Comic Fodder

Can Comic Writers Create New Comic Readers?

CAUTION: Everything in this post is an opinion. Please feel free to dispute any and all points.



Last week Robert Jones Jr. stated the following in the comments section:

My friend Stan pointed out something that Grant Morrison said in X-Men: Omnibus that I think readily applies in this situation. Morrison said that comics fans will read the comics no matter what. He goes on to urge that their job as creators is not to cater to such persons [comic fans] but to secure new fans.

So you better believe that your loyalty is completely unappreciated, even by the people who profit it from it. As long as there's a population out there that might be larger than you are, it's their job to cater to them, regardless of how faithful you think you might have been. To the publishers, it's truly just business.


I promised Robert Jones Jr. a response, so I'd best get cracking.

I've never worked at a comic company, or even in a comic shop. Until Newsarama, Comic Book Resources, The Pulse and other sites came online, as far as I was concerned, comics just sort of appeared on the shelf. The sort of insight that the modern comic reader today takes for granted simply didn't exist until the late 90's at the earliest, and it really took until about two or three years ago before The Big Two learned how to manage the easy access fans and creators now had of communicating. No more photocopied fanzines and con rumors (which I'd never heard of until reading about them online, I might add).

There are really two separate issues in Robert's statement.

The first is:

My friend Stan pointed out something that Grant Morrison said in X-Men: Omnibus that I think readily applies in this situation. Morrison said that comics fans will read the comics no matter what. He goes on to urge that their job as creators is not to cater to such persons [comic fans] but to secure new fans.

Kind of a sad commentary on what Morrison expects of the faithful, but in comics, it's not an unrealistic expectation. It is true that some characters and series have their loyal fanbase and will sell x number of copies every month (although that may be x-y, if the sales trends of the past few years are still in effect). In the DCU, certainly characters like Superman, Batman and the JLA are guaranteed buoancy of sales figures by the faithful. And, usually, it's easy enough to track a downward trend on those books long enough to note when a very public change-up is due in order to once again increase the sales figures line wide (see: Infinite Crisis/ OYL).

If the role is to create NEW fans, then clearly most creative teams are failing. Comics are selling as boutique items across the board. The best selling comic of 2006 was Marvel's Civil War, and at around 200,000 units barely crested the worst numbers of a few decades back. So, perhaps the most a creator can hope for is to pull from within the existing comic geek fanbase of somewhere over 200,000.

Writers, alas, may be the last step on the way for non-comic readers becoming actual comic readers. As popular as franchises such as Spider-Man or Batman may be in prints on jackets and big-wheels, those audiences for the licensed material simply don't have ready access to the average comic. Gone are the spinner racks and stacks of crumpled comics tucked between the copies of MotorTrend and Muscle & Fitness on the 7-11 magazine rack. The direct maketing of comics has killed the decades old mode of initiating new readers who choose to spend their money on comics instead of candy.

And, even when an event such as The Death of Captain America occurs, shoudl some brave soul venture into a comic shop, figuring out who was who, why Cap was in shackles and why it mattered... For someone new to comics, best of luck. There's probably a point when you either care about figuring out who all of these characters are, or you don't.

But to Morrison's point: I think what he's saying is that he wasn't interested in recycling the tales of the past and writing slavishly to the concrete expectations of the X-Fan. Instead, he was interested in seeing what he could do to push the boundaries of the ideas behind X-Men.

Marvel asked Morrison to build an audience, and he was astute enough to know that the X-Cult* weren't going to let themselves have a gap in their collection no matter how much they felt Morrison was messing up their X-Men. So why not try something new?

If the writers continue to re-tell and re-tell the same stories with the same characters, how can the audience grow? Former fans who peek in to see what's going on with a title will see the status quo is in place, and have no reason to take a look, while fans looking for more of the same will get exactly what they've asked for. As per new readers who already pick up comics? It doesn't hurt to shake things up quite a bit to generate interest. But when marketing is promising earth-shattering changes for characters in each issue, how do you sell to that audience once they've been burned repeatedly by marketing?

Did Morrison sell more X-Men comics? I bought my first X-Men in years when he came on the title. I have a full run of the collections of his New X-Men, but I have no idea what the sales figures were for New X-Men. The attitude of writing toward a new audience, it seems, caused him no small amount of trouble from both X-Fans and led to him abandoning ship for DC when Marvel took exception for doing exactly what they'd hired him to do.

It's difficult to guess how to build that new audience, and if anyone knew how to do it, aside from by re-launching series with a new #1, printing multiple covers, and other forms of artificial inflation.... They'd be a wealthy comics publisher indeed.

If there's any sure sign that readers do, in fact, want to see something new featuring their favorite characters, look no further than the previously unthinkable shake-ups occuring in the Marvel Universe with Civil War, versus the sinking numbers of the OYL experiment as DC messily returned to the status quo.

Ah, and this dovetails/ seques neatly with Robert's next observation:

So you better believe that your loyalty is completely unappreciated, even by the people who profit it from it. As long as there's a population out there that might be larger than you are, it's their job to cater to them, regardless of how faithful you think you might have been. To the publishers, it's truly just business.

And that's the magic of capitalism. I wouldn't expect anything less.

As supposedly outraged as many Marvel readers claim to be regarding the conclusion of Civil War and the fallout of Civil War, why would Marvel feel as if theyd made a mistake when they're sitting on their couches made of money and returned copies of House of M? Comic publishers are in the business of making money (although, lately, not necessarily in the habit of making money). It's nothing readers should begrudge them, but readers don't need to necessarily applaud every move, either. What they need to do is cease buying comics which they no longer find pleasing. And when they DO find a comic which is particularly good, evangelize a bit in favor of that comic and convince people to buy that issue.

One of the goals of the Comic Fodder columns you'll see posted by "ryan" is to assist you in wisely spending your hard-earned clams. And I don't mind hearing your opinions on how I'm spending my hard-earned clams.

As long as there are narrative changes that make sense, or which work once they're implemented, I'll try not to complain. Here's the thing about how these companies, by necessity, must work: If you buy a comic, and you hate it, and then you buy the next issue knowing you're getting more of the same, the publisher receives exactly the same $1.00 from you as if you loved that comic. All of the blogs, all of the angry message boards and fanmail in the world doesn't really matter if you're still buying a comic. Especially if you're keeping it on your pull list and asking someon to order you a copy.

In a world run by capitalism and the democracy of the dollar, the mediocre very often rises to the top as readers are often unwilling to try on new things and retailers are unwilling to take the risk of putting comics on the shelf which they aren't 100% positive will sell.

Between Robert's two points, there's that gray area of art and commerce. Is a writer or creator with new ideas actually marketable?

But he also seems to have a slightly contradictory position. On the one hand he's saying that comic companies know they can sell to a faithful audience, but on the other, he seems to be saying that they owe nothing to the loyal audience without whom continued publishing of the comic would become a financial impossibility. Further, it's likely the publishers will try on new hats which will disrupt my secure feeling that loyalty is a two-way street as they fulfill their corporate responsibility and seek to grow the audience for their product.

What I suppose I would say is that your loyalty to any particular character should never allow you to continue to buy comics which you're actively disliking month after month. Even if the comic continues to do well under the new direction, it may be time to walk away.

*No offense intended to X-Philes. I belong to the cult of Superman and have a lot of regrettable issues of the various Supertitles cooling in my long boxes.




So what did I say that was just way off base? What details am I forgetting? Did I completely miss the point?

Come on, I can take it.

I think one detail you might want to bear in mind is that the comic book creators are work for hire, contracted by the companies to work on the characters those companies own in the way that those companies want to showcase them. Therefore, the primary obligation of the creators is to the publisher (and the publisher's direct rep to the creators, the editor), NOT to the fans. The publisher's primary obligation in turn is to the retailers, NOT to the fans. The retailer's primary obligation is to move product to keep themselves in business. The fans are the end-users in all of this. They can vote with their wallets, but they will almost never get to actually dictate policy.

Undoubtedly the publishers and creators both feel they are also obligated to tell the kinds of stories that will sell as much as possible to both current loyalists and new readers, but if there are non-story considerations that make a book sell better the publishers will likely go for that every time.

-- Posted by: Elayne Riggs at April 12, 2007 11:46 AM

I'm not sure where the regression begins and ends as per the literal meaning of responsibility goes. You're adding in a lot of (important) middle men in your formula. And ceratinly middle men who keep comic writers employed. Applying the same logic to self-publishing, such as web-based comics, suggests something a bit different as those middle-men are taken away. Perhaps I should track down Lea Hernandez and have her address the topic of online publishing.

That said, the publishing wing of the big two companies has nothing to offer BUT their intellectual property. Surely nobody is paying $3.00 for a few pieces of paper stapled together for any reason but the content on the page. Certainly they're not paying for something because they think Editor X can edit the heck out of a comic.

It's my opion (and take this with a grain of salt) that it's a little bit off to state that the writer has nobody to satisfy but the editor or publisher when the livelihood of the editor and publisher depends upon the desire of the reader to buy somebody else's words. Whether the editor loves Writer X or not, if sales slip, the writer must go.

Of course, looking at some of DC's output, you certainly get the feeling that the friendship between an editor and writer may be the only reason some comics ever see print.

Certainly retailers play a part, but even retailers have been taken out of the loop of comic selection to some degree with the model of direct market. Comic buyers are doing their work before comics ever arrive, digging through online solicitations and through Previews deciding on what comics to buy and THEN informing their retailer to order them a copy. As I don't work in a comic shop, I am not privvy to all of the ordering side of the business with discounts, returns, etc... but as a rule of thumb, most retailers do not intentionally over order on most comics, with just a few unclaimed copies for the shelf.

Taking the pre-order factor out of the equation... But looking at another medium with writers and editors...

We all know the new Harry Potter will sell like hot cakes this summer because of a built in fan base and because JK Rowling wrote the book. Certainly Rowling isn't writing to appease editors as much as to please as many readers as possible and thus fill her pockets with money.

But I'm also no comic professional, so I could be way, way off here.

-- Posted by: ryan at April 12, 2007 8:39 PM

I think you touched on an important point early on - soliciting the kids. DC could be making a killing connecting their associated DCAU cartoon properties with the Johnny DC comics, but I'd be willing to be almost none of these kids even know that the corresponding comics exist, since they're not easily accessible at the 7-11 or supermarket. And since the average 10 year old isn't getting exposure, the best way of generating new life-long readers is lost. Dropping into them, like i have in my mid-thirties, is hardly an easy solution.

(And, frankly, that has zilch to do with the writers, and everything to do with the characters. Good stories are important, but a basic familiarity with the characters are more important, and that will come more from movies, tv, etc. The only time a writer's going to draw serious numbers of new fans in is when he's well known in a completely unrelated field - I got into comics more for the Dark Tower adaptation, and I'm intrigued that Tad Williams is doing Aquaman, since I like his novels - but again, it's not a particularly sustainable model...)

Of course, there's a corresponding problem in that the level of violence in the comics is a bit above what most parents would want to expose their kids to. There's only one title out of the ones I follow that I'd be willing to give to my little cousin; the violence, gore and adult themes showing up in flagship titles like Batman would make any parent wary.

If they want new readers, they're aiming at the wrong audience. OTOH, if they want to keep the existing audience, pissing them off isn't a good idea . Negative publicity on either front isn't gonna help...

-- Posted by: Anonymous at April 14, 2007 3:01 PM

At some point DC and Marvel are going to have to consider how to re-enter the youth-friendly market, and certainly not by asking children to get themselves to a comic shop. It's a question of both content AND accessibility.

Perhaps at some point a publisher interested in doing better than the status-quo will find a way to re-enter newstands, utilize the internet, enter the kid's section of book stores or find their way onto book orders and find new outlets and make comics available to kids. But, yeah, absolutely... I wouldn't exactly want to hand most kids "Identity Crisis", or expect kids to understand the 50 years of history embedded in the average issue of something like JLA or JSA.

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