An Analogy to Understand the Decline of American Comics

The problem with starting a comic publishing company is that there are many assumptions made by the ill informed about the history and business of comics that are simply false.  For example, in a desire to go off and make the price of comics cheaper than they are right now, fans will suggest  that the publishers switch to cheap newsprint rather than the higher quality paper comics are printed on. This, by their thinking, would lower the cost of production, therefore allowing the companies to lower the price.  Any investigation into the actual costs would suggest that switching to newsprint would not appreciably lower the costs  of making comics; for most companies, this is waste of time.

Another assumption  that’s widely held among right leaning comic fans is that leftists are a significant part of the decline of comics. This is also false.  The obnoxious  leftism that really drives people away in substantial numbers only really started happening in 2010, and there’s evidence that sales and general influence started to significantly decline in 1960. By the way, the amount of open leftism was very small in 1960, and the problems that caused huge declines in circulation (in this case, a  limited mindset on the capability of comics and the stupid business decisions that resulted) were in every single company during those years.

So in order to help people who perhaps aren’t as familiar with the overall history and business of American comics as to the relative insignificance of leftism in the cause of massive problems,  I’ll use an analogy to help understand how relatively unimportant they are.

Imagine that there’s a house. It’s a nice large house, with some parts more developed than others,  but a pretty good house nonetheless.  Then, one day, a fire starts in the house. It starts small, as all fires do, but then it gets larger and larger until it consumes most of the house in a fiery blaze.  Then some pyromaniacs come along; they see the fire, and decide to fulfill their desire to see the house continue to burn by getting gasoline to pour onto the fire.  When the gas is poured, they hoot and cheer as they watch even more fire come out of the house.

The leftists are the pyromaniacs, and the comics industry is the house. Any investigation into the cause of the fire will have to label the pyromaniacs a secondary cause and go into the house to determine the primary  cause or causes.   Just kicking out the leftists, but failing to significantly change the industry and the culture surrounding it would be like stopping the pyromaniacs but failing to put out the fire.  It would be Pyhrric victory which would be extraordinarily difficult to recover from.

Leftism is responsible for a great many ills in our society, but  always remember that it is possible for an industry or institution to decline simply because of a combination of incompetence  and stupidity.

  • gitabushi

    I got into comics very briefly in the mid-80s.
    They killed my enjoyment almost immediately with the Secret Wars and all the associated marketing ploys that tried to get us to buy more comics: mini-series that didn’t end the story the story they started, having to buy multiple comic lines just to follow a single story.
    The Secret Wars killed my interest off.
    They just changed too much, too fast, and then they made a fan have to purchase too many comics to keep up with the storylines they started in Secret Wars.
    As a young teen, I could only afford to follow 2-3 titles.
    One of them was Spiderman.
    If my memory is correct, within about a year, Spiderman had a chance to join the Avengers, had it not work, got sent to the Secret Wars, got his symbiotic suit, then had the suit become Venom. All while losing the story on some of the other storylines I had gotten interested in from the Secret Wars. Which, if I recall correctly, really didn’t finish, either.

    As a young teen, I wanted the characters to be familiar. Since I started following Spiderman when he was dating Gwen, I had a real problem with her death and with MJ in general. To me, Gwen was Peter’s main interest, not MJ. But I got used to it.

    Change was okay, as long as it was slow. The stint with the Avengers was exciting and interesting, even though it didn’t work out. But, of course, it made me spend more money to have to purchase the Avengers comic book for several issues, which made me have to drop the X-Men temporarily.

    Okay, my personal travails don’t matter. The point is that at that point, it seemed like Marvel tried to weaponize their entire line, and it discouraged me to the point that I dropped comics and never picked them up again.

    I understand writers wanted to stretch their wings, rather than just having the heros fight the same old villains in the same old way all the time. But rather than making the whole thing chaotic and impossible to follow, they should have introduced extremely long character-development stories, and should have worked more on making interesting plots. Instead, they went the cheap/easy route of controversy and simultaneously forced me to ignore some storylines in favor of others. That decision was a mistake for me, so I have to believe it was a mistake for other potential fans, too.

    Sure, the decline had started in the 60s. But this couldn’t have helped, especially because I think comics were resurging in the early 80s.

    • GoldenEye

      Thanks for commenting gitabushi!

      I won’t disagree that stupid business decisions drive people away, but that’s more due to general incompetence than leftism. Unfortunately, the Big Two have plenty of incompetence to go around. The leftism just makes it worse.

      Also remember that there are many other companies other than Marvel and DC, and they went through hard times post 1960 as well. I’m looking at a more broad level why the industry has been in such hard times post 1960. My conclusion after doing roughly 4+ years of research is that leftism, despite the cancerous nonsense that it is, is not a significant cause of the general problems that the industry has faced or is facing right now.

  • Foxfier

    The obnoxious leftism definitely started earlier, because it drove me away from Marvel– they hired an anti-Catholic bigot to write X-Men, and in the course of stripping away Nightcrawler’s Catholicism he wrote one of the most ignorant religious stories ever….that’s BEFORE the “angels and demons are mutants” thing. That was about ’02.
    The comic book “Civil War” storyline was 06-07, and wasn’t a total tone change from what they’d recently been doing.
    This site tracks it more closely to price increases, and rope-a-dopes. (#HailHydra ain’t new)
    http://zak-site.com/Great-American-Novel/comic_sales.html

    • GoldenEye

      Thanks for commenting Foxfier!

      Marvel’s politics have always been left, so it’s not terribly surprising that they would put stupid left politics in their books.

      I like Chris Tolworthy’s site quite a bit. Unfortunately, the price increases are a red herring. There’s evidence to the contrary that the absurdly low prices of comics actually got them booted off the newstands, which made their sales decline and put them in ghetto. I actually wrote about it here:

      http://superversivesf.com/2017/01/31/a-brief-history-of-the-decline-of-american-comics/

      In short, the real problem is that the Big Two stubbornly refused to change their business model even though there was evidence to the contrary that it wasn’t working. It’s still not working today, which is why they have so many problems. Remember, the fire was started inside the house, not outside the house. Judge accordingly.

      • Foxfier

        There is evidence both ways– that’s why the arguments have to actually be made, rather than alluded to or just assumed to be solved.

        A good start would be to see, for an example, what exactly Mad Magazine was offering for 10c in 1950 vs the 25c in 55 and 35c in 1970, compared to the 10c price jumped to 15 in the 70s comics. That is the timeframe that my uncles’ comic collections came about, and I was able to get hooked on them because there were actual complete stories. Good artwork though not amazing production values or delicate shading or glossy magazine finish.

        Then look at late 90s/early 00s comics, where you are paying half the price of a paperback book for, what, a dozen pages that you are unlikely to be able to pick up on a whim and enjoy, unless you really like the artwork. They’re awesome collector’s pieces, not so much comics.
        And that wasn’t 100% economics, because I was reading indies that had beautiful artwork, lower quality paper and colors on the inside, and mini-stories that advanced the plot in each book in about ’03, ’04, only stopped when I transferred to Japan. I’d have to dig out the box and I think it’s on the way to Texas to get titles.

        Yes, their business model sucks, but no matter how much one says “ghetto” it doesn’t explain why sales got worse after they started trying for “darker, gritter” and “more adult” comics.

  • GoldenEye

    “and I was able to get hooked on them because there were actual complete stories”

    and

    Then look at late 90s/early 00s comics, where you are paying half the price of a paperback book for, what, a dozen pages that you are unlikely to be able to pick up on a whim and enjoy, unless you really like the artwork.

    I’ve noticed there’s been complaints about decompression. I want to say it really took off in the 1990s and early 2000s. I tends to make the stories poor value for dollar, so It’s one of the reasons I just don’t buy single issues. Plus, the normal single issues are a pain to store.

    Yes, their business model sucks, but no matter how much one says “ghetto” it doesn’t explain why sales got worse after they started trying for “darker, gritter” and “more adult” comics.

    My reference to ghettoization in my previous post was more about the mindset about the people who ran the comics, which led them to make very poor business decisions which we’re still suffering from today. It wasn’t intended to explain the effect of darker, grittier, more “adult” comics.

  • Well, the non-political elephant in the room is that televisions had invaded nearly every American living room around 1960. Not just comic books, but all literature began to slip after that. Pre-adolescent males (heck ALL males, eventually) had dwindling incentive to consume entertainment which required effort, imagination, and reading comprehension thereafter.

    I noticed the politics slipping in during the ’80s (it amazes me The Nam ever got published by Marvel). It grew more blatant/obnoxious in the ’90s and beyond, until I just quit reading altogether. And you can probably trace that leftist ramp-up to Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns.

    • TV made for competition– so that something has to be a better quality to be read. The Harry Potter series showed that people will still read– but it’s got to be something worth-while. For a long time, even for people who really love reading, that hasn’t been the case.

      *points up to site’s URL* Especially when superversion has to be a thing.

    • “Well, the non-political elephant in the room is that televisions had invaded nearly every American living room around 1960. ”

      I think TV was a factor, but in doing research, I ran across a very large report by Nielson. It had a very lage amount of statistics about TV watching over time, and surprisingly the average amount of TV watched hasn’t changed all that much since the 1950s. In fact, I think we may have hit peak TV watching a while ago. I know for a fact we’ve hit peak cable tv.

      “I noticed the politics slipping in during the ’80s”

      Was this across all comics, or just the Big Two? I wasn’t reading comics in the 80s, so I’m curious if it was affecting the smaller publishers.

      If you’re curious about this topic, buy issue #199 of the Comics Journal. They reprint an essay by John Workman talking about the problems the comic industry was having. It was written in 1997, but with a few modifications, could have been written this year.

      • It became ubiquitous in the ’80s when the Big Two started waving their banners, but with many of the smaller publishers it was “anything goes” already.

        I would like to read that, but probably never will unless the article is available online somewhere.

        • “It became ubiquitous in the ’80s when the Big Two started waving their banners, but with many of the smaller publishers it was “anything goes” already.”

          Interesting, although I’m not surprised.

          “I would like to read that, but probably never will unless the article is available online somewhere.”

          I have Bookscan machine at school. I’ll scan the article and put it up on Superversive SF. It’ll generate a lot of discussion.

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