His Reasoning Is Askew

January 24th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

Joshua Hale Fialkov wrote an anti-piracy piece the other day. It’s interesting, but I disagree with most of it, if not all of it. It’s not that I don’t get his point (it’s basically “Times are hard, no one reads comics, and piracy sucks” from his POV), it’s that his reasoning feels suspect to me, a little Team Comics-y. Stuff like this:

The comic market consists of about 200,000 people, on the high end. Now, certainly, you’ll have your Justice Leagues and Batmans and Flash’s that do amazing sales and are generating profits. But almost every other book that isn’t up there in the top 25 or so titles is almost certainly losing money.

rings false to me. In the direct market, sure, that may be true, but Scholastic has printed ten million copies of Jeff Smith’s Bone, a comic for the children who do not read comics, since 2005. The anthology Flight went for eight volumes over the course of a few years, plus spinoffs. Robert Kirkman has his The Walking Dead, Felipe Smith is over in Japan making manga, and on and on. These may be outliers, but the comics culture, for lack of a pithier way to say “people who buy comics,” is much larger than 200,000 people. That’s probably even true of the Direct Market.

There’s also this:

So, while I’m telling you to stop being an asshole, I need you to do something for me. Be an asshole. You know how when someone you’re talking to makes a horrificly offensive racist comment and you immediately tell them to watch their mouth (or smack them or what have you…)? Well, I want you to do that about Piracy. Call them a fucking cockhead.

This is just silly. One, that’s not how anyone has ever been convinced of anything. Calling somebody a cockhead is probably what led to Lucifer and God falling out. Two, it doesn’t do anything but make both people into jerks and spark completely unproductive arguments. Three, I get his point, that we should take a stand against piracy amongst our peers, but seriously? This isn’t the way to do it. You’d be better off trying to actively guilt trip them, and that is the pass-aggest thing in the entire world.

But what I really wanted to talk about, what really crawled all the way under my skin, was this:

Tell them that they’re singly responsible for ruining the comic book industry (or the film industry or whatever.)

Folks, the ship is sinking and we all need to stand up and fight.

“Singly responsible.”

I like that, because it pushes all of the responsibility for lost money and a broken industry onto the consumer. “What’s wrong with this industry? You are, dear consumer. That will be $2.99 plus tax, enjoy your read.” That’s MPAA/RIAA talk right there, and it’s completely counterproductive and ridiculous. Fialkov seems like a smart dude, from what I’ve read of his interviews, so I’m actually surprised these words came out of his mouth.

But sure, let’s do this.

When I was a kid, I could buy comics for a dollar or two. It was the early ’90s and comics were a thing children did and parents tolerated in case it made money. I never had much of an allowance (Thanks, Mom), but I would get ten or twenty bucks for helping my aunt clean houses around town once I got old enough to push a mop, so I could finance my own entertainment.

I owned a Super Nintendo, but SNES tapes were like 70 bucks a piece, or something equally unreachable as a kid. I think I only ever owned Super Mario World, Star Fox, Mario Kart, and probably Street Fighter. I rented games from our local video store (either Blockbuster or Video Warehouse, though I don’t think it was called that then) for something like 2-5 bucks for 3 days.

Music was pretty expensive, too. 18 bucks at the mall for a CD, 12 at the BX. I didn’t buy my first CD until like 1998, with Heltah Skeltah’s (still great) Magnum Force, so it was the radio (free) or cassette tapes (ten bucks or less) for me.

From what I recall, my mom handled paying for theater movies, and I would rent them along with the video games. I had the option of playing outside, which I took fairly often, because the south has really nice weather, or working with my grandfather on his lawn, which I had no choice in at all and was basically free child labor. Oh, and I could go to the library if I could talk someone into driving me. Toward the late ’90s, we lived near a library, so I could bike there on a Saturday and bike back with half a dozen books to tear through.

That was it. That’s what I had to entertain myself from whenever I became conscious of money on through probably 1999.

Here’s what I’ve done so far today, over the past 12 or so hours:
-Went on went on Crunchyroll.com and tried to find some new anime to watch
-I added gdgd fairies to my list because a friend recommended it, along with a couple other shows that looked mildly interesting/not-moe
-I bought two albums from Amazon: Gangrene’s Vodka & Ayahuasca and The Suzan’s Golden Week For The Poco Poco Beat, both of which bang pretty hard
-I ordered Greneberg on vinyl because I like raw raps, and Mos Def’s The Ecstatic because I’ve been looking for it since I got a turntable
-I added several sample chapters to my Kindle and continued reading David Peace’s Tokyo Year Zero while they
-Spent three hours online doing research for a new work project. I’ve undoubtedly read the equivalent of several video game magazines worth of content across maybe a dozen different websites (a pox on Metacritic).
-Listened to both the albums I bought this morning via Google Music, made notes for songs to delete from Google Music because I’m perilously close to the limit
-Went to add something to my Netflix queue (I Saw The Devil) only to realize that it was already in my queue
-Made plans with a friend to watch a foreign movie on Blu-ray
-Watched a few trailers on Hulu (Get down with Madagascar or get laid down)
-Watched music videos on Youtube (you could do this in the past, but only on TV and you couldn’t pick what was what unless you had The Box)
-Posted some stuff on Tumblr

And some stuff I’m sure I’m forgetting, but let me get to my point. I’m not rich. I’ve got a job, which is a really nice thing to have, and it lets me buy nice things, but that’s about it. But besides the money, which really just lets me consume in a greater volume than I did as a child rather than breadth, the main difference between when comics made everybody a bunch of money and today is this:

We have options now, when it comes to what we choose to entertain us. You can drown in entertainment without putting forth really any effort at all today. It’s not like back then, when comics were a larger part of a smaller pie.

The internet didn’t exist (or “wasn’t a going concern” for the pedants who are sure to tell me about DARPA or ARPA or Al Gore or whatever) when I was a kid. Game consoles weren’t multimedia devices. Mobile phones were a joke. Cordless phones were the new hotness. Long distance calling was a special occasion. Etc etc woe is past me, blah blah blah.

To put forth the idea that piracy on the part of consumers is “singly responsible” for anything, especially when piracy by its very nature is impossible to nail down in terms of concrete numbers and cause & effect is dishonest. Bootlegs have always existed, whether in barbershops or art galleries. They’ve been here, and they aren’t going away. Do they cause harm? Any idiot knows the answer to that question is “yes.”

But for my money, the thing that killed comic books is “everything else.” We’re living in an all-new status quo, and I keep seeing people, especially comics people, acting like piracy is the sole cause of all their ills. When no, that isn’t true, and a half glance at the world will tell you so.

I don’t even have to leave my house to be flooded with things to do. I can have food delivered, songs and movies I buy (or download, whatever) appear on my hard drive or PlayStation like magic, video games can be bought and played without ever touching a physical disc… we’re living in the future, and that’s without even going outside. Outside, I can go to the movies, check out stand-up open mics, hang out with friends, drink Starbucks, eat donuts, play board games, go to bars…

There is so much to do, and when you tell me my choice is between (in this instance) a comic that averages out to being just okay and costs three to four dollars to read for five to ten minutes and doing anything else, I’m going to choose anything else, nine times out of ten, with exceptions made for creators I enjoy or books that might have a good hook that I’m curious about.

And I like comics. At this point, I’ve probably written a million words about them. I like supporting the people who make comics, whether with an email about how much I like their work, a Paypal donation, or just buying their books when they come out. My apartment is a mess because I like these stupid picture books so much.

It’s a new age. You either figure out how to progress along with time or you get washed away. Which is maybe “a fucking cockhead” thing to say, but that doesn’t make it any less true. 1996 rules don’t apply any more. You have to change for that new status quo.

I like this group named Pac Div a whole lot. It’s three cats (BeYoung, Like, and Mibbs) out of LA who can rap their butts off. They’ve got a style and subject matter that I’m into. They’ve gotten nine bucks out of me, because I bought The Div off Amazon. That album came out in 2011. I’ve been listening to the Div since 2009, and have enjoyed three of their full-length mixtapes, which are completely free. I don’t really go to concerts, so the only way I could support them was by buying that record when it came out. Their mixtapes are good enough that I would’ve paid for them out of pocket, so dropping ten dollars on The Div wasn’t even a question. I gladly throw money at them because I like what they do.

Their model, which is shared by a lot of rappers these days, doesn’t work for everyone, but they’re trying something that was unheard of back when the music industry was making money hand over fist. Pac Div knew that they weren’t going to come out of the gates and sell a million like it’s nothing, so they built a fanbase, toured the country (and eventually Europe, like they did in 2011 six months before their album dropped), and then released a tape at retail. Giving stuff away is no way to make a living, but they figured out how to monetize that model, and I assume it’s worked out pretty well for them. Hopefully, anyway–I’d like to see these guys succeed.

I don’t know what model is the future of comics. I do believe that it isn’t three and four dollar puzzle pieces, and it isn’t two dollar digital comics, either. Comics have a hard uphill climb, because the return on investment (to use a particularly odious phrase) just isn’t there for the reader. Four bucks for a comic featuring Wolverine that lasts ten minutes versus four bucks for a coffee with friends vs three bucks for a movie rental on Amazon vs five bucks for digital manga vs five bucks for an MP3 album on sale vs six bucks for a pre-noon movie on a lazy Saturday vs nine bucks for a Kindle book vs whatever else is out there. .99 for Angry Birds and Bejeweled 2. Not to mention drugs and romance, which is a whole other kettle of hopefully good-looking fish.

I paid twenty bucks for a season of Justified. That’s five comics. The difference in value there, assuming we aren’t talking about completely transcendant comics (which are few and far between), is harsh.

A lot of things have hurt comics. Needlessly conservative storytelling, crap coloring (maybe that’s just me and my art snob friends though), bad comics, rising prices, a lack of speculators, the Hollywood money being exponentially better, companies going for the short gain instead of the long-term gain (I’m looking at you, Humanoids, and your reprinting of comics classics in strictly deluxe formats that are too expensive for the casual reader who needs that stuff and you, Marvel, who can’t even keep a trade of a book that’s buzzing super hard in print, and you, comic shops, for banging your doofus drum every time somebody does something in digital comics you don’t like), and yes, piracy, have all hurt comics.

Tell them that they’re singly responsible for ruining the comic book industry (or the film industry or whatever.)

Folks, the ship is sinking and we all need to stand up and fight.

“Singly responsible” is an untruth, and to be honest, I’d be remarkably surprised if it was largely responsible for the current state of comics. Nobody even has actual, non-made up numbers on how piracy has personally affected them. They look at numbers on Demonoid or Rapidshare and go “See? I lost 3 dollars times thirty thousand downloads.” That’s fake reasoning. That’s assuming that everyone who got curious would have paid for your book, or that people aren’t backing up their legal copies, or half a dozen other situations. There are bots that seed torrent files just because they exist, users who download everything because they like having a large ratio, or because of some dumb OCD internet thing.

People were losing money on comics long before piracy was something that comics companies noticed. I get that piracy makes for a nice scapegoat, but the fall of comics, if it is in fact falling rather than changing into something else, is way bigger than piracy, no matter how hard people bang that drum and close their ears to dissent.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon