Friday, January 25, 2008

How To Save Marvel Comics, Step One

I've been rambling on, off and on, for a while now, about my views on what's wrong with the comics industry, and how to fix it, and how things aren't as good as they were when I was a kid, and how my hip aches, and how those punk teenagers keep messing up my lawn, and...sorry. Channeling my inner "grumpy old man" there for a moment. But the fact of the matter is, comics are in trouble. Marvel and DC drive the industry, their dollars allow specialty comics stores to exist, which are the only outlet for independent comics, and should Marvel or DC die, then so will the industry (As We Know It, natch.)

And Marvel and DC...well, they'll no doubt point to how sales have increased over the last couple of years, and how happy they are, but let's not forget that they're increasing from an all-time low, that comics traditionally operate in a boom/bust cycle and the booms are getting smaller and the busts are getting bigger and we're in a boom now, that most Marvel comics are doing numbers that would have been below cancellation threshold twenty years ago, and that essentially Marvel and DC have lowered their standards to make themselves seem like they're doing a good job. 'Spider-Man 3', to pick a recent Marvel movie, grossed 336 million dollars. Let's assume that's ten bucks a ticket, with nobody seeing it at matinees. That's 33.6 million tickets sold. Now let's assume that everyone who saw the movie saw it three times, on average. That's eleven million Spider-Man fans. The current 'Amazing Spider-Man' comic? It sells about 100,000 copies an issue. This means that Marvel is reaching, at a conservative estimate, about one percent of its potential fan base. Any other industry had that kind of problem, the entire marketing, distribution, and editorial staff would be taken out back and shot.

So here I am, synthesizing all my thoughts on how to save Marvel into a series of easy columns so that people can read them all and say, "You're nuts." (The same advice applies to DC, by the by. 'Superman Returns' grossed $200 million.) So, step by step, this is how I'd do it.

Step #1 is both the easiest step, and the hardest. It's the easiest, because it requires no promotional budget, no distribution budget--it's purely internal. It's the hardest because it involves confronting the "elephant in the room", the big ugly truth that nobody in comics wants to admit. Not writers, not artists, not editors, not retailers, and definitely not fans. I expect to be utterly flamed for even saying it. I can't imagine Joe Quesada or Dan DiDio having the guts to say it, and that's not an attack on them--I consider them both very gutsy guys, but I can't picture them calling an all-staff meeting and saying this. It's the hardest thing in the world for everyone involved to accept, but no progress can be made until everyone from the top down at Marvel buys into it.

Marvel is a publisher of children's comic books, and every step they make to try to capture an adult audience is throwing money down a toilet.

Let me clarify: This is not the same thing as saying "Comics are a children's medium." I am aware of, and enjoy, lots of comics aimed at adults. There's no question that the medium is capable of telling adult, mature stories. But so is film. That doesn't mean Disney should start making R-rated movies. Disney wisely recognized a long time ago that their "brand identity"--the product that consumers associate with them--is "children's entertainment", and instead of fighting that brand identity, they went with it. When Disney wants to produce a movie for adults, they release it under the 'Touchstone' label because they recognize that "Disney" has certain connotations, and it's counter-productive to try to fight them. (That's also why they're so protective of the images of their cartoon characters. Negative portrayals of Mickey, Goofy, et al, reflect badly on Disney as a whole.)

Marvel has a brand identity of "children's entertainement". It releases DVDs of Marvel cartoons aimed at kids, it sells merchandising aimed at kids (not just toys, but sleepwear, children's clothing, backpacks, school supplies, a whole host of child-oriented merchandising), it uses its characters as mascots for children's products. Everywhere, the image of Marvel is "kid-friendly". Everywhere but in the comics. This is absolutely the worst possible way of doing things. Potential adult audiences (which exist in questionable numbers at best, anyway) won't pick up an mature-themed comic because the brand identity is "children's entertainment", and kids will be immediately turned off of Marvel's core product because it's not meant for them, even though it's aimed at and sold to them. It's the worst of both worlds in every possible sense.

So Marvel must become a kid-friendly company, and this must be from the top down. The "target audience" for any given mainstream "Marvel Universe" comic should be in the 8-13 range, with the Ultimate line skewing a little older (say, 13-18), and the Max line...well, first, the Max line getting renamed, because it currently sounds like a brand of condoms, but secondly repurposed as an 18-and-up line of comics. And, most importantly, the Max line should feature no Marvel icons. No Max Cap, Max Spidey, Max Hulk, et cetera et cetera. The whole point of shaking things up like this is to make sure your company's products match their image; a mature-readers Spider-Man title defeats the purpose.

What do I mean when I say "kid-friendly"? I don't mean "stupid", and I don't mean "cuddly." Go watch 'Doctor Who', or read 'Harry Potter'. They're "kid-friendly" series that contain plenty of death, mayhem, horror, evil, violence, and innuendo, and they do fine with kids. They also do fine with adults. 'Bone' would be perfectly acceptable at the "new Marvel", and that's an enduring classic. "For Kids" doesn't have to mean "kiddified."

In specific, "kid-friendly" must mean three things. One, no explicit on-panel sex or violence. To be honest, this is more for parents than for kids. Kids love that stuff. But they don't have jobs, they can't earn their own money, so they have to be able to convince mom and dad to be able to buy stuff for them. So that means a blood, gore, and sex rating that won't freak parents out. This doesn't mean you can't have all that stuff happening; you just have to be clever about showing it.

Two, the pace must pick up. Kids don't mind sex, violence, and all that stuff, but they do have a short attention span and don't like material that bores them easily. The trend towards "decompression" in comics has produced comics in which very little happens in a single issue. That's fine if you're writing a long-form graphic novel for adults, but if you're publishing a kid's comic (which you are, Brian Michael Bendis, even if you've forgotten), you need to be putting a lot of information in each issue to satisfy children's need to see things happen. That also means cutting back on the "character moments" (I'm looking at you now, Brad Meltzer.) Sure, to you, these are your childhood icons finally getting a chance to explore their emotions and relationships, but to a kid, that's a bunch of guys sitting around a table and talking for six pages when they could be hitting things. Stuff needs to happen. Period.

Three, and three is where Marvel's been dropping the ball the most lately, your characters must be basically sympathetic and heroic. This doesn't mean "bland" or "flawless"; Spider-Man has been troubled and flawed since before issue #1, and everyone's loved him for it. But he's also always done the right thing, too. Fundamentally, these stories need to be about good guys fighting bad guys, not good guys fighting other good guys or bad guys fighting worse guys. The last four major Marvel crossovers have been about heroes fighting other heroes (Avengers: Disassembled, House of M, Civil War, World War Hulk.) Less moral ambiguity, less emotionally damaged anti-heroes, more actual good guys. Wolverine and the Punisher should be the rare exceptions, not the rule.

So, this is the speech you deliver to your creative personnel. Editors are expected to enforce it, writers and artists are expected to adhere to it. Those that don't want to (and there will be some who won't or can't tell stories like this; Warren Ellis, for example, is probably not interested) will be gently encouraged to work for the Max line of comics. (OK, they'll be "gently encouraged" to work on the Max line in the same way that Native Americans were "gently encouraged" to live on reservations. Nobody said this was gonna be nice.) To be honest, that's probably a good thing. Warren Ellis is right, in a lot of ways, when he says that Marvel writers are just servicing old trademarks. In an attempt to feel better about their job, they've been telling themselves that no, they're Serious Creators creating Serious Art, and Marvel has let them (in no small part because editors like to believe they're Serious Editors editing Serious Creators.) But it's killing the company, a little bit at a time. It's time for Marvel to, as cynical as it sounds, start remembering that they're in the entertainment business and not serious artists.

What will the fans think of this step? A few will no doubt be unhappy. Marvel has done an inadvertently excellent job of driving away people looking for kid-friendly comics, and the remaining fans are happy to be a tiny audience getting the exact comics they like. But even among hardened fans, there's a market for fast-paced kid-friendly disposable entertainment, and if 'One More Day' has taught us anything, it's that fans will suck it up and keep buying through just about anything. The fanbase will stick around, which is good, because right now it's all Marvel has.

74 comments:

magidin said...

I certainly will not say you are crazy. As for fans raving, well, it's the old problem, isn't it? Do you want your medium to grow up with your fans (which essentially means that you will suffer with an ever diminishing audience), or do you let (the vast majority of) your fans "grow out" of your medium, just as new fans are growing into it? Those that "grew up" with comics and went into comics out of love want the former, and that is probably what has been driving the industry. There's been half-hearted attempts at simply setting up parallel media that cater to the older audience ("Vertigo", for example), but I don't think they ever realized that they were more likely to be a way to stem the flow of fans away from them than it was a way to "attract new adult readers" or "lure readers back". Maybe what Marvel and DC need, first and foremost, is someone in charge who is not someone who has "always loved comics"...

(I figure you might need someone to stand beside you in the flaming inferno...)

Anonymous said...

Define "violence"

Cause beyond that, I agree somewhat.

After all Marvel advenures avengers== Rad

Anonymous said...

GREG GRAY said:

I agree totally John, particularly in the age group progression of Marvel, Ultimates and "Max" comics you suggested. The current Marvel Adventures line is a good example of having this idea backwards. Comics for the youngest readers should be the first focus of the company and therefore should be simply called "Marvel" comics. More adult themed comics should be offshoots of that and should receive a different name.

The three, age delineated, lineages of comics should have their own instantly recognizable liveries and be racked separately at stores and on the website (in contrast to organizing them by character). All with the aim of making things immediately obvious to parents and new readers which group of comics are appropriate for them and their kids. Currently choosing age appropriate comics is a nightmare - the mess of titles which greets a new shopper at a comic store is so confusing.

Thanks for your ideas.
Greg

John Seavey said...

"Violence" pretty much equals "blood and gore" here, I think. You can have guys punching each other, you can have a guy with a gun shooting, or a knife, you can even have a guy get shot or stabbed on panel, so long as you're careful in how you show it. But pulling out the bloody knife, or showing blood pouring from the wound, or...oh, say for example showing Black Adam grabbing a guy's head and popping it like a zit on panel while making a semi-witty comment about their super-powers...yeah, that'd be out.

Devi said...

One of the things I've had trouble with as a parent is explaining to my 11-year-old how much her Daddy and I like comics (although my taste is far narrower than his). There's just not a lot I can point to automatically and say "You can read that..." except for manga. As a result that's pretty much what she reads in terms of graphic text media... nothing from Marvel or DC.

Indy book suggestions welcome! :)

Eric Teall said...

You're right all the way around, John. As usual. I wish I'd written this post.

Mory said...

From a business perspective, you're right. That's very interesting.

Jared said...

It's funny, too, how the supposedly "kiddy" and "immature" stuff is still more appealing to me as an adult, than is the whole business of Civil War, heroes fighting each other, dispensing with the outlandish costumes and secret identities, etc.

And yet, I still get more enjoyment out of Spider-Girl than I would out of Civil War, or anything else with dark, brooding antiheroes.

Besides, it's not like violence and internal turmoil can't take place-you just need to be subtle about it.

Superheroes have worked for what-three, four generations of readers? These supposedly 'stale and trite' (as Nitz the Bloody called them on the Marvel Universe section of Comicboards.com) elements appealed to me as much as they did to guys almost twice my age, and I'd be surprised if they didn't appeal to kids today.

Mark Clapham said...

The problem with re-orienting Marvel away from adults and towards kids would that it would be abandoning almost the entire current readership on a wish and a prayer that this new, younger readership rose up to replace them.

There's no evidence that this would be the case - I'm not even sure that the all-ages Marvel books, the Adventures and so forth, are actually reaching kids rather than aging fanboys. Every well-written all-ages book - whether it be Millar's Superman animated stories or the recent Parker Avengers ones - seems to have a solid audience of older fans who prefer the old-school, done-in-one approach to whatever the current crossover is.

Personally I think that price and the nature of the direct market are the biggest barriers to any expansion in the current comic book market - the direct market is, by its nature, going to sell to adult fans.

John Seavey said...

That's why it's "Step One", Mark. :) I agree, the direct market isn't geared to reach kids, and that it currently forms a major barrier to expanding the market...but the product has to be there before you try to sell it. If you fix the distribution and marketing problems, and get hordes of new readers into the stores buying comics, and they wind up picking up something like 'Countdown' #44 as their first book ever, well...that's that new audience down the drain, then. :)

Over the next week or two, I'll explain how to start getting a new audience into comics. I just feel that there has to be something there for them to read, first.

Reid said...

Love the blog, as always. Of course, this week I disagree with you 100%, but that's the way it goes sometimes.

Kids aren't reading comics anymore, and it's not just because there are no comics for them to read. If they could make comics for kids (or for little girls, or for any market segment), they'd do it.

The current generation of kid didn't latch on to comics as a way to further their imagination, because they already have that everyday. Movies are better, the internet is unlimited, heck, they don't even have to wait for Saturday morning to watch cartoons anymore. Reading 22 pages in four colors every 31 days just isn't enough for them. They need fast paced, digital, dynamic things to keep their interest.

All-Age Marvel Adventures might sell enough to stay on the market if they use the well known characters from the movies, but beyond that, the books don't sell.

Quality writing targeting teens and up has at least allowed comics to expand into the TPB and hardcover market. I think that's the way to continue and expand. Kids are now a small part of the market, you should still reach out to them as new readers, but you can't make them the sole focus at the point of cutting off the lifetime fan.

Enjoyed the blog anyway. I'll come back and check in on your ways to increase readership. Take care!

John Seavey said...

I hear that a lot--"Kids don't read comics anymore, they prefer movies, TV, and the Internet." I always wonder (and this is nothing personal, of course) whether the people who say that actually interact with kids at all.

My 4-year old niece got a shoebox full of age-appropriate comics for Christmas, and loves going through them and looking at the pictures. My 12-year old nephew loves Bone, reads manga voraciously (a habit he's joined in by his 16-year old brother), and occupied himself on a long car trip by "borrowing" the Essential Spectacular Spider-Man I'd brought along to read. Every time I go to Barnes and Noble, I see kids flocking to the comic book section, grabbing the manga that now takes up a whole aisle. Everything I've seen of kids suggests that they didn't abandon comic books, comic books abandoned them.

And still do abandon them. You mention that the Marvel Adventures books don't sell; that's because they're sold almost entirely in specialty stores catering to adults. One local comics store in my area has a sign right on the front, "Absolutely no unaccompanied minors in the store under any circumstances". Not exactly the sort of thing that makes kids go out there with their hard-earned allowance, is it?

Comics have spent the last twenty years marketing to adults, distributing to adults, and writing for adults, and then acts as though it's some inexplicable generation gap that makes kids not read comics. I don't understand it myself. :)

plok said...

I think I'll disagree with the previous commenter: because kids don't actually know how short their attentions spans are "supposed" to be, and as a matter of fact they will read comics. Heck, they'll even read actual books. Comics that appeal to kids could easily be made and distributed out where kids can get at them -- the reason they're not, is because the Big Two aren't interested in (very possibly, are no longer capable of) doing so. Plain and simple, it is just because there's nothing for them to read, that they're not reading. They're still reading Tintin, Asterix, and Archie. They're reading manga. They're reading Harry Potter, and The Hobbit. They're just not reading Marvel and DC.

I like that John notes that just because they're made with a young readership in mind doesn't mean they would suck. Behind me in my chair sit longboxes full of stuff that I found stimulating as a child, and still find stimulating today. By contrast, the vast bulk of the Marvel/DC output is made of stuff I do not find as stimulating as that older material. To be frank, I do not even find it as adult as that older material. So what's the market that the Big Two would be abandoning, should they start making that kind of thing again? It isn't simply a matter of trading adults for kids, because I'm an adult and they're losing me, too; to target the kids in the way John suggests would also be to target me, so that trade-off isn't quite as simple as it appears, because I too am a longtime fan. Let's just say it: "darkened" books that prominently feature scenes of violence brutal enough to earn an "A" rating at your local movie theatre are now preferred only by the type of reader who wants to be viscerally shocked by the juxtaposition of those elements with the traditional forms of a child's superhero story...which I believe at this point qualifies as a kink. Hey, Miracleman #15 was a long time ago, and that novel approach hasn't been novel for a really long time. Mark Millar, most recently, has been talking up a story he's writing about a dystopian future where all the superheroes are dead and their degenerate descendents run the world like gangsters run a neighbourhood. I mean, jeez. How are we still stuck on that, still after all this time? Millar's latest opus, I have no doubt whatsoever, will consist of some ostentatiously "adult" scenarios, some sex, some hard-man posturing, some edgy gore and some implied sneer at the "kiddie" world of comics that once existed...and then the hero will be pushed too far, and then he'll KICK SOME ASS, woo hoo! But obviously this is just Diehard, or possibly Rambo, with capes; this can't be the only market there is! Is The Sopranos the only show on TV? No, there are many different shows on TV. But in the world of Big Two comics right now there is only one show. Because what we have here seems to be a whole slew of comics creators whose most favourite thing ever in the whole world is The Usual Suspects (or, you know, insert "kickass" movie here), and they can think of no better publishing strategy than to replicate it.

And that's a monoculture, and it's not healthy. That is almost like marketing your product to just one guy, who you could probably sketch just from knowing what he's like. But what happens if he loses his job, or -- I don't know -- grows up?

Everybody's saying it these days, so I will too: the comics are just where those big companies cycle their brands, so they can keep their copyrights, and keep making Spider-Man and Batman pyjamas. And right now they're cycling them all in just one way, pandering to that one sketchable guy because he's the biggest sucker they know of down in the comics world: because he has a massive appetite for this kind of kick-ass kink, and all their writers and artists can make kick-ass kink tolerably well. But this doesn't mean there aren't other markets out there; there are. They've just been abandoned, because that makes sense to the people who call the shots.

It's not a real value-added way to do business, though, and you do have to wonder whose idea it really is. Does it come from Accounting? "Look, we'd rather squeeze what we can out of the existing Customer Profile than spend money performing major surgery on the whole line. When this boom's over, that's soon enough to try some experiments, 'til then just keep on doing what you do". And I'm not a businessman, but as a reader I do see a risk in this that maybe the higher-ups don't, which is that if you wait to make changes you might wait too long. No one knows what would happen if every guy like me just up and washed his hands of Spider-Man on the exact same day. But it could be staggering, and it could happen. In fact in my opinion there's an awfully good chance that it is happening as we speak, only no one's noticed yet.

Sorry for the hijack, John! I'll be following this series of yours, dying to know your ideas!

plok said...

Oh damn, I see I ended up just repeating some of your own thoughts at a higher volume of wind-baggery. Whoops.

RichardAK said...

You make some interesting points, but honestly, I think it is you who are missing the "elephant in the room," and that elephant is price. When I started collecting comics, the typical cover price was seventy-five cents; adjusted for inflation, that's about $1.40 today. That means that the real price of a single issue has more than doubled. The year I was born, a typical issue cost 40 cents; adjusted for inflation, that's about one dollar today, meaning that the real price has about tripled in my lifetime. You show me any other non-essential good that has seen price increases like that in the same period of time, and I'll show you another good that has seen its total sales drop radically.

Exacerbating this problem is that the amount of story you typically get per issue has dropped. I'm not talking about whether you have characters standing around talking or punching each other instead, or decompression or whatever. I mean simply that the number of panels per issue has actually dropped, a lot. I know you read Marvel's Essentials and DC's Showcase series, so sometime count the number of panels that appeared in a typical comic from, say, the eighties, and then count the number of panels that appears in a typical issue today. In short, we are getting fewer words and fewer pictures for a higher price. Arguably the publishers can't do too much to bring prices down; my understanding is that the price increases are largely the result of increased printing costs. But they can certainly tell their writers and artists that they need to do their best to give readers their money's worth every issue.

And I don't really believe that publishers are so helpless when it comes to price. It seems to me that they could rather easily start selling their comics on-line as downloadable files, and cut out the printers and the distributors altogether, which would let them bring prices down, and down hard.

Anyway, those are just my thoughts. I also thought I should let you know that I just stumbled across your blog and I enjoy it quite a bit. So thank you.

Cuitlamiztli Carter said...

I will both agree and disagree. First off, as your first anonymous noted, the Marvel Adventures are indeed rad. I'm a fairly erudite reader (last night it was twenty minutes of Charles Simic followed by a Batman comic) of several media, and I've found the Marvel Adventures I've read to be very engaging and fun.

My only disagreement is the lack of a Mature Readers incarnation of the character. Allowing writers to employ the same sort of mature sensibilities of other genres when writing superheroes has given us many, many good stories. One thinks first of the seminal ones, like Dark Knight Returns. While I don't entirely want to be awash in vicious, brutal stories, sequential art would suffer from not having had Mature Reader stories like The Question.

So I wouldn't be against a "Max" line if it were clear what it was, and if it was independent from the events in the rest of the line.

There's a reason people sneer at comic books, because they associate them with childish material. I think there should be an understanding that these superheroes belong to each generation. Readers want heroes to grow with them. I like reading stories of superheroes in brutal environments. I just like seeing the heroes rise above it all - and sheer gore or violence on the page is not what I enjoy. There should be joy to what they're doing - like Greek heroes, reveling in both highs and lows.

However, Steve Ditko proved in the sixties that comics aimed generally at kids can still provide stimulating material. Frankly, I think DC needs to employ more of the Timmverse writers and ask them to take that TV-PG mentality to the pages of the DCU. Marvel could get that same group to do wonders for their characters.

KitCroupier said...

@ Devi: If you're looking for something for a younger reader (but is still a REALLY fun read for adults) check out Aaron Williams' PS238. It's about an elementary school for superheroes. He's publishing pages of the comics online if you want to preview them (the beginning of the archive is here PS238 ) or buy the trades and single issues online Do Gooder Press
Mr. Williams also signs the comics if you buy directly from him :)

Chris S. said...

I generally agree, and one thing that you said that I think is important to reemphasize is that you can go pretty far with material, and keep it enjoyable and acceptable for children.

For example, I'm 21 now, so I was very little when the Tim Burton directed Batman movies came out. I loved those things, watched the crap outta them, and looking back, those movies were messed up. Still, I watched them all the time, my parents had no problem letting me watch them, and I can't remember any of my friends' parents having any qualms either. Really, so long as you leave out explicit violence, sex, and cussing, you can still make something very dark that is acceptable for children.

(Note: I'm not necessarily saying that you should, but rather if that's what people still want, that you can.)

chris w. said...

Those interested in a prime example of what John is saying here should pick up any Essential volume from the 70s.

Take the Defenders. Englehart and later Gerber came up with sophisticated ideas that 1. were loaded with action, 2. had just enough humor on both a kid and adult level, 3. explored relevant social ideas in a comic-book manner that could be grasped by adults and kids, 4. had clearly-defined heroes and villains, along with the interpersonal conflict between the heroes that added the 'grit' they claim can't be done in a kiddie-comic, 5. Told a story with plenty of plot movement in 22 pages, whether or not the story concluded.

Nearly any 70s Essential has the above elements. That mindset carried into the 80s and unfortunately derailed by the end of that decade.

Chris H said...

Let's continue the Chris trend shall we?

You nailed it. They're catering to adults, and it's obvious. One has to look no further than the sexualized superheroines like Supergirl to know that. But there's all sorts of other things that point to that too, not the least of which is bringing back characters five, ten, and twenty years gone. Do you think some 13 year old who really got into Kyle as Green Lantern knows who Hal Jordan is? CARES who Hal Jordan is? You just took away their favorite superhero because you really really want Hal Jordan's children.

Sorry, rant. But the idea holds throughout, and I'm guilty of wanting the same in my books, to be honest. I want the characters I liked to be around.

That said, Marvel Adventures is where it's at. Holy crap is that where it's at. I mean, there are some well written comics in the main lines, but week after week, Marvel Adventures is fantastic. And before that? Batman Adventures. Superman Adventures. The stuff geared at the cartoon audience (ditto JLU and Teen Titans Go!). I mean, I read the best thing Mark Millar has ever done, and it was a book. For kids.

Marvel was going in the right direction a few years ago. Livewires was a bit too violent, and Spellbinders blew ass, but then there was Arana, and the new Scorpion and RUNAWAYS and Machine Teen and stuff GEARED towards kids.

Runaways is still around. Arana is in Ms Marvel's book. Scorpion was in House of M Hulk.

They blew it.

neil said...

There's a second beast that needs to be slain, and that's price and format. The market currently supports hundreds of titles, all selling at barely profitable levels, in a format that takes up huge amounts of space to sell. If comics want to reach a mass market they need to break out into more venues in a format that offers value for money.

The answer has to be something along the lines of Shonen Jump - anthology titles with 4-5 stories each of 40-odd pages in length. You could have a monthly X-Men collection which folded in the material that's now printed seperately in Uncanny, Astonishing, X-Factor and the like. There's an X-Men reprint title that sells on something approaching that format in the UK, and I'd bet you a tenner it outsells X-Men in the UK simply by virtue of being in every high street newsagents and WHSmiths.

Or you could do an Avengers title that featured 40 pages of the Avengers team, 40 pages of Cap, 40 pages of Iron Man etc.

The singles format for comics will die simply because buying a trade paperback from Amazon can be easily half the price of buying the story as it comes out.

Anonymous said...

the warren ellis who writes black summer, gravel, and transmet probably has no interest in this marvel junior you speak of.

but the warren ellis who wrote nextwave and volume two of ultimate fantastic four, who wrote doom 2099 and whatever the hell else he did back at marvel in the 90s, would probably love it.

seandehey said...

(whoops vs anonymous...) i should add that both nextwave and ultimate f4 v2 were warren ellis and stuart immonen, and both were smart kid-friendly books that i love. more stuff like that and marvel will be in good shape.

Randy said...

Let me preface this by saying I'm both a current youth pastor (so I work with kids every day of all ages) and also a writer trying to break into comics (finishing my first novel as we speak): I agree and disagree.

Yes, comics have been targeted at adults, and the reasoning for this is many but I'll just mention a few points:
1. As has been already said, $ is an issue. Adults have the money. It's the same way with the video game industry. For something that started as a "kids thing" it's now predominantly an adult industry. Comics are relatively expensive, especially if you buy singles and follow several books a month. It may not be as big a deal to us (I'm 27) but to anyone under 16 who doesn't/can't work a job, it can be a lot. Of course there are ways around this, and sure if there were more children-oriented content parents my be more apt to shell out for the comics because it's getting the kids to read, but that's still an "if" and you still have a lot of parents who don't take comics seriously and see it as a waste of money.

2. Hate to say it but a lot of the "talent" won't make the transition. Even if you make a MAX line in both DC and Marvel that caters to the current audience, where do you think most of the more popular writers and artists are going to want to work most of the time? This is conjecture, of course, but as a writer I can say that for myself I'd want to work where there were the least creative constrictions to telling my story. It's fine if you love writing the old school Spider-Man, Superman, etc. stories that are aimed at a younger audience; but if you're a writer like I am, and I believe people like Meltzer, Bendis, etc. are, and you see comics as legit and serious a storytelling medium as novels, movies, etc. then you're going to want to write the MAX stuff. Not just for the extra blood, gore, sex, etc. but because you won't have to dumb down the content and "character moments". I know kids aren't stupid, but parents can be and if you're aiming at kids they're going to be watching you with a high powered microscope and if you address an issue they don't like, you're going to get fired on. Face it, with anything aimed at kids there's going to be a crap ton of restrictions on how you can tell a story and what subjects you can broach.

Personally I think there's more than enough room for both audiences but I don't see a reason to totally abandon the current audience who has stuck by and supported the medium to go after kids. Look at the crapstorm that's happened with ASM because they were aiming to do just that. There's always going to be an audience. Just like with Video Games, I think as kids get to be older and more mature they're attracted to the stories comics have to tell. I didn't even get hardcore into comics until my late teens/early 20's. I turn my kids on to them once they're in their mid teens with Ultimate Spider-Man, etc. and they love it not just for the pretty pictures or because it's popular (manga)but because they love the actual stories, characters, etc. Just my 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

At least Spider-man is taking a step in the right direction by turning it into Archie or whatever the hell this Brand New Day thing is.

John Seavey said...

Wow, lots of points. (I think this is officially the most-commented upon entry in my blog's history.) Some of them will be answered in Steps Two and Three, but a few points worth mentioning now:

1) Many people have mentioned price, and yes, it's a concern. But the problem is, the only way to get the price-per-unit down is to sell more units. (Well, the only ethical way. Marvel could certainly slash prices by cutting page rates, reducing or eliminating royalties, et cetera et cetera. But we will, for the moment, assume they're trying to do the right thing by their creators.) Business 101 tells you that as your sales increase, your profit-per-unit can be lower and still give you the same total profit, and that unfortunately, the reverse is true. Comics prices haven't skyrocketed because of the printing quality or the price of paper, they've skyrocketed because the smaller your audience, the more you need to charge them. (This will form a key component of Step Two.)

2) Yes, I do expect that a lot of the "big talent" will be uninterested in following Marvel's new direction. Y'know what? From a business standpoint, it's probably smartest to just let them go. There are always plenty more people queuing up to replace them, simply due to the nature of the industry. There's also a certain built-in audience for "Spider-Man" stories, no matter who's writing or drawing them (although bad art will lose you readers a lot quicker than bad writing will.) Yes, some people will pick up or drop a title solely due to the writer or artist. But Marvel can't base their business decisions on the popularity of their writers or artists, because writers and artists come and go, while their intellectual properties stay theirs. (This is a lesson Marvel really should have learned way back in 1991. When you make celebrities out of your top writer/artists, give them their own prestige titles, promote them to the hilt, and make them huge stars...and they then take off en masse to form a competing company...you should probably be aware that it's smarter to promote "featuring Spider-Man!" than "Written by Warren Ellis!")

3) 'One More Day' wasn't an attempt to make "kid-friendly" comics. It was an attempt to make "Joe Quesada's personal childhood-friendly" comics. It's purely an exercise in nostalgia, which is exactly the opposite of what kid-friendly should be--because kids don't have the background knowledge to understand why it's so important for Spider-Man to be single, have mechanical web-shooters, and live with his aunt. (My 15-year old nephew's response when he heard about mechanical web-shooters: "That's stupid. Why don't they just do it like the movie, where it's one of his powers?")

Jamaal said...

My only problem with this is that Marvel Comics appears to be doing pretty well with their focus on an adult audience. And I don't know if that audience is as stagnant as conventional wisdom would have us believe. Sometimes I think that people conflate what they would want as a fan with what a company (which deals with aggregates) would be interested in doing.

Maybe if they did this, they could go back to being a mass medium, but I feel like that argument's a little shaky too. When comics were picked up by kids everywhere (on newsstands, etc.), was the industry more profitable? To what degree is the success of manga in this country owed to the fact that the U.S. is a secondary market for the material?

And if 'surgery was performed' on the entire line of books, why would it be inherently better to focus on younger people rather than people in their twenties?

I like the article a lot (and am looking forward to the next steps).

Pedro said...

I really feel that this article is less of a Marvel needs to fix itself because it's financial ruin, and more of a "why can't Marvel make the books I want to read?" I understand the frustration in that, but it appears that Marvel itself is doing very well with the market it currently is in.

Also in regards to you three point plan to make things safe for kids, Death Note, a manga the kids love, doesn't follow a single thing.

Mike Falcon said...

I am curious to know what the difference in cost is to produce a comic using the current production standards and the production standards of the late 70's/early 80's (newsprint with basic coloring techniques).

If it is significantly cheaper to produce books "old school", then why not create a separate line (either in the current monthly format or the manga/omnibus format - Shonen Jump) and get the books in every single variety store and grocery store check out line possible. A price point no hight than $1.99 would certainly attract new readers.

Mark Clapham said...

Hmmmm, I'm still not convinced that the wholesale abandonment of the adult audience in favour of kids is a good first step. It's hardly the most sensible business move - abandon an existing, small but loyal audience in favour of a hoped-for possibly larger audience. Chances are you'd alienate existing readers without bringing in new ones. It's hard to see appealing to adult fanboys as 'money down the toilet' when they're currently the only people likely to pay for the product. Any plan to refocus the product needs to be in addition to the solid base audience, not as an overnight slash and burn replacement.

Randy said...

Good points, but I still haven't heard any reason why one "market" has to be abandoned for the other. With 50 gazillion titles every month, there's no reason why half couldn't be developed with a kid-oriented content and the other half left as is for the mid-teens/adult market. There's absolutely no need to alienate your current market, not to mention talent, etc.

If they like it or not the medium has "grown up". Again I use the video game industry as an example. Mainstream (and even more so, indie) comics just aren't for "kids" anymore. They haven't been for quite some time and honestly I don't see what the big deal is. "We need younger readers!" Why? I'm not saying it isn't important, but younger readers grow up pretty quick. Why can't you have several lines of kid-friendly books (which to my understanding Marvel already does, when it comes to Spider-Man) that gets them in the door and will help them make the transition to the more mainstream titles as they get older (and more specifically actually have money to spend on comics)? Because that's not how it was done 30+ years ago? So far, and this is just how I've read it, I could be wrong, you sound as though it has to be an either/or kind of thing and I'm just not understanding why that has to be the case.

Marvel isn't doing as well as it could because the people in charge, much like the movie industry, keep making stupid creative decisions and throwing money after quantity instead of quality. Good writing + Good art= Sales.

In an interview with BKV on Newsarama he made it a point to mention that Y: The Last Man bought his house. He's made more from that one property (and continues to) than he has on anything he's done for Marvel or DC. Why? First off, yes he co-owned the property which means he makes more money off of it; but it got to be so popular because it was a well written book with great art. It sold. A lot. Which brought in interest from hollywood. Now a movie will be made that, regardless of how it actually turns out, will make a boatload of money.

Ultimate Spider-Man is the #1 selling title for Marvel. Why? Good writing + Good art= Sales. Sure, it targets a younger audience, but that didn't matter because it was good regardless. And I'm sorry, like you said Bendis doesn't write for kids. You can't tell me that he's writing for a 12 year old. I know that because his writing on USM sounds exactly like every other title he does to the point where I think he forgets what he's working on. But I digress...

The key to saving Marvel isn't totally ditching what's worked for them the past 10+ years in favor of a supposed new audience. While that may be part of it, and it's not a bad thing to go after younger readers, the key is to focus more on quality and less on quantity. I'd rather have 5 kick-arse titles that sells really well than 15 crappy titles that barely make enough to justify keeping them on. If it's quality (and you actually market it) people will buy it. Young, old, whatever. Again, just my 2 cents.

Sandy said...

Random response-y thoughts:
*My 4 year-old son loves a funnybook, and he's losing his two favorites soon as DC is cancelling Titans Go! and JLU. He thinks Spider-Man is cool, but even the Marvel Adventures things skew a bit older. Even Marvel action figures are so hideous I won't buy them for him. Not sure who they're marketing those to.
*I am old and increasingly feel like a retard when I pick up a grown-up superhero book. I do enjoy stopping by the shop and exclusively buying Johnny DC books for the kid.
*People who aren't funnybook people are terrified when they see a Civil War type book. Sunday I heard someone exclaim 'but they're superheroes- don't they fight bad guys?
*I've also heard a mom gasp with terror/disgust at older Kelly Jones Batmans. So it ain't just Marvel. And that's not what Batman should be. Batman is for the kids, superheroes are for the kids, but they've been hijacked.
*Kids can handle sophisticated fare, but they don't need tentacle porn.

Kross said...

I think you bring up a lot of good points, but I disagree on some. I don't Marvel should be aimed at any one age group. I think they have a diverse enough lineup of characters that there can certainly be something for everybody, and as somebody noted in a previous comment, the adult-aimed, dark and violent theme has yielded some very good comics, like Dark Knight Returns.

You mentioned Harry Potter as a comparison, but keep in mind that Harry Potter grew up with his audience. In the first book he was 11 (I think...) and the story was very much aimed at an 11-year-old. By the fifth book he was 15 and the story was significantly darker and filled with angst, in a way that a 15-year-old would certainly appreciate.

The Fantastic Four is the perfect book to be aimed an 8-13 demographic. The family theme gives them a mother, father, and two brother figures that they can easily relate to. Spider-Man should be...well, he should be Ultimate Spider-Man, a young teenage kid dealing with both real and super life. The X-Men? Well, there are enough X-books out there that they should be able to aim one at every demographic out there, but in general I would think it should be slighter edgy, aimed at older teens, specifically the alternative and minority crowd. Daredevil, however, has only every been really interesting as a gritty adult comic, as it has been in the hands of Miller, Bendis and Brubaker.

I think the real problem is how closely knit these characters' shared universe is, and its only getting closer with each major crossover. The whole universe has to cater to one audience in order to continue to make sense (if it even still does), and that's what's stopping individual characters from finding their audience.

Brian Hibbs said...

What's funny to me is that Spider-Man 3, X-Men 3, Superman Returns, Batman Begins... all PG-13 -- that is, you need to be at LEAST 13 to see them.

Also funny to me is that in the book store environment is just as "dominated" by two publishers as the DM is -- Viz and Tokyopop represent 95% (!) of all manga sold by the BookScan top 750, and manga is seom 75% of all books sold.

Regardless, I think drawing conclusions from movie-tickets-sold as having any bearing on reading is probably silly.... I AM LEGEND made some $252m at the box office, does anyone think that the Matheson novel is a "failure" for not selling 25m copies?

Even HARRY POTTER -- the most recent film seems to have grossed $292m, while they sold 14m copies of the last book, a distant fraction. And HP is one of the most amazing success stories in print in the last few decades...

Finally, I don't think, even IF you're trying to draw some line between movies and print sales, that comparing Spider-Man 3 to "Amazing Spider-Man" is that fruitful -- ASM is only ONE of several Spidey titles; much better would be to sum ALL of the Spidey comics throughout the entire year. AND all all of the TP sales, then see where you end up. It's still a fraction, but a much better one.

Mm, and in regards to the pricing discussion further down, I think you WAY underestimating the impact of "living wage" page rates and royalties on cover price.

All FWIW.

-B

chris w. said...

I am failing to understand in what way a return to comics which can be enjoyed by ALL ages constitutes "abandoning" the adult market.

History lesson: When Lee, Kirby, and Ditko's various creations hit the newsstands, there were dozens of Marvel Comics clubs popping up in universities across the country. Radio DJs routinely professed their unsolicited love for Marvel over the air.

This happened prior to the advent of the hippies or the counterculture.

There were no lack of adults who enjoyed comic books from that period up until the present day. I'm 35 years old and I've discovered that I MUCH prefer comics from the wild 70's and innovative 80s to anything being published today.

Kross said...

Chris W. -

If I have my history correct, part of the reason why Lee, Kirby, and Ditko's comics won over the hipster crowd back then is because, compared to what DC and other American publishers were doing at the time, their comics were practically avant garde. I know after the "make a villain a hero" trend of the '90s it probably seems trite, but to have someone who looks like the Thing as a hero back in those days was something really differant. Marvel had the image of being the "alternative" comic company to DC's corporate, mainstream appeal.

Today, Marvel gets lumped in with DC as "the big two," and is seen as being just as corporate, boring, and, at least in the eyes of most people who don't read comics, kiddie-fare as any other comic publisher.

There's no "Marvel Comics Club" on my campus here. Instead, there's two anime clubs. Its simply no longer the cool, hip brand that it may have been at the time. Its been replaced by other, newer trends, and I don't really think that has anything to do with the quality of the comics. I think it just got old.

Anonymous said...

GREG GRAY said:

To Mark Clapham, Randy & Kross. John is not proposing abandoning anyone. If you re-read his post you'll see he is proposing a three tier system based on age appropriateness. All people who read comics today will be able to find a group of comics that appeal to them in this system.

To Jamaal. It is inherently better for a comic publisher to focus on younger people because younger people grow into adolescents, teenagers, people in their twenties, and old folk. Whereas people in their twenties only grow into old folk. John's concept is to catch the youngest possible readers, hook them onto Characters and then to provide them with a route to follow those Characters throughout the reader's life through the age-based imprints of what he has provisionally called "Marvel", "Ultimates" and "Max".

To others. I'm sure John will tackle format and price issues in later posts.

Thanks,
Greg Gray

Randy said...

"To Mark Clapham, Randy & Kross. John is not proposing abandoning anyone. If you re-read his post you'll see he is proposing a three tier system based on age appropriateness. All people who read comics today will be able to find a group of comics that appeal to them in this system."

Yes but if I understand him correctly, and again I could be wrong, he's saying that all "adult" comics should be labeled "Max" and all the current titles (ASM, X-Men, Daredevil, etc.) should be brought down to a "kid-friendly" age group as the "Marvel" mainstream.

My point is the industry has grown up and the books have reflected that, again, much like the video game industry has. I'm all for kid-targeted "safe" books, middle aged books, etc. I just don't think there needs to be this sweeping change to the way things are being done to do it. Take the bottom 10 titles or whatever that are barely selling and hardly anyone gives a crap about. Nix them. Turn them into a kids line of books featuring Spidey, the X-Men, etc. There's your kids market. It's Marvel. Market it that way. Leave the "mainstream" titles as they are.

These aren't the 40's and 50's anymore. These aren't the "funny pages". Times have changed. Kids have changed along with it (kids deal with crap on a daily basis that anyone even just over 21 never had to deal with at that age). Comics have grown up. Yes, they absolutely can be for all ages, and they should be, but Marvel is big enough that they can satisfy all market groups without resorting to large sweeping changes like making Amazing Spider-Man or Daredevil targeted for 10 year olds. If I've misinterpreted John's point of view, I apologize, but thats the basic gist I was getting.

Brex W. Foldingham said...

I'm going to throw in another wrinkle and I hope John will address this at some point: Stop publishing 40-60 year old characters and make some series with endings. Dragon Ball Z ended 11 years ago and they are still making video games of it, so a finite series can still be a money maker.

A comic store owner once told me, while complaining about DC/Marvel fare, "If a story never ends, it's a soap opera and that's the lowest form of storytelling."

There is room for the never ending Superman tales but it would have to be the 60's model where you assume the audience grows out of your comic every four years.

Brex W. Foldingham said...

Randy,

Do you have any numbers on the video game industry? Yes the consoles have gotten more 'mainstream' but it seems like children around me are born with a Nintendo DS fused to their hands.

Also Ultimate Spider-Man is not Marvel's #1 selling title. It's usually around 20-28 on the icv2 list.

Randy said...

I stand corrected on my statement about USM.
Nintendo is the more "kids friendly" company in the video game market and their games tend to aimed at a younger or more family oriented type of game play.

As far as actual figures on Video Game stats the best I could find right now just with a casual google search was one from 2004-5, but I do know the stats have increased quite a bit since then (this was mentioned on G4 not too long ago), I just don't have access to that specific information right now. Considering this was from roughly 4 years ago, the statistics are quite telling, and even had some stuff I wasn't aware of. Here's what I could find right now:

The Entertainment Software Association provides a wealth of data,
statistics and information regarding the Video Game Market.


“The U.S. computer and video game software sales grew four percent in
2004 to $7.3 billion -- a more than doubling of industry software
sales since 1996.”

“Seventy-five percent of American heads of households play computer
and video games.”


“In 2004, more than 248 million computer and video games were sold,
almost two games for every household in America”

“The average game player is 30 years old and has been playing games for 9.5 years”

“The average game buyer is 37 years old. In 2005, 95 percent of
computer game buyers and 84 percent of console game buyers were over
the age of 18.”


“ Eighty-three percent of all games sold in 2004 were rated "E" for
Everyone or "T" for Teen.”

“ Eighty-seven percent of game players under the age of 18 report that
they get their parents’ permission when renting or buying games, and
92 percent say their parents are present when they buy games.”

“ Forty-three percent of all game players are women. In fact, women
over the age of 18 represent a greater portion of the game-playing
population (28 percent) than boys from ages 6 to 17 (21 percent).”

“ In 2004, 19 percent of Americans over the age of 50 played video
games, an increase from nine percent in 1999.”

“ Forty-two percent of game players say they play games online one or
more hours per week. In addition, 34 percent of heads of households
play games on a wireless device, such as a cell phone or PDA, up from
20 percent in 2002.”

Source: Entertainment Software Association
http://www.theesa.com/facts/top_10_facts.php

Randy said...

Actually I found an update on those stats at that website (http://www.theesa.com/facts/gamer_data.php)
Here's a few highlights, and you can go and check out the rest for yourself if you're interested:
How Many Americans Play Games?

* Sixty-nine percent of American heads of households play computer and video games.

Who Purchases Computer and Video Games?

* Ninety-three percent of people who make the actual purchase of computer games and 83% of people who make the actual purchase of video games are 18 years of age or older. The average age of the game buyer is 40 years old.

How Long Have Gamers Been Playing?

* Adult gamers have been playing an average of 12 years. Among most frequent gamers, adult males average 10 years for game playing, females for 8 years.

Will Gamers Keep Playing?

* Fifty-three percent of game players expect to be playing as much or more ten years from now than they do today.

*The average age of game players is 33. 47.6% of all gamers are 18-49. 24.2% are over the age of 50.

There's a bit more but that's the basic gist. I'm pretty sure these stats are from 2006. Sorry for posting on this again but I couldn't edit the previous post and put these stats there instead. *thumbs up*

Eddie Robson said...

Incidentally, I see you've based your scrupulously conservative estimate of the ratio of "Spider-Man" moviegoers to comics buyers on the US box office - are the sales figures for the comic the overall, worldwide figures? If so, that's even more damning.

I think the "less decompression" aspect is the easiest to put in place, because I think a skilful comics writer should be able to do that without the result seeming dumbed down. Everyone would benefit from that, not just the kids. Someone said to me about five years ago that he found it ridiculous that, whilst most forms of storytelling had sped up their narrative pace, comics had slowed down due to everything being a six-issue arc that takes six months to unfold.

I think any single issue of a comic should be enjoyable in isolation. Some people are doing single-issue stories - Morrison's All Star Superman, Dini's Detective, Cooke's Spirit - and more writers should have the balls to do that, to not spin an idea out for three or four issues to save having to come up with a whole new idea next month.

Carlos Futino said...

I both agree and disagree.

I do agree that Marvel and DC have been fighting they're brand identity and that that's a bad thing.
On the other hand, I've never seen neither of the them as "kid entertainement" brands, but rather as "teen entertainment" brands. It night sound like splitting hairs, but it makes a lot of difference in terms of both content and publicity.

John Seavey said...

The key thing to remember about the video game industry right now is that Sony and Microsoft are trying to cater to the adult, hardcore gamer audience with an expensive product that delivers a mature, fully-nuanced gaming experience for adults, while Nintendo is trying to deliver a cheap, accessible, all-ages product geared to the casual gamer.

Nintento is kicking Sony and Microsoft's butt up and down store aisles so badly that even a year after launch, you can't reliably find a Wii.

I'm saying it's better for Marvel to emulate Nintendo than Sony. :)

Brex W. Foldingham said...

Randy,

Just wanted to say thanks for the stats. That was very interesting.

Though I'm still with John: Spider-Man, Captain America, Hulk should be all-age friendly. And not "a kids line" either, the actual titles Amazing Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk.

This is a branding issue.

As Randy said, the video MARKET has gone more "mature," but specific brands have not. Koopa is not raping Princess Peach in Mario games. Even though Mario games have been around for 20 years, they haven't "grown" with the audience.

If you want "adult" video games you play Grand Theft Auto, you don't turn Pokemon into a series where you can kill hookers.

Plus, the only reason most adults can stomach books about adults dressing up in costumes and calling themselves "Batman" or "Spider-Man" is because we grew up with them. So if kids can't read Spider-Man how can they turn into adults that read Preacher? Sure it's possible new adult readers will read Preacher, but it's probably easier if they've grown up with a comic reading habit.

Also, what about getting girls to buy comics? I hope John touches on this too.

Anonymous said...

Oh, jesus, I just read this. HOW DARE YOU. What you're calling for is censorship - nothign more. Comics should not be for kids - they should be for who's paying for them - and I'm paying for them. Take away the Max Line, are you NUTS? God forbid there should be an intelligent take on characters being written - what would you prefer, Punisher running around in a fruity green bodysuit...wait, in "Kiddie friendly" books, can't have people with guns either "Gotta think of the children". You want all comics to be the same kiddied horseshit that the Johnny DC line is...are you insane, comics would tank within a year, you want to tell Brian Bendis, Geoff Johns, Mark Millar what to write, and aim it at a five year old. Good luck finding readers. Kids aren't reading comics because they're expensive, and they have other things to spend money on. Well, I'm here to say I don't have an x-box, or manga - I have comics, and I'm 25 years old, and I refuse to read the Marvel Adventures Line.

Brex W. Foldingham said...

Dear Angry Anonymous,

Unless you're being funny (in which case, ignore my post), I'm not sure you understand the nature of corporate owned comic books. What John is proposing is "brand management" not "censorship."

There is a very good reason for there to only be one version of each character (and no MAX versions). It's called brand confusion. Remember when McDonald's tried to make Ronald more "grown up"? It failed.

I have changed my mind slightly, I agree with Carlos Futino, Marvel Comics should probably be aimed at teens. Spider-Man's problems aren't really kids' problems. DC Comics though, are probably best aimed at kids.

snow00 said...

I was pondering this issue the other day, and frankly I see some hard days for American-style comics in the next decade or so. You are absolutely right about the huge difference in who is going to the comic movies and who is picking up the floppies....but I'm not sure there is anything that can be done to fix it other than change the format. I personally think
all comic publisher need to figure out how to get the books on-line and do it fast. everyday I wish i could read by comics on my ipod touch....and I'm sure others out there would give comics a chance if they could get them from home and not try to find a comic store.

but then what happens to the comic book store guy? tough spot to be in....I hope we make it through.

Randy said...

Brex,
No problem. :)

"Nintento is kicking Sony and Microsoft's butt up and down store aisles so badly that even a year after launch, you can't reliably find a Wii."

Actually, no, they aren't. The Wii production was underproduced from the start, and while the console itself is arguably selling better, Microsoft is kicking everyone's arse in software sales (the actual games). Nintendo's games are also extremely child-centric, and while adults can have fun playing them it's often on a more limited basis than the other two brands. No, I don't have stats right in front of me, but I do have a crap ton of friends and parents that have a Wii as well as a PS3 or 360 and that's typically what happens. Wii Sports, etc. is fun for about an hour then you're bored. Same with most of the other nintendo products. It's just not for adults long-term. It's more a party/family type system, and honestly most kids I know play their Wii for a while then they're back on the 360. What does this have to do with the topic?

Comics are getting the same way. I'm not disagreeing that Captain America, Spider-Man, etc. shouldn't be all ages. What I am saying is it doesn't have to be an either/or kind of thing. The more mature themed comics have overrun the market and become the standard. Rather than trying to change that 20+ year evolution back (just look at Brubakers run on Captain America- it's a well told, very adult story that you just couldn't do as effectively in an all ages sort of way), just make a fully functional kids line instead. There are easily 10-20 titles at Marvel that just aren't working, aren't selling, no one cares about but a handful of people. Nix them, makes them all ages books (targeting the younger demographic) featuring the prominent characters of the Marvel U, call it happy. When they get older they could transition into the Ultimate line and the more mainstream titles. I'm not seeing the problem with this.

I think the underlying issue here is the same that has plagued the comic movies until recently- superheroes aren't treated as a serious storytelling medium. The idea of superheroes in its most general predates comic books, and even the written word. It's never been just "for kids" but at some point that's the focus we gave it and for a long time that became the standard. Now this (relatively) new form of telling those same types of stories are trying to grow from that mentality and it's easy for people to want to try and put it back into that box.

Kids absolutely should have their own versions of these superhero stories. They should have a Spider-Man, Superman, etc. they can read. But adults have just as much right to those characters as well, to read stories that matter to them and that they can identify with. Comics aren't just for kids, they're for everyone, and there's plenty of room to meet the needs of us all.

sinous said...

Brex, you hit the nail right on the head. And no one on this thread has followed up on your thought.

Young people reading manga these days are reading finite stories. Because the storylines are finite, there is less corny melodrama and more room for character development. This increases the odds for more relatable story telling.

Youngsters are reading manga simply because they can relate to it better than to what Marvel/DC are putting out. There is nothing faker than a sixty year old comic book with references to decades old events that no one cares about.

I think the core problem is that Marvel/DC do not allow creators to own what they create, as opposed to Manga. If creators are allowed to control their properties, better storytelling will be the result. From this, most of the problems with mainstream American comics would be resolved, one way or the other.

Brex W. Foldingham said...

Randy,

Now we are getting to the crux of the issue. Comics as a medium aren't just kids, but should super-hero comics be? I say yes.

Yes, stories of people with powers beyond those of mortal men predate written literature. But stories about people in brightly colored costumes, with secret identities, and iconic names that reflect their powers are relatively new.

I see two reasons why super-hero comics aren't taken seriously: 1*) The more serious the story, the harder it is to get past the fact that it features adults in costumes calling each other Batman and Spiderman. 2) VERY few super-hero stories try to be intelligent. 99% of all superhero comics look imbecilic compared to the thought and care that Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons used to craft Watchmen.

*I'm 100% sure that part of the reason Heroes the TV show is popular is because no one is in a spandex costume and no one has a code name.

John Seavey said...

It's funny you mention Brubaker's Cap story, because that's one I was thinking could be very easily told under the new guidelines with very few changes. He'd need to speed up the pacing, find ways to pack more information into fewer pages, and some individual panels might need to be redrawn to avoid explicit blood and gore, but the overall story? Nah, that's great stuff.

And as an aside to anonymous: I absolutely did not recommend getting rid of the MAX line; just as I think it's important to keep the "Marvel" brand all-ages, I also think it's important to keep a brand for adults to read as well. What I said was, to avoid brand confusion, the characters who are the "face" of the Marvel line, such as Spider-Man, the FF, Cap, Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man, would be off-limits to people writing for the MAX line. (The Punisher's a gray area. On the one hand, he is a recognizable icon. On the other hand, as you pointed out, he's a character that really works better for grown-ups than for kids. I might slowly phase him out of the Marvel Universe, and keep him as a MAX character, sort of like they did with 'Swamp Thing' in Vertigo.)

As to exactly how I dare, it's much the same way that Reed Richards dares to confront Doom. :)

plok said...

Yeah, I was just about to say I'd give Brubaker's Cap to an 11-year old without hesitation.

Millar and Bendis I would shove into the Max line. No need to spit on those Ultimate fans.

Randy said...

"I see two reasons why super-hero comics aren't taken seriously: 1*) The more serious the story, the harder it is to get past the fact that it features adults in costumes calling each other Batman and Spiderman. 2) VERY few super-hero stories try to be intelligent. 99% of all superhero comics look imbecilic compared to the thought and care that Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons used to craft Watchmen."

That's really more personal preference/opinion than anything, really.
1.) Batman Begins, Spider-Man 1/2 for example did a great job showing how well Superheroes could be handled if treated seriously. More Begins than anything. If you cant get past the fact that a grown man is wearing a costume and calling himself Batman that's more the writers fault or your lack of imagination that's the issue than it is that superheroes are "for kids." Let me clarify that wasn't meant as an insult. Some people just have different tastes, etc. and it's harder for them to "buy" the stories. These are the same people that generally don't like Star Wars, Star Trek, etc. and just can't "get into it".
2.)Depends on what you're reading and who the creative team is that's behind it. And again, it could be more personal taste as well. I could name quite a few ongoing titles that are very well told, intelligent stories (Captain America, New Avengers, Daredevil, Green Lantern, Astonishing X-Men to name a few). I could also name just as many trades etc. that I consider comparable to Watchmen (I'm honestly not a fan, but I do understand the book's importance) that are done using Batman, Daredevil, etc. (Batman Year One, Man Without Fear, Secret Identity, Superman: Birthright, Kingdom Come, Born Again, Identity Crisis, Guardian Devil, Archer's Quest, Rebirth, etc.)

I gain just as much from superhero stories as I do novels, movies, and any other entertainment media. I can relate to the characters in many way and I enjoy the stories told, in the way that they're told. Again, superheroes are for everyone. How they're handled is what's important and makes or breaks a story.

**spoiler warning if you've not been current with Captain America to this point**
Speaking of ongoing titles that are intelligent and well written, Bru's Cap- It's pretty heavily political in the background, with events leading up to Cap's death and his replacement by a guy who, as a very young man, basically went around as Cap's wetwork guy under the guise of his sidekick. The same guy that gets brainwashed and is turned into an assassin. The same story where another character is brainwashed (his lover, no less) and used to help kill Cap. Then the aforementioned former sidekick/assassin becomes the new Cap. I really don't see how you could make that accessible for an 11 year old without changing a good bit of the detailed content (you're basically making the new Captain America, the human icon of America, a trained killer/murderer), thus making the book much weaker than it would be the way it's being expertly told now. You're just going to lose something in the translation. The argument isn't if it can be done but if it should be done. IMO, not everything has to be for kids.

Brex W. Foldingham said...

Randy,

It's a bit late so I'll just respond to your resposnes of my points:

1) There is no gore/rape in Spider-Man 1/2 or Batman Begins. And they still didn't really play with any moral ambiguity that modern 'serious' super-hero stories have tried to tell since Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns. I feel like Batman Begins wasn't far off from an episode of The Animated Series, correct me if I'm wrong though, I only saw it once.

Though serious stories isn't what I meant to attack (Bambi is as serious a story as any ever told), I should've kept the conversation to "adult." And by "adult" I mean the gore, rape, explicit sex. (Though endless narration about "what it means to be a hero" is a sad part of today's comics.)

2) While Watchmen always gets brought up for the content, the technique is what makes it head and shoulders better than 99% of other super-hero comics. It's a book that rewards re-reading because there is bound to be things you missed the first or even second time you read it. Is there a comic by someone other than Grant Morrison that can top Issue #5 "Fearful Symmetry" in technical brilliance.

plok said...

Oh, I don't know, Randy. Brubaker's Cap doesn't seem any less accessible than any of the Marvel comics I enjoyed reading as an eleven-year old.

Randy said...

If you missed it, Steven Grant from Comic Book resources mentioned this blog in his recent article. The link is here (http://www.comicbookresources.com/columns/?column=10)if you'd like to read it. He made some decent points which I agree with.

Brex:
1.)"Adult" does change the context of your points a bit, so I can see where you're coming from. However, what mainstream Marvel titles have you been reading where rape, gore, and explicit sex are commonplace, or even happen at all, that isn't a MAX title? I follow quite a few Marvel titles, but not all of them (for instance the only non-ultimate X-Title I read is Astonishing), so I very well have missed some of what you're referencing to.

I've not really seen any mention of rape in a Marvel title I can think of off the top of my head, though it was implied in the DC book Identity Crisis and occurred in Longbow Hunters, a DC Green Arrow story.

"Explicit" sex I haven't seen at all, unless it was an indie title.

We could have different definitions of what constitutes "gore". Moon Knight I would consider gory (can't remember if it's considered MAX or not off the top of my head), but I've not seen anything in Spidey, Cap, etc. that really fits that description.

From the way you've presented your position it seems that you feel these three elements are commonplace in mainstream comics, which I don't really agree with. Sure, one or the other may happen from time to time, but Marvel especially, when it isn't a MAX title, is pretty good about keeping the levels of it down fairly low.

As for the movies you commented on, that was sorta my point- they were good representations on how comic characters could be treated seriously and tell a story that non-fanboy adults could appreciate and get into even though they were grown men running around in costume, and they weren't movies, especially Begins, that were aimed specifically at a younger audience.
2.) Again, not a huge fan of Morrison, but I can understand and appreciate the importance of his influence and what he managed to accomplish. Arguably you could say that Watchman wasn't a "mainstream" comic therefore it's slightly unfair to compare given the context of this discussion. It was something that they could take time to craft and create to tell a specific story (with an end, which is an important difference) for a specific function as opposed to a monthly ongoing that has to tell a story without a real definitive "end". To me, that's like comparing Frank Herbert's Dune to one of the latest Star Wars books. It may be the same genre, technically speaking, but it's apples and oranges. While Dune is a finely crafted literary masterpiece, the EU SW novels tend to be more popcorn novels written to be fast and fun more often than not with a fairly fast turnover rate.

That said, yes, given what they have to work with there are quite a few monthly ongoing titles that I think are very well crafted, intelligent stories. Again it really depends on the creative team working on the title and how much influence the studio itself places on the book. Once again, Bru's Captain America is a great example and is arguably the best title Marvel is putting out right now.

Plok: You must have been a very exceptional 11 year old then. I read similar types of things when I was that age as well, but I don't think that's representative of the "average" kid that age. Thing is if you tried to market Cap (unedited/changed) to that age level you'd have parents on you faster than it took you to read this sentence. Steven Grant made an excellent point about that in his article. "Kids" books wouldn't be marketed at kids, it'd be marketed for the parents, and unfortunately the most vocal parents tend to be the ones who are way overprotective.

Brex W. Foldingham said...

Randy,

As always, I can find no fault in your logic. Re: Rape/Gore I mostly had the DC stories in mind like Infinite/Identity Crisis.

Anyway, I've run out of things to add. It's clear that John is in favor of continuing to publish 40+ year old characters where the creators of said characters(at DC at least) get little to no recognition.

While corporate-owned super-hero comics can be a good way to get new people to read comics (much like Archie and Sonic the Hedgehog comics), at the moment it's not an area I'm interested in. I'll keep reading John's posts though. Nice talking with you all.

Randy said...

Same to you Brex. It's been nice to be able to have a discussion with other people of differing opinions without it degenerating into an argument.

Ladypeyton said...

Dood. If I owned Marvel Comics I would *so* hire you as my CEO.

FWIW, my 6 year old, ADD daughter loves to read comics. I guess he doesn't know how short her attention span is supposed to be.

Signed,
an aging fanGIRL

Ladypeyton said...

Randy:

I would say that Green Lantern coming home and finding his girlfriend in the refrigerator could be considered gore inappropriate for children.

I would say that having Captain America kneecap villains could be considered violence inappropriate for children.

I would say any time Power Girl's breasts are larger than her head you've got sexual images inappropriate for children.

I could go on for quite a long time.....

Rob Knotts said...

Marvel is a publisher of children's comic books, and every step they make to try to capture an adult audience is throwing money down a toilet.

John Seavey, you are my new hero!

Mark Clapham said...

I suppose it depends on how young the kids are and where you define inappropriate. DC's new 'Super Friends' comic, which has any conflict whatsoever removed, must surely not be aimed at any children over five... surely? It's not like the average DC or Marvel comic is really going to fry the brains of an eleven year old.

Randy said...

Ladypeyton:
Very true, but those books aren't for children and haven't been in a long, long time, which is the whole point of this discussion. Children have their own line of comics in both Marvel and DC whose content is more appropriate for those age groups. And given the target audience of the books you mentioned (teenagers and up) it's not, in my opinion, inappropriate- no more so than the stuff that you find on prime time TV every night or in a PG13 movie. The stuff that is more excessive is labeled such (MAX, for Marvel, etc.)If you don't agree or you feel that it's still inappropriate for your kids/teenagers then that's something that has to be decided by the parent just like, as mentioned previously, TV or movies. That's a parenting decision/responsibility, not a corporate one.

John Seavey said...

However, the general and fundamental point I've been making all along is that strictly from a business standpoint, the period during which they haven't been made for children has been marked by declining sales and an even more-drastic decline in visibility. Comics were once a popular youth product; now they are a niche publishing venture for adults. From a business standpoint, going from large and geared towards casual readers to small and cult was a mistake. You can argue that it was a creatively fulfilling mistake for those writers and readers who hung around, but there's no question that in strictly dollars-and-cents terms, it hurt bad.

Randy said...

"However, the general and fundamental point I've been making all along is that strictly from a business standpoint, the period during which they haven't been made for children has been marked by declining sales and an even more-drastic decline in visibility."

Last I heard the past few years have been the best both companies have had in a long time. Either way, your argument is based on the assumption that the fall in sales was because they aren't marketed for children, and not other factors. The way I understand it comics made the transition to what the industry has become now exactly because they were losing sales, etc. Wars, the economy, shifts in public perception and interests, technological advances, etc. all play a factor and have all been documented in detail in other places before. (A & E just aired an excellent documentary on it not too long ago. If you haven't seen it, it's well worth hunting down. Unfortunately I can't recall the title, but if I remember or come across it again I'll be sure to post it here.)

They haven't done these things you're proposing because it's not economically feasible to do it. Marvel and DC both already have children's lines of comics, and they don't sell. No, I don't have the stats in front of me, and anyone else is welcome to look them up, but I know they aren't selling great because if they were you'd see a stronger push for them. Comics aren't being sold in groceries stores, etc. because those stores don't want to carry them. Why? Because they don't sell well enough to justify it. I already have a good idea of the responses this post will get. "But they haven't been marketing to kids by doing ____!" All the "buts"- the fact remains that things aren't going to change the way you think they should, and there's justifiable reasons why they won't. These ideas you're suggesting aren't new. Again, I'm not saying your ideas are bad, and some of them might even help, but there's no way what you're saying should happen will happen, and quite honestly even if it did I really don't think it'd work nearly as well as you think it would. And the changes made to do what you're proposing would put the industry in a position where if it failed, there's a good chance they might not recover.

I don't see how comics need "saving" right now. Given the success and worldwide acceptance of comic movies recently comics have gained a whole new level of street cred with people it hadn't had. I know a lot of people who started picking up comics because of them. But no, they aren't children. All of them are pre-teens and up. Most of them are in their late teens- early twenties. There are absolutely things both companies can do to get themselves out there more, but as I said before, I think the key is a focus on exploiting the potential of the internet and moving into the 21 century with the rest of us. Just look what it's done for books. *cough*Amazon*cough* (Which, ironically enough, is where I buy most of my comics from.;-) )

John Seavey said...

Actually, they do sell comics in grocery stores. Look around at your supermarket checkout sometime, and you'll see 'Archie', quite successfully exploiting the niche that Marvel and DC ignore. They sell to kids, they sell in mainstream outlets, they are consistently loathed by comics fans across the country, and yet they continue plugging along, because they have a strength and they play to it.

You're right, though--Marvel and DC have drastically improved their sales over the last five years. From, you know, the period where Marvel was in bankruptcy, jettisoned its editor-in-chief and outsourced its comics production to other companies. It's very nice, but I'm not grading on a curve. :) Marvel is in a potential golden age for its business; the public visibility of its iconic flagship characters has never been higher, the potential audience has never been greater, the opportunities have never been bigger. Choosing, under those circumstances, to focus on a tiny cult audience is a mistake.

(As to the stats on "kid's comics", you won't get them--since the Johnny DC line is distributed through more than just Diamond, Diamond's sales stats aren't reliable indicators of the brand's popularity. I do know that both Marvel and DC are finding some success with their kids' lines, because they're both expanding them; Marvel went from one to five titles on 'Marvel Adventures', and the 'Johnny DC' line continues to be a strong seller for DC in non-traditional markets. The audience is out there for kid's comics, no matter how much adults try to insist it isn't; kids fight their way to comics, despite adults' best efforts to hog the hobby all to themselves. :) )

Randy said...

"Actually, they do sell comics in grocery stores."

I know. I was referring to the Marvel and DC titles. ;-)

Caine said...

For a current example of how to make comics kid friendly see Dynamo5. They're doing it right over there...

Jonathan Nolan said...

I think the original blog post is spot on. The stumbling block to the "cure" however is that with real sales figures and their real meaning indicating that comic books now sell to 1/1000th of the US population, maybe a little more, the comics company Big Two have become loss leading research and development for the brands in the comics, nothing more than an elaborate self-funding marketing and brand renewal service for films and TV shows.

That has dangers of its own for the Silver Age heroes.

RavenScholar said...

I noticed that Brex W. Foldingham said that he hopes that the next posts on this topic address how to sell comics to girls.
They're already buying the comics. Go troll around the Internet sometime.
Specifically, "Girls Read Comics", "Girl_Wonder.org", and "When Fangirls Attack"; and the links to places on those websites.
Also,"Scans_Daily" has no end of female commentators and posters.

Generic Cialis said...

The solution that both Marvel and DC are using to help ease out the crisis that comics are having right now is something you mentioned, movies. The money raised with Spider-Man 3 and all the marvel related movies (whether they are a hit or not) is being used to save the industry as DC does it with the only success they had Batman Begins/Dark Knight.

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