Wednesday, April 6, 2011

WonderCon 2011 Panel: Evolution of Comics in the Transmedia Space

Print comic book sales are the worst they've been since, perhaps, they were created. For example, Spider-Man has gone from topping 200K in sales per month to the current level of about 50K. The median age of a comic book reader is 33, which is the oldest ever. In looking at the faces at an event like WonderCon on both sides of the tables, these statistics thrown out at the "Evolution of Comics in the Transmedia Space" panel appear spot-on accurate.

So what happened to the industry once driven by the pocket change of idealistic little boys?

"It's too exclusive," said panelist FJ Desanto.

"There should be enough there that you want to come back every month," added Marc Andreyko. "Each issue should have a beginning, a middle and an end. We've lost that."

"When 'okay' storytelling costs $2.99, it's just not worth it," said Dennis Calero. The point was further made by another panelist that there's sticker shock when you arrive at the register and the clerk says, "That'll be $75."

Left to Right: Diana Williams, Dennis Calero, FJ Desanto

I know that for myself, as a 44-year-old woman whose grandfather collected comics, I stopped buying them in the 1980s when crossover madness made it impossible to keep up with what was going on. Add in the rapid rise in prices at the time, and a poor college student such as myself couldn't keep lining the comic book companies' pockets. And I did see the ploy for what it was -- forcing fans to buy four comics instead of one. I had to drop them all. Recently, I've tried to get back into some of my favorite titles, but there are so many versions and alternate universes for each one, I have absolutely no clue what's happening and there is no jumping-in point any longer, as if they're all perpetually accelerating mag-lev trains.

In a nutshell, the panelists are absolutely right. So what about the next generation of readers?

"I picked up a book where Superman was married, and that turned me off to comics for twenty years," said panel moderator Jeff Krelitz. "Aquaman was getting a divorce, and I had to wonder, "How much of that is what the writers are going through?'"

Clearly, overly complex storylines, crossovers, cover prices and "socially relevant real-life" scenarios are not working, and are not bringing in new readers. What will? Jeff Newelt has some ideas.

"When things are shared a zillion times a day on Twitter, Facebook and so on, it's an easy click over to Amazon for the print version. Digital will feed print," he said.

"Saving print is the point," said Calero. "In the future they'll say, 'You used to kill trees to make books? How weird.' But it's an association that's generational." Andreyko goes as far as to call it "nostalgia porn." In the Archaia panel the next day, however, an attendee made the point that their higher-quality papers and products don't shy away from print, but instead they embrace the medium. 

Left to Right: Jeff Newelt, Marc Andreyko

It's not a battle between print versus digital. Instead, they can compliment and help each other.

"The connection with the end user and delivery to them is so fragmented," said Adrian Askarieh. "Transmedia helps solve that."

"Anyone under fifteen... digital is all they've known," pointed out Diana Williams. Unfortunately, most companies miss the mark in capturing these new fans. "Disney and Lucas are the kings of telling a story in different media."

"Make the early stuff accessible and cheap," said Andreyko.

"There needs to be education to the general public about digital comics," said Newelt. "It's mostly only core comics fans. It's also too partitioned -- 'comics are this, video games are this, movies are this,' and so on. It's about taking something and having it work organically across the board."

"I've never seen an industry so big market themselves so poorly," added Desanto.

But it's far more than marketing and accessibility. "Storytelling is just as important for getting new readers," said Krelitz. "What about putting Spider-Man and Batman out in all these new media?"

"It's great if the content doesn't suck," replied Desanto.

"When it backfires, you lose them FOREVER," Andreyko said dramatically into the microphone. Or for at least twenty years, in the case of Krelitz.

At the close of the panel, we saw two examples of motion comics, the first being Fall Out Toy Works with professional voice talent done by Anna Faris. The second, aimed at ages eight and younger, was much more comic book-like and was a simplified retelling of the current Tron film, using the same actor audio tracks and additional narration. In both, I found myself questioning where the "comic book" ended and where small-scale animation began.

Being one of the aging generation of comic book fans that grew up on paper books only, I'm not convinced that "the kids" will look at a motion comic and desire the traditional paper editions -- I see them simply asking for more motion comics.

Is Calero right? Will images printed on dead trees be looked on as a curiosity of the primitive past? Or will the human need for the tactile experience always create a demand for the easily created and portable humble comic book on paper? Time will tell, and the question bears ongoing examination, especially at excellent and thought-provoking panels like this one.

L to R: Diana Williams, Adrian Askarieh (back), Dennis Calero (front), Jeff Krelitz, Marc Andreyko, FJ Desanto, Jeff Newelt

1 comment:

  1. I have been enjoying the new digital comics but I still like having a physical hard copy, be it hard cover or trade paper back edition of my favorite comics and Graphic novels. There were a few of the more mainstream titles I used to read like X-Men and Supergirl. As you mentioned above, with some of the more mainstream stuff I was reading, it started to get hard to follow the stories and even harder to catch up with when I'd miss it for whatever reason. And don't get me started on cross overs. That's part of why I never bothered with subscriptions, for the most part. Never knew which issues of which books I'd need to follow the story line. Or if, after having collected all the necessary titles, it would be worth it. What was even more disappointing is when the storyline was mediocre at best. These days between all the alternate realities, I've lost track of even my favorite characters in the mainstream/classic stuff.