) plus a twice monthly 24 issue mini. We’ll see….

    Oh, and I don’t buy any book 22 page $3.99 books. I tried with New Avengers and it just wasn’t worth it.

    I have a tighter than usual budget just like most people and between the crazy shipping schedules, the need to buy multiple books for a character, the price increases and the oversaturation of mediocrity – well hell, its tempting to chuck the whole thing and do an occasional trade instead.

  2. Great column, all your points are dead-on. I am currently finding myself questioning my habit completely as I have recently stopped going weekly. The problem is (in my case anyway), when I was going every week it was because I felt I had to. Once I started missing weeks here and there, I realized I didn’t HAVE to go every week, twice a month was fine. And that (combined with the price increases) has now led to me questioning whether or not I am still getting the enjoyment out of this habit that I once was.

  3. Great column, following up on a couple of great posts here about the same topic. Some more anecdotal evidence:

    1. I cut my “must have” list down by 2/3 as soon as every single book in the DC universe started tying into some big, central narrative. I want to be able to read a single ongoing series and learn more about that character, not read a dozen different titles just to get all of the plot information I need to understand the story. The first book to go was Rucka’s Wonder Woman, which I really enjoyed until the run-up to Identity Crisis when the book wasn’t about Wonder Woman anymore. So sad — that was a really good book for a while.

    2. And while we’re on the subject of continuity: I have nothing against it, but why does it have to be the main motivator of every story being published? Apparently, everything has to be explained in the clearest manner possible, and in the maximum number of issues, instead of just telling a good story and letting the readers figure a few things out on our own. Grant Morrison, bless his soul, still gives his readers some credit, but he’s definitely in the minority. I don’t want every book to tie into every other. And I have enough cognitive space available to me to understand that the Superman in one story isn’t the same Superman in another story. I don’t need his every appearance to make sense in some grand scheme.

    3. Someone smarter than me said on another forum (House to Astonish, maybe?) that focusing books on big story beats instead of on characters means that the entire story is spoiled in press releases and news stories. Those story beats are exactly what news stories focus on, and if there aren’t any character moments to underscore the beats, then what’s the point of actually buying the books? I could probably tell you a fairly detailed outline of the last two years of Avengers stories without having bought a single issue of any of their titles.

    I really do love comics, and I have for a long time. But I kind of hate what’s available to me now, at least in terms of good superhero storytelling. Thanks for bringing these issues to general attention and giving us a forum to discuss them.

  4. Bang on Brian,

    Another 18+ year habit here – and I’ve never been so close to just dropping my pull list and getting off floppies entirely.

    That’s not to say I’m gnashing my teeth about “walking away from the industry” or anything – but the “opportunity cost” of weeklies is starting to pale compared to trades, high end collections, indie and small-press published stuff – very little of which I get from my friendly neighbourhood dealer, comes from Diamond, or is published “big two”.

  5. Well, that was an excellently chunky read there, Mr Hibbs.

    Personally, I don’t think publishers are trying to kill the (North American Super Hero(NASH))periodical comic. I think what they are trying to do is save it. All these twittersome retreats, one sentence high concepts, continuity choked and “TEBTPBPX&YOI#Z”(heh!)products seem to me to be an attempt to codify and exploit the (perceived) unique qualities of NASH comics. It is, I think, the result of desperation but the result of this desperation is, for me, anodyne and vacuous.

    In an attempt to create a formula for success they have merely created formulaic stories which miss, as I see it, the real USP of NASH – inventiveness, creativity, just the all round beauty of unfettered imagination (but tied to solid creative writing/art skills, natch). The balance between creative expression and commercial necessity just seems totally out of whack at the moment.

    I don’t like it but I can see why they are doing it. A look at the sales for all that Siege, Civil War etc. mush shows you exactly why they are doing it. After all if you can nail success down in a formula you’d be a fool not to try. But only a fool thinks you can create a formula for success (except maybe Darkseid, who is no man’s fool!).

    The more formulaic they make the regular comics the more people are going to drift away. Formula just isn’t regularly rewarding enough on a sensation level. Nobody buys comics for the formula. And the formula is starting to poke through modern NASH comics like the bones on a desiccated corpse.

    So, I don’t think they are trying to kill the NASH periodical comic but I think they will if they carry on like this.

  6. I guess I should also note that I am aware that there are indeed formulas for success. There are formulaic products in all areas of entertainment but these tend to be formulas on an individual creator basis rather than a company wide basis. A director or an author may have a successful formula but I can’t think of a studio or publishing house that has a formula that they impose on all their directors or authors. I could of course be in error there.

    I was bemoaning the apparent move towards a formula that would be applied line wide to Marvel or DC’s “products” rather than the individual formula of writers. I don’t think I made that clear, apologies.

  7. Brian,

    You make a very strong argument, but I have some constructive criticism. I think a lack of respect towards your customers can be inferred from comparing them to drug addicts. Talking about keeping customers in the “habit” seemingly implies you see them as vehicles to deliver money to you and not as customers you wish having a relationship with.

    That aside, I think you make some strong arguments with why the current publishing schedules make no sense. I’m guessing no one at any of the comic companies schedules with an eye on the calendar to exploit the weaknesses in the proposed shipping schedules of the competition. It seems the prevalent attitude is to just get books out before the month ends, meanwhile sale opportunities are walking out the door and never coming back.

  8. With ya John K! Both of the big 2 are applying a very strategic formula to the way they create and distribute titles and storylines. And I can’t argue with it – if you only look at the sales figures it makes a lot of sense. What they don’t realize is that they’re not building a broader customer basis and are actually losing fans. Essentially they’re getting fewer customers to buy more titles. And that’s starting to hit a tipping point. As I see it the formula is this:

    1. Create a high profile mini-series that hinges around a major plot point and involves either a character group or the entire line.

    2. Publicize said plot point as a “game changer” for continuity. Make the story matter.

    3. Build a series of tie-ins or minis with banners reflecting main story. Farm out to competent B and C writers to work out individual character story beats.

    4. Set up a new status quo at end of event to lead into next status quo.

    5. Rinse. Repeat.

    Examples: Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis, Sinestro Corps War, Blackest Night, House of M, Civil War, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, Batman RIP, Superman’s New Krypton Saga, Fall of the Hulks, Fall of Green Arrow, etc. etc. etc.

    I can’t blame ’em – its a very corporate way of looking at comic book production. Most of these made a ton of money. Unfortunately I can only plunk down cash for a couple at a time and as ALL properties head in that direction it becomes much less special. Many of these “events” reek of corporate summit/sales meetings. They don’t understand that a great comic series stands on its own and does its own unique thing. This is an art form. If you did this in film production it’d be just an endless stream of summer blockbusters without the District 9s or Inglorious Basterds.

    I really think that sales on these will drop as fans get pickier and realize its the same old shit over and over and over again. Only a matter of time that it becomes too much to buy and we, as consumers, throw up our hands and find a hobby thats cheapier and easier to follow. One that isn’t designed by a board meeting.

  9. As I stated in a personal email sent to Mr Hibbs, I think he’s right on target. It’s good to hear Brian voice what many people have been stating for a long time.

    Readers have been echoing many of Brian’s sentiments on message boards for years. Industry insiders often dismiss what readers state because of the rampant complaining but try looking at it from a different point of view. Maybe what readers have been saying is that they love the art form and want to buy comics but publishers are making it very easy to move on to other things.

    I agree that it is very insulting that we readers are referred to as addicts. Once we were referred to as fanboys, then whiney complainers and now we’re addicts.

    I’ve stated often that only in the industry of comics are people so arrogant that they believe they can get away with such a public, degenerative view of their consumers but sadly, it IS how we readers are viewed, both by retailers and publishers.

    It’s evident in the garbage they pubish and how often they publish it. They can do what they want no matter how bad the story is or how insane the idea sounds because publishers believe readers are addicts who will buy anything just to get their fix.

    The attention thing Brian was talking about? Yes, to keep your ‘user’ as a customer, the dealer needs to maintain their attention, the best of which is supplying them regularly. But publishers believe readers who demand their comics on time simply suffer from a delusional state of entitlement because we’re just a bunch of addicts who want what we want when we want it.

    It all worked out in the end though because it was those same late comics that taught me I can survive very well without going to the shop every week.

    After late comics showed me I can live without my weekly fix, it became easier to just drop the other comics I was buying not because they were good but just out of habit.

    Like the EICs say, ‘If you don’t like it, vote with your wallet and don’t buy it.’

    I took their advice and now I don’t, reducing my comic purchase from about 20 per month down to one.

  10. I definitely understand Rudi’s reticence to DC’s pulp comics, but I think the reason I’m not in the same boat is just as troubling: I’ve had no problem deciding to sample all three titles (the First Wave miniseries, and the ongoing Spirit and Doc Savage) because I’ve already cut ties with the mainstream superhero stuff. Not counting these pulp titles, I currently purchase ONLY ONE title between the main continuities of DC and Marvel, that being the hit-and-miss Batman Confidential. Since that title is pretty much an extension of Legends of the Dark Knight, it’s fairly self-contained, and even so, it’s been spotty enough that I’m probably on my way out.

    You’re absolutely right about over-saturation: the new continuity for GI JOE had so many monthly titles that, after about six months, I dropped the franchise altogether. I read all of IDW’s Star Trek, in part because the titles have been very entertaining and fairly self-contained, but I’m only picking and choosing from IDW’s Doctor Who and Dark Horse’s Star Wars, and Who is probably on its way out, too.

    The titles I most eagerly anticipate, like Criminal and Chew, have nothing to do with mainstream superhero continuity or property franchises, and they hardly have anything to do with the Big Two, with Icon being a separate imprint for Marvel.

    I am not and have never been a “zombie” for DC or Marvel, but surely the companies can’t depend on zombies alone. A few particularly titles are keeping me coming — fortnightly now, if not weekly — but my pull list keeps shrinking.

    About why this is happening, Brian, I offer Robert Conquest’s Third Law of Politics:

    “The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.”

  11. Great column.
    What I don’t get is why the publishers never seem to learn from history.
    Taking a title – say Avengers or Justice League or Justice Society – and spinning off other books is never sustainable.
    Remember West Coast Avengers? Remember Force Works? Remember Solo Avengers? How about Justice League Europe and Extreme Justice?
    Sure, the titles sell for a time, but ultimately the publisher cancels them and decides to regroup and launch a brand new, single title from the ashes (Morrison’s JLA is a good example).
    I mean, wasn’t it only a few years ago that Marvel cancelled a ton of X-books to focus on a few titles?
    I’m a big fan of certain characters, but no, I don’t WANT to read five books about them every month. I want to read one REALLY WELL-WRITTEN, WELL-DRAWN book.
    As an Avengers fan, rather than being excited at Marvel’s recent campaign to launch four – FOUR – Avengers titles, I just thought “when will this end?” And something tells me a fifth Avengers book involving Hank Pym and written by Dan Slott is around the corner…
    And of course I’m not buying all four. Maybe two, if even that.
    Maybe I’m an odd comics customer, but I don’t buy 10 books a week. A month, maybe, but I try really hard to keep my monthly titles down to five or six. Why? Because then I really look forward to buying and reading those titles and enjoy them. Heck, maybe I even read them twice before the next issue.
    Anything more becomes like homework. Suddenly you have this huge stack and you’re reading it not to enjoy the stories but to just get them read before next Wednesday. Where’s the fun in that?

  12. “As an Avengers fan, rather than being excited at Marvel’s recent campaign to launch four – FOUR – Avengers titles, I just thought “when will this end?” And something tells me a fifth Avengers book involving Hank Pym and written by Dan Slott is around the corner…”

    There’s already five, I think, if you count the limited series. There’s Avengers, New Avengers, Secret Avengers, Avengers Academy. But there’s also Avengers Prime: Siege Aftermath, a 3-issue limited series by Bendis and Alan Davis. There’s also a New Avengers: Luke Cage limited series, and Joe Casey’s doing another Avengers limited series. I don’t know what the story is with Slott, though. That’s not including the only-kinda-spinoffs like Thunderbolts.

    There’s going to be two Iron Man ongoing series. If you include limited series, there’ll be multiple books related to Nick Fury, Thor, and Captain America. Plus, you know, I don’t know what all’s going to be in the Astonishing line, which is Marvel’s answer to the All-Star line which was DC’s answer to the Ultimate line– which is still going on, too, I guess…? So, there are more Avengers titles if you include those, right? Doesn’t Millar have an Ultimate Avenger something…? I don’t even understand how many Hulk titles there are, but I think there’s some kind of event going on…?

    There’s more creators than books to go around, everyone wants a career in comics, and no one wants to go back to being indie-comic poor. Combine that with head people possibly distracted by movies and “opportunities”– I don’t know what’s going on with the bureaucracy but it feels like editors all doing their pet projects and no one steering the ship. Books are getting published that don’t make any damn sense. Brother Voodoo comics…? Brother Voodoo…? I liked SWORD, that Steve Sanders art is always welcome with me, but … did they seriously try to launch a comic around BEAST??? They’re about to launch a Black Widow series. What the hell’s going on?

    Also: not including the Noir line.

    I can’t pretend to understand the economics or logic of any of it. I don’t know– Marvel editors on twitter– maybe they can twitter an explanation.

  13. Hey now, Mr. Rudi! You should totally have a go on First Wave if they have any issues left. It was grand pulpy stuff.

    First Wave and its attendant spin-offs are precisely the kind of new titles that will suffer as a result of the over-saturation DC and Marvel are so stubbornly committing themselves to. (I stress that I mean “new titles” not “titles I like”, after all I’ve only read First Wave.) If the majority of the customers’ cash is tied up in established titles by established creators where are the new titles and the new talent going to come from? And where are the new readers going to find an entry point?

    As for scheduling I feel your bewilderment Mr. Hibbs. Surely this is the one area where a formula would be most appropriate, and surely it can’t be that difficult to work one out. I don’t know what Dept.handles scheduling but they aren’t doing what they should be. Or maybe they are, I don’t know anything about publishing after all.

    As for late books, I would have agreed that knowing when something is available, i.e. it has a regular and predictable schedule, would be a big factor in repeat custom. Yet when people dare (dare!) to complain a book is late they just get the “do you want it now, or do you want it right?!” twittering. How about both? That’s what your company is set up to do, right? And your company has been in business for around 70 years, but it appears you still can’t get it out right AND on time? I mean I can wait personally, but it’s not very professional is it, and I do believe it encourages people to go for the trade or just move on from comics completely.

    In The Agony And The Ecstasy when Rex Harrison demands of Charlton Heston “When will you make an end?!” and Heston replies “When I am finished!” we side with Heston because he is painting the Sistine Chapel. Had he been producing Ultimate Wolverine Vs. Ultimate Hulk I think we would allow Rex had a fair point.

  14. You are right on the money Brian. I religiously used to make a weekly trip (every Wednesday) to my LCBS, but since the holidays and the screwy shipping schedule, I visit my LCBS maybe once or twice a month. I don’t feel like making the trip (it’s a 30 minute round trip drive) and spending the gas money just to pick up one or two books. I have also reassessed my buying habits and have narrowed down the list of the monthly periodicals I buy. I find that books I used to buy out of habit, and no longer do, I no longer miss.

  15. “Taking a title – say Avengers or Justice League or Justice Society – and spinning off other books is never sustainable.”

    Does it have to be, as long as Marvel can make Dark Avengers its best-selling title for a year and then relaunch it as something else?

    This is a different kind of industry today, where ongoing series aren’t really ongoing series – they’re limited runs that revolve around specific creative teams. They’re essentially miniseries or maxiseries without constant relaunches (although frequently with).

    Should these books be written to be more sustainable? Well, no. Aside from titles like Green Lantern or Captain America, I can’t really think of any mainstream title today that’s managed to sustain or improve its numbers. People aren’t interested in the long haul – if they were, they’d buy the essentials line or other reprints of 40+ years of “the long haul.”

    People today want one story at a time, and that’s what the publishers are giving them.

  16. John K(UK),

    “In The Agony And The Ecstasy when Rex Harrison demands of Charlton Heston “When will you make an end?!” and Heston replies “When I am finished!” we side with Heston because he is painting the Sistine Chapel. Had he been producing Ultimate Wolverine Vs. Ultimate Hulk I think we would allow Rex had a fair point.”

    I think that is the absolute best point made on the matter ever said better than anyone has ever said it.

  17. Yeah, John K(UK), very good line.

  18. A great article that is spot on from my perspective. I used to buy up a ton of titles, but with the price hike and oversaturation of titles, I am now cutting back severely and collecting only core titles and non-Marvel/DC stuff on a regular basis. The other books I will consider only in trades, if at all. Too bad.

  19. Why thank you Mr. Horn and Mr. Bubba. That’s very nice of you.

    I would be most interested to hear if anyone from an actual comic company responds to Mr.Hibbs’ insightful article and the questions it raises. I won’t hold my breath though.

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