The End of the Indie Comic Cries (or at least us listening to them)

Why so serious?

The evidence that the indie comic book scene was not redeemed by the bookstore flirtation with comics, which spiraled into a love affair, should silence the whining about the direct market that the indie scene has been repeating for years. It is time to stop the broken record from skipping and start making a new and better record that people might enjoy. The direct market will gladly sell it.

My opinion that the indie scene was not mainstream was shut down from the Warren Ellis forum in 2002. If we took the cries of the indie scene from days gone by seriously, we would have concluded that the direct market was directly responsible for holding the indie comic scene down. It was argued that retailer had some deep seeded hatred toward indie comics that prevented us from desiring to make money on those books. The bookstores, who would just listen to the numbers and not have any predispositions, would become the saviors of the indie comic scene through unleashing all the under-appreciated indie works on the masses. This would spiral the indie books into the mainstream where it was argued they belonged. The argument was that indie comics were just too mainstream to be successful in the subculture comic shops. We see that the prophecy of the masses loving indie comics just never actualized the way the "indie scene" predicted.

What time has shown is that superheroes are mainstream, Dark Tower and Buffy are mainstream, Sin City and 300 are mainstream, Watchmen is mainstream, Fruits Basket and Naruto are mainstream, and Bone is mainstream. Our Ft. Wayne store is about as mainstream as you can get by being in a mall. Despite loving the "indie" Percy Gloom and pushing it on everyone I think might like it, I sell only a few of that compared to The Killing Joke, Watchmen, or the latest volume of Naruto. Love and Rockets sits on my shelves while Buffy, Dresden Files, and Dark Tower sell ten to fifty times Love and Rockets' numbers.

I love the indie scene, but it was always ridiculous for them to argue that their work was mainstream and that it was the fault of the comic shops across this land that they didn't sell. I will sell any comic that is not pornography (a tough to define issue) to any customer that asks for it. Other comic shops share that sentiment without the prohibition against porn. It is not the retailers fault that indie books are not prospering; It is indie publishers' fault that people are not flocking into bookstores, comic shops, or on the internet to purchase their books. The publishers have failed to create for the works produced. I and my workers champion books here and there, but the indie marketing strategy of depending on the local retailers to champion their books (and blaming them for bad sales when they fail) has been proven to have never been a viable marketing strategy.

Robert Kirkman, creator of Walking Dead and recently promoted Image Comics partner proclaimed that the industry will be saved by more creator-owned work from publishers. Robert Scott, a retailer from San Diego and the founder of the Comic Book Industry Alliance, wrote a reply to that thought in which he argued that creator-owned work will not be the answer to the industry. I agree more with Kirkman with one major caveat: Top creators doing more creator-owned work will be beneficial to the industry if they are serious about producing comics on a timely schedule and continue to produce monthly books even after cashing in with Hollywood. Even books like Sin City, Hellboy, and Spawn that have not been produced on a timely schedule still bring in a lot of money. They could bring in much more if they were published in a timely fashion and perpetually like Marvel and DC do with their major properties. As a retailer, I have plenty of Batman, X-Men, and Spider-Man ongoing books to sell. They cash in when their properties are hot, continue to make books about those characters to keep them in the public spotlight, and have a decent level of quality when publishing. I do not have plenty of Hellboy, Sin City, or 300 books to sell. Purely as a businessman, I would love to have seen a monthly Sin City at the time of its peak. Dark Horse and Miller would have needed to take the professional monthly approach like DC takes on Batman for it to be successful, but it could have been done. I might still be selling plenty of that book today. Instead, the creator just rested on his laurels (a right that he has) and basked in the profits rather than creating more books to make more money and bring profit to the whole industry.

I also think that creator-owned work is better for creators than the industry-at-large. The creators are the ones who retire from the business when they land the big movie deal. The only bump we see from the big movie deal is increased sales in the collected editions of the work they completed years ago. We lose a great creator to retirement or intermittent publication because of the success of his creator-owned work in channels outside the industry. In the long run, it might have been better for the industry to have never lost a Mike Mignola, Frank Miller, Todd McFarlane, or Alan Moore to financial success. They bless us with their talents every once in a while but the comic industry would be much better off if they were blessing us monthly. I know it is too much to ask for, but it illustrates the idea that creator-owned success is better for the creator than it is for the industry.

Mainstream just means that the comic in question connects with an audience, has successful marketing, with sales to back it up. Indie usually implies that the creator just created the book he wanted to create without any target audience, any marketing plan, and the sales strategy of the book selling itself. One is commercial and one is artistic. There is nothing wrong with having both in our industry. It is just tiresome to continue hearing the artistic crowd complain about the failure to have success after success. I will continue to order indie books that I like and others that I don't like but think will sell. In the end, the "indie" publishers need to take seriously the business principle of marketing if they ever want to be successful in a economic sense rather than just a creative sense.

And one final quick note, the most mainstream comic that a publisher could publish right now would be a Harry Potter comic book. That would sell insane numbers. I wouldn't like the book because I do not like the novels, but it would be great for my business and for the industry.