The realities of the comic book market

First and foremost, if you haven’t already, go read this heartfelt and thoughtful essay by writer Brian Wood, wherein he shares his thoughts and frustrations on the topic of digital comics and the disconnect in pricing: The Digital Question Mark.

Basically it comes down to this conundrum: comic shop retailers don’t want digital comics priced lower than the print comics because they’re afraid they’ll lose customers; publishers, fearing boycotts and anger from retailers are afraid to price digital comics at the 99 cent or $1.99 price point that most consumers are comfortable with; and stuck in the middle are creators who are getting paid less, have less opportunities, and are losing out on new revenue streams from digital.

Needless to say, there are now good guys vs. bad guys in this struggle. Everyone has valid points and concerns, and I especially feel for the retailers. I love my comic book shop. Absolutely love it, and can’t bear the thought of it going out of business. But at the same time, I see the reality: all media is converging on digital. Love it, hate it, whatever, it doesn’t change the facts. Music struggled through it first. Video is now going through the revolution and uncertainty. Print is scared shitless to see where things shake out. It sucks for the established publishers and retailers. They lose money and customers while the shakeout is happening, trying to figure out how to adjust to the new business model and make a living from it. I have nothing but sympathy and empathy for them.

But again, it doesn’t change reality. You can’t put the digital genie back in the bottle. You can’t price your 20 page digital comic at $4 and blame the low sales on pirating.

But switching gears a little, the other thing about Wood’s post that really caught my eye as a creator was his gloomy outlook on his future as a writer in the comics medium:

“I’ve had series cancelled recently. I’ve had pitches rejected for financial reasons. I’ve seen my editors laid off. I’ve taken page rate cuts (a LOT of us have). My income from royalties have dropped. Most comic shops don’t carry my books. I have very good reasons to suspect my career in comics may be drastically reduced in the near future. Things just plain suck…”

As a creator finally getting some traction in the industry, and with a new series in the works, it’s quite depressing to hear an established pro with a strong following struggling like this. Makes me wonder how I’ll fare…how my book will do.

In another interview over at Comics Alliance, Wood goes on to say this about his dropping income:

“…when my DC exclusive ended, my page rate dropped back down to what it was in 2005, and I spend close to $2,000 a month for health insurance for the family now that I’m off DC’s plan. That loss of income is at least something I could anticipate and plan for. But there’s also been a steady decline over the last several years of backlist sales, and declining page rates at all companies. The result of all of this is I have to take on more work, for less money, to only take a 1/3 hit.

I’ll also state that work-for-hire doesn’t necessarily pay better than creator-owned, at least in a publishing deal where page rates are being paid. No comics job I’ve ever had has paid me better than DMZ has.”

I know it’s not an uplifting passage, but the realist in me feels that it’s worth spotlighting these types of frank reality checks. In a world of “follow your bliss” and “follow your passion and everything will work out” platitudes, I’ve often felt like the outsider. The creative type that’s also pragmatic and a realist. As much as I’d love to chuck it all and dive with abandon into writing full time, I know I don’t have it in me to live the freelance life. I know my limitations and comfort zone and financial and emotional responsibilities, and I know that I’m not built for that life. Any joy that would come from such a career move would be tempered with the stress of the uncertainty, the low pay, the feeling of helplessness as publishers and retailers struggle and clash on where the business is going. Or as Wood put it, feeling like the “innocent bystander.”

I have mad respect for the freelancers who can do it, but I know myself and I know it’s not for me. And I feel that to always gush about “the freelance dream” and treat the creative life with reverence bordering on delusion does a great disservice to aspiring creators. It sets folks up for the inevitable failure when they try to pursue their passion without stopping to survey the landscape from a realistic perspective first. I’m not saying it’s foolhardy to set off on an artistic career path, just that you should at a minimum Google map it first before hopping into your car. Do a little research, listen to folks like Brian Wood when they lay it out in a frank “this is how it is” manner for you.

Here’s another honest quote from that same CA interview:

“Every company out there is running on fumes right now.”

The parent companies of publishers like Marvel and DC are making a killing on licensing their recognizable IPs for everything from movies to underwear. But the publishing side, the branch where those valuable characters were created, fostered, and kept viable, are struggling. Just one look at sales figures will confirm it. At a time when a Batman movie can make over a billion dollars, and an expensive Batman video game can move 2-3 million copies, it’s simply depressing to note that the Batman comic book, despite having a critically acclaimed writer and the push of DC’s biggest marketing move in recent history is still barely breaking 100,000 copies.

Oh, but that big Hollywood money is waiting in the wing, or so creators like to think. Entire comic book “publishing” houses are set up as nothing more than an R&D branch to pitch concepts to movies. As a creator, it’s hard not to feel like the golden ticket is easily within reach, especially if the constant barrage of press releases announcing movie options are to be believed. Again, let’s turn to Wood, a creator with a couple of high profile series at Vertigo, not to mention numerous finite series perfect for a movie adaptation:

“I also rarely ever announce options because options are essentially meaningless in and of themselves and almost never amount to anything. Most of my books right now have options on them, some for years and years. If anything happens, I’ll let you know.”

So in the face of all this, what’s a new creator to do? Throw in the towel? Walk away?

Well, no. Speaking for myself, I’ll be forging ahead with the same passion and energy I’ve had up to this point. One tempered with a heavy dose of reality, to be sure, but not defeatist. It’s an overused term, but I’ve always liked “cautious optimism,” it has a good ring to it and captures my general approach to my creative endeavors. So yes, I’m still in the game, and still planning on creating comic books for as long as it’s still fun and emotionally rewarding.

I’m just not going to quit my day job anytime soon.

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    Comic Creators for Freedom – combating human trafficking

    Whenever creative people band together for a good cause, it focuses their energy and talent to bring awareness to charitable cause they believe in. And so it is with the cartoonists who have formed the Comic Creators for Freedom, a group dedicated to raising money for organizations combating human trafficking.

    “There are currently 27 million enslaved people worldwide- more than double the number of enslaved Africans during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. UNICEF estimates that 1.2 million children every year are sold into slavery, most of it sexual. The US Department of Justice estimates 16,000 victims of human trafficking are brought into the United States every year.”

    Participating comic book creators each contribute a drawing of one of their female characters, which are then incorporated into a single wallpaper image that is offered to those who donate money to the cause. To date, the CCfF has raised $15,000, which is split between two charities: Love 146 (working to end child sex slavery and exploitation via prevention and aftercare programs) and Gracehaven (a Columbus-based non-profit with a mission to find and free underage girls who are enslaved by child sex trafficking).

    The CCfF will start their 2012 fundraising drive on Monday, January 9th through Friday, January 20th. If you’re a creator interested in contributing to their project, you can find details here. Please keep this important cause in mind when planning your charitable giving.

    I’d also like to publicly thank Columbus-based cartoonist Lora Innes, creator of The Dreamer webcomic, for being one of the driving forces behind this project.

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      Announcing my newest project: PERSIA BLUES

      I’m very excited to finally be able to take this news public: on the last day of the month that I turned 40 (i.e. this past November) I signed a contract with NBM Publishing to bring my creator-owned series Persia Blues to the market. Based in New York and founded by Terry Nantier in 1976, NBM is one of the oldest independent graphic novel publishers in the US, with a slew of critically acclaimed original and European reprint albums.

      Yep, it's official

      I’m extremely excited to be working with Terry and the fine folks at NBM on what will be a trilogy of original graphic novels, telling an epic tale centered around Minoo Shirazi, a young Iranian grad student living in the US. Here’s the tagline I used in the pitch:

      “Persia Blues chronicles a young Iranian woman’s life in two different worlds, both of which are a lie.”

      Without giving too much away just yet, Persia Blues will explore Minoo’s life, love, struggles, and triumphs in two separate worlds. The series will draw heavily from modern Iranian culture, ancient Persian history and mythology, as well as elements from the Zoroastrian religion.

      Character designs for Minoo and Tyler

      Joining me on this project is super talented artist, fellow Columbusite, and fellow PANEL Collective member Brent Bowman. Brent’s been doing an amazing job designing the look and feel of the series, which with its half a dozen different settings and over a dozen main characters is no small task.

      Character design for Ahura Mazda

      The first volume in the series, tentatively titled “Columbus to Persepolis” is slated for release in early 2013. I know that seems like a long time away, but we’ve got you covered. I’ll be using my blog here to post regular updates, art previews, and a ton of cool behind-the-scenes material for your enjoyment. So please bookmark this site (or better yet, subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed by clicking the orange icon at the bottom of this page) and check in on our progress.

      Character design for...well, it's a secret for now

      My goal is to make this graphic novel series a very unique reading experience, both in terms of subject matter and presentation. Brent and I can’t wait to share more with you.

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        Asinine stunt by BOOM! Studios

        A lot of words came to mind after hearing about the recent “variant cover” stunt by BOOM! Studios.

        Idiotic.

        Counterproductive.

        Shortsighted.

        Insulting.

        And yes, asinine.

        For those of you unfamiliar with the news, here’s the basic scoop: BOOM! Studios has a new comic coming out called Valen The Outcast. They printed a 1-in-200 variant cover for it, which means a store would have to order 200 copies of the book to get 1 copy of the variant.

        Yes, welcome back to the dark ages of comics, circa 1993.

        But wait, it gets better! The variant issue came pre-“slabbed” by the CGC (another wonderful practice that’s a blight on our industry) which means the book is sealed forever in a plastic case (or as the CGC calls it, “fitted inside an archival-quality interior well, which is then sealed within a transparent capsule”). As Bleeding Cool so succinctly put it, “this was a comic destined never to be read. They could have printed blank pages.”

        Apparently 25 comic book stores were stupid enough to take BOOM! up on this fine offer. Which is where the story gets even better! To really drive home the “collectible” nature of this bullshit variant cover – you know, the one that nobody will ever open or read – the publisher burned the remaining 475 printed issues with the variant cover!

        Here’s a video of them doing so, proudly. Bravo to the book’s writer, Michael Alan Nelson, for getting involved in this imbecilic stunt so cheerfully.

        Seriously, guys? Did we not learn anything from the chromium embossed die-cut parchment nude variant cover excesses of the 90s that led to the speculator boom/bust that nearly dragged the entire industry down the drain? This is how you aim to promote your books in 2011? At a time when comics have finally emerged in the social consciousness as a respected medium, but at the same time its publishers are hemorrhaging readers, this is how you as a publisher choose to represent the industry?

        Unbelievable.

        But wait, there’s more! (I know, I can’t believe it either…it’s the story that keeps on giving, like explosive diarrhea.) Yes, this fantastic first issue, with the ultra rare 1-in-200 slabbed-and-burned variant cover…has 7 other variant covers as well. That’s right, seven more!

        I don’t know what’s worse: crass, myopic stunts like this, or the fact that despite such fine publishing decisions, fans and retailers are all worked up over how digital comics will spell the doom of the industry.

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          Stephen King on his first rejection

          On the occasion of getting his first rejection letter from a publisher:

          “I felt pretty good, actually. When you’re too young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.” –Stephen King, On Writing

          OK, but what do you do when you’ve been shaving for several decades? 😉

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            Flash Fiction – “The Old Man’s Book”

            Here’s another piece of flash fiction (stories told in 350 word or less) for your reading enjoyment.

            The Old Man’s Book – by Dara Naraghi

            “The old man shifted his weight on the park bench, basking in the rays of sunlight filtering down through the gangly trees. It was a rare January day in New York, with temperatures hovering around a comfortable 70 degrees. The first real break in the heat wave had brought him, and a few dozen other adventurous souls, out into the last green vestiges of Central Park.

            Turning back to his book, he flipped a page on the massive hardback, his eyes dancing across the old typeface. In the background, the constant hum of the irrigation pumps, delivering precious water from the Hudson River, drowned out the chirps of a few lone birds.

            A teen flopped down next to the old man, breaking his reverie. She pulled out her mobile and powered up the virtual display. A half dozen distinct feeds began playing at once, music and news and movie broadcasts simultaneously competing for attention, audio waves rolling over each other like waves whipped up by a storm.

            “Holy shit, is that an actual book?” she asked, mockingly.

            He sighed. “Yes.”

            “Oh, wow! That’s so old timey! I mean, like, it doesn’t do anything. It’s not even wired. Come on, grandpa, get with the–”

            And then she screamed.

            The old man looked up to see a mutated spider, the size of his fist, crawling across the bench towards her. It was likely not poisonous, but why risk it? He lifted the massive book and brought the full weight of it down on the intruder, ending the threat with an obscene, squishy thump.

            If there was a hint of gratitude in the teen’s eyes, it was lost behind twin pools of horror and disgust. She fled the bench without a word, raucous mobile in tow.

            The old man bent down and wiped the back of the book on the grass, dislodging the spider carcass. He then repositioned himself on the bench, and continued reading.

            Somewhere in the back of his mind, a shrill voice echoed “Like, it doesn’t do anything.”

            A smile crept across his lips.”

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              Max Allan Collins on other writers

              This is from a short essay posted on boingboing.net titled “Who do you read?, by prolific crime novelist (and Road to Perdition graphic novel writer) Max Allan Collins. In explaining why he doesn’t read any contemporary peers, he says this bit (with tongue planted firmly in cheek), although I’m sure there’s more than a bit of truth to it:

              Here’s the real reason: all other writers fall into the following categories: worse than me, so why should I put myself through it; as good as me, so why should I bother; and better than me, and, well, screw those guys.

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                Flash Fiction – “Be Not Proud”

                The following piece of flash fiction (a short story under 350 words) was my entry into the New Scientist magazine Flash Fiction 2010 contest (the winning stories can be read here). The theme was “futures that never were.” Anyway, enjoy!

                Be Not Proud – by Dara Naraghi

                “Javier Sharif opened his eyes, straining against the sterile light.

                A bank of Vitality-monitors greeted him. The sparse room, decorated with all the flair of a surgical ward, had been his residence at the Meadowbrook Life Extension Hospice for the past two years.

                Ever since his 137th birthday.

                Ever since they had tracked him down at his campsite by the Caspian Sea.

                “When my time is near, don’t come looking for me if I just disappear one day,” he had instructed his family. They, in turn, had dismissed this as another of his eccentricities. Why wouldn’t he want the best care offered by modern medicine?

                But Mina understood. She was the only one of his children who ever did.

                “Hi dad, I brought you something.”

                Mina’s voice was a pleasant surprise. The smile upon his brittle lips welcomed her, even as his voice failed him in the task.

                She was holding a large, heavy, leather-bound tome. “It’s a collection of all your favorites. I hired an artisan in Sumatra to make it just for you,” Mina beamed. He had always preferred the archaic elegance of the printed word over the barren glow of a Vid-Screen.

                Summoning a Helper-Bot, Mina instructed it to hold the book for reading. “Enjoy,” she said, kissing him on the forehead before turning to leave. “I love you.”

                He read the entirety of the book, his bio-silica lenses never tiring, having long replaced the real ones he had lost to cataract. And on the last page, as he read the closing lines of his favorite poem, he smiled again.

                “…One short sleep past, we wake eternally…”

                The Helper-Bots possessed only the most basic AI, lacking the redundant patient safety algorithms of Med-Bots. He instructed his to lay the book upon his chest before dismissing it.

                As the weight of the tome bore down on him, he felt his lungs gasp for air. But there was no panic, no regret. Instead, he was overcome with a feeling of warmth, of bliss, of finality.

                Javier Sharif shut his eyes, welcoming the peaceful darkness.”

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