Comics creator and publisher Brett Uren argues for the need for alternative distribution methods for independent comics into comic shops, outside of US market leader Diamond Distributors – and how, with some caveats, Kickstarter is proving a game changer…
Talk to a longtime US comics fan or collector for long enough, and you’ll probably get onto the subject of the Golden or Silver Age of the medium, alluding to US comics of the late 1930s to the early 1950s and, for the Silver period, 1956 to circa 1970.
Not that I’m being derogatory in any way, but in the vernacular used, nostalgia for a great time in comics is intimated just by naming those periods of publishing in such a way.
In the US, comics were distributed to news stands and little town shops, to stores and delivered to homes in those earlier times. As distribution channels consolidated and specialized retailers grew more prevalent, so too did practices that were meant to create more revenue, but also moved the industry away from what many came to love it for.
Perhaps four statistics may more explicitly illustrate the current state of affairs in terms of US comics distribution, which also impact on the distribution of many English language independent comics in the Western world:
- The notorious highest-selling single issue of all time was the new X-Men #1 in 1991, which over several editions sold 8.1 million copies
- In July 2016, the highest-selling single issue as reported by Diamond Distribution was Justice League #1 with 209,187 copies
- In 2015 DC Graphic Novel sales across all distribution channels came in at $535 million, with singles at just over $400 million
- To date, Kickstarter funding for indie comics has topped out $50.32 million with the third highest success rate by category (51.39%) according to the site’s own statistics (you can also view the most funded comic projects here)
What can we draw from this simplistic comparison? While not overly scientific, we can at least find that sales of single issues through the increasingly myopic platform of Diamond’s distribution to brick and mortar specialist retailers have tailed off dramatically over the years.
I have spoken to several creators who have had prospective projects rejected by Diamond Distributors, the leading distributor of comics to comic stores across the US and the UK. Superhero projects like The Protectors were told such a genre was saturated and if it was not going to be published by one of the big five, then they wouldn’t consider it.
I myself attempted to put through my teen-rated anthology project Torsobear, only to receive a reply that it would not sell, due to anthologies being an ‘unpopular format’. Yet, anthology projects such as Broken Frontier and the Harvey Award-nominated Once Upon a Time Machine were Kickstarter projects that ended up being published more traditionally after the campaigns ended.
We’re finding that in areas where Diamond are taken out of the equation and competing companies and sales platforms are allowed to flourish, the livelier the business is and the better results are. Sales of graphic novels through mainstream bookstores and via digital channels, both Comixology and company-owned, outstrip the monopoly spearheaded in large part by Steve Geppi.
While Geppi famously rants about poor people not pulling their socks up and how taxes are just to pay welfare to the lazy (as opposed to being part of the long-standing social contract that collectively pooling resources benefits everyone), we can clearly see that monopolizing an industry restricts the market, which can only find growth again through new business models, innovations and ultimately the competition that free market proponents state is how the world ought to work, but find greater personal benefit in restraining.
The Golden and Silver Age of US comics can be in some ways defined by the lack of barriers to creativity and market access, and if we want to see any kind of similar success, we must once again be open to selling anywhere and creating anything. Comics history is littered with cancelled books, hair-brained ideas and an attitude of anything goes. Because creativity is messy, and for every hit there are many misses. Such an environment spawned most of the franchises that are globally beloved today.
There are great pitfalls and uncertainties in using the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter as a pre-order system for books that seek a way around Diamond. Not least of these risks is the disastrous consequence of campaigning creators misusing funds, failing to plan and not fulfilling backers (the epic failure and fallout of John Campbell and his Pictures for Sad Children books being a particularly bad example). However, the useful platform for emerging creators and pumping original ideas/characters back into comics can only aid it in regaining the excitement and creativity lost over the last few decades. The big publishers and general sales are bouncing back, as now are the breadth of new indie Intellectual Properties (IPs) by marketing directly to customers.
So, how to iron out the bad apples or assist prospective creators to ensure the Kickstarter crowd get more great books, instead of duds? In discussion with John Freeman and others, I’d argue that advice is the only way to go, as those who have found success have valuable experience to pass on, just as Kirby and Romita Jr made ‘How to Draw Comics’ books.
To strengthen the medium we love, those who have embraced the new have to pay it forward. We are very much in the digital age of comics now.
• Brett Uren has just launched the final chapter of his much-acclaimed Torsobear project on Kickstarter. Find out more and what’s on offer here for backers
Brett Uren is the creator of Kuzimu, The Vale, Torsobear and other wonderfully wild comics you’ll find under a stone somewhere. A fan of things dark and eldritch. He would be a misanthrope, if he didn’t find so much to laugh at. Creating complex stories that delve into spheres of philosophy, science and politics are only really memorable if they revolve around strange creatures. It’s true, he says, check out a myth or fable sometime.
This self-styled ‘King of the Monsters’ lives in a cosy Aylesbury cave with his betrothed and delicious little spawnling.
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