Robot 6

Catching up from the long weekend: WSJ’s superhero smackdown

The article everyone was talking — and tweeting — about this weekend was Tim Marchman’s scathing critique of superhero comics, which purported to be a review of Christopher Irving and Seth Kushner’s new book Leaping Tall Buildings but in fact barely mentioned the book and went straight to a critique of the comics industry. Marchman starts by pointing out that despite the popularity of The Avengers movie, sales of superhero comics are far below their 1990s levels:

If no cultural barrier prevents a public that clearly loves its superheroes from picking up a new Avengers comic, why don’t more people do so? The main reasons are obvious: It is for sale not in a real bookstore but in a specialty shop, and it is clumsily drawn, poorly written and incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in years of arcane mythology.

There’s a lot more, though, and the piece is well worth a read, whether you agree with it or not. Reaction seems to be mixed in the comics blogosphere so far — I would say everyone finds something to disagree with, but there are a lot of attaboys as well. Todd Allen posts excerpts from the column at The Beat, along with some tweets between Marchman and readers.

At Comic Book Movie, Josh Epstein responds, “The audience has not gone away; it has simply diversified its holdings,” and he points to the increasing popularity of creator-owned comics. He also defends the quality of the current superhero creators, noting, “While the best super-hero titles may no longer be restricted to one or two massive companies, creators who made their bones on the independent market are doing beautiful work and pushing characters and concepts into heretofore unexplored realms.” Jonathan Shepherd also has a lengthy response at his site.

Several creators and insiders weighed in on Twitter: Ron Marz called the piece “very perceptive,” and former DC and Marvel staffer Ron Perazza (who is currently with comiXology) termed it “fantastic and insightful.” And Dustin Harbin, no stranger to scathing commentary himself, called it “bruising.” Watch for more commentary today as people get back to work and turn on their computers.

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“At Comic Book Movie, Josh Epstein responds, “The audience has not gone away; it has simply diversified its holdings,” and he points to the increasing popularity of creator-owned comics.”

Creator-owned comics also sold better 20 years ago than they do now: see sales from the early ’90s of any of the early Image titles, Hellboy, Sin City, etc. Yeah, there are isolated success stories today (Walking Dead, Scott Pilgrim, Saga, Chew, etc.), but they’re the exception, not the rule…and even given that, I don’t know that the first trade of Walking Dead has sold as much as the first 5 issues of Spawn did. As seen here (http://www.comichron.com/yearlycomicssales.html), unit sales across the board are still waaay down from even 1997, and comics weren’t selling nearly as well in 1997 as they were 4-5 years earlier.

When Marchman complains about the “industry” he seems to be largely talking about problems created by Marvel and DC. Epstein’s comments about the best creators going elsewhere to do new work and Marvel and DC treating these authorial efforts as just a “farm team” to find creators to prop up their stupid events and IP seems to actually support Marchman’s critique about squandered opportunities. The idea that a successful author should consider work for hire on decades old children’s characters as the major leagues says it all.

“sales of superhero comics are far below their 1990s levels” Thats funny. I recently bought Jack Kirbys Spirit World book and in it Mark Evanier writes that even in the 70s “there was a time when the folks running comic book companies fretted openly about whether there’d even be an industry in 5 to 10 years”

Honestly, I feel this is a totally one-sided bit of comics criticism that ignores large swathes of positive signs in the industry. Tim has chosen his points of comparison carefully to create his argument. There’s a hell of a lot to be excited about in the comics business today compared to a year or two years ago. There is growth in the industry once again. It may be slow, but it should not be ignored just to support an article POV.

Was there ever a year where sales dropped drastically? It seems like a hell of a lot of people stopped reading comics over the course of a few years. They can’t all have been speculators, surely?!

Might be interesting to take a look at when and perhaps why people stopped reading. I’m sure a lot of them moved to trades, particularly the Vertigo audience.

This Marchman guy makes good points and anyone feeling super-defensive about it likely agrees with him deep down but is living in pretty heavy denial.

Todd, I hate to say it… but your “scathing rebuttal” is a terrible piece of writing that does more to prove Marchman’s points than refute them.

Is the quality of writing really debatable? You get some good books but by in large I know I would never pay for some of the crap I do if I didn’t have an obsession

It’s vitriol against Big Two superheroes, so of course it wins by default the praise of certain independent creators and bloggers, but it’s a shame, because the writers’ points are largely nonsequiturs and claims that can be readily disproven.

For example, the excerpt cites the fact that Avengers is not for sale in a real bookstore as a main deterrent to mass consumption of the comic. But of course this is false, as many popular book chains have a whole shelf dedicated to the Avengers in trade format, which should be more accessible to bookstore shoppers. Will sales on these trades spike into the stratosphere now that a hundred million people have seen the Avengers movie? I don’t know, did sales of Matt Fraction’s Iron Man trades, a comic designed to integrate the movie mythos into the MU, see a meteoric rise when Farveau’s film was doing gangbusters?

I’ve been pretty harsh myself on the Big Two recently, but Marchman’s points seem to boil down to “If they did the heroes the way I like, everybody would buy them,” which unfortunately isn’t true. If you look at the superhero books that have good penetration outside of the LCS crowd, many of them are “poorly written” (Batman: Hush) and “steeped in arcane mythology” (Johns comics). (As an aside, my own belief, as well as my personal experience, is that “arcane mythology” actually draws people into superheroes, and only later becomes something they find tiresome).

I don’t think the specific content of the comics is the barrier; my guess is that it’s the lingering stigma of the medium and that genre in the medium in particular. Going to see an action movie with your bros is not the same as having a stack of Supermans next to your bed, and besides, most moviegoers (most people) don’t read fiction in the first place.

As Jason invoked my numbers, it is worthwhile to note that while the unit sales of periodicals are down from 15 years ago (but up versus 10 years ago) the unit sales of trade paperbacks have drastically increased over 15 years ago. The comics stories are still reaching people.

It also becomes tricky to go too far back into the 1990s when looking at sales figures — remember, these were all numbers of copies that retailers ordered. Many of them never reached a reader, and many readers were buying multiple copies. So it’s difficult to draw direct comparisons in terms of reach.

JJM: Good points. I feel the fact that Tim ignored the growth in the industry over the last year shows he went in to writing this with a specific idea, but those ideas aren’t supported entirely by facts and I worry the mainstream will take it as gospel. The industry still does need to grow and do more outreach, but it’s not being characterized accurately in that piece.

I wonder how the Wall Street Journal’s circulation in 1992 compares to its circulation today.

What jb said above!

“WSJ is actually selling more than it used to, not that that has anything to do with anything.” -Tim Marchman via Twitter

And via Wikipedia: “The Journal is the largest newspaper in the United States, by circulation. According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, it has a circulation of 2.1 million copies (including 400,000 online paid subscriptions), as of March 2010″

And from the citation on the Wiki page:

“Compared with a year ago, The Wall Street Journal was up 0.5 percent, the only newspaper among the 25 largest to experience a weekday increase. (It does not publish on Sunday.) “

Actually that second bit doesn’t really address the specific question since it is a year rather than a long view. But the article points out that the WSJ was actually doing quite well compared to other newspapers.

Marchman is right! I have a hard time disagreeing with him on any one point, especially the assertion that comics have every right to be more popular and culturally significant than they are now but cant because of the ever-constant trifecta of obsession with superheroes to the exclusion of everything else, writing that caters to an existing fanbase and, most crucially, a distribution system that makes buying the damn things somewhere between impossible and unpalatable for 99.9999% of society. This last point in particular Ive been making for years and hoping that digital distribution goes a long way in changing things (we will see) but fanboys seem to cling to the local comics shop and direct market even as its been problematic for decades now. Do you need sources outside comics to confirm and validate the writing on the wall? If so, good for Marchman. I hope people pay attention.

Even if you disagree, its good to have journalists on the outside looking in to comment on things. There are cries of “Ah, what does he know?” but there’s nothing healthy about an artistic medium whose only critical voices are fans that want to write the stuff they’re commenting on and journalists lashing out at the first group. Even the mediums most respectable source of insight is biased and partisan… the whole scene is too incestuous and close-knit so it was refreshing reading this article and getting a little objectivity.

“This Marchman guy makes good points and anyone feeling super-defensive about it likely agrees with him deep down but is living in pretty heavy denial.”
– Red Comet

I agree. Its amazing how often constructive criticism is met with hostility, even when its presenting a truth you could scarcely begin to argue. I mean, look at how they demonized Mark Waid for having the audacity to suggest we’re wrong for not having properly introduced comics to the Internet.

Marchman has some valid points, but presents them in a snippy, catty way. Even the stuff I agree with I don’t want to agree with him, because he sounds like such an unpleasant jerk.

On the other hand, comics fans are more used to “Yay! Go, team comics!” puff articles. A piece presenting more unpleasant truths is going to be harder to swallow.

John Jackson Miller is spot on with his observation of simply taking sales figures at face value — how many of those huge record-breaking books from the 90s boom are now either sitting in bargain bins at retailers or in fans’ longboxes, unread? Back then trades were a rarity, too, you couldn’t count on skipping a book and being able to pick up an affordable collected edition a few months later instead of paying through the nose for individual back issues and the hassle of tracking them down.

What’s holding comics as a medium back isn’t necessarily the content — there’s probably more quality material out there now than there ever has been, in any given genre — but the outdated business models. Comics need to be more affordable and more accessible and fans need to be given immediate options of how they want to purchase material — as individual floppies every month, with some sort of unique bonus materials, as collected editions in either hard or softcover, with again, different bells and whistles, (or lack thereof), or digital downloads — which could be cheaper and subsidized as such by targeted advertising. If you don’t want the ads, buy the paper version and pay more. We’re a society that’s increasingly about immediate gratification and there’s so many entertainment options to distract us that asking consumers to be patient and wait just doesn’t make sense. If you’re running a business and you’ve got a large crowd of potential customers with cash in hand, do you really want them to wait in line and give them time to rethink the purchase or get bored waiting and wander off to spend that cash somewhere else?

Many comics are ‘written for the trade’ anyway, creatively formulated to be ideally consumed in one larger chunk, and doling them out in a serialized monthly format is fine as an option, but for established creators, why not just put the trade out alongside the first individual chapter? Just cut to the chase and not make people wait half a year to get the whole story. Yeah, the alpha fans who are hooked on the floppies will go out and generate buzz and probably get larger numbers for the eventual collected edition than if it were sold as an ‘original’ all-the-story-at-once graphic novel.

It’s not really the idea that people don’t read, per se — comics can far more easily cross the bridge to appeal to a movie or TV audience than straight prose can. It’s that they can be an expensive pain in the ass to someone who is used to getting what they want when they want it. The powers-that-be are dictating the rules rather than adapting to what the consumers want or need. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to it, but it’s pretty simple business acumen that you’ve got content to sell and multiple audiences who will respond to certain formats and price points and levels of convience, so adapt to that instead of using an outdated model of relying too heavily on offering a product only through specialty retail outlets serviced by a monopolistic distribution system that requires orders be placed months in advance and takes a large chunk of profit for simply collecting orders and arranging for shipping. That worked fine twenty years ago, but it’s a whole different world out there now.

It’s a poorly made argument to use sales figures between the 90s and now as an example. If people believed turnips would make them hundreds of thousands or more in the 90s, I guarantee you’d see a steep dropoff in turnip sales the second people realized it didn’t matter. Also, I think “poorly written” is debatable in terms of the goals of the work, the strictures of the medium, and the audience to be addressed. Finally, I find it telling that he interchangeably uses “cartoonist,” a term which conflates comics with cartoons – animation – which is undeniably a word which as the stigma of being “kiddy.”

However, I do have to agree with the “Arcane Mythology” issue, however. If comic companies were more forthcoming about putting endings to their stories, it would solve the “Arcane Mythology” issue. No one wants to see their characters die, but I’ve always believed the logical step is legacy characters, rather than reboots. Or at least doing the alternate universe shuffle to allow for clean breaks to be performed with a character’s history.

In all, the article seems mean-spirited at heart, and smacks of an elitist literary critic gleefully placing those dreadful funnybooks in their place, elevating those wonderful ‘realistic’ indie comics so as to show us what real literature might look like with the ‘cartoon lens’ on. I agree with the above poster that it has definite truths in it, but they are presented in such a way as to appear disagreeable on purpose (in part due to the seemingly willful ignorance of terms and industry conditions.)

The “elitist” or indie snob response that I see popping up seems like the standard reflexive defensive ad hominem that I very frequently witness whenever someone has the temerity to suggest that there might be much better comics than what Marvel and DC are publishing. If you make a qualitative judgement that includes criticism of A but then praises B and A happens to be corporate super hero books then you are quickly hit with the snob ad hominem, attacking you rather than your critical opinion. Never mind that he praises Walking Dead or argues that the super hero genre should be more popular in comics if it were handled better. Or his praising books like Prophet elsewhere as an example of good imaginative genre comics.

When he praises Ware and his peers he is highlighting the irony of artists dealing intelligently and skillfully with real world themes being labeled as underground or alternative. It’s a valid point. I know a few people who aren’t elitists or anything more than casual comic readers who find books like Persepolis, Maus, Epipleptic, and Love and Rockets much more interesting and accessible than what is labeled “mainstream” in the world of comics. He’s trying to highlight the insularity of the comics industry how critics and creators who challenge that insularity are marginalized and how that ends up self-sabotaging efforts to grow. Companies like DC and Marvel may desire a bigger audience but they are unwilling to make the reforms necessary to achieve it. They want to maintain the culture that has allowed them to dominate the direct market but it is exactly the culture that Marchman feels has stunted the medium’s growth.

@Sureiachan, There is nothing remarkable about using the word “cartoonist.” They are cartoonists. This is what most of them call themselves and it is a pretty accepted term among graphic novelists, political cartoonists, comic strip creators, and animators because these are all mediums that generally employ codified iconic visual abstractions commonly known as cartoons.

I said this on the Beat, but here it goes:

“I don’t know if this has been said before but “normal” people do read superhero comics, even DC and Marvel ones – they go to the library and borrow collections of like, Ultimate Spider-Man or a Batman comic from the 80s or whatever. They aren’t going down to the comic shop every week, but that doesn’t mean that the “somebody’s dad” demographic absolutely hates superhero comics.”

Also I’m totally with Gerry. Look, I absolutely LOVE science fiction, fantasy, mystery, crime and so forth but I have no problem with them being “non-mainstream” genres in prose book publishing. The same should apply to comics.

@Mike Leonard:
You say, “What’s holding comics as a medium back isn’t necessarily the content — there’s probably more quality material out there now than there ever has been, in any given genre — but the outdated business models…”

-EeeeYeeeah: thatz Aaalllll part a da bid’nez model, man; ESPECIALLY THE CONTENT.

Aint that a muthafkr, >>> people are willing to spend GOING ON $$$$$ 5.00 $$$$ for a what!!!?????!!! A tiny little pamphlet that is about to have the page stock / quality go even lower, in addition to less story-to-advertisement diff ratios per page. IF THE QUALITY OF THE TRADITIONAL FORM OF MEDIUM IS DECREASING WHILE THE INVESTMENT IN “DIGITAL FORM” INCREASES, THE PURPOSE FOR DIGITAL IS NOT TO IMPROVE CONTENT -OTHERWISE THE QUALITY OF “comics” IN GENERAL WOULD INCREASE. -the INVESTMENT in digital medium is more for creating gimmicks and tricks to snare a readers into the pretentious aspect of their digital device, not so much as presenting a valid form of story telling -yet this is occurring AS THE ACCESSIBILITY OF PRINT COMICS DECREASES (dues to price increase, poor quality of page stock, and less story and more advertisements). Outside of the trade paperback market (which will be used as the sole form or print comics eventually -commercial/advertisement free) the digitalizing of comics is not necessary to improvise the quality of SEQUENTIAL STORY TELLING, so much as the digital realm of comics is mainly to generate more mailing lists, more membership accounts, more social networking access/click-patterns/digitalizing of the tracking and learning of the SPENDING HABITS of the CONSUMER.

WHEW!!!! What a muth’fkn word full or what!!???!!! ‘The hell am I talking about: TIME / WARNER owns DC… DISNEY owns Marvel… APPLE / Steve Jobs Dynasty have say of PIXAR AND DISNEY AND APPLE iPAD TECH… TIME / WARNER owns HBO, AOL, and both have ENDLESS SUBSIDIARIES w/in SUBSIDIARIES w/in BANK ACCOUNTS OFFSHORE and FAMILY DYNASITES ACCESS THESE BANK ACCOUNTS.

That being said: Why would a bunch of RICH AS ALL HELL family dynasties care about a bunch of peasant’s rabble rousing and bickering about a very relevant and significant form of relaying information: IF IT ISNT BROKEN DONT FIX IT! With the average young adult / teen spending OVER 50 HOURS WEEK in the digital realm TIME / WARNER and DISNEY can use *** DATA MINING *** ***NETWORK ANALYSIS ***, to generate *** ‘POINT-AND-CLICK’ PEDICTIVE ANALYITICS *** -which considering the soon-to-be adults (young cattle) walking around pretty much much live in the uber pretentious digital world, these family dynasties can simply guide the herd (that would be us cubicle slaves, labor peasants, debt ridden grueling work-commuting chumps) through the same vocabulary / iconic concept-to-image subtextulization they have been using for decades to keep our sense of “self” in their ‘guidance’ / influence.

My point is: “dumbing down the herd” keeps us easier to guide and influence, and therefore most importantly to PREDICT. We are billions of people in the planet multiplying faster and faster, and the family dynasties that ultimately have a ‘say’ in our paltry advertisement ridden pamphlets priced out of range of anything ‘acceptable’ w/in our economies of scale are doing their job exactly as needed. Why would family dynasties want to educate or provide any perks or sense of QUALITY to a quickly growing population that have been trained to have their consumer behavior as being synonymous with ‘family member’ or ‘American’??? Who cares -just track em, tag ‘em, herd ‘em, list their actions as either liability or asset and respond accordingly. THAT’S IT.

You people talking about ‘COMICS’ and saying things like ‘THIS GENRE’… COMICS =the word alone is SILLY and INANE as it deforms and perverts anything that truly has to do with SEQUENTIAL STORY TELLING.

***** ‘Comics’ as you guys like to call them are FINE. Who cares about DC and Marvel – IF anyone reading this still thinks using the word ‘consumer’ is totally OK in referring to your neighbors, family members, fellow Americans, HUMAN BEINGS -then please continue this conversation. FOR THOSE THAT ACTUALLY THINK THEY ARE AMERICANS -you actually SEE the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA on your passport and birth cert, the PLEASE QUIT YOUR BITCHING AND GO START YOUR OWN SEQUENTIAL STORIES AS YOU WOULDS HAVE THEM (unless you actually do see time/warner or disney on or passport or birth cert…considering the culture today, you pretty much might as well…). “SUPER HERO COMICS” is the Time / Warner and Disney PERVERSION of SEQUENTIAL STORY TELLING after decades of HOMO / HETERAL (99% HOMO) EROTIC POWER FANTASIES used to siphon the brains development and the sexual budding of the human mind’s habit formations into PRODUCT PLACEMENT AWARENESS. So, why spend going on over $$$$$ 5.00 $$$$$ on HOMO EROTIC POWER FANTASIES portrayed through the lense of 20th CENTURY AMERICAN-CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALISTS AND ANTI-COMMUNISM SCARE TACTICS (COMIC CODE AUTHORITY) that have ultimately been used to create a SPECULATORS BUBBLE???

That Speculator’s Bubble from the late 80’s / early 90’s that bust soo hard, that busted the market soo bad it actually allowed for a slight glimmer of quality (many aspects of NuMarvel) while Perlmutter was too busy trying to figure out how to power-play Marvel into Disney… Think around 2000 – 2004 MARVEL DOUBLE SHOT, TANGLED WEB, E IS FOR EXTINCTION, REVOLUTION NOT EVOLUTION, ULTIMATES, Allred’s X-FORCE (!!!), early Bendis/Maleev DAREDEVIL, CAGE, SUPREME POWER, Brubaker’s Captain American, and others like G0dLAND, We3, the Authority, PLANETARY…. yeah, we also got Fantagraphics!!!

JOE SACCO IS AUTOGRAPHING HIS NEW BOOK IN SEATTLE: TODAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

JOE SACCO IS AUTOGRAPHING HIS NEW BOOK IN SEATTLE: TODAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

JOE SACCO IS AUTOGRAPHING HIS NEW BOOK IN SEATTLE: TODAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

JOE SACCO IS AUTOGRAPHING HIS NEW BOOK IN SEATTLE: TODAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

JOE SACCO IS AUTOGRAPHING HIS NEW BOOK IN SEATTLE: TODAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

:-)

The problem is that none of the Major Book outlets have anyone that is educated in the material enough to present them to new readers. That and the comic trades tend to be tucked away like the “red-headed step child” materials. Off to the side…. Comics at Barnes and Noble are buried in magazine BS.

The place marvel needs to get into is Best Buy, Walmart, and to some extent the Apple Store (get a licensing agreement for the Apple Store to “preview” digital comics on the sample IPADs in the stores).

Knowledge + Availability = success

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