And Who Mourns Vaudeville?

Brundle Guy writes:

The times, they are a-changing, as the man once sang. They certainly are for the industry I work in, comic book publishing. It’s odd, in a time where comics have greater cultural cache than ever before, the publishing end struggles. There are a lot of reasons. The direct market is having the same trouble all other retail businesses are and we don’t have many alternatives. Online store sales do all right for trades but not single issues, the benchmark of success for our industry. Digital copy purchases on the few titles available are nowhere near the cost of production, much less enough to make a profit, especially with how people don’t like paying full price for digital copies.

This leads to a lot of doom and gloom forecasting in certain circles, and while I might not necessarily say that the doom and gloomers are absolutely incorrect, I think they’re slightly off-base. I don’t think comics are going away, I just don’t think they’ll be exactly the way they are now for very much longer. And that’s probably OK.

Even in addition to the points above, the standard monthly comic increasingly seems like an outmoded form. In an age where people can throw down a few bucks a month to have instant access to hundreds if not thousands of movies and television shows, what sense does it make to pay four dollars for one part one of a 14-part story, like so many “decompressed storytelling” comics are today? And although bitching about how expensive comics are is a favorite pastime amongst fans, it’s really difficult to make them much less expensive. Instead of the old days, where a team of staff artists in a room made pages for comics that sold potentially millions of copies in groceries and corner stores in every town all over the country, now pages are drawn by incredible artists from all over the world for comics that are sold in a much smaller number of sometimes difficult to find specialty shops and are extraordinarily lucky if they have the very rare privilege to sell in six-figure numbers.

Also, our fans are getting old. A recent survey of DC comic sales found that only around 2% of their audience was under 18, and the average age of their reader was 35, I’ve even heard some say higher. A hefty portion of the fan letters I read begin “I’ve been reading comics for 25 years.” And there’s barely any attempt to reach a newer or younger audience. We’ll simply increase the age of our target marketing and ad sales.

It all doesn’t seem terribly sustainable. At the same time, comics were at this point before, and the change to the direct market turned it all around. Perhaps we’ll find that change again. But I think this time that change will not just be in the distribution method, but will change the very essence and nature of comics themselves.

I was talking about this with a friend of mine who is a big comic nerd, and she got terribly depressed. Even though I, too, love comics, and not only that, but at the moment they’re my livelihood, I can’t get too upset. Think about Vaudeville, I told her. I love the idea of Vaudeville, and whenever a show or film or play infuses itself with a bit of Vaudeville, it always makes me happy. But do I miss the Vaudeville circuit? Do I still wish there were entertainers out there pushing, struggling and starving to keep alive an art form whose best features were absorbed by other mediums decades ago? No, I don’t. I’m more than happy to see people like Jackie Chan and Jason Statham and Adam McKay keeping bits and pieces of that spirit alive.

So, is my industry dying? Yeah, maybe, kinda, in a way. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Nope, I don’t think so.

Still, it’s strange to be standing here at this odd moment of transition. No one knows what the landscape’s going to look like five years from now. That’s a bit wild, really. So perhaps I’ll write more on this, sort of keep tabs on an industry as it weebles and wobbles to see if it ever falls down.

Could be an interesting story.

About Brundle Guy

Half Man, Half Middle-Man, he's paid to help others realize their artistic visions while struggling in obscurity with his own. What hath social science wrought?!
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Personal reflections and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to And Who Mourns Vaudeville?

  1. Fascinating stuff, tks. Looking forward to more.

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  2. Blowhard, Esq. says:

    Back in middle school (the late 80s), I got really into comics. I delivered newspapers for a while and I would blow all my money at the local comic book store. The Avengers, Batman: A Death in the Family, The Dark Knight Returns, Todd McFarlane’s run in The Amazing Spider-Man, Watchmen — lots of other titles that I can’t remember now but that I still have boxed up at my parents’ house. I stopped for a while then picked back up when I discovered the Vertigo titles in the mid-90s, especially Sandman. After high school other hobbies took over, mainly music and movies, and I never really got back into them.

    I still pick up trade paperbacks or graphic novels every once in a while, though, and my best friend — who’s been an avid comics reader for years — will send or recommend stuff (Bone, Y: The Last Man). Last graphic novel I read was Blankets, which I enjoyed a lot. Another friend recommended Tatsumi’s Good-Bye and The Push Man, also great stuff.

    What are your favorite titles? What should I check out?

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    • Brundle Guy says:

      Well, a lot of it depends on what you like. I’m a big horror buff, so I’m really digging Joe Hill’s “Locke & Key.” I love pretty much everything Jonathan Hickman does. He writes some for Marvel, though I know super hero mileage definitely varies, but you should certainly check out his creator-owned stuff like “The Nightly News,” “Pax Romana,” “TransHuman” or “The Manhattan Projects.” I really dug Brian Woods’ recently ended “DMZ” and “Northlanders.” There’s also some good stuff at the Big Two these days, but again, super hero mileage varies.

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  3. Callowman says:

    Good stuff, BG. I’m guessing you’re working in the traditional comics world, insofar as such a thing exists? How do you react to this take on comics by former blogger and comics fan Ilkka Kokkarinen (who seems to be talking more about alt-comics)?

    “Every time you read a graphic novel, you are reading an illustrated movie pitch that hopes to attract some movie studio head honcho to option and greenlight it. The dirty little secret of the comic book industry is that, however it tries to ride on the nostalgia, these days comic books don’t make any money. Just as IBM is no longer a PC manufacturer, comic book publishers are not in the comic book business but in intellectual property management business, and make all their
    profits from movies and character licensing.”

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    • Brundle Guy says:

      I think in a lot of cases that sounds right on the money. There are definitely a number of guys out there, though, who very much ARE heavily invested in comics as their own medium, and oddly those guys are largely at The Big Two, DC and Marvel. No one is more invested in comics as an art form than Grant Morrison, who is doing some awesome stuff at DC, and it’s hard to imagine Jeff Lemire’s wacko Animal Man as any kind of movie or TV pitch. At Marvel you’ve got the previously mentioned Hickman, who may understand the nature and language of comics better than just about anyone nowadays, and gonzo guys like Jason Aaron as well. Basically the Big Two hire people who tend to be pretty heavy comics junkies.

      One of the problems people have had with The Big Two recently is that there aren’t any new Young Turks storming the gates and making names for themselves. I think part of that problem is that a lot of the new writers are indeed basically making back door TV pilots or movie pitches, and consequently aren’t really making great comic books.

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  4. Sir Barken Hyena says:

    It’s surprising to me that the comics medium is on much the same state as music, if not as advanced, though on reflection I guess it’s not that surprising. I would have thought this to be a golden age for the medium, but the age stats you site say otherwise.

    It’s a big question to me what kind of new things are going to come along to replace all of these quintessential 20th C forms…impossible to predict but I imagine we oldies will find whatever it is hard to accept.

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  5. Sax von Stroheim says:

    Very interesting post. I do think it’s a shame that the super-hero comic book companies are struggling just as their creations are taking a more central place in pop culture than they’ve ever had. On the other hand, I think we’re really living through a Golden Age to be a comics reader. There are dozens of world class cartoonists working at the top of their game right now: Jaime Hernandez has never been better, and Gilbert Hernandez keeps pushing the envelope with his avant-garde/grindhouse mash-ups; Eddie Campbell seems to have a new book out every year; the big alt-cartoonists of the 1990s – Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Seth, Chester Brown, et al. are all still putting out new work; there’s a whole boatload of younger alt-cartoonists who seem to just now be hitting their stride, working on defining projects, like Johnny Ryan’s “Prison Pit” and Josh Simmons’ horror comics; Kevin Huizenga all by himself. Not to mention what seems to be a kind of small press resurgence or that Image is at least trying to get cartoonist-driven genre work in front of an audience (I’m thinking of stuff like Stokoe’s “Orc Stain” and the new “Prophet” reboot).

    But maybe an even bigger deal (and this really speaks to your vaudeville metaphor) is that this is the golden age of reprints. We have more access than ever before to quality reprints of material that 10 or 15 years ago, I can’t imagine any of the comic book companies would have thought about publishing – things like Leonard Starr’s “Mary Perkins, On Stage” or Fletcher Hanks’ super-hero comics.

    Of course, though, these art comics and archival projects are all directed at a pretty specific, narrow audience: maybe the fate of the comic book will be closer to what happened with jazz.

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    • Brundle Guy says:

      Sax, I think your jazz analogy is spot on. It’s also relevant to your note about the 90s alt scene guys, as I’d say they’re the “experimental jazz” of comics. I must admit, though, I’ve never really been able to get into them. The amount of shit I’ve had to take over the years for not liking that crowd, particularly Clowes and Ware, has been significant, but alas, just couldn’t ever seem to develop a taste for those guys. They’re both great artist, and I’ll certainly give them their due, I just never care a jot for their stories.

      Image is definitely doing some great stuff, though. Still haven’t read “Orc Stain,” but man, that “Prophet” reboot is pretty fantastic, right?

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