Is the Single Comic Issue an Outdated Format?
Well, yes, but I’ve been saying that the book-format comic is a superior format for decades, now. (I made a list, somewhere, but searching “graphic novel” on this site is futile.)
What spurred the latest? Retailer Brandon Schatz in his column at the Beat has an entry titled “The Death & Rebirth of Print Single Issues”. He’s reflecting on how both DC and Marvel used the pandemic disruption to decide that some of their series — including Supergirl, The Terrifics, Ant-Man, and Ghost-Spider — will wrap up as digital-only releases. The print issues are cancelled, although they may appear in print in collected editions later.
The economics of single-issue comics haven’t been good for a while, particularly with only one monopoly distributor for the last while (although that has now forcibly changed, more on that later). Here’s only one example, from 2014, but many publishers release work either as chunkier lumps (graphic novels) or in some kind of digital format, which also builds an audience, with collection to follow. That’s the real product, since it’s easier to store and ship and keep in print and not age as soon as it’s released.
Those committed to the print issue seem to me to be driven by nostalgia. “I loved comics like that decades ago, so I’ll put out something similar.” That’s not a great reason.
Anyway, here are some of Schatz’s discoveries:
…if single issues stopped coming out, we would be fine. Despite ordering extremely tight for shelf in the past, single issues turned out to be a fair burden for our relatively young shop, and not the engine that kept things running….
[Other retailers will] even go so far as to say that single issues are “perishable goods” like groceries. If they’re not purchased and consumed in short measure, they moulder and become unsellable….
…the twenty page comic is not long for this world. The profits don’t work. The only distributor who wants to carry and distribute them couldn’t figure out a way to stay open and get them to shops. There’s nearly a 100% chance that — despite this “comeback” — that will be the case again soon enough. Nobody else wants to distribute them, and only comic stores really want them.
He proposes a return to the anthology model, with a quadruple-size publication with multiple stories. This is not a new idea; it’s been suggested for at least 15 years. (I have a dynamite proposal for a Legion of Super-Heroes package, myself.) The way the market is set up now, it doesn’t really work, though, because fans want particular characters with particular creators and to love everything they’re buying, without much mind-space for trying something new or skipping part of the package. With current costs, that’s understandable.
What is a new idea from Schatz is splitting the content apart for digital distribution and having that available first. Which turns the monthly comic into a collected edition, a reprint. At first, I thought this wouldn’t fly, but then I realized DC and Marvel have already been doing this with various digital-first titles, usually tied into media releases of some kind. The traditional comic shop superhero customer doesn’t pay much attention to those. If they became the “real” stories, it would be transformational, though, because the comic shop would no longer have the big reveals. They’d all have to become bookstores, where customers knew a lot more about what they were buying before they put down their money. I can’t see this being widely accepted in such a habit-driven, backwards-looking business. And the commenters on Schatz’s post seem to agree. (Well, with the “people don’t want this” not the “backwards” bit. That’s me.)
Schatz makes a very good side point, about comic publishers not treating retailers as business partners but as fans. There was no official communication to them about these format changes, just press releases. To be fair, the history of the business suggests that a significant portion of retailers do put their fandom equal to or before their business, making it difficult to put out business notices without the news immediately going wide.
I am less sympathetic to Schatz’s other complaint, that there will be no recourse to those who feel as if this will make them buy the issues twice. That’s always a gamble, that the story you want to read will be completed as planned. Publishers that do this tend to pay the price, eventually, as customers stop buying from the ones that make a habit of cancelling early or trying to force them to a format they don’t want.
And superhero publishers have often relied on the fan habit of complete acquisition to drive multiple purposes. That’s why they use variant covers to goose business so often and put bonus features in collected editions. But that approach is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy — it may be that single issues, pamphlets, floppy versions are viable in the future only as art objects, thick trading cards or something of the sort, particularly as prices continue to rise.
Those who read comics instead of collecting them have many better choices than the single issue these days.