Recently, Ron Marz started a bi-weekly column over at Comic Book Resources titled “Shelf Life,” and his December 30th column got people talking.
The central argument in the Marz article is that publishers should branch away from just super-hero comics because the super-hero genre is too narrow, and this keeps potential new readers away from the entire form. Specifically, he writes:
There are more good, diverse comics being published now than ever before. I firmly believe that. But in terms of copies sold, superheroes still rule the direct market roost. So we end up with a majority of what’s published directed at a very narrow audience, and much less product directed at everyone else.
He goes on to ask:
So who’s to blame here? Take your pick: everyone or no one. Publishers are in the business of staying profitable; they supply what the market demands. Readers buy what the publishers put the most muscle behind, as well as what they pick up out of habit. Retailers stock what they think they can sell, which often means extra rack copies of “Batman” or “Avengers” at the expense of taking a chance on something new from a non-Big Two publisher. Everybody’s just trying to survive, and in doing so, further contributing to the death spiral.
This is exactly what I started the Saving Comics Project to discuss. What are the central problems surrounding the comic-book industry, and how can we solve them?
Unfortunately, the solution that Marz offers is that of digital comics.
In the past few years, fans have been clamoring for digital comics, and many have seen this shift to be the savior of the industry. But while digital comics provide a powerful distribution service unlike anything that Diamond can match, there are problems associated with digital comics that no one seems to be addressing just yet.
First and foremost, the real problem with comic books (whether they be in print or digital) lies within marketing. Currently, comic books aren’t really marketed anywhere outside of comic books themselves or within the Diamond catalog. Without proper marketing, comic books won’t see an increase in sales unless a comic happens to have a movie coming out, in which case the marketing tactics employed are a mention within the trailer of the film (“based on the hit graphic novel!”) or a sticker on the front of the book at Borders.
While distribution is certainly a major factor for why comics are being held down (a horse that I have beaten to death), marketing is truly the biggest obstacle in terms of saving comics.
Marz discusses the problem with super-hero comic proliferation, and while he is correct in his assessment that there are a lot of super-hero comics out there and that there are certainly great comics out there that are outside of the super-hero genre, placing the blame on the “death spiral” ignores some of the real reasons super-hero books sell more:
Many comics outside of the super-hero genre aren’t for all ages. Granted, many within the super-hero genre aren’t for all ages either, but there is a strange misconception that if the main hero has spandex then he must be appropriate for all ages (note the pronoun “he” because female protagonists are far too curvy). Most Vertigo titles are arguably better than most DC titles, but due to the fact that Vertigo titles are for “mature audiences,” their sales will automatically take a dive.
Marz isn’t specifically stating that non-super-hero books should be the ones that are “mature audiences” because he also praises Marvel for their adaptations of the Oz series. It should be noted that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz debuted in September 2009 at number #9 on the New York Times best-seller list, and The Marvelous World of Oz debuted in October 2010 at number #5 on the New York Times best-seller list.
It is further worth noting that the number #1 best-seller for September 2009 was Stitches: A Memoir by David Small, and for October 2010, it was Exile: An Outlander Graphic Novel, both of which are not super-hero titles. I mention these two examples because they seem to disprove both Marz and myself. They disprove Marz because he states in his article that he has “virtually no interest in reading a poorly-drawn, black-and-white account of somebody’s teen angst” — but apparently, many readers seem to enjoy this genre (I know that this doesn’t disprove Marz, but humor me), and it disproves my conceit on marketing because I have never heard of either of these titles.
The point is that people read super-heroes because they are relatively safe compared to other titles. The overall perception is that super-heroes have nothing to prove compared to other genres, and that is one of the reasons why they dominate the market.
2. Niche Genre
While Marz argues that super-hero comics are a niche market, he seems to suggest that other genres would be less niche. He compares his last run on DC’s Green Lantern with his work on Dark Horse’s Samurai and notes that even though Samurai was a better story with better art (from Luke Ross, the same artist from his Green Lantern run), Green Lantern sold about four times more copies.
The problem with his logic here is twofold:
1) While the story and art might be far superior, some people aren’t interested in the samurai genre. It’s a matter of personal preference. While I loved his last run on Green Lantern, I wouldn’t have picked up his samurai series simply because it didn’t interest me. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t have been done or that people interested in the samurai genre are somehow less of a fan than I am, because I don’t believe either of those things. Simply put, some people like the super-hero genre, and that’s why we read it.
2) Dark Horse doesn’t have the marketing capabilities DC has. This isn’t to say that Dark Horse isn’t a great company; it’s just the truth about money. DC has Time-Warner, and they have a lot of money to spend.
Again, digital comics would not have solved the problem of sales on Samurai, because without proper marketing, they were beaten from the start.
For the final nail in the marketing coffin, let’s look no further than Jeff Smith’s Bone. Truly an anomaly of the industry, Bone was self-published by Smith (except for a small time at Image), eventually picked up by Scholastic Books, and sent out to elementary and secondary schools everywhere. While it had a modest following in single issues, it wasn’t until Scholastic picked it up that the book became a wild success that entered into the public consciousness. And what were the keys to its success?
Marketing and distribution.
Of course, at the heart was good, age-appropriate content, and technically, with Amazon, the distribution was always fine, but it’s the power of Scholastic’s marketing that really pushed Bone to be the success that it is.
There is nothing wrong with exploring different genres outside of the super-hero industry, but we have to understand the limitations. For better or worse, people trust the super-hero genre. This may be because of the “death spiral” that Marz discussed. But a more optimistic take is that super-heroes can only truly exist in comic-book form, and other genres just aren’t as closely associated with comics anymore. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter that Scalped is a better comic than Superman, because the former is an adult comic book.
Sure, digital comics will provide wider distribution, but if distribution was ever really the problem in the first place, then we wouldn’t have to worry about dwindling numbers now. There are plenty of comic shops out there for people to find, and those comic shops want to market the product they have ordered. Digital comics cut out retailers, and without proper marketing, they will be offering a service that no one knows about.
Finally, we must address that both DC and Marvel both have digital comics now. We’re arguing about something that is already taking place. Current issues aren’t being put up on the web just yet, but digital comics do exist. Whether or not they are actually financially successful is something we can only speculate about, given that neither company will probably release their sales (nor do they owe us these statistics).
You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. With digital comics, the water is there, but no one wants to spend the time or money making the horse realize the water is there.