Comics

Amid Slack Sales, The Comics Industry Once Again Tightens Its Utility Belt

Comics publisher Dark Horse laid off several employees on Tuesday.

Comics publisher Dark Horse laid off several employees on Tuesday. Dark Horse hide caption

itoggle caption Dark Horse

On Tuesday, Dark Horse Comics, publisher of such successful indie fare as Hellboy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and several Star Wars tie-ins (to say nothing of the loopily awesome Axe Cop, of which we here at Monkey See were among the earliest adopters), laid off 7 employees.

As Heidi MacDonald noted on The Beat, "The cuts come as no surprise ... in a time when lean and mean is the way to survive a harsh retail landscape, Dark Horse has a large workforce of over 100 employees — far less than Marvel or DC, but far more than other comics publishers."

A word about that "harsh retail landscape": Yikes.

Here's a few more words: Retail sales of both monthly comics and graphic novels are down, and have been for a while. For thorough, clear-eyed accounts of exactly how far down "down" is, and why "down" can mean either "flat" or "not all THAT bad, depending on how and what you measure," the website ICv2 is indispensable.

Things are tough all over: Borders' recent bankruptcy is only beginning to hit the sales of graphic novels hard. Earlier this month, manga publisher Tokyopop laid off several employees. In January, publisher Top Cow announced it was "consolidating" efforts - and staff - with its parent, Image Comics; meanwhile the comics-news-magazine Wizard ceased print publication and hemorrhaged staff (to be relaunched in an online-only format). And as we noted last year, the manga market, once booming, is now bust-ing out all over.

Big picture: It's not looking good.

Now, sure, "not looking good" has been the comics status quo for years now, and no one seriously thinks comics are going away. But there are some hard questions to be asked about the quality and quantity of stuff publishers continue to crank out, now that readers are spending less.

I, for example, have just this month culled eleven titles from my monthly pull list — books that I had kept reading long after I'd stopped truly enjoying them, out of the grim sense of duty we fans feel towards our favorite writers, artists or characters. I'm also much less likely than I was even six months ago to sample a new title or trade on impulse.

In my case it's part economics, part storage: The bookshelves and closets of our small apartment are piled high with four-color adventures; I swear our bed's gotten a foot higher since I started stuffing comics underneath it. Something's gotta give.

But I love the medium of comics, love being surprised by the way creators like Dash Shaw and Cathy Malkasian combine word and image, love seeing what new elements Matt Fraction, Gail Simone and Paul Cornell bring to the calcifying fights-in-tights genre.

For me, and for many like me, the question is not about the form, but the format in which we consume it.

Since the last time we discussed in this space how digital distribution is changing the comics industry, that change has accelerated sharply. Every week, more new titles and back issues become available electronically. Meanwhile publishers, distributors and retailers are hatching plans for in-store, same-day-digital downloads which ... I confess I still can't quite get my head around. The discussion in the comments section here helps clarify some things, but much is still up in the air.

Others consider themselves proud collectors of comics; I am a reluctant accumulator of periodicals. Others poly-bag; I pile. And as such, I'll take pixels over pages in a heartbeat, thank you very much. I can't wait for the day when my comics fly to me on speedy, blue-toothed wings, when I can scroll through the entire mad, melodramatic and Mordru-licious Dr. Strange back catalog with the touch of a fingerprint-smudged screen.

Today is not that day. But — given that barely 24 hours after it announced layoffs, Dark Horse issued a press release touting the imminent arrival of its own digital comics app — it's becoming clear that day is closer than ever.

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