I posted an open question to Twitter earlier today:
I was looking for the notes that make a comic the perfect introductory book for some one who’s never read a single comic, doesn’t know any of the characters, doesn’t understand a single trope. The answers were pretty surprising.
On the whole, people prefer books that are self-contained, ie not part of on-going continuity or dependent upon knowledge that you couldn’t gleen from the book. So, collections from the Big Two are out. No X-Men, no Spider-Man, no Avengers, no Green Lantern, no Superman, no Flash. There are a few Batman examples that break this rule, but mainly because people can get away with rewriting his past so often.
But that’s not to say they don’t want super-hero books. Comics work best as modern day mythology, and a myth isn’t a myth without something extraordinary in it. Alan Moore once pointed out that comics are the perfect medium for big ideas because there isn’t a budget. Anything you can think of, you can draw. You don’t have to worry about paying for the visual effects to show the whole of Los Angeles getting fired by an errant solar flare, you just have to put a pencil to paper and go. The “super” stuff is like a spice, and it should be used to give the dish a kick, but not over power it. You want to still rely on the base elements of a good story, such as interesting characters with a dynamic arch, interesting setting, and good pacing for most of your flavor. But that spice, that “super” spice, is what can push it from being good to being unforgettable. And if something is unforgettable, then you’re going to want more of it, which means it was the perfect introductory book.
When you think about this, all of it makes sense. And you’d think that when the comic industry is experiencing a massive year over year growth in revenue for the better part of this last decade you’d see tons of sales of books like those I’ve touched on above. (Looking at print only, not movies.)
But, you’d be dead wrong.
I checked the sales numbers for all of 2008/2009. Stand alone series trade paperbacks rarely spike into the monthly top 100. Sandman and Preacher, two of the greatest comic series ever, languish around the 170-190 mark. The highest selling books are compilations of the big events from the Big Two.
Here’s my reading into all of this: More people are reading comics. But, most of those new people are reading comics in trade format. It is far easier than going to the store every week. The Big Two are putting out more books than before, and fans are suckers, so they are buying them. I counted once, and there were like 6 X-Men books you had to read to stay current. Hell, Spider-Man was in 5 different books until they parred him down to one book that comes out three times a month. People are certainly reading the big stand-alones, but it doesn’t look like they are finishing what they are starting. Probably, people are giving them as gifts, and then the person isn’t finishing out the series.
From a creator’s stand point, stand-alone creator owned books are pretty much the only way you are ever going to retire. All of the huge selling books will make tons of money for the publisher, but not for you. You work on page rate, with a pretty minor residual from the sales. Robert Kirkman is the example to look at here. You build a lot of fan loyalty with Big Two books, then step out and only work on creator owned stuff after that.