A post on comics for a change…

I do plan on doing more of these soon. Promise…

Those of you who are interested in these things may have noticed that the low-selling DC comic Blue Beetle has been cancelled. This is hardly going to be a surprise to anyone – it had been bumbling along around the bottom of the sales charts almost since its inception, and writer John Rogers had left a few months ago to be replaced by Matt Sturges – who seems to be DC’s go-to person for wrapping up loose ends quickly when a comic’s about to be cancelled because a ‘name’ writer has left it. (Sturges has actually impressed me for once on Blue Beetle – he’s been very good on the title).

The fact is, 36 issues is a reasonable number of issues for *anything* that doesn’t have Batman or Wolverine in, in the current comics market. The highest-selling single issues don’t sell much over a hundred thousand copies, and many things regarded as ‘big hits’ in our insular little community are selling in the tens of thousands. That’s simply not enough to make publication profitable on its own terms – the fact that comics can be used to generate new ‘intellectual property’ for films, TV and toys is the only reason they’re still published at all.

(Yes, I know that Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly aren’t operating in that way – Jimmy Corrigan toys and so on excepted – but there individual issues are loss-leaders for the collection, and the only reason the individual issues get published is because of the existence of a distribution mechanism dependent on Marvel and DC).

Now, John Rogers posted a response to the news that the title had been cancelled that has been generating quite a bit of response. He essentially says that print comics are a waste of time, and that he wants to move to digital sales of creator-owned comics.

Now, I’m a huge supporter of the idea of creator ownership in comics – I think the whole concept of work-for-hire is deeply repellent (though I reserve the right to change my mind about that if DC want to hire me to write Batman – I am, in many ways, a hypocrite) , and most of my real favourite comics are owned by their creators – Cerebus, League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Invisibles and so on. But Rogers is missing one big advantage of working on corporate properties when he talks about how you could sell the comics much cheaper online than you could on paper.

The fact is, when Blue Beetle started, people weren’t buying it because it was scripted by John Rogers and drawn by Cully Hammer – both were relative unknowns. They were buying it for one of the following reasons:
It was co-written by Keith Giffen
It was part of a big new DC promotion
They had some affection for the ‘Blue Beetle’ trademark
It span out of a big crossover
It was ‘part of the DC Universe’.
They *carried on* reading it because of Rogers and Hammer (later Alberquerque) but they only started because of its links to established properties.

I truly believe that had the comic been published online, without Giffen’s involvement and under some generic name that didn’t have the associations that Blue Beetle does, nobody would have paid to read it.

The problem is, professional writers like Rogers expect to be paid for their work – a reasonable expectation – but at the same time, people balk at paying for something without knowing what it is. There is actually a well-established model by now for making money from online comics content – put the comics up for free on your website and then sell trades/original art/merchandise and take reader donations. If you’re any good at all, this can eventually get you quite a reasonable living , and you can end up like Chris Onstad , having collections of your work published in handsome hardbacks (I must review The Great Outdoor Fight soon).

(Of course, online comics, much like ‘mainstream’ comics, have their own tropes, and it’s very difficult to have a big hit without it being in some way a ‘geek’ comic, whether it be about roleplaying games like Order Of The Stick, computer games, like PVP, or more intellectual (usually) stuff like XKCD. But it’s no more difficult than having a non-superhero hit in the direct market, and it *can* be done).

But the difference between Achewood and Blue Beetle, other than quality (Achewood started out much lower quality than Blue Beetle but is now much higher quality – BB is one of those solidly entertaining comics that only seem exceptional because of the general terrible quality of most comics) is that Onstad was willing to put his work online for free, and to spend a lot of time doing it before getting paid anything like a reasonable wage for his work. A writer like Rogers, who makes most of his money in film and TV, isn’t going to do that.

Rogers is also missing the fact that corporate-owned characters and titles are one of the few places people are willing to experiment – which sounds counterintuitive, but think about it. If I self-publish a comic, no-one will buy it. If on the other hand, I was made the new writer for Batman, 50,000 people would buy what I wrote, even though they’d never heard of me. So they’re a good way to build a reputation *for* your creator-owned work. I might well buy whatever Rogers puts out digitally – but only because I know his work now.

None of this is to dispute a single word of what Rogers says – writers and artists should get paid for their work, they should own the copyrights and trademarks in their work, and it would be nice if people would pay for new work by new creators. But I don’t think anyone is going to make money trying to sell comics directly online, unless what they’re selling is access to a vast catalogue of work. Marvel and DC could make money from selling access to their back issues online, and you could easily have an eMusic-like subscription model for small-press comics. But nobody’s going to buy individual issues by individual creators sight-unseen unless those creators’ names are Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore or maybe Warren Ellis or Brian Bendis…

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