Martha Thomases: Comic Books For Everyone!

Silvestri Batman

There was a disturbance in the Force this weekend as DC announced that they were, once again, relaunching their entire line … sort of.

On the one hand, I’m sick of this. It might work as a publicity stunt for a few months, but, in and of itself it doesn’t necessarily attract new readers. On the other hand, what else can they do?

Just a few days before, my pal Val D’Orazio posted some interesting opinions about the comic book market. She looks at distribution and promotion and demographics and all the other elements that have been part of our discussions about comics since at least the 1970s.

In case you’re new to this, let me try to sum it up (which will, by necessity, over-simplify things). The emergence of the direct market allowed comics to go from a mass medium to a more sharply focused (and therefore, more profitable) business. There were risks (for example, speculation) but there were benefits (cheaper cost of entry allowed more experimentation). For a glorious few years, all kinds of books were offered from all kinds of new publishers, although Marvel and DC continued to dominate. The market grew to include graphic novels, thus entering the mass market again via bookstores. Recently, digital distribution makes it easier for new demographic segments to inexpensively sample titles without having to go to comic book specialty stores.

Or, to quote Val, “In particular, there is going to be a big market for diverse, relevant, young adult serialized content; that is where a lot of the best “new ideas” in comics will be coming from, the sorts of ideas that get optioned for movies and TV.”

Please note: When she says “young adult,” she is referring to that segment of the book publishing business that includes Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Divergent and the like. It’s a marketing term, not a judgment call. In other words, what is currently one of the most profitable areas.

How does the current publishing model fit with future? Not very well.

I love going to the comic book store on Wednesday. Really. Even in the snow. I like to pick up a pile of overpriced (in terms of cost per minute of entertainment) paper pamphlets and read them over lunch, or over an afternoon. However, I’m someone who has been doing this for nearly 60 years. I’m certainly not the cool, young market that advertisers and publishers want.

And even though I’ve been reading comics for such a long time, I have trouble keeping continuity together. If I was a young person today, I would find the whole thing to convoluted to bother.

DC seems to think the solution is to start from scratch so everyone has a chance to get in on the ground floor. I get it. The New 52 worked pretty well for them, at least commercially.

Unfortunately, they seem to miss what I consider to be the point: they bog down their new continuity with old continuity. And they seem to think that on talent that might be well known within the comics industry will be a selling point to new readers from outside the market.

I like Scott Snyder’s writing very much, and those Marc Silvestri pages are gorgeous. I don’t mean to say those men are not talented, but that they are not known to people who don’t already read comics.

At the same time, a lot of current readers are turned off to buying current comics book series because they don’t like stories that are “written for the trade,” that is, stories that are planned for collections, not for individual issues. This is understandable. If one spends three or four dollars (or more) on a comic book, one would like to get a story.

And a lot of people who like comic book characters (like the Flash, or Agent Carter, or Lucifer, or Batman or the Avengers or Your Favorite Here) are intimidated by comic book stores. All they know is what they see on The Simpsons or The Big Bang Theory. They might enjoy comics, but they need a safe way to sample them.

Even though I’m not a huge fan of reading comics online (I think I’ll like it better if I get the bigger iPad), I think the Interwebs offer a solution. A lot of the expense of publishing comics comes from buying paper, printing, and shipping. By promoting and publishing all kinds of comics online, publishers can attract new readers more inexpensively than with paper, and save hard-copy publishing for the more popular titles.

For example, I’m an old fart who would very much enjoy reading the occasional adventures of the Legion of Super-Pets and their romps through space. I would also like more “realistic” stories, like the procedurals in Gotham Central and Resident Alien. I’d gladly pay a few bucks for the chance, especially if, as Val suggests, there is some kind of Netflix like structure that lets me binge at will.

I haven’t figured out the economics yet, but everyone involved should get paid at least a living wage – not just the creative talent but editors, lawyers, and so on.

If you want to see comics that feature people of color, or queer people, or more women, there can be comics for you. If you want to see the (mostly) all-white comics of the past, there can be comics for you.

Just as having more channels on television has brought more good shows, having more channels for comics should bring more good comics.