Captain Blood Says It’s Readers Who’ll Save Comics

To promote their pirate comic Captain Blood, SLG Publishing has posted a four-page comic where the character preaches about the need to support independent comics in a market full of shops that carry nothing but “boobs and biceps”.

It’s a funny concept, by writer Matthew Shepherd, but it’s also full of ideas that, at this point, sound a little tired. Preorder alternative comics… independents are the future… corporate crossovers cost too much… It’s not until halfway through that it gets interesting, where the mouthpiece says expecting retailers to research everything is asking too much, and small publishers can’t afford promotion beyond online trailers.

Captain Blood panels

A retailer later shows up to say he feels “like a crack dealer”. Who’s going to save comics, then? The readers. It’s their responsibility to “research” and “prepare” and “encourage new readers”. Well, that’s darn convenient.

I’m totally in sympathy with all these concerns, even if I’ve been listening to some of them for years now, but I still think it’s awfully convenient that it’s always someone else’s responsibility. The retailers want publishers to do outside promotion and bring in new customers. Publishers say retailers won’t support anything different and want readers to do outreach for them. The readers blame retailers who stock predictably and don’t have any new material for browsing. (A problem that this strip suggests can be solved online, but that’s not at all the same.)

Can someone, for once, try focusing on what they themselves can do to make things better, instead of fixing other people? I know all these things are true, but retailers, what can you do to improve selection and choice in your stores? (Or do you think things don’t need improving?) Publishers, what are you doing to get the word out? (An ad in Previews and material on your own website isn’t outreach, that’s preaching to the choir.) And readers, the best thing you can do is buy the comics that interest you in the format and venue you prefer and stop buying what you don’t enjoy reading.


16 Responses to “Captain Blood Says It’s Readers Who’ll Save Comics”

  1. Stephen Geigen-Miller Says:

    Also, I’m not sure that a Seventeenth-Century-wrongfully-imprisoned-doctor-turned-swashbuckling-pirate-captain is particularly well-informed on the issues facing the comics industry.

  2. Ray Cornwall Says:

    I once read on a message board a retailer complaining that his customers no longer pre-ordered from Previews. When I asked if he gave any incentive for this practice, he said nothing.

    I go through Previews every month- have done so for over a decade. But since I order from a mail-order company (it was mailordercomics, but I’m trying DCBS now since some discounts are a bit better), the local retailers don’t get to know what I like. However, having visited them, I’m not sure they ever wanted to know anyway.

    Vicious circle, eh?

  3. Justin Says:

    If it is too much for retailers to research, then wouldn’t it surely be too much for a customer? And if the publisher is only putting out an online trailer, then what is there to research? A solicit and cover (and maybe not the actual cover, or actual artwork).

    Nonsense. I admit it would be different if Previews allowed for websites to be thrown in with a solicit. What I gather from indy creators says they do not. But then, I have to wonder if some publishers would go to the trouble.

    With this way of going about it, through the customer, the best you can hope for (aside from your initial orders) would be a well-informed trade waiter.

  4. Jennifer de Guzman Says:

    Publishers, what are you doing to get the word out? (An ad in Previews and material on your own website isn’t outreach, that’s preaching to the choir.)

    I have to say, Johanna, and I don’t mean this in a mean-spirited way, but saying that is about as “tired” as anything else said about the state of comic book industry. I assure you, publishers are very well aware of this. We may not be doing as much as we can, but we’re trying, and repeating this constant assertion as if it’s some kind of new insight doesn’t add much to the conversation, either.

  5. Johanna Says:

    Jennifer, fair enough, and you’re right. In order to frame the conversation more productively, could you elaborate on the “we’re trying” part of your comment? What else are you doing? I’d love to know more.

  6. Johanna Says:

    Ray, that’s a good point. If I have to order from a catalog anyway to get what I want, then there are many other options than the local comic shop. The value of good retailers (of which there are many) is that they provide something more.

  7. MattShepherd Says:

    Writer here. Hi!

    The problem — as said in the piece — is that there’s no “bad guy” per se, and no easy answer.

    I think the issue here might be that the Captain Blood piece *presupposes* (at least, it did for me as I was writing it) that publishers and creators are performing due diligence in getting the word out to readers to the best of their ability, and that it’s not *that* onerous a chore for readers to show up at their LCS with some Previews codes and order comics instead of rolling with the buy-it-if-I-see-it method.

    That’s based on my own flaws (I tend to forget to note good stuff I see online myself, and then don’t see it on the rack, and therefore don’t buy it, and then wonder far too late whatever happened to that cool thing I saw way back when), and feedback from folks that work in comic stores — they get a few dedicated customers that show up with codes and special orders, but most buy what they see. So the intent wasn’t to say “readers, it’s *your fault*” as much as “readers, you’re empowered with lots of resources and information, and if you don’t do this nobody else will.”

    As Justin says above, readers can’t be expected to be 24/7 research machines either. If a publisher and creative team wholly fail to try to inform people that their book exists, and it tanks, well, I don’t think anyone is saying that’s the fault of the uninformed reader.

    I’m working with SLG and Ape Entertainment on a constant basis, and I can vouch for the fact that both companies are trying to encourage a culture where their creators do a fair bit of self-promotion, because the publishers are already worked to the bone and can neither afford to hire new staff to work the forums, blogs and other media rounds and literally don’t have enough hours in the day to do it themselves.

    On the “focus on what *you* can do front”, I suppose I could have written a four-page comic about how hard I am working at promoting the twenty-four-page comic, but that would have been silly and nobody would have cared.

    More seriously, we (self-promoting smaller-press creators) *are* working to make things better. We try to make it easy by putting comic excerpts up on ComicSpace, MySpace and what-have-you, posting on relevant forums, and always making sure the order code is front-and-centre and convenient. I look at folks like Skipper Martin and his Bizarre New World project, and Ken Marcus’ Super-Human Resources, Des Taylor’s efforts with his Katie Rogers book (that’s a very Ape-centric line-up, but I’m currently involved in a thread on their creator forums about self-promoting, so hey) — they work like madmen to get out there, push their books, and *make it happen*, but it *still* requires people to note that order code and place the order, because a lot of folks *still* won’t stock more than one copy of Bizarre New World, and once it’s gone it’s not there to be seen, so nobody buys it, so nobody even knows the demand is *there.*

    So I’m trying to nudge people into that “if you see it and like it, order it” frame of mind.

    Trying to distill a fairly complex situation into four pages of a re-scripted, re-lettered comic book featuring a Seventeenth-Century-wrongfully-imprisoned-doctor-turned-swashbuckling-pirate-captain (thanks, Stephen!) on a lark doesn’t exactly do the situation justice, but the intent was to galvanize, empower and encourage, not make people feel small for “not doing enough.” If that’s how it comes across, there’s been a serious misstep on my part with the writing of the thing.

    Thanks for starting the conversation about this. Apologies for length!

  8. MattShepherd Says:

    p.s. the actual-comic Captain Blood (cough APR090631 cough) is much better-written and more thrilling and does not feature sentences like “Independent publishers are skirting bankruptcy themselves.”

    It also has swordfights.

  9. Jennifer de Guzman Says:

    We try to do as much retailer outreach as we can — we send out a preview of the Captain Blood with information about it to a list of retailers at the time the solicitations appear, for example. Dan also regularly sends newsletters to our email list of retailers. We’ve been doing direct communication with our readers for a while, too, via LiveJournal, Twitter, and Facebook — and now in our own little store, where we throw monthly art show parties. We do ads on Facebook from time to time, too.) And there are those trailers that everyone makes now.

    I send out advance copies and review copies — we’ve been getting some good coverage in non-comics publications lately, like Booklist and VOYA. Some non-exclusively-comics blogs have been giving us coverage for books almost entirely ignored by the comics blogs, too — like the Skelebunnies reviews on BoingBoing and NPR’s Monkey Sees and, strangely, considering how much coverage the rejection of Warlord of Io got, the new Rex Libris trade. (Though the latter is still pretty new.)

    I wonder, sometimes, just how elaborate of organizations people think small presses are. The editorial and marketing/promotions/PR department is me and Dan, and I work part time now because of the sad state of business. And I’m also the entirety of the production department. (Which reminds me — I have a lot of proofs to check.) I say this not to complain, but to give a clear picture of what we do.

    I think to say that anyone is placing a “responsibility” on readers in a misinterpretation of the situation in the comics industry. Having to be an informed reader who is active and assertive about what you want to read and support isn’t a matter of “how it should be” — it’s just a reality in the way the industry is. We all — publishers, retailers, readers — have to do more than might seem “fair” if the independent industry is going to survive.

  10. Justin Says:

    Speaking of Superhuman Resources that was just made available at the app store. Checked it on my touch, great stuff! And just in time for me to order the trade from Previews.

  11. des taylor Says:

    Matt Shepherd…. I salute you. Good thinking, Great work. At least you are doing something to highlight the problem the Indies are facing at this point.
    I hope the right people see it.

  12. Captain Controversy! Captain Blood stirs up some odd vibes in defending indie publishers | shep.ca: the writing work of Matt Shepherd Says:

    […] be taken to task — Johanna Draper Carlson has some views on the thesis of the thing over at Comics Worth Reading. I’ve jumped into the debate, as has SLG EIC Jennifer de Guzman. It’s a good […]

  13. Johanna Says:

    Matt, I suddenly realized why we may be having some mismatch here — I no longer shop for new and interesting works in comic shops. I get them at bookstores. (I also rarely read short-form stapled comics.) So promotional efforts that focus on “this book will be out in two months (or more)” aren’t really useful to me — I want to know when I can *buy* the book. I know that doesn’t help you much, since you’re working in the periodical format.

    (I’ve also been burned preordering things that sounded good but turned out not to live up to their promise, so I’d rather see the thing itself or see reliable reviews.)

    And I should have said that this comic is a great way of doing something different to get noticed. It’s both a sample *and* a position paper!

  14. Johanna Says:

    Jennifer, thank you for the elaboration. Those are some neat examples, and I’m sorry I went overboard to make a point.

  15. James Schee Says:

    Interesting piece Johanna and I appreciate Jennifer and Matt’s viewpoints as well.

    For me, I’ve begun to think that indies, at least as the industry is set up right now, are mainly only going to appeal to a audience who is a certain age and/or from a certain regional area.

    When I was fresh out of college I had such passion for comics, especially indy comics. I did hours of research every month in order to make my Preview orders, did reviews of smaller books that I loved and went to cons hoping to get more.

    Now, I’m 30 something years old. I have so many responsibilities, a lot less free time and energy to be passionate about much. Comics have just really moved down the ladder of importance and I don’t want to commit to that level of effort anymore.

    Perhaps if I lived in a better regional area, where cons where easier to get to it would be different. Though honestly after reading Johanna’s MOCCA report above and seeing that $5 price for minicomics which made me go “Are they insane?” so maybe not.

    There really aren’t any bad guys, unless you just count the system that makes things so hard.

  16. Sean Says:

    Comics will never go away. If all the comics shops in the world vanished tomorrow, people would still be making comics and we would still be reading them. There is no reason to get sentimental about the local comics specialty shop because the writing has been on the wall for decades and if they choose not to heed the warning, too bad for them.

    Marvel and DC are not in the comics business, they are in brand management business and they’ll do fine, comics stores or no. Spider-Man and Batman have an audience far beyond comics. And complaining about their market dominance is a little like a small grocery store complaining when Walmart opens up in town. OK, you can’t compete on price any more. So what else have you got?

    The trick is for the indie creator or indie publisher to cook up new ways to get the product out there. Me, I sold my comics on a street corner for three years and now there’s a whole generation of people in my city who might not have gotten into comics had they not met me on the street. What can you do, in your town, today, that no one else has thought of doing?

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