Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #341: Is Marvel As Marvelous As It Could Be?

Despite not having a movie version of one of its comics out this quarter, Marvel Comics beat Wall Street's expectations despite a dip in revenue.

Now it's all well and good for Marvel, I like to see people do well, but I have a quibble.

My quibble is with the reports that say that the sales of comic books, the root of the entire business are flat. They haven't gone down, and that's not bad, but they haven't gone up either, which is not good.

It shows a certain type of malaise that has infected the comic book industry, especially the top two publishers Marvel and DC Comics. They appear to have lost sight of their core business.

If you were to ask those in the executive suites they would tell you that their core business is to license movies, TV shows, and merchandise from the characters and stories that they have in their stable.

And while that is an important part, it isn't the heart of the business. It's more like a pair of legs, if used correctly, they can get you where you need to go. But it is not the heart.

The heart of the business is the constant creation of new creative material, and to make that all important connection between that material and as big an audience as you can get.

The way the business is run is extremely schizophrenic. They treat the movies, toys, TV shows, video games, and other licensed products as a mass market product, but they derive the source material for these mass market products from a product that is managed like a niche market.

It might be all well and good for now, but what about the future?

What will these companies do when comic sales die down to nothing, which I fear is inevitable, and that interest can't be translated and expanded to the mass market?

They're obviously not thinking about that, because it's years, maybe even a couple of decades away, and won't affect their quarterly bonus.

The bulk of comic book readers these days are now in their 30s, and their children don't appear to be getting into the medium, outside of some demos dipping into manga. It wasn't always like this, comic books used to sell in the millions each month, with the top titles selling in the hundreds of thousands, now they consider it a blockbuster smash if one magazine sells more than 75,000 copies in a month.

That's not healthy.

Right now all the big two seem to care about is that fanboy core who will give the movies a big opening weekend, forgetting that this core is aging, and mortal, and their children will probably not care about those movies when they grow up, because they couldn't get into the books.

There are some reasons people find it hard to get into comics:

1. SALES & DISTRIBUTION: There was a time when you could get comics in every corner store in the country. All you had to do was go to the spinner rack, pick you faves, and you were set until the next batch came out. Nowadays you either order it online, which only really works if you already know what you want, there's very little of the "gee, that looks interesting" kind of discovery unless it's somehow directly related to what you've already bought in a way that a computer can understand. Or, you can go down to your local comics emporium, which isn't exactly convenient for a lot of people who don't live near one. It's not like the collector boom of the 1990s, where everyone and their brother was opening their own store. They're getting pretty rare. The closest one to my home is a 3 hour one way drive away.

The convenience stores and other outlets don't like carrying comics, because the profit margins on them are so small. Which strikes me as funny, because when I was a kid, and comics were 45 cents, we would all walk down to the store when the new ones would arrive, buy the comic, a bottle of Coke, and a bar. So it's not like people would just buy the books, of course, back then you could get all that and more with just a $2 bill. Not likely these days. But I'm not a retailer, so I can't judge them, I'm sure they have their reasons.

2. CONTINUITY & CHARACTER ABUSE: People who are either new to the medium, or dropped out and want back in, find it hard to get into these days. Many popular characters have up to 60+ years of backstory, also known as continuity, behind them. So new readers find themselves bemused, baffled and bewildered by constant references to things they have never heard of. And then come the retcons to try to fix this, which usually only make things even more convoluted.

Another problem is that when a character becomes popular, that character is milked beyond any sense of logic or any mortal's ability to preserve that precious continuity. Marvel has Wolverine in well over a dozen titles at any given moment, which makes it impossible to maintain any sort of coherent narrative to his story, or the stories of the other characters he cohabits the universe with, because the company thinks the fanboys are willing and able to buy anything that's got retractable claws and a bad-ass attitude.

Something must be done to break this cycle. I don't know what could be done, because any attempt to reform the industry sparks near on-line riots between the pro and con sets, which makes the company try to please everyone, but in the end really serves no one.

Do you have any ideas to get people reading comics again?


  1. One big problem I've noticed, that feeds into what you were talking about -

    The 'forced crisis'. I forget where I learned that phrase from, but it applies. At some point after 2002 or so, the two Big Boys got it into their heads that, rather than having one or two 'big events' a year, lasting maybe a month each, the year should be DOMINATED by a HUGE event, drawing everyone in and changing everything you know! ....and then we start the next one two weeks later. As heavy as continuity has gotten over the prior years, it was still vaguely possible to drop in as a new reader and get into comics. Now, you're basically required to have huge amounts of disposable income to have the vaguest clue as to how things are proceeding in the comic world - not to mention that your favorite character, no matter how famous or how obscure, has a good chance of completely changing over the course of a single unlucky month.

    Personally, I think the thing to blame for this was 'Identity Crisis'. It was written by Brad Meltzer, who has some 'New York Times Bestselling' books - but, since he writes cliched, cheesy thrillers about young lawyers whose wives get kidnapped, this just means he won the lottery of what readers picked up in the airport bookstore. Anyway, bloated up on his self-importance, (like many comic writers and fans), he wrote what was basically an incredibly derivative cop conspiracy story, but because he told it with superheroes and he 'went to the edge' or whatever, people fawned over it. Oh yeah, and he killed and retroactively raped an obscure side-character. Because, sadly, most comic fans these days are overweight unwashed social misfits who think they're profound thinkers, this kind of B.S. is applauded as cutting edge. Strangely, there is no one more hostile to the idea of getting new people to read comics than the average comic book fan - which may be the biggest problem to get around, even more than responsibility-less bigwigs in the industry.

  2. Blast Hardcheese5/8/09 4:17 pm

    Continuing on what Mr. Z just said, I think two things need to happen, or rather stop happening:

    1) Stop trying to mash every comic together into one huge multi-verse. If it's a superhero comic, make the hero the only (or nearly only) super. This will keep the stories focused, and will help cut down on the 'have to understand 60 years of backstory' problem.

    2) The biggie - Please, oh please, Stop Making Everything Dark and Edgy. If you want to get new young readers in, make the stories something that they can read without having to hide it from their parents. The 30-somethings who are still buying comics don't bat an eye at the hero's wife getting killed and stuffed into a fridge. However, that's not the way to convince the parents of prospective young buyers that this is something they can let their kids read.

  3. Like the D sezs. Most super duper heroes have 60+ years to them and the history weighs it down. Even worse, new heroes that have come into the scene never carry the adoration of the masses. Thousand of heroes have come into their own comic books and have died a few (maybe less.. you know. Like months!) years later.

    One example: A "Fantastic Four" styled group popped up in the early '80s called "Alpha Flight" that had mostly canucks in the roster! That series lasted for about a decade(83~94). they tried to revive it to abysmal results and still to this day keep trying to beat that dead horse.

    The point I'm trying to make is that there won't ever be a New comic book because of limited distribution. The cost of close to FIVE dollars was daunting near the beginning of this century and most kids these days simple.. Don't.. Read... Nothing!

  4. Kids don't read and if they don't read. Trying to sell all that over-priced emo thick sludge will never -REPEAT- Never, sway those tiny little shrunk minds.

    To tear them all away from fraggin' some online man-boy/ alien/ transvestite/ nazi/ hillbilly/ rodent & whining about lag and bitchy team on live whatever is to be an act of God of possibilities. Seriously; why read when Hours of online bitching is there to have?

    I mean....

  5. The history of the comic book was a sad tale that has been gasping for death since the comic book code.

    Back near around the time of WWII, comic books came to the publics mind and mass acceptance was made. It spread about as a mature venue but soon went into the houses as a childrens' distraction, Hell; what we used to have was something like what Japan has right now!

    But the power of greedy and righteous "good for you" bastards stepped in and displayed comics like 'Tales of the Crypt' to the greedy fool politicians calling for action in the Democrud lingo "It's for the CHILDREN!!!". And so they did, nailing in the death of mainstream acceptance of comic books forever with "The Comic Code". Soon after, serious comics vanished.

    The racks at the local soda bars became empty and filled with candy coated crap for retards, and the hard hitting 'Srg. Rock' became more ~softer~ to not scare the kids.. who themselves stopped (slowly) buying them.

    Revivals like 'Batman: the Dark Knight' and 'Watchmen' further deluded the publishers from the truth...

    Kids don't buy Comic Books. Kids grow up and don't read comic books and turn into adults. their kids don't discover dads' old collection and don't stumble across a store that sells them so they also don't read comic books. Get the hint. 'Superman' is closing in his 100th birthday, 'Spiderman' pushing himself at 60.

    Again, there is nobody here now to continue names of note. Comic Book is something we all lost and are too old to accept it now. Again:




    Comic Books.

    R.I.P. CP... Sorry for those annoying asshats trying to dig you up every year.

  6. Marvel and DC have brought in literally billions of dollars in the last decade on their comic properties and toy spin offs. Maybe, just maybe - they should take a few million bucks in tax deductible losses every year and subsidize another thousand or so comic shops around the country.

    Right now the number of business's dedicated to comics retailing is about half what it was in the early 90s. Maybe the Marvel stockholders might want to bring something like this up at the next meeting.

  7. right now the only thing keeping these iconic characters alive in pop culture is pretty much movies and games. We have products like the excellent Marvel Ultimate Alliance series and then the incomprehensible Mortal Kombat vs DC. films are spotty at best for ever Dark Knight we get a emo bitch fest Superman Returns.

    Striker Z is right, the average comic fanboy is pretty much doing all it can to drive away any new readers. Despite the popularity of the harry Potter books, kids today do not read as much as they should.

    As for Comics, the medium has become stagnant by licensing the icons to such ans extent to drown out any new ideas to be developed and any new characters that get created do not last long.

    BOOKS that are good are the one that focuses on one character. Take the Garth Ennis, Punisher. The book is just about Frank castle, except for running into Nick Fury there is no other marvel character that makes an appearance.

    DC and marvel need to not stop just tone down the multiverse. Every superman. batman or spiderman issue does not need to be a freaking crossover.

    If you keep having one big world shattering special even every week, they stop becoming special and the readers will get jaded.