4 Ways Comic Books Are Losing Touch With Their Audience
Recently, when asked about falling comic sales, Marvel's senior vice president of print, sales, and marketing remarked, "What we heard was that people didn't want any more diversity." He'd later go on to attempt to clarify his statements, but that desperate cover-up was like trying to fix a stab wound with a bandage made of knives. The damage had been done.
I've seen a few people scrabbling to count this as a victory. "I didn't want Jamie Foxx to play Electro. I didn't want Liz Allen to be Latina. I didn't want Iron Man to be a black girl. And SEE? I WAS RIGHT." But the problem with that line of thinking is 1) It's wrong. It's so, so amazingly wrong. And 2) It discounts the benefits of true comic book diversity. Because actual diversity is not what's "killing" comic books. What is killing comics books is ...
Claiming "Okay, we turned this character into a trans person. Are you happy now?" is like saying "I have two Taco Bells on my street, because I love Hispanic people." People who commonly critique comic book diversity are very quick to try to gag any complaints with the Law of the Office Stock Photo. To clarify what this is, here is a typical office stock photo:
Hey, it's not all white dudes! Isn't that swell. Yay, diversity! You did it, slugger. You're progressive now, and you no longer have to worry about any pesky nerds clambering into your Twitter replies to tell you that you're clueless. The Law of the Office Stock Photo dictates that people should be happy just because diversity is there on the surface level. Hell, it happens in comic book movies, too. "The Avengers has Black Widow. And she's a lady. So you can hush up because ... she's a lady."
But before you can pat yourself on the back about the fact that you're hip to the hot new trend of being a decent person, ask yourself this: How many stories does she get? And not just stories that include her, but stories that are about her? How many stories are definitively hers? Sure, Marvel has given her some plots, but they're always located in the asshole of the larger narrative about invading aliens or killer robots or some shit. And that's why telling people that "Hey, be satisfied, because there's a black guy on the team. You got what you wanted" is a dick move. That's not diversity.
"If five minutes of Black Widow and two hours of Captain America won't make you leave us alone, we don't know what will."
Diversity is peoples' experiences. Diversity is listening to stories that encapsulate what it's like to be someone who isn't like you. Diversity isn't mixing and matching skin tones in the hopes that if you get the ratio right, the internet will get off your case. People can see through that shit, and they won't buy into it. Diversity requires getting writers with unique perspectives who can tell unique stories.
And you might be saying "Well, a good white dude writer can tell stories from a lot of perspectives," and I agree. They can. But that's the point. The comics industry, like comics themselves, is a sea of white dudes with a sprinkling of minority voices scattered in it. Who better to tell the stories of minorities in Superheroland than people who know what it's like to exist in it? Strong attempts at providing diversity will never hurt comics. But shitty, shallow "Let's make half of them black or a women so that our readers will pipe down" diversity always will. And make no mistake, that's exactly the message that comes across in many of them right now.
Not Understanding How Your Own Business Works
I graduated from college a little over five years ago, and it was in college, when most of my peers were still being somewhat supported by their parents, that I last saw multitudes of people reading comic books. Not trade paperbacks, and not comics on a digital platform, but single issues of comic books. I haven't really seen anyone do that since then, and I don't think it's because they graduated and were immediately greeted by bullies who tore up their copies of Thunderbolts #160 and dunked their heads into toilets until they all simultaneously agreed to stop being so goddamn lame.
"After drinking all that poop water, we've come to the conclusion that utmost radness should be our goal."
I don't know how many of you buy comics, but I can assume that it's not a lot of you, because comic sales are, in a lot of cases, tanking. And if you do buy comics, good on you. But for those who don't buy or even read comics, pretend for a second that you're entering a comic shop. It smells like fresh pages and Deadpool T-shirts. The floors creak a little bit, and you overhear two guys debating something in the manga section in the corner. You go to the cashier and ask where you should start if you want to get into Marvel. He then lists copious titles that you'd need to buy, which titles probably won't be good, and the money that it will cost. You then leave the shop forever, buy some chicken tenders on the way home, and congratulate yourself because you really dodged a bullet there.
I hear so many people talk about how great it is that they didn't get into comics, or that they stopped buying single issues of comics. They say things like "It was getting pretty bad before I had to stop myself," as if they're discussing heroin or punching elementary schoolers. Comics had ceased to be things that they consistently enjoyed and had become things that they felt like they had to finish. They had to buy every issue of every title so that they could potentially grasp one narrative. You know why a major book being a "standalone title" is often seen as such a awesome thing in comics? It's definitely not because they come around very often.
"Oh, you want to complete the 'Spider-Man Locks His Front Door' arc? Ya gotta by the whole bottom row for that."
There's something so satisfying about holding a single issue of a comic book in your hands. It's light, colorful, and reminds you of the good times you had before you had to start paying for the things that kept you alive. So I hate to say "Time to scrap that concept," but the comic book industry needs to lean into the skid of what's actually working. If digital comics are on the rise, do more to promote those. If people are more likely to read trade paperbacks or full-length graphic novels, have more writers working toward creating them. I would much rather buy a graphic novel for $16.99 than a collection of single issues (some of which are probably terrible) for $30.
I don't think single issues of comics will ever go away, at least not in the near future. But I do think that a business model that deals mostly with what's working is a good step toward making sure that the comic industry isn't extinct in 20 years. Oh, and on that note ...
Constantly Trying To Match The Comics With The Movies Makes Both More Boring
Back before Iron Man launched one of the biggest movie trends in history, comics and movies served different functions. Movies presented "interpretations" of comic book characters. You got to see what Batman would look like if his wardrobe was designed by Edward Scissorhands' tailor, and if Gothic Angst Batman wasn't your thing, you could always go read the comics. And if comics were too convoluted and messy for you, you could go watch the movies and see the comic mythos distilled down to "Joker killed Batman's parents. Batman kills the Joker. The end."
God help you if you were a clown in Michael Keaton's town.
But Iron Man changed things. Now we weren't just setting up some director's individual, specific take on a character; we were being introduced to a universe in which comic characters would all interact with each other in a way that's pleasing to both fans of comics and fans of movies. People who had read Avengers comics for years could now delight in watching their childhood fantasies on screen. And it's made the movie industry a lot of Cocaine and Boats money.
Comics, well, not so much.
The SS Comic Writer's Salary.
We've written about how superhero movies are fucking with superhero comics before, but I think there's a lot left unsaid in the benefits of separating them as much as you can. Because in the fight between movies and comics, movies will always win. Whether it's because they're harder to access or because they still have that dumb "Haha, comics are for nerdz!" high school stereotype stink on them, comics are the underdog. And they need to rise up and counter movies. And I don't mean with constant dick punches, which is what I would do.
Prepare your groins, evildoers. A reckoning is upon you.
If movies have entered the realm of the shared universe, comics must provide alternate takes. This is where diversity comes in handy. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe is providing one Netflix series about a female character, one Netflix series about a black character, and a bunch of minority characters who basically serve to provide a round of applause whenever Robert Downey Jr. does something cool, comics can fill in that space. They can do this by introducing more diverse characters, retooling characters to be more diverse, or simply telling more stories that wouldn't fit into the movie mold. I think it would work. Hell, it worked for me.
When Miles Morales was introduced as the new Ultimate Spider-Man, I was a little done with the character. The Amazing Spider-Man movies, with their skateboarding Peter Parker and half-assed world-building, seemed to have lost sight of what makes Spider-Man so appealing. After years of clone problems, intricate plotlines that led nowhere, and character revisions that led to even less, comic Peter Parker had stopped being a figure that I could see myself in, and had become just another hero with a mile-long backstory. And even the Ultimate Spider-Man comics, which were created to breathe new life into Spider-Man, had tumbled into awkward irrelevance.
And then ... hope.
But Mile Morales captured that Spider-Man-ness -- that feeling of being amazingly powerful yet constantly overwhelmed. And to make it even better, he was Black Hispanic, which meant that a whole bunch of readers now had their own Spider-Man. And because there wasn't a Miles Morales movie with special effects that could outdo a comic artist's drawings, I had to go to comics to get this particular kind of Spidey fix. I'm not saying that Marvel should make me GodKing of Business, but I can't be alone in wishing that comics would give us stories that we can only find there, instead of stories that are just movie-lite.
Not Understanding The Proper Way To Take Chances
If in 2011 you had told me that the two movie series that people would be most hyped about in 2017 are Guardians Of The Galaxy and Deadpool, I would've told you "SHE SAID I WAS HER EVERYTHING!" because I was awful back then. But still, it's not like those two franchises were huge names in the past or get mentioned whenever someone tries to document the rise of superhero culture, often in books with titles like Capes And Nixon: How Batman Fucked All Of Our Moms or Look! Up In The Sky! The Rise Of Superheroes In Vague Anythings.
But those are both movie series I'm talking about, and as I said, superhero movies ain't doin' so bad. So comics have to be a lot more careful with taking B-list characters and spinning them off into their own things. For example, take a look at how Darth Maul is doing on the charts:
And how Venom is doing on the charts:
They're both badass characters, right? Then why is one hitting the top and the other languishing in a puddle of its own mediocrity? Well, one has general hype surrounding it, and the other doesn't. Darth Maul showed up for five minutes in The Phantom Menace, kicked more ass than anyone else in the Star Wars series combined, and left. And even though we've seen him return in various comics and animated series, we're still kind of mystified by him. We haven't grown tired of him.
On the other hand, we grew so tired of Venom by 1991 that we literally had to create another Venom.
This new Venom's name was Carnage. He was named that because "KILL EVERYTHING" was too subtle.
But taking a chance on giving a character their own solo series isn't just something that you can do and then sit back and wait for the money enema. You have to promote the shit out of them, especially if they're replacing characters who have been around for 60 years. If there's a new Ms. Marvel (there is, and she's great), you gotta let people know. I know that you're Marvel, and that you're the biggest comic company in the universe, but you're not immune to a little thing called "People don't know, and so they don't care."
If you introduce diverse characters and put them into spots that were previously held for decades by characters even non-comic-readers know about, you can't just do the bare minimum amount of promotion, get two years in, and say "WELP, THAT DIDN'T PAN OUT. I GUESS PEOPLE JUST DON'T DIG DIVERSITY." Spread the word, Marvel. You're doing a good thing. Sometimes you do it very clumsily, but at least you're making an effort to evolve past the days of five white guys and their eternal struggles against five other white guys (from space).
"Come on, guys! Let's show Loki what the social norms of 1962 are all about!"
So when someone says that "diversity" is killing the comic industry, what they really mean is "Comics are dying, and we're too lazy to do anything about it."
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Nightmarish villains with superhuman enhancements. An all-seeing social network that tracks your every move. A young woman from the trailer park and her very smelly cat. Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits, a new novel about futuristic shit, by David Wong.