Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Making Rape Jokes at the Darkness

I like superhero comics.

I like a lot of superhero comics from the big two. I like some creator-owned superhero comics as well, from "Empowered" and "Love and Capes" to webcomics like "The Non-Adventures of Wonderella."

I like a lot of non-superhero comics as well. I read more webcomics (XKCD, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Order of the Stick) than floppies in that regard, but I've got a fair share of "Scott Pilgrim" and "Walking Dead" and "Hellboy" on my shelves.

I spend an average of $30 a week on comics. Intermittent trades are in addition to that.

I am not the problem.

If you are, for instance, an indie comics creator, someone without a superhero title, then I can imagine you would have some issues with the mainstream system. Even from the consumer point of view, I have no idea how indie comics hit it big. By the time I hear of some indie book, it's usually already professionally published. Either it's from some established creator (usually someone who came up in literature or film or mainstream comics) or it's self-published or it's part of some "the book has to be popular before it can get noticed" weird causality loop. I don't know where most indie creators start.

That being said, there are obviously avenues for indie creators to get published, whether through self-publication means or through the smaller comics publication houses, or even through imprints at the big two, like Vertigo and Icon. Of course, getting published doesn't necessarily entail making it big. You have to get an audience, and that isn't a sure thing.

Of course, it's easier with a superhero property. At the big two, superhero comics have a built-in audience; even new titles are tapping into an existing customer base dedicated to a universe with history. Indie superhero comics don't have that particular inroad, but still tap into the existing base. Comics are a niche market, and superhero fans make up most of that niche. The indie comics market is a small, somewhat overlapping fraction of that market, and it's splintered. People who like romantic biographical books might not like pulp sci-fi or zombie horror or musical urban fantasy.

And people who like superhero comics might not like any of it.

The problem for indie comics creators is not that people like superhero comics any more than the problem for sci-fi novelists is that people like mystery novels. The problem is that the market is small and splintered. A large market can sustain a wider variety of genres. It's anecdotal, but it seems like when the movie industry is doing well, there's a much wider variety of movies; studios are more willing to take risks. When the film industry is doing poorly, variety shrinks to the things that work or are likely to work, and the only risky movies are ones that have established directors and casts. And so you see the current market, glutted with superhero films, CGI kids movies, lame comedies, and the occasional "Inception" or "Black Swan." Again, the problem is not with the audience who enjoys "Iron Man" or even "Gulliver's Travels," it's with a market that's too small for the producers to be willing to take risks.

And the comics market faces this problem twice; the publishers represent one barrier, but the stores represent another. Just as a struggling publisher is unwilling to take risks on unknown quantities when determining what books to fund and produce, a struggling shop owner is going to be less likely to take risks on ordering books that are themselves unknown quantities, returning us to the causality loop of needing to be popular before you can be successful.

In other words, the problem for indie creators cannot be solved by cursing the superhero comics fans who support the industry's continued existence. The direct market is built, one way or another, on the superhero fans. The reason that you can buy floppies of "The Walking Dead" is because there are superhero fans to support stores that cater to the niche market, and because there were superhero fans to support the superhero creators who started the superhero comics that formed the foundations of Image Comics. The problem for indie creators is finding a market, and expanding that search beyond the confines of the brick-and-mortar comic book stores. Many indie creators, particularly webcomics creators, have found ways to do this quite successfully. And in their discoveries may lie not only new readers for indie comics, but the future of the entire industry.

Print media is struggling to retain relevance and audience. Niche markets in print media doubly so. Indie comics represent a niche market of a niche market of a struggling medium. Indie creators face the same problem as the rest of comics creators: how to evolve the medium in a changing world and changing marketplace, how to survive in a crappy economy, and how to expand the audience beyond the regulars and die-hards. But the survival of indie comics will not come at the death or shrinking of superheroes as a genre. Until the problems facing the entire industry are solved, superhero comics remain the life support mechanism for the medium. Their failure means the failure of the stores who count on them to stay open. The failure of comic shops means the end of the current distribution model, leaving indie creators in the unenviable position of either having to compete with all other media online to market directly to the consumer (as many webcomics creators do, and quite successfully--but I suspect the new complaints will be much the same as the old complaints, except with "comedy webcomics about video games" and "stick figures telling math jokes" and "thinly-veiled fetish material" replacing "the superhero genre"), or having to compete for a considerably reduced amount of retail shelf space with all the other indie creators, and without the 'sure thing' of the superhero genre to keep casual bookstore browsers coming to the graphic novel section.

Indie comics creators can light a candle and look for alternative methods of distribution and new audiences, potentially saving the entire medium from the problems plaguing everyone. Or they can continue to curse the darkness of economic-forced genre hegemony, and continue lamenting their state until every last publication house and brick-and-mortar comic store has shuttered their doors.

Seems to me that the choice is obvious.

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