Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Revelation About Marvel & DC

I was just reading Augie De Blieck's latest Pipeline where he talks about why comics NEED to be sold digitally. It's a well-written piece but he uses the same arguments that the publishers have been actively ignoring for years, so I'm not hopeful it will accomplish much. The believers will continue to say, "Hell yeah!" and the naysayers will continue to say, "Lalalalala! I can't hear you!"

But I had something of epiphany when I was reading. It occurred early in the piece and stems directly from this passage...
The audience at the local comics shop isn't growing. It's an increasingly smaller portion of the possible readership for comics. But, for some reason, publishers are afraid to reach out to the rest.

I knew that. I've commented on that before. But I'd been sitting here thinking that publishers' fear came from potentially cutting the hamstrings of retailers. That if they truly embraced digital, it would immediately devastate the current direct market system by giving all of their loyal customers a cheaper, more attractive, alternative. The fear is that if they didn't do digital properly, they'd lose out on both the digital-supportive customers AND the already established and reliable direct market. So if they fail in this, it would be a complete failure and would severely damage their publishing business.

That's what I thought publishers were scared of.

But what if that's not it? What if their fear came from something else? (And here's the epiphany.) What if they're scared to find out that nobody wants yet another Spider-Man or Batman story? What if they're scared that switching to digital wouldn't increase their overall comic book sales, thus proving that the product they've relied on really is insularly myopic?

See, although comic fans have long collectively held some form of neurosis. Back in the 1940s and '50s, they were viewed as exclusively material for children and idiots who couldn't read a "real" book. Comics have matured as a medium, and I think there's a recognition that they can be an expressive art form. BUT I don't think that holds for superhero comics on the whole. The population at large thinks comics as a medium are okay, but they look to books like Maus and Persepolis and Palestine. Maybe Y: The Last Man or Transmetropolitan if they're more in-the-know. But Amazing Spider-Man? Detective Comics? The superhero genre is still considered the realm of the adolescent male (and his emotional equivalent).

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "But what about all the money that's been made on superhero movies and video games?" There's money to be made there, of course, but there's two distinctions worth nothing here. First, the actors cast in superhero movies -- even the ridiculously silicone-enhanced ones -- don't hold a candle to the impossibly proportioned depictions of the same heroes in many (most?) superhero comics. Regardless of how much makeup, prosthetics, good lighting, etc. is on an actor, they still have something akin to 'normal' human proportions. Second, when a customer is asked to shell out $12 for a movie, it's a one-time expense. Yes, it's a silly, stupid popcorn film, but the customer only has to buy into the absurdity of it for 90 minutes. Maybe 270 over the course of 4-5 years if it does phenomenally well and spawns two sequels. A comic book customer, by contrast, is asked to shell out $4 for a 15 minute experience every month. Indefinitely. That 270 minute mark gets hit in a year and half. After four years, they're up to 720 minutes.

One of the reasons that sequels tend to not perform as well as the originals is because people stop holding their suspension of disbelief. Whereas the first thoughts might be, "Wow, he just build himself this super-cool suit of armor that lets him fly and shoot people! Awesome!" After thinking about it for a couple of years, they start coming up with, "Wait, how does he go to the bathroom?" You can convince people that a man can fly. But only for so long before they start seeing the wires.

So what if that's it? What if the superhero publishers are scared to find out that, yeah, maybe all of these books they're pushing out really are just repetitious adolescent power fantasies? What if they're really not all that deep? How come there hasn't been another good look at the genre since Watchmen?

Because as long as they're not confronted with that fact head-on from the population at large, they can continue pushing books to the same group of fans who continue to validate them. They can continue to pretend that they're not acceptable to everybody because of some other factor that has nothing to do with their content. They can keep saying, "We do GREAT work but it's only a select few that see it."

Maybe they're not try to expand their market because they're scared that they've already expanded it as much as they can.

5 comments:

KentL said...

You bring up a good point. I can't think of a really successful superhero cartoon in the last ten years. I'm not talking about good shows. There's been plenty of those. Maybe Teen Titans Go!, but even that didn't really last all that long. The Batman seemed to do okay, but then you get shows like Spectacular Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, which didn't really do much. Even the new Iron Man and Wolverine and the X-Men cartoons don't seem to be setting the ratings on fire. Why is that? Too many options? Kids don't care about superheroes?

But I know kids like superheroes. I've seen it. My kids love superheroes. Many of their friends love superheroes.

I can understand why the Big Two might be a bit gunshy if they are looking at how their properties are doing there.

Matt K said...

Heh. I wonder.

I was thinking about these questions some months ago, during the mixed reception to one of the big two's (DC's in this case) latest "let's take our big icons and start a new, 'clean' version without all the baggage and continuity that confuses people" ideas.

Personally I found a few things to question behind that (oft repeated, in one form or another) scheme.

First, the idea that non comics readers are somehow kept away by the lack of an A, B, C simplicity. Judging from other popular entertainment I have a tough time believing it's that much of a barrier.

Of course if it is, then I'm also bemused by the notion that adding yet another reboot to shelves already groaning with different versions of Superman, Spider-Man, etc., is going to help simplify things.

Above all, I was just struck by the persistence of this idea that comics, particularly superhero comics, are somehow "held back." That if we just "fix" the obstacle--continuity, distribution, format, whatever--in the right way, there will be 200 million Americans reading Batman comics every month.

And as you point out, people offer up reasons why this great "untapped potential market" must be there. "The movies are hits." Or, "everyone reads comics in Japan."

I think it's wishful thinking, though. The idea that the publishers may, on some level, think so too is interesting. Maybe that's why they not only continue to go slow on digital comics, but also continue to revisit the "start over clean" approach instead. Because, while they know that one doesn't ever really tap into ripe potential markets (to whatever extent they exist), they do know that the same old fanbase will readily gobble up those products at the same old stores.

Ah, cynicism.

jingard said...

Just as a thought experiment, when I read your interesting article, I started wondering whether being 'adolescent power fantasies' is necessarily a bad thing for superhero comics.

In many other discussions, people tend to hold a low view of the tastes of the masses (i.e. only 'sophisticated' people enjoy certain pleasures, which by definition become niche markets). Conversely, there must be an enormous market for adolescent power fantasy and other things that we associate with our yoounger selves, as there are lots of adolescents and many older people (I don't exclude myself from this group) who enjoy an ocassional or frequent wallow in things that are dismissed as being adolescent. For example, lots of people, not just teenagers, love high school movies (hence the relative success of Ultimate Spider-man?).

Now, I don't want every movie to be set in an American high school and every comic to feature the problems of teenage superheroes or superheroes with parent issues, but by the same token I don't see these things as barriers to popularity either.

By the way, I've been reading this blog for years without commenting - I'd just like to thank you for the pleasure it has given me so far!

William George said...

It's not a "What if...?"

It's a "Don't tell me! LALALALALALALALA! I CAN'T HEAR YOUUUUUUuuuuuu~!"

Ethan said...

I think the movies/comics comparison differs in another way besides the expense and duration of experience. Movies (even super-hero films) are still a social experience. People go to the movies on dates, casual get togethers, family outings, etc. I think that's the main reason why people who flock to see super-hero movies don't automatically flock to the comic shop. Most people don't go to see super-hero films because they're interested in the super-hero medium or the genre or the source material. They're just there for the shiny images and loud explosions and (occasionally) some good acting.