Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lessons From The Newspaper Industry

Newspapers are dying. Not exactly a revelation for you, I know, but let's be upfront about this. Hindsight is 20/20, but here's where they missed the boat...

It's a typical ad for The New York Times, but pay attention to that bit where they try to play up the snobbery angle, where they start talking about "fluency" in various sections. That's very telling because it's an admission that the vast majority of people are NOT going to read the entire paper. They're going to pull out the sections that interest them, and discard the rest. That means that the newspaper is not catering to what they want to read about. Sure, you might be interested in the Travel and Business sections, but the Sunday Style gets cast aside without even being glanced at. That's a waste at every level -- it's a waste of paper and ink, it's a waste of the reader's time, it's a waste of the reader's money (after all, they're still paying for the WHOLE paper, even if they only read one section), it's a waste of the delivery person's energy to carry the extra weight... Why put everyone through that mess when there are plenty of news aggregators online that can deliver exactly what the reader wants?

What newspapers needed to realize was that they were NOT in the business of peddling newspapers, but that of aggregating news. After all, many articles in many papers are pulled from sources OUTSIDE the confines of that one newspapers' offices! Newspapers needed to have come up with an online portal of some kind. They realize that now and that's why they got pissed at Google -- Google did what they should have done!

The recording industry ran into the same issue, but Steve Jobs had the foresight to see what needed to be done and created iTunes -- it's essentially an online portal for music. The record store model, where any individual album title has (unless it's new and popular) a slim chance of being in stock, and where it's not particularly conducive to sampling music before buying. (That has changed somewhat in some larger stores, but only AFTER iTunes.) Jobs understood the problems with the music purchasing experience and developed an entirely new method of delivery.

Similarly, Netflix is blowing the doors off Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. Of course, Netflix will find itself under fire soon, once online bandwidth becomes sufficient to deliver high quality movies on demand.

So what can the comics industry learn from these other folks?

Well, let me back up a step by saying first that Marvel -- as a corporation -- figured this out around 1999/2000. Since that time, they've been a company that sells "character-based entertainment." They are in the business of selling Spider-Man, regardless of whether that's in the form of a comic book, a movie, a TV cartoon, an action figure, a lunch box or a t-shirt. Their web site reflects this with a great deal of screen real estate devoted to movies and DVDs and such. A quick look at their annual report quantitatively confirms that their entirety of their publishing arm constitutes less than 20% of their annual revenue. Despite their origins, Marvel is selling a consumer's interaction with characters (not necessarily the comics they appear in) and doing a fair job of it.

Time-Warner, I think, gets this too. Hence, Watchmen (the movie) and the Wonder Woman cartoon and t-shirts with Superman's stylized "S" on them.

But who doesn't get it, it seems to me, are the comic book publishers. Yes, including the publishing arms of Marvel and DC. These folks are putting together comics and graphic novels under the same operating strategies as were being used 50 years ago. The specifics of production have changed (digital coloring, electronic file transfers, etc.) but the basic mindset is the same: to put together a series of comic pages stapled together for a large audience. But that is NOT what they are selling. Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, IDW, Boom! Studios, Viz... any of them!

Let me throw out another industry to illustrate my point: fast food. Watch their commercials. Look at their billboards. Are they selling you hamburgers and sodas? No, they're selling you fun and convenience and thriftiness. If you just want a hamburger, you have hundreds of options before you, most of which are better than McDonald's. But going to McDonald's (or Burger King or wherever) is a choice of lifestyle! That says something about you, and validates whatever self-image you have. "Sell the sizzle, not the steak." Keep an eye on those fast food ads, and pay attention to what they're REALLY selling.

Comics are, like many media, licenses into the imaginations of their creators. Books, TV, movies, video games, etc. all serve that same function. Movies have been working the "immersion" aspect of that with a increasing preponderance of 3-D and IMAX films. Video games have the "interactive" portion of the market down. But comics have not (from what I've seen) really embraced what makes them stand out; they haven't figured out what to sell. They're still selling (largely) the adventure/imagination, which other forms of media do about equally well. There's no reason for me to pick up a comic over a DVD.

To be fair, comics USED to have the limitless imagination angle locked down. Comics were incredible because you could depict an entire fleet of alien spaceships for no more cost than depicting the main hero. Take a look at any science fiction movie from the 1950s, and it's easy to see that as much imagination was required by the viewers as the creators! But with computer wizardry, that's become a non-issue. Things have become so cheap that there are fairly believable alien invasions that can show up on TV shows regularly. But comics haven't really found themselves since they had to forgo that battle.

Circling back around to newspapers, I think the lesson comic publishers should take from them is: sell what your are, not what you used to be. Newspapers haven't been selling what they are for years now, and the result is that they've become irrelevant. Comic publishers are facing the same dilemma, just a few years behind the newspapers. The publishers can't just keep trying to sell their characters because their parent companies are selling them, and doing a much better job of it. Compare the number of people who saw Superman Returns to the number of people who read Action Comics. If you want to see Wolverine in action, there are any number of engaging venues to see him which don't come anywhere near a comic book!

I like comics for a number of different reasons. I like that it's a very visual medium, BUT still provides a singularity of vision that you can't find in other mass media. (Read as: it doesn't take many people to create a comic, so the story is much closer to what's in the creators' heads than a movie or TV show.) I like the craft of comic book storytelling. I like the wide variety of interpretive styles that can be present, and how those styles impact the story. I like that, even if done only moderately well, comics can transcend language barriers. I like that comics are a singular and personal experience. These are selling points for me.

BUT, I don't know that they're selling points for most people.

In fact, the only thing I can think of that might be a selling point for most people is a connection with the creator(s). "Buy this comic because it was written by Neil Gaiman!" Comics do do that to a degree already, though, so I don't know that it's really a solid selling point going forward into the 21st century.

What should publishers be selling? I don't have a solid answer to that. In fact, I half suspect that there's a different answer for each publisher. But I do know that they should NOT be selling 32-page pamphlets; that's just the steak, not the sizzle.

New Comic Shop Opens

West-coast-based The Stranger reports on the recent opening of Ballard's Arcane Comics in Seattle. Technically, it's the second store owned/operated by Scott Stafford and Keaver Bronson, but still, any new comic store opening in this market is news.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Atomic Robo, Vol. 3

A couple weeks ago, I found myself outlining the basic plot of an episode of Doctor Who ("Gridlock") to the S.O. She started asking questions about it. "Why did they do that?" "What happened with this?" They were smart questions and ones that I couldn't answer. They were aspects of the story that were glossed over by the writers, and really didn't have solid explanations behind them. (To be fair to the writers, though, they weren't exactly major plot points either.) But it reminded me why I enjoy the show.

I grew up watching Tom Baker and Peter Davison Dr. Who episodes on my local PBS station. The special effects paled in comparison to the stuff I'd already seen in Star Wars and the plots weren't always the most cohesive. But it was the unmitigated brilliance and charm of the Doctor's character that drew me to the show.

It's on display again in the recent Easter special. A cat burglar steals the Cup of Athelstan right out from under several guards noses and hops on a bus to escape. While she's planning her next move, our titular hero pops in and happily introduces himself to the stranger, chatting and sharing a chocolate egg as if they'd known each other for years. Doctor Who, when it's done well, is filled with so much character that you can't help but become engaged with it.

At this point, you're thinking, "What the heck is he talking about Doctor Who for? The title of the post led me to believe that he was going to talk about the new installment of Atomic Robo that comes out today."

This volume of Atomic Robo starts a little differently than previous ones. Rather than battling giant insects or Nazis or whomever, Robo spends the entire issue sitting at home. He is interrupted by two gentlemen at the front door looking for Nik Tesla (the issue takes place in 1926, so he's not dead yet) and one of them, a man by the name of Charles Fort, spends much of the issue chatting with Robo. No explosions, no death rays, no chase scenes, just dialogue and exposition. But, like Doctor Who, the characters are such... well, characters that the story is still extremely engaging and enjoyable, and I was quite surprised when I got to the end of the issue that 20-some pages had just breezed by.

Also, somewhat like Doctor Who Robo encounters here celebrities of years past. Charles Fort I've already noted, but his companion is none other than Howard Lovecraft. We last encountered the two of them working together with Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Necronauts. Although Necronauts takes place several months after this story and really has no evident similarities other than Fort and Lovecraft appearing as characters. Indeed, the events in Necronauts are what supposedly drive Lovecraft to write his Cthulhu stories, but here we see his influences already on display.

I like what writer Brian Clevinger has been doing with Robo. I like that each of the volumes so far has had the same overall feel, but showing a slightly different take on the main character. Here, Robo is MUCH younger and clearly shows a different temperament than in previous stories. Although this is easily attributable to his radical differences in age/life experiences, I might point out (keeping with my theme) that it's also a bond he shares with the Doctor, whose personality takes on somewhat different characteristics depending on who is acting in the role.

I've made no qualms about the fact that I've really been enjoying Atomic Robo and have been looking forward to this latest volume. I'm certain that all existing fans are also eager to get a hold of this latest issue. If you're not yet a fan, I'm not sure what I could say to convince you that it's a great read other than, "READ THIS BOOK!" It's really fun and charming and entertaining and everything I look for in my entertainment. I know the economy makes trying new books harder for many of you, but the multiple volumes make plenty of great jumping-on points (this latest issue being one of them) and it is head-and-shoulders one of the consistently better comics I've read in years.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Shadow Hare and RLSHs

Cincinnati can now claim we have our very own, real-life superhero. The Shadow Hare was introduced to much of the area courtesy of the local NBC affiliate last night. There's more direct information about him on his MySpace page.

You know, I've heard of other Real-Life Superheroes but I never gave much thought to them because I figured it was a small fad that would come and go quickly. Evidently not.

I've been struggling with this most of the day actually. On the one hand, I'll give them credit for trying to make a difference and for having the chutzpah to go out on crime patrols. On the other hand, isn't that kind of... I don't know... bat-shit crazy? Now I can kind of see if they were really well-trained and in great physical shape. Maybe they don't need to be a black belt in aikido to scare off a thug, but I should think some basic martial arts or boxing or something would be in order. And maybe I'm being a little presumptuous, but the members of Shadow Hare's Allegiance of Heroes don't look terribly athletic.

And they certainly don't seem to have the presence or stature to terrify "a superstitious and cowardly lot" of criminals.

Now, Susan Boyle just reminded everyone that you can't judge a book by its cover and I'm not about to cast aversions against any RLSHs just because I don't think they're very effective, but I do find myself wondering about mindset that prompts people to go to such lengths. I'm sure none of them think they have actual superpowers, and I'm sure the vast majority of them don't think they can kick ass as well as Batman. In fact, I'm sure the vast majority of them don't have any delusions about what they're doing and how dangerous it can be.

And I think that's what concerns me. That these people, often with little more than good intentions, are potentially putting their lives at risk for the sake of altruism. Cops and firefighters and such clearly have some sense of altruism to do what they do, but they're also rewarded with a paycheck. (One that's far too small, IMHO, but that's another issue!) But these RLSHs only have an occasional "thank you" as their reward. In fact, they're using substantial portions of their own resources to fund these endeavors with almost no hope of being reimbursed. This is altruism in a rather extreme case.

And I have to wonder about that. Yes, it's absolutely cynical of me, but that they are continually putting an entire city's welfare above their own... well, it makes me think about people behind those masks. Are these people the real world equivalents of Walter Kovacs? Or am I just projecting insane thoughts onto them?Seriously, I wish the best of luck to Shadow Hare and his companions. I really do hope he's able to help the city and not get hurt in the process. I'm still ambivalent on the whole RLSH deal, but I guess when it comes down to it, who am I to judge?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Gaines' Mad Hate

I found myself looking online for footage of the infamous Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency from 1954. I'm generally pretty skilled at Google-Fu, but I'm coming up with bupkis, which leads me to believe that it's not online anywhere. Kind of surprising, I think, given how widely televised they were.

That said, I did find this recording of a short play about William Gaines and his dealings with Frederick Wertham, the U.S. Senate, and the Comics Code Authority. Although I haven't checked it word for word, it appears the original dialogue of the hearings themselves was used for that (substantial) portion of the production. Although, from other things I've read, the portrayal of Gaines is considerably more lively than how he really acted at the hearings. The show runs about a half hour...

Not exactly the same as watching the hearings themselves, but interesting nonetheless.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Who Watches The Subtitles?

My dad bought the DVD of the Watchmen motion comic and insisted that I watch it because the animation was so cool. So I finish watching the whole thing, eject the last disc, and grab the case to put it away. That's when I happen to notice the back of the packaging...
See that? Listed under "Special Features"? Subtitles: English

Who was the moron who decided to put subtitles on a movie whose ENTIRE NARRATION IS ALREADY PLACED ON THE SCREEN?!?
I could understand if they had subtitles in, say, Spanish or French or something, but there's only one set of subtitles and it's in the same language as what's already on the screen?

I can see why Alan Moore didn't want his name on any of this.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Climb Up Mt. Barnabas

It was almost a year ago that I first reviewed Salt Water Taffy: The Legend of Old Salty and, despite having a copy of the second volume Salt Water Taffy: A Climb Up Mt. Barnabas for several months, I just now got around to reading it. I'll tell you now, THAT is my biggest complaint about the book: that I waited this long to read it.

Much of the first volume is, not surprisingly, about character introductions. With this installment, we hit the ground running and get dropped right into a Putnam family hike. Er... I guess that would make it "hit the ground hiking". In any event, Dad relays the legend of Baranabas, the giant golden eagle that lives atop the mountain and swoops down to steal hats off the heads of unsuspecting victims. Later, when said eagle steals Dad's precious hat off the head of young Jack... well, our story's title becomes plainly evident.

For as much as I enjoyed the first book, I liked this one that much more. The characterization struck me as more natural, and the readers are shown who everyone is more organically. Which makes the book incredibly approachable for new readers. The main characters, brothers Jack and Benny, are also the clear heroes here and conduct their adventure without the aid of Angus as they did before.

The plot also holds together more strongly than the previous episode. There is little here that is superfluous, and most of the seemingly dismissable seen in early portions of the story is utilized later. The only exception I can see to that are two characters who make some side commentary on page three. I think one of them is author Matthew Loux, but I don't know who the other might be. (Letterer Douglas E. Sherwood, maybe? I don't know what he looks like.) But everything else is really tightly plotted, and Loux displays some really excellent storytelling abilities here.

I have to admit that when I first saw ads for his earlier work, Side Scrollers, I was turned off by the excessively sharp knees and I subsequently didn't pay much attention to him as a creator. And though he still draws characters with sharp knees, there's such warmth and energy in his characters that I don't even notice it any more.

A Climb Up Mt. Barnabas is an amazingly charming and well-crafted tale. I'm now eagerly looking forward to Salt Water Taffy: The Truth About Dr. True and will be enjoying Loux's bi-weekly SWT comic strip until then.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Calculus Of Change

Seth Godin, called by American Way Magazine "America's Greatest Marketer", recently recounted (if ever so briefly) the death of WordPerfect...
What happened was that the change in operating system created a moment when people had to pick. They had to either switch to Word or wait for a new version of WordPerfect. In that moment, "do nothing" was not an option.

So, in an economy which has seen four straight months of job losses that topped 600,000 each (At least, here in the U.S. Other countries are having, in some cases, a worse time of things; Spain's unemployment rate just passed 17% and is expected to get worse!) there are increasing numbers of people who are having to give up even the smallest of luxuries just to survive on a severally curtailed (sometimes non-existent) income. And that means there's less money for them to spend on comic books. They can't not change their behavior because that could literally starve them to death. Doing nothing different is not an option.

Historically anecdotal evidence to the contrary, there are most definitely people who have to give up comic books because of the recession. The folks at Blog@Newsarama recently posted a "how have your buying habits changed lately" question and you can read through loads of responses where person after person state that they're buying fewer pamphlet books or switching to TPBs or finding another retailer (mainly online and/or mail order) to receive a heftier discount. This will certainly begin showing up as decreased sales, and it's only the recent price increases that will keep the publishers from seeing a significant decrease in revenue.

But the changes in buying habits people are listing? They were prompted largely by the recession. People's hours have been cut or they've been laid off or the price increases were just too much to bear. But there was an external impetus that prompted them to action. Doing nothing different was not an option.

Now, the original question B@N asked was specifically framed around monthly pamphlet comics. And, without any suggestion or prompting, people began responding with comments like...

"I look forward to digital distribution that will (hopefully) make monthly comics afordable again."

"I want to read most of them for the story content and feel no real ownership of the physical copy. I'd be happy to pay a lower price for digital copies of the comics but Marvel and DC seem to want to suffer the same fate as the recording industry."

"...Which hasn't stopped people from going to illegal downloads from pirate groups like DCP or Minutemen. In fact, some of the DCPers have noted that since the $3.99 books started, the number of n00bz looking for downloads has jumped almost five-fold."

So, not only are readers changing their old buying habits, they're actively looking for existing publishers to respond to the changing market. Doing nothing different is not an option. Godin went on to say...
When people have to pick, they have to confront some of the fear and organizational barriers that lead to the status quo.

It seems to me, then, that the best time for a marketer to grow is when clients have to pick something. Seeking these moments out is inexpensive and productive.

Doing nothing different is not an option.

Which makes me wonder all the more, why are comic publishers still doing the same things that they've been doing?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Where Did Atlas Come From?

The name "Atlas" shows up fairly frequently throughout comics' history. There are number of characters that go by that name, multiple publishing companies, many specialty comic retail shops and countless references within the comic stories making sly background references to the name. My question is: how did it become so ingrained in comics' lore?

Well, the short answer is Martin Goodman and I expect many of you will have mentally gone there already. But let's explore this more deeply...

An "atlas" (lower case) is essentially a collection of maps. They're generally of very large regions, often the entire Earth, and often printed and bound. The earliest items we would consider atlases date to around 150 AD and were put together by Claudius Ptolemy. Though already outdated by the time they were released, they sold very well and he produced several revised editions.

It wasn't until 1595, however, that the actual term "atlas" was used in connection with these collections of maps. It was Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator who entitled his book Atlas, Sive Cosmographicae Meditationes De Fabrica Mundi which translates to Atlas, or Description of the Universe. It was actually published after his death in December 1594 by his son Rumold.

Contrary to popular belief, however, the name was NOT chosen after the mythical Atlas who bore the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. Rather, it was in reference to King Atlas of Mauretania (roughly corresponding with modern Algeria and Morroco) who was allegedly the wise philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who made the first celestial globe. An image of King Atlas is in fact on the title page of Mercator's book.

A century later, Dutch merchants were using Atlas (the Greek) as a sort of patron saint. (A statue of Atlas adorns the top of the Royal Palace in Amsterdam to this day.) Thus regional map makers of the time began using images of the titan on their collections of maps, making a direct association between the two.

The symbolism does make sense. Although the original myths held that Atlas bore the weight of the heavens, which was generally depicted as a globe, it would be easy to mistake/substitute the Earth in its place without altering the meaning substantially. It's certainly a more compelling visual than a mere portrait, and it's little wonder that map-makers would use the titan's likeness to grace the covers of their collections. Indeed it was a likeness that was compelling enough to write comic stories about! Without doing exhaustive research on this point, I found comic book stories that feature the classical Atlas as early as 1948, pre-dating Goodman's use of the term for his company by 3 years. (Curiously, though, he remains relatively untapped as a source of comic stories compared to other Greek heroes.)

Atlas Comics "debuted" in 1951. It was really just the same company Goodman had been running for years under a few dozen different names. The question that strikes me, though, is: why "Atlas"? Why not "Zenith" or "Red Circle" or any of the other names he'd been using to publish comics?

The reason why Goodman used so many company names at first was a hold-over from the 1940s. It wasn't uncommon for one publisher to use multiple company names to skirt any number of laws, one of the most obvious being paper rationing. A publisher was only allotted a certain amount of paper they could use, but if one person ran two publishing interests, he could obtain twice the amount of paper. Thus, many publishers of the time would run one company under several names simultaneously to get the benefits of multiple corporations.

But that approach didn't make as much sense going into the 1950s, as World War II ended and things got back to "normal." Goodman also saw the benefit of having a single brand identity, one banner under which he could promote the likes of Patsy Walker, Captain America, and Kid Colt. There was no reason to hide behind multiple company names, and plenty of reasons to coalesce under one. But, again, why "Atlas"?

The reason is Goodman's other business as a periodical distributor. Goodman believed he could make even more money by distributing his comics and magazines; why pay a middleman to do that? So he ditched his current distributor, Kable News, and established the Atlas News Company. In this context, "Atlas" begins to make sense. Goodman didn't publish just comics; he also had several lines of general interest and adult (but not that adult!) magazines. He was in several fields and probably paid little attention to the comics end of things. The name "Atlas" for a distributor would imply that his reach covered the entire globe; all walks of life, all corners of the Earth. That wasn't necessarily accurate, of course, but it gave an immediate implication that his operation was bigger and more grand. Goodman then simply applied the "Atlas" name to everything, including his entire publishing arm. Thus "Atlas Comics" were born.

Atlas News Company lasted until 1957. Goodman basically took a look at the finances and decided that he really wasn't making all that much money on distribution, so he closed that business to focus exclusively on publishing. It was ultimately a huge mistake from his perspective, though, as the new distributor he partnered with -- American News Company -- folded only a few months after they began distributing Atlas-published books due to a Justice Department lawsuit. With his own distribution setup eliminated and the country's largest distributor (American News) gone, Goodman was left with few options but using Independent News, which was owned and operated by his business rival, DC Comics (then National).

The Atlas brand that Goodman had spent the better part of a decade establishing was almost wiped out overnight. Independent would only distribute eight of their comics (down from 30+) a month. But in those years that Atlas was producing comics, there was some great and innovative work from the likes of Jack Kirby, Joe Maneely, John Severin and John Romita Sr. to name just a few. It's in honor of those great works that so many comics-related businesses are named.

Now, I could go on to explain where "Marvel Comics" came from, but that's another story that's probably longer than you'd expect, including an explanation of what N.W. Ayer and Son's American Newspaper Annual and Directory was.

Happy Birthday, Bill!

(OK, he probably wasn't technically born on April 23, but it is the day that he's historically honored on.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day Comics

Color me impressed! After last year's rousing collection of comic strips centered around Earth Day, I figured this year would result in only a handful of cartoonists remembering. But I've found quite a few...