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.