Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Everything About Superhero Comics is Wrong - Part 1

As I've transitioned from weekly comic shop junkie who picked up way over his allotted budget in comics every month, who read every article on five comics websites every day, to: guy who stops by the comic shop once a month and is mostly picking up Superman, Daredevil and the occasional other book...  I've been thinking a lot about the American Comic Industry.

The summer movie The Avengers made more money than the GDP of many nations last year*, comic conventions fill 100,000 attendee halls in single cities, and, of all things, Pepper Potts is now a popular character in the zeitgeist.

Most comics sell a few thousand copies per month.  So I'm going to say a few things that are patently obvious, but need to be said.

If you've followed this blog for any amount of time, you've heard these sentiments before, but I figured one last, grand parting shot couldn't hurt.

Appealing to adults was woefully misunderstood

When Time Magazine and other arbiters of the zeitgeist were saying things like Watchmen read as, finally, a comic for adults, they weren't talking about boobs and blood.  They were talking about a rich, layered story with characters that had motivations, flaws that couldn't be sorted out with a magic crystal, and who behaved in ways that felt true to experience outside of a comic-book universe.

somehow Dan Didio thought this should lead to his version of "Suicide Squad"

Looking at the DC Comics of today (and, to a large extent, the Marvel of today), you don't see material for anyone under the age of 13 or 14 on the stands, and you don't see material that would appeal to anyone over the age of 30 who didn't already know their DC Comics and wanted to see what was going on.  The opportunity for writers and artists to take the medium of comics to new levels of maturity and play with the medium was hamstrung by the desire to make the comics "edgy".  Blood.  Bullets.  Boobs.  Those things became a means unto themselves rather than tools of the story that had no boundaries.  And that was going to happen.   It's an inevitability when you consider how hard you're going to find the challenge of writing the next Watchmen.

It's never on record, but I suspect that at some point, as comics began shedding the Comics Code Authority and pointing their wares at older readers, they also knew they'd have to get away from children - their primary audience of the past 50-odd years.  In the era of the PMRC, you really didn't need Tipper Gore deciding to make a federal case out of what Starfire and Robin were up to in the lofts of Titans Tower or trying to make sense of the sexuality in Swamp Thing.

The most damning indictment, really, is that we're creeping up on 30 years since Watchmen, and neither DC nor Marvel have generated a true contender to replace Moore and Gibbon's work as the superhero comic story for people who read novels.  In an industry that's really only 75 years old and which should be growing and expanding how it thinks of itself, the lack of vision, imagination and ability to relate to how complex media outside superhero comics seems to have never truly taken hold, making Watchmen and other satires of the 80's an anomaly rather than a predictor of the possibilities of the medium.

The Direct Market was an idiotic model for a mass medium

I know that comics pulled out of drug stores and newsstands because the price of returns was challenging to publishers, but retreating to stores that, in many people's eyes are - at best - a specialty shop, and - at worst - barely a step above places with "Adult News" as part of their signage, more or less meant that you were limiting your audience to people "in the club".

Comic Book Guy came from a place.  I'm just saying.

It took both comic shops learning to clean themselves up a bit (or go out of business) in the 00's, and the internet's culture of both findability and niche exclusivity as a commodity to make the idea of intentionally seeking out comics in an out of the way strip mall a desirable thing.  Luckily, these things happened.  But it's hard to ignore what the sales would have been like had comics followed Poke-e-Mon and collectible cars to that weird aisle in every Target store and Wal-Mart in the country.

Comics lost a generation or two of readers as comics were no longer accessible on the rack at the drug store, where they'd been as an American institution since Superman first hoisted a green sedan aloft.  You just couldn't get comics anymore without a lot of work, and that made comics a niche market for obsessives.  It made it impossible for kids walking down the aisle to get bored and pick up a copy of Spider-Man or Quasar or whatever the hell kids picked up.  

I'm just saying: kids don't impulse drive to a sketchy strip mall and impulse commit to a 6 issue run by authors famous in no other medium and become the next generation of readers.

But by retreating to those shops, you lost the chance for new or innovative forms of distribution, new formats that could have found homes on magazine racks, newsstands and in book stores.

Sure, the internet has changed all that, but it hasn't changed the decades of retreat into comic shops and the culture that built up around the Weekly Wednesday shopping spree.  It appealed to hoarding more than reading.  It asked readers to stay online, every day, to keep up with - and, in many cases, understand what the hell was happening with their comic of choice.  The Direct Market provided new and innovative barriers on a routine basis, not the least of which was to create a culture online and in person where "common knowledge" was thrown around to deleterious effect upon the very properties that the comic shops were supposed to be selling.  Hell, we're just NOW climbing out from under decades of Superman being considered the nerdiest thing you can read in superhero comics - meanwhile, the public always still kind of liked the idea of Superman and found the character the icon of comic books.  Something got severely broken there.

You Never Should Have Abandoned Kids

You know what makes a whole ton of money and has far, far greater reach than your direct market comic shops?  Grocery stores, department stores, box stores, and specialty toy stores.  And all of them carry various Spider-Man, Batman and Avengers toys.  All of them.  Why?  Because parents and kids like those things.

Both parents and kids want to buy Spider-Man toys, and, I'm betting, they wanted to keep buying Spider-Man comics.

Marvel and DC have tried to market and sell kids' comics, including DC's current ham-handed "DC Fan Family" web presence that's buried in their tool bar and features images of properties that have been canceled, discontinued and are otherwise not only not particularly fresh, but somewhat unavailable.  As of this writing their DC Kids' Comic of the week is an issue of Green Lantern the Animated Series comic. From January 9th.  That makes my head hurt.

There are pictures of merchandise bearing the image of DC Comics' properties, and a plug for the 11th issue of Superman Family Adventures, which is cancelled starting next month, and if you didn't know what the state of DC Comics' was...  likely you'd get a shnookered in.  But...  there's just not much there there.  And it's a shame.

DC and Marvel didn't need to abandon the youth market, but they ran the numbers and did it.  They didn't work to find ways 20 years ago to keep kids around, and now the efforts intended for children are inconsistent, arrive in every form of media but comics, and tend to skew toward the very young kids, suggesting the characters are for an infantile audience instead of an all-ages audience.  It's just... weird.  Because it's not what got DC to last for 75 years as a publisher of superhero comics and Marvel for three decades until they also gave up in the 90's.

I tried to climb my dresser in my Spidey costume

That's not to say you didn't have the right to explore the characters or concepts for an older audience.  Obviously that's what kept me on the line as long as it did - but it also didn't manage to keep on many of the pals with whom I swapped comics in grade school.  In choosing to retreat to Direct Market shops, trying to sell comics to children who may or may not be there is a bit like trying to sell big wheels at a strip club.  Sure, you might move a few, but that's not really why your audience is here.

That adult collector market had certain expectations of quality of things like raw materials as they got older, and costs went up to reflect that change.  Kids don't really care about things like paper quality and some of the other minor things that have caused the cost of comics to go up as adult collectors began looking for glossy paper, saturation of ink, etc...  And you still see that understanding reflected in the comics produced for kids (which bag and board as easily as anything else, collectors).

these stupid kids never even read "Death of the Family"

Now, I don't think your Joe Quesadas and Dan Didios have the slightest clue how to appeal to the youth market, but I'm pretty sure someone could have made a true effort work.  And, by the way, I do have anecdotal evidence that comics aimed at kids such as Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade that weren't top sellers in comic shops did really well as collections out there in the world.  But, the pipeline for creating those books might have started at the wrong point - back in comics editorial.

At the end of the day, it's still kids who want to pull on capes and masks from the discount store, and for every one CosPlay kid at your local Con, you're going to have a whole lot more kids who would haven't thought twice about grabbing a comic off the rack.

To me, it just looks like money left on the table.  In short - there could have been as many versions of Bat-comics as there could have been of Bat movies, TV shows, bed-throws, etc...


*not an actual fact

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