Here’s an obvious but infrequently discussed fact about the comics industry: the largest factor shaping the trends, styles, and formats of books has always been distribution.
Here’s an example. The original publishers and distributors of comics were magazine men looking to diversify their holdings, so the distribution model was exactly the same for comic books and magazines. Comic books were shipped to primarily to same newsstands, pharmacies, and soda shops, as their more distinguished brethren such as Sports Illustrated and Time. This worked successfully so long as new homogenous generations of children continued to consume whatever hit the stands. However, by the late seventies the demographics had shifted, and now comics were increasingly the realm of older, more die-hard fans interested in collecting entire runs of their favorite titles. Back-issues became a hot commodity and local comic book shops thrived. Soon they were the center of the entire market and the decision to ship issues directly to these stores was the logical move. Direct distribution was born.
The publishers modified their product for direct distribution. They upped their production values, giving comics sleeker colors and ink, allowing for more sophisticated visual storytelling. They began to write longer-formatted stories, birthing the graphic novel. It is decidedly not a coincidence in timing that the Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen came out in roughly the same year’s span. 1986 was the year the direct market became big enough to accommodate such projects, and the year DC became aware enough about its core demographic to back them.
Also in the mid-eighties? The first ever mass-continuity crossovers, Marvel’s Secret Wars and DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earth’s respectively. Both series were intended to introduce the new “modern” versions of their characters to the direct market fanbase, with the added hope in Marvel’s case of jump-starting a line of action figure collectibles (another staple of direct market comic shops). Marvel only went as far as re-arranging its teams and changing a few costumes (this is where Spider-man’s black-and-white costume originates incidentally). DC took things a step further by massively overhauling its entire continuity before re-launching it, retiring over forty years’ worth of stories and recurring tropes.
Things haven’t changed much since then. The only major new trend in distribution was the birth of giant mass-retail book stores like Barnes and Noble. In order to have a product fit for their shelves, the comic book publishers refitted their stories into trade paperbacks, marking one of the most useful innovations for serious comic-book readers and historians who are not necessarily rabid collectors.
Now, the Kindle is here, along with its cousin, the Nook. In a world where e-readers are sophisticated enough that one can view comic books on them, DC and Marvel are waiting anxiously to see if anyone actually wants to do so. They’ve already re-branded their properties accordingly. Just like in the mid-eighties, DC has re-written its continuity to give us the New 52 line of books (released on kindle the same day as in stores). Marvel has once again responded conservatively, re-titling some books and changing some costumes for Marvel NOW!
It is certainly true that the e-reader will change the industry. If nothing else smaller publishers and indie writers and artists will finally have a chance to compete for distribution with the big boys at a reasonable cost. Whether anything as genre-redefining as Watchmen will come out of it though remains to be seen. What is certain: the key to innovation in comics has more to do with the business of distribution than any writer or artist would care to admit.