We don't always like being nonplussed

Friday, June 8, 2012

Frivolous Fridays Superhero Comics Edition: The Question.

So for many years now the two major superhero comics companies have avoided asking themselves The Question. No, not the guy without the face. The Question goes like this:

The Avengers has now made about 1-1/3 Billion dollars worldwide. That's something like 130 million tickets. That's a ticket for everyone in Japan plus some left over. That's a ticket for every third person in the United States.

An Avengers comic book generally sells 100,000 copies a month. That's less than a percent of the tickets sold for Avengers. Less than a tenth of a percent. Even assuming many millions of multiple viewings, that still leaves an astonishing difference. Superhero comics in general sell only to a small but faithful crowd that is shrinking steadily. Not all people who see the Avengers will want to read comics about them, but .1% is still a pitiful conversion rate.

So what are the comics doing wrong and how do you fix it?

My thoughts are:

1. We need to go back to cheap paper because it makes for cheaper comics. For many years now, the best selling comic in the US was Shonen Jump USA, which recently went online only because they were down to Avengers levels of circulation. It made the monthly superhero comics look tiny and overpriced by comparison, both by being 200+ pages for $5 and because monthly superhero comics are tiny and overpriced.

There are a lot of factors that mean comics can never be Shonen Jump cheap- living wages for artists vs. reprint fees for already paid-for materials, color printing, etc. But they can still be cheaper. Comics in their heyday never cost more than two candy bars. They now cost as much as three or four candy bars, which also equates to three or four Redbox movie rentals or a bargain bin DVD, both of which will actually give you complete stories.

2. Speaking of which: complete, self-contained stories are still capable of being part of a larger overarching story. Even if you're working towards something bigger, the average issue should have some kind of complete story in and of itself, and people who didn't see the previous issue should still be able to enjoy the current one. Every issue has the potential of being somebody's first issue, and you should make them feel welcome. This is exactly what the Marvel movies did, it's a trick they took from comics, specifically from back when people actually read comics.

As a corollary: if it takes you two-plus years to work your way back around to undoing The Story Where Fascism Wins, a big chunk of your readership will not stick around to see how that comes out.

3. No more Mature Readers stories about men in tights hitting each other in flagship books. Mainstream superhero comics should never be NSFW. No more of this in a mainline book.Ever.

4. There are times and places for slow, thoughtful stories. Monthly superhero comics are not it. Since I just got it out of the library, let's use the semi-recent Iron Man story arc "Stark Disassembled" as an example. It's good for what it is, but what it is, is a Main Character in a Coma episode of a prime-time drama or a soap opera, stretched out over five monthly issues. That is nearly half a year without Iron Man appearing as Iron Man in his own book. There is a tiny bit of action near the back end of the book, that does not involve Iron Man and barely even involves Tony Stark. You may think, as a writer, you are clever enough to pull this off. You may even be exceptionally clever. But you are not this clever. Nobody is this clever. Imagine the audience putting up with a half-season of a cop show with no crimes solved and no shots fired. Can you? I sure can't.

5. The comic shop dependence has got to end. If you're lucky- and I am -you'll find a comic shop that is well-lit, well-stocked, professional, and more importantly friendly and welcoming to everyone. A lot of people are not that lucky. More people are likely not-lucky than are lucky. The fact that it is necessary to maintain a map of woman and feminist-friendly comic shops should be a ringing indictment of comic shops in general. More importantly, they are specialty shops. I love specialty shops, but how many people who don't already read comics are going to go hunt down their local comic store if they have a hankering for more Avengers stories? ...oh, wait, we have an answer for that: less than one tenth of one percent of the people who like The Avengers.

Comic shops were never intended to be the sole place to get comics. They were a stopgap as the smaller grocery stores were swallowed up by supermarkets, which in turn have been swallowed by Wal-Mart. Nobody ever figured out what to do after that because the comic shop money, at the time, was great. If it's not too late, it's time to go figure that one out.

Are comics ever going to be as big as movies? Probably not. Do they have to be as small as they are now? Absolutely not. An awful lot of people who used to read comics have been chased away by unfriendly prices, unfriendly editorial choices, and unfriendly retailers. Most of them have given up and gone to the movies where, happily, their favorite characters have followed them. If you give those people the right incentive, you might just get them to come back, and maybe bring some of the new friends they made at the theatre.

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