I’m a process geek. I love digging through in-depth analyses of how things fit together to get a better idea of what works, what doesn’t and why. I like to look for opportunities to apply best practices from one discipline to seemingly unrelated areas of endeavor. I figure that if everyone is focused on the same problem from the same general point of view and there is no obviously implemented solution, the answer may come from a different point of view. With this in mind, I paid attention to the only important part of business I really care about – where money changes hands in superhero publishing.
At a very high level, there are four moneyed relationships in the superhero publishing industry: creator/publisher, publisher/vendor, publisher/retailer and retailer/reader. With the notable exception of vendors like printers and distributors, qualitative value judgments are used to drive business decisions – literally asking themselves, “Will my customer like this?” The important take away here is that publishers are not selling to readers, they’re selling to retailers. By the same logic, creators are selling to publishers.
This is not really news – most publishing industries are built around this basic business supply chain. The whole point is to create a consistently standardized work product that can be sold on an episodic basis to an insular, fanatical audience with specific tastes. This allows the various businesses involved in the supply chain to make long-term plans based on prior performance and consumption levels.
It follows that if I want to make money in comics, I should align myself with one of those relationships and get paid. My problem is that I do not want to own and operate my own comics shop. I do not want to run my own publishing company. I do not want to print or distribute comics. I want to create comics and get paid to do so. Economically, this is a bad choice on my part, but it’s the skillset I have so I’m pretty much stuck.
If I want to make money as a creator in the superhero industry, my only financially viable option is to conform and learn to produce what the reputation of the largest publishers have taught their direct customers to expect. There is no long-term survival strategy in this conformation – under a work-for-hire contract, I would not own my work product nor would I have any employee benefits like healthcare, paid vacations or a retirement plan.
If this were the entirety of the comics market, I would be deeply discouraged. Fortunately, it’s only the superhero market. There are other, less focused, comics markets in the English-speaking world, but they generally don’t have the clout or serious financial leverage that comes with media conglomerate participation. Black swan outliers have risen up through these channels and found mass audiences, but not with any kind of regularity or predictability. And the mass market success of these works has not significantly dented public perceptions of whether comics are a legitimate and/or worthwhile entertainment source. It’s almost as if the audience has enjoyed the work despite the medium, not because of it.
One of the things I realized as I was digging into the business practices of the superhero industry is exactly how much ambiguous terminology is floating around. For example, everyone talks about the comics industry, but it should more properly referred to as the superhero industry. Comics are the medium and superheroes are the predominant genre in that medium – a genre that makes enough money to support an entire supply chain.
Together, “despite the medium” and terminological ambiguity draw attention to the fact that there is a perception problem surrounding comics among mass audiences. This epicenter of this perception problem is the notion that comics are a genre, specifically the superhero genre. It is natural to refer to this as the superhero problem within the English-speaking comics marketplace. (The fact that many people read “the superhero problem” as “the problem with superheroes” speaks volumes about inherent defensive biases. It also reveals those who are focused more on the content than the business.)
Superheroes are a genre, alongside perennial greats like Heroes, Adventure, Detective Novels, Heroic Fantasy, Drama, Humor, Historical, Biography, Science Fiction, Reporting, Social Critique, Adaptation and Erotic. Uniquely, superheroes grew up with the industrialization of comics production in the English-speaking world and the two concepts have become tied at the hip in mainstream perception. When English-speakers say “comics,” the word “superhero” is understood. It is an unconscious, un-uttered modifier that shapes (and reveals) popular attitudes about both comics and superheroes – and the ongoing confusion of the two discrete concepts.
It is my contention that everyone who knows he is interested in reading superheroes and has the means to pursue that interest is probably actively doing so right now. To the average man on the street, that sentence reads exactly the same if the words “superheroes” and “comics” are swapped out. It is easy to scoff at the juxtaposition – not all comics contain superheroes! – and completely miss the point. That potential customer has consciously excluded comics as a viable entertainment source – largely due to a regrettable distaste for superheroes.
(It would be easy to quibble about the exact path that things have taken to get to this point. For example, some would point out that the potential audience is not interested in superheroes because they consider the genre to be for children, but the result is the same. Comics = “not for me.” The disparity of motivations offers potential avenues of exploration, but don’t actually move the conversation forward.)
It would be easy to say that the mass audience isn’t familiar with any comics content but superheroes, but that’s just not true. When the Pentagon needed an easy and effective way to educate soldiers about the proper care and maintenance of the newly issued M-16 rifle, they turned to comics. Comics have been used to teach people to read and they are also used to tell people what to do in the event of a crash landing. They can be found on editorial pages, in The New Yorker, in Playboy and on desk calendars. In short, comics are found and accepted everywhere. To the mass audience, however, those examples of the medium aren’t comics as they have come to understand them. Comics = superheroes and that’s as far as it goes.
This theory is easily disproved. It is entirely possible that the general public knows that comics has a wide variety of genre choices to pick from but has chosen to pretend ignorance en masse. Go into any Starbucks and ask anyone what one thing they associate with comic books. For bonus points, ask them to name 5 movies based on non-superhero comics properties since 1960.
As an aggregate international medium, artform and industrialized business, comics does not have a problem that needs to be fixed. Unlike superheroes (a trademark co-owned by Marvel and DC), comics has no owner. Unless you are a client of the CBLDF, there is no person or group or anthropomorphized entity that dictates what you can or should produce. Comics are a medium that has as much or as little potential as the creator wants it to have.
Making money creating comics in the English-speaking world, on the other hand, is a problem. The status quo of the Direct Market is stacked against creators who want to do something new and different – especially if that something is “anything but superheroes.” It is an innate restriction of the marketplace that has taken on the status of an institution, with all of the inherent resistance to change that designation implies.
From the perspective of those with the money, there is no reason to alter their business practices to suit the desires of no-name creators who don’t want to buy into every aspect of the system. Simply put, there is absolutely no incentive to change, financial or otherwise. In fact, change runs counter to the vested interests of superhero publishers and the media conglomerates that own them. After all, the industrialized distribution and retail supply chains that exist have been optimized to their benefit. And the habitual print-buying power of aging baby boomers will hold out for another decade – or at least as long as their hearts hold out.
For someone like me, on the outside looking in, the fact that the two largest publishers are exclusively focused on a single genre is not necessarily a bad thing. They have cultivated a limited audience and distorted the perception of the medium in the process, which I will have to correct for as I make and execute marketing plans. But the remainder of the audience – the mass audience, if you will – is largely untouched, unconsidered and unaddressed.
English language comics ceased to be a mass medium when they were no longer mass marketed to a mass audience. As the distribution methodology shifted from newsstand to specialty stores, the marketing shifted as well. Relieved of the requirement to entice anyone who walks by to pick up a book from a general-interest newsstand, the publishers found themselves in possession of a captive audience who showed up in a consistent location every week like clockwork. In this environment, retailers did not have to worry about significant business development efforts that cost money for marginal ROI because the publishers did the advertising for them.
In fact, it has gotten to the point where retailers market almost entirely by medium – putting up a sign that says “Comics” is like putting up a sign that says “Liquor” and not at all like putting up a sign that says “DVDs.” Those that are already interested will show up regardless, but the vast majority of the audience has reflexively removed the business from their list of places to go for a casual browse. The discontinuation of mass advertising combined with the rise of specialty stores are gateway drugs to a niche market.
Over time, the default comics market has become synonymous with the superhero market and the comics audience has become synonymous with the superhero audience. As a result, marketing a comic made for any other kind of audience has become problematic. For example, something as simple as word order will determine who reads a solicitation for a commercially viable venture. “A comic about gay porn” will attract (and repulse) a radically different demographic than “gay porn comics.”
For those of us who have identified the audience and demographic that we are attempting to create comics for, this is a fundamental problem that has yet to be consistently addressed. In fact, not everyone in the current comics market is entirely convinced that this is a problem. After all, the major publishers are making money. Retailers are making money (barely). The only people not making money are those foolish enough to try selling meat to vegans.
Some would even point out that graphic novels were placed in major bookstores to mixed results, at best. If those kinds of venue placement were not able to change buying habits, what’s the point? This would be a valid argument if a mass marketing campaign had accompanied the placement, alerting mass market audiences to the fact that literary comics were in their midst. If that campaign was executed, I missed it. Placing comics in a special section (often next to the science fiction and gaming books, genres which have their own niche issues) didn’t help.
If making money creating non-superhero comics is the problem and the wholesale popular association of comics and superheroes through the law of unintended consequences is the root cause, what is the solution? Is there a solution? Lean Six Sigma teaches that “if the problem is x, the solution must by x as well.” If the problem is recontextualized into “poor marketing has confused the audience into thinking that comics are a genre,” the solution should be to “educate the public about genre diversity through marketing.”
When designing systems from the ground up, it is often tempting to emulate existing infrastructures without thinking through the implications, strengths and weaknesses of doing so. It is worthwhile to understand what practices are in place due to pre-existing limitations that no longer exist, for example. There is not often time to engage in hardcore business process re-engineering when things are growing organically. But if you are going to radically redesign something, it is worthwhile to put the entire ass into the effort – never do something half-assed unless you have absolutely no time and no choice.
For example, as creators started to produce work that did not necessarily go through established superhero publishers, they emulated the format, marketing and distribution of those companies on the theory that these business practices worked for the superhero industry and should therefore have universal utility. This attitude ignores the fact that regular publication in an episodic format requires a robust business infrastructure – which most creators don’t have. It also ignores that superhero publishers direct their marketing material at a niche audience that they have spent decades carefully cultivating.
Finally, it ignores that the retailers are almost entirely focused on servicing the needs of that niche market to the exclusion of almost everyone else. More importantly, the stereotype of a standard comic book store has been burned into the mass imagination, causing a large part of the aversion to the comic book medium. Most people cannot imagine entering a comic book store to browse simply because of what is not only a stereotype, but a stereotype that is poorly defended.
To be sure, there are comic book stores that are bright and airy and present a generous amount of entertainment options for any person who walks through the door, regardless of skin color, gender or religious background. In other words, retailers who understand the concept of genres. Who understand that a store should be open and inviting, to encourage browsing. Whose primary customer base is probably still superhero readers or people who grew up reading superheroes and shake their heads a lot – because the mass audience isn’t inclined to go into a comic book store by reflex.
To this point, I’ve noticed that even retailers who get the whole concept of multiple genres are not always making a visible attempt to actively educate the mass audience about the diversity of product in their stores, which would be a logical next step of any basic business development plan for a retail establishment with a broad potential audience. It’s possible that I haven’t seen it because most retailers would naturally focus educational mass marketing campaigns at the people within walking distance of their stores because that’s whose business they care about first and foremost.
The first question that any decent business analyst will ask a would-be businessman is “what is your audience?” Keeping in mind that most creative types are not notorious for their business acumen, most comics creators that want to make “anything but superhero comics” do not seem to have ever considered this question. If pressed, most creators would give the default answer – “people who read comics.” Due to the previously-identified terminology ambiguity, this could mean “people who read superhero comics” or something analogous to “people who watch movies.” Publishers and agents generally work better with a slightly higher level of precision.
There is no good reason why a creator producing work for any audience that is not 18-50 year old white males (the core superhero demographic) should attempt to emulate the business practices and/or the infrastructure of superhero publishers with no modification whatsoever. Any activity that results in selling work to any audience that is not the stated target audience of that work has a low probability of financial success.
In my day job, we often say “trust but verify.” After all, publishing often boils down to risk management; risk mitigation often involves looking for precedents and validation before embarking on radical business plans. It’s easy to understand why you’d want to validate that the radical business plan of “expand readership demographics by explaining that there are other genres, through marketing” might produce a positive result. An international profitable comics industry that features a diversity of genre in a healthy market would probably be very helpful for the purposes of contrast and comparison.
As it turns out, the French comics market (not manga – that horse is too easy to stalk) offers very good precedents and general business practices. It would be easy to dismissively point to the cultural differences between England and France as a reason not to pay attention to this alternative; after all, Normandy has not been part of England for 800 years. This is easily countered by pointing out that the shared cultural history of the two peoples goes back 1200 years before that.
When I went to Angouleme, I picked up a copy of Marianne – a mainstream literary magazine – that was running a special about Bandes Dessinees (BD) in honor of the festival. It listed 13 distinct genres and gave recommendations for each category. My wife pointed out that there was no demographic among the festival attendees. There were school groups, families, adults without children, seniors and students. All ages, all walks of life.
BD is a mass medium because it is treated like a mass medium. Specialty shops exist, but are treated like any other general-interest bookstore. Plus, the Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysees has an entire floor dedicated to BD, which is more than I can say for the Virgin Megastore I visited in London.
The lesson I learned from exposure to a different market is that “it doesn’t have to be this way.” Superheroes do not have to be the only genre or the only industry in the market; or even the only market – horror and romance are completely different markets and are treated very differently by their producers, publishers and distributors. Statistically speaking, there are probably other audiences that have no idea what comics have to offer because nobody has bothered to correct their pre-conceived notions.
The knowledge of other genres is taken for granted among those of us whose tastes have transcended the base realm of superhero product in favor of hand-crafted artisanal limited editions and English translations of mainstream BD. We’ve been preaching the message of diversity for years to the superhero fans in an attempt to challenge their palate. The new message is exactly the same, but the audience is everyone else for a completely different reason. The new audience has to get past reflexive distaste where the superhero reader had to get past reflexive fanaticism. In fact, superhero fans are probably tired of the agitation and would be happy if we ignored them for a bit. It’s easier to explain why this is a bad idea than to actually take the risk, but that’s why people who have nothing to lose and everything to gain traditionally do this sort of thing.
History has proven that is entirely possible for dedicated, driven individuals to create an entire business infrastructure from whole cloth in a relatively short period of time. Usually, this involves the creation of a business case, actual market research and innovative advertising. (In the case of non-superhero comics, advertising directed at any audience but the superhero audience counts as innovative.)
Discontent has often proven a good fuel for these kinds of endeavors. Consider: if there was not such a visceral reaction to industrial superhero comics product, there would not be so many people who have said to themselves “I could do better than that.” The desire to exploit a blind spot can also be a strong motivator. Whatever works.
And those people who make their money on superheroes? They will continue to do so, unconcerned by creators seeking other audiences. After all, the point is that superheroes are aimed at a select audience that more often than not doesn’t necessarily overlap with the target audience of the diverse material currently available. Educating a different audience through marketing should not change that status quo. The sleeping giant can continue to slumber, undisturbed. Really, this isn’t actually about the giant – it’s about dealing with the shadow he creates.