Dig Comics Fights
To Save Comics Industry
Miguel Cima, Creator Of Renowned Documentary On The Comic Books Industry Seeks To Further Reveal Misunderstood, And Rarely Told, Behind The Scenes Truths
Background image by Sam Howzit and used under a Creative Commons license.
By Gentry Braswell
Modern Times Magazine
July 8, 2012 —This summer, a nondescript shingle in a sleepy southern California suburb earnestly continues its plotting to save one of the greatest art forms known to all creation.
You may not be aware of it, but comic book readership is in the cellar these days, as a result of monopolies among the distribution network, antiquated corporate thinking, and lazy, narrow-minded marketing protocols. The perpetrator can be personified as an institution asleep at the wheel, while we the readers, the consumers, the fans, are the victims suffering from a neglected art form.
In 2008, Dig Comics — www.digcomics.com — produced a short film about rescuing the U.S. comic book industry that won Best Documentary at San Diego Comic-Con, and official selection at the Cannes, Vancouver, LA New Filmmakers, and a dozen more festivals.
Dig is a Burbank, Calif.-based entity headed by Miguel Cima, who is planning another longer, more in-depth film. The planned film will use far broader strokes to dig deeper into the challenges encountered in the comic book industry. Cima also seeks to establish an interactive online community and a television documentary franchise for Dig Comics.
Other members of the team are film professional Dirk VanFleet; actor and comic blogger Corey Blake; animator and comic artist Scott Shaw! (exclamation point intentional); filmmaker Chris Brandt; animator Russell Calabrese; and heavy metal singer Tiina Teal.
Domestic sales of comic books in 2007 were a mere $490 million, reflecting a readership decline from about 3 million readers in 1950 to about only about 350,000 in the past decade. During those years, as the nation’s population has doubled, comic book readership has fallen more than 90 percent. Today, points of sale are far less diverse. In 1950, for example, one could purchase a comic book anywhere; at a supermarket, a newsstand, a drug store. But comic books have gradually changed from a mass-consumable item to a specialty items, he explained.
“By the time you get to the modern era, 90 percent of the comics are only in comic book stores. There was a nice moment, there in the late 1990s, when they started to be very strong in bookstores. The problem now is that bookstores are disappearing. At a time when there were some good business moves by the industry to get comic books in other places, technology started to out-pace those efforts,” Cima said. “If from 1950 to 2010, there were no radios, or only 1 percent of the public could find radios, there would be no music, would there?”
Perhaps the introduction of, say, pizza, to an culture who has never had any, is another good comparison, he suggested: “We have to figure out a way to get people to taste pizza because they would probably love it if they tried it.”
A key challenge to the rescuers of comic books has to do with distributing. For example, Diamond Comic Distributors Inc. controls 90 percent of all comic book distribution.
“Every comic book retailer will basically tell you the same thing: that Diamond Distribution is what keeps them alive, and Diamond Distribution is what keeps them from growing. They have their own set of rules and they have their own restrictions. They are a monopoly,” Cima said. “Unlike every other distributor of materials, they have a no-return policy and you cannot do anything about it.
“Of course there used to be a lot of distributors, and there is a long, ugly story about the disintegration of comic book distribution. A lot of really terrible business decisions were made by a lot of distributors over a period of decades, and the problem is, Diamond sufficiently makes sure that comic books are available, but if anyone has any problems with it, then too bad Charlie, that is all you got,” Cima said. “It would be in the best interest of the industry to diversify, but that is not happening. It keeps things as they are, because again, these industries, be it the distributors or the big publishers, they sort of accepted the status quo for a very long time, and they are comfortable with it. While risk could do great advantages, it would also undo the status quo. That is just capitalism; the industries do not like to engage in the risk.”
The issue of willingness versus capability among the existing corporate business structure must also be considered.
“When I say to Marvel and DC, you should start five other comic lines to triple your readership, perhaps one suitable for children made available in every Wal-Mart, the guys running it right now do not know how to handle that. The energy industry would be really smart to invest in future generations because everyone knows that fossil fuels will be gone eventually, and they are not a good idea in the first place. But that is the way it is with businesses,” Cima said. “The comic book industry does try to do things, I am not saying they just rest on their laurels. But, to really break comics out requires some seismic activity and the industry is not going to do it and I understand that. I think it is a mistake, but I do understand it. Even if I have the opportunity to make this show I am talking about, that could make them nervous, and would present risk.”
Superheroes are often endearing, charming, and they are of course invaluable for their abilities to do things like save the world. But it is simply not true that superhero content is all there is when it comes to comic books.
“No media is going to proliferate with just one genre. Seventy percent of the market, if not more, is controlled by two companies that almost entirely peddle superheros. But I am not going to get your grandma to read about Wolverine slicing people up, and I am not going to get your niece to read Justice League Dark,” Cima said.
The current phenomena of disproportionate attention being paid to the superhero side of comics is, in effect, “a formula at creating a community that is, in large part, impenetrable to outsiders. If I am a business person, and make decisions to market nothing that women are going to be interested in, then that is really bad decision making,” he said.
The same sort of superhero phenomenon that once saved comics (e.g., the 1961 Marvel revolution) is the same thing that is holding comics back today, he said.
If you have never done so, try walking into a full-blown comic book store. The sheer volume of art and dedication to the craft of comic books is breathtaking. Still, there are as many styles and themes in comics, such as crime noir, humor, mystery, esoteric, and erotic genres, to name a few, as exist throughout art and literature.
“Marvel and DC are the only companies that really have the power, but they are only interested in their own material,” Cima said. “They do not care, because the comic book interest is a $500 million industry and the book publishing industry is a $15 to $25 billion industry. Comic books are a media form that came in the same era as recorded music and the mass production of books, but it is the only one that cannot take in billions in terms of size of industry in America. It is dwarfed by all of these other media. People will go and play the Batman games, and go see the movies. They have done a great job, but they do not really care about comic books. They could fix this, but they would have to go beyond superheros.”
A key part of the solution involves a lack of proper marketing.
“The iPhone, at one point, did not exist. Suddenly, one day, people are lining up to buy them because Apple spent millions and millions of dollars on marketing to explain to people what they were getting and what it does. Comic books do not have the money to do that,” Cima said. “The people who run Apple are good innovators. This is the reason that AOL is irrelevant now; AOL could not innovate, they brand-managed. That is all they did, like so many other companies. Apple has been up and down over the decades, but they have had a lot of winners.”
Marvel and DC are owned by two large conglomerates, and even just 5 percent of the earnings from a big superhero movie channeled into marketing would probably make big inroads toward a solution.
“But nobody will do it. First of all, it is risky. Second of all, there is this ridiculous assumption that everybody should know what a comic book is. At the same time that they are over a century old, they are still a new product for a lot of people,” he said.
Silver-bullet solutions such as self publishing or digital distribution are not fool-proof either.
“A revolution like this has to come from outside the industry, because I do not think the industry is up to the task. The comic book industry is not filled with the right kind of people to take that on,” he said. “And I do not think it is going to happen just because somebody self publishes or just because there are digital comics. You could read comic books on your iPhone. But an art form has a lot more transformative power than technology. Without movies or literature, or photography, who cares about an iPhone?
“I look at comic books like a language, I look at all art forms like a language. And it is important to keep languages alive,” he said.
The Dig Comics team believes that its multifaceted project can make a big difference.
“Think about the nature documentary films. Think about a pioneer like Jacques Cousteau. You have high quality production, talented filmmakers given robust resources to go around the world, bringing to audiences visions that they have never seen. Kids love watching shows about dinosaurs, but beyond that the whole industry is people tourism. Before those nature shows, how many people really thought about safari, snorkeling, or trekking rain forests?” he said. “Now, they have hotels in the middle of rain forests. It is a really big deal because people watch television. A TV show is more important than a documentary because people do not tend to go to a theater to watch documentaries.”
Chef Anthony Bourdain's show on the Travel channel, “is compelling because he is not just showing the food, he is hanging in the culture that surrounds the food,” Cima said. “There is a culture around comics, there is a whole slew of interesting people, that would be compelling to any audience. It would make an interesting show, funny, entertaining, a little bit educational, but not in a heavy-handed way.”
The popular Ice Road Truckers documentary television program is another such example where people “get to see a culture, see personalities, and learn some stuff,” he said. “Many of these shows have spawned cottage industries. I believe a well-done show about comic books and the culture of comic books could help. I want to take the cameras around America and around the world. Comic books are so incredibly rich and different, and have so much to offer from so many incredibly different angles. That is how you are going to get people to pay attention to comics. Not just by marketing comics.”
There are lessons to be learned from certain foreign markets as well. In Europe and Tokyo, comic books are a mainstream hobby. Comic book sales in Japan in 2007 (the year before Dig Comic's first short film) were $4 billion, or seven times that of U.S. comics sales that year.
“Manga is more community-oriented, and Japan is a more homogeneous society than America, and the genesis of the comic book industry in Japan has more communal roots. One of the progenitors of manga were the Tokyo's street puppet shows, which were precursors to anime and manga,” Cima said. “Meanwhile, in America the sense of community did not build in the same way, not the same communal experience, not the same homogeneous society.”
An organized propaganda campaign against comic books during the Cold War ruined many publishers, where in New York City alone there were previously more than 60, today only two majors survive.
“France, as a nation, institutionalized the importance of art. There is no stigma for public funding for the arts,” Cima said. “If you create a comic work in France, you own the rights forever. No one can ever take them away from you, though you can still make a distribution or publishing deal.”
Think of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, he said: “Fantastic Four could have had 100 more issues if Jack Kirby had those rights.”
Belgium has the same kind of protective laws in place for its artists, creating the publishing environment that enabled Belgian cartoonist Hergé's long-running Tintin series.
“Comics are not going to die, but they are incredibly neglected in America, where they were born,” he said.
Dig's Kickstarter fundraising campaign is targeting $250,000, and will close on 9 July. It, as well as the original award-winning short film, can be viewed at www.digcomics.com.
Gentry Braswell is the Nation/World editor of Modern Times Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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