Comic Fodder

A Publisher’s Necessary Evil? Ye Olde Dreaded Reviewer

Publishers have an obligation to market their work. It does not matter what the industry is. If you are a solitary painter, you are your own publisher. There is a ton of stuff to do, like maintain a website or two, plan your catalogs for an upcoming showcase, etc. According to an associate of mine who paints, if you do not act as your own publisher, you will be spending a lot of hours at home painting by yourself, and not selling anything.

Comic book publishers do a lot of things to spread the word about their books. If they did enough, and did it right, there would be almost zero need for comic book reviewers. But they don’t. A little while back, Jessa Crispin commented in a Washington Post article that publishers were forgetting about that most crucial ingredient in the entire industry: the reader. How could this possibly happen?

Someone who loves to read is a golden treasure. Once the love starts, you just can’t stop them. They fall in love with ideas, with certain authors, with an entire genre. Maybe it’s harder now with the internet, or slower to develop, but once someone gets hooked on a good story, they are the worst addict on the planet. I have thrown countless stories at people, stories I thought were good, to have almost nothing stick. Then, grasping at straws, I ventured outside my realm of expertise and offered things that I did not know for sure were good, but they were at least more up the alley of my intended target. Eureka! I have lost track of the number of times someone has come back to me with eyes afire, nearly shouting with excitement about how the book simply could not be put down, and it was read in one night and are kidding me, there’s more?!?! Where is it, I MUST HAVE IT NOW!

And then I run away, as if the most violent crack fiend was hot on my heels, because I know it will be almost impossible to escape the horror I have created.

The Big Two, Marvel and DC, actually do a good number of things. You have to give them credit for being constantly willing to hold endless interviews in the few magazines about the industry, for trying to set up cool websites (to varying degrees of success), to dabbling in online comics, attending the various conventions around the country every year, etc. Some of the credit goes not to the companies, but to the individual writers and artists who love their work, and go out of their way to promote it and interact with their fans. There’s a big “but” coming: it’s not enough. They are not pulling in enough new readers.

Comic book titles used to sell in the millions. Today it is a niche industry, and a few tens of thousands of copies is considered good enough to keep things going. Now, I am one of those people that the industry caters to, someone steeped in decades of continuity, who has watched the technology and the level of story change and (mostly) improve over the years. I love it when writers respect the parts of continuity that are important (a whole ten other conversations we’ll avoid for now), and give me an intelligent idea to chew on that might escape the notice of a seven-year-old. I buy some titles to keep the collection complete, even as I kick myself for being so stupid to get the issue, because I know it’s going to be bad. I buy other titles that are so-so because they are a tie-in, desperately hoping that getting that final aspect of the meta-story will make the whole thing better.

I love it when they get it right, and I am rewarded with a fantawesomelytastic story. But I’m getting older, and some day I will be gone. At some point, I will need to be replaced. And just like in a regular job, it would be better to find some young turk and get them trained now, so they are up to speed and on their way before it’s too late, and the overall readers have dropped below some critical mass point that makes even a Superman comic impossible to sustain on its own (disregarding the fact that it would still be published, just at a loss, for merchandising and legal reasons).

All is not lost. Just as in the book industry, some independents have great websites, and are experimenting with new media and ways to reach out to the reader. Marvel is drawing some people in off the street for the first time in droves, due to comic adaptations of books, like for Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and Anita Blake’s Vampire Hunter novels. Notice how the genres that are bringing in new people are not necessarily of the superhero genre? Notice also that these are stories that are limited, i.e., they have a beginning, a middle, and an end? They are not “forever comics,” dragging out the character’s life for sixty years while insisting only five years have passed.

Marvel and DC are the industry leaders, and will have to be the ones who pave the way to the future; it seems unlikely one independent can do it on his own. They need to get more comics back on the newsstands, and other places more convenient than the niche comic book store. Don’t worry about your local comic store owner; the hardcore fans like me will never desert them. There will always be interesting and loyal people who frequent those specialty shops, and will never grab something from a rack at 7-11 (more on the reasons why in a future column). Note that Marvel and DC face the risk that if they do not lead the way, someone in his garage just might figure out how to capitalize on the next new thing after all, and become the equivalent of the new Bill Gates for the comics industry.

See, the publishers don’t have to worry about me; they can basically take me for granted. The newsstands and libraries and Barnes & Nobles, and online comics, these and other new experiments will be needed to expand the marketplace and bring in new readers. They will need to have more interactive online content, they will need to publish more varied genres, and they will need to do some additional things to get the attention of potential readers.

Until they do, the world will have to settle for readers, anxious to find something good, perusing my reviews, as I try to give them a hint as to what might be worth a try. Because as long as the publishers do not put forth the enormous time and effort that is called for to increase readership, and therefore sales, and do the job that THEY are supposed to do to expose people to their material, there will remain… the dreaded comic book reviewer.

Tpull is Travis Pullen. He started reading comics at 5 years old, and he can't seem to stop. One of his new major goals is to post his column before Ryan can post his. Nyah nyah!

Well played, Mr. Puller. Well played, indeed.

I'll get my revenge next week by posting in a timely fashion. Oh yes. I will.

-- Posted by: Ryan at July 24, 2008 1:00 AM

You make some excellent points there, TP. Marvel and DC could both do a lot more to promote thier books and some of these things wuld literally cost them nothing. Maybe they will someday do these things if enough people write enough letters to the right people.

Unfortunately, they need to do something that they are absolutely not going to do:
Reinvest a lot more money into thier publishing operations.

They could, I believe, expand the business greatly were they to reinvest more. Perhaps triple it, maybe even grow it by tenfold.

But, realistically (and possibly logically), why would they invest a dollar in comics that may bring back 10 dollars down the road when they could invest that dollar into Hollyweird or Video Games and maybe turn that dollar into 100 dollars or more?

It's a drag, to be sure, but not from management or the stockholders veiwpoint.

Still, I'm glad people like you make noise about it. I do also believe that if they are presented with a good idea that won't cost too much, they may implement it.

Keep up the good work!

-- Posted by: Jim Brocius at July 24, 2008 4:40 PM