Tough Luck: The comics industry is crazy.

Remember way back when, in high school, when your friend introduced you to that great album that you instantly fell in love with? Remember going down to the record store or perhaps online and buying a copy of that album you liked so much? How did that go?

What happened if the record store didn’t have the album in stock, did the clerk tell you “tough luck“?

Did the clerk tell you it was too bad that you liked that band and that it was unfortunate that you didn’t come by when the album was in stock earlier that month, b/c the album was only printed once, in limited quantities? Did the clerk try to upsell you after your big let down, something like “but now that you’re into music, you can buy another bands music coming out next month!”?

Does this situation sound absurd to anyone? If your friend had shown you a comic book instead of an album, this is most likely exactly how your first brush with the comic book medium would go.

The thing about the comic books is, they have continuity. With albums, continuity of the musician’s work from album to album isn’t really critical. You can pick up 2 out of 4 albums and have a good time. Then we have comic books. With comic books, missing an issue in the middle of a series can cause some serious disconnect.

So which industry would you guess will reprint their medium as long as it sells? The music industry where continuity is of no concern, or the comic industry where continuity is key to customer retention?

I’ll give you a hint: The comics industry is insane.

For the past few months I’ve been thinking about checking out the upcoming Before Watchmen comics series. I had no idea how complicated buying a comic book could be.

I’m not an avid comic book fan, so I did what any average consumer would probably do, I checked out the DC Comics website, searching for a way to purchase or pre-purchase a subscription to the series. DC does offer subscriptions to a limited number of their series’, but not the one I was interested in, so I asked my friend how I could get a “subscription”.

In comic books, it’s not called a “subscription”, it’s called a “pull list”. To pre-order or subscribe to a comic book ahead of time, you go down to your local comic book store and ask the clerk to save a pile of comic books for you by “pulling” the comics from the shipment before placing the rest of the copies on the shelf. Don’t have a comic book store near you? Tough luck.

Suppose you had never heard of a “pull list” and were one of many consumers who just assumed subscriptions didn’t exist? In that case you may head down to your local comic book store when the issue was released to pick up a copy. If the store sold all of their copies of the issue you’re interested in, and your issue was a best seller, it may be reprinted the following month. If your issue wasn’t a best seller, well, tough luck.

If you missed the first issue in the series due to tough luck, would you care to come back to pick up the second issue?

Suppose a really great comic came out 3 months ago, and a friend tells you about it, months after it was printed.. not a best seller? Tough luck.

Suppose you’d never read a comic book before and you read a few issues at a friends house and wanted to collect the series yourself, but the series was printed four years ago, tough luck. …Well, maybe not, most ultra-popular series’ will be reprinted in a Trade Paperback several months or years after the series is released, again, usually only if the series was a best seller. Otherwise, tough luck.

Presumably, the single-run comic book way-of-things is an idea hinged on the scarcity/collectors-item angle. The amazing thing is, the industry persists this way, today, in the digital age. Many of the comic book publishers are jumping into the digital age with digital distribution of their comic books, so you can read a series on your computer or iPad, but if you want a physical copy of an issue, even weeks after it was released.. you may run into a bit of tough luck.

It’s no wonder that the comic book industry has been a bit of a niche entertainment sub culture for so long. Hell, it’s a miracle that an industry predicated on the concept of luck combined with continuity has survived at all. The barrier of entry into the ‘system’ of collecting comic books is so high that many would-be fans simply won’t-be.