Monday, July 10, 2017

OPINION: How I saved DC Comics (and by extension, the entire comic book industry), Part III

Comic books aren't just for kids anymore . . .
but they should be

So, we're getting close to the point where I'll start making specific recommendations for DC Comics. But first, if you're just joining the fun, I've been dispensing advise on how to save the struggling, anemic, comic book industry. Isn't that big of me?

In Part I, I started by telling publishers everything they're doing wrong. Yes, I'm sure they appreciated that as well.

To review, in case you're not inclined to backclick — comics have become far too insular, created for fanboys by fanboys. And that's a problem that's only grown worse as publishers have tried to prop by their bottom lines by focusing on an increasingly smaller customer base, hoping to get the few to buy more, rather than striving to reach a wider and more general audience. The industry long ago simply gave up on the casual buyer and has been lumbering along ever since with a self-imposed tourniquet on which limb.  

And it's not just that the uninitiated is bound to get hopelessly lost in decades of shared universe continuity and backstory minutia. The problem is that editors stopped editing, becoming little more than production managers, allowing creators with no real grounding in the actual craft of creating a commercial product to bastardize the books. Writers were allowed to turn in what amounted to movie scripts as decompression became the rage, with the creative focus shifted to detailing moments, rather that moving plots. Meanwhile, artists were allowed to draw what looked cool, rather than doing their primary job, which is to tell the story, making it so that anyone not a practiced comic book reader often had no idea which panel to read next.

In Part II I talked about how to fix all of that, the solution being, in essence, don't do all of that.

Turning to DC Comics, specifically, the powers that be need a new publisher. Nothing against Dan Didio and Jim Lee. Great guys both. But they're kind of Peter Principled in their current roles. As DC's co-publishers, they seem more intent on being content managers — acting as continuity cops and planning out the next giant intra-company crossover event. DC needs a publisher who is responsible solely for the business of publishing, someone maybe not even with a comics background, who will maintain a laser-like concentration on sales and circulation. And in Part II, I tossed out a few ideas for forging new distribution channels and luring advertisers back into the fold.

DC also needs a new editor-in-chief, someone who will worry less about whether Batman's appearance in JUSTICE LEAGUE jibes with what's going on in his own book that month, and think more about making sure both stories satisfy as a complete reading experience. That means no more issues which can be read in less than 10 minutes, containing nothing but a few scenes from the middle of a longer story. It also means convincing writers to use all the tools unique to the comics artform, like narrative captions and thought balloons, because they're writing comics, not paper movies. And it means making sure artsts worry about layout and story flow first, providing a damn good reason why a character needs to break a panel border, or why panels are criss-crossing the page in a non-linear fashion.

Yeah, I get it, man. I'm a cold and heartless bastard. I know. But I've been an avid comic book collector for nearly half a century, and I've sat back and watches as the industry has slowly faded to insignificance. It's absolutely inexcusable in an age when the geek have inherited the Earth, rising to rule all pop culture, that the average comic book title can't even move 30,000 copies a month. But, you know, comics today, for the most part, just aren't that good. And I'm afraid they won't be around for much longer.

Part of the problem is that comics today do not give value-for-dollar. In truth, they are a piss-poor investment of your discretionary spending. And that's the what we aim to fix next, in Part IV. For now, I've got a bit more to say on why, to survive, comics have got to go back to the future, as it were. To to that, they have to be written for kids —kids, not babies — and they have to be priced in such a way that even the most discriminating kid will not feel ripped off.

A panel from "An Eye for Detail," a 1997 Don Rosa duck
tale  first published in the U.S. in 2014, in Fantagraphics' THE
DON ROSA LIBRARY #6, in which Donald explains via
donuts precisely what's wrong with comic books today —
they just don't give enough pleasure for the time it takes to
earn enough money to buy one!
Obviously, the lone measure of a comic book's overall quality is not just how long it takes to read. We don't want more words just for the sake of having more words. But there is something to the idea that a comic book that costs $3.99, or even $2.99, is going to be perceived as a poor value when it takes only a few minutes to read, especially when the story in the issue in question has no beginning or end, but is instead just a few decompressed scenes in the middle. 

As I pointed on in Part II, imagine if you tuned in to an episode of BREAKING BAD, but all you got for an episode was the 12 minutes between the first and second commercial breaks, and four minutes of that was a long scene of Walter taking the trash out to the curb. That, at its core, is basically what reading a comic book is like today for anyone not fully invested in the medium as a die-hard Comic Book Guy.

But what to I mean by value-for-dollar? Well, we all make decisions every day, on a subconscious level at least, about how we spend our money, measuring that against what it took to earn those shekels. In Maine, where I live, the minimum wage laws just changed such that by 2020 the least anyone will make is $12 an hour. Amazing, when you think about it. The minimum wage was $3.65 when I first donned a paper cap adorned with golden arches. And 1985 doesn't seem all that long ago. Also, $12/hr happens to be what I make now at one of my reporting jobs! So, yeah, I'm gonna be a minimum wage slave in just a couple of years, which is probably when I'll leave newspapers and go sling fries at McDonald's, coming full circle from '85.

Now, I don't actually get $12 and hour. I once figured it out and based on all of the myriad and sundry taxes and fees assessed by federal, state, and local governments, I lose about 27 percent of ever dollar I make. But for simple math, let's just consider payroll withholding at about 20 percent. Heck, let's make it really simple and say I actually bring home $10 an hour.

Now, let's say it's a good month and I have all my bills paid and a little left over for discretionary spending. Around here, a matinee movie is $5.75 if you go to the right theater. So, if we think of that in terms of how long I had to work to earn it, I get 2 hours of entertainment for about 40 minutes or so of my time. A decent trade. Even at the $7.50 I paid this past weekend to see SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING in 3-D, I still got a fairly good deal.

Now, let's say my wife and I elect to go out to a decent restaurants. We're looking at $16-24 for each entree. Throw in an appetizer and drinks, plus tax and tip, and dinner for two can eclipse $70 pretty easy. Or to put it another way, I have to work seven hours — about one entire day — just to pay for that one meal. So, no, NOT a good deal. No restaurant is good enough to make that seem like a fair trade. Consequently, das spouse and I go to a real honest-to-goodness sit down restaurant about once a year. Maybe twice.

The average comic book today costs $3.99. Most comics can be read in less than 10 minutes. I blow through many new issues in as little as seven or eight minutes. And that's reading the entire issue, because few modern comics include any editorial material beyond the actual comics story. On the rare occasion when we do get a letters column, or some kind of promo page, the book still is in and out of my hands, in most cases, in less than 15 minutes, having been read cover to cover.

So, I have to work 18 minutes to buy a $2.99 comic that only provides about 10 minutes of entertainment. For a $3.99 comic, that 10 minutes of entertainment costs me 24 minutes of my time. Sure, I do that because I've been buying comics for 45-plus years, but the potential new reader? He or she doesn't have to do the math to intuit comics are a bad value on a dollar-for-time basis. Add in the fact that comics as currently published can be terribly frustrating for new readers, in all the ways we've already discussed, and it's not surprising they're staying away in droves, even as comic book properties have begun to dominate pop culture.

Aside: This phenomenon we've been talking about goes by many names in economic theory — willingness-to-pay, reservation price, indifference price, etc. But in every case, the price at which the consumer bails is what's known as a "context sensitive construct." In simple terms, a person is generally willing to pay a higher price for a soda at a convenience store than at a grocery store, and higher still at a restaurant, or via hotel room service. What we learn from this is that DC co-publishers Didio and Lee must have very little grounding in economics, because a couple of years ago DC started charging $1 more for its comics at the newsstand than in the direct market, when every practicing economist probably would have told them that price structure should be reversed!

Now, you may be saying, "But Duke, you're basing all this price value analysis on what you make. Most people across the U.S. make more than $12 an hour.  Maybe. But most young people? And what about kids, buying comics from their allowance, or paper route money? For them, $3 or $4 for a 10-minute read is an even bigger waste of money. It's no wonder they'd rather spend their hard-earned on a video game, or a DVD, or almost anything else.

Now, you may also say, "But Duke, comics aren't just for kids anymore." Well, I've got a two-part answer to that — 1) They should be, and, 2), these days, hey aren't really for kids at all.

Joe's Smoke Shop, at the corner of Main and Temple streets in
Waterville, Maine, where I bought my comics in the mid-1970s,
seen in this photo taken about a decade earlier.
When I first started buying comics on my own (albeit with an allowance) they cost 30¢ (that's $1.32 in 2017 dollars) and  I'd walk the three miles or so from where I lived in Winslow, Maine, across the Kennebec River, to Joe's Smoke Shop in downtown Waterville.

Yes, at 9 years old I bought my comics in a cigar-and-cigarette store. What can I say, the mid-1970s was a very different world. When I visited by grandparents back then, for example, there was a box of toys they kept for me under the sink. You know, right next to the bottles of bleach and all those other delicious-looking chemicals! I never drank them though. I think maybe we Gen X kids were just a lot smarter than the Millennial snowflake set. 

Anyway, Joe's was a long, narrow store, with a magazine rack hugging the wall down the entire right side of rectangular space, with display cases for smoking products (and various and sundry other things for sale) on the other. I'd sit there browsing comics sometimes until my feet fell asleep. Never bothered. Never rushed. Never told it wasn't a library. And always allowed to bring back a carton of Marlboro's for my mom. Again, different world.

We moved to Skowhegan when I started fifth grade and I did not stop in at Joe's again for almost 15 years — around 1990, I believe. I was driving through town and got a nostalgic urge to stop in, scope out the old haunting grounds, and maybe even buy a comic book for old time's sake. But what a surprise! The shop itself looked exactly the same, more or less. But where there was once an entire section of comics, with dozens and dozens (maybe even hundreds) of titles kept at kid level, now Joe's had exactly four titles, all on the second tier rack at hip height. As I recall the four titles were a Flash (then on CBS-tv), a Superman, and a couple of Archies. 

"Wow," I said to the elderly man at the counter who was otherwise absorbed in some form of reading material. He was maybe late-60s/early-70s, what I considered elderly at the time, and he gave kind of a grunt and scowl as he looked up. I thought he was going to scold me for implying the store wasn't up to snuff (no pun intended). In truth, the store, open since 1922, was on its last legs. It would close in 1995, killed more by legislative attacks on the tobacco industry than the collapse of magazine distribution. Today, the place still sports the old Joe's signage, but its a head shop. 

I don't know if the old man I met that day was Joe. Actually, I couldn't say for certain if there ever was an actual Joe, at least at any time since I first started shopping there as a kid. But this fella appeared to be someone who had worked in the store for many decades. Anyway, instead of snapping at me (and I recall this so vividly, as if I'm seeing him before me right now), he looked right past me toward the comics. But he didn't appear to be seeing those issues. No, he acted as if he was looking back through time at the comics rack as it has been when I was a kid, probably earlier. Then, after a pause of maybe 15 or 20 seconds, he spoke.

"Nah," he said with a sigh and a shake of the head as he turned back to his magazine. "They don't make 'em for kids anymore."

And that was that. I spent a few more minutes looking up and down the magazine racks and left. I don't think the old guy ever looked up again.

What struck me is that this old fellow, who had been selling comics to kids for decades, did not seem to think kids lost interest in comics because of competition from some other fad, like video games or pogs, or whatever. And it wasn't because newsstand distribution went away, because here he was, just as he had always been.

Aside: DC got its start because Harry Donenfeld owned a printing press. And it can be argued that long after it began to print the books elsewhere, it survived because it controlled its own distribution. But there is a kind of chicken-and-egg thing with distribution. Newsstand sales really began to falter at about the time DC passed into corporate ownership. I believe that at last partly due to the fact that Kinney, the funeral home and parking lot empire that bought DC little knew and less cared about magazine distribution. Instead it took the "core competency" view and decided to outsource what it deemed to me the more menial tasks of the comics publishing business. Consequently, Independent News folded within a couple of years after the buyout. Rather than try and fix a distribution problem it had not counted on, Kinney took the easy way out and, I'd argue, ultimately made the problem worse. 

But Old Joe/Not Joe didn't know any of that. What he knew, based on having seen generations of kids like myself come and go, was that kids had not left comic books. No, in his view, comic books had left the kids.

I've always wished I had lingered longer that day, and thought to ask Joe/Not Joe exactly what me meant by comics not being made for kids anymore. He might have meant they'd priced themselves out of the market. Comics were I think, $1 each at that point — a pretty steep climb from where they had been.

SHAZAM!#1, on sale Dec. 14, 1972 and
©DC Comics. The beginning of the end
as the pros who entered the field due to
the love of comics developed as young
fans subtly signaled they had no idea how
to write a comic book that would appeal
to young readers.
But consider this: Waterville got its own comic book store in 1986. It was called The Comic Vault because it's first home was in the old Post Office on Main Street, in a room that contained the actual vault, with its 10-inch thick steel door. The old fella must have known that, and Waterville being a small town, probably knew or heard that most of the people who shopped at the Vault were, as I was at the time, in their late teens and early-20s. At the shop where I get my comics these days, the average customer is in his late-30s to mid-40s.

This old guy must have known there was a place in town that sold comics and that most of its customers where significantly older that the ones he'd sold comics to for all those years. From that, he must have sussed out — even if he had not read a comic book himself since the days before Daredevil was a Marvel hero, and Plastic Man joined DC — that there was something about comics that made them not for kids anymore, and that was probably why the distributor did not send him near as many comics as it used to, and that's why the customers he still had no longer had to dodge rug rats on their way to the register, as cigar buyers has once worked the juvenile minefield that had been me and my friends.

But then, it's also true that comics actually were skewing older at the time, by design. When I revisited Joe's, comics were well into their grim 'n' gritty phase, a period kicked off by the success of things like WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. I still recall with a thrill the house ads DC put out in around the time those series launched, declaring, comic books were "not just for kids anymore." Oh, I admit, I was thrilled by those ads at the time I was getting older. I was more mature. It only made sense that comics also get older and more mature, even if "mature" most often boiled down to exposed nipples and an F-bomb.

Aside: While I'm as big a fan as any fanboy for the occasional nip slip, language in comics is something that has always bugged me. Most Shanghalla readers know I worship at the alter of Kurt Busiek, mostly because of ASTRO CITY. But I like his other works too, including THE AUTUMNALANS. That's a title I would have gone nuts for as a kid, and the one-and-only thing that makes it inappropriate to a 10 year old is the half dozen swear words per issue. Now, Mr. Busiek may claim artistic integrity, and say that's is how the lone human in a world of talking animals would speak. Maybe so. But that is why God invented wing-dings. Replace the F-bombs with a few thunderclouds and pound signs, and AUTUMNLANDS is a book you can give to any kids. But as is, not so much.

So, just as Kinney killed itself by letting others worry about getting its product to customers, DC committed long-term suicide by focusing on the customers it had, instead of the ones it needed. Yeah, comics grew along with me, but they left behind all the potential readers and future fans who came along in my wake.

But that was not an entirely new phenomenon. As far back as the revival of the original Captain Marvel in SHAZAM! #1, which hit stands December 14, 1972, DC was dropping the ball. That issue starts of trying to explain where the Big Red Cheese had been for 20 years — a detail important to long-time comics fans, maybe, but useless information to the book's target audience. The issue was, in fact, the first "DANGER AHEAD" sign post indicating the first wave of fans-turned-pro were writing for themselves and their peers, not for a general reading audience.

Imagine if, instead of building reader identification by first introducing poor put-upon Harry Potter living in a cupboard under the stairs, J.K. Rowling had begun her opus with Voldemort, and details of where he'd been for 20 years and how he now back, but not really quite the same guy. Ugg. So, yes, there's a reason J.R.R. Tolkien started in the Shire. Your world-building is a framework on which the characters are hung, it is not the reason the characters exist at all. When you fail to deliver strong and compelling characters up front, and instead spend all your time chronicling the timeline of events in which those characters operate, and then force those characters to conform to that managed reality, no matter how unnatural their actions might be, you're essentially writing fan-fiction. And its called fan fiction because its the kind of fiction only hard-core fans care about.

A metatextual panel from whatever issue of HAWKMAN DC
says it's from, illustrating the problem with comics stories that
have devolved into fan-fiction attempts to weave 75-plus years
of published adventures into a single timeline.
An even better example of Hawkman. Unlike with the Silver Age revivals, when editor Julius Schwartz worked with his stable of writers and artists to meld the corn concept of old characters — Flash, runs fast; Green Lantern, has a magic ring: Hawkman, dude with wings — onto new sensibilities, by the time of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, DC's fan/pros had married the company to a shared universe and a single storytelling continuity.

By ditching the elegant multiverse concept, DC could not longer have different versions of Hawkman. And, in order to accommodate the fan-fiction mentality. it couldn't even have one version. No, it had to retain all versions and they all had to be connected together in one more-or-less liner fashion. Somehow. And so, every Hawkman story seemed to me about setting straight just who the character was supposed to be. But I promise you, just as kids in 1972 could have given two sh!ts why Captain Marvel had not been published for 20 years, potential fans in 1992 could only roll back their eyes and try, hard as it might be, to stave of the brain aneurysm that came with reading a Hawkman comic.

A 10 year-old kid does not care to wade through stories that explain how Hawkman is a reincarnated Egyptian prince, except that he's also an otherwordly policeman, except when hes not, but it's okay because the magic metal that makes the earth version fly came from the space cop's homeworld, so it's all connected, not that it matters because the space cop is dead, until he's not, but then so is the Egyptian prince, at least the first version, he's actually somebody else now, and his companion both is and is not his wife from another planet while also being an Earth chick who doesn't remember her past live, but now none of that matters, while at the same time all of it counts, because BATMAN!

I mean, honest-to-God, do you think Harry Potter would have got past the first book with that kind of a set-up? A kid doesn't care about any of that. All the kids cares about is "winged man smacks bag guys with spiked mace," and, hopefully, "had a good reason for doing so." And please, or dear God please, try to make that reason NOT, "because his girlfriend was raped to death, dismembered, and stuffed in a fridge."

Now, here's where  hear you balking at the idea that DC should focus on publishing comics for kids. But I think you are thinking of what DC and other publishers put out these days under the "young readers" banner. Yeah, I don't know what lobotomized little lemurs those books are aimed at. They're certainly not anything I would have read when I was a young reader.

As a kid, I was able to fully grasp the multiverse concept behind the annual Justice League/Justice Society team-ups. In fact, I'm no genius (well, I am. Technically. By one point. Not getting invited to any Mensa meetings though), but I was able to understand almost everything in the Bronze Age babies I loved so much as a kid. Oh, there might have been a word or two here and there I had to decipher based on context, but I usually got those words right when springing them on unsuspecting aunts. Occasionally a teacher would end up correcting my pronunciation, sure, but that's only because dyslexia is a terrible disease.

In addition to Marvel and DC, I loved Atlas comics during the short time they were available. I tended to shy away from Charltons for the most part, just because they looked so cheap in comparison. But Archie and Harvey? I avoided those comics like the plague. Those were kiddie comics! And keep in mind, this assessment was coming from a 7 year old.

So, a comic book does not have to be written in See Dick and Jane style to be "for kids." Heck, I would argue that comics of the Bronze age were more challenging on a reading comprehension level then any "mature readers" title published today. But to be "for kids" a comic needs to give them what they want, and that is strong characters in compelling situations, well drawn, and laid out in a way that is not counter-intuitive to follow.

And, most importantly, it means telling the story within the context of that story — not trying it in to every comic you are currently publishing, and have ever published. Building your customer base means writing from the reader who is not already a fan.

And why write for kids? Well, there's the obvious reason that its a replenishing resource, even absent Baby Boom spikes. There is nothing wrong with playing to traditional notion that most kids may be into comics for a few years, say ages 7-14, and then mostly move on to other things. But more importantly, fanboys get old and are eventually themselves slabbed, while adult readers have to be lured in and convinced to read a comic book, and then continually coaxed to keep reading them.

But kids? Kids want to read comics. Hell, you could almost say they need to read comics. Movies and television, even theater, are passive forms of "reading." So, too, is music. Video game are a little more active, but still require limited cognitive reaction to limited stimuli. Even reading, though it may include the processing of complex concepts, is basically absorbing only what the author provides. But as any stident or Will Eisner or Scott McCloud will know, reading a comic book requires the active participation of the reader, who must mentally fill in the action that happens in the gutter between panels, while marrying the left- and right-brain functions of word and picture. Recognizing patters, processing multiple stimuli, developing cause and effect scenarios, determining action and events outside direct observation, intuiting human emotion and need based on images, rather than words, making leaps of logic to form new ideas and concepts, that part and parcel of what humans do. You might even say it is the very basis of the human  condition. It's certainly what the developing brain does and that's why comics are and should be aimed directly at those youngsters, because comics are fun, and children were built by evolution to learn from play.
From UNDERSTANDING COMICS, by Scott McCloud, in
which he makes the case for just why comics are so irresistible
to kids, because they provides endless opportunities for
imitation learning, by mapping observation to interpretation.

But me that as it may, what comics publishers must to in order to survive is to stop putting out product aimed solely at aging fanboys like me who forgot to outgrow them. Because that is a dead-nd street.

All right, at this point I think I've yakked enough about what's wrong with comics. Starting in Part IV I'll begin making specific suggestions to DC for what I think it should publish, starting with the idea that in order to put out the best comics possible, it needs to first pay heed to everything in a comic book that's not the comics.


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