Saturday, October 3, 2015

Saving Comics - or - how to REALLY expand readership and increase sales

Okay. Let me preface this. Because this is the Internet and comments, opinions etc., can be misinterpreted. I am a comic creator (obviously), I'm also an avid comic reader and I've been a part-time retailer for almost 15 years. I've seen a lot and experienced a lot when it comes to the business and economics of comics. Now, let me also make abundantly clear - I am 150% for diversity and representation in both characters and creators, I am 150% for pushing the envelope editorially and trying new ideas - I want great stories for my money.   In order for comics to sustain their viability, not only do buying habits have to remain consistent with seasoned readers, but NEW readers have to be brought into stores. And I'm not talking about just buying the latest Funko Pop or media-covered title - I'm talking people with a genuine interest to read comics.

Fact is, for the massive popularity the movies, TV and other media have brought these characters, sales are sluggish. You can gussy that statement up all you want - but compared to the 60s, 70s, and even the 90s, comic sales aren't that great. Toys, collectibles, apparel and accessories are great but comics needs readers.

Fandom is big these days, it's also big money. There are major cons every weekend, cosplay is huge, there is an insane variety of collectibles, social media erupts (regularly) about comics and comic-related news... but where are the NEW non-Star Wars related sales and readers? How many of those Star Wars readers are new readers? The new Star Wars books are all the new, official canon but sales doesn't crack more than 205,000? Really?

Is this a marketing problem on behalf of the publishers? I don't know. A few weeks ago at a con, I was floored but the amount of attendees that said "I don't read comics" or "I don't read comics anymore." This was a wide-range of attendee as well, including a few in full comic character cosplay.

Marvel and DC are the gateways to other comics and publishers, so I'm focusing on them.

So what's the issue? Well, aside from the obvious - the movies, TV and video games need to do a better job promoting comic stores and comic books - I think there is a way to maintain the seasoned, regular readers while reaching out to new readers and taking risks. 

Speaking of taking risks, no one takes greater risks when it comes to comics than the retailers. Marvel and DC's near-constant reboots aren't risks. But retailers having to constantly order these "new, flashy books with tons of media coverage" is a HUGE risk. Older readers will get to the point where they will just drop a title outright, new readers will come for issue 1, maybe issue 2 but issue 3 is a crapshoot.

Basically, I believe that Marvel and DC especially, should have 3 separate lines of books. Yes, I've been one to call for slate-cleaning reboots every 25-30 years, but this is a newer idea that I'm behind.

The first line should be the all-ages kid-friendly stuff. This includes books based on cartoons, and books that are just generally aimed at kids - light-hearted plots and fun action. That's pretty simple. There are also examples like the Flash and Arrow comics, I love the TV shows and the universe that's been created, so I absolutely LOVE having comics set in those universes. THAT'S a no-brainer.

The second line should be exactly what DC and Marvel are doing with DCYou and "All-New, All-Different". Push the established norms. Diversify characters and creators, make stories and characters accessible to readers yearning for these things. It's just good business sense. Don't do it because it's "trendy" or because it gives you the greatest media coverage, do it because there are great stories to tell from the widest range of voices and styles.

The third line is what I call the "bottom line." The third line is something that comics SORELY needs. Look, when someone who doesn't normally read comics goes to see The Avengers or Ant-Man or the latest movie, there's a chance they may head to a comic store or a bookstore where graphic novels are sold. So you want an Avengers book with the characters you just saw in the movies? Sure, you can dig through back issues, but where do you start? It's much easier, and much more sensical for a line of books that feature the classic interpretations of the characters in new stories and settings - or even re-imagined versions of classic stories. The kicker? These issues would be self-contained or no more than 3 issue arcs. Classic interpretations.

My reasoning for this third line is two-fold. 1) It gives older readers exactly what they ask for - "just Superman being Superman," if you will. 2) It gives new readers easy access points to stories with zero baggage just a basic understanding of who the characters are. It's much easier to make a sale on a book like this to a brand new reader. When "Age of Ultron" hit theaters, Marvel put out "Avengers: Operation Hydra." It was a one-shot featuring the movie team in action. It was that simple and I thought it was BRILLIANT. If someone comes into the store and says "do you have any Avengers?" and you ask "do you read the current books?" and their answer is "no", this one-shot is a no-brainer. "Okay, well check this book out, it features the Avengers in action and you don't need a flow chart or a degree in continuity to follow it."

These types of books exist - "Adventures of Superman", "Sensation Comics" and "Legends of the Dark Knight" are great examples. And yes, some mainline books like Batgirl, Green Arrow, SHIELD and Moon Knight don't really need this treatment because they don't necessarily have to follow editorial mandates are certain continuities. Bryan Hitch's "JLA" has the right idea. I like the way that book is handled - free from continuity, it's basically "here's a Justice League story." I hope you get the idea.

Some indy creators get it. Since we primarily sell at cons or directly, we're much more inclined to do trades, or create characters and feature them in one and done stories (usually with an over-reaching plot), because our release schedules are constantly variable.

Don't get me wrong, I really dig a lot of the DCYou continuity, but I think it'd be wise to have a line of books that doesn't adhere to these storylines. One and done adventures that are gateways for new readers looking for the most basic interpretations of classic characters.

This might satisfy older readers complaining about change and how "books aren't for them anymore." From a purely business standpoint, you can't alienate eager and new readers looking for diverse voices and representation, but from a retail standpoint, you can't alienate the readers who have been showing up for 10-20 years. It doesn't have to be a double-edged sword. Comics are for everyone and publishers CAN make something for everyone.

Look at the upcoming Spider-Man books. One the one hand, you've got the new direction for "Amazing Spider-Man." It's very different. But on that same coin you have "Spidey" which I liken to an Archie-styled reboot for Spider-Man. Marvel is taking webhead back to high school in "classic and iconic" fashion. This is has been done before sure, but right now? It's the perfect jumping point for new readers just looking for classic Spider-Man.

I really think Marvel and DC can do more to satisfy the needs of everyone. Seriously. We're talking the widest range of available stories to satisfy, INTRODUCE and KEEP the widest range of readers and buyers.