About a year ago, contributor Pol Rua posted an article about How to Fix Comics. I thought it a good idea back then to write a response about why comics needs to be fixed. In the year it took me to get around to it, a small but noisy band of angry man-children decided to drive home my central point, which is that comics needs to break out of the comic shop ghetto and return to mainstream consciousness in order to also break out of the adolescent state often mistaken for maturity. Both DC and Marvel are making an effort now, but Marvel in particular has done a better job of it lately, primarily by creating characters that appeal to the people who never used to go to comics shops. Most of them do not buy their comics at comics shops, preferring to read them online or wait for the trade paperback collections and buy them at a bookstore or from Amazon.
The malignant racist-sexist wannabe-terrorists of ComicsGate are trying to pretend that their real concern is that “forced diversity” is ruining comics, so I’m going to go ahead and explain in painful detail how comics systematically ruined themselves over the course of about 60 years, and why diversity may be the only way to save them. (Spoiler: the ComicsGaters’ prescription will only hasten the demise of the industry.)
From where I sit, as a professional artist, cartoonist, occasional comics journalist, and comics reader of 50+ years, I see four areas in which the comics industry has at various times gone off the rails: Format, Content, Distribution, and Marketing. Each of these areas has been affected by a number of foolish, short-sighted, fear-driven decisions over an extended period of time, the cumulative effect of which has led to the current state of the industry. Here they are:
In 1938, Action Comics and LIFE Magazine were both 10 cents; most magazines of the period were priced around 10-25 cents. Both were approximately the same size, about 8.25″ x 11″ and 64 pages. Over the decades, LIFE and other magazines raised their prices, while the comics held off as long as possible before grudgingly bumping to 12 cents in 1961 (LIFE was then 20 cents), and then to 15 cents in 1969 (LIFE was 40 cents), then incremental increases every 2-3 years. By the time the direct market became viable around 1986, DC, Marvel and Archie comics were all at 75 cents, while most typical magazines were around $2.00; LIFE was $2.25. Today, a typical comic is $3.99, while TIME is $5.99 and other magazines considerably more.
Because the comic publishers thought they were producing a disposable impulse product, they believed their readers would not tolerate any price increase, so they steadfastly refused to raise prices until they absolutely had to, instead choosing to reduce the size and page-count. They never stopped to consider whether those readers might also react to a decline in perceived value. The end result after several years was a 50% reduction in page count and 19% loss of page size. By 1986, LIFE had become a tabloid, 10.5″ x 14″, while TIME and others remained the same size they had always been, in some cases adding pages, while comics had been reduced to 32 pages at about 7″ x 10.5″. In addition to diminishing the size and perceived value of the comics, they also continually reduced the percentage of profit for both themselves and the retailers, making their product less desirable for stores and newsstands to bother with. Because of that ever-diminishing profit margin (and the rise of ever-pickier customers looking for pristine copies without folds or marks), comics became a hassle and a waste of shelf space for retailers, and year after year, more and more of them stopped carrying the things. Comics disappeared from drugstores, convenience stores, and newsstands, replaced by more profitable products.
While this was happening, the Direct Market was gradually coming into being, and eventually became the only viable outlet for the product; publishers shifted from producing the cheapest product possible to the other extreme, choosing the highest quality paper and promoting specialty covers with costly effects like chrome finish, lenticular effects, and other enhancements, which turned comics from disposable impulse purchases to luxury indulgences and limited-edition collectibles. The heavy focus on collectibility also contributed to this shift, driving variant covers and cross-title “event” comics. Unfortunately, pandering to that collectible mania did some damage to the comics industry.
From a production standpoint, publishers used to be able to offset a lot of the production costs through advertising, but advertisers are reluctant to pay for ads that will be sealed unseen in mylar bags or plastic caskets. By promoting the collector mentality and encouraging the speculator business, the publishers made comics more expensive to produce.
The decision to diminish the product instead of raising the price was just one of many foolish choices made by comics publishers over the years. The second was shooting themselves in the foot via the reactionary creation of the Comics Code Authority, a calculated effort by Archie Comics and other publishers to put EC Comics out of business.
The popular story about how the Comics Code Authority was created in response to popular hysteria about the “dangers” of comic books is a myth. As most comics fans know, Dr. Frederic Wertham generated a lot of publicity for himself with his provocative and dubiously-researched book, Seduction of the Innocent, which ginned up public outrage and led to Senate hearings chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver.
But here’s the thing: The comics industry won the debate in the Senate hearings. They proved their case, there was no call for regulatory action. Publishers could have simply marketed their own comics as being wholesome, there was no need for the Comics Code, certainly not for one as draconian as what they came up with. But “coincidentally,” virtually every single thing that was banned by the Code was something found in EC comics. Every word forbidden by the Code was part of an EC comic title. John Goldwater, the CEO of Archie Comics, was chair of the CCA at its founding, and the rules formulated were no accident. The entire point and purpose of the Comics Code was to shut down EC and punish Bill Gaines for provoking the public outcry in the first place.
In so doing, they turned comics from “decadent” to “insipid” and reduced the entire field to being seen as “stupid kid stuff” for the next 40 years. Howard Chaykin asserts that the Comics Code “not only infantilized the comics, it infantilized the readers,” by effectively eliminating comics for those who had outgrown superhero stories. The stated purpose of making comics a legitimate entertainment and education medium was doomed to failure; teachers and parents who forbade comics prior to the Code because they were offensive forbade them afterward because they were vapid and infantile junk. Anything with any higher artistic aspirations or mature themes was pretty much forbidden.
This restriction of content also contributed to the ongoing marketing problem of having to capture an entirely new readership every few years; in the 1960s, an average comic reader could be counted on to read them for about 3-5 years, generally from about age 8 to 13, with an expected 100% turnover in readership every seven years. A common saying was “every issue is somebody’s first,” which meant that writers were expected to provide information that new readers may not know, particularly about who the characters were, what they did, and how they related to one another. This approach made comics stories simplistic, repetitive, and childish, despite many writers’ best efforts to create more sophisticated stories. Because distribution was unreliable, stories that continued beyond a single issue required an extensive “previously” recap to inform readers who had missed the previous chapter.
In the ’70s and ’80s, partly driven by Marvel’s success in capturing college-age readers and DC’s embarrassment over Batman’s “Biff Bam Pow” TV legacy, comics gradually shifted to more mature themes and art in order to hold on to an audience for longer than the typical 3-5 years, while still staying within the bounds of the increasingly outdated Code. This was somewhat hampered by fears of another round of protests from “the Bible Belt,” which also demanded avoidance of anything concerning race. When Jim Shooter attempted to add a black heroine to the Legion of Super-Heroes, the editors changed her skin to blue so as not to offend anyone by her presence.
In the Direct Market, the content was pared down to focus on the core comic shop demographic, which was post-college-age white guys with a penchant for continuity and a compulsion for completism. Following in the wake of Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s landmark comics, the big two began not only appealing primarily to adult men, but actively tried to drive off younger readers, afraid of ever again being labeled as “for kids.”
Fun Fact: In 2002, Marvel’s sales figures, as published in their own advertising sales materials, showed that they sold 4.9 million comics to kids age 6-11, and only 2.4 million to ages 12-17. Marvel’s then Editor-in-Chief, Joe Quesada, was quoted that same year as saying “the function of writing comics for little kids would be disastrous for us, so what we are going to do is leave the 8-year-olds to the folks at Archie and keep writing Marvel comics as they have been.” Obviously, the Marvel brain-trust’s egos were so deeply embarrassed by the notion that comics are “kid stuff” that they would rather give up over half their sales than recognize the obvious. Today, Archie is licensing old Marvel comics stories, reprinting them in the digest-size book format that they’ve been successfully selling for years in supermarket checkout lane racks. Had Marvel leaned into the side of their business where the money was, they could have done this and reaped that 15 years of profit, and they would be in a lot better condition today, because those kids they shunned in 2002 are now in their twenties, and they are not reading comics anymore.
Twenty years ago, the big discussion in the comics industry was manga. Why were kids buying manga books by the truckload? Why were stores like Barnes & Noble giving over entire rows of shelves to Japanese comics? Marvel and DC, missing the obvious, attempted to swipe some manga art stylings, assuming that big eyes and lack of noses were somehow central to the appeal. The obvious, in case you also missed it: Manga embraced all the genres that mainstream comics had long ago jettisoned – humor, romance, fantasy, mystery, historical drama, funny animals, and so on. It turns out kids like variety.
The comics publishers did not abandon mainstream retail distribution in favor of the direct market, contrary to the common legend; they were pushed out of the newsstands, and comics shops were the only viable market that remained. The comics industry realized that sales to comics shops could be handled on a non-returnable basis; in the magazine business, stores typically could return unsold copies (usually just the cover) to distributors for credit on future inventory; a typical comic might print 250,000 copies, with only about half actually selling, which resulted in overhead for the publisher. By selling to comics shops as non-returnable, the shop took on that risk, and by requiring pre-orders, the publisher could reduce the print run to what was actually sold, reducing costs. The specialty shops became their primary market.
Comics shops, like any specialty store, were and are primarily visited by people who already have an interest in the product; very few people ever wander into a coin shop, stamp shop, tobacco shop, model train shop, or collector plate retailer, just to look around and see what’s available. As it happened, the typical comic shop customer turned out to be a young adult male, white, single, middle- to upper-middle class, and already a devoted comics fan. 30 years later, many of the customers are those same men, but now the 21-year-old customer is 51.
In 1950, comics were often an impulse purchase by a random customer intrigued by the cover. As a result, comics sold to both children and adults, and about equally to both boys and girls, and there were numerous genres from which to choose. Today, “mainstream” comics, which paradoxically are far less popular than other types, consist almost entirely of superheroes; other genres are labeled “alternative” or “independent,” since the “Big Two” (DC and Marvel) have eliminated virtually all other types from their catalog. The focus on superheroes and the hardcore comic fan resulted in ever more byzantine and self-referential stories, further reducing the audience, until the publishers felt they had to restart their lines multiple times and attempt to streamline and unclutter their epic mythologies in order to attempt to capture new readers. Such efforts were doomed to failure, because new readers only go to comics shops if an existing reader drags them in.
Another unexpected series of events was the elimination and consolidation of distributors, until eventually Diamond ended up with a virtual monopoly. They have exploited this advantage with the sort of behavior that led Theodore Roosevelt to take government action against monopolies in the first place, creating arbitrary barriers to entry for new publishers and largely dictating which comics will end up at your local comics shop. Independent comics publishers now spend more time trying to tailor their comics to Diamond’s requirements than on telling an original story.
The industry has catered to and encouraged the collector and speculator markets to the point that comics are no longer primarily an entertainment medium; they are limited edition collectibles, like figurines from Hummel, purchased to be stored and re-sold at a later date. The constant marketing of variant covers and rebooting titles to produce a new #1 shows where the publishers see their revenue stream. Comics as entertainment take a back seat to comics as collectibles, but as anyone in the business can tell you, collectibles become collectible by being rare; Golden Age comics are valuable because most of them were recycled during WWII, and the ones that survived were usually trashed by parents. Any product marketed as a collectible is by definition not collectible. Most go up in price due to manufactured scarcity, which has a limited lifespan. Since thousands of public storage spaces in the US contain a box of variant hologram cover #1 issues, you can bet the future value of most of them will hover around zero, especially as the primary customers for them continue to die off.
While the collectible nature of comics is a factor in the market, pandering to collectors is self-destructive. People collect old TV Guides, but you don’t see the publishers releasing variant covers or restarting the numbering to sell more of them.
Now, after over 35 years of this artificially controlled fishbowl marketplace, the industry’s sales and marketing have been controlled for two generations by employees who do not believe there is any other way to sell comics than “the way we’ve always done it” (which is absolutely not true, this is NOT how they’ve always done it; comics were sold in the same way that all other periodicals were sold for the first 50 years of their existence.) As a result of this “that’s how it’s done” approach, when a publisher decides to try aiming a comic at an under-served segment such as women or girls, the marketing people handle it the same way they handled the last 100 issues of Captain Steriod; they advertise it in Previews and plop it on the shelf at the Android’s Dungeon, where anybody who might be remotely interested in it would never set foot.
The idea of trying to sell a comic to the general public is now so far beyond their experience that they believe it can’t be done, despite the fact that the very same characters whose comic sales are dwindling can be found starring in TV shows and movies that have millions of fans.
Let’s do some math: The current population of the US is 325,700,000. The top 10 best-selling comics in America average about 300,000 copies, with the average comic selling about 1/10 that amount. The heavily-promoted Action Comics #1000 sold about 500,000 copies, which is half of what an average comic sold 30 years ago. You can bet that a significant majority of comics readers bought that issue, plus a large contingent of non-fans who mistakenly believed it would someday be worth something. It’s not unreasonable to assume that 500,000 is about the size of the superhero comics core audience. It may actually be on the high side, given how many collectors buy multiple copies. 500,000 is about 0.15% of the US population. Let’s be generous and round up to 0.2%.
The marketing people at DC and Marvel are content to fight to the death over their share of two tenths of one percent of the population that goes to comics shops, believing that the other 99.8% are adamantly resistant to the very idea of reading a comic book.
All of this has caused a problem for the publishers; by systematically trivializing their product, removing themselves from public consciousness, alienating half the population, and becoming a niche collectible, they have basically made sure that two generations of potential readers are unaware of comic books.
And the ComicsGaters are hell-bent on keeping the market for comics confined to that 0.2%, and reducing it even further by pushing out the few women and people of color still among them.
Where to from here?
I think a radical change is in order. Radical, from the Latin radix meaning “the root.” Go all the way back to the beginning and start over.
Not in story terms, I’m not talking about rolling back characters and plots to the so-called Golden Age, and I’m certainly not talking about eliminating any of the new characters in favor of bringing back their pale male cis/het predecessors.
I’m talking about the business end. Look at all the shortsighted, fear-based, greedy choices that were made, and go the other way. Extrapolate where comics would be today if the people running things had held a different view of their own industry, and then make the kind of comics that would have been followed on that evolutionary path.
- What if the price had kept pace with inflation, and instead of continually reducing the size, paper quality and page count, comics had instead followed the quality improvements other magazines embraced?
- What if the comics industry had decided to follow Gaines’ example instead of persecuting him?
- What if they had done as the music and film industries did and faced down the censors?
- What if they hadn’t been pushed out of the mainstream marketplace due to self-inflicted economic difficulties?
- What if they hadn’t retreated to the Direct Market and dramatically altered their content to pinpoint their tiny and shrinking core demographic at the expense of other potential audiences?
- What if comics had not embraced the speculator market, turning comics into the paper equivalent of the Hamilton Mint?
A smart publisher could most likely find a lot of success in answering these questions and creating the comic books that could have been; a magazine sized publication, with perhaps 150 pages, of which 40% were ads (like Vanity Fair, People, GQ, Car & Driver, etc.), that included several of the genres currently being actively avoided by the Big Two (horror, science fiction, humor, fantasy, mystery, true-life stories, romance, historic fiction, western, detective, etc.), that are accessible to new readers, marketed to the general public and sold in places where they actually go, with publications aimed at all ages (including some “all ages” titles, some mature, and healthy line of comics for kids), priced comparably to other magazines, and with a heavily-promoted digital version available for the impulse reader. Most of all, comics that are fun to read.
For the moment, the large publishers are still treating digital sales as an ancillary source of income, still looking at Direct Market numbers as the arbiter of success, and thereby the arbiter of content. Marvel’s claim that “diversity doesn’t sell” is based on precisely this, along with a couple of other ill-advised choices, such as completely ignoring bookstore sales of trade paperbacks. DC’s “Digital First” series, Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman, despite being widely acclaimed and reportedly selling extremely well for its 51 issue digital run, lasted only 17 issues in print, largely because nobody outside the comic shop customer base ever knew it existed. Devil Dinosaur and Moon Girl may not sell out at the local comics shop, but the trade paperbacks do brisk business at Scholastic book fairs on practically every school campus in the country.
The industry needs to, as a whole, keep a realistic perspective on the Direct Market. It may be the majority of their current market, but it serves a statistically insignificant fraction of the total population. Finding ways to get comics into retail outlets outside the comic shops should be a primary concern. The recent joint project with Walmart is a good start and should serve as proof of concept.
Letting the hardcore fans drive the industry is what keeps a billion-dollar movie from selling a million copies of the related comic book. Letting ComicsGate further restrict the field through their bigotry and harassment tactics is suicide for comics.
Publishing comics that appeal to kids, women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people, is not only smart marketing, it’s vital for the future of the medium. The continued existence of the industry depends on new readers taking up the hobby. Those potential future readers are most likely not going to be middle-aged white guys with anger management issues.
Make comics that the whole world can enjoy. And the whole world will enjoy them.
Disclaimers: I currently work for Disney Publishing, which owns Marvel. Any opinions offered here are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of Disney, Marvel, or any of its employees. This post is largely based on a document I wrote about 15 years ago in hopes of building interest in creating a comics imprint that would do what I described here. Unfortunately, personal issues caused that project to halt.
I’ve never read it because it’s not really available outside the UK (it is, but shipping makes it a ridonkulous prospect) but surely The Phoenix fits that bill? Has anyone here seen or read it? I’ve noticed Scholastic is starting to offer a lot of their collected stories here in bookstores in Canada. It must be doing something right. I wonder… how right?
Great article, Jim, and I hope someone follows your recommendations.
A couple of quibbles:
– some comics historians think that EC was a secondary target of the Code, while the primary target was Lev Gleason. His ‘Crime Does Not Pay’ was the #1 crime comic, and Gleason himself was well-known for his left-wing politics.
– your description of the new Marvel digests make it sound like an Archie company initiative, but the news stories described the series as a collaboration. Marvel is in charge of the editorial side; they choose the stories and Archie handles the printing and distribution. I’m planning to start an in-depth look at these digests at the Classic Comics Forum soon.
Unfortunately, it appears the Archie/Marvel digests aren’t doing well enough, because the latest Previews cancellation page says that both #9 and #10 were cancelled by the publisher.
Which is a shame, because they were pretty good collections.
The excellent Ten Cent Plague dismisses the “EC was punished” theory; to the extent it was targeted it’s because crime and horror comics were the big bad of the anti-comics zealots.
Mark Evanier had a beautiful evisceration of the comics-as-collectibles approach when someone wrote to say he wasn’t buying Evanier’s 1980s Blackhawk series because he didn’t think it would increase in value. Evanier pointed out that at the time, the single hottest Frank Miller-related work was DD 156 (IIRC) because it was Miller’s first work (penciling) on the character. And as nobody had any reason to think it would be a big honking deal, it didn’t have the pile of available issues Ronin and DKR did.
The first issue of Daredevil that Miller drew was #158 (cover dated May 1979, which means it was on the stands about 2 months prior). However, Miller’s first published art featuring Daredevil appeared in Spectacular Spider-man #27 (on sale in November 1978).
The 10-cent Plague also points out that the comic publishers did not exactly “win” with the end of the Kefauver hearings. The Federal Government decided not to take action, probably after counsel pointed out that trying to nationally censor print publications wouldn’t get past the Supreme Court, even then). However, state and municipal governments were already taking action, putting in place laws and ordinances that targeted comics, especially crime and hoor (but, superheroes were getting hit by the fallout). Distributors, reacting to these ordinances, began refusing to carry many comics and publishers like Simon & Kirby were getting whole releases blocked from newsstands. the bigger guys, like DC and Western/Dell had their own distribution, so they didn’t have the same scale of this problem; but, they did have pushback from antsy newsvendor clients. The fear from the state and local government wasas much the impetus for the Code as potential Federal scrutiny. Like most things, it was a reaction that was manipulated to also go after rivals.
As for the alternate world if comics hadn’t become entirely dependent on the Direct Market, I’ve had 20 years of observation of the mass market newsstand, via Barnes & noble and the mainstream is also hurting. Advertising dollars help; but, industry sales have declined rapidly over that period and many once healthy magazines are in bad shape, if not completely gone. Digital is a factor; but the way people read now, in short snippets, has done much to hasten it, plus the actual cost of printing and transportation costs, etc.
You are spot on about DC and Marvel abandoning kids, which book publishers like Scholastic have exploited, with comic hybrids, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Smile.
Manga sales have cooled from their heights of the early 200s, though are still quite strong, relative to mainstream comics. Embracing multiple genres was a factor in their rise and continued popularity; but, their ties to the wealth of animated properties on tv was a major factor that helped drive sales. DC and Marvel have been pretty ineffective in using their other media success to drive comic sales, for more than very brief periods.
In regards to the Direct Market, Diamond is a huge problem. The days of Capital and smaller regional distributors, like Heroes World, are long gone; but, when you compare health of the industry, the problem is massively obvious. When there was competition to service comic stores and other outlets, there was greater diversity of material and the indie and small press publishers were thriving (provided they kept their cash flow strong). The distributor wars killed a lot of small publishers, either be lack of access or significantly reduced revenue (that cash flow element).
I doubt we will see change at the Big Two, as the are little more that intellectual content custodians, for their conglomerate parents. Trademark and copyright maintenance is their priority, not publishing and certainly not innovation.
I think there are a lot of issues with comics these days, but at the same time, I think you have to recognize that the industry has made a tremendous amount of progress since its near-collapse in the 90s in basically all of the problematic areas you’ve identified except marketing. The quality of the content in your average comic is hard to evaluate objectively (everyone’s going to insist that the comics they grew up reading were the best), but there are now literally thousands of comics published each year with an incredible diversity of art styles, storytelling techniques, genres, creator backgrounds, etc. In terms of format and distribution, trade paperbacks have become so much more prevalent and have both made comics more available in book outlets (to the point that we might see the majority of comics sold outside of specialty shops by next year or 2020) and emphasized readability/mitigated the craziness of “collector culture.”
Obviously, there is still a lot of progress to be made. While diverse books exist, it’s really weird that superheroes are still so dominant. An alternative to Diamond would also help. Cheaper comics with more ads would be nice (maybe DC’s efforts at Wal-Mart are on the right track?), and I love your idea of a widely-distributed anthology magazine or even something more like The New Yorker for literary comics with a strong online presence but subscription availability. However, it seems clear that the biggest thing to fix is marketing.
In your piece, you hit the nail on the head regarding the big two abandoning kids. Again, some of DC’s announced plans for young readers’ lines may be on the right track, but they’ll have to find a different way to get the word out on these titles outside of the direct market. Another thing that Jeff mentioned was the failure of companies to capitalize on cross-media synergy in the way that you saw with manga and their anime adaptations. I remember when the Watchmen film came out, over a million new copies of the graphic novel were printed and sold. I saw them on the shelves at Target and Wal-Mart next to other mass-market paperbacks. Since then, the strategy for capitalizing on a movie or TV adaptation has been nonsensically flipped: instead of seeing a repackaged collection of Walt Simonson’s first few issues of Thor in Target when Thor: Ragnarok came out, I saw a comic-book adaptation of the movie in comic shops. The same thing has happened with the Flash and Green Arrow TV adaptations: instead of marketing great comics to interested TV fans, Big Two execs are trying to market inferior comics based on TV shows to people who are already comic fans. That makes no sense.
Of course, one of the biggest problems with changing comics marketing is that it’s hard to convince people who’ve never read a comic that “comic book” is not a genre; it’s just a way of telling stories that should be accessible to everyone. This is probably not a perception that any one company can change. I’m personally always trying to evangelize by giving away comics to friends of mine who like to read but have never gotten into comics, but the comics industry needs more than some random guy buying extra copies of Stray Bullets to give to his buddies.
a quick comment to say that in the UK, when Thor Ragnorok was at the cinemas, newsagents were selling a collection of the Oeming Ragnorok story.
There was a similar release earlier to tie into one of the Spiderman films.
I could speculate about why people are buying fewer comics… But I know why I’ve just been to two comics shops for the first time in two weeks and I only picked up three issues (on my standing order; I also picked up a bronze-age trade).
Here’s what’s turning me off comics:
Lack of appeal.
I look at the covers on the shelves, and they just don’t attract me. Dull or dark colours, scratchy art, underdeveloped styles. (What I’m about to say is going to look weird.) Covers that are nothing more than a bunch of characters standing around, not doing anything that makes me go ‘Oo! I’ve got to buy this to find out what happens!’ (this situation is improving). I’m comparing to, say, the cover with somebody facing Spider-Man and saying ‘Your choice… defuse the bomb or save your aunt!’ (Which I never did buy, I admit, but it did make me want to.)
Events. I will not buy any Avengers or X-Men title, as an example, no matter how good I’ve heard it is, simply because I think it’ll get interrupted by years’ end to deal with some ‘Event’. (What I’m about to say is going to look weird.) I don’t want to have to buy 50 issues a year just to keep up with one series. I don’t want to keep skipping the tie-in issues. I don’t want to be lied to about content (I’m looking at you, Wolverine And The X-Men Age Of Ultron tie in that had nothing to do with Wolverine And The X-Men.
Lack of heroics. The above ‘events’ are always about superheroes fighting each other. Somebody lent me the first five issues each of the Nu52’s Superboy, Supergirl, and Teen Titans. Out of those fifteen issues, they tried to save people twice and succeeded once. Not good enough. (Yes, I know the Supergirl was leading into her saving people… in issue 6? No thanks.)
Unappealing characters; like Emma Frost or Quentin Quire as heroes. No. Just no. (What I’m about to say is going to look weird.)
Blood-splattered covers for comics that aren’t horror. (Which is why I’ve never read Saga, btw.) I’m sick of the grim ‘n’ gritty darkness. (Note: I don’t say, have never said, I hate it. Just I’m tired of it. There’s a difference.)
You talk about forgetting about kids. I agree. What you don’t realise is, forgetting about kids means forgetting about me. The less likely I am to show a comic to a kid, the less likely I am to want to read it myself. (‘cept horror.)
All this is putting me off even giving a title a shot. What happens when I do?
Well, 52, apart from being really stupid, had the above blood-splatter garbage I just mentioned. Only, you had to open it to figure out.
I have similar views about sex; I’ve read an issue one of a comic (I think it was a follow up to Young Avengers) which opens with a girl, one of our heroines, in bed with a boy, one of our heroes, and the first thing she asks is his name.
Nice role-modelling there, Marvel.
I’ve said this before, but I read two issues of Mark Waid’s Champions before a character starting whingeing about being ‘made to be the killjoy like every woman in every movie ever’, then sent off a male teammate saying ‘I’m glad to get rid of the stench of testosterone’. A bunch of bigots whingeing about bigotry. I’ve written up the one issue of Ladycastle I read before I dumped it. I haven’t mentioned the one issue of Princeless (which wasn’t nearly as bad as the previous two). I read the first seven issues of the current Exiles series before I got to their hateful parody of my Christian beliefs.
I’m not going to read a series that’s actively bigoted, especially if it’s me it’s targetting. Whether because I’m male, or Christian, or white, I don’t care.
A lot of other titles are just dull (Captain Marvel). Or so wrapped up in being ‘realistic’, they forget why people buy (superhero) comics in the first place.
So I’m down to (from the Big Two): Squirrel Girl and The West Coast Avengers; and Super Sons and Batman / TMNT.
Wait, doesn’t it look weird that I say I buy The West Coast Avengers after all that?
Nothing about it made me want to buy it, but then a friend sent me a picture of a page that was quite funny. Then the guy at the comic shop had put it aside for me because I read GLA. So, yeah, I’m buying it. For now.
So, yeah, I have all those reasons not to buy, and we haven’t even got into your suggestion that Marvel should tell me ‘so you’ve read us loyally for 30 years, even when we weren’t doing much of anything you liked, you insisted on buying comics by us just to keep up? Screw you, we’re going after those guys who don’t buy our comics anyway’.
Sorry friend, I’m going to have to challenge that last part. There is not one single sentence in my post that even remotely resembles what you wrote there. I will thank you not to put words in my mouth.
It’s not a zero-sum game. Making comics that appeal to others does not automatically mean saying “screw you” to current fans.
In drama school the improv class starts with a simple philosophy: never say “no”; instead say “yes, and”… It’s possible to make comics that longtime comics fans like AND that include representation of and respect for marginalized people. Diversity and representation for others does not automatically require disrespect and diminishing of the dominant group. It is possible to show respect to both.
For me personally, I’ve pretty much stopped reading DC and Marvel precisely because they HAVE already said “screw you” to me by doing all of the things you documented, such as the constant events and lack of heroics and decompressed writing for the trade. They are chasing an even more narrow segment, the hardcore completist who will get suckered into buying multiple variant covers and a couple dozen nearly-irrelevant tie-ins just because they “gotta catch ’em all.”
I’m not familiar with the Champions comic you describe, but is it possible that the male character in question was a particularly obnoxious example of what we now call “toxic masculinity” and the other character was correct in referring to him as “the stench of testosterone,” and this was not a blanket condemnation of all men? Female characters have historically been treated far worse all along, up to and including having Superman literally spank Lois Lane, treating her as a child who needed to be punished rather than as an actual adult. The character you described made a legitimate point about the way women are often portrayed in film as the uptight killjoy who doesn’t let the boys have any fun; see Aretha Franklin in ‘The Blues Brothers’ or any mom character in any movie ever. So Mark Waid reverses the scenario once and that’s a bridge too far? If you weren’t offended when it was done to women, well, “what’s sauce for the goose….”
As for parodies of your Christian beliefs, were you equally offended all the many times that other religions, such as Islam, were subjected to similar treatment in various comics? I believe in the Golden Rule; if it’s not okay to mock or belittle my religion, it’s not okay to do it to somebody else’s, and yet I’ve seen plenty of Islamic terrorist characters, ridiculous Hare Krishna characters played for laughs, Jewish stereotypes, etc., for 50 years, not to mention “comedic” portrayals of swishy flamboyant gay characters and stern “butch” lesbians as the butt of jokes. And that doesn’t even touch on the many abuses heaped on women in comics, such as the treatment of Carol Danvers or Sue Storm over the decades.
Respect is a two-way street, and if we want our views respected, we ought to have been respecting theirs all these years.
As to your last, completely false, assertion, are you assuming that if Marvel or DC were to publish more comics that appeal to the general public, that would mean fewer for the hardcore fans? Well, I’d have to ask, do we REALLY need a half-dozen different X-Men titles every month? How many Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man comics do we really need? Especially given that most of them are published primarily to take up shelf space and try to push the competition out. I’d be happy to see a lot of the deliberate redundancy go away, especially if it also brings in new genres and fresh readers.
Also, “those guys who don’t buy our comics anyway” might happily buy them by the crateful, IF THEY KNEW that comics still exist, and IF comics were available in places they already actually go, where they could be picked up as an impulse item instead of having to be sought out at obscure and often unwelcoming specialty shops. Which was kind of my point.
EDIT: Please note that due to a formatting error, my comment above says that I don’t read Squirrel Girl, West Coast Avengers, Super Sons, or Batman / TMNT when in fact I meant to say those are the only Big Two titles I do read right now. I’ve fixed the comment.
So, to Edo’s first point: Yes, I also read things that are not aimed at my demographic.
Jim: “There is not one single sentence in my post that even remotely resembles what you wrote there.”
It looks like I got carried away with my first reading of your post, and misunderstood. I should’ve done a second reading to get your message right before posting.
Just so you know, here are a few of the things that made me read it that way:
“In the Direct Market, the content was pared down to focus on the core comic shop demographic, which was post-college-age white guys with a penchant for continuity and a compulsion for completism.”
“Had Marvel leaned into the side of their business where the money was, they could have done this and reaped that 15 years of profit, and they would be in a lot better condition today, because those kids they shunned in 2002 are now in their twenties, and they are not reading comics anymore.”
(I read these two sentences together as saying post-college white guys – why do you keep enforcing their whiteness? – are the problem.)
“The focus on superheroes and the hardcore comic fan resulted in ever more byzantine and self-referential stories, further reducing the audience,”
The implicit solution is, don’t focus on hardcore fans.
“The marketing people at DC and Marvel are content to fight to the death over their share of two tenths of one percent of the population that goes to comics shops, believing that the other 99.8% are adamantly resistant to the very idea of reading a comic book.
All of this has caused a problem for the publishers;
I think a radical change is in order.”
Which, again, tells me the solution is to abandon the current customers.
Do you see how I made the mistake?
But it’s still on me.
Also on me:
“Also, “those guys who don’t buy our comics anyway” might happily buy them by the crateful, IF THEY KNEW that comics still exist,”
Believe it or not, despite the way that my comment above was written, that point was not lost on me.
The trouble is, from my POV, in the end, some obnoxious things that they’re doing to get sales aren’t getting sales. I do agree that if they did a bunch of the stuff you’re suggesting, they probably would. You make some good points.
“It’s not a zero-sum game. Making comics that appeal to others does not automatically mean saying “screw you” to current fans.”
Excellent. Now get that message to Marvel, whose first move in a diversity drive is to systematically get rid of all the straight white males. (But we left in a Spider-Man so we’re totally not doing that, okay?) Because THAT’S Zero Sum thinking right there.
Jim, you’ve written articles before defending SJWs. This one has elements of that.
And you’ve just added a comment to it that’s several paragraphs defending prejudice and discrimination – as long as it’s against men, white people, and Christians. Ask yourself: is it justice you want, or revenge?
Because your defence is ‘other people were prejudiced against minorities, so you get some prejudice now, too.’ AFTER I said “I’m not going to read a series that’s actively bigoted, especially if it’s me it’s targetting.”
You get the implication there, right? That I don’t accept bigotry even if it’s not me it’s targetting?
That’s why people have a problem with SJWs. It isn’t a problem with the stated goals. It isn’t a disagreement with the ideas of tolerance or inclusion; it’s bigotry virtue-signalled as anti-bigotry. It’s people creating a world where somebody can read a comic whose first move is to kill all the males in a village and show how that vastly improves all the women’s lives and not “find it in the least objectionable in any way whatsoever – I find its apparent characterization as ‘bigoted’ a bit puzzling” (see Edo’s comment below).
If you want the world to see SJWs in a good light, try not behaving like the stereotype. Try not promoting hatred and prejudice while saying those are the things you’re against. If you want to fix the problem, maybe your energy will be better spent on looking at changing your own behaviour that enforces the stereotype.
(BTW, I’m about to be away from this computer for a week. I probably won’t be able to post during that time; don’t read anything into my sudden silence.)
Le Messor: I want to latch onto something you’ve said before and are saying now. Where are these comics that are claiming Christians are evil? Certainly there are comics that make some Christian leaders bad guys, but comics always make people in authority bad guys, and they rarely discriminate. I’ve read just as many comics that bend over backward to show Christians in a positive light as I’ve read comics that show Christians in a negative light. Most comics I read, in fact, never mention religion at all unless it’s a made-up religion. Now, you can certainly read into some made-up religions an anti-Christian bias, but that’s what you’re reading into it, whether or not the writer is doing it explicitly. I’m not saying you’re wrong, I just don’t see it as much as you do. Maybe I’m reading the wrong comics.
“Now, you can certainly read into some made-up religions an anti-Christian bias, but that’s what you’re reading into it, whether or not the writer is doing it explicitly”
How much Jim Starlin have you read? 🙂
“Where are these comics that are claiming Christians are evil?”
I wouldn’t say they claim that, but if you combine these two things:
” Certainly there are comics that make some Christian leaders bad guys”
“Most comics I read, in fact, never mention religion at all”
what you end up with is, almost every portrayal of Christians is the evil leader type (with followers who gladly or blindly go along).
And, yes, a lot of ‘This is totally not Christianity we’re talking about here, really. See, we changed the Cross into an ankh. Totally different’ groups (like Starlin’s Universal Church Of Truth, which I ran into in the 90s’ Guardians Of The Galaxy).
I don’t toss either of those things by the wayside. The pile’s too heavy for me to lift. So maybe we’re reading some of the same things, but not getting the same things out of them?
“I’m not saying you’re wrong, I just don’t see it as much as you do.”
Do you call yourself a Christian, though? (I’ve never seen you say that; but I’ve never seen you say you’re not.) If you aren’t, I wouldn’t expect you to be as sensitive to my issues as I am.
SO: X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills; the origin of Wolfsbane (and her portrayal as a repressed naive girl – not evil, but not positive either); Jeann-Marie Beaubier’s origin; aren’t the Friends Of Humanity shown as a pseudo-Christian cult (if not them, isn’t there another Christian anti-mutant group?).
Any number of comics that talk about (admittedly real) atrocities – the Salem Witch Hunts spring to mind – without balancing them off by showing how abhorrent most of us actually find things like that. (Agatha Harkness and her Salem’s Seven group have a lot of that in their background.)
Starlin’s Church Of The Instrumentality, and its leader The Lord High Papal.
The Fish Religion in 52.
” I’ve read just as many comics that bend over backward to show Christians in a positive light”
“Maybe I’m reading the wrong comics.
Clearly, one of us is. Are you sure it’s you? 😉
What have you read that ‘bends over backward to show Christians in a positive light’?
Le Messor: So, the X-Men show Christianity in a negative light? 🙂
I can’t think of any comics that bend over backward to portray Christians in a positive light right now, because I don’t keep a running tally. But I’ve seen a lot of comics where, if there’s a negative portrayal of a Christian organization, someone comes out and says that they believe in God and what God really stands for. It’s kind of like Captain America criticizing the politics of the country but then saying he believes in the dream of America. But no, I can’t come up with any examples off the top of my head. Sorry.
You’re looking at power structures and interpreting them as “Christian,” when the examples you give could be any power structure. I mean, the Catholic Church does not have a very good track record when it comes to being a beacon of Christian love, so they’re easy to pick on, but so is any power structure. Writers could easily use Islam, but Islam doesn’t have the same easy power structure of Catholicism (and you’ll notice it’s mostly Catholicism that gets targeted – specific Protestant sects are rarely named, and when they are, it’s usually Southern Baptists – nobody has any problem with boring Methodists), and most comics writers are coming from a Judeo-Christian tradition, so they write what they know. You’re claiming that writers have an anti-Christian bias, but I see it more as an anti-religion bias. Christianity just happens to be the religion they’re most familiar with. Judaism has never been in a position of power, at least in the U.S., so it’s Christianity by default. But again, I don’t see it as anti-Christian, I see it as anti-religion. As always, you might think differently.
I don’t have a dog in the race; I’m a dyed-in-the-wool atheist. I started off as a Presbyterian but began questioning that early on, and I never had a “come-to-Jesus” moment that I think all Christians should have (and not inherit their faith from their parents, as I suspect many do). So I was already on the road to atheism, and when your daughter is horribly injured when she’s 7 months old, you can either believe in a God that is so cruel as to allow something like that or not believe in God at all. I chose the latter. I don’t have anything against anyone who believes in God or any higher power, I just can’t. It’s just not in me.
Anyway, as usual, I’m not saying you’re wrong, but the beauty of fiction is that we can all understand it our own way. I think that writers often write characters who embody what we believe to be the central tenets of Christianity – I mean, come on, Superman is as literal a Christ figure as you can get in fiction – but they can also be critical of institutions that often fail to live up to those tenets. If you see it differently, that’s cool.
“I can’t think of any comics that bend over backward to portray Christians in a positive light right now, because I don’t keep a running tally.”
Yeah, I do the same thing. (Remember that something happened, but then can’t remember for the life of me what comic it happened in, or any of the details.)
I’m sorry things went so bad for you. Sometimes the only way I can stay Christian is by reminding myself that nobody ever stopped existing because I don’t like the way they do things.
I have to say, for my part, as a fellow straight, white male who is similarly turned off by most of what the big 2 are currently publishing (for many of the reasons you enumerated Le Messor), about the only things I am interested in – and would like to read at some point – are a few titles for which I am most certainly NOT the target demographic, like Ms. Marvel, Squirrel Girl and Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur.
Also, a few months ago I read Ladycastle, the digital collection of the entire series, and didn’t find it in the least objectionable in any way whatsoever – I find its apparent characterization as ‘bigoted’ a bit puzzling. In fact, it’s something I would have no problem recommending to someone who’s asking for good comics to give to kids (girls or boys).
(I read these two sentences together as saying post-college white guys – why do you keep enforcing their whiteness? – are the problem.)
Well, the facts are what they are. 30 years ago, the Big Two chose to focus on post-college white guys to the point of actively trying to alienate other readers, eliminating every genre except the one with a devoted repeat readership. Today, those post-college guys are heading rapidly toward (or already are post) senior citizen status. Focusing on an aging, shrinking demographic so intensely that it precludes any other, well, that’s just business suicide.
And I keep enforcing their whiteness because (a) it’s true, and (b) it’s being weaponized by them today.
Also, use of the term “SJW” in relationship to comics is patently absurd. The industry is built on the concept of social justice warriors, which is the most apt and succinct description of superheroes anyone could possibly come up with. So anyone who complains about or criticizes “SJWs” is by definition oblivious, and they really ought to stop reading comic books before they die of hypocrisy.
Also, for the record, I am a Christian. I have been for decades. I have attended Calvary Chapel, Vineyard churches, Assemblies of God, Church of God-Anderson, and a variety of independent non-denominational churches, including some Pentecostal ones, as well as one headed up by eschatological author Hal Lindsay. I taught Sunday School for over 20 years and was leader of a youth group and a Christian camp counselor.
I stopped calling myself a Christian when Sarah Palin was anointed the face of American Christianity, and I am appalled and horrified by what passes for Christian teaching today; God is not a Republican, and opposition to abortion and homosexuality are NOT vital Christian doctrines, and the adoption of the teachings of Objectivism and Dominionism by the church at large are absolutely heretical. Franklin Graham and his compatriots are exactly the sort of hypocrites that Jesus called “a brood of vipers,” and the so-called Christians dominating the current culture are exactly the sort of people Jesus took a horsewhip to. They are the church of Revelation who follow the False Prophet and murder the true believers who don’t fall in line with their political agenda. So yeah, I’m biased against them. They deserve all the abuse they get.
I don’t know what it is or why, but I think I came to a breakthrough reading these last two comments.
I think you believe that when somebody says they’re anti-SJW, they’re saying they’re anti social justice in their own heads. I know they are in your mind – but I now think you think they believe that about themselves.
Jim, they’re just not saying that. Of course, some of them might be against the concept of social justice, but that’s not what they’re saying when they say they’re anti-SJW.
Look at your comments above:
You defend racism against white people.
You defend sexism against males.
You say Christians deserve religious intolerance for being Christians.
You then go on to say ‘I’m Christian-not-Christian’. I’ve always thought of you as a white male (though I could be wrong about either / both of those things).
What I’m seeing here is not only guilt and self-loathing against yourself, but you demanding that I join you on that road of hate. I’ve been down that road before, Jim. I know where it leads.
It’s not healthy, Jim. Let go your hate.
*That* is what anti-SJWs rail against. It’s a series of behaviours that puts people into little boxes and deals with them as a race, a gender, a religion, a sexuality – but never, ever as a person. To some people, you simply cannot cure racism by hating people because of their race. You can’t cure sexism by hating people because of their sex.
You cannot end bigotry by obsessively lumping people into groups, let alone by then saying ‘it’s absolutely abhorrent to attack this group, but that group is fair game’; or by trying to tell every non-minority that they must spend their lives doing penance for something that somebody else did.
For some people, they find they have to constantly walk on eggshells around ‘protected groups’, rather than dealing with them as people. It’s dehumanising to the people SJWs claim to protect – but it’s the SJWs making them do it.
Some people are anti-SJW because those letters describe (among others) the behaviours above.
They are against SJWism not because they don’t believe in social justice – but because they *do*. Try to understand that about them; it’ll make you look like a better person, and make your cause much more inviting to outsiders.
Your posts are self-pitying in a way that’s really frustrating to read.