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What is the Future of the Comic Book Format?

Will the comic book go all digital? Continue its slow decline? Disappear?

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-chief

If you’re a 40-something male like myself, chances are comic books were part of your adolescence, maybe even your 20s or — wow — 30s. But like Dungeons and Dragons, eating Frosted Flakes for breakfast, and reading Playboy “for the articles,” you’ve likely outgrown the habit or had it supplanted by some other more sophisticated form of self-indulgence.

Still, for me at least, comics were a gateway into the pleasures of storytelling (as was Dungeons & Dragons). Comics were addictive serialized soap operas, albeit with superheroes instead of oversexed suburbanites. And they started me on the very male habit of collecting: I too had a moldy box of X-Men comics that I was convinced, like my collection of second-rate baseball cards, would be worth a fortune some day. (Reality check: I ended up with mere chump change from a dishonest comic book dealer who saw me as the sucker I was.)

Comic book sales are are in a slow decline as superhero movies and merchandize rake in billions.

Today, as Daniel Kalder discusses in our feature story, the fate of the comic book format hangs in the balance. Sales are are in a slow decline, even as movies and merchandize based on comic book superheroes rake in billions. Stores specialized in selling comics (and role playing games, for that matter) are increasingly rare, as the Internet has offered an alternate distribution platform. Bound anthologies of comics, rebranded as graphic novels saw a boom in the early 2000s as bookstores began stocking them in vast quantities, picking up slack from comic book stores, but that trends has also declined.

So what is the future of the comic book format? Will it merely “go digital” like so much else? Will it hang on as a subculture catering to die-hards who as they age can afford to sustain the format by investing time, patience and money in acquiring what rea likely to be harder to come by comics? Or is the comic book form, like so much in our culture, due for a hipster revival fueled by a bout of nostalgia?

Or, as so many have cynically predicted about print, is the comics industry and outdated dinosaur in the last throes of its own demise?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

(Photo: semihundido via Flickr)

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  1. Posted January 7, 2013 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    Speaking personally, my comic book consumption has dropped from moderate to next to nothing due to the sheer cost of the things. I’ve noted that digital comic prices are more reasonable, but reading whole comics on the computer doesn’t work for me, and I can’t currently afford a tablet.

    Mainstream print superhero comics might be on the way out if other people are feeling the same way, or at least catering to a dwindling audience of die-hards, but hopefully other, more varied stories will take their place. It’s about time “comics” stopped being a synonym for “superhero comics”.

  2. John Shableski
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    Hey Ed,
    this was a great posting and I suspect that the monthly comic books will see the same fate as the 45’s and LPs which have since been replaced by compact discs and MP3s. It’s the perceived value of the 36 page comic book the publishers are struggling with. They charge a price near 5 dollars at a time when the consumer(and fan) have so many other options to spend that five bucks on. For the 10-14 year-old audience, you have an entirely new set of perceived value and the super hero publishers arent really interested in growing this segment of the market, at least they werent until Disney bought Marvel for 4 Billion dollars.
    Thing is there is a greater perceived value in graphic novels because you get a ‘book’ for your money and it feels substantial.
    There are also a lot of very talented creators working outside the superhero genre creating great webcomics that in turn are published as successful books and series. Smile by Raina Telgemeier and Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney both started out as webcomics and became even more successful once they hit hard copy. In fact, the Wimpy Kid series cleared the 700 Million sales mark late last spring for Abrams.
    Comics arent going away, they just dont look like the ones we had when we were kids.

  3. Posted January 8, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Maybe comics can consolidate into a digest format (online and/or print)? Even if it were black and white and printed on cheap paper, I would subscribe to a thicker magazine that carries a bunch of different story lines in one volume.

  4. Posted January 8, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Whenever the future, i.e. the death, of the comic book is discussed, the latest nail in the coffin cited is always the diminished sales of new, monthly comic books. While this is understandable, I think it is also very shortsighted.

    Can you determine the future/death of mainstream book publishers by only taking into account the sale of hardcopy frontlist titles? I say the answer is a resounding, no. Therefore, in the same way that a traditional book publisher’s bottom line is not all about frontlist sales, neither is the “comic book” publisher.

    The business viability of comic book publishers is no longer solely based on the sales of frontlist, i.e. monthly pamphlet style, books. In the past decade or three, comic book publishers have found a new revenue stream in the form of backlist trade book collections. I don’t have any numbers at my fingertips, but I am sure the percentage of increased sales for backlist trades has gone up at least as much as monthly pamphlet sales have gone down, and probably more since trades were almost non existent as recently as the 1980s. And “we” haven’t even mentioned digital sales yet.

    So, before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, let’s look at the business as a whole, not take the easy way out and say one segment is in trouble and that means the industry is doomed.

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