The Future of Comics: Comic-Con San Diego

A Conversation with Dark Horse's Chris Warner

About 20 years ago when I first visited San Diego, I remember I was struck by the palm trees and the odd mix of architectural styles. The high-rises look like LA, the apartment buildings look like Vancouver, BC, and the little two-story brick buildings in between come straight from Main Street, USA. The effect of all these styles and the palm trees make the entire downtown look like a movie set.

Of course, Comic-Con doesn't help lessen this effect. The streets were jammed with people; silver-goggled steam punks waited impatiently in coffee lines; Darth Vader waited to cross with the light, surrounded by kids taking his picture. On my first morning, as I rode the shuttle bus from my hotel to the convention, TRON got on the bus behind me. The poor residents must feel that their city has five seasons: winter, spring, summer, fall and Comic-Con.

The "movie set" is empty because they are all at Comic-Con (Photo: BDJ)

Down on the convention floor, I wove my way through the crowd. I was a man on a mission. I was headed to the Dark Horse Comics booth to chat with senior editor Chris Warner. The crowd was massive and tended to get clogged up at the intersections of the long aisles. With too much to look at, people would just stop and spin around, snapping pictures, their mouths slightly open with awe.

It was in one of these great clogs that I heard someone yell, "Predators! Predators this way!"

I turned to see this...

"Predators this way!" (Photo: BDJ)

More predators (Photo: BDJ)

...and then they were gone. I zipped up to the Dark Horse counter. "I'm here to see Chris Warner."

"I think he's over there," the woman in the Dark Horse t-shirt pointed. "The editors usually wander around."

Thanking her, I moved to the center. The Dark Horse booth was massive. Artists chatted with convention goers, signing comics with quick, practiced pen strokes. Some people shopped for toys while others waited in line for something that I couldn't quite see. It seemed hopeless that I'd be able to find Chris in this splendid chaos. 


"Hey man," I heard someone say. I turned and there was Chris.

Let me give you a little background about Chris. He broke into comics professionally as a penciller for Marvel Comics in 1984. He worked on Alien Legion, Moon Knight, and Dr. Strange, then joined up with Mike Richardson and Randy Stradley when they began Dark Horse Comics in 1986. Today, Dark Horse is the largest American comic book and Manga publisher; it is based in Milwaukie, Oregon.

Chris drew the cover and story, "Black Cross," for the very first Dark Horse title, Dark Horse Presents #1. He's drawn and written a bunch of titles for Dark Horse over the years, like The American, Predator, Aliens vs. Predator, The Terminator, X, and Barb Wire, and eventually moved full-time into editorial in 1998.

 

Dark Horse Presents #1 (first Dark Horse comic). Published July 1986. Cover art by Chris Warner.

Chris grew up in Oregon and his office at Dark Horse is in the old five-and-dime where he used to buy comics and sci-fi paperbacks when he was a kid. We got along instantly: not only is Chris a comic and sci-fi guy but he also unabashedly loves TV.

I knew Chris had been coming to Comic-Con for a long time. I asked him about how it has changed over the years: 

CHRIS WARNER: The first Comic-Con I attended wasn't even called Comic-Con. I believe it was called the San Diego West Coast Comic Convention then, in the early Seventies. It was at the old El Cortez hotel, long before the current San Diego Convention Center was built. There were a whopping 900 attendees. I thought it was the most amazing event I'd ever experienced. Considering the show now packs in well over 150,000 people and is an international media event, I can safely say that Comic-Con today bears no resemblance to the small gathering of comics collectors and professionals who pioneered the show.

I don't know if that's good or bad. I guess that depends on what you want. If you're looking for an intimate gathering of comics readers, the changes are probably not for the better, but if you want your fingers on the pulse of media pop culture, I don't know that you could find a better venue anywhere.

I wanted to know more about that. Judging by the 150,000 people at the event, the industry of comics has a huge amount of attention. I asked Chris what are the challenges and opportunities he saw at Dark Horse with this increased interest.

CHRIS WARNER: Well, I'd argue that the interest you're talking about isn't focused on comics as much as it's focused on the mass-media extrapolations of comics. Oddly enough, for all the films, TV shows, games, and what not based on comic properties, comic books themselves sell a fraction of what they did 20 years ago. Hollywood makes movies and TV shows based on comics, but comic books are not broadly popular.

The real challenge for Dark Horse, as a publisher of actual comic books, is to continue to be viable. The comics industry is very competitive. It's not easy to get attention for new titles and characters, and it's hard to keep readers when there are so many dazzling forms of entertainment that provide the same basic genres that were once found only in comics.

At times, the creation of comics seems to be more about toys and movies and licensing than about actually producing that 22-page story. There's an intense creative engine behind these titles, but comics don't make money like they used to, so the temptation to fry bigger fish is understandable. One of the big changes in the business though is that some comics don't have to make money.

The bigger comics publishers are really property libraries. If a title loses money but generates a film or TV series, that's okay. The more properties that are created, the greater the chances of crossing over: fire more bullets, you're more likely to hit the bullseye. A blockbuster franchise like Batman can cover any number of missed shots. And a lot of smaller publishers and self-publishers know full well their books will make nothing or a pittance, but the potential reward can be worth the risk.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying these developments are bad, they're just different. Comics will never go away. I can't think of many other industries that have such a strong creative backbone. Just think about all those decades of comics, with all those superheroes and all those crazy story lines. It's really hard to come up with something new and interesting when you're creating a comic. The people who write and draw and create comics are shockingly talented. To survive you can't coast, you have to be really good every day.

I sometimes think of my industry like those old 100% Colombian Coffee TV commercials. Do you remember those? The ones that showed Juan Valdez coming down the side of the mountain with the most amazing coffee beans in the world. I think what we do is like that.

In the comics industry we spend a lot of time and trouble coming up with these awesome titles and ideas, and then they get brought down the mountain to the rest of the world. We provide the ideas to a world that is much bigger than just that 22-page comic book. Just look at how big Comic-Con is. It's really not about traditional paper comic books anymore, but all those movies and toys and all the stuff that makes Comic-Con so big and exciting...all that comes from our amazing ideas.

Magnus, Robot Fighter® #2, to be published in September. Cover art by Raymond Swanland.

Chatting with Chris, I could see the parallel between the changes in the comics industry and what's happening in the broader world of entertainment. Old business models are changing. In the future, people may not make money in the same way they did 10 to 20 years ago. Consumers aren't buying comics like they used to, but that doesn't mean that comics are dying. It just means that the comics industry will make money in different ways. The tricky part for everyone across all industries (TV, movies, games, advertising, service provider, technology, etc.) is to realize that how you made money originally may not be the way you make money in the future.

Of course, this is far easier said than done. It's not just about changing your business model; it's about changing how you think of yourself as an industry, a company and even an individual. However, I'm not too worried about the future of entertainment. Like comic books, it's not going away anytime soon and it's full of really smart folks who are good at adapting to change.

My last question was about technology. I wanted to know what Chris saw as the future of comics on all the new gadgets that are coming to market.

CHRIS WARNER: Tablet computers and readers have great potential to make comics widely available. The experience of reading comics on something like an iPad is a pleasing one--something I wouldn't say is true for reading comics on computers or smart phones. As the price of the devices drops and e-comics become broadly available, I think we'll see the audience for comics grow again.

I'm on the plane back from San Diego. My brain is still buzzing from the spectacle. I never thought that there would such strong parallels between comics and a service provider or a TV manufacturer. But it's true. Everyone seems to be facing similar challenges and opportunities. I do have to say that I also never thought I'd be thinking about these types of things standing next to a seven-foot-tall pirate. But that's Comic-Con!

I just found out this morning that we are headed back to New York City for a social media and blogging event where, among other things, I think I'm taking a cooking class. After this week, I've learned not to question anything anymore and just jump in!

 

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The future is Brian David Johnson's business. As a Consumer Experience Architect he develops future products for Intel Corporation, a global microprocessor manufacturer.

Along with reinventing TV, Johnson has been pioneering development in artificial intelligence, robotics, and using science fiction as a design tool.

He speaks and writes extensively about future technologies in articles and scientific papers as well as science fiction short stories and novels (Fake Plastic Love, Nebulous Mechanisms: The Dr. Simon Egerton Stories and the forthcoming This Is Planet Earth). He has directed two feature films and is an illustrator and commissioned painter.