For those expecting the tone to lighten in the second part of our discussion with The Comics Reporter’s Tom Spurgeon, you’re clearly reading the wrong year in review. At the tail end of 2008, few if any topics matter quite as much as the economy, especially for those fields concerned with product production, which, as much as we’d like to think of ourselves creating art for art’s sake, most certainly includes the world of comics. The discussion of the economic fallout on the comics industry continues well into the second part of our interview.
However, the latter half of the second part does take a turn for the—if not positive—then at least less negative, with a discussion of the industry’s future, as it pertains to online distribution, a topic of conversation that’s becoming even more key to the survival of the industry, as the production of a physical product becomes even less economically sound.
From time to time, the Marvels and DCs of the world love to mine the indies for “new” talent. Do you see that as a possible side effect of the economic slowdown?
Not really. I don’t see that there’s anything different in that than there was five years ago. They’re always looking for new talent, and if there’s a use for them to do that, they’re going to do that. Any way that they can subsume a creator for a new series, which is probably how they saw the new Omega series—not as a way to break sales records in the direct market, but something that the book sellers would find attractive in placing on the stands there. The thing that worries me about the big publishers right now is that I don’t think they were very good actors in the economic good time in a way that makes me think they might do well now.
They didn’t take advantage of what was presented to them.
Yeah. They’re such huge actors in the market that they control—that they own, basically, in a sense. The direct market. It’s so much about competition and maximizing the sales on specific books, and not so much about long term growth or the health of the market or developing more storefronts. I don’t know this to be the truth, but I hear rumblings that, despite these last few good years, the pay rates haven’t really increased to reflect that. So it makes you wonder if the measure of success for these companies for the last few years was just if they were able to put more money in the bottom line of their corporations, via licensing opportunities.
And if that’s the case, what will happen as it becomes harder to do that and they’re stuck making a decision that is not based on their being a good business partner in that market? They’ve been kind of abusing and exploiting that market. It’s not beyond the realm of possibilities that, if you can get the same licensing effect out of publishing 80-percent of what you publish online and not have those same page rates, that’s not where you end up, five years from now. I’m very suspicious about their being good actors in economic bad times, because I don’t think they were good actors in economic good times.
There’s a long, storied tradition of underpaying creators in this business.
Yeah, underpaying creators and just kind of acting in a short-sided way. It’s a unstable market and very abused market for something that is so profitable and has led to so much marketing. You would have thought 20 years ago that at least we’d know what a bad contract is now, but, in a certain sense, it might even be worse from small publishers now. It may be harder for them to enter into the market. It doesn’t make me real confident. If it’s all about funneling money to a certaing group of stockholder or boardmembers, then that certainly brings about a whole different set of decision making criteria than trying to create a healthy long term market.
This is based purely on circumstantial evidence, but it seems like the world of mini-comics is as booming as ever. Are these people who are just sort of used to being poor, so they don’t mind that there’s no money in the pursuit?
Well, you know, I make a joke on the site that, when the economic times get really bad, everyone will have to live like a cartoonist. I think it’s the cultural saturation of comics, to a certain point. You just have more people happy to do them. More people are willing to do them for their own sake, rather than making sure that they profit over all of those things, at all times. You can have a guy who is a very established creator putting out a mini-comic that he doesn’t expect to make any money off of. I think it’s more culturally encouraged to do those for the sake of themselves. That doesn’t mean that you want the industry to dry up and blow away, either.
Is 2009 the year that we’ll see people going full bore online?
It certainly looks like it, doesn’t it? The model that you can look at that is kind of a rising star, in terms of comics, are these online guys who have just hit that right niche of being able to provide a way of being able to facilitate online and merchandising sales. Versus a Jeff Smith model that is more interested in moving the comic as product. I think you’re going to have, at some point, mainstream companies taking the plunge, and people will kind of head in that direction, whether or not they ever come to a good model. You don’t really know if you’re doing damage to your exiting model. I think it’s inevitable that people move in that direction, because they’re going to find the other direction either limited or even losing money. I’m not really an expert, and I can’t really speak on the piracy issues, but it seems to me to be an inevitability.
Everyone’s dipped their toes in the online world a bit, by this point, even the larger companies, with initiatives like Zuda. Looking ahead, do you see one model being any more effective than the others? Is there, for lack of a better term, a “model of the future?”
Hm. Boy, I would be a very wealthy man, if I could predict that.
Give it a shot. These year in review stories are fueled by crazy predictions.
It’s almost like what drives the solution is the fact that that isn’t coming. Comics syndicates have been aware of online comics since the late 90s. The two models that they tossed their weight behind weren’t the ones they had been waiting for. They were the ones they adopted because it was time. I don’t know if there’s going to be a model of the future based on how awesome that model is and how obvious it is that everyone should adopt it. There will be models of the future based on everyone throwing their lot in and saying, “this is the one we’re going to use.”
So there will continue to be a number of unique approaches.
I think so. It’s not so much a unique approach, so much as everyone is going to need to have an approach, and something will rise from that. We’ve waited long enough for something to arise as the obvious one, and I don’t think that’s going to happen. There are people that will argue on all sides. One thing that irritates me about some new media thinkers is that they’re so certain about some beliefs and philosophies. “No one is ever going to pay for this,” or “everyone is going to demand this for free.” I think a lot of what develops is, you get models, and then buzz kind of exists around those models as well. Thought almost follows deed, in that case.
I used to edit The Comics Journal, and we got online really early on, and we found that, whenever we published anything online, it would just be copied everywhere, in really obvious places and in a really blunt way. We’d go and ask people to take it down, and would be lectured that this was bad, and we’d never be able to make it online if we didn’t give people the opportunity to copy it everywhere.
What year are we talking about, roughly?
’96. They would show up on newsgroups and guys’ individual sites, and sometimes they would be attributed, but most of the time not. Not to say that there isn’t copying going on now, but at the time, those people would argue with me, and they were so sure that everything online was going to be free in the exact way that they thought it was going to be free. And I think now, people don’t really do that kind of copying to that extent. There’s a certain acknowledgment that, if someone puts up a certain article on Time Magazine’s site, it’s probably not going to be copied as much, in as many semi-official places as it was, 12 years ago. I think that’s because there’s a certain developing ethos that comes when people start doing it.
Yeah, and I think, when people really have a model to deal with, it’s different than arguing about models that don’t exist yet. In other words, the comics online that we’re going to get are very different than the comics online that we think we’re going to get.
It’s a very roundabout way of saying that we can’t predict the future.
Yeah. I don’t think we can. You know how I know that? By studying the past. I think what we going to have is people saying, “screw it, we need to get something online.”