Wake Up And Smell The Coffee: Different Is Good!

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One of the more common arguments I’ve seen spring up lately regarding the health of the comic industry has really been getting under my skin. It seems that there is still a large amount of online fandom convinced they are the sole target audience, or at the very least should be. They know what kids want, they know what their fellow comic fans want, and most of all, they know everything else is crap. Now don’t get me wrong… I’m all for different opinions and educated market observations. However, ranting about a comic you’ve never even read or just because it doesn’t interest you is one of the leading reasons comic publishers stop listening to their fans.

Now, I know the esteemed Mr. Brandon Thomas has covered this subject before, and very well I might add, in his two part “Haters be Hating” edition of his Ambidextrous column. The Internet is full of these obnoxious “haters” and little of what we say or do will have an impact on their actions. However, there is one problem with hater logic I don’t feel has been pointed out well enough. One that not only outlines the idiocy of their one-sided arguments but also provides clarity as to the kinds of cancer that has plagued this industry for the last decade. What I’m talking about are nostalgia projects, prequel books and spin-offs. The names and projects I’m about to mention will probably put me on a lot of wanted lists, but I really feel this needs to be addressed and sugar-coating the issue won’t get my points across.

Over the last several years, major publishers have been scrambling to find ways to fill budget holes and meet sales quotas. We’ve seen everything from three month long crossovers, to “fifth week” extravaganzas, to twelve monthly X-Men titles. All through this madness Wizard, Diamond, Marvel and DC told us that these titles were actually selling and convinced themselves of the same insanity. The truth was that actual sales on the top titles were on a perpetual decline. By the end of last year, the top selling books (X-Men & Uncanny X-Men) had dropped below 100,000 readers on the direct market. This was nothing less than the sign of a possible comic apocalypse. Readership had been consistently dropping on the same number curve since 1996. At the rate the industry was shrinking, the majority of it would be gone within the next ten years. Of course, that’s when Joe Quesada took over.

He took a look at how the company did business and realized they were hanging themselves. To make ends meet, they published spin-off after spin-off from their most popular titles. Instead of taking a risk with new storylines and talent, they had their veteran creators develop prequel books like Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty and nostalgia specials like Fantastic Four: The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine. Why am I one of the few people who can see how suicidal all these projects were? I look around and see fan upon fan clamoring about how FF: TWGCM is the right direction for publishers. Are they out of their minds? There are reasons this book is selling as badly as it is. Let’s examine them, shall we?

Let’s get a few things straight first. I’m not talking about the quality of the work or the intentions and commitment of its creators, I’m talking about market appeal. For starters, the book is about the Fantastic Four… so naturally you’re limiting the appeal to FF readers or would-be fans. Then the book is placed in the continuity between issues #100 and #101, leaving story understanding to the more knowledgeable FF fans and complicating the situation for the less experienced/new readers. Adding to all of this is art and scripting specifically designed to emulate the style of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, catering specifically to those with interest in nostalgic content. Last but not least, the entire series runs 12 issues testing the attention spans and interest of established readers who might have the patience for this. There’s no reason to kid ourselves, folks. This is about as far away from accessibility you can get.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I’ve bought it since day one, because I think it’s a neat experiment in retro-comic making. However, I also knew that I was part of an extremely small audience. Much like my next example, Marvel had nothing to gain from this project other than squeezing a few extra dollars out of an already over stretched market. That example, and one of my favorites to use, is X-Force. Here you had a title that was originally created to compliment the X-Men concept with a more violent and pro-active approach to “making the world safe for mutants.” Instead, you ended up with just another standard X-Men title that quickly lost its original direction. Despite several major creative changes, including separate revisions by John Francis Moore and Warren Ellis, the book just never took off. After Counter-X (Ellis’ imprint) was disbanded by Quesada, the title was handed over to ex-Vertigo editor Axel Alonso. He retooled the entire creative team, cast, concept… everything besides the title and issue number. To little surprise, this news sent longtime X-Men readers into a murderous rage.

Fast forward to six months later and it’s an entirely different story. X-Force is not only a critical success among new and older fans, but a financial success as well. In fact, it’s one of the few Marvel books to be rising in sales every month. What happened? Marvel finally realized that books like X-Force, X-Men: The Hidden Years and Mutant X only tapped the same fan base again and again. Each had the same concept, only done with a slightly different twist. Instead of canceling the book entirely, editorial opted instead to give it to Peter Milligan and let him and his eventual artist, Mike Allred, run wild with it. They not only ended up with a winner, but an X-Men book with appeal to those who don’t normally read X-Men comics. This was the primary reason longtime fans were so outraged. Their reasons for reading the book - the characters - had been completely removed. What they don’t understand is that was the whole point. Marvel wasn’t targeting old X-Men/New Mutant/X-Force fans. They wanted… and needed… a new audience. And that’s what they got.

These are the kinds of decisions made by publishers lately that are causing such uproar from online fandom. The fans believe Marvel, or any other company, are making huge mistakes that will cost them in the long run. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Comics like Alias, Apache Skies and Marvel Mangaverse aren’t supposed to interest every one of us. I myself could care less about Mangaverse. However, that’s the goal Marvel is trying to achieve and I’m pleased as punch about it. Instead of publishing 95% of their material for the strictly hardcore audience, they’re trying to make something for everybody. And they’re not the only ones. Even DC is beginning to learn about twisting their most popular franchises. Instead of another extension of Batman, like Batgirl, they’re developing alternative titles like Gotham Central and tapping into the crime fiction audience.

These are the kinds of decisions major publishers will have to make in order to survive and flourish through the next decade. They can no longer sit and whittle their readerships to nothing through crossovers and a dozen “family books” for quick cash. If they do, we’re all back on the same road to oblivion we’ve been traveling since the early ‘90s. Do you remember that sales curve I talked about earlier? The consistent drop since 1996? Well, Marvel helped the industry finally break out of it these last two months. That’s saying something folks. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.

Born and raised in Tampa, FL, Drew Reiber is a part-time student with aspirations of someday writing those comics he so loves to rant about. He’s apprehensively trying out X-Force at a friend’s behest, but at least the friend has agreed to try Black Panther in exchange (yay!). You can find his other column at (http://hometown.aol.com/nolansnewsstand/), which has a similar name, but different content.

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