Crisis In The Comics Universe

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Do you remember the 1980s? Ah, yes! Metal bands wearing spandex! Manly action movies! And an independent comic boom. The two majors; DC Comics and Marvel, slightly changed direction by producing a tad more adult superhero and horror comics, and thanks to direct sales and comic book stores, it was possible to publish small, independent comics and get a wide distribution in the U.S. Everybody and his brother started up publishing houses and churned out black and white – and sometimes color – comics.

After a couple of years, what was bound to happen happened. The never ending flood of indie books killed the boom. People produced more books than the market could handle. And at the same time, the majors killed off the competition with their Major Event books, like re-launching X-Men with a new issue one with several different covers – leading to comics fans buying these “collector’s items” and not the indies.

In 1990, I wrote a horror comic serial I sold to a very small, American independent publisher. The first part was published in the first issue of a new book – and the print run was 3,000 copies. Yes, three thousand! And the population of the U.S.A. is over 300 million… The book was cancelled after one issue and a year or two later, to company folded as well. The market was more or less dead.

Things have changed since then – but not exactly to the better. The Internet and advanced video games arrived, something comic books couldn’t compete with. The people buying comics today, are usually the ones who grew up with the medium, meaning guys over 40, while few kids get hooked on comics. In a way this is weird, since Hollywood produces more comic book based movies than ever. It’s pretty interesting to note that a huge part of the movie audiences – especially outside of the U.S. – has never heard of the characters the movies are about.

There are still independent publishers in the U.S., but they struggle for survival. A book that sells 10,000-15,000 copies is considered a bestseller these days!

But things could be worse. Just have a look at Europe – and no, not at France. Okay, most of the famous French comics magazines like (À SUIVRE) were cancelled during the 1990s and early 2000s, but they still put out lots and lots of comics albums and graphic novels.

No, lets look at Scandinavia – and Sweden. A country which has been dominated by one, huge media company for way too long. Giant Danish company Egmont owns publishing houses, movie production- and distribution companies, and more. A few years ago, they bought Semic Press, which had dominated the Swedish comics scene since the 1960s. Then Norwegian giant Schibsted arrived and started putting out a handful of comics, and took over the Marvel titles from Egmont.

They say that 1979 was the year when the highest amount of comic books were sold in Sweden. Then in 1980, home video broke through. And then came cable TV.     For some reason, the most popular action/adventure character in Sweden has been been The Phantom; Lee Falk’s masked crime fighter, created in 1936. In 1950, The Phantom got his own comic book in Sweden, and it’s still published today, 26 issues a year, and since 40 years or so, the Phantom comic itself is produced in Sweden. In the 1970s, The Phantom sold 160,000 copies every other week – except for the “wedding issue” in which The Phantom finally married Diana. That issue sold 200,000 copies.

In the early 2000s, The Phantom was down at 35,000 copies – and today, 2009, the print run is 20,000 copies!

And over at Schibsted, things don’t look too good either. They killed off their Marvel titles, except for Spider-Man – but Spidey isn’t selling very well either. One editor at Schibsted said that had it been 15 years ago, they would had cancelled the titles with the sales figures of their bestsellers of today.

People just don’t read comic books anymore! They read comics – especially daily comic strips – but not comic books. But what about comics in other media, like the Internet? Well, to be honest, web comics rarely work as well as a “real” printed comic. It’s like eBooks. It’s just not the same reading a novel or a comic on a computer screen. Short humor strips of a couple of panels do of course work, but nobody cares to read a longer story or a graphic novel online. Another problem with web comics, is that it’s absolutely free to publish your own stuff, meaning 90% of the online comics are amateurish trash by young kids. Back in the 80s, when you had to pay to have your mini comics printed, you put some effort into your comics – you wanted people to be willing to pay for the comics so you could get back the money you shelled out to print the damn thing!

…But then we have the exceptions, of course. Like Swedish-Canadian René Engström’s web comic Anders Loves Maria ( http://anderslovesmaria.reneengstrom.com/). It’s so successful and has fans all over the world, that René actually can make a living from it!

Finally, I have to mention my own humble effort to bring comics to the people. Inspired by The Spirit Section of the 1940s and together with artist Jimmy Wallin, I edited a 16 page color comic called EDVARD!, and which featured several humor strips by well-known Swedish artists. EDVARD! was distributed as a supplement with the free culture and entertainment magazine Nya Upplagan, with a print run of 20,000 copies – meaning our little comic book became as “big” as The Phantom!

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