Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Perenials and Outliers

It's hard to imagine a day when DC Comics doesn't publish or plan to publish the following titles:

Action Comics
Detective Comics
Wonder Woman
Green Lantern
The Flash
Justice League
Justice Society
Teen Titans
The Legion of Superheroes

Yes, I know Aquaman is cancelled, but I assure you DC is actively soliciting pitches for a relaunch, looking for any way to get one of the most famous superheroes in the world back on the stands. Similarly, Marvel will always publish:

The Amazing Spider-Man
Uncanny X-Men
Fantastic Four
The Incredible Hulk
Captain America
Iron Man
The Avengers
The Punisher
Ghost Rider

is an interesting example. A few years ago, Warren Ellis rather pointedly stated that you can't keep publishing Thor just because you've always published Thor if there isn't really enough interest in the character to justify sales. (also something about a horse from space) Then the title was canceled and the titular hero literally vanished from Marvel comics.

However, in July, the number one book on the stands was, well, Thor! Over 160,000 copies sold to retailers, which beats out Marvel's own much hyped World War Hulkand Death of Captain America miniseries.

Now, there's a few factors that go into that. The return of Thor was a delayed plot point from the mega-popular Civil War and Marvel put J. Michael Straczynski, one of their absolute most popular writers, on the book, so it's unlikely the book will keep half of that initial audience, still, that's an impressive number and a lot of the book's strength was based on fond memories of the character. So you can see why Marvel keeps going back to that well, even if it often runs dry.

But look at those lists again and think about what's NOT there, the outliers, the books starring new characters like Blue Beetle, the books with more diverse characters, like Black Panther the books with quirkier tones, like She-Hulk, or books with more unusual set ups, like The Brave and the Bold. Yeah, it's some of the bestselling comics on the stands right now, but it's not necessarily the innovative books or the most critically acclaimed.

The day is coming, and coming soon, when DC and Marvel make the transition from the magazine publishers they were to the book publishers they need to be. When the majority of your illustrated superhero stories will be found in novel length forms sold more in general interest book stores than increasingly exclusionary specialty shops. And when that day comes, the question is going to be, "whither the outliers?"

Take Manhunter, for example, DC critically acclaimed, fan favorite series with truly abysmal sales. DC has managed to eek out thirty issues of the series which add some great new characters to the DC universe and add some interesting depth to some old ones. And that in turn has produced three trades now which have sold well enough to kind of sort of keep the series going.

But... could DC have published the series if they didn't introduce the character in her monthly series first? Or to turn it around, would you have bought the first trade if it was sold as an original graphic novel? Would you have spent $13 to read about a totally new character taking on the identity of an old, d-list character, written by newish writer? On the other hand, would you spend $3 to try a new character out?

Yes, the move from magazines to books will be good for comics in general, both in terms of art and business, but I'm not sure it will be good for ongoing superhero comics. It feels to me that the move will limit the ability to sell new ideas to an audience already resistant to change. More expensive books sold at higher price points might discourage publishers from taking a chance on new writers, new artists, new characters, and new formats altogether when it's easier to sell books that are just like the ones the fans have already bought.

It's not like this isn't a problem already, but I worry that without the relatively cheap format of comic pamphlets to try out new creations, nothing new will come out of the "House of Ideas" and Marvel will just be feeling Thor for a long long time.


Unknown said...

I agree with the precept that those books will always be published.

But, we've had industry pundits sound the death knell of the pamphlet and the pamphleteers since the first graphic novel and the first trade paperback...and they are still here.

I'm sure the industry will evolve as it always has...maybe online monthlies. That would remove the hard, self-imposed, limit on # of pages that many comics function under.


Anonymous said...

I'm sure there will be opportunities for short form works even in a market that's dominated by long-form graphic novels.

What happens when you have a "hot" creator that REALLY wants to do a new take on a D-list or new character (like Lethem on "Omega the Unknown")?

What happens when your mainstays just hit a sales wall and you absolutely need something fresh?

Graphic novel length versions of Action Comics or Amazing Spider-Man aren't going to fulfill either of those needs.

But you could always include back up stories in the long-form books (either to promote new long-form books, point you towards the few remaining monthlies, or to online comics). Or Marvel/DC could start running an anthology magazine (intended to be sold on newsstands next to Newsweek, Rolling Stone, etc...) that would serve as both a creative outlet for short form works and as an incubator for new concepts and properties.