Flashback Monday: How I Single-handedly Fixed the Comics Industry in 2005

by Salvatore Pane

The worst paper I ever wrote in college was for a graphic novel course I took in 2005. I was at the height of my literary snobbishness, and the sheer idea of reading a comic book made me rip off my monocle, slam it on my mahogany desk, and announce that “This is preposterous!” I read a boatload of comics growing up–the entire 200 issue run of the Spider-Man Clone Saga–and those were all pretty awful. So imagine my surprise when I ended up genuinely loving almost everything we read in the course. My position totally changed, and there were some weeks during my second comic reading heyday where I’d spend fifty dollars on new releases alone.

Unfortunately, this newfound enthusiasm didn’t translate into a decent paper. I started writing one that compared and contrasted Cather in the Rye and Ghost World, but about two pages in, I realized I had nothing else to say on the subject and wrote the rest of the paper about the comic industry’s notoriously low sales and how that newfangled iPod and iTunes store might be the key to salvation (five years before the release of the iPad and digital distribution). I’ve attached a portion of the second half of the paper below. What was so odd to me while rereading this is how close it is to what actually happened once the iPad was released. However, it wasn’t the indies taking advantage of the new medium, it was the major companies, the Marvels, DCs and IDWs of the world.

Below is the second half of my 2005 paper. Don't worry, I won't bore you with the Ghost World/Salinger stuff.

….how can the graphic novel capture a wider audience? Scott McCloud spends much of Reinventing Comics discussing the complete and utter failure of the current comics distribution method: the direct market. “The readers are just as abandoned by the corporate system as the creators, despite the importance supposedly given their hard earned dollars. The average comic shop can offer only a tiny fraction of an industry wide selection that is itself extremely limited in scope,” (McCloud 77). The graphic novel has not reached its mass market potential because it is using a more flawed version of the corporate distribution system that prose books have being using for years. As a newer medium, graphic novels require a newer method of distribution. Later in Reinventing Comics, McCloud discusses the possibilities of the internet and how that can one day be the future of distribution for comics. Originally published in 2000, McCloud simply was writing from a point of time which could not possibly suggest the method I am about to propose.

In November, the Apple Corporation announced that it will have sold a total of 37,000,000 iPods, their biggest handheld entertainment device, by the end of 2005.  The latest version of the device, the fifth generation iPod, has the ability to display video and pictures. Realizing that an installed base of 37,000,000 users is an astonishing opportunity, ABC quickly cut a deal to allow television shows, including recent hits Lost and Desperate Housewives, to be bought through Apple’s online store, iTunes, for $1.99 each and then be allowed to be viewed on the user’s iPod. Within two months ABC and Apple had sold 3,000,000 videos, as a result, NBC, CBS, and FOX are currently scrambling to pursue deals of their own with Apple.

This device is targeted at the 15-24 age group predominately, and is quickly changing the way we consume media. No longer are we shackled to our televisions to catch the latest episode of whatever primetime show is our current favorite. Even radio is changing and moving into two distinct camps, the satellite radio stations and Podcasts, which are free radio programs you can download from iTunes and listen to on any portable media player. The reason I bring this up is not only because of the cross section between iPod users and the readers necessary to bring the serious literary graphic novel out of obscurity, but because I believe the iPod itself is a possible solution to McCloud’s distribution problem that caused “a huge number of America comic book retailers [to] shut down,” (McCloud 10).

The current iPod and its cheaper variation, the iPod Nano, have the ability to display pictures. If the comics industry, specifically the independent comics industry, applied a similar method of distribution on iTunes as ABC has, a whole new golden age of comics would occur. Comic shops, delivery, stocking, and paper consumption would be completely eliminated. Also, the problem of knowing what to buy but not where to find it, a problem McCloud also brings up, would be abolished to as the iTunes database is literally limitless and could hold everything from Jimmy Corrigan to Wacthmen and back again. Prices could be fixed by the individual creators, and amateurs could upload their work automatically, just in the way that iTunes handles free Podcasts. With this system in place, creativity would flourish, as readers would have the choice to buy from the big two comic companies, Marvel and DC, the independents like Image and Fantagraphics Books, and weekend cartoonists. Also, the stigma associated with comics being a geeky medium would be shattered by combining it with an item, the iPod, so closely connected to what is hip and cool. If Ghost World was released today as a $9.99 download direct from iTunes to your iPod, I would highly bet that its readership would increase tenfold from its current measly 90,000.

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