Thursday, July 13, 2017

OPINION: How I saved DC Comics (and by extension the entire comic book industry), Part V

Let your format fit the fan

So far in this series of columns, we've talked about what it is that's SO wrong with comic books today that some nobody like me feels compelled to come along and offer advice on how to pull the industry our of the tank. That was covered in Parts I-III. In Part IV, I went over the non-comics material I think publishers (DC in particular) need to include in every comic book.

Now, we're into the various types of formats in which I believe those comic books should be published in. Specifically referring to DC Comics, which all of this is ultimately about, let me first preview Part VI, in which I'll give a list of actual titles, by revealing this: My plan would be to divide the DCU titles into 10 editorial groups of 10 books, each. So, think New 52 + 48 (although many of the books would be bi-monthly, quarterly, or semi-annual.

Now, because no comics fan can hope to afford everything DC publishes, even at the lower cover prices I'd aim for, the idea would be to package the books and characters in a variety of formats designed to appeal to different sets of consumers, while also satisfying retailer needs for both a decent price point and repeat traffic flow.  

But before I get into what the formats should be, let me explain the need, as I have in the past, using an anecdote from other media.

Again, I'm a newspaper reporter, and while newspaper publishers often complain that the internet cost them readers, I have always maintained that these publishers made a critical error at the dawn of the internet age. Well, two. Publishers were too busy banking profits to get that what their product actually did was create a sense of community. They should have had the foresight to beat AOL to the online portal game and beat Facebook at social networking. They should have used the internet to say to their readers, "We are your gateway to the world, and to each other." Anyway, that was the first mistake.

The second was that newspapers did not try to tailor their product to the strengths and weaknesses of the new medium. No, they just took the print product they'd been churning out for decades and threw that, en toto, onto the web. And they they were surprised when print circulations cratered, not having divined, I guess, that people might not pay for something they'd found they could get for free. We've already discussed why web ads are no good, so when that revenue stream failed to take off, the publishers started crying for paywalls.

But few papers have had much luck with that? Why? Well, think about how you read things online. If you're like me — that is to say, like most people — you probably have a fairly low tolerance for long articles online. The 1,500-word story you'll read in the print paper, or a magazine, wears thin before you get to the nut graf. That's one reason so many people share and comment on newspaper articles on Facebook and other social media without ever having actually read the story in question. Online, it's too much like work.

And then if you're under 35 or so, forget it. Those cats are phone surfers almost exclusively. Every time we've published a story that resonates with young people, we know, because the iOS hits spike dramatically.

And yet, newspapers continue to just post the exact same story online that goes in print, even when adopting a "digital-first" strategy.

I have alway argued (so far on deaf ears) that news outlets need to tailor their product to the media, crafting each to fit the preferences of the consumers of that distribution stream. So, let's say I'm covering  a city council meeting, I tweet the results of the vote as it happens (for the crowd who wants their news in real time, but real brief). Then, within a few hours, I have a short story on the newspaper's website, cross posted to its Facebook page. The story would be short and to the point (just the who, what, where, when) and could also go in print if we're running a daily paper. This version satisfies those who want to know a little bit more, but don't feel like scrolling through a long article (or wants to finish the morning paper in the time it takes to drink that first cup of coffee). Then, the story could be expanded for the weekly or Sunday print edition, focusing more on the how and, most importantly, the why, with more background and color. This version satisfies those who really like to dig deep into a topic, and/or who enjoy their news as an actual reading experience, rather than just the conveyance of information. And then the print editions could be supplemented with pointers back to the website for large data-reporting files and original documents, for those who like to really research a topic. And, just as I've said comic book letter columns can do, this creates a synergy between the print and digital products.

So, in this way, our one story runs a full circle, hitting each distribution channel in a way that's crafted to best satisfy the needs and wants of the main consumers on each platform.

Comic books can be the same way, except that we don't want to just re-package the same material. What we want here is the same characters, but in stories, formats, and price points most appealing to different types of potential buyers. Although we do want to reprint for the annuals, but I'l get to that.

First though, let's talk about cover prices. Modern comics cost too damn much. I think we've pretty well established that. But what is an appropriate price? That's hard for me to say. I know how much it costs to print 15,000 copies of a 24-page, tabloid-sized weekly newspaper, on newsprint, with about half the pages in color. At least what it costs in Maine. A full-color comic book though, I'm less certain. Even on something other than hi-gloss paper, which I've argued comics need to get away from.

But I do know we can't just look at the price of old comics and presume new ones should only cost that plus the price of inflation. For one thing, the publisher has to account (rightfully so) for the creator rights payouts it did not have to pony up for until the mid-80s, or so. There's also (less defensible, but a factor nonetheless) about 14 layers of middle management comic book companies did not have back in the day. So, labor costs are a lot higher. And, as previously mentioned, paper costs have spiked more or less through the roof.

But, just for the sake of argument, let's look at the prices of DC Comics the last time it regularly published in multiple formats, as I 'm arguing it should do once again. Back in 1977 (THE golden year of comics, so far as I'm concerned) DC had titles in a standard package of 32 pages for 35¢, a giant package of 48 pages for 60¢, and the big book format of 80 pages for $1.

According to the online inflation calculator at the website of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those price points in July 2017 equate in 2017 dollars to $1.40, $2.41, and $4.01.

So, based on inflation alone, that comic your getting for $3.99 really out to have 80 pages, not 32!

But, as said, we can't account for inflation alone.

Still, of DC were to do as I suggest and get aggressive about appealing to advertisers — by forming an in-hours ad department, opening up new distribution channels to increase circulation, and ditching house ads for things that actually produce revenue — I believe it could produce comics at a profit that have a much lower cover price relevant to package size. Importantly, that price would not be so low that retailers are like, "Damn, I'm making so little on this for the shelf space it takes up, I don't even want to stock it!"

I've already mentioned that I would divide the DCU into 10 editorial groups of 10 books each. Each editorial group would consist of:

• HERO LINE — two ongoing books and one 12-issue limited series, published bi-weekly, at 36 pages (all page counts herein include covers), retailing for $2.75. 

A low-priced entry book, the hero titles would focus on a single character in continued story arcs of six issues, each, allowing for a modern, “decompressed” form of storytelling that can be readily collected in trade paperback form as “annuals” during the year. Thus, SUPERMAN #808-813, published on newsprint (or something close to it), would be collected on glossy paper as SUPERMAN ANNUAL 2018, Vol. 1. But importantly, DC's current twice monthly format as proven that retailers can move more of a title that if it was a monthly series, making the lower price point more tolerable to them, while being more attractive to casual readers.

• TEAM LINE — two ongoing titles and one 6-issue limited series, published monthly, with 48 pages at $3.25. 

These books would often have a main feature and a complimentary back-up tale. For example, a Superman story in THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN in which Clark Kent must outwit Steve Lombard might, depending on storytelling needs, be preceded, bisected, or followed by a Smallville tale in which Pa Kent first taught Clark how to stand up to a bully without revealing his powers. The stories in the team books would b designed to mimic the more compressed storytelling style of the Silver or early-Bronze Ages and rarely extend for more than couple of issues (although subplots and other narrative themes may continue to develop over longer periods).

• ANTHOLOGY LINE — two monthly books of 56 pages, retailing for $3.99.

Generally consisting of a lead feature (18 pages), and back-up story (8 pages), then a 6-page tale by an A-List creator (or name from other media) done in the “Batman: Black & White” format (not coincidentally saving some color costs), all rounded out by a centerfold done in the style of a humorous Sunday Funnies page. So, for example, ACTION COMICS might feature Zatanna battling undead evil in St. Roch, followed by whip-wielding super spy Mr. America, then a “Superman Black & White” story, with a centerfold starring Krypto, Beppo, Super-Baby, Mr. Mxyzptlk, or something like that. (in fact, the subject of the centerfold strip would probably vary from issue to issue). The idea is to provide a little of something for everyone, with aspects acting as a drew to each and the Sunday Funny as cherry on top for all. Generally, at least one of the tales (usually the Black & White) should be complete in that issues.

• CITY LINE — one bi-monthly title (or in the case of some editorial groups, two alternating titles, each published three times per year), at 64 pages for $4.25. 

These books would feature the setting as a character through a series of interlocking stories, allowing for a high degree of creativity on the part of the artists and writers. Just how those stories tie in to each other might vary from title-to-title, and issue-to-issue. They might continue a plot straight from one story to the next, have each story cover a different angle of the same event, or simply touch on similar themes with background events alerting the reader that all are happening at the same time and place. So, for example, METROPOLIS might lead off with The Daily Planet as a story circulates the newsroom, continue as Jimmy Olsen does a little field work, and conclude with the officers of Metropolis SCU arriving to bail Jimmy out. 

Meanwhile, each city book would conclude with a six-page vignette that focuses on the staff and customers of a city business or institution. So, maybe the crook pursued in the first three tales might turn out to be the father of a waitress at the Planet Krypton Diner, and the concluding story would reveal some hidden aspect of his motivation. 

Finally, the centerfold of each city book would include maps, blueprints, guidebook listings, historic “photos,” and other city data to geek out on.

• EPIC LINE — a quarterly 80-page book retailing for $4.99.

These would tell a single extra-length “epic” yarn, usually featuring multiple main characters. Basically, these are meant to mimic those 60¢ giants I loved as a kid. The story would always be "done-in-one," but could easily feature multiple artists.

The City and Epic lines would treat the supplementary editorial material a little differently, largely having their own features, rather then re-running the ones from the other lines, in part because I expect these formats would appeal mostly to hard-core fans rather than casual buyers, so why fill the book with stuff they've seen elsewhere already.

Breaking things down a but further, the page count for each line (again, counting covers) would look something like this:

HERO LINE    (20 bi-weekly titles, 36 pages for $2.75)(10 twelve-issue limited series, same format)
∆ Cover — 1pg
√ Comics story  — 18pgs
• Letters column — 0.5pg
• Ask the Answer Man (Q&A column) — 0.5pg
• Who's Who in the DCU Info Page — 0.5pg.
• DC Pro-Files (creator interview) — 0.5pg.
• Group promo page — 1pg.
• Direct Currents (company promo page) — 1pg
$ DC house ad — 1pg
$ Paid advertising — 12pgs. (33.3% of book)

TEAM LINE   (20 monthly titles, 48 pages for $3.25)(10 six-issue limited series, same format)
∆ Cover — 1pg
Lead comics story — 20 pgs.
√ Back-up comics story — 8 pgs
• Letters column — 0.5pg
• Ask the Answer Man (Q&A column) — 0.5pg
• Who's Who in the DCU Info page — 0.5pg.
• DC Pro-Files (creator interview) — 0.5pg.
• Group promo page — 1pg.
• Direct Currents (company promo page) — 1pg.
$ DC house ad — 1pg
$ Paid advertising — 14pgs. (29.2% of book)

ANTHOLOGY LINE   (20 monthly titles, 56 pages for $3.99)
∆ Cover — 1pg
Lead comics story — 18 pgs.
√ Back-up comics story — 8 pgs
√ “Black & White” style comics story — 6 pgs
√ Humorous comic strip — 2 pgs [centerfold]
• Letters column — 0.5pg
• Ask the Answer Man (Q&A column) — 0.5pg
• Who's Who in the DCU Info page — 0.5pg.
• DC Pro-Files (creator interview) — 0.5pg.
• Group promo page — 1pg.
• Direct Currents (company promo page) — 1pg.
$ DC house ad — 1pg
$ Paid advertising — 16pgs. (28.6% of book)

CITY LINE      (10 bi-monthly titles, 64 pages for $4.25)
∆ Cover — 1pg
Main comics story — 12 pgs.
√ Secondary comics story — 10 pgs
√ Third comics story — 7 pgs
√ “City Life” comics story — 6 pgs
• City Guide (maps, blueprints, etc.) — 4 pgs [centerfold, in and out]
• “City Archives” text feature — 2 pgs
• Group promo page — 1pg.
• Direct Currents (company promo page) — 1pg.
$ DC house ad — 1pg
$ Paid advertising — 19 pgs. (29.7% of book)

EPIC LINE      (10 quarterly titles, 80 pages for $4.99)
∆ Cover — 1pg
Comics story — 45 pgs.
• Text feature(s) — 5 pgs
• Group promo page — 1pg.
• Direct Currents (company promo page) — 1pg.
$ DC house ad — 2 pgs
$ Paid advertising — 25pgs. (31.25% of book)

So, as an additional preview to the full line of titles coming in Part IV, let's look at what I'd propose for the 10 books to launch the Superman line:

            • Superman  
            • Smallville (CW show premise, used for this version of Superman)
            • LSH  
            • solo Legionnaires
            • Zatanna      
            • Mr. America
            • Superman B&W     
            • Krypto/Beppo/Streaky/Bibbo/etc.


            • LSH  
• (Worlds of) The United Planets  
• solo Legionnaires   
• Super-Pets/Substitute Heroes/Legion Rejects/etc.
            • Daily Planet
• Jimmy Olsen           
• Metropolis SCU      
• Planet Krypton Diner
            • Superman/boy and the Legion (realities may vary)

Limited Series

So, good idea? Bad idea? Just wait until Part VI when I detail the full line of titles. That'll make you blow a gasket, bub!

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