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Life Skills for Fanboys:  The New Image?

written by Tony DiGerolamo, Copyright 2014

To further my goal of helping fellow fanboys, I have included an index of links of previous columns with their topics.  Don’t take it personal, I’m just trying to help.  Previous columns are indexed at the end.

This week, I’d like to deviate a little from my normal column and respond to an interesting speech given by Eric Stephenson, the current publisher of Image Comics.  You can read the speech at the link.  Generally, I thought it was a very positive thing and he made some good points.  But I had a few additional thoughts.

In a nutshell, the speech is about getting comics away from superheroes, expanding the audience for women and capitalizing on the Image success such as the Walking Dead (which I’ve heard of) and Saga (which I haven’t).

The Cynic in Me

The cynic in me says, “Well, that’s very nice.  Guess it’s just a coincidence that Image has gotten away from superheroes and here you are, making a speech in front of retailers saying that it’s time to expand.”  Well, yeah, that’s what I’d say too if my company wasn’t really printing superheroes any more.

The problem, as I see it, is about buttering up the retailers to do more work.  Stephenson urges them to “Do more signings. Plan more sales. Throw parties. Invite writers and artists to speak at your store, or in your community, as an adjunct to regular signings.”  I’m all for it.  Comic book stores that do this sort of thing on a regular basis create a bigger community for the fan base to rally around.  Unfortunately, it also costs money, time and effort, something that a lot of stores that are hanging by a thread don’t have.  If some entity with money could perhaps subsidize such events while promoting their product, that would go a long way to getting stores to do this.

I wonder who has made millions of dollars on a zombie-related comic book recently that might be able to invest in the future?  Hmmm.

The Last Time This Happened

Back in the 90’s, when comic books exploded and everyone was making money, there was precious little attention paid to investing in the future.  The money went into variant covers, reissues, better paper stock and more titles that were just rip offs of other titles already on the shelf.  Almost nothing went to expanding the market or audience.  I think part of the reason was that most publishers sensed that the uptick was temporary and wanted to cash in before it was over.

When it imploded, we had many years of just terrible superhero comics.  The law of diminishing returns meant that publishers were even less willing to expand.  Prior to the bust the excuse was “that won’t sell” and after the excuse was “we can’t afford to take a risk now”.

In his speech, Stephenson puts down franchise comics based on movies and TV shows (which he doesn’t publish) and retreads of superheroes, which he mostly doesn’t publish.  Generally, I agree with that sentiment, but I have to point out that Dynamite Comics published great short runs based on movies and did crossovers that you wouldn’t see in movies like Army of Darkness Ash and Darkman.  If you’re going to get a hold of the franchise, that’s the kind of stuff you have to do with it: something the fans can’t get in the movies.

But when Stephenson says stuff like, “You stop ordering variants (covers); we’ll stop making them.”  So you don’t like variants and think they are bad for the industry, but you’ll keep making money on them as long as they sell, is my interpretation of that message.

If you want to lead the industry, Eric, lead by example.  It would’ve been much better if you announced, “Image Comics is no longer going to produce variant covers…” for the reasons you listed in your own speech.  They are just there to bump up the numbers.  The numbers, by the way, which don’t even reflect readers, but the amount of paper pushed on comic book stores through distributors.

If you wanted to get a real accurate count of how many sales actually turn into readers, some millionaire publishing concern might invest some money into a process.  Perhaps they could offer a prize for fans that punch in a printed code in the back of an issue for some survey information.  It could be an exclusive digital download to save on overhead.  They you could, perhaps, track real demographics and readership.

Or you could just switch to webcomics, that was my call.

The Future of Comics

Eric talks a bit about the future of the industry and comics and blah, blah, blah.  All good stuff.  But I would say, a publisher has to lead.  Stop pushing retailers to do it.  Retailers will always be around if stuff sells, whether it’s also selling in Target and WalMart or not.  In fact, back in the 90’s, comics also sold in places like WalMart and it didn’t really have any impact on the stores.  WalMart was just another avenue to attract more fans, who would eventually graduate to a “real” comic book store so they would stop missing issues and make sure they could get the service that a large store like WalMart was unlikely to give a comic book collector.

I’m one of those people, by the way, screaming on the sidelines that “Print is dead!”.  (My own, self-serving motto.)  And the digital/webcomic model is another chance for Image to lead with its deep pockets.  Back in the 90’s, when publishers signed all these “exclusive deals” with Diamond, Image had an opportunity to break away.  Stick with all the little distributors and keep them afloat.  I think it would’ve been a huge boon to Image and the industry itself.  Something they’d be reaping now.

Unfortunately, I think the Image reputation (and this is totally my opinion) is still a bit, well, money-grubbing.  So the idea that suddenly image is about creators and stories and building the industry—  Well, I’d like to believe that.  I really would.

But Image has a chance to lead again because of its money.  Those of us that live in the world of digital and webcomics could use the leg up and Image needs the content.  Why not invest the Image millions in bringing our many diverse audiences to you?  I know, I know, the retailers will have a fit.  They always do when you mention webcomics.  They think we’re stealing customers, but we’re actually expanding the market.  Much like iTunes and other online systems helped expand and bring music to people in efficiently.

That’s always been the problem with comics.  Although the direct market saved comic books, it is still a clunky mechanism where consumers order their product months in advance.  The stores are still mostly testosterone-laden boys’ clubs, whereas digital can be for anybody.  And there are a ton of webcomics that appeal to women and the very audiences that you claim to want in the stores and at Image in your speech.

Any how, nice speech and that’s my advice.  More webcomics, Eric.  Come to us.  Recruit us.  Be one of us.

One of us, one of us, one of us…

Previous Columns

Obesity at Cons

The Art of Conversation


The Line Between Fans and Pros

Geek Elitism

Convention Panels

Convention Volunteers

Food Gifts

Women and Cons

Get Your Room Party Together

Stop Bringing Your Kids to Cons

The Face of Geek Needs Work

Fixing the Face of Geek

Franchise Worship

Presenting Your Project