Emanata: Backups and Back-Downs

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Yesterday afternoon, DC Comics sent out a press release announcing that, as of January, most of their ongoing print-comics series that had crept up to $3.99 an issue will be retreating to a $2.99 price point. An hour or so later, at the ICv2 “Comics and Digital” conference (an industry-only event preceding New York Comic-Con), Marvel’s Senior VP of Sales and Circulation David Gabriel announced that, in an apparently totally unrelated move, Marvel would also be rolling back at least some of their $3.99 cover prices to $2.99. That seems like good news all around for comics buyers, and maybe for comics stores too.

Nothing else has yet been announced about the Marvel plan, although Gabriel indicated that it has something to do with the success of Marvel’s current digital strategy. (The elephant in the room is that, as ICv2’s Milton Griepp noted a couple of hours earlier at the same conference, comic book revenues in July and August were down about 14%, after being largely flat in the first half of the year, even while prices creep upward.) Apparently, Ultimate Comics Thor #1–released this Wednesday in both physical and digital form for $3.99–is the first Marvel title to sell more digital copies than it’s sold physical copies through the large New York retailer Midtown Comics. The digital number still can’t be that many copies, but they were copies Marvel didn’t have to print on paper and ship to their distributor; it’s a safe assumption that their profit margin is higher.

(More on Techland: Emanata: The High Cost of Comics)

As for the DC plan, 17 of DC’s series (including Vertigo’s American Vampire and four licensed titles the DC imprint just inherited from the now-defunct WildStorm) will be dropping a dollar from their cover price. But seven series will be losing their backup features–including the just-launched and well-regarded Jimmy Olsen backup in Action Comics and the not-yet-launched, heavily hyped, and apparently integral-to-the-lead-story Commissioner Gordon feature in Detective Comics. DC’s co-publisher Dan DiDio is quoted in the press release: “Fans of our co-features should stay tuned. Some of these characters will find a new platform.” The real sting, though, is that we’ll be losing story pages: it appears that all of DC’s $2.99 titles will now include 20 pages of story rather than 22. It’s a relatively small difference, but not imperceptible.

It also seems a bit like a slow-motion version of something that happened more than thirty years ago: the “DC Explosion” of 1978–in which nearly the company’s entire line went from 35 cents to 50 cents and added eight-page backups–and the “DC Implosion” that followed it three months later, in which a good-sized chunk of the line was cancelled, and the rest dropped back down to a 40-cent cover price for a 17-page story with no backup feature.

Still, it’s entirely possible that the new “platform” for short stories about secondary characters will be one digital form or another; that actually seems pretty likely. (It’s certainly a better fate than Cancelled Comic Cavalcade, the photocopied pair of anthologies, printed up in editions of a few dozen copies, that were the graveyards of most of the completed work axed in the “DC Implosion.”) Marvel’s already been doing something similar online, although it’s mostly walled off in their subscription-only digital program. And Dark Horse has been commissioning lots of short comics stories, running them in “Dark Horse Presents” online, and then collecting them in trade paperbacks.

(More on Techland: Emanata: The Future of Comic-Con International)

I’d like to see all the American mainstream publishers experiment more with short, original online comics, especially serials, as a way to develop their next wave of significant creators. Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Alan Davis, Dave Gibbons and Garth Ennis all honed their storytelling by working on on five-to-eight-page stories for British comic books. Will Eisner’s classic postwar “Spirit” stories were seven pages long; the great EC Comics horror and sci-fi stories of the ’50s were almost never much longer than that. The long-form graphic novel becoming the most marketable incarnation of comics has probably had a lot to do with the decline of the short-form comics narrative. But the ability to tell a compelling story, or a compelling piece of a longer story, in fewer than 20 pages is a skill that has badly atrophied in American comics.

That skill is especially important right now, because the future of mainstream comics may be tied to it. It was fairly clear from yesterday’s conference that the way they’re heading is digital serials, collected in print; the trade paperback has a much more secure future than the stapled comic book. An online comic that’s updated with 20 or 22 pages once every month or two makes a lot less sense than one that’s updated more regularly, with fewer pages at a time–and each batch of pages has to be satisfying on its own. The newly announced price cuts are a welcome reprieve for the print comic book serial as we know it, but they may also be a signal of what will happen after that reprieve ends.