How I Fumbled the Ball, by MARK WAID

This is a column that we hope gives you a real sense of what we’re aiming to do at 13th Dimension. At our site, you’ll find pieces written by the creators themselves that aim to both enlighten and provoke. Today, we bring you a missive from industry superstar Mark Waid  – and it’s a surprising mea culpa. Read on because it’s fascinating stuff. — Dan

WELCOME TO THE 21st CENTURY COMICS INDUSTRY

Trust me as I tell you that when the mob storms the village with torches and pitchforks in hand and you realize you’re the only one not holding anything, that is an uncomfortable place to be.

Several years ago, at a conference for comic book publishers and industry stalwarts, when Comixology was still an “upstart” and iPads were still a toy, I came out aggressively against the Old Ways. I wasn’t the first to do so, but I am loud. I rallied hard that we should all be turning our attention to the emerging digital market and that as an industry, we couldn’t continue to be held hostage by our only significant print distributor, America’s 1,800 — maybe — comics specialty stores. I argued that tablets and smartphones were the new newsstand, the new outreach tool.

As the vast majority of publishers and retailers turned on me for preaching heresy and descended upon me like a fat kid on a chocolate cake, I maintained that the Old Ways were doomed to die more quickly than we could imagine and that the future of the comics medium hinged on digital distribution.

And you know what?

I was wrong.

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Not wholly. I still have no regrets about soapboxing over the New Ways, about the role screen-based portables can have as outreach tools. In fact, I staked my entire personal, legendary collection of comics and three years (and counting) of nights and weekends in sweat equity that digital comics were the future. That’s how my webcomics portal Thrillbent.com was born, and it thrives as a platform for telling comics stories in a new medium and for reaching an audience who can’t make it to a comics shop every Wednesday. So far, so good.

But in all honesty, the Old Ways weren’t doomed. Had you told me three years ago that comics sales in America would be up by significant numbers when all other forms of print media were shedding readers at a brutal pace, I’d have been the one to call you a heretic. Yet here we are. Print comics aren’t the business juggernaut they were in their heyday and may never be again, but no one can deny that there’s a sustained boom going on and no hint of an oncoming bust. And here’s what’s really cool: The same thing is happening with digital comics. They’re not only matching print’s growth, they’re exceeding it.

A year or two ago, when readers (new, old and lapsed) began reporting that reading comics online spurred them into stores, we considered that to be anecdotal evidence that there was a positive symbiotic relationship between the two. Today, we have hard data to back that up; every shred of evidence goes to show that one does not “steal” from the other. Not only can digital and print co-exist, they can feed one another. Digital is the outreach, but brick-and-mortar is the community gathering place, the sales platform, the pop-culture oasis.

I’m so convinced of this that I’m now taking another huge gamble. I — I, who have the reputation of a digital zealot who hates print — I now own a store of my own, Alter Ego Comics in Muncie, Ind. I mention this not to plug, I swear, but to make the point that I’m approaching the possibilities of this new virtual/brick-and-mortar relationship with the same zeal that brought me to Thrillbent. We’re installing a kiosk in Alter Ego where customers can browse Thrillbent on-screen and, using their phones to activate QR codes, purchase digital downloads directly from the site. I’m very curious as to how this works out for us. It’ll be strange, offering both physical goods and downloads for sale under the same roof. It may not yield results, but if it doesn’t, the next experiment will, or the one after that.

Alter Ego Comics' recent grand re-opening

Alter Ego Comics’ recent grand re-opening

I’ll stop back by here from time to time to keep you informed of our progress. The audience is out there — you’re proof of that.

And speaking on behalf of the entire industry, regardless of what brings you to the table, we appreciate your support.

 

Sincerely,

Mark Waid

Professional Rabble-Rouser

 

Author: Dan Greenfield

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15 Comments

  1. A man who can admit to a mistake is a rare person…and one who goes on to open a comic book store is even rarer! Look forward to reports on the process.

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  2. Good luck in your print/digital experiment Mark. While I certainly enjoy the convenience of digital on my tablet, there is nothing quite like reading the actual print comic.

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  3. I’m glad. Oh, man, Mark, I’m glad. I love print and don’t want it to go away! :) For me it wasn’t at all bein angry at you, but fretting in anxiety that you were right; I’m so glad print is staying–and as long as digital doesn’t replace print, I’m very happy to see it thrive and enjoy it for its own sake.

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  4. Waid comes off as a big ego case. He says he’s wrong, but not really. Just follow the guy on Twitter. Good comic writer, though.

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  5. He admits that he was wrong, but still doesn’t apologize to anyone he ragged on in his zeal. Classic Waid.

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  6. If printed comics were affordable and distributed to corner markets and grocery magazine racks, and if they were reasonably kid friendly, I’d buy stacks and stacks of them for my children. Newsprint is not a deal breaker.

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  7. Thanks, Mark, for the update.

    And now for a bit of clarity:
    “And here’s what’s really cool: The same thing is happening with digital comics. They’re not only matching print’s growth, they’re exceeding it.”

    Digital comics are still an emerging market, while print comics are already a mature market. There would be something sooooooo wrong with digital if it wasn’t growing by a larger percentage than print at this point.

    But let’s also be clear: When all the hubbub was made of digital growing by 300% or whatever it was for the year, that growth in real dollars was about equal to the increase in real dollars for print.

    So it was a little like comparing the growth of, let’s stay in comics here, Ant-Man to Giant-Man. Ant-Man’s one inch growth would be a lot larger percentage than Giant-Man’s…. yet the actual measurement is the same.

    All media is big on reporting phenomenal percentage growth while usually ignoring real growth.

    Joe Field
    Flying Colors
    Concord CA

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  8. I feel you can’t beat the feel of an actual comic in your hand. Digital for me doesn’t come near. But for some it may be a better alternative…

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  9. Pleased to see this, Mark — watching the PBS documentary last night I worried it was leaving the impression that print was in trouble, whereas as you note (and Comichron and ICV2 report), it’s been doing better than it has in a while.

    Digital looks to me to be on the same growth path as trade paperbacks were in the early part of the 2000s; giving lapsed and new readers another channel and adding another leg to the table. Hopefully that proves correct. Looking forward to hearing how your experiments go.

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    • It’s easy to overlook that the PBS documentary (which I thought was excellent) wrapped its interviews over a year ago. Knowing what I know now, I might have phrased things differently re: the direct market. Maybe.

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      • Makes sense — to be sure, the periodical side of things was coming off a slump from 2009 until mid-2011. Things were netting out flat thanks to trades and cover inflation during that stretch, but there was definitely concern. The climate in all categories is better now, but nothing’s a given. (Is it ever in comics?)

        But innovation — artistic, technological, or otherwise — has always been how the industry’s made its comebacks, so it’s good to see people trying new ideas. It’s been when the business has run on autopilot that it’s tended to find the most trouble.

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  10. Mark

    What are those digital number increases in real number terms? I keep hearing that the numbers are growing especially digital yet I’d like to see some concrete numbers released (especially by the big 2).

    This might be a side note in the whole digital vers print controversy but as a creator I’m working and paid based upon the outdated print system. A system that publishers have told me is relatively stagnant or declining and not increasing appreciably. My rates have not gone up in over 7 years yet my cost of living (and working) has and I believe thanks to those digital sales the eyes on my work has grown.

    Basically some publishers (Large ones at least) are making more money while I continue to make less. Unfortunately it’s becoming harder and harder to maintain a living wage while doing a job that I love. A job that I have an Eisner and Harvey for yet doesn’t pay me enough to afford health care, retirement savings or much of a living.

    I love what I do and there are a lot of issues in involved with any type of freelance employment. Unfortunately with the position that I work in many companies have a “use you up” and “forget you.” I can site many examples of coloring an entire book in two days with little or no sleep and finally having to fall asleep with a bag of ice on my hand. Then contacting those same editors for some consistent work without any return.

    This is could part of a much larger rant and I’m getting off the topic of my original question but it’s been a very frustrating few years.

    I’m posting anonymously because I don’t need to burn any bridges and I need to support myself.

    thanks

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    • I am sorry to hear all the troubles you and undoubtedly many other proffessionals in the industry are facing. I sincerely wish that your work was given the respect it deserves. Know that your work brings so much joy, delight and amazement to the lives of thousands and thousands of people. I personally appreciate all the effort you guys put into sustaining this artform in its utmost quality. Please accept my gratitudes.

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  11. Hey Mark, I really enjoyed reading this article. I am really curious about this kiosk that you are going to be using in your store. A while back I worked for a game store in which you could go into the store and use your wireless handheld video game device and download game demos and other content for free. Is it possible that publishers could award visitors in store with fresh weekly comic book content for visiting their local shop each week? I know a big part of marketing is to get the customer inside the story, and what better way to do that than with free comics. Not only could this be a way for stores to keep their door’s open, but rather an opportunity for small local publishers to give away free samples to a target audience, rather than blogging to a wider crowd.

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