FULL BLEED breaks a promise

Well not really. I promised I’d stop tweeting stuff about DC’s relaunch plans since I didn’t have anything nice to say. So instead I’m just putting it here.

FULL BLEED

WELL MY STARSHIP DOESN’T WANT ME
AND NEITHER DOES HIS WORLD

Hey, I got rooked too. I thought that this new DC thing was actually something. Full reboot. Death to continuity. Start it all over without a debt record. Go all Tyler Durden on that backstory.

Well, as it turns out, not so much.

And not that I’m not thankful for putting Wonder Woman in capable hands. I am. ACTION COMICS sounds nice, but it also sounds like a tremendous dodge, a hope that DC can differentiate New Superman from Classic Superman so that the whole ownership/copyright/trademark thing can be settled once and for all. I’m not so sure that particular gambit will pay off. That logic works when having Thor vs. Superman arguments and on comic pages.

I have sincere doubts that it will work in a court of law. But I almost hope they try it and win, because that will make all their own trademarks that much more copyable. Hell, if you can remake Superman and decide he’s no longer Superman and you don’t owe his creators a nickel, then remake the Fantastic Four or Swamp Thing. See where I’m taking this? It’s not as if creators had to claw and fight for basic recognition all throughout the lifetime of US comics, right? They’ve always received fair credit and pay for their efforts.

Though, honestly, I’d rather see ACTION become “Grant Morrison takes on DC characters in standalone stories that anyone can pick up and read.” But it looks like it’s going to be the old saw of “The early and untold story of your favorite character ever.” Sure, that can still work for new readers. Hooray. New readers.

New readers. Hey, wait a minute…

What is DC doing exactly to get new readers into stores to get these books again?

Let’s look at that a moment.

Restarting at one. As mentioned above, this might help convince people that this is a good place to start. Unless of course, you’re of the of the mind that nobody starts anything on one, they start things on one, two, THREE. Okay, I’ll grant that. We’re clearing out all the continuity deadwood and begin again at the ground floor.

This has been tried. We called it the Ultimate Universe. And instead of becoming a grand jumping on point for a more widespread readership, it became another way to mine continuity under the guise of updating these characters. Consequently, it gave trademark holders (in this case, Marvel) a legal dodge by saying that “Ultimate Captain America is clearly a different character than Regular Captain America and therefore we don’t owe the creators a nickel when we use him to sell Underoos.” I’m not sure that this card was actually played beyond merchandising, but it’s there.

Until you get more books in the hands of more readers, you can reboot continuity until the cosmic reset button breaks and you won’t have solved your problem. Your problem is that there aren’t enough comics readers. That’s been the problem since I started writing anything called Full Bleed back in 2003. It has not changed. It has not been sufficiently addressed. It is the elephant in the room. Digital comics, sure, that’s another large mammal in the room. Let’s call it the okapi in the room. Not as big as an elephant, but visually striking and distinctive.

And as Brian Hibbs, who I disagree with as often as I agree with, has rightly pointed out, the Direct Market is not set to make the kind of expansion that comics so desperately wants. The DM was made to support a wide range of books selling middling numbers, not be dominated by a handful of books that sell at the high end and then a vast field of books just getting by. This also ignore the reality that DM is not exactly easy to get into, for the average reader. Some four hundred DM outlets in the US means a raw average of 8 per state. I suppose that works if you’re the size of Rhode Island.

The truth of it is that DM stores that have a customer base which affords a degree of flexibility in ordering and the ability to support a new book are few and far between. And in my experience, they’re all in big cities. Outside of that, there isn’t a market base to support them.

Retailers can’t roll the dice on DC’s big gamble. They have bills to pay if it falls through. But then the risk in the DM has almost always been shifted to retailers. It’s not on Diamond. They’re buying the books from fifty to seventy percent off cover price. I won’t even touch on what this means for smaller publishers (other than you have to price high to clear any kind of money from Diamond, or distribute it yourself or through Last Gasp/Sparkplug et al.) Granted, the bigger you are, the more Diamond has to pay and the more you as a publisher clear.

Diamond gets paid by the retailers. The retailers get paid by the customers. If they come to buy the books. The retailers have to cover their bets, so they order conservatively (rightfully so in this day and age.) But it still creates a feedback loop.

Honestly, the retailers can’t bankroll DC’s risk. DC and Marvel have had it pretty good, being able to float on the stream of DM money for their titles. Remember, DC is going to print to the orders and I would hope some overage for promotional copies. What DC should do is print far far more than initials and actually do something to get those books into people’s hands.

More importantly into the hands of readers who don’t currently read comics. That is if they actually have material that non-comics-readers want to read. That’s a trick. What makes for a fun afternoon at the movies isn’t necessarily the kind of thing that you want to read week in, week out. This is something that’s overlooked when you’re on the inside of the fishbowl. “That Thor movie was great, and the comics are great, why doesn’t everyone love them like I do?”

Because they’re completely different experiences. The character build for a movie and for an ongoing serial entertainment have different requirements, particularly on the Hollywood formula. How many villains have been outright killed in the SPIDER-MAN movies again? That doesn’t work so well in comics. Gotta re-use those trademarks. Have to come up with new villains all the time and deal with creators who actually want to retain some kind of rights/recognition of that? Yeah, that’s a non-starter. Yes, it still happens. I almost have to wonder why.

Back to the point though. DC’s efforts need to be aimed at new readers, or lapsed readers, I suppose. At people who are not reading the comics but maybe want to be. But then those people need to be directed to the DM store nearest them. Even if its across town. Or in a different county. That’s a real challenge. DC can’t even depend on a former juggernaut like Borders or Barnes and Noble. Or just sending people down to the corner store to pick a comics magazine off the stand. The newsstand is no more. Why do you think a DM was invented in the first place?

The DM in and of itself was a conservative action, or reaction if you like. Asking it to perform a radical undertaking is like asking a kitten to do brain surgery. This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of forward-thinking retailers who are actively involved in trying to recruit audiences and readers. There are. They are not the norm. And there are simply not enough of them out there.

So DC (and really, Marvel too, though neither of them will work with the other, particularly now that they are appendages on gigantic media multinationals) is trying to use a tool that was created in self-preservation to reach new readers. I don’t see it working for a variety of structural reasons, some of which I’ve already talked about, particularly in how the risk is shifted from the big guy to the little guy in short order.

DC will have to do some heavy lifting, and not by simply casting out a huge line of books for retailers to order and pray. The onus is on DC to convince readers, non-comics readers, that these magazines are worth going to a specialized store and buying (both in content and in form). I won’t even touch the need to pre-order some books, which is a requirement for anything outside the biggest of the mainstream books, if you’re not being served by a premium retailer. I’ve never seen an issue of XOMBI in my local store and I didn’t pre order it three months ago. Too bad. So sad. I’d say that returnability has to be in the equation somewhere, but that’s a scary word to a publisher. Particularly in a field where returnability has been more or less anathema.

I still don’t know what you can do to get feet in stores. If I did, I’d make a billion dollars. If DC and Marvel did, they would be doing just that.

I don’t know that it can be done with as conservatively as the business has been operating. Of course, there is a place where operating costs are lower, distribution costs aren’t paid upfront and you have the ability to get in touch with an affluent, tech-savvy consumer base. But on the internet, three dollars for a single issue is not going to fly. This is a reality. This is a fact. You can argue with it until you’re as blue in the face as Dr. Manhattan before a live studio audience, but it will not change.

And DC’s digital plan, as announced, simply doesn’t address that reality. But at least they did face up to the necessity of having day and date parity with their print and digital releases. That parity, however, won’t move the needle. People know intrinsically that digits should not cost as much as a physical item. Blame iTunes. Blame pirates. Blame cheapskates. Curse the sun for being hot, but it will be hot in August. Dress for it.

As a creator of content, believe me when I say that I am no happier about the race to the bottom pricing structure in ebooks and media in general than DC is about the possibility of sub-three-dollar single issues online. Dollar to entertainment ratios are down all the hell over the place. Videogaming, for instance, clocks in at about fifteen cents per hour of entertainment when you look at something like Angry Birds or even less. The day of the three hundred dollar console on which you play your sixty dollar at full price game is coming to an end. You’ve got a phone, you pay two bucks or less for a game.

Sure, this trend might get reversed. I know the Big 6 publishers in New York are hoping so.

However, until this reality is addressed, much like the basic lack of readership, DC can make all the plans and noise in the world and they will be without result. Hell, they won’t even address the symptoms. If high issue numbers actually are a symptom. I honestly suspect that perceived value and market oversaturation and lack of risk-taking in storytelling are more pressing ones. But that’s me. But that first one, man, anything that doesn’t address it is just brass-polishing.

But you know, maybe the comics aren’t the most important thing after all. Sure, they are to you and me. Honestly, most comic book movies feel like most tie-in-videogames do. Those things get made to service the trademark. They aren’t very good games. There’s nothing amazing going on in innovation or gameplay. They’re cool because you get to roleplay Batman kicking skulls in or the like. I’m sure they’re entertaining enough, but they’re not memorable above and beyond that.

Maybe it’s more important that these trademarks get value wrung out of them, whether it’s by licensing or making cartoons or movies or TV shows. You know that’s why these companies were acquired (in the case of Marvel) or actually paid attention to (in the case of DC.) It wasn’t because the boards of these companies love comics and the characters and the interaction of art and text. They’re important because they have a monetary value. Someone thinks they can get some extra sales by putting Wolverine on a toothbrush, so they pay for the likeness.

I sure hope the comic books keep on being valuable to those corporations. I really do. Because the moment they decide that they’d be better off licensing them out to make comics (assuming someone thought they could make money off that once the licenses are paid) or discontinuing them altogether, then hell really breaks loose. It’s already broken loose now, but that would be something else. Yes, that is a doomsday scenario. That’s the Chixculub meteor hitting the Yucatan right there. DC is just over half of Marvel’s size in the DM. If DC decides to change their DM stance or abandon it, there’s not enough capital or readership to rush in and fill that void. I don’t even want to consider the possibility of Marvel’s 42 percent of the DM last month taking a powder at the behest of the accountants at Disney.

But that won’t ever happen. That’s some kind of nightmare.

DC is going to drag a whole bunch of readers into the DM model and they’ll buy a whole bunch of books that the retailers can afford to order and everyone will be happy. Right?

I just can’t make myself believe that without some actual evidence. What I’ve seen are some new creative teams (some inspiring, some less so), a lot of character redesigns (some make sense and some only made sense in 1994), a day and date commitment (but at a price point that’s antithetical to digital sales), and nothing to help DC’s retail partners shoulder the load. Nothing to help get new readers in other than a renumbering (a ploy which has been tried to varying levels of success over the years, but not enough in and of itself.)

I want to believe that there’s more. But I don’t see any evidence of it. Am I convinced that DC could do some of this? Sure. They’ve got the resources to. They’ve got the franchises to. They might even have a survival-based reason (and by which I mean DM survival, not comics as a whole or those characters in particular) to. I don’t believe there’s a real plan to. And if there is, I’m convinced that this isn’t it, not as advertised.

 

1 comment to FULL BLEED breaks a promise

  • [...] –Strangeways writer (and Robot 6 veteran) Matt Maxwell, with a comparison that really clarified a lot of things for me about the pleasures and disappointments of superhero movies. Fatherhood has done to my movie-going time what I do to about 20 diapers a day and thrown it right in the garbage, but I’ve looked forward to and seen a lot of these flicks over the years, and on an alternate Earth I’d have seen two more already this summer in the form of Thor and X-Men: First Class, with another two, Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger soon to join them. I’ve disliked many of them. I’ve liked some of them. I’ve liked a handful — the Marvel Studios suite of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man 2 — well enough to own them on DVD. But with the exception of the first Tim Burton Batman movie, I’ve never seen one that offers the never-seen-that-before sensation that superhero comics still regularly afford you, if you know where to look. [...]

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