SXSW 2013 Q&A: Calvin Reid

Rachel Lovinger   January 15, 2013


The Breakout: Our next SXSW Q&A is with Calvin Reid (@calreid), a senior news editor at Publishers Weekly. When he started working at PW in 1986, they had almost no coverage of comics. He successfully lobbied the reviews editors and by 1989 they were publishing reviews of graphic novels regularly. Today Calvin is co-editor of PW Comics World (@PWComicsWorld), which covers the graphic novels in the book trade, as well as the conventional comics industry. They review more than 250 graphic novels each year, publish a monthly newsletter and cover a variety of comics conventions and festivals around the country.

It’s an incredible time for comics. Comics storytelling has never enjoyed so much mainstream popularity. Not only do comics provide the source material for blockbuster movies that even my grandmother loves, but people from Tim Gunn to President Obama are making appearances on the pages. And brands like Google and Coke are using comic-style storytelling to reach their audiences better. At the same time, there’s a huge wave of opportunity for independent comics creators, who are now better able to self-publish, self-distribute, and directly reach their readers in ways they never could before.

Calvin spoke to us about his SXSW panel, “Publishing Graphic Novels in the Kickstarter Era,” in which he’ll be joined by cartoonist Karl Stevens (@KarlStevensart) and publisher Josh Frankel (@ZipComics) to explore how crowdfunding has impacted the comics industry.

Scatter/Gather: What’s happening now that’s causing the comics industry to grow in both the mainstream and independent realms simultaneously? Do you think they’re related or independent trends?

Calvin: The growth of comics can be traced to a variety of trends including:

  • the growth of the internet (empowering and connecting fans and artists)
  • the transformation of librarians, who were formerly hostile to the category, but now represent a younger generation that has grown up with the category and see how it impacts circulation, and comics’ ability to teach as well as entertain
  • the influence of manga in the late 1990s, especially providing comics aimed for girls (shojo) and leading to the explosive growth of manga sales in the years 1999 to about 2005, becoming a prime category in the bookstore market
  • the impact of superhero blockbuster films as well as the literary impact of memoirs (Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman for instance) seemed to break comics into a wider world of readers

Indeed I believe that manga, in particular, has been very important because it is a global style of comic and its original market in Japan produces comics for all kinds of readers, not just adolescent boys, as has been the case in the U.S.

I also believe that our coverage of comics at Publishers Weekly has had a powerful effect on the growth of comics—historically a periodical business in the U.S—as a category in the general book trade. Many editors at Big NY houses like Macmillan, Del Rey, HarperCollins, Farrar, Straus & Giroux and others said repeatedly that our reviews and coverage of the nascent category gave them to the support they needed to make acquisitions and even set up whole graphic novel imprints at the big houses.

The launch of Diamond Book Distributors in 2002, with a focus on getting graphic novels in the book market, was a watershed event. And now the growth of digital comics, the popularity of the iPad and digital vendors like Comixology are bringing comics of all kinds to a new generation of readers who are not only interested in superhero comics but treat graphic novels like any other book.

The so-called mainstream/indie split is a bit of an odd ball notion. In the U.S. mainstream comics means superhero (and Marvel and DC Comics). So if you create comics about guys in tights fighting space monsters it’s mainstream; if you write a naturalist love story about two hipsters grappling with life—in the prose world this would be mainstream—you’re “alternative” or marginal or a maverick in some way.

What’s happening is that there’s a market now that’s not ONLY interested in superhero comics but just wants a good book. I like to joke that today we see a huge new market of readers who are curious about reading graphic novels they hear about; they’re just not completely obsessed with comics like the people I know. I’m not knocking superhero comics—superhero comics made me into the comics nut I am today—just that the comics audience has grown and we can also expect that today’s readers, both men and women, want a broader range of genres, from memoir and crime fiction and thoughtful literary work to fantasy and serious nonfiction, as well as superhero comics.

S/G: This renaissance is especially astounding when you consider that, just a few years ago, everyone was predicting the impending demise of the comics industry. Is there anything that other “dying media” can learn from the resilience of the comics world?

Calvin: The comics market has been growing like gangbusters since the late 1980s and by about 2007 it was roughly just under $300 million a year in sales, just on the book format side, a category that almost didn’t exist 10 years before. The book-format comics category (or graphic novels) grew so quickly over the last 15 years it was bound to plateau; plus manga has been plagued by scanlations and digital piracy and its sales have declined.

But the growth of digital and the gradual recovery of the economy over the last year have helped the category, and retailers we spoke with for our annual comics retail feature are very optimistic. All of them said they were having their best year in a while. They mostly point to DC’s New 52, which sent a lot of lapsed superhero fans back into comics shops; independent publisher Image Comics which showed off a bunch of popular new nonsuperhero comics; the Avengers movie (which also sent fans into comics shops) and digital comics and the rise of the iPad, which allowed comics to be easily read on-screen without scrolling or radically changing the size of the comics page. Indeed retailers who, just a year ago, were terrified that digital comics would undermine print sales now say that digital is sending new readers into their shops looking to buy print comics.

I’m not sure other analog media can learn much from this—I think print comics are unique and will always attract readers in ways that prose may not—but really it’s that digital reading also seems to make fans interested in well-done print products as well. You kind of can have your comics cake and eat it too. Even manga looks to be on the rebound as manga publishers move to more simultaneous releases (worldwide release in both Japanese and English) in digital editions, with reasonable prices, to fight back at piracy.

S/G: What are some of the more interesting independent comics projects you’ve seen succeed, that probably couldn’t have happened before the “Kickstarter era”?

Calvin: I don’t know if these projects couldn’t have been done without Kickstarter, but the crowdsourcing option has certainly given artists and publishers a new set of tools to raise funds for projects that would have been difficult to fund. There are so many now it’s hard to know where to start. Books like Sullivan’s Sluggers, a supernatural baseball tale, raised $97,000; the Womanthology comics anthology raised $109,000 and the astounding success of Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick campaign that raised $1.2 million (!) to fund a reprint of the back issues of his book collections. There are many more.

S/G: What are you looking forward to seeing at SXSW?

Calvin: You know, I haven’t looked over the programming completely so it’s hard to say specifically what I plan to see at SXSW. But SXSW blows me away each year (this is the third time PW has attended). So much of the new technology seems to have either obvious or subtle ways for the people to connect and that’s kind of what publishing these days is all about—using technology to connect people and then watching them use it to transfer some kind of information. So, as always, that’s what I expect to find at SXSW: new ways of people connecting and communicating using technology.


Explore the rest of the SXSW 2013 Q&A Series.

Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by
Badge – by Jeremy Keith
Microphone – by Hidde de Vries
Robot – by Jason Yovanoff
Breakfast taco – by Aaron Parecki



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