But I had something of epiphany when I was reading. It occurred early in the piece and stems directly from this passage...
The audience at the local comics shop isn't growing. It's an increasingly smaller portion of the possible readership for comics. But, for some reason, publishers are afraid to reach out to the rest.
I knew that. I've commented on that before. But I'd been sitting here thinking that publishers' fear came from potentially cutting the hamstrings of retailers. That if they truly embraced digital, it would immediately devastate the current direct market system by giving all of their loyal customers a cheaper, more attractive, alternative. The fear is that if they didn't do digital properly, they'd lose out on both the digital-supportive customers AND the already established and reliable direct market. So if they fail in this, it would be a complete failure and would severely damage their publishing business.
That's what I thought publishers were scared of.
But what if that's not it? What if their fear came from something else? (And here's the epiphany.) What if they're scared to find out that nobody wants yet another Spider-Man or Batman story? What if they're scared that switching to digital wouldn't increase their overall comic book sales, thus proving that the product they've relied on really is insularly myopic?
See, although comic fans have long collectively held some form of neurosis. Back in the 1940s and '50s, they were viewed as exclusively material for children and idiots who couldn't read a "real" book. Comics have matured as a medium, and I think there's a recognition that they can be an expressive art form. BUT I don't think that holds for superhero comics on the whole. The population at large thinks comics as a medium are okay, but they look to books like Maus and Persepolis and Palestine. Maybe Y: The Last Man or Transmetropolitan if they're more in-the-know. But Amazing Spider-Man? Detective Comics? The superhero genre is still considered the realm of the adolescent male (and his emotional equivalent).
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "But what about all the money that's been made on superhero movies and video games?" There's money to be made there, of course, but there's two distinctions worth nothing here. First, the actors cast in superhero movies -- even the ridiculously silicone-enhanced ones -- don't hold a candle to the impossibly proportioned depictions of the same heroes in many (most?) superhero comics. Regardless of how much makeup, prosthetics, good lighting, etc. is on an actor, they still have something akin to 'normal' human proportions. Second, when a customer is asked to shell out $12 for a movie, it's a one-time expense. Yes, it's a silly, stupid popcorn film, but the customer only has to buy into the absurdity of it for 90 minutes. Maybe 270 over the course of 4-5 years if it does phenomenally well and spawns two sequels. A comic book customer, by contrast, is asked to shell out $4 for a 15 minute experience every month. Indefinitely. That 270 minute mark gets hit in a year and half. After four years, they're up to 720 minutes.
One of the reasons that sequels tend to not perform as well as the originals is because people stop holding their suspension of disbelief. Whereas the first thoughts might be, "Wow, he just build himself this super-cool suit of armor that lets him fly and shoot people! Awesome!" After thinking about it for a couple of years, they start coming up with, "Wait, how does he go to the bathroom?" You can convince people that a man can fly. But only for so long before they start seeing the wires.
So what if that's it? What if the superhero publishers are scared to find out that, yeah, maybe all of these books they're pushing out really are just repetitious adolescent power fantasies? What if they're really not all that deep? How come there hasn't been another good look at the genre since Watchmen?
Because as long as they're not confronted with that fact head-on from the population at large, they can continue pushing books to the same group of fans who continue to validate them. They can continue to pretend that they're not acceptable to everybody because of some other factor that has nothing to do with their content. They can keep saying, "We do GREAT work but it's only a select few that see it."
Maybe they're not try to expand their market because they're scared that they've already expanded it as much as they can.