Martha Thomases: Sex and Comic Book Marketing
It is a truth universally acknowledged that women in possession of disposable income must be dissuaded from buying superhero comic books.
Okay, that’s not how literature works. It’s not even supposed to be how capitalism works. According to the economic theories I understand, under capitalism, the market determines what products are offered for sale. This is not a comment on the quality of the products, but rather what the public wants. So Coca-Cola and McDonalds make a lot of money, because the public wants cheap sugar, salt and fat.
However, the least common denominator is not the only way to be a successful capitalist. There is a lot of money to be made in niche markets. For example, there are enough people who don’t like Coke for a company like Jones Soda to be successful. There is probably a restaurant in your area that isn’t a burger joint like McDonalds, but does well enough in your market.
Niche markets are even more important in the entertainment business. Sometimes the public wants to laugh, and sometimes the public wants to cry and sometimes the public wants to be scared and sometimes the public wants to think big thoughts and sometimes the public just wants adrenaline.
Which brings us back to comic books.
I can’t recall a time when there were so many different kinds of graphic stories to read. There are comics and graphic novels in all sorts of genres: for children, for non-fiction readers, for mysteries and science fiction fans, even literary fiction. There are far more different kinds of people at comic book conventions and even at comic book stores than I can remember seeing at any other time.
It would seem like a great time for a comic book publisher with deep pockets to experiment with different kinds of books. In this specific case, I’m talking about Marvel (with Disney’s bank). They’ve been doing some cool stuff, like Hawkeye, which look different from the rest of the line.
Marvel says they want to publish comics that will attract women readers, comics with strong female characters that will inspire girls to regard themselves as heroines. Characters like Spider-Woman.
Marvel hired Milo Manara, an artist best known for his erotic work, to do a variant cover for the launch of their new series. To no one’s surprise, he turned in a piece that looks not the least bit heroic. If anything, that pose reminds me of what my cat does when I scratch her hips.
There have been a lot of articles in the blogosphere about what is wrong with this cover, from the anatomy to the politics. And I find the politics appalling.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the marketing.
There is no way a woman or girl who is thinking about starting to read superhero comics is going to pick up a book with this cover. It looks like the title character is groveling. There is no threat or hint of action. Instead, the character is on her knees, wearing an outfit that looks so tight that it would give the wearer the mother of all wedgies. There are certainly women book buyers who enjoy a little bit of pain and submission in their recreational reading, but that’s not who Marvel says they’re trying to appeal to here.
I don’t fault Manara for the cover. He did what he was hired to do. I fault the person who assigned the cover to him, knowing full well what he would deliver.
When the new Spider-Woman book fails to reach women readers, Marvel will, undoubtedly, claim they tried their best, but women just don’t want to read superhero comics. We hear the same thing from the toy industry, claiming that girls only want to play with dolls and pretend to be princesses or mommies (or both).
The problem with this is that it isn’t true. If you offer girls a toy that lets them pretend to be scientists, as Lego did, stores can’t keep the kits in stock.
You might think, because capitalism, that a toy that sells out is most likely successful enough to stay in production. However, that’s not happening. It seems as if even money isn’t enough to smash gender stereotypes in corporate America.
There’s a nice little niche market there, for a strong female venture capitalist.