Friday, April 10, 2009

TGIF TCAF!: The Comics are dead, long live the comics! And, hooray for the Toronto Comics Arts Festival!

It's a time of upheaval in the publishing industry and in the comic industry as well. The end of 2008 and early 2009 saw layoffs and schedule readjustments at Digital Manga, Tokyopop (including several books and series cut from their publishing slate), and at Viz Media so a recent restructuring of Devil's Due is no surprise. And

Some have blamed the economy for the slowing of the manga sales juggernaut, others say supply has simply caught up with demand as the market has seen freakish growth over the last decade. Even small announcements like new Ontario tax credits for publishers (examined here at the Quill & Quire website) fail to excite anyone with the possibilities.

With all this and all the crazy hubub over Diamond's new wholesale minimum cut-off policy, it's kind of refreshing to read the business-as-usual attitude from Drawn & Quarterly's Associate Publisher Peggy Burns in Chris Mautner's Robot 6 interview over at After hearing so much frustration about the death knell of the old stylefloppy comic book, she sums it up from a purely business perspective.

Look, when our artists decide to create their work in the pamphlet format, they are making a decision that this will just be sold in comic stores. When the main distributor for comics stores decides to institute minimums that may affect their work in pamphlet form, we — as both their publisher and not just their biggest fan — have to have an honest conversation with the artist if this is the best way to publish their work and if we, as a company, can continue to publish it as a pamphlet to a declining audience that is beyond our control, no matter how good the comic. The alternative of publishing books to an increasing audience is a win-win situation for everyone involved — author, publisher, retailer, distributor. This may sound like a sacrilege — such an obvious mixing of art with business. I would imagine our artists and fans know that we place art before commerce about 99% of the time, more often than not, to our disadvantage.

So many established publishers are hesitant to make a decision about what to publish and how to adapt at a time like this, it creates a bit of a vacuum and opportunity exists for those who will take it. As Steven Grant notes in his latest Permanent Damage column on what it really means to "break into" the comics business, there are more avenues for doing comics available to all than there have ever been before.

The "comics business" is far bigger and more fractured than it was in 1978, when I broke in, and Marvel and/or DC are no longer "the comics business," no matter how much fanzines and newssites and their own propaganda push that notion. "The comics business" is all over the place: newspaper strips, online comics, manga, animation, mini-comics, indie comics, alt-comics, original graphic novels... It doesn't matter whether any of these have the critical mass to challenge Marvel/DC "hegemony," it only matters that your contribution pulls in enough eyes to make it worthwhile for you. Which doesn't necessarily mean you'll be making money in a hurry, or at all. The question isn't really income but audience. Build a large enough, faithful enough audience and you will end up making money. There are all kinds of ways to make money.

Audience is the true grail now, not assignments.

The year before he was inducted himself, I managed to convince Quebec bande dessinnée legend Pierre Fournier to serve as a judge on the Hall of Fame Committee for the Joe Shuster Canadian ComicBook Awards. I remember how confused he was over the distinction we made between comics and comic books.

"In Quebec," Pierre assured me (and, as near as I can tell from my limited perspective, in Europe and most of the non-North American world), "there is no such distinction. The comics are the comics whether they appear in the newspapers, in a graphic novel, on the internet or in a comic book." In short, comics are bigger than the form in which they appear. That may define how they are presented in each case, but it doesn't define the medium itself.

The Comics aren't dead, people. Neither is music. They way we interact with and receive them is ever-changing, though. Want proof? Events like the upcoming Toronto Comics Arts Festival celebrate comics in all their varied glory. More information on this year's event can be found here.

When I see the massive public attendance and enthusiasm for the bi-annual event it always reaffirms to me that the comics aren't dead, nor is a general love and passion for them. The form is merely adapting to new forms of distribution.

Embrace change and you discover that all the things you love about comics are still around, somewhere.

Beavers Up!

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