I’ve thought a lot about comics in 2020. Often because there’s not much else to do when you’ve spent the year indoors.
I launched “Learning to Cope” as a way to better understand comics; specifically, ways that the industry can be better for everyone. Inevitably, that doesn’t just mean looking at practices that have retained a death grip on the industry, but also how the COVID nightmare has impacted the industry as a whole. Yet despite all my free time, it’s been hard to fully summarize just how amazing this year has been in reinvigorating comics. And also how much that prevailing sense of terror has colored everything.
Luckily, there’s David Harper.
As part of a great new essay from Polygon, Harper broke down all the ways comics adapted to COVID. It’s a really thoughtful and well-rounded piece, and in short, he touches on both the enduring creative spirit and the economic and logistical challenges and opportunities of this, a true dumpster fire of a year. Harper does a bang-up job capturing the spirit of comics in 2020 and the important upgrades, innovations, and new ideas that defined the industry. What could have been a disaster became a chance for real, often meaningful change in an industry that, to paraphrase Harper’s piece, was long obsessed with not fixing something they couldn’t even admit was broken. Please, truly and completely, read his piece for yourself.
There’s only one small area where Harper could have expanded (and I totally understand why he didn’t, given his larger mission statement): whatever happened in 2020 needs to keep on happening in 2021. A year of change is great, but it’s often just a reaction to some terrible circumstances. If we get anywhere near “normalcy” next year, a lack of continued momentum for the industry means 2020 meant nothing, and we return to the same old, slightly broken way of doing things. If 2020 was a reinvention, then 2021 can be a revolution.
Here are a few key areas that Harper picked up on (and then some) that I’d like to further expand upon:
Getting a Kick from Kickstarter
I’ve written a little about Kickstarter. As much as I think crowdfunding is good, I also recognize that it’s not always accessible for newer or less established creators. As much success as a Scott Snyder type might have with the platform, it’s often because he’s made his name (and continues to do so) in the “mainstream” of DC, Image, etc. Still, I like the way Harper quickly contextualizes it: this is actually a space for rookies and vets alike, and the sheer reliance on these platforms (beyond just Kickstarter) is how we build a healthier ecosystem for crowdfunding. It may not be its own thing, especially as the existing models can still work, but it should be seen as a supplemental approach. It’s a way to expand the scope of who gets to create in a sustainable way and give more power to the consumer base and the creators. It’s that last part, I think, that is really essential: more mechanisms for control beyond the industry’s core model puts pressure on publishers to get creative and engage with artists/writers. It’s not all or nothing, but all options mean that we have ways to get books out or provide proper wages for all creators.
Maintain the Pace
Among Harper’s more substantial points (and they’re all pretty great), he mentions the idea of how everyone reacted to COVID. Be it creators or publishers, the industry as a whole reacted pretty efficiently to the industry shutdowns in the spring/early summer. That’s not to say it’s easy to pivot how books get released, or to reconsider the schedule for some convention/event, but that with enough willpower and commitment, people got it done. That goes back to the larger point of “why fix the comics industry model if it ain’t broke?” Well, because we can, and a different system of doing things — either during a pandemic or when the world’s not on fire — proves that it’s not some gargantuan undertaking. That not only puts the power in more hands, but it also shows that what’s plaguing the comics industry isn’t necessarily systemic but the victim of poor thinking and planning. (Though there are clearly systemic issues at play, but that’s another essay entirely.) Change isn’t easy, but we’ve tricked ourselves for too long that things have to be one way. What we change is up to us, and the real challenge is finding a system that works for everyone. If nothing else, 2020 proved we have the skills to evolve; we just needed a good reason.
More Funds for Friends
In a time where everyone, to one degree or another, struggled to pay their respective bills, comics gave back in a big way. Harper specifically recognizes projects like the #Creators4Comics campaign, which did wonders to not only help out creators but gave back to struggling comic shops in a big way. I’d love to see that kind of giving continue into 2021, and not just because it gives us all the warm and cozies. There’s actually some light research and anecdotal evidence that conducting charitable efforts can actually be good for business. It’s a great way to bring in new consumers, enhance the output and productivity of workers, and it’s just a good bit of PR and advertising to boot. I think there’s also a sense of “authority” when it comes to charitable giving, as if it’s something that important and established sectors often engage in (like corporations who aren’t soulless and evil). Given that comics is often seen as “juvenile” to folks outside these magical walls, more giving would be a great way to mitigate that perception and show comics to be the strong community it’s always been. It really is the gift that keeps on giving.
Break the Walls Down
After the shutdown of Diamond, DC comics went ahead and created their own distribution practice, something Harper rightfully calls a “seismic moment in comics.” (After announcing plans to set up two new distributors, Midtown/UCS and DCBS/Lunar, DC has since announced it’ll use Lunar exclusively. Regardless, it’s still a pretty big change.) Not only that, but DC now publishes books on Tuesday when the rest of the industry operates around Wednesday. Yes, as Harper indicated, DC faced some challenges in their move, but the end result feels clear: they’re innovating in a big way. Not only does that touch upon my previous point about “don’t be afraid to break things and rebuild,” it’s also how a lot of other industries operate. There are dozens and dozens of distributors (and accompanying “models”) for physical albums, and each one is geared toward specific artists with respective sales capabilities. A Warner Bros. doesn’t have to work in the same kind of confines/model as an Exploding In Sound Records — if that makes sense to a comics-centric audience.
The whole “one size fits all” model doesn’t feel applicable anymore given a whole slew of factors (like the number of indie publishers). DC’s decision was a way to empower their own efforts given they have the resources (something not true of the many smaller publishers). Did they do it for their own benefit? Heck yes. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s smart to break up things like distribution if it inevitably means more space for some of the “other” guys. Do I think a Marvel, or even an Image, might be next? I’m not sure — though they’d be wise to figure out ways to make distribution work for them in the case something like this happens again.
Always Hang Tough
And speaking of continued tragedies, there’s no telling not only how long COVID will continue to exert pressure, but what that might mean for the possibility of another Diamond-esque shutdown. I think one of Harper’s main points, and one I also addressed earlier, is that the comics industry is far more resilient than we’d all thought, and we have the creativity and determination to weather another storm. But more than that, I think this was a kind of wakeup call for everyone in the biz that, not only are our systems hugely flawed and fragile, but the world is changing, and with that comes the threat of more possible existential crises. The world wasn’t prepared for COVID, and there’s nothing that says we’ll be better prepared for whatever comes next. I think that kind of fate might breed a certain way of thinking into comics, one about always assuming that a shutdown could just be days or weeks ahead given some global or national development. That doesn’t mean live as if the world is constantly going to end, but that we should prepare ourselves regardless.
Don’t assume things will always be copacetic; don’t be afraid to try something new for distribution or another crucial business function; don’t take for granted the resources available; and don’t think there’s ever going to be help beyond the people and fans in any given industry. The right attitude goes a long way, and comics shouldn’t get paranoid but instead think about being a little more savvy in the face of added bad news. This wasn’t a hiccup in reality, and we should recognize some specific challenges ahead.
Sales Matter (Mostly)
Did comics have a great year financially? You betcha. Despite the downturn in April and May, things are not only back to normal but maybe doing even better. (According to John Jackson Miller of Comichron, comic shop orders for September even exceeded those pre-pandemic figures.) But there’s one important caveat: graphic novels and manga may be leading the charge, as GN sales are up a whopping 42%. Obviously the Comichron news proves that single issues are still big business, but there’s no denying that manga and graphic novels are ushering in a new era, and superheroes (which now make up about 7% of comics sales) aren’t exactly the big guns of yesteryear.
But if 2020 taught us anything (beyond how to make sweatpants more work appropriate ), it’s that this distinction doesn’t truly matter. Big business is good for all of comics, and while some “purists” may harbor ill will toward things like manga, it’s a mostly silly grudge to hold. Increased sales inevitably draw attention to comics as a whole, and even if we don’t operate on some trickle-down model (ya know, cause that doesn’t work), a sturdy industry means everyone gets to keep making and reading books.
What those books might be could shift, especially as publishers pick up on the tastes and trends of consumers, but that’s not really a noticeable issue. When so many other fields floundered (see music) this year in the face of COVID, comics flourished. That kind of value is going to be essential as the market continues to evolve and develop. People reading comics means someone will always pay for them to be made, no matter how that ultimately works out. It’s these sales that can be a driving force for continued innovation and segmentation.
Batten Down the Hatches
It wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine post-spring shutdown. There have also been some generally depressing developments across the comics industry, including some rather substantial layoffs over at DC. Are more coming? Will this same issue impact other publishers? There’s no way to know for sure, but to say no would be to ignore the prospect that we’re only part of the way through all this madness. More than just being prepared for bad news (again, an essential point I’ve touched on elsewhere), we need to recognize that bad news may be a part of the industry for at least 2021 (if not much longer).
That means layoffs and other corporate moves to cut costs and streamline accordingly, and those will inevitably have an impact on how, when, and even why comics are being made. If we’re to accept some kind of “new normalcy” post-COVID, it means getting used to the idea that these jobs, and other changes the industry may experienced in 20201, are just part of how we live and do business from now on. There is no going back, and all the success and upsides in the world may not prevent some kind of larger, long-term contraction of the comics industry.
Or something else entirely might happen. What we need to keep in mind, though, is that we have no idea how things will turn out. The quicker we accept this new reality, the more we can recognize that how we did business before won’t always be the way of the future. It may mean the end of some publishers, the streamlining or outright removal of certain jobs and/or functions in the industry, and other changes we’re not wholly prepared for (or aware of) right now. And, again, it may be that some of these shifts work out better in the long run. The point is, 2020 marked a massive sea change for comics, and we won’t know the sheer scope and size for years to come. Better we get used the shoreline how it is and not the way we want it.
There’s so much more I could address, but I think one thing is clear: a lot of change happened in 2020, and more is likely to come in 2021 and beyond. A lot of it was good, and enough of it was clearly bad, but we’ve made it to the end and we can breathe a little before the next year rears its indiscernible head. I hope that 2021 is another important year for comics, and we can continue to take the lessons and pains and pleasures of 2020 and make something better in its place. If you’re not busy evolving, then you’re busy being someone else’s lunch. I may have some keen ideas about what comes next (alongside folks like Harper), but I’m no more correct than anyone else.
The only thing I can be sure of is that whatever happens, people will continue to be involved in shaping modern comics as we see fit. There’ll certainly be some growing pains and downsides, but that fact alone should make even the biggest Chicken Little among us feel that much better. Because it’s that collaboration that defined our reaction to 2020, and there’s no reason it won’t continue on into 2021. The only one stopping us from moving on with grace and forethought is, well, us.
Oh, and one more little tidbit from 2020 before I go:
Comics are always fun. Please read lots of ’em.
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