Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Comics and Taking Chances

Recently, in a comics-related Facebook group I participate in, there was a discussion about Marvel and DC not taking chances or risks with their publications. This sparked a fairly long discussion where many people listed things they believed were examples of risk-taking, both current, such as DC's New 52, and past, Watchmen being named. I wanted to post several comments, but much of the conversation had gone by before I read any of it. The more I read, the more thoughts and ideas on the topic I had, more than there would have been room for on the thread.

Hence this blog entry.

It seemed to me that the entire conversation had a narrow focus that only applied to already established comics fans. I also realize that I disagree with many of the things that were stated in the discussion. I don't want to single any of my friends out in a “NO, You're Wrong!” kind of way. This is a big topic and there are lots of ways of looking at it. So, I apologize if it seems like I'm bashing anything anyone said. These are my thoughts and I welcome discussion on the topic.

I think, at the heart of this discussion, is the age-old question all diehard comics fans ask; How can we get more people to read comics? We love them so much, why can't other people? What can we do, as individual fans and as an industry, to turn more people on to the medium we love?

One of the answers is the belief that if the companies took more risks they would attract more readers. While I agree with this in principle there is a problem with the definition of what “more risks” actually means.

DC's New 52 was a risk, and in the short term it has paid off, for DC and for comics retailers (and for some fans, depending on who you talk to). But, it was a risk within the bounds of the established comics fan base. The real risk was alienating already established fans. As someone who spends a lot of time on the retail side of the comics counter, what I've seen is renewed interest on the part of lapsed fans. Some old faces have come back. Sales have been good, but only to people who already read, or have read, comics. I have not seen hordes of uninitiated new readers storming the castle for the new issue of Ravagers. Or Batman for that matter. The convoluted and overlapping continuities still prevent new readers from embracing comics.

The introduction of gay characters, whether it is the Golden Age Green Lantern or a continuation of the Northstar storyline are not risk-taking moves. There have been prominent gay characters for years. I recently read an article in an issue of Amazing Heroes from 1987 that focused on gay characters in comics. This has been true at both Marvel and DC for a long time, but even more so in independent books. A significant portion of the entire cast of Love & Rockets have engaged in various alternative sexualities for three decades now. But that's not news, because outside of comics no one knows what Love & Rockets is. For that matter, lots of people within comics have never read it to know how naturally the topic has been part of that series since the beginning (and that's part of this whole issue I'm going to come back to). Gay characters are showing up in the news right now because it is part of our national conversation, and while I'm all for diversity, I don't see this as particularly risky. It will attract attention for a day or so, a few extra people will buy the comics because of the press, most in the mistaken belief that “someday this will be worth something!” and then never come back. It doesn't produce new, regular readers.

Before Watchmen is not a risk-taking venture, nor does it speak to new readers. The whole Alan Moore/creator's rights issue aside, this project only speaks to established fans. It is capitalizing on an old, successful product and capitalizing on the controversy this will stir within the comics industry. Yes, we sold a ton of copies of the Watchmen TP when the movie came out. That was because it was a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end for $19.99. I can probably count the number of regular, returning readers this produced on one hand. A very small percentage of people who saw the movie and bought the TP will even know Before Watchmen exists, and even if they are interested it will cost them $135.66 (plus tax in some states), to read the whole thing. How many casual fans of the movie do you think are going to shell that out?

Which leads me to the mistaken belief that the success of comic book characters on the big screen translates into increased sales at the retail level. With rare exceptions, they don't. Watchmen did, for the reasons stated above. Scott Pilgrim did for pretty much the same reasons. But, given the enormous success of The Avengers movie, those hordes of new customers aren't showing up looking for comics. I'm not sure what I would show them if they did. None of the current Avengers books resemble the movie. They are all part of ongoing, convoluted continuities that are difficult for the long-term reader to follow, let alone a newcomer. What Avengers graphic novel would you recommend to a new reader who loved the movie? Try to keep in mind that this person doesn't have the background you do. I love Avengers Forever, but it would be incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Even when someone new has an interest there are very few good jumping on places for them. Their first attempt at reading comics makes them feel stupid and like an outsider to an exclusive club. They are unlikely to come back.

And that's one of the main problems with Marvel and DC. They continue to write stories that are aimed at a small and ever-dwindling fan base. Their stories are so intertextual and dependent on prior knowledge as to be impenetrable to new readers. The only risk-taking that takes place is changes to characters only a few people care about in the first place. This doesn't target new readers.

Which, after a lot of rambling, brings me to the main point of this article. What do we mean when we say we want more people to read comics? Do we, as readers and consumers, love comics? Or do we love superheroes? I ask this as someone who loves both. In my experience, the vast majority of people out there in the wider world, the people who consider themselves to be readers, those who buy books, the people we as an industry should be courting, simply don't give a shit about superheroes, Marvel or DC. It's harsh to say that about something we all love, but it's the truth. Oh, they'll go see the movies and enjoy them, but one look at a superhero, with the capes and tights and all of the other tropes we all accept as part of the genre, and they will dismiss it. It has been true for a long time that most people see the superhero as parody, and simply can't take it seriously as a genre. Whether it's true or not is immaterial. On any given day you can see superhero parodies on TV and billboards and magazines, advertising plumbing and pizza and anything else you can think of. Our culture does not take the superhero seriously, even though we believe it should. I say all of this as a fan of the genre who believes there are great superhero stories out there and that there can be more. But if potential readers, many of whom already have a negative connotation to the subject, are only exposed to Marvel and DC continuity they are never going to become regular readers of comics. As long as comics as a whole are perceived to be nothing but superheroes then we still have a long uphill battle ahead of us.

The problem with Marvel and DC is that they don't think of themselves as major publishers. They are owned and backed by Disney and Warner Brothers respectively, with huge budgets and fingers in multinational publishing interests. But Marvel and DC continue to create content like they were a small press fanzine aimed at a loyal but miniscule market. They simply don't entertain the idea of publishing anything that isn't part of their respective universes (Vertigo, and to a lesser extent Icon, excepted).

Neither of them would have published Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead, because it wasn't part of their universe. If they did (under Vertigo, at best), they probably wouldn't have offered the same kind of rights Image did. Walking Dead is obviously a major success. We regularly sell more copies of the individual issues of it than we do of a huge number of Marvel or DC books. The sales of TP collections go beyond that. Walking Dead isn't even that far removed from the kinds of genres traditionally dealt with in comics, but probably still not something they would have taken a chance on. This is a failure of imagination and foresight on the part of the Big Two.

Imagine if you will, a major book publisher, Random House or Penguin Putnam for example, in an effort to combat dwindling sales and woo new readers, decided to only publish Westerns. There is a small but loyal audience, after all. Now imagine that they decide to make all of their new Western books inter-related and ask their authors to do crossovers and continuing stories so that readers can't get an actual complete story without reading several or all of the books in the line. It's an absurd thought and one that is obviously doomed to failure, but that's the exact model Marvel and DC use.

And we wonder why more people don't read comics.

To truly be risk-takers Marvel and DC need to start thinking of themselves as actual, major, mainstream publishers. They need to offer complete graphic novels of a wide variety of genres that can appeal to as wide a demographic as possible. They then need to put the power of their corporate backers into advertising these books at the same level they market everything else. Ads in Entertainment Weekly, on TV, wherever. They need to launch a campaign that lets people know that comics aren't what everyone assumes they are.

Smaller publishers are already doing this, but they don't have the financial clout to make much of an impact. I was thrilled to see Ed Piskor's upcoming graphic novel Wizzywig be part of a two-page spread in Rolling Stone, being spoken of in the same vein as upcoming novels and music. Ed has produced a comic that appeals to a demographic no other comic has approached, and as a result he is finding an audience that goes way outside the usual comics consumer. Books like his will do more to reach out to new readers and new comics fans than all the crossover events and gay superheroes put together. But there needs to be more content available to keep these potential new readers. Will the fans of Wizzywig become fans of the superhero genre? Probably not. So? Do we love comics, or do we love superheroes?

The Big Two need to launch publishing branches where they can be known for publishing comics that appeal to a wider audience: different genres, different creators with different storytelling and art styles. That would be an actual risk on their part, that handled correctly would produce huge dividends, not only financially but for the art form.

But we, as fans, can't expect them to take risks if we're not willing to. When was the last time any of you, those of you who believe you are fans of comics, taken a risk at reading anything other than the comics you already read? Yes, I'm calling you out. Don't get me wrong... as a reader, of comics and books, not everything is going to appeal to you. There are genres that simply aren't my thing, no matter how well-reviewed or written something is. That's okay. But if we want Comics with a capital C, Comics as a storytelling medium, to thrive, we have to support the idea that comics can be more than what Marvel and DC offer. Writer Jeff Lemire is receiving tons of accolades for his new Animal Man series in the New 52 for very good reasons. If you like that book, have you tried his Vertigo book Sweet Tooth? Have you read Essex County, (his best work in my opinion)? Do you even know what Essex County is? Have you looked at Craig Thompson's Habibi, probably the best single graphic novel of 2011 in terms of story, art and taking full advantage of comics as a storytelling medium? How about Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw, for all the same reasons in 2009? Are you going to be interested in what Ed Piskor is doing in Wizzywig when we have him in the store to do a signing, or are you going to pass it by because it doesn't have Wolverine in it?

I'm not even trying to say you should read all of this, or that given your specific tastes that you would like it if you did. But we will never answer the question of why more people don't read comics until we are able to address exactly what we mean by that. I've stated my reasons why I think the potential audience for comics, those people out there who are voracious readers but don't care for superheroes, don't take us seriously. So, when you're talking to your friends who don't read comics, what are you prepared to recommend? Stuff they will never have an interest in, no matter how good we fans think it is, or a graphic novel more in line with their particular tastes.

Marvel and DC need to take more risks, no question there. So do readers.


  1. You're spot on with this one Wayne...

  2. Wayne,

    Thank you so much for this important and timely piece. I totally agree that these companies are catering to a dwindling fan base. As a youngish female comics fan I can say that superheroes never spoke to me. I find the genre cliched and honestly kind of lame.

    I think that comic books should be moving away from convoluted plots over hundreds of issues and towards single volumes that tell compelling and unique stories. I don't know anyone who wants to be a "collector" anymore and people would rather have a small curated bookshelf of volumes. It is the same with regular books, you only want to own the best.

    When I think of great volumes I have read this year, Habibi, Tina's Mouth, Leviathan, and Sweet Tooth definitely stand out as amazing stories worthy of discussion with a friend. I have never ever got a friend hooked on comics by offering them an issue of X-men. I have, however, lured people in by offering them Jason Lute's "Berlin" or Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home".

  3. It is my most fervent hope that this specific discussion finds its way into the hallowed halls of DC and MARVEL, and even farther up their respective corporate chains to Warner Communications and Disney. I don't just agree with everything that was written here, I think it does just what you intended: opens up the door to a larger discussion about the future of comics as an industry and an art form.

    Like you, I have enormous fondness for the super-hero genre, and believe there is still life to be discovered beneath the masks and capes, but have long since felt stifled by the marketplace limitations. For years, the catch-22 of comic-book publishing has been that (mostly) DC and MARVEL don't publish much non-super-hero content because they don't see a profitable audience for it...yet you'll never have a profitable audience for it until you cultivate it by publishing toward them.

    Once the door is opened wider, another area for discussion is compensation for creators. In literary publishing (and as WE know, comics ARE literature, even if they aren't generally viewed as such), a writer isn't necessarily expected to sign over their rights to a work wholesale to get it published. Superheroes have been very profitable for DC and MARVEL because, frankly, they own all of the rights to all of that content. To change that model changes their profit margin, and they maybe find that scary.

    I'm also glad you touched on the culpability of comic-book readers (of which I am certainly one) in hindering the growth of the medium. It is definitely possible to love a thing to death, but hopefully we can stop being over-protective parents and allow our favored medium to fly beyond the nest. Imagine how superheroes might thrive if the host medium's restrictions were removed across the board.

    It's all conjecture, but I'm glad this discussion has been started, and the door is open for healthy talk, if only a crack. Let's see if someone in a position to effect some change is willing to grow this discussion into an actual dialogue between publishers, existing readers, and a potential broader audience.

    Great job, Wayne!

  4. Wayne you both convicted and enlighten me. I'm going to pick a non-big two book to subscribe to soon. Real Talk/

  5. I've been trying to think of something good to say in reply but now that Shawn and I podcasted about it, I feel like I kinda blew my wad on the topic!!!