20 February 2012

THE HOME FRONT


Image Comics has made Berkeley home for around eight years – we moved up here in October 2004 – and I've lived here myself for around three. I love San Francisco and I lived there for the first few years I was in the Bay Area, and then again from 2010-11, but somewhere along the way, I came to realization I love Berkeley more. It’s a college town: small, full of character and characters, and abounding with shops and restaurants that all have their own singular identity. It's easily walkable, and from Telegraph to Gilman, there's a lot of history here. It’s by not perfect by any stretch – there’s a pretty wide gap between the wealthy and the poor, and it probably has the highest percentage of panhandlers I've encountered anywhere.  For all its flaws, though, it's a pretty cool place. When my mother visited me a few months back, I found myself strangely proud to show the city off, and after mulling over what makes a place home for several years, it occurred to me I've finally found something pretty close to it here.

Meanwhile, I spent the weekend before last in Dallas for the annual ComicsPRO meeting. I was talking about the meeting with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's Charles Brownstein last week, as well as Image Expo, the Bay Area and the various things I love and loathe about Berkeley. Charles laughed and noted that my feelings about Berkeley and the Bay Area almost perfectly mirror my stance on comics and the Direct Market. Because like Berkeley, comics' Direct Sales Market isn't at all perfect. There's roughly the same economic divide – for every amazing, super-successful shop, there’s another that struggles to exist – and like this quirky little city, the direct market thrives on individuality, creativity, and independent vision.

I don't think I need to tell anyone that it's a time of tremendous change for the comics industry. 

The comics industry has always been wiry and lean, a business funded more by passion than dollars. Over the last several years, though, serious money has started filtering in. Comics and graphic novels are carried in more mainstream outlets than ever before, and both writers and artists are increasingly being offered lucrative jobs – in television, in film, in animation. Once upon a time, comics was the redheaded stepchild of the entertainment business, now our value is being recognized and for better or worse, we're being assimilated into the larger culture of mass media.  There are opportunities that literally did not exist when I entered this business 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, when I first signed on as Image's marketing director. When I spoke at ComicsPRO, I stressed that change is good – and it is, but at the same time, it's important not to lose sight of how important the Direct Market is to comics.

If all the opportunities we have in mass markets right now give us the potential to rise to previously unimaginable heights, the Direct Market is still the foundation for our business.  The Direct Market matters, perhaps more than ever, because it allows everyone with a passion for comics – creators, retailers, readers –  to explore that passion in new and vital ways. Compared to other entertainment industries, the barriers to entry in comics are extremely low. Whether you're a publisher or a creator or a retailer, you can reach readers with fairly modest resources. Publishers and creators can easily develop new ideas. Retailers can easily test those new ideas and voice their support for material that may be a sleeper one day, but a blockbuster the next. The Walking Dead, Scott Pilgrim, Hellboy, Bone, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Batman, Superman – none of them started out as sure things or even safe bets. The Direct Market has made the chances of success for new ideas more likely, though, and as a result, it's now more possible than ever before for talent and publishers alike to invest in new creativity.

In the big scheme of things, the Direct Market is no more threatened than any other content-based retail business right now.  It seems, though, that there's a growing concern amongst some that as the comics industry becomes more and more entwined with the entertainment industry, the comparatively low revenue generated by the Direct Market in contrast to larger mass outlets, may result in a reduction of support for it, from the very corporate entities it helped build.  Which would be a great shame, because the direct market, almost since its inception, has made it possible for talented creative and business people to shape their own independent destinies, and by proxy, has helped refine the material that makes what we do so attractive to the world around us.

One of the big announcements at ComicsPRO was that Chris Powell, formerly of the Lone Star Comics chain in Texas, is heading up an initiative at Diamond Comics Distributors to encourage growth in the Direct Market, and that's heartening news. Now more than ever, what we really need are more stores. The world at large is taking more and more notice of the comics industry, and it's important that we're able to satisfy demand when curiosity comes knocking. But the source of that curiosity wouldn’t have been allowed to grow and thrive anywhere but the Direct Market.  Yes, it is absolutely weird and funky and a tad dysfunctional, but like this weird and funky and slightly dysfunctional little college town I now call home, it's all part of its allure, it's charm.  

And ultimately, part of its success. 

And that’s not just worth cultivating – it's worth fighting for.