This year's Comic-Con International--the comics industry's biggest event for both its producers and its consumers, held in San Diego July 19--22--highlighted the ways that comics and other media, print and visual, are leaking into each other.
Sales of traditional comics pamphlets continue to flounder, but at the same time, graphic novels and trade-paperback collections of comics are hitting new sales peaks, and film and TV tie-ins are smash hits. The forthcoming Spider-Man and X-Men 2 movies attracted more attention and speculation than anything else at the convention, and the autograph lines for boundary-crossing creators like movie director/comics writer Kevin Smith (now writing Green Arrow for DC) stretched on and on. It's clearly not an issue of whether or not the industry can survive, but of how radically and how quickly it's going to change.
If you're used to book-trade conventions, Comic-Con can come as a shock. For one thing, signings don't mean you get a free copy of the book--you'd better bring your own copy of what you want signed, or buy one from the smaller publishers, who are happy to sell their books one at a time from their booths. (At least one former big-name artist had hung out a shingle saying he was charging $2 for every signature after the first two.) The industry people in attendance are outnumbered by fans carrying sketchbooks and shopping for goodies, many of them in full heroic costume. Besides publishers, the teeming floor is filled with used-comics retailers (bringing their rarest wares, for which the new trend is to seal them in Lucite to preserve their value forever while making them unreadable), bootleg anime video vendors, toy displays and original-art dealers.
Still, the industry's torn between serving its traditional audience--the hardcore fans who make up most of Comic-Con's attendees, the ones who wear Cardcaptor Sakura costumes, buy Sugar & Spike stuffed toys and follow their favorite comics month by month--and the newer wave of customers who would rather buy and read comics in discrete bound volumes. "The trades are more profitable for the company, no question about that," said Bob Greenberger, Marvel Comics' director of publishing operations. "Because [their content has] already been in the monthly comic, art and editorial costs are way down." Devin Grayson, who writes Gotham Knights for DC and Ghost Rider for Marvel, said she's seen a strong recent trend toward writing comics in story arcs that can be collected as trade paperbacks, "and it's hard to say who's pushing it harder--the publishers or the creators. From the creators' standpoint, it changes the entire audience that their stories can reach." Chris Staros of Top Shelf notes that his business is 95% trade paperbacks. He's an exceptional case, but publisher Gary Groth said that paperbacks are about half of Fantagraphics' business, and Image's publisher Jim Valentino estimated they account for 35% of his sales and are growing.
Bookstores and Libraries
LPC's Robert Boyd noted (in a panel called "Graphic Novels in the Real World") that comics publishers have to "play by different rules" for the book retail trade. Fantagraphics, for instance, scheduled books only about four months in advance until recently, though now that its titles are being distributed by W.W. Norton, the publisher has planned its list well into 2002. Meanwhile, Greenberger reported that Marvel is trying to build its long-suffering backlist now, as well as standardizing its trade dress and concentrating on volumes that tell a single story, as opposed to "best of" collections--a strategy that has long served DC and its Vertigo imprint well.
There's certainly a demand for comics among bookstore customers: Boyd said LPC has sold more than 478,000 graphic novels this year (covering about 1,000 titles), after selling about 234,000 last year. San Francisco comics specialty store Comic Relief's owner, Rory Root, noted that library circulation rates for graphic novels average three times the circulation rate for bestselling prose novels. Comic Relief is the rare comics store that specializes in trade paperbacks, and Root works with more than 50 library systems around the country. But Boyd also spoke of the "gatekeeper mentality" that often prevents stores and libraries from ordering graphic novels--the kid-stuff image that comics have never been able to shake entirely, even while the average comics fan is now a college-educated professional with an above-average income.
Down on the convention floor, the cartoonists themselves seemed to hover around the small-press area, where quirky projects such as Red Ink's meticulously hand-assembled anthology, Non, and the Danny Hellman benefit collection, Legal Action Comics, were the prestige items to be seen carrying. And even as the kids (of both genders--a welcome development) lined up to have their photos taken with Elektra and to check out the previews of Star Wars: Episode 2, there was the sense that this most nostalgia-obsessed of industries needs to be very careful about maintaining its ties to its past at the cost of new readers. As Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada put it, "We're trying to steer clear of getting tied up in our own superhero underwear."