A disclaimer: I have never been more than a casual fan of the American comic book scene.
There was a time when that was fine. In fact, the world was full of casual comic book fans. Plenty of people picked up the occasional Superman, Batman or Spiderman comic and followed the adventures of the pulp picturebook hero of their choice. But only in passing. It was like tuning in to your favorite sitcom a couple of times a month. You didn’t really need to pay a lot of attention to it when you weren’t thinking about it but you knew you’d at least somewhat enjoy what you got when you did tune in.
All of that has changed, and started changing in the 90s as “event” books took over the industry. A recap of the events, market forces and broader trends that led to the incredible insularity of modern comics is not the purpose of this essay. I’ve been a disinterested observer of the phenomenon and really, it’s been documented better by others. If you want a really broad, high level overview of this topic I’d suggest this pretty straightforward video:
How Distribution has Saved and is Now Killing Comics
Since I’m not really a business person my interest in the business side of all this comes from the ways it has warped the relation between artist and audience. Yes, this is one of my personal bugaboos. That’s largely because this aspect of storytelling is one of the least discussed in modern culture and our overlooking it has deeply, deeply damaged modern storytelling. I think comics is the perfect case study for this because it takes the flaws of modern media and really paints them in stark relief.
Last week I talked about how I think changes in the feedback loop between artist and audience exacerbated the natural dislike many authors have for archetypes to the point where relations between them and their audience have been materially harmed. The spiral continues to grow out of control with no signs of stopping any time soon. The natural response to this is to assume that if we can insulate creator from consumer to some extent we can create a healthier story landscape.
This is an understandable conclusion to reach.
It is also wrong.
If you’re familiar with the comics industry, even to the very limited extent you’ll be if you watch the video linked above, you know that nothing is more insulated from feedback than American comics. Comic books pass through the hands of two other entities before arriving in the hands of readers. Once they pass through Diamond Distributers and the local comic shop (LCS in industry lingo) the final sales figures are so far removed from what’s actually purchased by readers that they’re useless as feedback. The editorial staff is small and so busy with coordinating and creating storylines they don’t have much time to engage directly with customers.
That leaves the writers and artists themselves. These are almost always people who have spent their entire careers writing or drawing. They’re good at their skill set but that skill set doesn’t include working with the public and, of course, we’ve already discussed why I think relations are deteriorating between this group and the audience.
The result is an industry that essentially gives no weight to audience feedback at all.
This industry is also in total freefall. In 2020 the entire sales numbers for the American comic book industry fell below that of Koyoharu Gotouge’s Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. Comic lines like Super Sons, which were fun and new, and widely loved by general audiences, were cancelled arbitrarily to make room for a new creative team. Long running characters are constantly pulled from publication to make room for half-baked replacements. Interesting storylines have vanished and become tedious, repetitive lectures on the evils of society. All attempts to protest the systemic destruction of entertainment are met with ridicule. This goes beyond simple contempt for the audience.
Insulating the creators from the audience has resulted in nothing less than the wholesale looting and rape of a cultural institution.
This is disturbing because our cultural creators are growing more and more insulated from audiences. Again, these people have never been that good at staying in touch with their public. But streaming services aggregate everyone into a lump and make it difficult for audiences to express disappointment with a product. The entertainment press model is reliant on handouts and press events from publishers. Failure to give good press to any kind of mainstream entertainment results in the press getting shut out of future events and makes competing with compliant press institutions difficult. Individual commentators who speak out find their social media accounts suspended or banned. At the rate things are going, the rape of comics will play out time and time again over the next decade as one industry after another follows suite.
There’s not a whole lot individual creators can do to counter this trend. All we can do is keep the basic lesson in mind: Feedback from the audience can sting. But if you cut it off entirely your art is fatally wounded.