quinta-feira, 3 de setembro de 2009
How to Save the Comics Industry!
A Fanzing Special Report
by Michael Hutchison
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed herein are solely those of Michael Hutchison and the industry professionals cited. While we will be seeking honest answers to the comic book industry's troubles, none of this should be misconstrued as derogatory comments about DC itself or its parent company, Warner Brothers. The whole point of this article is that we wish them both the best critical and financial success, and we are seeking ways that that might happen.
Part One Contents
Where the industry stands today
The Basic Problem
Michael Hutchison's "Four Steps" Theory
Why (and why not) kids aren't reading
Brief history of comics
Words from the Pros
As Geordi LaForge often said, "We…have a problem!"
The comics industry is in trouble. Sales are low. In fact, numbers that were once considered the cancelation point are now acclaimed as high sales figures! People wanting to get into the comics biz are told to instead pick a career with a future to it. Comic collecting is an unprofitable hobby, and comic shop owners are going to great lengths to sell off their inventory…both indicators that there are more sellers and fewer buyers. And comics are sold in fewer and fewer places aside from comic shops.
In composing an article on this subject, I turned to numerous pros in the comic book industry. You'll find quotes from them in blue boxes throughout this piece. Many of them addressed the same problems or proposed the same solutions, but each spoke in their own way and it doesn't hurt to have a consensus! Some echoed points I'd already made in my rough draft, and others gave new insights into how this biz operates (or doesn't operate).
Before I can begin addressing solutions to this, let's look at some specifics of the industry as it stands today:
The publishing quality of comics today is the best it's ever been. The computer coloring, paper quality and other technological improvements make for a fine product if judged on its own merits.
Comic books aren't available in as many of their old "traditional" markets. Grocery stores, drug stores, department stores, variety stores, toy stores, etc. aren't as likely to carry them. When they do, they're often jammed together into one or two piles on the magazine rack. These merchants often dislike the low profits derived from comics and would rather sell other products in their place. Given that these stores are where kids often encounter comic books for the first time (while their parents are buying non-comic items), this is a large problem. Another logistic concern: There are grocery stores in every town and hamlet in the civilized world, but comic shops are few and far between.
Trade paperbacks are a growing business. Bookstores which may or may not carry comic books love the paperbacks, which sell well and have a higher price point (more profit) per item than comic books.
On the matter of price…retailers want higher price points on comics, but they are already priced around $2. The $2 price may already be too high, given that other items haven't climbed at the same rate. I wish there was information on what the average kids' allowance is today compared to past decades. However, one only has to look at comparable items. I often site the example of what I could buy at the grocery store in the mid-1980s. For $1.50, I could buy two $.75 comic books. Pop was about $.45 and candy bars were $.40, so I could buy a bunch of snacks with that money. Today, if I was a kid with $1.50 to spend, I could still buy a pop and 2 candy bars, but (assuming my grocery store even HAD comic books) I'd need another few quarters to buy a single comic book! If you're a kid trying to get the most out of his measly few dollars a week, what would you buy?
I'll continue in a minute…but first, some words of wisdom from Chuck Dixon:
"It's all about exposure. Comics have such a low profile in the marketplace that they've made themselves irrelevant. Most people don't even know that comic books are still in publication. With the number of comics shops shrinking that ignorance will grow. And comic books' newsstand presence seems to be fading as well. Gone are the spinracks that sprouted up a few years ago in bookstores and convenience places.
What comic books need is for SOMEONE other than Archie comics to be placed on that impulse rack at the supermarket checkout aisle. There's a hundred other ways comics could promote themselves.
When a movie is made based on the comic there should be more cross-promotion and more hoopla about where the material came from. When a toy is made from a comic character there should be SOME indication of the origin of this character and how his adventures can be found in a current comic book. Trade paper sales are growing at the book superstores despite the fact that the comics get minimal display at the butt-end of the sci-fi section. How 'bout a dumprack at the register especially for spotlighted trade paperbacks? Dean Mullaney did it when he ran Eclipse to sell comic adaptations of The Hobbit and did great.
How 'bout exploring some different markets other than superhero fans? Well-executed mysteries and westerns and adventure stories in the same digest sized format that the Italians and Mexicans have used so successfully. Go for a wider audience.
Get high profile guys like Gary (Far Side) Larson or the guy who did Calvin and Hobbes to do a graphic novel. They have guaranteed bestseller potential and would lure in new readers familiar with their strip work. Hell, get Stephen King to write one. He can do it over a three day weekend. Give him all the damn profits and write it off as promotion.
Above all, do SOMETHING. This situation isn't going to turn itself around. I want to cry when I see the sales figures that are considered successful today. THE NAIL should have sold like WATCHMEN did when it came out. And there were about as many comics shops then as there are now. Somebody's gotta make a move and take a few risks.
Warners treats its comic book division like a ghetto. In fact all owners of comic book companies, without exception, treat their holdings like that even if they do generate hundreds of millions a year in merchandising."
Chuck Dixon, writer
I think the basic challenge is getting kids into reading comics. This will be the thrust of my report. However, this is not a universally-accepted theory. There are all types of people in this world, and I have read statements to the effect that the solution to the comics industry's woes lie elsewhere.
The theory goes that comic books should try to emulate Japan, where grown men read comics in great numbers because they take comics seriously as an art form. (I won't go into how degrading and violent a lot of it is, although that's certainly something to bring up in a more lengthy discussion of the Japanese market.) Comic books should go the way of the dodo, replaced by graphic novels which cost $20+ and are sold amongst the regular books at the local B. Dalton and Barnes and Noble. As for content, forget superheroes, cowboys, soldiers, space rangers and other noble characters; instead, focus on "realistic, 3-dimensional characters" like drug addicts, hired killers, hookers and foul-mouthed ministers.
Which is, of course, poppycock. I'll use even stronger language: bullpoppycock. You're welcome to pursue such things if it's what trips your trigger, but it's not going to save the comic industry (or make the world a better place, In My Humble Opinion). I tried to be sarcastic in the previous paragraph, but the fact is you'll find many people who believe every word of what I said. You don't find them amongst the readers of JLA, Ambush Bug and Legion; more often, they're devout readers of Vertigo titles, Spawn, Vampirella, Lady Death and any other comic where a woman with 44DDs wears a piece of yarn for a costume. I don't mean to demean readers of those comics as a whole, as a person with diverse tastes can certainly enjoy the more adult comics on the market; however, I've run into many a hardcore devotee of such works who would, if it were up to them, reshape the comic world to be an (unintentionally) hostile one for kids.
In case you don't see the folly of this, let me share my reasoning, which I call:
Michael Hutchison's Four Steps To Comic Reading (patent pending)
Many, many readers of such "mature" fare worked their way up through the comics world.
First Step: They started with Richie Rich, Casper and Scrooge McDuck…and maybe some of the simpler Batman/Superman comics of old. Stories, vocabulary and art are basic and easy.
Second Step: From there, they went to the mainstream DC and Marvel comics. These stories are more complex but retain many of the same storytelling techniques of "Step One".
Third Step: Then they went from the simple action-filled comics to the soap opera, subplot-filled, character development-heavy comics with large, complex histories like New Teen Titans, Legion of Super-Heroes , Starman and the regular X-books.
Fourth Step: And from there, to Sandman, Preacher, John Constantine, Doom Patrol, etc.
You could skip perhaps any one of these steps without much trouble. And I'm sure that there are indeed some "mature title" readers who introduce non-comic-fans to their favorite titles, though even this requires some comic readers to get such a process started. I just don't think we'll ever reach a point where large numbers of people who live their first 15-20+ years of existence without reading a comic will just automatically get into The Invisibles or Books Of Magic. So, to be so into the fourth step of this process that you recommend discontinuing the first three is to be close-minded indeed.
With me so far?
Then here's something to consider: If you can't really have the fourth step without the first three, then neither can there be a comics market without the first and second steps. For much of the late 1980s and early 1990s, too much emphasis was placed on the last two steps and we all thought this was simply a transformation into a new world of comic books. I think we are reaping what was sown in 1985-1995, but I don't think it's too late to rebuild the system.
There are some who think that the comic book is fundamentally flawed and is of no interest to new kids, what with their Nintendos and Pokemons, their 24-hour kids channels and their videotape libraries, their non-stop TV watching (certainly more and more parents raise their kids without time limits on viewing) and the more adult content-laden shows (otherwise known as "garbage") which makes kids more "wordly" at a younger age. All these factors DO exist and are changing the way kids behave, but I reject this explanation for the state of the comic market. I'm NOT that old and nothing has really changed from the thriving comic market of the 1980s. I got into comics despite Atari 2600s and Colecovision, He-Man and G.I. Joe, Scooby-Doo and The Real Ghostbusters. We even had VCRs. (Granted, for a while they were as big as a refrigerator, cost $400 and loaded from the top, but they were VCRs.) I joke, but I think it's important to point out that kids haven't become different animals in only 10+ years' time. In fact, arcade games soaked more quarters out of me than they do out of kids today, yet I somehow found the money for an issue of Captain Carrot or Crisis on Infinite Earths.
I was introduced to Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al through the Superfriends TV show on network television. Today, the popular and successful Superman/Batman Adventures is on the upstart WB network, which may or may not be as influential as the main networks (I'd be curious to see some figures on the reach of ABC/CBS/NBC vs. the WB, but cable/dish expansion has rendered this less of a problem than it once was). There are Superman movies and Batman movies which children, pre-teens and teens have seen in great numbers. There are Warner Bros. stores in many shopping malls and Superman/Batman action figures in the toy stores. Kids probably have more exposure to these characters than I had, and I think kids LIKE these characters as much as they ever did. So I don't think the explanation for the comics market is that Superman and Batman are things of the past.
In order for this theory (that kids have no interest in comics) to be true, kids would have to be passing them by despite a surplus of places to buy comics. Are you telling me that everywhere kids are going there are dozens and dozens of comics, well-displayed, at reasonable prices, with attractive covers that appeal to kids, and despite all that kids are turning up their noses at reading them because they'd rather play Pokemon? Nah. I think Pokemon is just a scapegoat. Given that Pokemon products are available at all the comic shops I visit and seem to be drawing kids in for the purpose of getting Pokemon, I'd consider those ridiculous things to be a plus for comics, not a minus. Pokemon is drawing kids to where comics are available, which is more than I can say for the comics companies themselves!
Ty Templeton says it best:
"In my opinion the problem with the comix industry is simply one of distribution. No one bothers to distribute comics to where readers might be any more.
I've heard recently that POKEMON™ comics sell over a quarter of a million copies each issue, but less than fifteen thousand of that number is selling in comic stores. This is because, [even though] there's nothing about comics for a kid not to like, no kid in his right mind goes into a comic store. There isn't one in your neighborhood, the owners are creepy fat guys, the other patrons are creepy fat guys, and good lord the writers and artists are creepy fat guys!
Comic stores are for fans, not readers. But POKEMON comics are available at supermarkets, and bookstores, and toy stores, and PLACES KIDS ARE!!! As popular as Pokemon is, so is Batman (seriously, Pokemon is a wildly popular new fad, but Batman has been a mania equal to Pokemon at least three times during the last twenty years)
Distribute to newsstands, airports, variety stores, Wal-marts, and places where kids and readers are…and you'll get the comics industry back."
Ty Templeton, writer/artist
Let's look at a brief history of comics, as much as I can summarize it without it becoming an article in itself!
Comics were, for many decades, disposable reading matter aimed at a general audience. They were read mostly by kids, although comics like Superman, Batman, Captain America and others were just as popular with soldiers during wartime (many of them being high school-educated or less). You could find them at dime stores and grocery stores, and you have only to read the countless "I was going to buy candy and instead spent my dime on the captivating Superman comic" stories of fans and fans-turned-pros to know that this played a pivotal role in the success of comic books. Comics were accessible and cheap, and they weren't meant to be collectibles; the many coupons scattered throughout a typical comic make it clear that this was as disposable a purchase as a newspaper. Comics were made to be bent, folded, torn, left on the floor, stepped on and cut up. You could save them if you really liked a story, but you didn't handle them gingerly and place them in a slipcover the moment you were done with them. The comic collector industry which arose over the decades profited greatly from the fact that the vast majority (I'd give a percentage, but I'd be making it up) of comics had been mistreated, cut up, thrown in the garbage or pulped. Action Comics #1 wouldn't be worth $1000s if 95% of the comics published had been bagged with a backer board (or worse, sold in a sealed bag and never read).
I daresay that if these factors (Widely available, Aimed at a general audience, Cheap as candy and Intended to be disposable) existed today, the comics market would be thriving. As adults who've grown up with the modern market, we'd all gripe about our pet preferences…but they'd be thriving. Let's consider how comics changed over the years.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, readership of superhero comics sagged. While DC's "big three" continued to be published, comics companies focused on a wide assortment of genres, including cartoon, funny animal, cowboy, romance, sci-fi, war, horror and others. Many of these titles, or at least the genres, thrived for a decade or two. Some, such as Sgt. Rock, were published until the late 1980s! However, the emphasis shifted back to superheroes in spades when some now-legendary men like Julius Schwartz, John Broome, Gardner Fox and many other "greats" launched the Silver Age with sleeker, more sci-fi oriented Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and Atom superheroes. Around the same time, artists like Steve Ditko, Carmine Infantino, Joe Kubert and Jack Kirby were redefining comic book artwork. No longer was movement staid and confined to a boxlike layout; instead, the characters began to spring off the page! There are entire lectures and books devoted to this revolution in art, so I won't try to recap it in a sentence.
Notice one important point, here. The content of comic books was improving, and sales were good. But comics were still cheap, disposable, available at local stores…and intended for a general audience. No one would dare say that these writers didn't possess large vocabularies and intelligent writing skills…they simply aimed for the proper audience. Teens and adults COULD enjoy them…but kids were never left out. All dialogue was kept at an elementary school level. Scientific concepts were explained to the reader. Editor's notes informed readers of information they may need to understand a character's past or what happened last issue. The splash page summarized the character so that new readers knew what the book was about. And there was a veritable science to the structure of a book, from the front cover to the end of the story. Editors had a list of cover elements which sold comics (gorillas, fire, motorcycles, a question posed to the reader, a main character crying, dinosaurs, the color purple, etc…as Mark Waid revealed in Secret Origins #40, the all-monkey issue). There was always action on the inside page, even if it was only a splash page showing action that wouldn't occur until later in the book.
In the 1960s and 1970s, comics "matured" a bit. Enough teens were reading comics that we now come to what I earlier referred to as "step two". Comics such as Teen Titans, Brother Power, even The Flash tried to be "hip" (with varying degrees of success). Green Arrow began addressing topics such as social reform, drug abuse, civil disobedience, etc. as he and Green Lantern toured America. The "Manhunter" back-up stories in Detective Comics became a hit, recalled for years as a storytelling masterpiece. The occasional "damn" or "hell" (used sparingly but effectively) replaced such exclamations as "Holy Hannah" and this did not meet with many objections. This was also a time when comic collecting became more widespread, although collecting materials weren't readily available and the industry didn't cater to this.
The 1980s are the decade of greatest significance for our discussion, for it saw the dawn of the direct market and serious collecting…and an overemphasis on same. This is also where the "third step" comics truly began (a.k.a. the comics that you had to start reading at issue #1 or you'd be lost). New Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes (particularly Legion) turned into long character dramas which would develop subplots and major plotlines over the course of months or even a year or two. (As editor of Fanzing, I've tried to get into Legion for the sake of its many, many fans. But trying to follow the complex history with the Time Trapper and Glorith rewriting history over and over, the 30+ characters with names like "Rokk Krinn"…I think they're all called Rokk Krinn, actually…then the reboot and all the 90s names for characters I knew…Me am konfused. I'm a good example of new readers who are scared away from inaccessible books!) These "third step" comics were taking comics to a new level, delivering depth, intrigue and a hell of a lot of fun in exchange for one thing: your commitment to reading it every month. For these books moved beyond the monthly introduction to all the main characters, the recaps of ongoing plots and subplots, editor's notes of when past events happened, etc. Splash pages and/or action-packed openings weren't so important, since the reader was there for the long haul and was going to read the book…so who cares whether the first page draws you in or not? I don't think all of this was so much intentional as it was slowly forgotten.
Again, there's nothing intrinsically WRONG with comics of this type…as long as there are still the first two steps for entry-level readers. But, beyond Captain Carrot's cancelation in 1984, you'd be hard-pressed to show many "first step" comics being published by DC. Granted, there were still Archie, Richie Rich and some Disney comics. But it's odd to see a comic company which is wholly dependent on its competitors to get kids reading comics!
As for the fading away of "second step" comics…this is difficult to classify, because there's much more of a blurred line between "second step" and "third step". I think the change begins when the writer of a comic gets too "realistic" for the good of the comic. Such things as expository dialogue fall victim to the "Who talks like that?" notion, introductory texts fade away as the writer tires of introducing his characters every month…in short, the writer begins making the reader do more and more work. "You're the reader…if you want to know who these characters are, why didn't you buy issue #1 where we gave you the origin? If you don't understand what's going on, you should have bought last month's comic! Go to a comic shop and buy it and give us your money instead of expecting us to hold your hand every month." The only other defining characteristic between the second and third steps is an increase in vocabulary…again, probably as much from a lack of consideration of such impediments to young readers as anything else.
Without a drastic difference between steps two and three, you don't really notice the shift right away. But by the late 80s, few if any of DC's main titles could be defined as "second step." John Byrne takes a lot of heat for his current work, I know, but I still consider his Superman revision to be a work of genius…and when looking at it with an eye for accessibility to youngsters, it holds up to that as well. The Byrne-era Superman comics were visually easy to comprehend and rarely used words kids couldn't understand, but they were hardly "kiddie stories"; teens and adults also enjoyed them and an adult reader could appreciate them today. If someone wanted an example of what kind of books DC should be publishing to appeal to kids without being "dumbed down," Byrne's Superman comics would be my first example. But even the Superman line fell in accessability once Byrne was gone: the comics became more "serious" and serialized. (Granted, Superman and Batman still sell. Superman and Batman ALWAYS sell!)
So, an almost non-existent "first step" and a dwindling "second step" were part of the late 1980s. This, obviously, isn't the sort of thing one notices for a decade or so. It's only when the kid readers of the 1980s who should have grown into comic-reading teens in the 1990s aren't there in large numbers that we realize that the base was neglected.
The other major change of the 1980s wasn't a creative one but a publishing one: the direct market. Comic shops became a thriving industry, as retailers were able to profit from such stores even in medium-sized cities. Comics fans thrilled at the more widespread availability of back issues (these were the days when you could find old, good comics in the back issue bins, instead of just last year's surplus crossovers and events that have been overpurchased by the store). Collecting supplies (long boxes, bags, backer boards) and price guides were sold to more and more everyday shmoes, not just the professional collectors. Best of all, the comic books were each given their own display slots and weren't a manhandled mess, as they were in the regular stores. And if there wasn't a shop near you, now you could subscribe to services that would mail the comics to you in top condition.
This boom brought new opportunities. Small publishers had a place to be seen. Large publishers had a place to feature comics which wouldn't get the right attention if they were in the messy pile at the grocery store. Comic fans began making regular visits to the comic shops, which is what encouraged much of the "third step" comics dependent on regular readers. Sophisticated comics like "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight" ushered in an era of appreciation for the medium and what it could do when done right. All attention was on this shift to the sophisticated, witty, intelligent books. For a while, anyway. Prices rose, because many teens and adults with incomes were willing to pay a few quarters more for quality, and the increase made comics more of a profitable product for the retailer.
But there were problems.
First of all, the direct market's success was the death knell for collecting. Comics weren't disposable reading material anymore, and the vast majority of customers cared for their comics and put them in bags. Now a comic's price would only increase if it was an unexpected hit, or if the creator(s) became famous later or some other such surprise. The 1990s brought so much catering to collectors (polybagged, die-cut, foil-stamped, glow-in-the-dark, alternate cover, special platinum issues with the words "COLLECTOR'S ITEM" in 40 pt. raised text across the middle) that the readers finally rebelled against the abuse of their hard-earned dollars. As collectors know, the true collectible is an item that is not intended to be collectible. The marketing gimmicks may have had some noble intentions of bolstering comic collecting prices through gimmicks instead of scarcity, but the end result was annoyance at the companies' focus on superficial details over quality comics.
Pause for comedy relief: I believe it was "Bartman #1" in which comic collectors Bart Simpson and Milhouse gasp in awe at a polybagged comic sealed with an incendiary device which will destroy the comic if you try to read it. Very astute. Even more ironically, the comic has a foil cover.
To this day, the unprofitability of collecting is a blow to the industry. The only true way to make collecting profitable again is to have more readers than comics. Such a solution is, of course, a problem for the comics company. DC, Marvel and other companies don't profit from collecting, although it is in their overall best interests (given that we're more likely to buy comics if we think they'll still be worth something later). What IS profitable for the comics companies is to meet demand 100%. If there are 500,000 people wanting that special issue of Batman, DC wants to print enough copies until everyone has one and future buyers can have one too! They COULD print only 50,000 copies and watch as the bidding price SOARED in the Wizard guide, but DC doesn't see any of that cash beyond the $2 per copy price they sold it at.
Even things which are keeping the comics industry afloat are hurting the collectors' market. Trade paperbacks have their nasty aspect. On the few occasions where a book DOES become a surprise success, DC immediately releases a trade paperback collecting that comic. You can't blame DC for wanting to do that, of course. It's a great way to get more money from something you've already published, and TPB's are doing amazing business in bookstores. But much of the value in having the original comic is gone. Oh, there's some interest, sure…JLA #1-4 are still worth a good amount, even though you could read the story for a fraction of the price by buying the TPB. But when DC's TPB of Kingdom Come is $5 less than the cover price of the four prestige comics…AND you get two restored pages AND you get a fantastic epilogue AND you get behind the scenes notes and sketches and artwork…how much can the originals be worth? Certainly not as much as if a trade paperback hadn't been released within the same year. It's gotten to the point where many readers start guessing whether a book will be a success and just wait for the trade paperback!
I think that such factors as overpurchasing and the frequent publication of trade paperbacks of recent titles has practically killed the back issue market. Sure, to the patron it's great to pick up books for a buck or two…but basically, it's saying that all profitability for the store is gone. I've been to comic shops which were willing to sell me a long box of back issues…no matter what I found and put inside it…for $50. That was cool…but also sad. Comic shops don't want to be saddled with metric tons of worthless back-issues…nor do they want the patrons to pick up on the fact that any book they don't pay $2.50 for now will be worth a fraction if they wait a month. Heck, you also get a plastic sleeve at no extra charge!
Beyond the woes of collectors, there is the second major problem of the direct market: the decrease in traditional venues for comic book sales.
With so much emphasis on comic shops and so many readers flocking to them, less emphasis was placed on the dime stores and drug stores, the K-Marts and grocery stores. While Archie and Disney/Gladstone had kid-accessible comics, there were still Marvel and DC comics on the racks but little that kids would want to read. To be sure, some kids got mutant mania and bought some X-Men comics. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash and Green Lantern were still there, but they were almost all "third step" comics. Complex storylines, adult themes, little introduction to characters, a lot of words and some tough vocabulary words…these books could be enjoyed by some kids but weren't really aimed at them.
As sales of comic books dropped off, retailers began carrying fewer comic books or dropping them all together. While publishers weren't happy about it and want as many outlets as possible, there were signs that comic shops were simply taking over and the marketplace was changing.
But as we're seeing, this has been a tragic oversight. General retail stores are where kids discover comics…and I'm tempted to end that with "PERIOD!" because I really can't see any other way for it to work. Kids can't drive. Kids aren't really aware of comic shops. Even if they were…at the price of $2, parents aren't going to buy more than a couple comics at a time, so they're not going to intentionally take their kids to a smorgasbord like a comic shop. Mommy's busy doing important stuff like grocery shopping, buying aspirin at the drug store, getting the kids new shoes at K-Mart in time for school, picking up daddy at the airport or bus terminal and maybe indulging the kids' requests to go to the toy store if it's near a clothing store. Now, while mom's busy at the grocery store, drug store, K-Mart, terminal and toy store, the kids might encounter comic books and beg and whine and plead and whimper until mom throws it in with the rest of the purchases. That's how kids get comic books. But only if they are available at all those places!
Taken as a whole, comic shops usually aren't as inviting for kids as they could be. I think it's a safe assertion that other retail outlets are the place kids will be introduced to comics. Another safe assertion is that a lot of comic shop owners should re-think their store's appearance. (Read my "comic shop" diatribe on the next page.)
So, that's a brief history of comics as I see it. Hopefully, it's pretty accurate. I'm going to give some opinions and suggestions as to what the comic book industry (and DC in particular) can do to get back on track. First, some suggestions from comics pros (and a Fanzing staffer):
"My take on the industry? We have a fading audience base. The more readers we lose, the more retailers we lose. The more retailers we lose, the fewer comics are sold. The surviving retailers are also getting more and more conservative, ordering -- in many cases -- only those titles and copies of those titles that they KNOW they can sell.
The solution? Expand the audience base. The problem with the solution? Getting comics where people can see them. We need casual readers who then might become regular readers. We can't reach them because they don't come to comic book stores. Comics have to get out where people can see them. Possible solution -- selling through the Internet.
Futher problem? Inbred continuity which makes it difficult if not impossible for new readers to pick up a book and know what is going on. I don't want to lose current or old readers but I am of the firm opinion that super-tight continuity is making it tough for new readers to become involved.
It all boils down to one thing: ACCESSIBILITY. Being able to find the comics in the first place and being able to enjoy them once you have."
John Ostrander, writer
"We have to make comics more interesting, and we have to let people - lots of people, not just comics fans - know about it. Much of the problem stems from the choking surfeit of superhero comics and all that implies for the business and to the world. Many have likened the current market to the Titanic, but if comics are the Titanic, superheroes are the iceberg."
Steven Grant, writer
"What we can all do is stop being so pesimistic! READERS pick up on that!
Second we can keep doing good stuff.
Comics has been a cyclical business… in the 50s folks said TV was killing comics… Westerns and Romance [comics] showed up… then comics became cool in the 60s. In the 70s when comics faced video games we turned to Kung Fu and monsters… in the 90s we have-- well, EVERYTHING! I just got back from San Diego and there ARE every KIND of comics you can imagine available.
We are like a yo-yo (which they tell me is popular again)… waiting for that one kid to decree that comics are cool again. He'll tell his friend and he'll tell his friends and so on and so on!
We are publishing and canceling some of the best comics ever published…but we'll be there, ready when folks realize what we have to say is worth hearing!
Really… I just got back from the 30th San Diego Comicon international-- where attendance broke records and the vibe was positive… let's all just stop being so negative!
If anyone KNEW what would save the day we would do it… this is not accounting… where one plus one ALWAYS equals two… this is a subjective business.
And as far as getting the stuff in front of people… if we made all the places that comics were available FIRENDLY and PLEASANT places to be… more folks would stay and shop.
And as far as reaching folks who don't go to comic shops… DC reaches kids in every school in America! And our collected editions area is a gigantic growth area for us in real book stores! "
Mike Carlin, editor
"SHOWCASE: Either designate a comic to showcase possibilities for new ongoing series, or have backup features in existing comics which will test the popularity of characters for ongoing series. Too many good series have fallen by the wayside recently because no buyer was willing to make a commitment to a new ongoing series and once they'd proven themselves, it was too late; they'd already become unprofitable. What if Resurrection Man had been a backup feature in Superman, or Chase a backup feature in Detective Comics before the were placed in an ongoing series? I think it might have helped.
PROMOTE: Why don't I see advertisements for comic books anywhere but in other comic books, or comic-book-specialty publications and Internet sites? Would it really kill Time Warner to advertise? Even if radio and TV ads are too expensive to justify the expected returns from comic book sales, can't they slip Rosie O'Donnell or Oprah a copy of STARMAN: Sins of the Father, or something? If comics don't grow their fan base, it'll remain a little "insider's club".
Will these save the industry? Beats me; but I certainly think not doing them hurts the industry."
Chaim Mattis Keller, Fanzing writer
"First, we've got to find a way to get super-hero comics into the hands of CHILDREN. That's who they're FOR. Kids LOVE comics, but they have no idea where to FIND them except at my house at Halloween.
Second, we've got to improve our craft as storytellers to make certain that our comics are CLEAR and CONCISE, that they make SENSE to new readers and that characters and situations are PROPERLY INTRODUCED. This is the single greatest failing of almost all modern comics; would you seriously expect a kid to read this month's X-MEN and WANT to come back if he'd just dropped two bucks on something written for thirty-year-olds with a complete collection? "
Mark Waid, writer
"The best thing the industry could do right now is reclaim something we once took for granted, almost scorned: the industry's ability to reach huge masses of kids with truly juvenile-appeal fare. We may never re-establish the retail distribution needed to accomplish this, but even if we did, it would take a major re-thinking of the industry's rules and limitations to get something on the racks to truly entertain those kids.
Once, comics were little more than a mass medium for juveniles, then after years of struggle, we reached the point where more specialized, more sophisticated product could be sold as as an adjuct to that mass medium. Unfortunately, the juvenile mass market has slowly evaporated on us, leaving just the adjunct. And we're discovering that, without the foundation of the juvenile mass medium to support the industry's more specialized, more sophisticated product, the base of readers for ANY comic, juvenile or otherwise, is drying up.
In this age of computer games and 24-hour-a-day kids channels, maybe nothing will ever get masses of juveniles reading comics again. But that's what it may take if we want to get this industry growing and thriving once more. "
Tom Bierbaum, writer
"I have no doubt about the medium's viability and feel certain that there's a much larger market available for this product than the one we currently utilize. I believe to my toes that accessible, quality comic books could take an honored, lucrative place in contemporary pop culture. For that to happen, however, nearly everything about the way we do mainstream comics now would have to change -- everything: their content, their format, the way in which they're marketed, the actual goals of the men in charge of the major companies, the internal structure of those companies, the goals of the parent companies to those companies, and the motivation and training of most of the talent pool.
In other words -- revolution. ;-)
The good news is that if we continue to do what we're doing now, our hand will eventually be forced. Small attempts to improve product and product placement will crop up, and maybe some of them will present new, adaptable work models. But the bottom line is that the thing we most fear may be just what's needed. We may have to go under to go forward.
Coming from a non-comic-reading background, I consider inaccessibility of product our current greatest nemesis: live by the fanboy, die by the fanboy. I'm honestly not quite sure how to start here -- you could do away with the direct marketing approach, as it certainly cripples our ability to get comics into the hands of people who don't walk into comic specialty stores on any regular basis, but you'd still be left with a product in a format that doesn't lend itself well to more competitive retail, not to mention an industry that can't afford to place it there. So you could squeeze money out of the higher ups and change the format -- something sturdier that wouldn't rip apart in the hands of curious potential consumers leafing through the 7-11 magazine rack, and also something meatier with a higher price point (so that it would be financially appealing for non-specialty merchants to carry it, which it currently isn't) that nonetheless really shouted value-for-your-money -- but you'd still have a product with content nearly impenetrable to anybody who hadn't been reading comics for most of their lives. So, you could teach mainstream creators not to pander exclusively to nostalgia (be it their own, or their idea of the readers'), and could encourage them to create accessible material that explains its universe and characters every single time out, but you'd still have stories arm-wrestled-to-death by editors who, for the most part, have no substantial training in story structure or personnel management and, increasingly, no direct experience with freelancing. You could educate what is essentially your middle management tier in story structure and personnel management and the care and feeding of freelancers, but you'd still have high level executives reluctant to call attention to their products for fear of having their funds cut -- or worse -- by large parental companies with absolutely no sincere interest in or information about the product in question. It's not just the potential readers we need to excite, it's the people in charge of the money, and, as always, the people in charge of creating the product.
That sounds like a whole bunch of bad news, but it's not like we're trying to sell snake oil. There is nothing inherently wrong with the medium. Many other industries are experiencing similar growing pains -- we're lucky enough to be doing so with a truly great product at our core. This can be turned around, just maybe not by us. We are currently a small industry producing a product created by, sold to, and purchased by…each other. If we're sincere about wanting outsiders interested in what we do, we may have to make more room for outsiders to come in and do it -- hopefully in a new, farther-reaching way."
Devin Grayson, Writer
A hearty "Thank You" to all the comic pros who weighed in!
We know the problems and have some idea of the solutions. Next, I'm going to spell out specific ideas for fixing the industry.
Now for some solutions. No single one of these will save the industry (although a couple are biggies), but in concert they would cause a dramatic shift in profitability:
Suggestions in brief
Constant Promotion of Comic Book Retailers
Set Competition Aside For The Moment
Bigger Advertising Budgets
Advertise to Potential Readers, Not Comic Readers
Establish a "No TPB Version for 2 Years" Rule
Digests On The Impulse Rack Are A Must!
Licensing Should Come With A Price
If Warners Only Cares About Movies, They Should Show It!
It's Not Just Name Recognition
Seinfeld's Gone; Get A New Friend
Get Baby Ruth On The Phone
Keep Prices Where They Are
Comic Shops Need To Be Kid-Friendly
Embrace New Media
Work On Those First "Two Steps"
CONSTANT PROMOTION OF LOCAL COMIC RETAILERS
You know that toll-free number for finding the comic shop near you? That should be advertised relentlessly. It should be in every ad DC runs. It should be prominently on the back of every action figure box, every trade paperback, every licensed product. This should be a contractual obligation of practically every license. If Kraft has "DC Superhero Macaroni and Cheese", the comic shop ad and phone number should be below the characters on the back of the box.
Comic shops aren't the total answer; comics should also be in the grocery stores, etc., as we've discussed. But as long as comic shops are the main source, then DC needs to hammer the fact that comics are available at comic shops and there's one near YOU!
SET COMPETITION ASIDE FOR THE MOMENT
The comic book industry is friendlier than a lot of other competing industries, at least as far as we readers can tell. After all, inter-company crossovers are common, whereas you never see Rolls-Royce and Volkswagen building a car together. The comics companies have employed many of the same people. Nonetheless, the corporate focus is always on beating the other companies for prominence and attention. DC may have a friendly competition with other companies, but Warner Brothers would be happy if Marvel, Archie and the others all went out of business.
Right now, we can't have that. If the other comic businesses went belly up, DC could not retain the market on its own. No comic shop could stay in business with only DC Comics, and when they're gone, comics are done for. If you run a suspender company and only a few hundred people are wearing suspenders anymore, you don't obsess over your competition getting some of those few hundred people. You could have every suspender-wearing person wearing your brand and it wouldn't keep you in business. Plus, your competitor's efforts get people into the stores where your suspenders are also sold.
Right now, if Marvel mounted a massive Marvel marketing promo to get kids reading Marvel characters in Marvel comics and buying Marvel action figures and Marvel t-shirts and just sold the hell out of the Marvel name, it would STILL benefit DC. Because it gets more kids going to the comic racks and the comic shops, and SOME of them will buy DC comics too.
So let's use that. Comic books need to advertise, and their parent companies don't seem to want to pony up the dough to save this little wing of their corporate empires. Each company alone may not have the money for radio, TV and mainstream magazines, but a modest campaign may be do-able if resources are pooled. What if Superman, Spiderman, Batman and The Thing did a TV ad together, mentioning that you can find all kinds of comics at your local comic shop and giving out that important 800 number? Heck, go beyond Marvel and get Archie, Topps, Dark Horse, Pokemon and others to put some characters in the ad (all getting equal time, of course) and you'd have a decent budget for the campaign!
Cooperation at this stage of the game is vital.
For if we don't hang together, we'll all hang separately.
BIGGER ADVERTISING BUDGETS
Easy to say, of course, but you can't get the corporate purses to open very easily. This one's probably nothing that DC doesn't already know. Let me just give them some ammunition next time they talk to Warner Bros' accountants.
Comic books could be BIG again. Really big. But right now, we're at a disadvantage because of this recent generation of kids that we failed to rope in. No sense in crying about it. We can get them back, but it's going to take money. Namely, the money to implement the measures mentioned in most of these other suggestions. They will pay off, but for that to happen DC needs the full moral and financial support of Warner Brothers.
The problem is, of course, that Warner Brothers will never make as much from comic books as they will from movies, and some of the tyrannical control over DC Comics resulting from that situation is grating. Read Fanzing's interview with Mark Waid for more details, such as the way a DC editor was nearly fired for getting some newspaper attention for the Batman comics when it conflicted with the WB's promotion of the new Batman movie.
But in order for WB to profit from Superman and Batman, these characters must have comic books. Oh, they could exist without them to a certain extent, the way Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse continued to be profitable for decades after the "animated short segment" was dropped from theaters…but it's not a sure thing. The Looney Tunes found new life in Saturday Morning TV (how many people today even realize that they weren't originally written for kids?) and Mickey Mouse survived via his Mickey Mouse Club TV show and theme parks, and now videotape makes all their adventures accessible. Cartoons are timeless and can be rerun. Kids don't know Bugs Bunny because he was a theatrical figure in the 1950s, they know him because he's a TV cartoon star now, and those cartoons must be kept in the public view or Bugs loses his value. How many kids know who Underdog is when his balloon goes by in the Macy's parade? In the same way, can comic book characters survive for long without comic books? Without comics, there'd be only Superman and Batman's cartoons and some older cartoons to keep a handful of the most prominent DC characters alive in the public memory.
And who's to say that DC won't invent new, popular characters with merchandising potential IF comic books continue to thrive? If DC had closed up shop a decade ago, we wouldn't have the cool Robin costume or Nightwing, the Ventriloquist or Bane. DC has managed to use all of those in its cartoons and action figures. We wouldn't have Kingdom Come, which turned into its own little cottage industry of posters, shirts, reprints, a novelization and an audio dramatization. We wouldn't have Morrison's revitalized JLA. We wouldn't have Impulse, a great character who could have his own TV show or movie someday.
In order for Warner Brothers to HAVE a DC Comics to exploit, the comic books must not only survive but thrive. They don't have to bring in MORE money than the movie industry to be valuable.
ADVERTISE TO POTENTIAL READERS,
NOT COMIC READERS
Don't get me wrong. Ads for a new comic series or a special event in Wizard, Comics Buyers Guide and other trade magazines are good. Very good. But they don't work wonders. Imagine if The Gap ONLY advertised in fashion magazines, Jeep ONLY advertised in Motor Trend and record companies ONLY advertised in Rolling Stone. I'd never have heard of them. In the same way, reaching out to the dwindling pool of existing comic readers cannot draw an astounding number of readers to your next comic.
Advertising budgets are limited, so they might be better spent elsewhere. And promotions should be creative and done with gusto; none of this cracking down on an editor for doing his job of promoting his comic book!
Maybe it would be best to illustrate with a practical example: I love the character The Shining Knight, as many of you may have guessed from his appearances in Fanzing. (Yes, I love Elongated Man even more, but this is a better example.) In my opinion, this character isn't a "biggie" but he could be as cool as Wonder Woman or Hawkman if used well. He's got a majestic flying horse, invulnerable armor, a sword that cuts anything and the speed to deflect bullets with it. Plus, he's got a history that's both medieval and 1940s wartime. So I've thought about sending in a proposal to DC to do a Shining Knight mini-series. And that's when I started thinking about his assets:
He's a handsome blonde man, around late 20s (technically, he's centuries old, but I digress)
He's a knight in shining armor, brave and dedicated
He rides a beautiful white horse that flies majestically on big, beautiful wings
He's a chivalrous gentleman who is acclimating to our modern times
His name is Justin
Now, is it just me or would this character not be a HUGE hit with the Lisa Simpsons of the world? This character could potentially go over big with the "ponies, rainbows and pouty-lipped hunks" crowd, aged nine to seventeen. So here's the marketing plan. You first get some stunning artwork of brave Sir Justin astride Winged Victory, flying gracefully through a beautiful sky at sunset. Put together a full page ad and begin placing the ads in Teen Beat, Seventeen and any other magazine dedicated to Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnathan Taylor Thomas and "Dawson's Creek." Once again, feature that 800 number for finding your local comic shop. Include a coupon at the bottom of the ad so that girls can send away for a free wall poster of Sir Justin and Winged Victory, or put one IN the first issue of "Shining Knight" and announce that in the ad.
This is a lot of marketing money, granted, but consider: This isn't just selling a measly four-issue miniseries. This is about getting girls reading comic books and into comic shops. Shop owners could be encouraged to put Sabrina the Teen-Aged Witch, Wonder Woman, Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E., Young Justice and any other female-oriented comics by any company in the same spot during the promotion. If Warners says, "No, only DC Comics" remind them that this is about getting females into comic shops on a long-term basis; if DC wants the female market, they simply need enough books with that appeal.
Take it further. Have a real hunky, pouty-lipped model for the cover and poster artwork (either drawn or as a photo-altered cover, like Damage and The Ray did a few years ago), then give one of these girl magazines a "Behind the Scenes" story with photos of the modeling shoot and how the cover was done. If any of these magazines ask, you can talk about the character, what it's like writing a comic book for girls, etc. (Personally, I think these magazines are too superficial to do interviews like that, but you never know. I'm a guy so I may just be judging them too harshly.)
All that's just for one proposed idea. The Shining Knight. I have others. ANY proposed series (for my proposals or the proposals of others) could be tied-in with some non-comic book interests. Kurt Belcher and I are discussing a proposal to DC for a Captain Comet series. Captain Comet is a man who is evolved tens of thousands of years ahead of modern man. In the 1940s (according to Elliot S! Maggin in the Kingdom Come novel), the young Adam Blake talked to Einstein. So, for the first issue of a Captain Comet series, maybe Professor Stephen Hawking would allow us to show him discussing physics with Adam Blake! (The guy appears on Star Trek and The Simpsons, so it's possible) That gets the science fans interested…and some free publicity.
A new Sgt. Rock comic? Do interviews for veterans' publications. Talk about how hard you're working to make it period and authentic. Invite veterans to read it and send you letters about what they think. Do everything "Saving Private Ryan" did.
And if I EVER get my chance to do an Elongated Man comic book, you can bet I'm going to try to create some buzz among mystery fans. I'd do interviews with mystery magazines about the trials of writing real detective dramas in only 22 pages. I'd encourage DC to take out ads in mystery magazines. I'd push for a trade paperback collection of all those old Elongated Man stories from Detective Comics; if DC did, I'd start petitioning the Mystery Book Club to offer it to its members.
All you need is some imagination applied to the book at hand. Just look at the elements featured in the book at hand and then look for venues appealing to those elements. If Lobo ever does another violent lowlife drunk biker mini-series, why not take out an ad in "Easy Rider"?
One last thing I should mention about that Shining Knight promotion: If DC makes the commitment to drawing in female readers in droves, make sure it isn't just a superficial appeal to that audience. The finished product would need to be satisfying for girls. No hacking things apart with that sword. No gritty, revisionist take on the character a la Kid Eternity. Treat women well in the book. In the same way, an Elongated Man Mysteries book which had aggressively pursued a mystery-loving audience would need to be a mystery title. If a large segment of Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie lovers picked up the book to find Elongated Man fighting an energy creature for 22 pages, they'd feel gypped and the ad campaign would be for naught. This should all be self-evident, but I just thought I'd be complete and mention it.
ESTABLISH A "NO TPB VERSION FOR 2 YEARS" RULE
Trade paperbacks generate a LOT of profit for DC and they've helped get profits from bookstores that wouldn't carry individual comics. But as I said earlier, the rapid conversion of successful comic to trade paperback is not only hurting the collector's market (which doesn't affect DC monetarily) but hurts the sales of potential-hit comics (which DOES hit DC in the wallet). Let's see a show of hands: How many of you gave up on hunting for back issues of "Batman: The Long Halloween" and just waited for the book? How many of you aren't even buying Mark Waid's "Brave and the Bold" mini-series because we know it'll be a more affordable paperback by next spring at the latest?
Problem is, it's tempting to ride the transitory popularity by releasing a repackaged paperback right away. "May as well sell the TPB while there's still buzz about how good it was!" Nonetheless, this instant cash is hurting the industry in the long run. The more a TPB becomes a guaranteed part of the publishing agenda, the more people will just wait for it and pass up the comics.
Imagine if DC proclaimed that they'd never do a trade paperback until the comic was at least two years old. Two years is arbitrary, but it's just enough time to make a person not wait for the book. The value of the next comic equivalent to "The Nail" or "Long Halloween" would skyrocket! Furthermore, because the readers would be reading these books, fewer would be in NearMint condition. DC would have to do reprints. All of this would be far better for the comic shops and the collectors and would stabilize the comic economy.
The fear, of course, is that they'd initially lose some of that tempting trade paperback income from book shops…but not if they played their cards right. DC would just have to mine their earlier books for material. We'd get more TPBs of classic material, such as the wonderful recent "Mystery In Space: Pulp Fiction " or the monumental "Manhunter " collected edition. One nice thing about this is that the publication of a trade paperback of older material doesn't do as much harm to the value of the original book, for its collectible value has been established and will only dip slightly.
Another consideration: When you assemble a TPB of Grant Morrison's most recent JLA arc, you're just printing the same comics over again in a collected form. When you put together a collection of older material, you're often creating something new…for these old stories now get printed on high quality paper with computerized color blends for a brighter look. Plus, writers and editors usually write a page of recollections of working on this now-classic material, and sometimes there will be unpublished stories to add to it.
So instead of rushing out a collection of "The Nail" two months after we finished paying through the nose for the Prestige Format comics (which were still sitting on the rack at my nearby shop, for crying out loud), why not treat modern readers to treasures that they may not be able to read otherwise? Collect and repackage Tony Isabella's original Black Lightning, which tell an epic story when read as a whole (and you could include the unpublished last issue which fell victim to the late '70s Implosion and could only be found in canceled Comics Cavalcade). Collect all of Martian Manhunter's backup stories in Detective Comics, then do the same for Elongated Man. A J'onn J'onzz afficianado would spend a fortune trying to buy all these expensive Detective issues just for the 8-page stories in the back, but you could release a couple TPBs with Martian Manhunter's classic appearances. While Elongated Man is less beloved, I'm a die-hard fan and I've spent hundreds of dollars and numerous hours of hunting buying expensive Batman comics just for the little stories at the end. There's one story I'll never be able to see because it's in the same comic that Batgirl first appeared in; I'll NEVER be able to afford that! I mention this not for sympathy, nor is it likely that DC will ever put Elongated Man's appearances in TPB form, but it's an example of the frustrations fans go through in trying to read the older stories. Atom, Hawkman, Metamorpho, the Metal Men and others could all stand to have their adventures retold in TPB form. And I should make particular mention of Aquaman's run in Adventure Comics: do you realize that the tale where Black Manta kills Aquaman's son has never been reprinted or retold (so far as I've been able to discover)? I daresay Aquaman, a high-profile DC character with a current series, could benefit from a TPB collection of his earlier stories!
Editor's Note on this reprint: Of all my "rules", this is the one I've rethought the most over the last few years. The trade paperbacks are about the only booming business in the industry!
However, I stand by my contention that the dynamics of this relatively new publishing business haven't been thought out. Trades are often cheaper because the creators aren't getting as much cash for "reprints"; the reprint price rates were established long before TPBs became a boom market. Thus, the whole idea that this is a replacement for the monthly "pamphlet" isn't really workable. And there is still the problematic dynamic of it costing more to buy the initial comic books when one knows they will be collected. Everyone knew that "Robin: Year One" will be collected as a book that will cost far less than buying the four prestige format comics...but if everyone makes the wise decision to wait, then the book flops and there ISN'T a trade made!
The present scenario is probably not workable in the long run. While the situation might be compared to the hardcover/paperback publishing of text books, the comic buying audience is too small to support the pricier initial publications. If the audience moves to TPBs, then it's basically a pay cut to the creators unless the reprint rules are changed or abolished. In time, comic companies will also have to explore a whole new way to publish straight-to-the-TPB format. This could be quite exciting, if it allowed the creators the freedom from the 22-page story structure. Just imagine if the Superman writers released a selection of cohesive, coherent standalone stories every year instead of this interconnected mess that jumps from creator to creator every week!
DIGESTS ON THE IMPULSE RACK ARE A MUST
Work on getting the comic books space on the magazine racks in grocery stores, sure…but what comics NEED is some presence on the impulse-buy rack near the checkout lane. To this end, DC needs to relaunch their "Blue Ribbon Digests."
Currently, Archie Comics are the only ones doing digests (as they have successfully for at least two decades). DC should commit to publishing digests on a monthly basis and make this an ironclad guarantee in order for the merchants to consider placing these digests at the checkout counter.
For those of you who don't even know what I'm talking about, digests are like paperback books (only about an inch wider) and contain about 3-4 full comic book stories reprinted from the DC library. DC's earlier effort, "Blue Ribbon Digest," ran in the early 1980s. The contents varied. "Secret origins" of popular characters were always good. There were reprints of great story arcs such as the original Ra's al Ghul Batman stories and the "Seven Soldiers of Victory" arc from JLA. Numerous Silver Age Superman stories and Batman stories abound. And every other month, the digests would contain more kid-oriented fare such as "Funny Stuff" and "Binky and his Buddies."
Digests could be a tremendous promotional tool if done right. If DC plans to relaunch an existing character, they could reprint some classic stories in the digest in the months preceding the new series. DC could repackage many of the better "Secret Origins" from the 1980s title of the same name, particularly those of currently published characters. Other months could feature selected stories from the more accessible books of the DCU, such as Impulse, Robin, Nightwing and Birds of Prey (books that have wide appeal, little objectionable material, lots of action and humor, and few big vocabulary words or technojargon).
The only REAL impediment to featuring modern comics in the digests is the squint factor. Contrast the number of word balloons, number of words in each balloon, font size and the level of detail in modern DC Comics with the same in an Archie comic and you see the problem. Squish that down to digest size and it'll be a little harder to read.
This isn't a fatal flaw, of course, because DC has books intended for kids. Titles like Pinky and the Brain, Gotham Adventures and Superman Adventures would work better in digest form. And let's not forget that DC can draw upon a VAST archive of old comic books which would also fit into digest format. In addition to the regular Silver Age superhero stuff, titles like Space Cabby, Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew, The Oz-Wonderland War, Funny Stuff, Sugar N Spike, Binky and His Buddies, Ambush Bug, Phil Foglio's Stanley and His Monster and Angel and the Ape mini's from the early 90s (as well as the classic versions), Legion of Substitute Heroes and numerous others would delight kids and adults alike.
Package all these old favorites into a compact book for $3 a month (the price on Archie digests) and you'd not only have a tempting impulse buy for the supermarket check-out…but the comic shops would also sell them like gangbusters.
I really can't stress this one enough. DC MUST do this. If they don't make a penny from the actual digests, they should still print them every month and consider it the equivalent of a giveaway sampler…with the added advantage that you're breaking even. Because if these digests were done right, they'd have a further purpose: outright promotion. If this month's selection was Nightwing stories, then there should be a full page promoting Nightwing's current adventures. Mention that Nightwing is found at grocery stores and discount stores…and if you still can't find it, just call this 800 number and we'll tell you where you can find it! There could also be a tear-out subscription form, although subscriptions from kids aren't as likely.
Oh, and if I may? The first issue should feature some of the best Impulse stories, just so that the cover can proclaim "IMPULSE PURCHASE" in big letters.
LICENSING SHOULD COME WITH A PRICE
You know how all TV shows now squish their credits down to a fraction of the screen and run them twice as fast so that they can take that time to promote other stuff to you? (If you've ever wanted to find out who did the voice for a character on "The Batman/Superman Adventures", you'll see what a challenge this is.) Well, why aren't Batman, Superman and Batman Beyond taking the time during the credits for their show to talk about how they're now appearing in comic books of their animated exploits and you can find them at stores and comic shops? It amazes me that the WB can spare 30 seconds to show Bruce Wayne singing a lullaby from "Pokemon" to Tim Drake, or Batman playing a video game where he's trying to shoot the Superman symbol, but they don't advertise the comic books. (Advertising the very show that you're watching seems like a redundant waste of time.)
This should be a requirement of licensing for cartoons and other media. There should always be some support for the comic books where those characters appear, even if it's just a sentence ("Look for Batman comic books at your local comic shop!") and the 800 number for finding the nearest comics retailer. Given that you're only trying to get one branch of the Warner corporation to support another branch, this should be a no-brainer! Why NOT do it?
REVISION: Well, I've since been reminded that the FCC actually prohibits kids' shows (or is it ALL shows?) from advertising a product related to the show during the show. It's the law…whether it's a fair law or a good law is debatable. (I just don't understand why a company should be prohibited from advertising to its target market.) Nevertheless, I stand by the idea that licensing should require some promotion of the comics in some way, even if it's not during the actual show. Perhaps in the form of discounted advertising time during other shows?
IF WARNERS ONLY CARES ABOUT MOVIES,
THEY SHOULD SHOW IT!
This is all we hear from the pros these days. "Warner Brothers would drop DC Comics if it wasn't for the immensely profitable licensing of the major characters for movies, TV shows and other products." So why is there so little mental effort exerted towards doing this properly?
Making movies of DC's most popular characters could mean BILLIONS to Warner Brothers over the decades, but there seems to be so little concern over the actual movies being done well. Look at the Batman films. Jon Peters and Joel Schumacher have managed to take an immensely popular character who could be a monolithic franchise if done right…and ruin him. By all accounts, Jon Peters has also taken Superman and came this close to producing a wretched piece of film flotsam.
I'll tell you something for free: Dennis O'Neill could write a Batman film that could be nominated for an Oscar, net $500 million total and still yield numerous merchandising possibilities. Chuck Dixon could certainly write a better movie than the four recent Batman films. So could Frank Miller or Doug Moench or James Robinson. Hell, I could! But for that to happen, Warner Brothers needs to allow the film to be created naturally.
Right now, the process is bass-ackwards. Various bigwigs discuss what marketable characters will be in the movie. Next, casting is done NOT by which actors could play the roles best but by which box office draws are willing to do the role for an unbelieveable amount of money. Producer Jon Peters begins throwing out ideas based on stuff he recently saw, while director Joel Schumacher starts conceiving ways in which we can get to see Batman's butt. After all these secondary factors, a script is assembled based on the need to work in all the new characters into one cohesive (not "coherent") story, while working around all the set pieces which Jon Peters has demanded should be in the new film ("I saw a hockey game last night. Let's have Batman and the bad guys play hockey!" "I watched 'Apollo 13' last night. Let's have Robin riding a rocket!" "I leafed through an extreme sports magazine while I was on the can. Let's have Batman and Robin go skyboarding!"). The screenwriter will try to write a good story under these conditions, but after other screenwriters are brought in to doctor it up with catchphrases, there won't be a movie left.
I'm glad that animation isn't truly appreciated, or these nuts would be messing with that too. Right now, Paul Dini and friends are the only ones able to create a finished TV/film product with any vision or message (to say nothing of a cohesive, coherent plot!).
Warner Brothers needs someone way up in the hierarchy to clamp down on such nonsense. Corporate movie-making will always be a difficult process, but when the difference between a good and bad movie affects your marketable character franchise for decades to come, this should be important to the WB boardrooms. It's time to put the script at the center. Have a great script worth making or don't make it. Otherwise, the temporary benefits (i.e. profits now…even the wretched "Batman and Robin" made a profit) will be offset by the laughingstocks your marketable characters have become.
Who cares whether "Batman and Robin" made some money or not!?! A movie engenders benefits beyond simple monetary gain of a few million dollars. The fact is, we could be watching a fifth Batman film next summer if the last one hadn't been such a botch-job. We should all be slobbering with anticipation at the thought of another fantastic Batman movie. Instead, mention the possibility of "Batman Five" to a Warners exec and he'll get queasy and mutter "not for a few more years at least". Intense desire for a sequel vs. retching at the thought of it…all determined by the quality (not the profitability) of a movie.
I've heard that the people who own the Lone Ranger are really tough to deal with. You know what? I respect that. Sure, it may be a little aggravating to try to license him, but it wouldn't take much for an outsider to heedlessly ruin this great character's image. The people at Warner Brothers (and DC, although they're in too weak a position to demand anything) who care about keeping Superman and Batman popular and successful for ALL must bring some perspective to the film-makers. It shouldn't be just outsider Kevin Smith (screenwriter of the first draft of Superman Lives) arguing for the need to treat the Man From Krypton like the legend he is. The only guy arguing for treating Superman well is the one who won't profit from it in the long run? That's absurd!
I'm ranting, I know, but the situation IS aggravating. The assertion that Warner Brothers intends to use DC Comics only as a springboard to much more profitable movies just doesn't gibe with the lack of care and attention these projects receive.
In summary: I could understand if a bunch of money-minded businessmen didn't care about Superman's history or his character or his stature. It's their job to care about profits and there's nothing wrong with that; that's just basic capitalism. It's the failure to see a connection between Superman/Batman's treatment and their marketability (i.e. profitability) that I find baffling.
IT'S NOT JUST NAME RECOGNITION
This is another licensing/movie point, but it's relevant in that it increases the value of DC Comics for Warner Brothers.
DC has many more marketable characters than WB thinks. The accepted thinking is that "The public recognition of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman is high, and Green Lantern, Aquaman, Flash and Plastic Man are to a lesser extent 'name' heroes, so those are the ones who we can put in movies." Or rather, the only selling point of a superhero is whether his name has any cache with the public, and little else matters. I disagree.
Simplest example? A "Batman 5" which used the publicly-obscure Ra's al Ghul in an intelligent master plan would be a far superior film to a "Batman 5" which shoehorned the 'name' villains of Scarecrow and Mad Hatter into some contrived plot. (I'll grant you that Scarecrow and Mad Hatter can be good characters when done right, but they aren't as "deep" as Ra's.)
Trust in the American people to know a good story when they see it. (And good movies are rare, no matter how many are produced every year.) Move beyond the instant name-recognition factor. Just focus on making a good movie and advertising it right.
But how do you get superhero movies made in Hollywood? Well, instead of saying "I think we should do a Hawkman movie. He's a guy who flies through the air in a bird costume!"…focus on the STORY of the character and pitch it that way. Because an astounding truth is that the WB already owns properties which are better than half the movie pitches out there!
Here's how I'd pitch some of the finer, unexplored gems of the DCU:
Studious archaeologist Adam Strange thought he was happy studying ruins and clay pots…until the day he was struck by an alien teleportation beam and met the woman of his dreams on a planet 25 trillion miles away. He helps her defend her planet from menaces and invaders, and he finds a new definition of happiness by her side. Just one problem: the teleporter energy wears off. And if he doesn't move heaven and Earth to reach the coordinates of the next beam, no matter where it is…he'll never see her again!
Jefferson Pierce was the pride of Suicide Slum. Raised by a single mother and a kind neighborly tailor, Jeff pushed himself to the limit to become first an Olympic champion, then a college student and a teacher. He actually escapes Suicide Slum…only to come back for his mother's funeral. Teaching at his old school, he fights to keep his students in school, out of gangs and off drugs. But when the criminal gang known as the One Hundred tightens its grip, Jeff realizes he can't risk his students. So he fights them in disguise…as Black Lightning. His battles against the One Hundred and the crimelord Tobias Whale will push him to the breaking point…and yield a crushing blow when Jeff finally confronts the man who murdered his father years before.
Okay, this one's like "Ghost" meets "D.O.A." with a pinch of "Heaven Can Wait." Circus aerialist and stunt performer Boston Brand draws crowds peforming amazing aerial feats in his costumed character "Deadman". As a celebrity, Deadman's going to be bigger than the Masked Magician, bigger than Hulk Hogan, bigger than Jesse Ventura. And then, in front of thousands of people, a sniper's bullet rips through his chest…and Boston Brand really is a dead man! Asking for more time on Earth before entering the afterlife, Boston is permitted to catch his killer. But he can only communicate or act by temporarily taking over people's bodies.
This one's a comedy, not an action movie. Bart Allen is cursed with a genetic affliction. He is superfast…but his mind and physical growth are also accelerated. He's only two years old, but he looks 12. Raised in a highspeed virtual reality environment in order to give him some sort of normal life, Bart has no concept of the real world and thinks life is just a video game with a reset button. Concerned for his well-being, his mother finally steals him from the lab and takes him to Max Mercury, a retired superhero with speed powers. Max fixes Bart's aging problem…but now he has to teach Bart about life. Unfortunately, Bart operates at the speed of thought and has the patience of a two-year-old. The movie follows Max's attempts to turn Bart into a normal, everyday kid, while both must find a way to elude the lab's security force and get the charges dropped against Bart's mom.
Jack Knight is a junk dealer, and he couldn't be happier. All he wants in life is an authentic Hawaiian shirt, a transistor radio and a rare jazz 45 LP…and maybe a few more tattoos. But his dad wants to pass on something else: his legacy. See, his dad was a lame superhero from, like, the 1900s or the stone age or something. The guy's been retired for decades. But now he wants one of his sons to take over the good name (so he says) of Starman. Oh, and you have to wear this puke-colored outfit and carry a little wand that Freud would have a fun time analyzing. PASS! So Jack's square brother Dave becomes Starman. Only one problem: one of dad's old enemies hears that Starman is back and goes on a killing spree. Now Dave's dead, his dad's in the hospital, his store's blown up and Jack is next…unless he takes up the starwand and goes into action. And maybe he'll understand his dad more when it's all over.
Those are just five of the characters the WB could use…and any of those movies would be great. And when you make a low-profile superhero movie, there's less corporate meddling. As proof, consider: Shaquille O'Neil's "Steel" was actually a better movie than "Batman and Robin", any way you slice it.
SEINFELD'S GONE; GET A NEW FRIEND
Here's a little-known fact: when The Fonz took about thirty seconds to espouse the benefits of having a library card (in his own inimitable way) in one single episode of "Happy Days", requests for library cards went up 500% the next week. One could wonder aloud what all of his nonstop womanizing in every episode of the show did for the viewers of America, but that's another discussion altogether.
TV has a huge effect on people…probably more than we'd care to admit. Whether overt (advertisements), subconscious (product placements) or unintended (Rachel's haircut), TV shapes the way we think about things. TV execs insist that either TV has no effect (if we're talking about bad influences) or that TV will change humanity (when their show does a "special episode" about drugs). Let's face it, the latter is more correct.
So what does it do for comic books when the most positive image of comic book fans on television are Bart Simpson and his friends…and even then, we have the obese 40-something virgin Comic Shop Guy who lives with his mother? Jerry Seinfeld was a Superman fan, but his show is gone. The only other comic fans I know of on TV are the nerdy loser David Finch on "Just Shoot Me" (who sold his comic books to afford a ring for his fiancee) and the nerdy loser friends of Dave Nelson on "Newsradio." It's gotten so bad that if there's ever a balding man in his 30s or 40s on TV, I expect him to talk about his comic book collection and living with his mother.
In just 20 years, we've moved beyond this age where most of America was selecting their shows on four or five channels and a character like Fonzie was seen by millions. Our media doesn't have the equivalent of a Fonzie, but there are still some shows with influence. I think it's time for Time/Warner to throw some of its multimedia weight around for the benefit of its comic book branch. Whether it's as benign as having adult walk-on background characters reading comic books or as overt as making comic collecting the hobby of a major character, Warner should use TV to change the attitudes of Americans towards people who read comics. The kids in TV shows (although there are fewer kids on TV, as producers now think everyone in the world is 20 years old) should certainly be reading comics. And am I crazy, or wouldn't a comic book writer be an interesting side character for a sitcom? (After meeting Chuck Dixon, I can tell you that there are humorous possibilities in this. Heh heh heh.)
GET BABY RUTH ON THE PHONE
Oh, how they whined, the obsessive fans on the Internet. Hawkman! Being used to sell Baby Ruth bars. And he's portrayed by this hammy actor, and the guy doesn't look like Mr. Universe. Oh, it's a travesty…a sacrilege!
Please. It's hardly any worse than what DC did to him.
And it was better than those old Hostess ads where Penguin and Joker stop their bank heist because Batman and Robin threw Twinkies and Fruit Pies at them. "Oh, the creamy filling! I don't want to be evil anymore!" (I'm not saying DC and Hostess shouldn't do those ads again, but they could be better written.)
Don't tell me this damaged Hawkman's reputation. He doesn't have one outside of the comic book universe. And you know what they say: There's no such thing as bad publicity. If anything, DC should form a lasting partnership with Baby Ruth and continue those ads, using the Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Elongated Man, Bouncing Boy and any other hero whose name sounds like a parody of a superhero. This also helps Warner Brothers to realize that characters besides Superman and Batman can be profitable. And if God is kind and there is EVER a Hawkman movie, no one is going to say, "How can you take a candy bar spokesman seriously?"
But I didn't put this category here specifically to defend the Baby Ruth ads. I think getting these characters' logos and costumes in the back of the mind of consumers will help comic books in the long run.
Take Firestorm. Aside from appearing in the last year of "Superfriends", his non-comic-book cache is zero. No one's heard of him. Now, imagine Firestorm appearing in a series of Matchlight charcoal briquette ads. Say, a satirical competition between a dad using a single match to start his Matchlight briquettes and Firestorm with his godlike nuclear powers trying to light the competition's plain old charcoal. The public doesn't need to know who Firestorm is; people have only to see the gaudy get-up, the flaming head and hear that he's called Firestorm The Nuclear Man to assume that he's a fire-based superhero. Matchlight might even slap Firestorm with the fiery head on the bag so that you remember which brand it was you saw in that TV ad.
At first, all this is doing for DC is raking in a LOT of licensing profits. But Firestorm's name is becoming a household word. The next time DC does a Firestorm comic, the costume and the flaming head and the name will ring a bell with the kids who saw the ads. Doesn't mean Firestorm is reduced to being the equivalent of The Kool-Aid Man any more than Snoopy is an insurance man or a Dolly Madison pitchman. Superman was in an American Express ad…but he's still Superman.
Maybe it's just my advertising background showing…but I studied "Positioning" and the importance of occupying a place in the consumer's mind, even if it's a subconscious one. What I'm getting at is that DC and Warners need to properly exploit their characters. ("Exploit" has taken on negative connotations, but it basically means to make use of what you have available.) Let me just "blue sky" (as we say in the biz) for a moment:
Put J'onn J'onzz in ads for Oreos. Put The Flash in sports car ads. Put Captain Carrot on those bags of mini-carrots which are just the right size for packing in school lunches. Make Kryptonite Candy and Bat Symbol fruit roll-ups and Plastic Man toy putty. Have the Atom fighting cockroaches and losing until he finds a Roach Motel. Put Captain Marvel in customer service spots where Billy Batson is at school and sees a friend doing something dangerous (whether it's running out in the street or encountering a drug pusher), then becomes Captain Marvel to intervene. Have customer service spots for fire safety or burglar-proofing your house or neutering your pet (DC hasn't used Krypto in a while anyway).
At the very least, it's dollars in the pocket of Warner Brothers, which can only help it to see the value in its cute little comic book subsidiary. Better yet, it gets these characters in the mind of Mr. and Mrs. Consumer…and that pays off in the long-term.
KEEP PRICES WHERE THEY ARE
The title of this one is weird, I know. If anything, prices need to go down…but no product ever goes down in price so I wasn't going to be foolish enough to put that in the title. But prices are getting prohibitive (and if you're Canadian or living abroad, they're outrageous). I'm a 30-year-old webmaster with a good job, so I'm not going broke, but I can't imagine affording many comics if I was only getting an allowance or working at minimum wage.
Today, a candy bar is 55 cents and pop is 60 cents. (I'm using middle-America prices, of course) Given that buying your basic comic book now requires sacrificing four candy bars or more, is it any wonder kids don't buy them? (Or, looking at it from another end, that convenience/grocery/drug stores don't carry them?) Compared to the price of milk, bread, gasoline, the minimum wage and most other dollar amounts that the middle and lower classes worry about every day, the price of comic books has gone up too fast.
Granted, we're not talking about published products; a Star Trek book was $2 in 1985 and it's almost $7 now. Perhaps the price of paper and ink really has shot up in the last decade and the comics publishers are just passing the expense on to the customer out of necessity. However, I've been told that the paper isn't necessarily responsible for the price increases.
For a while around the end of the 1980s, it looked like DC was aware that prices were getting too high. I remember the Superman books proclaiming "Still 75 cents!" and later, "Still $1". And then, shortly after that, it climbed from a buck to almost two overnight. I've been told that some of this was because the higher price points pleased the retailers, who were more willing to carry comics if they got more profit per comic, and THIS is why comic prices went up; the difference in paper quality and printing features being rather minor. That may or may not be true. I'll be honest: I've never given a rat's rear for paper quality and inks and colors. I don't even know the terminology aside from hearing words like "Baxter" and "Mando." Sure, as a webmaster, I like it that modern comics work better on a computer scanner…but that's hardly enough to justify the expense if there was a way to lower the price of comics.
I remember the comics of the 1980s which were on a paper I'd describe as quality newsprint. In the mid-80s, they introduced "Deluxe Format" and then "New Format". Being a teenager in Wisconsin, all I knew about them was that they were more expensive and I couldn't find them. When a comic shop did open, I STILL didn't buy them. I mean, come on, they were 50 cents more and I could barely afford the 75 cents! People talked about the better paper and better colors and art that went all the way to the edge of the paper. None of that mattered to me, since I just wanted to get a good story for my 75 cents. Some comics like Booster Gold were printed at the "Basic" price, 75 cents, same as the rest, but used new techniques to look brighter and more glitzy.
Now, most comics are printed on high quality paper with better inks and the art that goes all the way to the edge and they're all pretty pricey. If DC was printing comics of the same printing quality as the basic comics of the 1980s (JLA, Batman, Superman), would they cost just as much? Or have the standards been raised so that what was once "Deluxe" is now standard? When industry pros say that comics cost so much because of printing costs, are they taking into account that they don't have to be this fancy? It's something to think about.
COMIC SHOPS NEED TO BE KID-FRIENDLY
Let's assume that mom gets talked into taking kids to a comic shop for whatever reason. Most of them are not kid-friendly. Not ALL, mind you. "The Source", my local shop in Roseville, MN, is doing great business…partly because it is okay for kids. Superman and Spiderman and Star Wars and Star Trek hang in the windows…Pokemon is right by the cash register…all the kids' comics are grouped in one section near the door…and the store's got a primo location by a beauty salon, a restaurant, a gas station and an appliance store on a big traffic corner. It has a good mix of comics and collectibles for all ages. It's one very good, very well-managed comic shop. I mention that because I don't want to stereotype them as ALL unfriendly.
So, let's assume mom takes the kids to one of the more typical comic shops which comprise the majority of stores I've seen. The owner is trying to make a statement that comics are sophisticated literature, so he refuses to put up Superman pictures. Instead, the door has that Jim Balent poster of Catwoman with half of her skintight costume torn off in strategic places. Mom takes the kids inside. The kiddie comics are…somewhere…so the kids wander off to find them. Mom looks around. The wall has huge posters of some pasty-skinned, statuesque, top-heavy woman who apparently battles evil with the power of her bikini. Some local artist's pencils hang on the wall, with vampires dripping blood and Lobo giving the finger saying "Up Yours, Fanboy!". Alien face-hugger models are mounted on the counter. She thumbs through a prominently-displayed Preacher trade paperback and is surprised to see that comic books now use the F-word all the time. Disturbed, she hunts down her kids. Little Jimmy is looking at the cartoony XXXenophilia comic which was two feet away from the Cartoon Network's Cow and Chicken books. Not finding little Brittany but knowing she wanted Power Puff Girls comics, she asks where the girls' comics are. The 350 lb. shop owner moodily gets off his stool, catches his breath from the exertion and points to a spot between the Predator statues and Judge Dredd figurines.
What are the chances mom will be bringing her kids here every Wednesday?
EMBRACE NEW MEDIA
Mad Magazine (another subsidiary of Warners) just released every single issue of Mad on a collection of CD-ROMs. This may someday be the way that every comic fan in the world will get to read those old pulp comics without paying dozens of dollars per issue. This may even replace trade paperbacks!
Compared to the cost of publishing a book on paper, it's considerably cheaper. Someday, comics may never be produced on paper; they may just be circulated on CDs or downloaded from a website through a code. This would save comic companies a good portion of their production costs.
The downside is, of course, that it's difficult to read comics in the bathroom with that monitor on your knees.
We may not be ready for this type of leap now, but the comics companies should definitely stay with the times as the world of media changes. (This is probably the one thing in this column which they're already doing, judging by the new 3D Multipath Adventures of Superman, but I needed to mention it.)
WORK ON THOSE FIRST "TWO STEPS"
It would be unfair to say that DC isn't aware of this situation, at least somewhat. There ARE some comics for kids (what I classify as "First Step") being published by DC; mostly these are licensed characters such as the Cartoon Network comics or Pinky and the Brain. Also, the Batman/Superman/Batman Beyond comics are great, because they are clean and uncluttered…and kids won't be lost in unfamiliar scenarios such as the Daily Planet being out of business, Gotham City demolished and without government, etc. This is a good start. In the late 80s and early 90s, DC had NOTHING for very young readers.
What of the "second step" comics? Does DC have a large number of books which older kids, pre-teens and teens can easily get into and easily read? (I'm setting aside the subject of "easily afford" for now.) All books have their good and bad points, of course, but let's look at some of the bigger ones. Bear in mind that I mostly love these books (I can't discuss the things I don't read, so obviously these are ones on my list), but we're specifically examining their accessability for kids.
The Superman books are undergoing some changes very soon. That's great, because the event-driven, story arc-heavy interlinked soap opera of the 1990s is not very kid-friendly. I don't know when the last time was that I looked at a Superman book whose cover promised a single, self-contained really good story in just 22 pages. I certainly don't like having to spend $15-20 just for a mediocre run-on story. For a kid it's even worse, for he has to get these comics only when his parents are taking him to the store and are willing to fork over the money for comic books; try doing THAT every single week for eight weeks! New Superman editor Eddie Berganza is trying to take the Superman books into a new, self-contained direction. We'll see whether this pans out.
The Batman books…I'm tempted to say 'no'. For DC's major player with appeal to all audiences, his books are nonetheless rather sophisticated in tone and structure. Not always; it depends on the writer. The artwork is often dark and confusing to follow, and just a *tad* too graphic at times. The current "No Man's Land" would be confusing for a casual reader. On the plus side, it rarely descends into difficult vocabulary words.
Aquaman. Well, first of all, he looks nothing like the guy in the cartoons. That may be a stumbling block. I'll be honest: I don't read Aquaman, so I can't judge its story quality.
Martian Manhunter has a dark tone to the artwork, the character isn't simple to understand, and there are a lot of made-up Martian words. Despite all of that, the stories have tended to be self-contained with only a few arcs, and most of the language isn't difficult. Kids, if they pick it up, could enjoy it. But this book really needs a front page blurb which summarizes who J'onn is.
Hourman…this book has grown on me, and when judged for its kid-accessability it looks even better. This book is very easy to read, yet smart and fun. One problem: the time traveling technobabble. I really don't know what age level can get around stuff like "machine colony" (instead of just saying android) and "temporal chrono-whatever". That's really the only roadblock.
Impulse. GREAT BOOK! DeZago's new run on the book is too early to judge, but taken as a whole this is the most fun, easy to read and easy to love book around. It never fails to inform new readers of the book's premise…and with this character's difficult backstory, that's an accomplishment in itself. Check out my previous Fanzing article, "Why Impulse Sells." I'd buy up a few million copies and leave them in children's hospitals!
Birds of Prey, Robin and Nightwing. I'm grouping these together because Chuck Dixon writes them all and Chuck's got a good head on his shoulders when it comes to basic storytelling skills and eschewing difficult words (such as "eschewing"). Kids should enjoy all of these. My only recommendation? A monthly intro to the characters for new readers. How many kids don't know that Nightwing used to be Robin? How easy is it to tell the relationship between Oracle and Black Canary, or how they communicate? BC seems to talk to the air if you don't know she's wearing a microphone. (I figured it out, but I'm 29.)
Some books I won't bother to discuss, for books like The Titans, Hitman and possibly Starman are too complex and filled with big vocabulary words and adult situations to be reasonably considered less than "step three" comic books. They're not Vertigo, but you really need to be in your mid-teens to handle them. I'm generalizing, of course, as all parents have different standards for their kids…but unless you're Alan Moore who thinks we're all uptight and would give Judge Dredd to a three-year-old, most age ranges hold true.
Two last titles here…which I think should be kid-accessible but are making some grievous errors.
Young Justice SHOULD be a kids' book. It does a pretty good job of working on a kids' level. One big problem: WHO ARE THESE CHARACTERS? If you're a kid who sees issue #12 on the shelf and tries reading it, will you get it? Robin is obvious, sure, and maybe the kid knows Impulse and/or Superboy. But Impulse gets explained even in his own comic book, so why not here? Superboy also needs an introduction, really. Arrowette, Wonder Girl and Secret are unknowns and their abilities aren't always obvious. Why are these kids together? What are they trying to accomplish? Where did they get this headquarters? Who is Red Tornado? If he's an android, how can he have a "wife" and a daughter? Publishing a "Secret Files and Origins" isn't a replacement for intro-ing your characters to new readers on a monthly basis. Take a cue from the old Justice League of America and Teen Titans comics. Put a box on the front page or splash page with a roll call, head shot and a subtitle such as "The Boy Wonder", "Super-Powered Clone" and "Hyperactive Speedster", then an intro such as "…together, they fight crime and hang out…as YOUNG JUSTICE!" In my opinion, comic books should never have STOPPED doing this. Frankly, even new adult readers need some explanation about this book.
Finally, we have JLA…which is drawing hordes of new readers and rave reviews, and should be great. Right? Well, it is great (more or less)…but do you really think a kid would understand anything beyond "There's Plastic Man saying something funny" and "Superman catching that satellite looks so awesome!"? Between the number of characters and Morrison's penchant for complex plots and "aren't I the most imaginative person in comics" technojargon, JLA is really a mess. Sometimes, Ican't even understand what's going on in this book.
What DC needs is a JLA Adventures comic, sort of a "JLA lite" for kids. True, DC tried an Adventures in the DCU comic book, but it was more of an anthology and the artwork was lamentable. An animated JLA show may never happen due to modern complexities of licensing, but that shouldn't stop DC from doing a comic book of same. Give it a good writer/artist like Ty Templeton (who has done excellent work on the animated books AND on JLA) and DC would have a real winner.
What this all comes down to is recapturing some of the Silver Age "tricks of the trade" which made comics easy to read for kids and new readers. Intriguing (instead of just artistic) covers, splash pages, character introductions, editor's notes and an avoidance of large vocabulary words when possible will make more of the "general audience" books at DC truly that. This doesn't mean they have to be lame and boring! Look how Starman, that rebellious, outside-the-box comic book, has made a serious effort to keep readers up-to-date on what happened in previous issues…and does it so well that it doesn't seem out of place.
I remember reading an issue of Booster Gold (the number escapes me, but it was around issue #10) that opened with a splash page, complete with two-paragraph blurb of Booster's origin ending in his logo at the top, a scene of Booster and Thorn in the clutches of the giant figure of the villainous Director of the 1000, and the title and credits. It was overly dramatic and was meant as a parody of the old style of doing comics. And I can't help but think…had writer/artist Dan Jurgens just done that every month, a little better and a little more seriously, new readers might have been able to enjoy Booster Gold more!
Thank you for hearing me out, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the issue.
firstname.lastname@example.org is Editor-In-Chief of Fanzing.com. He is the world's biggest Elongated Man fan and runs the only EM fan site. He lives in Rochester, MN.