It pains me to write this, but it’s just too obvious to ignore now.
Big Web Comic Book Journalism is dead as an institution. It can no longer support itself. We can all proclaim that “We’ve won!” because superheroes have “gone mainstream” and dominate the box office ticket sales every year. We can wallow in the glory that Old Navy and Target will sell you a t-shirt with Captain America’s shield on in, just like you’ve seen 20 people wearing in the last week. And we can eat it up when a television network has devoted most of its weekly programming to superhero series from a shared universe.
But none of that is comic books. Books. The things you read. Those are still dead in the water. Those are still the things the “mainstream” press writes about with headlines that boldly proclaim “Bam! Pow! Zap!” before writing about how these aren’t your father’s comics anymore, or how these are the comics that have gone to Hollywood. Those are the things that people on the street will look at you and quizzically ask, “Oh, they still print those?” Comic books are the things that are worth money, right? Because didn’t CNBC do a piece about their investment value?
We’ve won? Pshaw!
As further proof that the fight is over, I submit to you this week’s redesign of ComicBookResources.com. Or, as it is now known, CBR.com. Like KFC, it’s now removed that pesky unhealthy “Fried Chicken” part of its name from the title. Let’s not mention “comic books” anymore, people. Those are secondary.
I’ve looked at the home page a few times since the redesign and one thing becomes obvious: This is a site dedicated to the Arrow-verse. Here’s a screen grab example. I’ve colored in the stories that are Hollywood-related in red, comics-related in blue, and comics-based-on-Hollywood (a MMPR comic) in purple. This is the top ten stories at the time I’m writing this, and I’ll throw in the sidebar items to be sporting:
But who can blame them? There’s a lot of overhead to an operation like CBR. I should know, as I was once part of that. (Employee #2 and all…) There is no money in comics. Even the publishers realize that.
The Numbers Game
Marvel and DC bust their humps to figure out a way to sell 300,000 copies of a comic, and it’s never by building a bigger audience. It’s always through sales tricks like exclusive covers and variants and all the rest.
“Supergirl” practically got booted from CBS for carrying a viewership of just 1,100,000 viewers on a night when Chicago didn’t air the show for sports reasons. Oh, and did I mention that episode was a rerun? 1.1 million viewers watched a show man had likely had already seen. The 100th top selling comic in the Direct Market doesn’t sell 1% of that number. Often, the best selling comic of the month barely sells 10% of that.
When an ad-supported website needs to build an audience to sell to advertisers, where will they get the numbers necessary to bring in a real ad network? It’s not going to be from comics.
Thus, ComicBook.com barely even covers comic books, but at least it’s adding comics content, not removing it. I should know – I’m part of that “barely.” I half expect a rebranding to “CB.com” soon, but I doubt Career Builder is going to give up that domain anytime soon for any amount of money. Not even stupid Marvel Cinematic Universe money.
You can’t expect to operate a “comic book” website at scale without forgetting about comics and covering everything else, instead. “Batman: Arkham Asylum,” the video game, sold something like 6 million copies. Should your website cover that video game or the latest issue of “Nightwing” and its 30,000-ish readers? Guess which one will attract more eyeballs? Guess where Google will rank you for each keyword phrase? Guess who’ll pay you to put their ads in front of the most number of people?
Hint: Nobody’s paying for the big spending Nightwing contingent of comic book fans.
The web is a numbers game. A vicious ad-driven numbers game. That’s all that counts.
How the Web Works and the CBR Redesign of 2016
The game in the modern web is easy. Build short articles and lots of them. Target key words that Google will pick up on and drive traffic to you. The more viral, the better. Video is awesome for things like that. Make sure it can be read on your phone. Nobody is going to read your entire site. Just get as many audiences as possible to visit your site for that one article as often as possible. SEO, SEO, SEO. No long articles. Lots of cheap little articles. Lists are your friends. Pictures are mandatory.
The CBR redesign is all about mobile, first and foremost. I think a lot of the people complaining about the new site’s look are reading it on a computer, whether a laptop or desktop. Check it out on a phone and you’ll see that it really is a 100x improvement from what it used to be.
I’ve seen people complain that it’s not really “responsive,” but it is. Grab a corner of your web browser on your desktop, shrink the window, and watch things rearrange themselves. It’s the very definition of responsive. The right column moves to the bottom. The slideshow at the top breaks up into three separate stories. The hamburger icon shows up. Etc.
The new logo is “flatter,” like so much of tech design since iOS 7. Yeah, I liked the old Jim McQuarrie-designed logo, too. It screamed “comic book!” The new one does seem plain, in comparison, but at least the font choice isn’t bad. It looks like something CNN would put in their lower thirds.
I’m more worried about the webfonts the site is using, particularly on the headlines. They’ll stand out, all right, but I’m not sure they’re great. Something about them bothers me. It’s those squared off parts on the bottom lines, I think.
The biggest shift is in how the mother ship has absorbed the individual blogs. Comics Should Be Good, Spinoff Online, and Robot 6 were previously operated as separate entities, with their most hit-driving pieces showing up on the main page. Now, it’s all being merged in. That’s going to create an awful lot of churn on the front page. If you thought stories didn’t last long on the front page before, they’ll last half as long now. Or, those blogs will be generating fewer articles for the website, and more contributors will be gone shortly.
There was some initial worry about issues with finding content. How do you get to a specific column? Some of that stuff is missing now, but I’m sure it’ll pop up before long. That’s either an oversight or a v1.1 checklist item waiting to happen. There’s likely lots of little things they wish they could have smoothed over before going live, but such is life. Sometimes, you have to just do something to get anything happening. Publish your Minimal Viable Product and iterate like crazy.
I’ve been through this redesign hell before, with CBR. Everyone hated the new look the site had previously that lasted for 15 years. They swore they’d never come back. The site was dead to them. Then growth rocketed up by millions of readers a month. So when I see people proclaim the death of CBR again this time, I just shake my head, remember history, and vow not to repeat those mistakes. I remember the riots during the last redesign when the message boards changed and people were outraged that the boards were forever useless because a setting only allowed 60 characters for a subject head. That was too restrictive for them. Sometimes, I wonder if those people ever made it to Twitter….
The two problems with CBR up to now have been search and mobile. This new design is clearly aimed at the latter. I’m sure anyone with access to the site’s statistics will tell you that most of the traffic to CBR these days comes from mobile browsers and not laptops/desktops.
Search is a trickier thing. CBR tried to make it easier with tags and word clouds at the top of the front page, but it’s never been a solved problem. I’m not sure that this new design has fixed that. Right now, search isn’t working for me at all. Nothing is being found. Might be from the heavy load on the server, I don’t know. Valnet just needs to fork up some money to fix that. Search isn’t necessarily easy, and I’m not sure what the back end is these days, but I hope there’s a plug-in that can be slotted in there.
Honestly, it’s not the design of CBR that bothers me. It’s more the on-going content that leans so heavily on listicles and Hollywood while comics coverage that comes from places outside of the publishers is pushed away. In the meantime, I guess I should just bookmark the Comics Category URL and only visit that page. It’ll save me half a headache.
The End of an Era
The era of large comics magazine websites about comic books is over. It’s not tenable. The writing has been on the wall since the superhero movie wave kicked off 15 years ago. You can’t have a large website talking just about comics. Even with a full staff of volunteers you don’t need to pay, it’s doomed to fail. You won’t get the traffic. There aren’t enough readers. Worse, you could get just popular enough to not be able to pay the server bills to support the traffic. But you won’t get the ad revenue unless you have the traffic.
You can try Patreon. Some have done that very successfully. But as everyone signs up for a Patreon, there has to be a dwindling return, I’d think. Nobody can afford to be a patron of every site they visit. And comic fans are notoriously cheap with a capital C-H-E-A-P.
The era of the great wars between the likes of Newsarama and CBR is over. The great comic book magazine website is over.
Hell, no. We just diverted our attention to something else and pretended we did.
Maybe the solution is just a few years away. I do think we’re seeing a generational shift in comics readership. The Raina Telgemeier effect in comics should be huge in a few more years. Whole generations of new comics readers are coming up thanks to Scholastic. The Direct Market echo chamber didn’t pay attention to them, so Scholastic did. Thank goodness.
As those readers age up and start their own blogs and their own sites, what will they be writing about? As those readers become creators, what will they create? And what will their attitudes be towards “comics news and reviews”? This is a generation raised entirely on wi-fi. How does that change the game?
We’re still a few years away, but I’m warming up my rocking chair, anyway, and getting ready to tell them all to get off my lawn. It’s what I’m supposed to do, right? (Nah, I’ll just be happy that there IS a next generation of comics creators and readers. I’ve had my doubts there would be over the last 30 years…)
There’s a way to integrate coverage of Hollywood stuff in with the comics stuff. I honestly believe that. It doesn’t have to be all one way or the other. The problem is that one has overtaken the other. Stories about minor castings get “Breaking News” banners. “Arrow” plot synopses are headline news. etc. It causes people like me to veer off wildly in the other direction, ignoring the whole thing. For the most part.
I’ve written about this before (and I’ll be damned if I can find it on CBR currently), but I do tend to think the future is in the integration of films and television series as part of the overall development of a project, like what manga has always done feeding into anime, or how publishers like Bamboo work over in France, with a single series of graphic novels inspiring a movie. Creating a comic for the purpose of selling an option isn’t what I’m talking about. A successful comic that becomes a successful movie is more along the lines I’m thinking of. It’s a fuzzy line, I know, and one I hope to write about more in the future.
So What Are You Doing Here, Augie?
Writing about comics.
Often in something closer to the modern definition of “longform.” (This is over 2500 words already.) I’m writing about comics only, with emphases on artistic techniques and nostalgia and maybe some Franco-Belgian comics. Because, honestly, nobody can tell me here not to write about something because nobody will want to read it. I’m doing everything possible to make this the least commercially successful platform ever created in modern comics journalism.
The big “comics” magazine sites have a valid model that bring in a sizable audience. They’re playing a different game. I think the future for comic book fans is this smaller model. The larger model has deserted us. Is it the return of blogging? Maybe. Non-opinionated news pieces are valuable and interesting on their own, but they’re far more interesting in context. I like the idea of voices — not just straight ahead newsbits, but voices that go along with them. If you want the commentary on that news — well, CBR just ditched the columnists. You’ll need to look elsewhere. Twitter is not the greatest place for carefully crafted and well considered thoughts. Facebook is a walled garden and echo chamber.
I think the only way you’re going to get the comics coverage you want is to follow a variety of smaller sites. There are lots out there. Find the ones that you like. Find ones you agree with and ones you disagree with. Learn and enjoy both. The only danger in it is that there will be greater churn and greater burnout. So, if you like a site, support it. Encourage them. Click through their Amazon links, use the products their sponsors are advertising, support their Patreons, etc. etc. Servers are amazingly cheap these days compared to what they used to be, but still not free.
Part of me thinks this is just crazy enough to work. This is a one man operation. The overhead isn’t too high. My needs are minimal. I could support this whole site with one sponsor a month. If I can find that sponsor with their petty cash line item available for web sponsorship, I would be very happy.
I don’t need six million readers to make this site successful. I don’t need to repeat every press release, teaser image, and movie announcement to sustain a site with large hit numbers and ridiculous front page churn. Someone else is already handling that. I just want to talk about the comics I’m interested in. And in the last 19 years, I believe I’ve met a lot of like-minded folks whose participation or interest could help drive this website along to being successful.
If you’re a publisher or a distributor or a tool creator or a software manufacturer or someone looking to focus on a very specific niche, I’ve got a prime audience of comic book fans for you. Contact me. We’ll talk sponsorships at very very reasonable rates. I don’t want to sell ads. Let’s talk.
And don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter. (The link is over there on the right in the sidebar. Scroll up a bit.) Now that my vacation is over, I’ll be getting back to updating that weekly with both a recap of the previous week and whatever new thoughts come to mind that don’t fit here.
Thanks, as always, for reading!