Monday, September 21, 2009

The "Vote With Your Wallet" Fallacy

So I was thinking about writing about DragonCon (which I attended, as I plan to do next year) and the way that certain people feel like their passion for a particular actor, the distance they traveled to attend the con, or the money they paid to get in somehow gives them special rights over other attendees...but then I thought about it, and realized that trying to correct the behavior of the entire science-fiction fan community felt a bit like tilting at windmills. So instead, I'm going to rant about comics. This is also tilting at windmills, but is less likely to lead to me flailing about with blunt instruments next time I attend a convention.

Specifically, I'm going to rant about an oft-heard phrase that rears its ugly head every time a lazy, slapdash, poorly paced crossover filled with random deaths and random resurrections all to try to generate some sort of "shock" in the jaded comics readership. (*cough* 'Blackest Night' *cough*) (Although really, the biggest problem with 'Blackest Night' is that even by comics standards, it's hard to believe this crop of gruesome deaths will be permanent. This is Geoff Johns we're talking about, a man who has spent his entire career trying to bring back every single Silver Age character and a good 47% of the Golden Age heroes. He is not going to kill off Hawkman, not after he lobbied for the better part of a decade to bring him back. No, 'Blackest Night' is going to end with loads and loads and loads of miraculous resurrections, which makes it pretty hard to care about the endless gore-porn sequences that have substituted for plot so far.)

But what do people always say after a rant like that? (A rant which is, of course, purely for demonstration purposes.) "Vote with your wallet! If you stop buying that stuff, they'll stop publishing it!"

The problem is, people have been voting with their wallets since the mid-1990s. The end result of over a decade of voting with their wallets? 'Blackest Night'.

The logic is simple and inexorable. Comics are, with a few extremely rare exceptions, only sold in comics stores. This means that comics only sell to active, engaged enthusiasts of the medium. If you're not a comics fan, the chances that you will wind up buying a comic as an impulse purchase is as next to nil as makes no nevermind.

So if you vote with your wallet--if you decide not to buy comics anymore because you think they've become grotesque exercises in padding, short-term shock value, dreary and unpleasant characters doing ugly and unlikeable things, and destroying everything that was once fun about the superhero genre in order to show the guys who used to make fun of the writer in high school that comics are too for grown-ups! (...again, for example...) then you're no longer going to the comics stores. You are no longer engaged with the comics community. You are, to all intents and purposes, invisible to comics.

And vice versa. Let's say, for example, that Marvel says, "Gee! We've gotten a lot of letters from readers saying that they're giving up on our comics because they're nothing but Norman Osborn being evil and the Hood beating up women! Let's try to publish some fun, positive, engaging comics for those readers, filled with all the things they missed about comics over the years!" Those readers will never see them. Because they have walked away from the industry. They're not going to wander into a comic store every week for ten years, hoping each time that this will be the week that someone finally publishes something decent again. They're going to move on with their lives. (A few will, of course, discover some of the good indie comics out there and stay active within the hobby enough to know about Marvel's new series, and maybe some of those few will go back and pick it up. But "a few" is not a readership base.)

So Marvel now publishes its new, fun comic...and it doesn't sell. It sells even worse than the crappy misogynist dialogue-fest that their hot writer of the week is working on, where nothing can't be solved by long sequences of characters sitting around the table and having halting, paused-filled conversations and actual fight scenes happen about once every three years. (Again, hypothetically.) What does Marvel do then? They shrug, they look at their remaining fanbase, and they say, "Hey, this is what the audience wants right now. They're voting with their wallets. So let's give it to them...only, since there are so few of them, let's raise the prices to the maximum they're willing to pay without screaming, and have every comic cross over into every other comic so they have to buy them all."

It's a vicious circle. The comics audience has become self-selecting, with any potential new fans totally locked off from getting into the hobby, and the remaining fans utterly contemptuous of anything that smacks of "kiddified" stories. The only solution is to aggressively market new and different books to new and different audiences...but that requires capital that nobody's willing to expend on publishing comics, not without some tangible evidence that it'll produce returns. (Which they won't get, because every time someone looks up the sales records on fun, upbeat books like 'Blue Beetle', they get "canceled after thirty issues." That kind of thing isn't an inducement to executives to go and spend more money.)

And of course, the worst part is that DC and Marvel are the bread and butter of the modern comics store. For all that people encourage buying indie comics as a way to vote with their wallets, if DC and Marvel (possibly even just Marvel) got out of the publishing business and decided to focus on their movies and videogames, it would be an utter apocalypse for the comics industry. All the other companies combined do not sell enough copies to keep a comics store in business. And without comics stores, indie publishers have very few places to sell their stuff. So voting with your wallets...might actually mean buying DC and Marvel books you hate just to keep the store you like in business.

The business model of the comics industry would drive Warren Buffett mad.

34 comments:

Carlos Futino said...

Sorry, but I kind of disagree. When one says, "vote with your wallet", one doesn't mean "stop buying Marvel/DC altogether", but rather "buy only those books fro Marvel/DC you like".
If you want titles like Blue Beetle and doesn't want titles like Blackest Night, buy Blue Beetle (and Booster Gold, please buy Booster Gold.)
What you have to keep in mind is, this won't always work, because other people are voting with they're wallets too, and they're tastes might be different then yours. Thus, if Blackest Night outsells Booster Gold is because most readers prefer Blackes Night to Booster Gold(no, I can't fathom why either).

Teebore said...

Yeah, I definitely think the problem is more "the majority of superhero comics fans like stupid stuff" than anything else.

I can choose to vote with my wallet and buy, say, Blue Beetle over Violence Porn Monthly, but that "vote" is rendered moot when 10 other people who love Violence Porn Monthly buy it instead of Blue Beetle.

The key, in this case, is probably convincing other readers not just to vote with their wallets, but to vote for the books you want to see succeed. If you can convince 9 out of 10 people to buy Blue Beetle instead of Violence Porn Monthly, DC WILL take notice.

But of course, that would truly be chasing windmills...

Also, the way that certain people feel like their passion for a particular actor, the distance they traveled to attend the con, or the money they paid to get in somehow gives them special rights over other attendees. drive me nuts too.

I work at Barnes and Noble and do a lot of author signings and whatnot, and the sense of entitlement some people have because they bought an author's book drives me batty. Tell them you're a fan, thank the author for their work and move on already.

rawrasaur said...

Doesn't this mean that the comics publishers need to put their products in places that aren't just comic shops, e.g. bookstores like Borders and B&N? If books are good, people will pick up trade paperbacks from the bookstores, and it's a fairly reasonable (if slightly delayed) method for gauging popularity.

--Rawr

Anonymous said...

As someone who walked away from comics because of the endless "event" stories, I agree completely with you.

I hate what has happpened to comics, both as a medium and as a business.

The readership has become so inbred that the books have to cater to an ever shrinking readership, whose tastes become increasingly "out there".

It reaches the point where only books that have story lines closer to the worts fan fiction are selling. Stories that used to take took Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams 15 pages to tell, are now a 6 issue mini series that can't ship on time, filled with mindless violence, death abd destruction.

I miss the smarter writing, where heroes overcame challanges, whether internal or external.

Anonymous said...

Comics, like all fiction is a waste of time.

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The problem with a wallet vote is that it will work for those who choose to do so, and normally it won't be the majority, so it will end up being useless. Blackest Night is that proof of it. Let's say we all here agree to never buy that again.. the rest of mankind will have no clue of this or wont care... so there's no victory

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