Crisis of Epic Proportion: Comics are a Business

GLCOR_Cv21.r2_qogv9ukrlv_I think it’s fair to say that comic book fans are some of the best conspiracy theorists around. And why wouldn’t we be? We’ve spent decades piecing together mysteries, looking behind cowls, and helping our heroes uncover plots against society perpetrated by their most fiendish foes. And, no offense to admirers of the House of Ideas, but I think DC Comics fans must have these qualities embedded in their geek DNA far more securely by now. It’s the only explanation I can come up with to explain just how out of bounds some recent discussion online about the company has become.

In a recent chat I had with Jessica Boyd, the brilliant woman behind Moms Read Comics and The Hangout, I realized that the recent uptick in conspiracy theory online uncovers something that many commenters just don’t want to accept: comic books are a business.

There’s been an outlandish sense of entitlement exhibited by fans in the past week, calling for editors to be fired, wanting to know what’s really happening in creative discussions behind closed doors — that is nobody’s business. Period. It would be like someone from the public posting online that a member of my staff should be fired because, to their limited knowledge, they suck at their job. But unless said employee is an elected government official or someone otherwise professionally engaged by the will of the people, that’s MY prerogative as an employer, no one else’s. Only I am privy to the decisions that led to whatever motivated the outrage, if justified. The consumer is free to take their services or buy their product elsewhere. They are not free to call for the heads of my staff.

AC_Cv19-kx02rqui7jCriticizing published work is absolutely fair, and even desirable, as it gives a corporation selling their product viable feedback (although nothing screams louder than actual sales). Lamenting the dashed possibility of something no one has read that now is going to be someone else writing a story we also don’t know anything about is, frankly, silly.

But, truly, in an ideal world, could the message going out to fans about creator changes or character appearances be better handled? Sure. Does it need to be? I’m not sure about that. Is it physically reasonable to expect it to be? Well, there are admittedly a few things that make that difficult.

One, freelancers can quit on a dime and announce it from their smartphone on the elevator ride down. Locking in a replacement team is not as quick. That DC Comics was even able to announce new creative teams for Green Lantern Corps, Red Lanterns and Action Comics later that fateful day spoke to a huge commitment on their part to rectify the situation quickly. And they needed to. Tick tock, the books have to come out.

Two, freelancers can say whatever they want online with minimal legal repercussions (although to all recent resigning freelancers’ credits, they said nearly nothing and remained exceptionally professional). Employees of a corporation cannot just say anything without it being approved by a) editorial or marketing for actual fact, b) legal or human relations for CYA in instances of employment dispute, and C) public relations for actual release. You can see a little bit of the difference in process here: finger on the tweet button versus three levels of workplace cooperation.

SM_FA12-sn35grid21And actually, saying nothing when your freelancer is maintaining exceptionally admirable professional behavior is probably BETTER than adding something to the conversation prematurely that could offend or gloss over the heat of whatever just happened. Provoking an otherwise calmed individual into saying something more than they had settled on can easily whirlwind into a situation that is completely beyond a corporation’s control. It’s about not ‘poking the bear’ and letting the dust settle so skeletons you can’t even imagine don’t get let out. But I suspect the latter sounds awfully good to a lot of online commenters. It shows when more salivating outrage is exhibited at the changing circumstance itself than disappointment for the departing creator’s lost work.

At the end of the day, we have no idea what happens behind closed doors, nor should we, because we don’t own these characters, we merely rent them from a business — not a public co-op, not a charity — a business. And business is run on dollars, believe it or not.

We’ve seen a recent slew of cancellations, some not surprising, some very disheartening. Superman Family Adventures and I, Vampire were both huge critical successes (and personal favorites), but the reality is this: they didn’t sell. The former was down to nearly 7,000 copies by its eighth issue in a market where cancellation usually results around 15,000. Expecting a company to keep floating product there clearly isn’t demand for in the market is not fair. We are the reason these books are going away — the consumer. And in a free market society, we can’t expect (nor should we want) our brands telling us what we want.

JLA'S-VIBE_Cv4_anpwvqd78d_There’s a reason Stephanie Brown, Booster Gold, and the Secret Six don’t have books right now, sadly, while Vibe and Katana do. DC already knows what those first three books sell (as all had series not two years ago) and the numbers frankly suck. None of those books were any more profitable than the books they’re looking to cancel or dramatically shift now. What they don’t know is, what will be the next Animal Man? Or Swamp Thing? What will be the next hit?

And it’s not just DC that’s trying this. Hawkeye was a significant risk for Marvel Comics. It inhabits that same beautiful mid-range spot on the charts Animal Man does because Marvel took a risk on a book whose format does not seem intuitively successful. Thus, books like Larfleeze, The Green Team and The Movement are being given a shot, all while the same fans calling for books to be more fun or different are ripping them apart in the forums pre-release. That is a significant oxymoron.

90% of critical fans, in my experience, don’t want what they verbally ask for. They want to relive exactly the same story they already loved as if they were reading it for the first time. And that is both physically impossible and still wouldn’t make the most vocal online complaints die down. Because why are you just recycling old stories, DC?

LARF_Cv1_0tqw9rke34_The bottom line is, DC Comics is trying new things because that’s what got them out of the hole they were in two years ago. And they’re also learning from Marvel, but just not in the way you’d think. They’ve seen what happens when a publisher plays it safe and just shuffles around the same — admittedly high quality — writers on books that don’t provoke controversy. Their (Marvel’s) market share didn’t change one percentage point from before and after a relaunch. And DC can’t afford to rest on their laurels. They are in a much more precarious situation from the very start. So, they bring in a HUGE influx of indie writers no one gives them sufficient credit for, after a year of taking criticism for only hiring old cronies, and they keep trying new things — trying to move that needle more than they already successfully did. It’s business, plain and simple. And it can’t be any other way if we want to keep reading these characters we love.

I don’t write this column to be mean, or petty, or superior, but to implore — if you want the comics you love to survive, buy them and get your friends to do the same. If you want better material out in the market, supporting the positive work financially and criticizing the negative work (not the men and women behind the curtain) productively is the way to make that happen. Lots of fans do this every day, and I seriously applaud them. It’s neither easy nor (sometimes) fun, but it is the way to get more of what you enjoy and recognize the reality of the process that creates those experiences we’ve all grown to adore.

And in the end, aren’t you tired of being angry about comics?



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  1. Dave Robinson said:

    Thank you…

    I’ve fallen away from so many forums because of all the entitlement and negativity… You put many of my thoughts into words.

  2. Jan Arrah said:

    My one issue with this article is it SEEMS like DC is doing poorly. It’s not.Sure DC isn’t beating Marvel anymore in the market share, but that was a rare thing to begin with. Marvel has dominated the market for a while and probably will continue to especially with their random 3.99 comics and constant double shipping. DC is still number 2 in terms of market share and last time I checked, nobody else was in the same league as DC and Marvel still.

    But what we do have (thanks partly to DC) is a stronger comic book market. A few years ago, I would have told you a My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic comic would be dead on arrival with dismal sales, but instead it’s actually ranking in the top 100 comics every month! And more indy comics are doing the same. That’s a good thing.

    DC is pushing hard to explore new properties, which I also think is a good thing. DC is using digital first to push comics that would fail almost instantly on the open market (Injustice: Gods Among Us? Arrow? Smallville Season 11? the Beyond series? Ame-Comi Girls? None of those would survive in a print only market). DC is doing a good job of being more well-rounded than Marvel which has decided to pretty much be Avengers and X-Men. That is how Marvel is getting their market share (and double shipping and near constant massive xover events).

    all in all tho, DC is not failing, it’s not going to hell. DC is getting more properties out there (some which never would have sold a few years ago or would have been Vertigo titles) as well as new writers and artists! You can complain about DC’s “old folks” writing, but there are new writers like Justin Jordan, Van Jensen, James Tynion IV, and others I’ve probably missed. Artists are becoming writers like Francis Manapul, Ethan Van Scriver, and J.H. Williams III and we have writers that are relatively new to comics like Christy Marx and China Mieville. Not to mention that DC’s new superstar writer, Scott Snyder, wasn’t exactly a well known comic writer just a few years ago. That’s a big deal compared to Marvel who is relying on the same writers they’ve had on titles for years (some decades!).

  3. Matt SantoriGriffith said:

    All true!

    Yes, I did not mean to imply DC isn’t doing well financially, and certainly better than the vocal minority online seems to believe. Sales numbers bear this out every time. I do think they need to work harder for their market share than Marvel does, but I believe it is fact that without The New 52 reboot, the comic market would not be 15% up year over year as it is right now. Many hands have contributed to that success since, but DC started the financial boom for the market.

  4. Carl Tate said:

    “And in the end, aren’t you tired of being angry about comics?”

    Yea, I am, but I’m also tired of paying exorbitant amounts of money for a piss poor product.

  5. paytonjr said:

    Well said. I’ve gotten seriously tired of my comic book nerd brethren constantly complaining and hating everything.

  6. Matt SantoriGriffith said:

    Then it’s time to stop! Part of the reason books we don’t like keep getting published is that we keep buying them. It’s all about the sales. It doesn’t matter how angry we get. If the books sell, they keep on keeping on.

  7. Molly Whipple said:

    I agree with much of what you say; however, there is one thing that still feels like a conspiracy. It’s one thing not to use charactesr like Cass and Steph if the company doesn’t feel they will be profitable enough. But to completely erase them from continuity and forbid them even showing up in guest appearances feels like something more. Sorry, but it feels like they’re telling fans of those characters to go away. Also as someone who’s favorite comics are rarely the super popular long-running series it may simply be time for me to give up if titles that are more modestly successful are a no go. I mean yes, I guess I’m one of the 10% that could read another Stars and STRIPE, first three years of Cass Bat or all of Steph Bat again. A simple coming of age and proving herself heroine who thwarts the baddies is perfectly fine for me.

  8. qnetter said:

    “It would be like someone from the public posting online that a member of my staff should be fired because, to their limited knowledge, they suck at their job. But unless said employee is an elected government official or someone otherwise professionally engaged by the will of the people, that’s MY prerogative as an employer, no one else’s.”

    Sort of.

    Anyone is free to CALL for it. I know that I have worked for companies where customers have called for the heads of their account managers — threatened to take their business elsewhere unless they were removed from the company, or at least from their account. They’ve been heard, ignored, or complied with, variously. But everyone is free to say it.

  9. Matt SantoriGriffith said:

    Well, of course everyone is free to say almost anything, at least in the United States. But does that make it reasonable? Not really. Behind the words some fans (not all of course) utter that I find so questionable is a sense of entitlement that is wholly unearned and inappropriate. Just because something CAN be said, doesn’t make it rational or desirable in adult conversation.

  10. Matt SantoriGriffith said:

    I’d argue that those characters do not currently appear because background shots or infrequent guest appearances do them a disservice, and potentially make it harder to reintroduce them later with a greater chance for success than they had pre-reboot even. James Robinson has been quoted as saying that we really only get one chance to reintroduce a character right, and rushing to repopulate the world can often lead to missed opportunities down the road. No one is telling fans to go away. What they are saying is the time will come again for these beloved characters (as it did in years past for Hawkman, the JSA, Helena Wayne, etc.), but for now, the focus is likely to be on Harper Row, Carrie Kelley, the cast of the Movement, and other kickass young women who currently populate the DCU.