But in this case it’s not.
It’s true that it’s the responsibility of the publisher to promote and market comics. (Or, should the publisher become a black hole of promotion, as most comics publishers are wont to be for most of the books they publish, the talent.) Money’s not really the issue; there are many ways now available to promote product (particularly graphic novels) that cost little or nothing (TV ads aren’t one of them, however, since the cost of a single ad on any sort of national level would easily wipe out any profit on any number of comics, and effective TV advertising comes from a barrage of ads, not a single one), which Warren Ellis adequately proved by marketing himself via the Internet. (Of course, Warren has the talent to back it up.)
And when companies put out flamingly bad books, there’s no real reason to expect retailers should be able to sell them. (Not that some very bad books haven’t become very big hits.)
But we weren’t talking about why bad books aren’t selling. We were talking, specifically, of books retailers say are great books – but they can’t sell them.
Fact is, the best promotion possible is still word of mouth. When I was a kid, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN didn’t have any sort of organized promotion campaign. Hell, Marvel didn’t even have their company name on the earliest issues. What happened was somebody read it and said to somebody else, “Hey, this is really cool! You should read it.” (I remember a kid named Denny Hanson showed me his coverless copy of ASM #9, and not only had I never seen anything that looked even vaguely like that, the villain in it, Electro, was a line man for the telephone company, the same as my dad, and that reeled me in as well.) There weren’t even comics shops in those days, you had to scrounge the local Rennebohm’s and Piggly Wiggly for comics and pray you could find them, but AMAZING SPIDER-MAN became a hit entirely through word of mouth. It wasn’t overnight – it took a year and a half, and, given how much publishers spent to publish a comic in 1962 and how much they have to spend now, I can understand how that time frame would be a bitter pill to swallow – but that’s how it happened.
Because it felt new and exciting, and it was different enough to stand out. Marvel didn’t help anything. The only place they promoted their books was in the pages of their books, and nobody read those when I was a kid, at least not before 1964. (FANTASTIC FOUR and INCREDIBLE HULK predated AMAZING SPIDER-MAN but HULK died a quick death while, at least in my circles, FF was considered corny.)
So now we have whole structures built up to market and support the sales of comics, and we still have retailers (and publishers, and talent) complaining that good books aren’t selling. Why not? There are really only two reasonable explanations (dismissing the possibility that nobody’s interested in comic books no matter what’s in them, which doesn’t seem to be the case and which, if true, means we should all just pack up and go home). Either
the books aren’t as good as we want to believe
retailers don’t know how to sell comics books.
Sure, this is putting a huge onus on retailers, but they’re the point where word of mouth originates! If dealers truly believe Wildstorm’s SLEEPER, for instance, is a great comic that should be selling, why aren’t they shoving it (in one way or another; there are various ways to shove, as well) at every single customer of sufficient age who comes into their shop? That’s how word of mouth starts. In theory, every convert brings in another two converts in one vast pyramid scheme, until TIME magazine’s running feature articles about the cultural phenomenon.
Of course, a lot of conditions are different from those of 1963. There wasn’t a fandom then, nobody carefully bagged comics in mylar snugs to keep them valuable. On lazy summer afternoons or after school, if you had a friend who read comics you’d go over to his place and read what he had, or he’d come over to yours. You’d talk comics, trade them. Sure, everyone had their own collections, but swapping was the thing to do. For all that reading comics held a social stigma, reading comics was a social activity.
Somehow comics shops, maybe with their (though far from all comics shops do this) longstanding emphases on speculating, converting what should essentially be an entertainment experience into a financial proposition, actually increased insularity among comics readers. They may have a central location for their fixation, but how much do they actually interact?
So it falls to the retailer to be the source of word of mouth promotion. Publishers can’t do it. Talent can do it to a minor extent – appearance tours, etc. – but they can’t hit every comics shop by a long stretch. The comics shop owner or clerk is the point man for comics sales, the soldier in the field. The generals and strategists can do all they want back at HQ, but they still depend on the front line.
Sure, it’s a tough position to be in, and I sympathize, but, as Charlton Heston put it in TOUCH OF EVIL, a policeman’s job is only easy in a police state. If you think a comic’s really good and it should be selling more, talk it up! Sell it. Give those customers a reason to believe you’re the expert who really knows what he’s talking about and maybe they’ll have a reason to frequent your shop instead of Barnes & Noble.
The comics medium could use a really good tagline to rouse interest. Unfortunately, “comics are cool” ain’t it. Like several people have pointed out in e-mails and on the Permanent Damage Message Board, it reeks of dorky junior high school kids trying to tell each other they’re cool when they’re obviously not. To paraphrase Robert Frost, cool’s a gift name. Only other people can call you cool. Calling yourself cool’s about as uncool as it gets.
So let’s have a slogan contest, our own little reality program. Catchiest slogan wins. No prize but the sense of a job well done (I’ll run your name here), and it hits public domain – anyone can use it – as soon as it wins. Anyone want to get in on this? E-mail your taglines to me and we’ll start the war for the soul of comics next week.
“Here’s my theory. Most people may not agree but I don’t care. There’s a lot of reasons why comics don’t sell now a day’s. For one thing it’s the price. How many kids have $2 or more to spend on a comic not to mention several comics, hell, most adults won’t pay that. I can get a magazine for that price and at least it will be worth it. Second, the comic companies really don’t advertise themselves like they used to. Meaning, putting comics in small Mom and Pop convenience stores or 5 and Dime stores, if you can find them that is. Most comics are sold in Comic Shops or if your lucky a large chain book store. How many area’s have one of those? And how about cartoon’s, their isn’t enough of them. And for what there is it’s all on Cartoon Network. Why don’t they make some deals with other broadcaster’s so you have more of a chance to run into one while your channel surfing? If they want to stay in business I really think they should start thinking about getting kid’s more into it, because once we’re gone who’s going to read them, or do they not care about that far down the line. Third, why create new heroes? Let the new companies deal with that, stick with what you have and save all the money that’s being spent on the new books and put it towards hiring better artists which brings me to a fourth reason. BETTER ARTISTS. Remember the Neal Adams day’s, John Buscema, Gene Colan, Byrne, Wrightson and so on? I don’t see that any more. DC and Marvel had great art in ALL their books. God, I wasn’t a fan of some of the characters but I bought the book any way because it looked so awesome, but still they were inexpensive at the time. I find myself looking for old books more than buying the new ones. At least I’m paying good money for something worth while. The stories, well, it’s a comic book how great can a story be when there’s more art than story unless you drag it out like Hush (I know, you don’t agree). Why is Batman selling? Two words, THE ART. It’s all about THE ART as far as I’m concerned. Bring back the art, lower the price and gear it towards kids like the old day’s.”
“You touched on the problem of comic shops–that retailers aren’t “selling” the quality books to consumers. Seems to me, the cause of this problem has been the cause of other problems in this industry.
Namely, we have fanboys who grew up to be retailers when what this industry needs are more salesmen as retailers. They’re pretty much all a bunch of hobbyists who learned just enough to keep their shops running. I don’t mean to bash the retailers, but I wonder how many actually went to business school?
Just as with the creative talent in comics, the less “classically trained” the participants are the more insular the product (and the industry) becomes. When fanboys write/draw for other fanboys, general readers are put off. Same with retailers. The fanboys have been selling to fanboys, and general consumers have been put off.”
“It might be good to note here that BATMAN does that amount (actually 150,000 in April) in * domestic preorders*, not final sales. To give a corollary: THE ULTIMATES does around 100-110,000 in preorders in the US; Mark Millar has stated in interviews that in reorders (and yes, I do believe Marvel overprints UTIMATES) and foreign sales, that ends up closer to *400,000*.
I remember when [name deleted] did a few pages in UNCANNY X-MEN #400 last year. The preorders [name deleted] saw on www.icv2.com were around 100,000. The number of copies sold, listed on [name deleted]’s royalty statement, was *179,000*. Quite a difference.
Now, granted, this has nothing to do with the books at the bottom of the Top 300 list; they are probably selling close to what their preorders are. But sales of the Top 50 or so are probably not quite as awful as many would have you believe. It’s certainly not as bad as it was in, say, 1995…”
“A few years ago I worked in sales, selling shoes for the Journeys chain of mall stores. I sold Doc Martens, Converse, Timberland, GBX, and tons of other shoes. Never did any representative of any of those companies ask me or managers of any other stores for ideas on new styles, features, or anything that had to do with the production of the shoe. My job was to take what they gave me and sell it. Further, my job was to figure out what sold best and get more of it. Of course, certain brands and styles sold better than others, so part of my job was to arrange displays that best showed off popular product.
Now, I, like most people, wear shoes. Personally, I prefer some brands and styles above others. My favorite all time shoe was the hemp Adidas shelltoe. When someone comes into my store looking for a shoe, I don’t automatically show them the hemp Adidas, I try to find out what type of shoe they are looking for, and if they are undecided I then point out my favorite shoe and offer the choice of that or something similar. Most times, if you work with a customer, a transaction will occur and money will be made. A good transaction means returning customers and growth based on word of mouth.
Take that and put it in the present, change the brand names to Marvel, DC, Image, etc, and you’ve got what comics retailers should use as a springboard. Owning a store is a business, not a pleasure. It may be pleasurable to sell what you like, but not everyone wants to wear your shoes.”
“I have to agree with your opinion that the level of comics should be at a higher level. I have been a Batman fan for as long as I can remember and although I by far do not buy every comic that is out there (my last run was when Kelly Jones was handling the art) I did start picking up the Loeb/Lee issues. I must say that I was somewhat disappointed with the story and the art. Not that both weren’t above the average Batman tale….I guess I just expected more from two respected artists. The story seems padded and the art while pretty is just that…. “pretty.” Every month that I go to buy it I feel guilty. I just don’t understand why it’s the number one selling book while there is so much more and better stuff out there.
Another thing your article was right about was the lack of backing comic shops put in quality titles. It just seems like they want to sell as many X-titles as possible and keep the good stuff to themselves. Everyone knows that if you’ve ever worked in any type of media retail store (CD store, book store, video store, etc) the best selling stuff is never the “quality” items. Ask any video clerk and more than likely they will try to steer you away from the latest big budget film and hook you on the little known films. Same goes for a music store clerk, books, etc. But not comics. It’s like there is a snobbish attitude… like you have to prove yourself over a month or so buying lesser known stuff before they will take you under their wing so to speak. Yes I know that most stores have “employee picks” but I have never seen anything but mainstream stuff in it.
Lastly I was watching TOUGH CROWD on Comedy Central. One of their topics was how all the comedians go around the country working hard at getting laughs but when they are called by the networks for ideas they (the comedians) are told what’s funny and what’s not by someone in a suit with no sense of humor. Is the whole “quality” idea in comics similar? That people who make the decisions have no idea what works or what it takes?”
Some do, some don’t.
Finally, a clarification from Cliff Biggers:
“In the most recent PD, you wrote:
In the Nick piece, Cliff Biggers (one of our better retailers) suggests talent have to learn to market themselves (which in itself is true enough) by alternating between major characters (aka “industry icons”) and “minor concepts” (presumably lesser-known or new self-created concepts). (Cliff and Nick cite the way Hollywood works as an example, but, creatively, the comics market is worlds different from Hollywood, and, unless your idea of a great comic is one that dozens of people have input into, it really would be better if comics stayed that way.) Certainly this is a path various talents have fallen back on over the years, Jim Lee being a more recent example, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it, but there are only so many spots on “major concepts” available, and, again, it places the power in the hands of the major companies as to who they choose or don’t choose to elevate. It also suggests nothing of interest. Obviously Jim dredged up a great deal of interest in Batman, but to suggest, say, Warren Ellis should do a Batman six parter every half year so he can do six issues of PLANETARY (spare me the e-mails, thanks) is inane. Not that Warren’s Batman wouldn’t be better than most versions, or that it wouldn’t be entertaining or interesting, but why should anyone be forced to work on projects they have no interest in ? Yet Warren has probably marketed himself more effectively than anyone else in comics today aside from Stan Lee.
If, in the course of the conversation, I implied a one-for-one equal-volume pattern of major characters/projects and experimental characters/projects, then I can blame only the fact that what I say in conversation isn’t as well phrased as it should be. What I meant was that creators should basically use higher-profile, more mainstream projects as a way to draw more attention to their smaller projects. Warren Ellis is a good example: his higher-profile projects like ORBITER make it possible for me to sell a few copies of his Avatar books, many of which would be overlooked entirely by readers if it weren’t for Warren’s public profile. Likewise, his PLANETARY is given a major boost by a BATMAN/PLANETARY book that leads into the return of PLANETARY; that will expose his Planetary concept to (in our store) many dozens of readers who haven’t previously tried Planetary–but in response to what I think will be a positive response by new readers, I’m laying in a deeper stock of the Planetary trades and the recently-released PLANETARY READER.
Grant Morrison’s FILTH is another example: had Grant not done high profile projects like JLA and NEW X-MEN, I doubt if I would have been able to move even a half-dozen copies of the first issue of an experimental, convoluted book like FILTH. Because of Grant’s profile, I was able to sell a couple of dozen copies of the first issue. Now a lot of those readers haven’t stayed with the series, but that’s a different issue entirely – what’s relevant here is that a lot of people sampled Grant and Chris Weston’s new series because of Grant’s work on higher-profile, more mainstream projects.
Do I think that Warren should take on a DC Universe superhero series between every creator-owned project? No, not at all. I think a high-profile project like ORBITER is very effective in maintaining Warren’s rep as a Writer Deserving of Attention, and there’s nary a superhero in sight there.
I have very, very few customers who say “give me every comic by blahblahblah.” Even the stars like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman appeal to only a portion of our audience, and even their fans pick and choose. I can sell significant numbers on some Moore projects, single digits on others. So even in the case of high-profile creators, I find that readers are discerning, looking for books that appeal to them rather than books by creators who have done other books that appeal to them. However, the fact that a writer has done a high-profile book is more likely to make readers give the new project a try, or at least pick it up and peruse it. If they never lift it from its space on our racks, there’s not a chance they’ll buy it.”
I can understand Mark being upset, but what’s everyone else so upset about? Don’t you get it yet?
There’s this myth in comics fandom that you can have your cake and eat it too. You can’t. Fans cling to this notion (possibly because Stan, in the old Bullpen Bulletin Pages, was fond of lying that “the readers are the real bosses at Marvel”) that they get a say in these things. Marvel publishes company-owned comics. Work-for-hire. That means they can do whatever the hell they want with their books and there’s really no recourse. Not for Mark, not for you. Except to stop buying them. Marvel has the absolute right to change personnel on a book whenever they choose to. For whatever reason. In most cases they don’t even have to make some sort of settlement the way most employers would because we’re freelancers, not employees, and that’s what work-for-hire is all about. It means FF isn’t Mark’s vision, or John Byrne’s vision, or even Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s vision, it’s Marvel’s vision and they can do whatever the hell they want. They can turn NEW MUTANTS into a softcore porn book if they want. They can suddenly say Spider-Man’s now a western and it has always been a western. If you’re a fan of Mark’s FF (or Jeph Loeb’s BATMAN, or Joe Kelly’s JLA, or Brian Bendis’ DAREDEVIL, or Grant Morrison’s NEW X-MEN, or whatever) that’s just tough, innit? That’s the life you choose when you choose work-for-hire comics, on either end of the stick. The company makes the decisions, and you’re stuck with what the company wants. Their way or the highway, pal. It’s just the way it is.
If you’d put your money behind creator-owned comics you wouldn’t have these problems, and neither would Mark Waid. But I guess that’s too hard.
Anyway, apparently the slowly sinking in ramifications of the Patriot Act have convinced a lot of conservatives to join forces with what would have not long ago seemed to be their implacable enemy. While I wouldn’t expect the Patriot Act to be repealed anytime soon, there’s been enough quiet muttering in Congress about it – most Congressmen, asked why they voted for the Act, have said there was so much pressure on them to do something in the wake of 9/11 that they didn’t even bother to read it before they approved it, so we’re actually lucky we got off as light as we did, a situation Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft is still trying to correct – that Ashcroft is looking to make as much hay from the Act as possible before it gets pulled out from under him. After the debacle of Patriot Act II, which the DoJ publicly insisted wasn’t even being contemplated even as prelim copies were being circulated to handpicked “friendlies” in Congress, Ashcroft has switched gears, trying to get aspects of Patriot II attached to other unrelated bills, or just quietly expanding the scope of his “investigations.” (Ashcroft has been getting his head handed to him on several levels lately. After fiercely pushing federal prosecutors to go for the death penalty on 16 occasions, and just as fiercely trying to expand what qualifies as a capital offense, he was rewarded with jury refusals to impose the penalty in 15 of them, though that may simply vindicate his apparent view, embodied in the Patriot Act, that trials would work a lot better if judges, juries and advocates could be dispensed with – a frightening proposition now that the Supreme Court has stated that matters of innocence and guilt are none of their business.) He held 700 some odd people, immigrants mostly, incarcerated without recourse to counsel and without any charges being brought against them, suggesting there was absolutely no evidence to support such charges (a suggestion later backed up by the FBI, whose investigations resulted in bupkiss). But the Patriot Act doesn’t require evidence, just suspicion.
That’s something to bear in mind.
Last week, Ashcroft started a campaign to go through 25 years of Justice Dept. files, on everyone in America that might have been investigated for any reason. Not prosecuted. Investigated. Surveilled. Had a file started on them for any reason whatsoever. The results of wiretaps and searches the targets didn’t even know happened. Not just immigrants or foreigners. American citizens. And the mission isn’t just to go through the files, but to find any and all prosecutable offenses, no matter how slight, and prosecute them under the Patriot Act. (I presume the concept of “ex post facto” no longer applies.)
There was always the intimation in the Patriot Act, though not really spelled out, that it made all crime, of any nature (except, presumably, corporate crime) a “terrorist act.” Remember, terrorism is now anything the President says it is. (This is one thing that has former staunch Republican supporters of the Patriot Act – probably not surprisingly, Democrats are more sanguine about it, at least publicly – rethinking things as the new election season looms.) If that holds, anyone arrested can, if recent history is an indicator, look forward to months and months of secret incarceration and deprivation, without being charged, or speaking with an attorney, or even having the government acknowledge they’re prisoners. That the files extend to the Reagan era, when various government wiretaps etc. were launched against people who simply objected to that administration’s Nicaragua policy, suggests many in the files will be liberals, which makes me wonder why Ashcroft’s starting this now, as we head toward the next Presidential elections. Most likely it’s just coincidental – the FISA court told him it was okay – but it’s also potentially a way to shake liberal resolve when it comes to retaking the White House. As the vote for the Patriot Act suggested in the first place, who’s going to argue against monstrous behavior if it can be twisted to suggest a softness on, or, worse, support for, terrorism? You’d think this would be a boon for conservatives, but the smart ones know that, even if one chooses to overlook the fairly drastic changes in the American way Ashcroft’s approach demands, once such things are codified into acceptable practice it’s only a matter of time before someone comes for them.
Top Shelf Publications are also the American distributors of Gary Spencer Millidge’s Abiogenesis Press, which recently issued STRANGEHAVEN #15 ($2.95), continuing Millidge’s running tale of a small English town where very odd things happen. This turns out to be a good issue to hop in, as Millidge, with his pleasingly skewed photorealistic art, sums up the story to date in the first couple pages, as the local constable examines the suspects in the series’ driving murder. Nothing really much happens in the book – things rarely do – but it’s mostly about character, and Gary continues to have a good ear for dialogue. And, unlike most “mysteries,” I can’t guess where it’s going. Check it out.
Speaking of underground comics, Patrick Rosenkranz’s REBEL VISIONS: THE UNDERGROUND COMIX REVOLUTION 1963-1975 (Fantagraphics Books; $39.95) slipped past me completely. I recently discovered it in the local library, and the 2002 book brilliantly paints a picture of the rise and fall of the undergrounds, tracing developments both of the comix and of the cartoonists who created them, one year at a time, including tons of art from the likes of Justin Green, Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Spain, S. Clay Wilson, George Metzger, Skip Williamson, Bill Griffith, Dan O’Neill… the list goes on and on. A marvelous, entertaining work of scholarship, well worth the price. (It’s really amazing how many Fantagraphics books you can say that about.) Now, if someone would only reissue Mark Estren’s A HISTORY OF THE UNDERGROUND COMICS…
I.N.V.U. Vol. 1 (Tokyo Pop; $9.95) follows a pattern common to a lot of shojo: a girl’s oddball mother decides on a change of lifestyle (in this case, moving to Italy alone) that throws the girl into a different living situation where possibilities for romance abound. It lacks the wackiness of MARMALADE BOY, but it’s amusing and Kim Kang Won’s art and storytelling is strong and straightforward. Are Asian high schools really like they always are in shojo, though?
As I mentioned last week, DAMNED, the crime novel Mike Zeck and I did a couple years back (with Denis Rodier and Kurt Goldzung) is coming out in trade paperback in August from Cyberosia Press: full color, with a new coda, a new cover and lots of extras. But “coming out in August” means “ordering in June,” which means go to your dealer and place your orders now. Thanks.
As I mentioned before, I’ll only be at Comic-Con International on the afternoon of Friday July 18 and all day Saturday July 19. Not sure what I’ll be up to yet, but odds are pretty good on signings at the Diamond booth and the Avatar Press booth (both for FRANK MILLER’S ROBOCOP, though you’re welcome to bring around anything you want signed), the AiT/PlanetLar Books booth (BADLANDS and BADLANDS: THE UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAY; ditto) and possibly the Cyberosia booth if they have any advance copies of DAMNED there. (They might, they might not. Be sure to check.)
For some reason, the last week has brought a spate of people asking me for help in getting their comics published. I’ve been polite about it, but don’t do that! There are two ways to get your book published: send it to publishers until one of them agrees to publish it, or publish it yourself. If you want someone to represent you to the companies, get an agent. I’m not an agent. No comics writer, artist, letterer, colorist, etc. is. As virtually all comics talents will tell you, it’s hard enough getting our own projects published. We can’t do it for anyone else. There aren’t any shortcuts. If your work’s strong enough to interest a publisher, you can do it without help, and if it isn’t, help won’t help you anyway.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.
My old personal webpage – the one with all the information – has finally vanished, and it’s about time, since I left that server almost a year ago. The new one isn’t up yet, but keep watching this space for details.
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