Friday, February 01, 2013

Indie Comic Marketing & Broader Racial Issues

I'm probably one of the last people that ought to be talking up issues of women and minorities in comics. In the first place, I'm a white male. I see myself reflected all up and in throughout comics, and always have. In the second place, I have absolutely zero power to influence things. I'm not an editor or publisher or anything, so I can't call up or hire anyone to make comics. I'm essentially one guy shouting at the wind.

That said, I try to keep my eye for good comics by women and minorities, and I try to talk them up here when I can. But not in a "hey, look, here's a black guy making comics" way but just a "hey, look, here's a good comic" manner. That's my intent, at any rate. I don't know if it comes across that way, or if my pointing to those types of books has any impact on their sales, but it's what I can do.

I recently picked up the book Black Comix: African American Independent Comics, Art and Culture which is a kind of showcase/overview of Black comic creators doing work outside the larger publishing houses. Lots of samples to look at it with more than a fair amount of perspective from those creators. I didn't like every piece highlighted, but there was such a wide range of material in there, that's hardly surprising. Not everything is going to appeal to everybody, naturally. But there were a number of works that looked really interesting to me, and worth tracking down.

There were three works in particular that struck me. A combination of a good story premise and an art style that looked pretty slick (based largely on my personal preferences, of course). One of the works I found relatively easily; the creator's website was listed in the book and from there he had links to an online shop where you could buy his books online. A tad expensive compared to what you'd find in a comic shop, but these were independently published with a print run likely no greater than a couple thousand at most. The second work I was intrigued by also had a link to the creator's site, but she hadn't seem to have updated since before the book was published. I did follow around a series of links, and eventually got to her (unused) Twitter account and her deviantART page. From her deviantART page, I found her Tumblr and eventually scrolled back to see that she hadn't made any updates about the book I was interested in for about two years -- around the time Black Comix came out. As near as I can tell, the book remains unfinished, but I couldn't find anywhere that's expressly stated.

The third creator has work all over the place. He's got Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and deviantART accounts and they all seem relatively current. And he was still posting character art from the story I wanted to see. I even found video clips of him talking with local TV stations about the comic! But I couldn't find an online shop anywhere. And he didn't seem to point to any P.O.D. houses where they might have his book. I eventually found a question posed by someone else about the comic to which he responded that it was indeed available, just to send him a Paypal payment. Which is fine and works, but as I said, that was buried in a comments page.

Now, I bring up these three examples in relation to Black History Month because, well, that aspect of the story happens to be topical. There might be some racial issues in there that I'll touch on in a moment, but let me first speak more broadly to all indie comic creators. If you've got a comic that you want to catch people's attention, you need to make sure people can get to it. I was actively trying to seek out these three specific works and had a hell of a lot of difficulty in even finding two of them, and that's with having URLs handed to me! If your website gets published in something relatively permanent like a book or magazine, you need to make sure it has, at the very least, the basic information people will be looking for. If you provide a website for the comic but then drop it a few years later, then refer that site over to your creator page or whatever you're currently using.

You know, it's great to use Facebook and deviantART and the like to connect with different audiences. But those are services YOU DON'T OWN. They can close up shop and walk away or change their terms of service or something, and you can be left out in a lurch if that's your primary go-to location online. I think it's critical to keep your own website domain if you want to do comics (or anything vaguely similar) because, even though that will be hosted by a third party, that's still YOUR site. You can carry it to another host if you like or hire someone to do the design/development so you don't have to, but it's still yours. So that, regardless of what ends up happening with MySpace or LinkedIn or whatever, you always send people to one location. Even if you have nothing on the page, but "Hey, check out my Facebook page" it's still something that you can always keep track of and a place where potential fans/customers can always find you.

I think a lot of creators don't think of that kind of thing because that's more of a marketing aspect to making comics. Most creators, I think, just want to tell stories; they don't want to do any of that business crap. I get that. I was firmly in the meritocracy camp for decades! I thought that, as long as you did good work, an audience would find it. The cream would rise to the top, and what was most important was the quality of the creations you made. One of the more harsh life lessons I learned about ten years ago was that was total bullshit. Quality isn't irrelevant, of course, but without some marketing and salesmanship, no one is going to pay you a minute's notice. Despite the old adage, people DO judge a book by its cover. And in comics, that goes beyond the physical cover of the book you're creating! That's your online presence, your convention presence, your interactions... all of it. You don't have to necessarily change who you are and try to become just like everybody else (which was a long-held fear of mine, and part of why I believed in the idea of a strict meritocracy for as long as I did) but you do have to be conscious about every aspect of your persona and what that projects.

I certainly haven't done any formal research in this area, but I suspect that minorities in particular are susceptible to missing that marketing angle. Here in the U.S., there's very little done to encourage minorities to work in marketing. They're told (often implicitly) that it's okay to go out and be creative, but not to worry about the business side of things. Just go out and paint or write or sing or whatever. You get a handful of folks like Quincy Jones who seem to have an innate understanding of business but, by and large, they're told to just stick to the more traditionally creative endeavors. How deliberate that is is up for debate, and certainly some of that is part of a set of tacit societal norms, but regardless of the reasons for it, what it does is foster an environment where old white men hold the reins of power. Where they control the broader conversation and say that Superman is an ideal hero that can be looked up to by whites and blacks and Latinos, and why do they need an African hero or a Hispanic one?

But at a smaller level, it means that the creators who can recognize they won't get anywhere in a larger organization have marketing troubles like what I just outlined. I went way out of my way trying to track down those books, and 2/3 of my experiences were pretty negative. Even if the actual content is fantastic, I'm now coming to them with a severely deflated interest and bias. If the work isn't what I thought it would be, my disappointed reaction might now be more harsh. I try to avoid negative reviews here, but that's not necessarily going to be the same for everybody with a blog.

I don't have all the answers. I'm just some schmuck with a blog -- hell, I don't even have my own comic to say I've at least been in the trenches for a little while! But in a society in which discouraging minorities from becoming successful is part of the cultural norm, I would like to suggest all independent creators -- particularly women and minorities -- to pick up some books on marketing and/or talk to folks who do seem to know a thing or two about marketing. These experiences I've had recently were far from positive, and that's me trying really hard to give them money for what they (in theory) like to do.

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