Funnybook Babylon

December 19, 2007

Countdown to Extinction, Part One

Was this the beginning of the end?

Over the last several months, the comics blogosphere has been consumed with the problems of DC Comics. Impassioned posts have been written detailing the decline in both the quality of the books and market share (vis a vis Marvel). DC has significantly altered the tone of its universe in the last twenty years, transforming characters infused with the optimism of the Silver Age into ones that were superficially darker. Some say this trend began with Watchmen, others say it began with The Dark Knight Returns, but the result is a universe that fans consider ‘less fun’. Stories were inserted in the pasts of some characters, most notably in Identity Crisis, that were designed to make the characters more ‘realistic’. Many of these changes are inspired by a desire for superhero books to be more relevant to popular culture.

Pop culture has always had a schizophrenic relationship with the genre. On one hand, adaptations of the books in other media have experienced some measure of success, a development that is arguably at its current zenith with the success of the Batman, Spider Man and X-men franchises. This success has rarely translated into interest in the actual books produced by either company. However, when publishers (and fans) see broader acceptance of the concepts, they see a chance to rejoin mainstream popular culture again.
Isn't this just like real life?
As a result, almost every new development in comics, from the importation of talent from other media, the introduction of all-ages comic lines or the adaptation of popular properties into comics has been received by long term fans with an eye towards “growing the audience”.
If you build it, they will come.
Broadly speaking, when we talk about a “new audience”, we are talking about two groups of consumers. First, we are referring to the cohort of children aged six to twelve. This group was the classic audience for superhero comics throughout much of the genre’s history. This audience is particularly attractive for two reasons. One is that at this age, children are believed to be somewhat impressionable, and can not only develop an interest in super-heroes as a concept, but the comic book as a medium. Even if that interest dissipates with adolescence, graphic storytelling will still retain some legitimacy with them. The second reason is a notion (shared by a sizable portion of the blogosphere) that they are the “natural audience” for the medium. The second class of consumers is essentially composed of my cohort: people between the ages of eighteen and thirty who may have been a fan of comics as a child, but who have drifted away due to the genre’s reputation and quality. Based on which marketing theory you buy, this may also be the key ‘disposable income’ cohort.

The problem at DC (one that I believe is shared to a lesser degree by Marvel) is that strategies designed to attract either fanbase can alienate the existing one. If DC de-emphasizes or eliminates continuity, it loses the audience that cherishes it. If it makes any serious attempt to make their superhero line more mature (in the sense of encouraging character growth as a method of developing the narrative rather than using plot devices), or to make it more light-hearted (which people think the kids like), it will lose that audience as well, without any guarantee that a new audience will fully replace it.

This dilemma is exacerbated by a drought of imagination. Simply put, the “Big Two” no longer have the monopoly on talent that they used to have. Twenty years ago, comic books in America meant Marvel and DC, unless a creator was adventurous enough to go the Dave Sim/Hernandez Bros. route, or signed up with a company that was unstable.
Remember them?
Today, creators have the option of choosing from a wide range of publishers that will not only allow them to own their creations but provide them with a regular source of income.

Marvel and DC used to have a clear economic purpose in the comic marketplace. They provided their expertise in publishing, marketing and distributing books (which includes the editorial component) in exchange for the copyrights and trademarks to the characters created by writers and artists. Even when the exchange was inequitable (due to adhesive contracts and quasi-cartel behavior), the companies were indispensable. Even when Dave Sim proved that a creator could disintermediate publishers, it was still difficult to make any other choice. The advent of webcomics meant that the barriers to entry were mostly gone. The brilliant artistic minds of my generation have a broader array of choices that create a talent drain in mainstream comics.

So what’s the solution for mainstream comics publishers? Let’s first look at the youth problem. In my view, there are two main groups that advocate an increased focus on youth. The first group is composed of people who are fans of the superhero genre, and the second are those who are opposed to its perceived dominance.

Fans believe that without a youthful audience as its base, the lifespan of the genre will be limited by its predominantly aging audience. If publishers release material that is focused on the young, it will ensure the future of the superhero.

The other group wants publishers to focus on a younger audience due to their biases against the genre. Superhero comics were written (and marketed) as children’s entertainment, and any deviation from that focus degrades the genre as a whole. From this perspective, this is why imposing realistic elements in superhero comics ends badly.

It is important to note that the solutions advocated by both sides are almost identical. Both want more comics that contain elements that appeal to a youth audience, elements that both believe are present in manga and anime. Both want comics that are more ‘fun’, and are less reliant on ‘continuity’.

These two goals appear to be relatively easy to accomplish. DC already produces a line of comics that are focused towards youth, with some critical and commercial success. Why shouldn’t DC marginalize the main universe, and emphasize its All-Star, Vertigo, and the Johnny DC/Minx lines? Even though these imprints aren’t particularly successful, I would imagine that DC allocates less money to these imprints for marketing or talent acquisition. The financial success (and market share) could change if the investment was more signicant, and if it incorporated some of the more successful elements of manga. So why not do it? With the All-Star line, DC could retain the necessary legal rights over its most important intellectual property, and would have an increased ability to cross-promote when the properties are used in other media (not to mention maintain some of its adult audience, and more talented creators). With more money invested in the Vertigo line, it would gain a competitive advantage over ‘independent’ comics publishers. And the Johnny DC/Minx lines could be where DC cultivated a new audience. Although there would be a significant loss of market share to Marvel for a short period of time, it may be offset by the fact that market share is far less important than perception for DC. As a branch of a media conglomerate, it was never really directly competing with Marvel, except in the eyes of the audience and the media. If lower market share is perceived as an element of a long term strategy rather than a consequence of incompetent management, the impact could be smaller.

The only problem with this strategy is that it almost completely depends on the notion that if the ‘Big Two’ published work that was designed to appeal to youth (like manga does), kids would actually buy the comics in large enough numbers to replace the long-term fans would stop reading. But who says that youth are interested in the superhero genre as published by the ‘Big Two’ at all? Is there a need somewhere that is unfulfilled? If you’re a kid who (1) likes comics, (2) doesn’t already read Marvel or DC, and (3) is interested in tales of larger than life characters (with powers) clashing, you’re already reading manga.

One of the main fallacies in fan thinking (and I’m including myself here) is that we think that the only reason our eccentric hobbies are not in the mainstream is due to a lack of adequate publicity. We tell ourselves that only if they knew, or if we offered them the perfect comic tailored to their interest, they would become just like us. The problem is that they won’t. Sure, we all have anecdotal stories about our child/student/little brother who we introduced to comics by giving them that perfect issue of ______. But most people don’t have a passionate relationship with their entertainment. They’re not trying to find something to supplement a need that’s already being fulfilled. Sometimes companies (like Apple) can work their way around this, by creating demand where none previously existed, but those are few and far between, especially in entertainment. If DC is unable to generate this demand, changes in content may be insufficient. It would struggle to compete with publishers who have a distinct competitive advantage in the American marketplace, and who have fulfilled the demands of their consumers. In the end, DC may lose their primary audience without anyone to replace it.

If this is all true, why do I still think that it’s a good idea?

EDIT: Tune in next time, where I discuss possible strategies for expanding the adult audience and explain why I think nuking everything to get the kids isn’t the worst idea! (Thanks to Andy for pointing out that this needed clarification).

Powered by WordPress