So, in last week's column, I discussed the first step in transforming Marvel from its current status as "niche publisher of specialty products" back into "major publisher with a highly visible, well-distributed product all across America". (And again, I'll remind everyone that the same plan applies to DC as well, but I'm using "Marvel" because calling the series, "How To Save Comics" is even more rampantly egotistical than its current title.)
Judging by reader response, the first step--retooling the product line to be more "all-ages friendly"--is a little controversial...in the sense that I didn't even know that many people even read my blog, much less felt strongly enough to comment on it. I gotta say, I'm a little nervous; having started with a "Step One" that's basically, "Ignore the fanboys and try to get new readers," I feel like I better back that up with some good ideas to do exactly that, or people will dismiss me as a crazy person. (These people may not actually be wrong.) Because obviously yes, having retooled your product line to appeal to kids and casual readers, you can't just expect these people to walk through the door looking for your product.
Except that in a very real sense, that's exactly what Marvel does. Look at where their advertising goes, and where their products are distributed to, and you're quickly going to find that unless you happen to be standing in a comics store, you don't know what Marvel is publishing and you don't know how to get it. With the occasional exception of crossovers that fall on a slow news day, Marvel markets its comics only to existing comics buyers. It buys ads in comics-related publications like 'Wizard' or 'Comics Buyers Guide', it does interviews on comics-themed websites like Newsarama, and in general, it jockeys for market share more than anything else. Even if you do hear about a comics event you want to read about (like, say, the death of Captain America, or Spider-Man unmasking), you have to go to a comics store if you want to read it; outside of the occasional spinner rack at a bookstore, and a few half-hearted attempts to colonize the magazine racks at Wal-Marts and Targets, comics are very hard to find outside of specialty stores.
This is not something that can be reversed overnight. It took twenty years to ghettoize the industry, and it's going to take a while to climb back out. Marvel just does not have the resources to distribute its product on a massive scale to newsstands and drugstores like it did in the 60s and 70s (and into the 80s), and it doesn't have the resources to conduct a major publicity blitz. Like it or not, if Marvel wants people to read comics, it needs to get them into the comics stores. The company can't massively distribute or massively promote, it needs to pick its shots.
Luckily, it has a secret weapon that is the centerpiece of Step Two. Diamond Distributors, the exclusive distributor of Marvel Comics, has had for quite some time now a "Comic Store Locator". Either by dialing 1-888-COMIC-BOOK, or by visiting comicshoplocator.com, anyone can just enter their zip code and get the 3-5 closest comics stores to them listed, complete with phone number. (And address, if they use the website.) Diamond provides this service free of charge, and Marvel should really start taking advantage of it in a big way (while hoping Diamond doesn't read Step Three of this series, he says ominously.)
This means that all existing advertising should stress, somewhere in the ad, that 1-888-COMIC-BOOK is a free call that tells you where the nearest local comics store is. Marvel can cut back drastically on in-store promotional material; all they need to do to make sure existing comics fans know about their product can be done with interviews in comics publications (which are free advertising.) They need to be pushing their stuff outside the comics world, and they need to be doing so in such a way that tells people how to get their stuff.
And the best part about this is, just about anything can be advertising if you put that "1-888-COMIC-BOOK" on it. Licenced a line of Marvel sleepwear for kids? Tell them that one of the conditions of the deal is that "1-888-COMIC-BOOK" has to be on the packaging somewhere (along with the words, "Mom and Dad--it's a FREE CALL!") Putting out a new line of action figures? 1-888-COMIC-BOOK. Making a deal with a major studio for a movie or TV series? 1-888-COMIC-BOOK, either at the beginning or at the end. Putting out a trade paperback that's going to be in bookstores as well as comics stores? 1-888-COMIC-BOOK. Making a deal with a cereal company to let them use Spider-Man to promote their cereal for a month? 1-888-COMIC-BOOK. Making an appearance on 'The Colbert Report' to tell them the exciting news about Captain America coming back and your upcoming 'Secret Invasion' storyline? 1-888-COMIC-BOOK, for God's sake, Joe. It's not enough to tell them what's out there, tell them where to find it and do it quick.
Naturally, a lot of people reading this will think about their local comics store, and wince at the thought of new customers coming in and meeting Cranky Fred, the owner who puts up cheesecake posters all over the store, files DC back-issues by which Earth they occurred on, and shouts "This is not a library!" every time someone starts to flip through a comic. This is why Marvel would spend a little of its dough on a Retail Support Team, a group of people whose job it would be to travel the country and show local store owners how to be more new-customer friendly. (It's an ugly job, but somebody's gotta do it.)
Another important point is to make sure your existing distribution networks are hitting their audience effectively. Bookstores currently shelve all comics under "Graphic Novels". Talk to the major chains (Borders, Barnes and Noble) about shelving kid's comics in the Children's section...where children will look for them. The 'Essentials' series are tailor-made for kids; they're cheap, they're thick, and they look like big coloring books. Get them put where kids can see them, buy them, and see on the back page of every book (yes, I am going to harp on it. The whole point is that you need to harp on it...) 1-888-COMIC-BOOK.
And last but not least, you want to have at least one publication that is mass marketed, that gives you a "brand footprint" in all the outlets that carry publications. Much in the same way that seeing 'Shonen Jump' in a supermarket gets kids hooked on manga, you want to have something that kids can find just about anywhere they go, and which will suffice to get them hooked on the stuff. Like, say, a magazine. (This might sound familiar to regular readers, as I've described the idea in a previous column.) The magazine, which I'd call 'Marvel Treasury', would be about 120 pages an issue (since you can't reduce the price, you can at least give them a big hunk of story. 120 pages for ten bucks feels like a better deal than 24 pages for 2 bucks.) It'd contain four or five short, self-contained stories in every issue, continuity-lite material featuring Marvel's more famous characters (say, a Spider-Man story every issue, a Hulk story every issue, a Fantastic Four story every issue, an Avengers story every issue, and a random fifth story every issue.) It would also feature articles advertising upcoming comics, recapping important stories to bring readers up to speed on the history of the Marvel Universe (in the way that 'Marvel Saga', 'Marvel Age', or the 'Handbook to the Marvel Universe' used to do), activities pages, letter columns, fan art, and other such community-building material (nothing quite makes you feel like a part of the Marvel Universe like getting a letter published)...and, of course, at the end of every issue, there'd be a nice big double-page spread of a Marvel hero showing you, the reader, how to find the comics store nearest you by dialing (I have it on cut-and-paste by now) 1-888-COMIC-BOOK.
In other words, step two is all about getting the readers to come to you. Next week, I'll cover Step Three: Going to where the readers are.
What will the fans think of this step? There will probably be some who get a little cranky when all these new people come into the comics stores, just because there are some of us who, well...aren't so great with the social skills. But improving public awareness of comics might make some fans feel a little less ostracized, and that can't be a bad thing.