ComicCon naturally spurred a few thoughts, and then when looking through the archives of people I know, I came across this entry.

Willworks isn’t completely wrong, but he’s not completely right either, from my point of view.

Right now, I’d say pretty much the entire American Entertainment Establishment is in big big trouble. The exact nature of the trouble, and scale of the problem varies by the exact media you’re looking at, but most of it boils down to one thing, the times are a changin’ and the people running the show are deathly afraid of change.

TV viewership is declining. Newspaper circulation is declining. Music sales are declining. Movie attendance is declining. I’ll bet overall magazine circulation is declining, but I haven’t seen anyone specifically mention that.

Sound bite from the animation state of the industry panel at ComicCon:
Q: Do you think that Anime in any way threatens American animation?
A: It’s just a niche market.

Go down to your local video store and look at the Anime section. Then go look for the Animation/Cartoon aisle. That’s one hell of a niche.

This is the equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and humming really loud. There is a demonstrable demand for a type of product, and an entire potential money-spending market is just being written off by those words. Pathetic.

The comics industry has at least moved beyond pure denial. Marvel has taken the most cursory look at the surface of the problem and attempted to look like it. DC has decided to import some actual manga titles of their own. Neither approach does the American comics industry a lick of good.

The current burst of popularity of anime/manga is a fad. It’s getting pushed on teenagers completely as a ‘this is so cool’ thing. The day after tomorrow something else will get branded as ‘cool’ and a fair number of people are going to suddenly wake up with hangovers and wonder where their consumers went. This has nothing to do with the merits of anything being brought over here, it is just a consequence of the approach TokyoPop et. al. have taken towards promoting their product.

It’s possible that the current situation can be extended indefinitely by continually finding a new anime/manga series to promote as the new ‘cool thing’. But not everyone’s going to be able to keep up, and frankly the current market is oversaturated.

Central Park Media has stopped publishing manga. They’ve cut back their DVD releases. Studio Ironcat is out of business. Anyone want to bet money that it’ll stop there?

Meanwhile the American comics industry continues to dwindle, and isn’t showing any signs of stopping much short of the death of the direct market comics store.

Will talks about needing new and different comics. The industry’s been there, been doing that since 1977. Frankly, every single thing he talks about exists in that nebulous space called ‘Independent Comics’. Not all of it is good, not all of it is different, but those things do exist there. And even the big boys have understood this one. DC’s Vertigo imprint is aimed right at providing this type of content. In the ’80s, Marvel’s Epic imprint did the same.

So after 27 years, after making a pretty big splash in the early ’80s, why is the blah superhero rut being run ever deeper? Why can’t a perfectly good series like (for example) Castle Waiting pay its own bills? Who failed? The creators? The publishers? The stores? The buyers?

The inevitable answer is a combination of all of the above, with the possible exception of the creators. The right comics exist, so there are creators upholding their end of the deal. The sad fact is that most of the truly good comics get self-published. This makes it harder to really get noticed. The comics industry will never change without good examples leading the way to show what will work – so the lemmings can imitate the hell out of it. But, hey, if it revitalizes comics storytelling at all….

But can the industry change with a good example? ElfQuest, Bone, and numerous others have come and gone and the industry is still the same. Bone is being published by Scholastic for cry’n out loud, (you know, the same company that’s publishing the Harry Potter books over here) and the industry doesn’t seem to notice. Well, at least Bone’s fate isn’t tied to the rest of the industry any more.

Buried in all this is the axiom that entertainment has value, and good entertainment is more valuable. This makes sense, and is what the entertainment industry is built on, but is in no fashion provable.

I mention this because of the growth of web comics. It’s a hell of a way to tell a story. The web is notoriously bad at generating money (information wants to be free!), and while publishing on the web is a lot cheaper than traditional print, the effort of doing the art is a lot more valuable work than needs to go into a similar-scope text story. (Not to deride prose or poetry in any way, but with comics the writing’s just as hard, and then you have to do the art.) Not only that, but text is infinitely flexible, whereas every web comic artist has to struggle with some deep issues of format for which no really good solutions have yet been found.

But people keep doing web comics. Why? Because not doing them is worse. For some people it’s not a choice. They have to do this. And personally, I think they add a lot to life, and I’d like to see them get something for what they provide to the rest of us.