2009 Year in Review, With Heidi MacDonald

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On this, the final day of the year, we bid the year a fond farewell to 2009 by sitting down with The Beat’s Heidi MacDonald to highlight some of the trends that came to define the year in comics, from iPhones to self-publishing to convention wars.

You can’t talk about 2009 without discussing the crippling economic downturn we’ve experienced. Has that had a noticeable effect on comics?

I think it had a delayed effect. I think it had surprisingly minimal impact, considering. Certainly everyone tightened their belts and kind of reigned it in. Unfortunately the economic meltdown which no one could have foreseen, coincided with long-planned moves, like Diamond moving their warehouse in Febrauary and Marvel and DC raising their prices—both of which had a pretty huge impact. Considering those elements going in, I think the industry weathered the downturn very, very well. When you look at bookstore sales, graphic novels remained strong. They might have been down a little bit, but in most cases, everything was a single digit decline.

I know a bunch of companies got hit by returns. Those obviously caused some problems, but it was a lot better than any of us would have expected, really.

Is it a situation where people are just buying less of those leather-bound hardcovers and moving back toward single issues?

To be honest, I didn’t really see a decrease in the number of deluxe volumes coming out, which is pretty surprising, all things considered.

There’s always a delay in publishing, though.

Yeah, exactly, though even toward the end of the year, you saw some things coming out like The Complete Rocketeer: Deluxe Edition and DC’s certainly been pumping out the absolutes. Marvel’s also been pumping out those sorts of books. It certainly didn’t stop them dead in their tracks. It might have stopped other items like toys—the toy industry saw it a lot more to be honest. Action figures, statues—those were all lagging behind.

When you were doing your 2009 predictions, did you see the coming year as being a watershed moment for the push toward e-books and electronic comics. Did you foresee a lot of people reading comics on their computers and mobile devices?

Yeah. I think it was just like the rumors of the iTablet. It was kind of looming, but it didn’t really affect people that much. The iPhone is the platform that took the biggest stride in 2009. I remember writing my first story about comics on the iPhone, probably in January, about uClick. Jeff Webber was working at uClick then, and has since gone to IDW. IDW has been very aggressive in the iPhone/digital comics arena.

I feel like it started as a trickle, and now, every day, people are announcing their comics for the iPhone. I’ve just been cleaning out my e-mail—some of my unread stuff from a few months ago—and there are just a billion announcements about things being available on the iPhone. It started out pretty strong. I remember looking at some screenshots earlier in the year. Comics were doing very well in the e-book category on the iPhone. Since then, a lot of publishing has caught up with it. but I think a lot of individual titles are still holding their own.

It’s very hard to get any definitive monetary information about this. People are very guarded about it. People say it’s profitable. I couldn’t see how it wouldn’t be profitable, since you’re taking existing material and putting it on a micropayment platform. At least with the publishers of the original comics, there has to be some income involved, if anybody’s buying them. But I’d be very interested in seeing where all of these iPhone app companies go in 2010.

So you feel that it was something of a transitional year, as far as comics move toward an electronic platform?

Yeah, absolutely. Longbox is rolling out in beta, which people were talking about, pretty much all year. And now we have the rumored iTablet, which I guess I supposed to be released in January. But I think it was more that people were mentally preparing for comics on the digital platform. I think the Nook and the Kindle were new frontiers. And I think that the fact that the Kindle didn’t handle graphics very well was one of the big problems for it, in a number of ways. It’s been a real uneasy shift. People are looking at e-books and wondering why they’re so expensive.

So the desire is there, but the technology hasn’t really caught up yet?

Not even the technology. I think it’s like the classic underpants gnomes, as with all things electronic. I think there’s a lot of wishing and hoping that this will become a real revenue stream. And there are already thousands—if not millions—of people who do read their comics digitally, it’s just that they’re not paying for them. So we do have to bridge the gap there, by finding some kind of a transition that people are comfortable with.

I think you saw a lot of people accepting it, this year. I think most publishers—led by Marvel and DC—have really been resisting this digital transformation, for years and years, and I think this year they really accepted it.

Kate Beaton’s is a name that came a lot in 2009 as an example of how one can stand to gain more financially through self-publishing. Are the publishing houses going to continue to be less and less important as we move into 2010?

Well, yeah. The infrastructure already exists. You don’t have to invent it—you just have to harness it. It’s already there. But at the same time, when everybody goes it alone, it becomes hard to stand out. With Kate Beaton, you’ve got a phenomenal talent. That’s really the bottom line. You have somebody whose work is fresh and yet classic. Any time you have both of those words applied to your work, there’s a pretty good chance you’re gonna stick around.

There are a lot of very successful Web cartoonists—but when I say “very successful,” they’re definitely not making the kind of money that an…Al Capp was at the height of Lil’ Abner. I mean, those guys were millionaires.

Yeah, but who is, right? Even the people at big houses aren’t making that sort of money, for the most part.

Right, right. That’s really my mantra for comics in 2009: “too small to fail.” That’s really the reality. We’re dealing with amounts that are so small, that it almost doesn’t matter.

I referred to micropayments a little bit ago, and to the knowledgeable historians who might be reading this, that is a reference to Scott McCloud who, many years ago, talked about micropayments in Web comics. We all laughed because it didn’t seem like it was going to come about. But now it is coming about, in various ways—at least smaller, incremental payments for the Web. And I think that whole idea of finding ways to squeeze a penny out everything is pretty much the way the comics industry works at this point.

The moral of the story is that Scott McCloud always gets the last laugh.

Well, he does, yes. Don’t underestimate Scott McCloud. Let’s go back and read his holy teachings and see what else we can wean from them—just like Nostradamus.

In terms of quality of titles, how do you think 2009 stacked up?

I think it was a really good year. I think it was probably a little better than 2008, actually. There were a lot of long awaited books that came out like Asterios Polyp, Crumb’s Genesis, and Barefoot in Gaza, that lived up to the hype. You had some great creators like R. Crumb, David Mazzuchelli, and Joe Sacco—it’s reassuring to know that people who have such good reputations are as good as we think they are. They can pull it off.

Was it a better year for established talent?

Yeah, possible. There are always a couple of people who are bubbling under. Kate Beaton’s probably been big for a couple of years, but I think she really got much bigger in 2009. Dash Shaw obviously had a book that a lot of people really like last year, and by the end of the year, he was really looking like our own Spike Jonze, with his multimedia, moving into movies. He’s someone else who has made a lot of moves.

I think the indie scene was very lively in 2009. There were a lot of shows. That’s a huge trend that you can’t underestimate. Comic shows really bucked the trend of the economic down. Wars broke out over territories, in fact. More shows than ever. If you went on the indie circuit, you saw CCS, SVA, Savannah College of Art and Design—all of these colleges are turning out cartoonists by the bucketload. It’s sort of intimidating and hard to keep up with, sometimes.

Some of the biggest movies were comic book movies again, but that’s not really different from past years. Do you think that comics became any more a part of mainstream culture in 2009?

As far as filmed entertainment goes, it wasn’t a great year, because the writers strike had such a crippling effect. There was Wolverine and Watchmen. But there weren’t as many comic book movies as last year. Looking forward, the Scott Pilgrim movie is a huge, huge thing for 2010.

High hopes for 2010 in the comic world?

We haven’t even touched on Marvel/Disney. A lot of seeds were planted in 2009. I think it was a successful year for comics, because it shows that, even in a crappy comedy, they were strong and growing. I think the Marvel/Disney deal for $4 billion shows the importance. Between that and the digital garden growing, we’re going to see the events of 2009 blossom into either beautiful flowers or horrible weeds.

So it could go either way.

It’s all going to be good in one sense. Obviously Marvel isn’t going to go away, unless Disney goes away.

So comics haven’t become too big for their britches?

No not at all—they are still too small to fail. In a way the year was bookended locally by the New York Comic-Con–which is the first place that I heard the phrase “The fantasy economy is strong”—in February and then the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival in December. NYCC represented a very wide swath of comics but by the end of the year we had a very focused show like BCGF that was almost a micro show, but very successful. And it was still just people with handmade print runs of 20 or 30 finding a micro audience, and that audience being enthusiastic and appreciative.

Comics reward both the micro and the macro right now, probably because no one really becomes a millionaire in this business. Hopefully more people will be able to make a comfortable living and we’ll stay a plucky, can-do industry.

–Brian Heater

7 Comments to “2009 Year in Review, With Heidi MacDonald”

  1. RWBoyd | December 31st, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    “Footnotes in Gaza” is the name. (Although I’d definitely read a comic called “Barefoot in Gaza”.)

  2. Mike Rhode | January 2nd, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    Good overview. It’ll be interesting to see how many big publishers stay committed – after all, Sacco’s not being published by Fantagraphics now, but Fanta supported him through the comic book years.

  3. Scott H | January 3rd, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    That “too small to fail” is so dead-on. I’ll have to use it in conversation this week.

    The micro-payments sentiment not so much – unless we’re counting online ads which are usually in the pennies per click size on webcomics ;)

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