Fewer Comics at Comic-Con? Blame Comicononomics

THE LOCAL COMICS shop—LCS in the parlance of us adherents—remains the place for a certain breed to get our fix. In the last couple of decades, though, troubles have set upon the LCS like the Legion of Doom coming hard at the Hall of Justice. Digital comics, trade paperbacks, distribution difficulties, and a persistent and not entirely undeserved reputation for being exactly like the comic book store on The Simpsons all make it hard out there for a print (store).

Still, you’d think that the annual nerd extravaganza of San Diego Comic-Con would be the one time when LCS owners would be on top of the multiverse. So when the owner of Denver’s venerable and massive Mile High Comics announced earlier this month that, for the first time in 44 years, the store wouldn’t be attending SDCC, the news landed with a krakaTHOOM! Mile High had retained a dominant presence on the convention floor, even as the overall influence of comic books at Comic-Con had diminished.

Yeah, I get the irony. Nerds have been fretting over the reduced comic book-ness of the Con since movies and TV started using SDCC as a marketing target—which, arguably, was in 1976 when Star Wars came to town. But Mile High had a literally outsized footprint, partially because the store is known for being a mail-order source for back issues of “singles,” the monthly pamphlets that used to be the only way people could get comics and partially because the booth itself was huge: tall and wide, with a big red sign visible across the con’s crowded floor.

Mile High’s note about pulling out blames increasing costs in the face of national media brands dominating the show, as well as decreasing foot traffic over to the “comics end” of the hall—and what sounds like some poor treatment at the hands of SDCC itself.

The real irony, though, is that of course comic books and comic book stories have never been more important to Comic-Con and contemporary pop culture. Five of the top 20 worldwide grossing movies of all time are based on comics. At least 32 comics-based TV shows are greenlit or in development for the upcoming season. And if you broaden out to overall genre—science fiction and fantasy, whether original or based on other existing intellectual property like prose—the numbers go even higher.

What happened? For movies, that story is well-told. Familiar IP plus a couple hundred million dollars in budget and maybe a couple hundred million more in marketing has become a tried-and-true way to build a franchise. On television, though, genre fare, especially comic-book-based genre, has another route. And it’s not success, exactly—at least not the way people who only count ratings.

So yet more irony still: The same fierce, burning, sometimes-secret loyalty that we nerds have felt for a given comic, or show, or book series, or action figure, or dice maker, or t-shirt company now counts toward getting a TV show on the air. Ratings aren’t much of a guide when everybody timeshifts with DVRs or is as likely to stream a show on Netflix, maybe ten hours all at once.

As a couple of TV makers have told me here at SDCC, what networks—streaming, premium free cable, pay cable, whatever—are looking for is intensity. Diversify a portfolio enough and you get small but loyal bands of people who not only refuse to miss a frakking episode, but will pay for more. And if the same studio that owns the network also makes the show? So much the better, because they don’t have to share the profits. As one executive put it (I’m warning you nerds now, this quote is going to make you cry): “If Fireflypremiered now, it’d last for 15 seasons.”

Which brings me to one last, final irony. When I used to spend every Wednesday night at my own LCS at the time, the perfect gem that is St. Marks Comics in Manhattan, owner Mitch Cutler used to tell me about a certain kind of occasional customer: better dressed than the typical Lower East Side denizen (standing right here, Mitch), and who’d ask, with avidity, what was really popular right now. They were looking for IP, of course—something to take back to an agency or a studio. It’s easier than ever to find now, thanks to all those new ways to access comics that so threaten the LCS. But today, when the people with money to make new TV shows have never been hungrier for comic-book IP to base it on…well, Mile High Comics isn’t at SDCC to show it to them.

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