San Diego Comic-Con 2010
Publishing Comics

by Carlo Santos,

What is business of comics all about? At this panel, it was about looking at a wide cross-section of the comics industry, focusing on the non-superhero side. On the panel were Matt Gagnon (Boom! Studios), Gary Groth (Fantagraphics), Dallas Middaugh (Del Rey Manga), and Mark Siegel (First Second Books), with Graeme McMillan of Comic Book Resources moderating.

McMillan began the panel by asking each individual panelist to discuss their product range and target market. Gagnon explained that Boom! Studios was focused mainly on all-ages commercial genre entertainment such as Disney, while also producing some original works. Del Rey, meanwhile, is best known for its manga output in the last 6-7 years, while the company's Villard imprint has branched out into graphic novel properties (both licensed and original). Siegel's First Second Books is a publisher of comics for kids, teen and adult markets, resulting in a very diverse selection of material such as the award-winning American Born Chinese, and Groth's Fantagraphics is a well-established publisher of comics ranging from Love and Rockets to Peanuts.

McMillan's next question was about business pressures from outside, namely, the demands of a publisher's parent company. Siegel said that a publisher's own success could often be a source of pressure—would they be able to repeat that success? Nonetheless, First Second is able to run autonomously. Meanwhile, Del Rey's parent company Random House treats the manga and graphic novel division as any other part of their other publishing operations, where getting approval is a matter of choosing titles that can be expected to succeed in the market.

Given the diverse range of publishers on the panel, McMillan asked: "All the companies are so different; do you feel that you're still in the same industry?" Siegel noted that, among all the different business models, comics still served as a common thread. Likewise, Gagnon said that despite his company's genre-entertainment output, he still feels close to publishers on other areas of the spectrum such as Fantagraphics. Groth, on the other hand, felt an increasing feeling of isolation—that the sheer number of publishers had reduced the closeness and camaraderie of the comics industry.

Choosing the right kind of titles to turn a profit is, of course, a key issue for any publisher. Groth explained that at Fantagraphics, profit was less important than simply putting out quality product. Nonetheless, a tentpole title such as Peanuts brings in the cash flow to help support other projects. Siegel also notes that "clever, calculating" attempts to create a best-seller have a way of failing, and that simply supporting good creators and good titles is what matters. He also added that a publisher that brings out one great hit can then persuade readers to explore other offerings from that company. Middaugh saw things slightly differently in the world of manga, though, where audiences take an interest in a particular series and follow what they like regardless of the publisher.

The overall state of the comics market also brought up plenty of discussion. Middaugh commented on how a field like manga differs from bestselling novels; when it comes to bestsellers, a big name like Dean Koontz can find plenty of shelf space at the bookstore. In the world of manga, however, market contraction has caused a situation where a series could fall off the map if not immediately successful. However, he feels that the manga market is currently stable despite the recent downturn, and will hold steady in the next couple of years. What happens beyond that, however, is anyone's guess. Siegel also added that America has not yet cracked the potential of comics as mass-market entertainment—especially when compared to the ubiquity of manga in Japan. If publishers were to join forces, Siegel says, the resulting effort could make comics a more potent force in the media landscape. In addition, the graphic novel market is still in its infancy, and the current generation of young artists has a great potential to break new ground.

All panelists agreed that the current comics market is at a pivotal point, and that they are doing what they can to expand the industry or at the very least bring out great art. Because audiences have such wide-ranging tastes and interests—as reflected among the panelists and the companies they represent—the ultimate challenge is to meet the needs and wants of the comics readership, while supporting creators and succeeding as a business.

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