Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Walled City of Babymania

I have never had so many comments on a single post as the one on the new Batman show and my mini-rant on the foibles of the comic biz/hobby and the Babymen. Seems I struck a nerve with many and struck some Babymen square in their diapers.

Those who know me well have long known of my sadness and frustration with the comics biz on many levels, chiefly the retailer and the fickle fan and my disdain of the Babymen and what I called the Walled city of Babymania, better know as the local comic shop. Don't get me wrong, I do love comics, but comics as a medium and in a much broader sense than most, even many of my fellow artists. I am also an artist an so my judgments and opinions come not from the average fans POV but from a guy who makes his daily bread actually creating comics. there are a few good comic shops like Captain Blue hen and Showcase but most are the very cliche of the Babyman den, and nobody but a babyman will ever want to go in there or be welcome to.

I should also come clean and say I never buy or bought comics for stories, I buy comics for art. That doesn't mean I don't want a great story too, ideally you should have both, but a good story drawn poorly is just something I can't even waste trying to wade through. It's like watching a bad movie, you flip the channel.

I don't expect the babymen to ever see what I'm talking about, they can't. But the fact is their taste is not the taste of a large pool of average readers, it's the taste of the fetishist, the niche collector. They so resist change and want such a limited type of product that unless you have been following this stuff for years it's really not something the average reader could even get into. Even back in the 80's you had a big variety of comic, from Richie Rich, Archies, Conan, Rock, CarToons magazine, the Warren mags, Heavey Metal ( when it was good) Marvel, DC, Goldkey/Western all of which published a much wider selection of book. Now almost everything is superjocks, some kind of zombie and if it isn't---it doesn't sell worth a crap. And by sell I mean enough to make the creator a few grand minimum an issue, or a livable wage.

But the sad fact is since no new kids in any real number are coming into the hobby of comics and falling in love with them for a few years and since 90-95% of retailers are the worst kind of dumb businessman you can imagine, who don't seek to build more customers, and definitely not kids, it's a double whammy. There has been to my observation over a 10 year unraveling of the old idea of what the comic biz was always about driven faster to it's doom and bust by the speculators.

Chiefly I see that our hobby was alway a: impulse, cheap entertainment, collecting/hobby. Comics were for most of their existence a form of cheap entertainment and an impulse buy at the local supermarket, drug store, newsstand, mom & pop, etc. The direct market is all we really have left now as nobody else for the most part wants to carry the darn things anymore. Even the WB stores didn't want to carry them as they were too much hassle to stock and didn't earn enough money per foot space. 2 waves (at least) of kids have come and gone since the boom-bust of the 90's, where at NYC shows I'd see cliques of kids toting boxes and backpacks of comics around to get signed, sure that the certificate of authenticity and my signature would mean they were sitting on gold bars!
But those kids are now in college and have long since abandoned comics like Britney Spears, pogs and buying CD's. and nobody with the real means to do anything about it has reversed this trend so only the die hard fans...the Babymen are left, clinging, clinging, clinging. Now not all fans are babymen, but 80% must be. And thier taste is the real issue as I see it. Since they can't emotionally move on they must drag down these children's concepts with their adult fantasies. so catwoman isn't a jewel thief, she's a dominatrix. Mary Marvel is a big boobed superslut. Fun is an outlaw concept, comedy, Pffffft! And so it's the snake eating it's tail now.

And they are the fans who drag boxes at cons have graying temples. Sometimes it's a dad with his some or kids, but more often than not I see hardly any kids at cons and no kids in the comic shop outside of Free comic book day. The kids I see reading comics are in Borders reading manga, that's the generation that has skipped right past the Walled City and they are never coming back. the next wave probably isn't coming either and the big companies now realize their futures are not tied to publishing but to licensing to keep the whole thing going. one of the ironic things I find most amusing now is how people beat their chest like Tarzan (another character nobody gives a F**K about) when a books sells 100K. the sad fact is almost every book out now would have been canceled when i started in the 80's as a pro. At that point books selling below 60K or so were axed. What I want to know then is how can books that were deemed unprofitable at higher numbers in the mid 80's can now be deemed profitable in today's market when they cost more to produce and sell less?


Michael Dooney said...

Yeah I'm with on this one for sure. I sure would prefer cheap paper, simple coloring and staightforward storylines but I suppose those days are done and gone. Ironically when I give comics to kids I know, they devour them like like Garfield eats lasagna. It's too bad they are not cheap and within their reach any more.
Man I sure used to love spinning that creaking comic rack at the 7-11!

Steve Buccellato said...

Good post, Mike. I started in the biz right around the same time you did, so I feel your pain and share your bewilderment & frustration. perhaps foolishly, I try to be more optimistic, though I don't know why!

"how can books that were deemed unprofitable at higher numbers in the mid 80's can now be deemed profitable in today's market when they cost more to produce and sell less?"

Good question! And the answer is either that the books are not profitable today or, maybe more likely, that in the 80's they cancelled books that sold under 60K simply because they could. Why bother printing a book that sells 60K if you can just do a third Wolverine title?

Also, I'd say that comics are not more expensive to produce today for several reasons. First, you should not forget how bloated the infrastructures at Marvel & DC were back then compared to today. There were massive firings in all departments, remember. Also, as someone who worked on staff from 1985-1989, I remember huge wastes of money--we FedExed everything, editors were very liberal with expense accounts, and employee salaries & creators' rates started a climb that would continue until the bottom fell out in the 90's. Todays salaried employees & freelance artists don't make nearly as much as they used to. For example, my coloring rate is less than half what it once was (which is why I rarely color comics anymore!)

The tools of desktop publishing made things more efficient, & cheaper too. As did other technological advances in printing, like direct-to-plate. These innovations clearly make comics cheaper to produce--that's why so many of us have been able to self-publish. If only we could sell 60K copies!

Anyway, I know these things don't really explain your point about profits. But I thought these were points worth mentioning, for their historical value!

I'm not gonna touch the "Babyman" issue!

Anonymous said...

You are dead on Mike! Comics are now writen for trade, and in a couple years we'll see a room filled w/ wheelchairs and walkers. I don't know what to do to get younger readers... seems like w/ all the distractions they have, it's a hard sell. Heck, I've got an office filled w/ Toys, Movies, and thousands of Comics, and my kids don't care about anything outside of the X-box. Pretty sad I can't even get my own kids interested in comics.

Rodrigo Baeza said...

Very enjoyable post, Mike; I agree with most of your observations.

One thing I'd add regarding comparing sales today with sales in the 80's (and before) is that back then a large percentage of sales was still done in the newsstand (with comics handled on a returnable basis).

This meant that comics were sold in a wider variety of places than today (which helps explain the larger circulation), but also that the costs could be higher (in order to sell 100K in the newsstand market you had to print a much larger number, and then hope that the amount of returns didn't eat your profit).

Frank Santoro said...

I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the original post and this follow-up. Refreshing to hear it from someone with your vantage point. Thanks.

Bill Nolan said...

Keep fighting the good fight, Mike! Next time I see you at a con, I'm going to ask you for a Mary Marvel sketch. Just so you can show everyone else how it's done. Still need to get one from Michael Dooney someday, too, now that I think about it... :)

Jon McNally said...

As Mr. Santoro said above, thanks for the Brave and the Bold post and for this follow-up.

It's said to think that comic collectors, in both direct and indirect ways, have played a primary role in the demise of their favorite pastime.

tone said...

It is very frustrating to see no kids reading comics. I was always afraid of leaving my old collection unprotected with my young kids. To my amazement they will not go near a comic book. They think it's so old school. I printed a magazine for 30 000 kids about comic book related news and there was not much reaction. I reached out to the comic stores to advertise in a project like this to bring in new readers. Nada. They were not interested. They basically said kids are not there customers. A sad state of affairs. What will happen will their base of customers start to die? The industry is just about collecting for profit. Is there profit? Not for me.

The comics for kids are a laugh. Nobody buys those things. They are an insult. This new Brave and Bold show is a real farce. Are people forgetting to draw heroes the right way.

Ever hear about Mad for Kids. That is another laugh, recycle old crap and call it Mad for Kids. Sad. I always thought that was for kids.

No wonder kids have turned to video games, the stories and graphics are better.

No challenges out there, no new characters. Same old stuff.

Manga, not my cup of tea but kids see something different. We still didn't conquer this domain, churn out the same old boring DC and Marvel characters. Rehash old 70's story lines and rip continuity apart.

It's too bad, the best part of growing up was taken away from kids.

David said...

I remember back in the late 90s taking my ten-year old brother-in-law (yes, you read that right) to a convention and all the pros in attendance fell all over him with smiles, handshakes, free sketches, free comics. It took me a moment to figure out was going on, but soon I realized he was one out of maybe four or five kids at a con filled to bursting with people my age and up. The pros reacted to his presence with a combination of relief and desperate hope, as if saying, "Yes! This is who I came to see! The rest of them are coming soon, right? Right?"

I'm not in the biz, and maybe you can correct me if I'm wrong, but I get the distinct impression an awful lot of pros would trade a thousand praises from 30-something worshippers for one glimpse of a kid reading and enjoying a comic he or she worked on, whether that kid knows who they are or not. And I suspect the sight of a few happy under-ten con attendees would bring a bigger smile than a gazillion pudgy fanboys in homemade superhero costumes, or even jailbait Princess Leias in their slavegirl bikinis.

Anyway, I learned as a kid that the world was big enough for both Beatles and Wings, Sean Connery and Roger Moore, Neal Adams Batman and Adam West Batman. I enjoy variety and frankly I can't fathom why some people are so threatened by any riff on a superhero that doesn't exactly fit their preferences. Trust me, even if B&B is a ratings smash, there will still be plenty enough comic book beheadings, dismemberments and zombie brain feasts to satisfy the social misfits in the direct market crowd.

Oh, and as far as printing comics even when they don't sell great, it's obvious to me comics are now just a presentation tool to pitch toy lines and movie adaptations. That's where the money is.

Pj Perez said...

I'm finding your series of rants very entertaining, Mike. Many of the issues with the market and the superhero genre in general that you've brought up are the very reasons I stopped collecting comics (at least, new ones) when I was 16 -- and that was 16 years ago. Only recently have I dipped the toe into the stream again, and with some trepidation.

It's funny -- I was thinking the other day about how different convenience stores such as 7-11 look to me now than when I was a kid. Back then, you could stop in, grab a Slurpee, a Mad Magazine, an issue of Quasar (some dude named Manley drew that, I think) and maybe even play a round of Super Mario Bros.

Now it's all porn and cigarettes.

Last night I was reading through some late-60s Batman comics I have but have never read. The particular issue was the first 15-cent issue, and there was a note from the editor inside explaining why there was a 3-cent price increase. 3 CENTS. I want the industry to explain why a comic costs more than a loaf of bread. Can't we go back to Mando paper, guys?

Anyway, the new Batman cartoon designs look fun and I'm glad to see you're enjoying your work. Cheers, Mike!

Sphinx Magoo said...

When I was growing up, comics cost about 25 cents and the trick was figuring out which to get with 50 cents: two comics or two candy bars. Now for $2.25 my daughter can pick up two candy bars or one issue of "Teen Titans Go!"

My 11 year old daughter reads comics. She picks up most of the Archie line, especially the Sonic the Hedgehog titles and Sabrina. She likes "Teen Titans Go!" a lot and she reads manga. As she gets older I'm sure she'll be reading even more manga. Why's that? Because many of her favorite books make her laugh. A lot of American comic fans just don't get that. They look at the big eyes and drawing styles and scratch their heads and wonder what the fuss is about and they miss the point. It's the character and empathy and laughs and good times. It's the same reason Marvel trumped DC in the 60's... while DC editors fussed and complained about the stories and crude artwork, Marvel offered real identifiable characters with expressive faces and exciting stories.

So while fanboys complained about the new Teen Titans show because it wasn't enough like Marv Wolfman and George Perez and because it looked too "anime", my kids and kids all across the world were eating it up and laughing and having a great time. And that's the Teen Titans they'll always remember.

I was once in a Border's and saw two teenaged girls head over to the spinner rack for new comics. I overheard them say how they both liked "Teen Titans Go!" but they agreed that the DCU Teen Titans book was not "as good". How typical of the current market! Here were girls (representing a market the publishers say they want) expressing a demand for a certain product (more "Teen Titans Go!" which is rumored to be on the chopping block) but the publishers instead offer up what they interpret the demand to be and the consumers walk away.

Mike Manley said...

I saw two teen boys at Borders pick up some comics, say they hated the Teen Titans comic based on the TV show because it was too cartoony. They then picked through the rest of the rack and decided that the comics were too expensive and went to spend their money on something else.

That is also another big reality many, many people just can't accept, for the entertainment value you get, (the time it takes for the avrergae bathroom visit) comics are just too goddam expensive. That same money can get some DVD's or games for a whole weekend's worth of playing. Hard to argue with that.

When I was a kid, Atari was cool, but not as cool a a Kirby Comic, now video games are way better than most comics and the fix I could only get from a comic I can get from playing the games.

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