Sworn to Protect a World that Won't Buy Their Comic Book

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Comic pros and comic retailers are complaining about the declining state of the industry. Joe Casey recently divulged in his Crash Comments column that in January 2001 Diamond Distributors had no comic with more than 100,000 units ordered. That got me thinking.

This might be the first time the X-Men didn't crack 100,000 copies in the United States since the 1975 relaunch. There hasn't been a day since I've started reading comics that I could say that. Can the industry survive much longer with the X-Men declining? Why does the X-Men's decline matter? Should anyone in or out of comics care that the convoluted Claremont continuity will go the way of the Dodo?

These are all valid but frightening questions for me, because all I've ever wanted to do was write comic books. What happens if the industry I've desperately wanted into folds up before I get a chance to be heard?

Here's some perspective. The population of the United States is roughly 283.5 million people. That means if the January issue of X-Men SOLD OUT (no back issues held by retailers, no fanboys buying two copies) then only 1 in 2,835 Americans would get a copy. The Rose Bowl has a capacity of 105,000. If it was full of a random sampling of Americans, then only 37 people in the crowd would have bought a copy of the January issue of X-Men. This is a change from X-Men #1 (Lee and Claremont) that sold 7 million copies worldwide; that's one copy per 40 Americans. That would have filled the Rose Bowl 70 times over.

How do we keep the current industry running in the face of decline? Most comic professionals will tell you the current industry is a fat, bloated bitch. She should do us all a favor and die. That depends. I can sum up the direct market simply; it is great for independent comics trying to reach a niche audience, it is bad for mainstream comics trying to reach the national audience. Which one do we want, diversity or national recognition?

The current comic industry is about as bad a model of business that has existed, much less thrived, for national exposure. It needs a drastic overhaul to successfully reach the national audience, and there is almost no chance that the industry in its current incarnation will go back to the success of the speculator boom.
Do I want the direct market to collapse so we can start something new? No, because I don't think those smaller independent comics will have any chance of survival if the direct market goes away. I think the direct market can continue for years to come -- if it evolves. The one thing that can spark resurgence or slow the decline in sales is MONEY.

Where is this money going to come from? The money will come from two groups: People Who Read Comics and People Who Don't Read Comics. We've already got the attention of the former group, so let's concentrate on the latter. The comic industry has always looked at ways to get new readers into specialty shops and on subscription lists -- and they have usually met with failure. How do we get new readers into stores with what we have? What comic do we give to the average American to get them involved in comics?

How do we reach the national audience while keeping the direct market? Most comic pros would say that good comics like Sin City, Savage Dragon, Strangers in Paradise, and Dork (Eisner award winners, basically) can get the national audience into stores and increase sales. Good comics can help, but good comics can also be ignored -- even Eisner winners. Good comics were largely ignored when X-Men was selling 7 million copies and comic shop attendance was at an all time high. Hellboy was coming out during the boom and won multiple Eisner awards, but it was as ignored then as it is now. I don't want to read crappy comics, believe me. But if it weren't for the outdated direct market we wouldn't have gems like Powers or Stray Bullets. They never would have existed. Good comics don't have the point of reference that X-Men has. X-Men is on the big screen, on the small screen, in video games, and in the grocery store.

To get the national audience to respond to something you have to understand their mentality. The national audience doesn't want to take a chance. They want a known quantity or a point of reference. They want to have their hands held.

True story: I remember after X-Men the movie came out, I was in my local comic store on new comic day. A guy came in off the street and said: "I saw X-Men this week, and I want to buy comics again". The storeowner and I suggested different books to him. I told him my favorite book was Hellboy, but my favorite monthly title was Planetary. The shop owner suggested Authority, the whole series was in trade paperback form (no expensive back issues), and the book is excellent.

The return-fan said "What about X-Men? Can't I just read that?" The storeowner and I both sounded off with a resounding "No". We weren't about to let him read that impenetrable web of crap if we could turn him on to something else instead. He was upset that he wouldn't know the characters at all. He wanted to have his hand held; he wanted to take baby steps; he wanted to ride with training wheels. You get the point. I wished that it could have gone differently. I wish he had asked for an X-Men comic, and we proudly gave him one. I wish that X-Men -- the best point of reference for the national audience -- was the best comic I could offer a new reader.

My wish came true. X-Men is getting a creative overhaul. In May, the best point of reference for the national audience will be the best it has ever been. New creators Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly are standing on the precipice of a new world for the band of misfit mutants. A world where Jane Average can ask a comic retailer for a good book, and the retailer can point her to the X-Men, a book she's heard of, without a twinge of regret.

Look at the big picture. Marvel is undergoing vast creative changes to make X-Men and Spider-Man the best books they put out. Guess why? They will be the best points of reference for the national audience for the next two years with their high-profile movies.

Won't it be great when a non-comic reader asks what titles are good, and we can proudly tell her that X-Men, Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman are the best mainstream comic books? She will have actually heard of these characters and titles. She won't need endless back issue knowledge to read the book; she won't have to take a chance; she won't need as much handholding.

And after we get her hooked, we'll get her into Midnight Nation, Top Ten, Planetary, and Preacher; but let's start with baby steps.

Jai Nitz is a freelance comic writer. His credits include his creator owned anthology Novavolo from Jungle Boy Press, and Genactive from Wildstorm.

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