Thursday, December 2, 2010

This is What's Wrong With The Comics Industry

Dark Horse announced that they are going to start making comics of the critically acclaimed Avatar the Last Airbender cartoon.

This is what's wrong with the comics industry. Who on earth is the audience for this comic? I'm sure whoever pitched this made it sound great. "We'll take one of the most popular kids shows ever and make it into a comic book. Surely the little rascals will snap it up in droves." But is there any evidence to prove that's the case? It assumes kids: a) knowing about the comic, b) caring to read an adaptation of a story they've already watched, and c) convincing their parents that the comic is a worthwhile investment.

A) won't happen because this comic, like so many before it, will be solely talked about on comic book websites which are predominantly read by people like me- people who are not kids and are too old to be this comic's target audience. B) won't happen because how often does anyone ever want to read the book adaptation of a movie/tv show/video game/etc? Sure, these adaptations sell a few copies based on the name brand recognition, but I can probably count the number of people I know who read the novelization of the last Iron Man movie on a single finger. C) won't happen because comics are expensive and hard to find. While your average Borders may carry a few, kids would also have to convince their folks to spend $3 on a slim 22 page floppy that is part 1 of whatever.

So who's the target audience for the Avatar comic? There isn't one. This comic will almost certainly come out as a 6 part mini-series, not sell well, and never be heard from ever again.

The Avatar comic is representative of the largest problem facing the comic book industry- oversaturation caused by a complete lack of awareness of who their target audience is. One need look no further than what is currently going on with both Thor and Captain America. In anticipation of the movies coming out next year, Marvel is in the process of launching a seemingly infinite number of series, mini-series, and one-shots featuring these characters, with the though being that by the time the movie comes out there will be numerous books for movie goers who are inspired to read the comics to seek out. (I won't even bother going into how ridiculous this idea is).

I'm going to pick on Thor because he's my favorite character, but you could insert a near infinite number of characters into the following conversation and it would play out the same.

So imagine that some random movie goer comes out of the Thor movie really amped up and desperate to plunk down some cash for a Thor comic book, which do you tell him to read? Thor? Mighty Thor? Ultimate Thor? Astonishing Thor? Thor For Asgard? Or one of the other half a dozen or so related books coming out each month (ranging all the way from Loki to the Warrior's Three)?

For a relatively long time (in comic terms at least) there was no target audience for a Thor comic book at all. Thor was killed in spectacular fashion in 2004 and actually stayed dead until 2008. There were few, if any, Thor comics published during that time. Prior to that there had been a single Thor comic that didn't sell spectacularly well. After putting out nearly a hundred issues it became clear that there was, at least at that point, not a very large target audience for Thor, and the publisher rightfully responded in kind by cancelling the book.

Now with a movie coming out, the decision has been made to print as many Thor comics as possible without any thought as to who the target audience for these comics is or memory of the dark days of not too long ago where Marvel couldn't pay people to read Thor comics. The basic idea of supply and demand is being completely bypassed at the expense of both quality and readership. While in an economically perfect world Marvel would publish a single Thor comic, and then perhaps publish a second when demand became apparent for it, and maybe even a third should demand rise more (as happened when the original Tim Burton Batman movie came out over two decades ago), here Marvel is not responding to any kind of demand when they're publishing all these Thor comics. They're not addressing a particular customer segment who wishes there was a certain kind of Thor comic not already on the market- instead they're simply taking advantage of idiot fanboys who can't miss an issue and an ordering system that ridiculously does not allow retailers to return stock.

This has two obvious effects. First, quality goes down. The more books you publish, the more talent you need In any industry, there are only a select handful of people who are able to perform at the highest level, whether that's pitchers who can throw 100mph fastballs or comic book artists who draw beautiful 22 page books every month. Even these elite people are not machines, and their consistency cannot be relied upon 100%. It should seem obvious then that at some point if you continue to publish more and more comics, you're going to run out of top level talent and/or you're top level talent will be more likely to misfire. At some point you're going to have to bring some people "up from the minors" who aren't quite ready and/or suffer through the slumps of your top tier talent.

The second effect is a loss in readership. The reason for the loss in readership is two fold. First, readers don't like the aforementioned dip in quality described above and will stop reading titles as a result. Second, too many comics coming out each month is a fundamentally bad thing. New readers may get scared off by the sheer number of choices. Old readers (myself included) become annoyed at needing to buy an ever increasing number of books to keep up with the goings on of their favorite character. Annoyed and scared customers are the right market for Hazmat suits, not comic books. If an industry had to default to either making me wish there were more Thor comic books or making me wish there were less, wouldn't reason dictate that you should err on the side of too few? Sure, there are short term gains to be made from pinching every penny out of a hot character, but this is surely not a viable long term business model.

Listen- it's there business to do with as they please. But they're clearly running it into the ground. We need an Avatar comic about as much as we need another Thor comic. The best way to sum this all up is to provide a bit of perspective. Prior to the first Tim Burton movie, there were only 2 Batman comic books published each month, now there are almost 30. As recently as 10 years ago, there was only a single regularly published Avengers book, now there are at least 5. Last month there were over a dozen Thor comics published. Deadpool, a character who most non-comic book readers have probably never even heard of, has 4 monthly comic books being published along with several other mini-series. At one point it seemed like the Quesada regime got it. When they first took over Marvel, they notoriously cancelled tons of books and demanded that each book they published needed to have a distinct purpose and identity. Years later, this mentality is gone.

The solution is simple. Comic book companies need to start from scratch. Focus on putting one Thor comic book of the highest quality out each month. (Save for Ultimate Thor, I'm not sure there even is one at the moment). From there, when demand gets strong enough come out with a second one. Or if there is a particular segment of the market that is going unfulfilled, create a Thor comic book that can respond accordingly.


I've been ruminating a bit on this and realized that there are great examples of the comic book industry finding a target audience for a book before publishing it and actually meeting with great success.

For some time, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics floundered due to oversaturation and a lack of direction. How many people really wanted to read a side story about Drusilla? (Especially one that read more like fan fiction than an actual stand alone work). So Dark Horse cancelled all of the Buffy books, let them rest for a bit, and then relaunched with a book there actually was demand for- Buffy Season 8. While I think sales and enthusiasm has waned a bit for the series as its gone on, when it was first published it was big news. (My non-comic book reading Dad who loved the show even went out and bought a few issues). This was a great example of finding an actual target audience, people who liked Buffy and wanted to see what happened next to the Scoobies, and making a product that specifically catered to that target audience in a way no other book on the stands does.

The same can't be said for the glut of Thor books currently on the market. There are plenty of books where Thor hits things with his hammer. Even if there weren't Thor comics, there are plenty of comics where other mythological characters hit things. Comic companies need to work harder to figure out what sets each individual book apart and then playing to that strength, and there are tons of ways to do it- even with characters like Thor.