The leaders aren’t leading

by  in Comic News Comment
The leaders aren’t leading

After the last week or so of “We don’t publish comics for kids” and “[Depicting rape] is the same as, like, a decapitation” and “comics follow society, they don’t lead society,” among other chestnuts, I’ve been thinking about the mentality and philosophy that produces those positions, and how it reflects on the state of comics.

Reading those quotes in a vacuum, you would think the last 10 to 20 years of progress in comics never happened. They did, of course; it’s just not easy to tell sometimes.

All of the creators involved in the unfortunate remarks come from the so-called “mainstream” of comic books. While Todd McFarlane and Mark Miller are more well-known for their creator-owned comics, they still play within the superhero genre primarily defined by DC and Marvel comics to the majority of the populace. They may not be actively steering mainstream comics these days, but many of the actions of those that do reinforce the same disappointing opinions. There are plenty of beacons of hope in nearly every other sector of the industry, and even a scattered few pinpricks of light within the superhero mainstream, but the makers of our highest-profile genre are still holding back the slowly improving public perception of comic books.

The insular mentality remains. By and large the philosophy is still to create almost exclusively for the audience that’s already here or the one that used to be here. Women couldn’t possibly like superheroes (despite the gads of evidence to the contrary). Children would never buy superhero comics (despite the booming kids and all-ages comics market and kids’ almost-unanimous love of superheroes). When they’re asked why they don’t try harder in these areas, they say that they’ve tried in the past and they just never work out. Why don’t they work out? Because, no matter how well-meaning, they have usually ended up being sabotaged on some level. Budgets are miniscule, or start off reasonable and then vanish when there isn’t instant success. Almost always, the marketing is done to the same audience who has steadfastly resisted reading anything beyond superheroes or similar male-targeted fantasy/adventure. Why expect anything beyond a small percentage of crossover? Of course there are exceptions but the Bronies phenomenon of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a fluke, not something to bet on. DC and Marvel largely don’t know how to market outside the superhero audience, and when they do usually give it such a miniscule budget that penetration is minimal. Conventional wisdom would say to hire a marketing firm that does know how to reach the target demographic, but of course that requires money.

To be fair, DC tried this with the Minx graphic novel line, intended for young adults and teenaged girls. They actually spent a considerable amount of money hiring an outside firm to launch an advertising campaign. Smart. Not so smart? They relied entirely on in-house editors already steeped in running the Vertigo imprint. Vertigo certainly has a better track record for reaching outside the typical superhero reader, but the results were still a line-up mostly consisting of more male creative teams. That was still probably the most valiant effort made by Marvel and DC. Typically, it’s a gender-themed anthology or a comic modeled after a current cartoon, toss it in Previews, line up an interview or two at the big comic news sites, and call it a day.

That’s not enough. And yet when they don’t sell gangbusters, they’re surprised? I have no doubt there are sincere people working on these books that are honestly trying to do something different and reach different people. Unfortunately, the overriding and ingrained position is only half a generation or less removed from the speakers of the above quotes. And all of it, those remarks and the repeated embarrassments and failures at making comics for a different demographic, to me it has the subtext of “protect my superheroes.” As if making some superhero comics that might opt to not casually use rape as a villain’s character trait will take away the superheroes I grew up with. As if the existence of one will destroy the other. That’s such a ridiculous fear. Last month Marvel and DC published 239 comic books, graphic novels and magazines. 239! With the massive output of these two publishers, they have enough bandwidth to produce comics for everyone. It’s worth nothing that Image Comics, which publishes a fraction of that, is able to release comics that cater to the traditional superhero audience, and also a wide variety that appeal to a broader cross-section of demographics and niche interests. IDW and Boom also excel at kids comics as part of a broader line of material.

“But they’re in the business of making money, it’s not their responsibility” is another excuse or justification I hear often. Again, I disagree.

To the first half of that statement, the money they are leaving on the table is roughly equal to what they’re each making now or more. The current male population of regular comic readers is estimated at roughly 200,000. Obviously there are women readers already in that number. Women make up roughly half of the population. Add in children. I bet if there was a concentrated, fully committed and fully funded effort by Marvel and DC, that number would get to 500,000 in five to 10 years. Look at the uptick we’ve seen after DC’s aggressive New 52 marketing. And that was marketing to the same audience and using the same creators. Imagine if that kind of muscle was put behind books for a new audience using creators with a track record of appealing to those audiences.

To the second half of that statement, Marvel and DC Comics are widely recognized as the leaders of the industry. Based solely on comics sold to the direct market, they regularly control 60 percent to 70 percent of the market. No other publisher holds more than 10 percent, and the vast majority make up less than 5 percent of the market. That doesn’t include bookstores, libraries, digital and other outlets where the Big Two don’t always have that same dominance, but their collective presence across all channels is unmistakable. This extends to movies, TV shows, video games, action figures and nearly every other form of licensing and merchandising imaginable among comic-based properties. Despite how far we’ve come, with historically unprecedented diversity and visibility, the majority of North Americans still equate comic books with superheroes, which still translates specifically to Marvel and DC superheroes.

Two publishers dominate well more than half the comics industry. I’m hard pressed to think of any other entertainment industry with such an unbalanced market share. No other medium is so defined by the single-genre output of its largest producers. They are far from the only game in town, but when the dust settles, Marvel and DC are without question the industry leaders. So why don’t they act like leaders?