Thursday, April 16, 2020

On Saving Comics

There is a lot of speculation as to whether or not the comic book industry will survive The Lockdown.  Diamond and most publishing companies have closed for safety, as have most retailers.  Like many other businesses, no one is sure when (or if) they will reopen.

Moving to digital is an option but it will take time for large companies to make that transition, and many customers (including this one) still prefer physical product.  The impact this Lockdown has on retailers and distributor(s) could render the traditional comic book industry defunct, at least for a while.

But, this is just the industry's latest hurdle.

The problem with many comic books today is that they are hollow; they -- their characters, their stories, their overall content -- lack emotional resonance.

Now, this is not a matter of Art vs. Commerce; this is a matter of connecting with the reader, establishing Suspension of Disbelief, and creating return customers which develops a solid customer base.  Comic books have struggled to do all of these things in recent decades for several reasons that have absolutely everything to do with Art vs. Commerce.

Many argue that there is simply too much competition from other forms of entertainment, including video games, TV, and movies, and the comics industry cannot afford to pay talent as well as companies in those fields.  A lack of interactivity is also often mentioned, as is the alleged proliferation of online piracy.  Some of these arguments have merit, but all of them miss the larger point of emotional resonance.

Comics companies have focused on branding, both in terms of individual titles and characters (properties) and in terms of overall company (Marvel, DC, et. al.), to the detriment of elements that actually attract and retain readers: Character, story, suspension of disbelief, a sense of continuity, dynamic art, and the other creative aspects of the medium and, specifically, the superhero genre.

The most glaring examples of this have been the pandering to the LCD we have seen with political points being made through changes to long-standing characters, titles, and properties.  Termed "virtue signaling," these sales gimmicks angered paying customers and failed to attract new readers.  Marvel's full-throated embrace of this practice and subsequent bankruptcy illustrates the point.

Putting a random lesbian of color in Spider-Man's costume is not just lazy pandering, it's a slap in the face to both dedicated and casual readers.  For 40+ years, I've been able to pick up a Spider-Man issue and jump right in: I'm familiar with the titular character and his personal issues and professional life, both in and out of costume, as well as the supporting cast, rogues' gallery, and the general history established over the decades of the titles' run.

It has nothing to do with relating to Peter Parker because he's white, or male, or straight, anymore than it has to do with the fact that he's a perpetually 20-something divorcee (or not?), or photojournalist.  Nor does it have anything to do with nostalgia or even a political stance -- aside from feeling betrayed by the company and creators involved.

It's clearly a sales gimmick which not only signals to me that Marvel does not value my financial support, but that it doesn't value my emotional investment -- both of which are important to me.  It clearly states that the company is more interested in attracting a customer base with which I have nothing in common than it is in preserving the continuity of their "properties." 

It clearly shows a lack of emotional investment on Marvel's part in character, story, continuity and history, customer appreciation, and more -- again, all of which are part and parcel of why I have supported the company throughout the years, as a dedicated subscriber to some titles and casual reader of others.

I have no entry-point to that character, which has no relevance to me, no connection to the title (property), no place in its history (including supporting cast, larger world, et. al.), and offends me on basic principle.  It's a political stunt I literally can't afford at $4.99 a pop!

Comic books held a specific place in the pop-culture market which has come under attack by special interest groups in recent years.  The industry's response has compounded this issue.  As much as I never want to argue over Wolverine's first (technical) appearance, Kirk vs. Picard, or 1st-Ed. vs. 2nd-Ed. ever again, fanboys were the gatekeepers of a dedicated and passionate community we've lost to Hollywood profiteers and strippers in cosplay outfits.

Price-point is another impediment.  I would happily pay half the going rate of a slick for a newsprint rag -- which, again, has nothing to do with nostalgia.  And, given that potential customers can get an entire month of Hulu or Disney+ for the price of a single newsstand issue, it's hardly rocket surgery as to why the current price-point has failed to attract new readers.  Which, again, has nothing to do with piracy or the back issue market.

Virtue signaling is far from the only sales gimmick the industry has relied on in recent years: Constantly rebooting long-running titles (#1 Collector's Item!); massive, multi-title crossover events; an endless string of forgettable one-shots and mini-series featuring popular properties; celebrity "creators" (who are not famous for their work in sequential art, nor writing, nor to me); 2423479847 variant covers; under-printing runs to force multiple printings of issues; and more, have all lead to a general disenfranchisement of the existing customer base.

The intentional devaluing of the back issue market further disenfranchised long-time fans by eliminating the collectibles aspect of the hobby.

Saving the comic book industry requires the publishers to entirely reconfigure their mindset and approach to the product and the properties featured.  Value our readership by rewarding it with quality content written, illustrated, and guided by talented creators.

  • Lower the price-point.
  • Attract better talent by eliminating WFH policies and offering a stake in the success of the title, as well as a possible stake in the continuation of their contributions should they become canon (e.g., Miller's contributions to Daredevil, Simonson's Thor, et. al.).
  • Better integrate studio to studio promotion and cross-participation, allowing creators to work on motion pictures, video games, boardgames and roleplaying games, and TV, as well as comics.
  • Approach comics as collectibles, not periodicals.
  • Loosen restrictions on properties to allow for greater creator contributions.  I've never known the Big Two to fear ret-cons, so why hold branding sacrosanct?
  •  I don't care what politicians think about comic books; I don't want to be pummeled by your mainstream, third-grade reading level, partisan politics.  I already know that Nazis are Bad and Good Things are Good, and I worry that you are attracting fans to the community who do not.
  • Capitalize on digital comics as a form: You can include movement, sound, and animation; create multiple endings for the reader to choose; connect them to dedicated forums that replace letters pages; and more.  Ensure that (print) subscribers have access to these functions and products, and provide incentives for digital subscribers to add the print title to their order.
How these things can be accomplished I cannot say, but these are the real problems I see with the comic book industry as a reader, fan, collector, creator, and contributor.  All of these points provide incentives to new and existing customers, promote that sense of community we've lost, and provide jobs for numerous people in a multitude of fields (writing, penciling, inking, computer technical and IT, lettering, coloring, printing, et. al.).

Maybe I'll be able to offer more guidance in future posts, but (aside from the fact that the industry relied solely on Diamond for distribution -- the entire point of anti-trust laws) comic books have simply failed to engage readers emotionally in recent decades.

There are many reasons for this, and all of them should be addressed to strengthen the industry, but respecting the audience begins by respecting our dedication to the medium and the properties/brands (characters, titles, and companies' "universes") featured.  Ditch the sales gimmicks and political stunts and focus on telling exciting, dynamic, and emotionally engaging stories featuring interesting characters presented by talented creators.

As with my politics of putting We, The People, above our leaders and the various organizations that prey upon us, the "radical" concept of focusing on the Art in a creative field is generally derided by claims of, "It's a business."  I think everyone is acutely aware of this, now more than ever.

I actually have very solid reasons for my beliefs, which have been formed both by vision and process over the course of many years, and my approach leads to a stronger, more successful, business model.  Every other approach has failed, and did so predictably.

Full stop.

© The Weirding, 2020

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