Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Point

I think most people understood what I meant with my "prediction" for how the Marvel Universe was going to change, but clearly not everyone did, as this comment shows:

Is your point that the Marvel Zombies would blindly buy books with the same titles as their favorites regardless of the actual content?
Yeah... no.

My point is that "shocking revelations" that "change the Marvel Universe" tend to neither be shocking nor change very much in the long run, so the only way Marvel could truly surprise me is to drop superhero stories altogether and strongly push comics set in other genres.

But they won't, of course. Despite being the largest American comics company, Marvel is also the most conservative. No matter how many times they threaten to "really shake things up," the stories will never really change because Marvel will never stray too far from their bread and butter: superheroes. I can tick off on one hand the number of comics they publish that DON'T, in some way, feature superheroes (and all of those are adaptations of established properties).

Even last year, when they ran tribute books to other genres Marvel used to publish (Romance, Western and "Monster"), the books all ALSO had to feature some established superhero. It couldn't just be Devil Dinosaur, it had to be a Devil Dinosaur vs. The Hulk.*

And this is a problem because Marvel dominates the American comics field and what they SAY is comics, is comics. And as long as Marvel refuses to change, then the medium and the audience for that medium stagnates. Even if superheroes are your biggest selller, publishing superheroes exclusively tells everyone not interested in men in tights that comics as a whole are not for them, and that's suicidal.

For example, "Spider-Man 3" is going to be Sony's biggest movie this year, but that doesn't mean Sony is going to do just Spider-Man movies, or even just superhero movies. That would be insane! Most people would stop seeing Sony films, and if Sony made up half the movie industry by itself, most people would stop seeing movies altogether!

Even DC Comics, which admittedly publishes mostly superhero stuff, has in the last year alone published two western on-goings, a war comic or two, a bunch of fantasy/horror through their Vertigo imprint, a Looney Tunes comic, distributed the CMX line of manga, and launched MINX, which feature teenage girl protagonists.

So there's at least one major publisher pushing different genres, giving top writers and artists the chance to tell stories about anything else to an audience that likes the medium but might not be that into superhero stories. Where's Marvel's Pride of Bagdad? Their Plain Janes? Heck, it's been over twenty years, where's their Sandman?

As for actually turning Amazing Spider-Man into Picture Perfect, I guess I had a second point. I believe Marvel Zombies AREN'T actually that interested in superheroes. They're interested in specific characters and relationships. Which is why Marvel books sell fifty thousand copies and other companies' superhero books maybe sell ten, regardless of perceived quality. And by stripping away the flashy costumes and superpowers, Marvel might be able to prove to their audience that, not only could they enjoy a romantic comedy book, they're already reading one!

It's just been hiding behind a mask.

*The book itself was extremely good, I should say. I was just using it as an example.


Michael Hoskin said...

Being a big fan of this blog I don't want to keep disagreeing with you...

Regarding your last paragraph, you're probably correct about stripping away the costumes; even though the super-hero hybrid books like Sleeper ultimately couldn't find enough support in the marketplace, it was only a few years ago that virtually the entire Marvel line had removed the majority of costumes & battles from their books, and launched several titles that didn't fit the traditional super-hero mold (Tangled Web, NYX). And Marvel sold just as well then as...well, actually, they're selling even better now.

Marvel is at least offering a few alternatives at present like Marvel Illustrated, Dark Tower, Halo, the Icon and the Dabel Brothers books; they may trail DC when it comes to diversity, but this is probably the most diverse they've been since their bankruptcy.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

The problem with your logic here is that, while Marvel dominates the DIRECT market, it is not a major publisher on the same level as Sony being a major movie studio. Publishing's Sony equivalent is Harper Collins, Random House, etc; Marvel is more like a Dimension or Lions Gate, smaller studios that focus on genre films. As more and more traditional publishers launch graphic novel imprints, and manga continues its dominance of mainstream bookstore shelves, Marvel's "influence" on the definition of comics will continue to wane.

Steve Flanagan said...

Despite being the largest American comics company, Marvel is also the most conservative.

I suspect that is more "because" than "despite". Market leaders tend to be the most conservative in their field because they have most to lose by taking risks. Remember the old ad campaign: "We're No 2, so we try harder".

Steven said...

Michael, yeah, there's some diversity, but it's literally less than ten titles and they are all adaptations of previously existing material. There's not a lot of original stuff coming out of Marvel.

Guy, when it comes to comic books and graphic novels, yes, Marvel IS still the dominant force, even in bookstores. 22% of ALL graphic novel sales in April were "Civil War" titles. Civil War, alone, represented one fifth of all comics for a month!

HarperCollins may be huge but their graphic novel unit is tiny, and while they've got a couple of big names (McCloud, Gonick), they do nowhere near the number of books that Marvel and DC do. And Marvel competes with print books much less than they compete with TV, video games, and the internet.

And your comparison to Dimension Films is faulty. Even if Dimension were its own studio (it's not, it's a unit of Miramax), dedicated to genre pictures, it has movies in many different genres. It doesn't do JUST horror movies.

Marvel does JUST superhero comics. Further, it does JUST superhero comics tied into an existing continuity. Which is like Dimension doing only horror movies set in the "Nightmare on Elm Street" Universe.

Yes, manga is huge. And I'd hate if any American artist and writer would feel like they had to go to Japan to tell a story that wasn't about men in tights.

So, while I appreciate the link, I am not "unnecessarily" concerned.

Steve, heh, there was a draft of this post which literally had the line "despite, or maybe because". I recognize that success is exactly what slows down Marvel's development. I just wish Marvel would realize that they are in a position of power and could actually build something truly new, and that it's a Red Queen's race: they have to keep moving just to stay where they are.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

22% of ALL graphic novel sales in April were "Civil War" titles.

You're misreading that chart. That's Direct Market sales only, not mainstream bookstores, where TokyoPop and Viz are by far the dominant sellers in the category, and high-profile "mainstream" hits like Fun Home and American Born Chinese (to name only a couple) outsell the vast majority of the Marvel and DC's output while achieving legitimate critical acclaim.

The "Big Two" are much more focused on short-term direct market share, the quick monthly hit that predominantly comes from a core audience of completists who can be counted on to cover costs on almost anything they publish.