As those who know me are fully aware, I spend far too much money on comic books.  Not enough to put anyone’s kids through college, but definitely enough to make a small dent in my local shop’s rent every month.  Usually, my monthly expenses at the shop – DK’s Sierra Mountain Comics in Carson City – run between $125-175 over the course of a full month’s pull list. I don’t smoke, don’t drink, and don’t gamble, so I figure I’m allowed one good vice.

My personal comic poison of choice is the DC Universe, which in the eyes of the vast majority of people is the “one with Batman and Superman in it”.  Eighty or ninety percent of what I spend money on every month goes to keeping up with the storylines, continuity, and characters I enjoy reading about in DC’s output every week.  Writers like Gail Simone, Greg Rucka, Eric Trautmann, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, and the unstoppable Geoff Johns to name only a few, have made comics an art form that this 36 year old “pathetically aspiring” writer can really appreciate.

(And Dave, that comment above was sarcasm. Don’t chew me out for low self esteem about my writing again!)

Because of those writers, and the characters and stories they get to work with, I have no problem shelling out a couple video games worth of money every month in order to support creators I enjoy.  However, there is a dark side to comics that’s raised a lot of discussion and debate over the past few years. Something that upsets creators, scares publishers, and very likely terrifies small comic book shop owners:

Illegally downloaded comics.

I’m going to go right out on a limb here and admit that yes – I have downloaded comics from the Internet.  In fact, downloading copies of Dan Jolley’s (And later, Stuart Moore’s) run on the rebooted “Firestorm” comic from a few years back is what got me buying any comics at all. The incredibly frustrating combination of impatience, lack of money, and distance (100 miles) from the nearest comic shop lead me to download what I couldn’t buy – which at the time was quite a lot.

There are a number of factors that I believe need to be understood before tackling the issue of downloaded comics, and it is my hope that I understand enough of them to put a solid proposal of a suggestion out here for someone in the industry to consider.

Before I put my suggestion on the table, let’s take a brief moment to try and summarize what happened to the industry as a whole to get where it is today.

In the 1980′s, the comic reader started to get older. I’m not qualified to say exactly how, but it was likely a combination of decreased retail availability and broader entertainment options for the “traditional” comic book buyer. Additionally, comics began to openly feature more mature themes than had been previously done.  The “Comics Code Authority” stamp given to most mainstream weekly comics became less of a requirement for publication, and more of a dividing line between the mature and the youth-oriented.

In the 1990′s, following this market contraction, the speculators arrived.

Suddenly, comic books were collectibles – not things to be purchased, read and tossed in the back seat of Grandma’s car on a road trip to Spokane. For some publishers, quality became less of a concern than novelty or shock value. Foil covers, alternate printings, special sleeves, variants galore. The bigger companies, Marvel and DC got in on the act with a vengeance. Smaller ones struggled to get anything they could onto shelves, whether or not it was actually good.  Some small publishers, like Image, made bigger waves than even Marvel or DC at the time. But when the speculators finally came to their senses, the market collapsed, right along with dozens of publishers and distributors.

“Moichandising, where the real money from the movie is made.”
- Yogurt (Mel Brooks), Spaceballs

In the wake of this crash, the industry was left in a very difficult spot. Sales of new comics no longer held a high place on the balance sheets, if they ever truly did.  The real money came from merchandising the “big” characters such as Superman, Wolverine, Batman, Wonder Woman. Accountants for publishers increasingly saw the weekly comic as a fairly inexpensive way to generate buzz around movies and merchandise.

But the worry about digital comics and illegal downloads is real.

Some publishers have income from merchandising, but most creators don’t. The artist on last week’s issue of Batman doesn’t see a dime from The Dark Knight.  The writer who shepherded Superman through the mid 80′s sees nothing from sales of the original Christopher Reeve films. And your local comic book shop owner sees absolutely zero from the sale of Superman T-shirts at Wal-Mart.

So how does the industry respond to the threat of pirated material?

Please continue on to Part 2 in order to read my suggestion.