Tuesday, July 11, 2017

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

To build a better comic book, worry first about everything in the the book that's not the comics



And now we're getting down to brass tacks, as it were. 

In the first three parts of this series, I outlined most of what I think is wrong with comic books today, and how they got that way. From this point forward, I start making specific recommendations, to DC Comics in particular, for how to set things right.

So, let's say DC Comics President Diane Nelson came to me and said, "Duke, not only are you the handsomest man I've ever seen, possessed of a certain roguish charm and husky good looks, but having read the first three parts of your Thought Balloon series on how to save my company, I think you are absolutely brilliant. Please enlighten me further."


"Okay, Diane," I'd say, after planting a wet, sloppy smacker right square in the middle of her face, "Here's what ya do — in order to build a better comic book, worry first about everything in the book that's not the comics."



I think, or at least hope, I've made a pretty convincing argument thus far that comics, like any entertainment medium, needs to provide value-for-dollar, and that a large part of the measurement of how much entertainment value a product gives is not merely how much pleasure it provides, but how much pleasure in gives in relation to how much it costs to obtain. Now, its true enough that a comic book can be read cover to cover and be deemed a fantastic value for $4. But more often then not, the reader is going to come away feeling cheated, especially if the 10-minute read is only a small, incomplete chunk of a larger story, as we've previously discussed in Part I, Part II, and Part III of this little treatise.

But we don't want to just clog on extra words and panels for the sake of chewing up the clock. Sometimes, a story is going to read quickly, not because the editor and writer and artists are too stupid to know any better, but because they purposefully designed the story that way. The issue in question might contain few words, or have scenes that are either very decompressed, or, conversely, completely compressed. There might be any number of creative reasons why, with deliberate forethought, the creators have crafted a story that will read quickly, because there's a reason why that should happen.

And so we want additional editorial material to help, yes, chew up time. As I've said before, when I was a kid, the average comic book kept me occupied for about 30-40 minutes. Today, I can read most comics in 7-8 minutes. And that's not because I'm now a better reader. If anything, I suspect I may have dropped a standard deviation or two. A big part of that difference is that all of the supplementary material that once rounded out the typical comic book has been excised from the books and sent to same limbo where such quaint old-fashioned tropes as narrative captions and through balloons now reside. Today we have no letter columns, no Answer Man, no Stan Lee's Soapbox, not even a decent promo page or a Cap's Hobby Hints. Nope, it's all house ads. 

And in today's market, a house ad is about as smart as a stump fence. After all, with the internet, the Diamond Previews catalog, and also the internet, the average comic book buyer already knows what he or she (okay, almost exclusively he) is going to buy before ever crossing the threshold on a given  visit to the LCS. Comics companies like DC place house ads like they think they're still reaching a casual audience that might be so enticed. But, trust me, almost no one sees a house ad in a comic book and thinks, "Hey, man, there's a thing I should try." More often it's, "Hey, there's a new book I  know all about and have already put on my pull list . . .  or not."

So, what are some of the things we can add to a comic book to occupy the reader's time and create a sense of added value? Well, back-up stories are out. After all, comics are not made on the cheap. The solution is to add in text material that is less costly and time-consuming to produce. And here's the Sneaky Pete — make it material that, for the most part, will compliment the main comics story, maybe even prompting the buyer to circle back and re-read it. Forcing a second pass (because the reader wants to, not because they can't quite figure out what's going on) is key to creating a sense of value for the reader ("It was so good I had t read it twice!") and, also, the advertiser ('Those l'il bastards had my ad in their peripheral vision not just for the 90 seconds it took them to read the page next to it, but 180, when they came back for seconds!")

And that's the thing about advertising, it really works better in print. After all, advertising gets into your brain by building up an awareness from repeated or prolonged exposure. Almost never does someone see an ad in a newspaper and say, "OMG! I gotta call that business and place an order RIGHT NOW!" No, the idea of the business (especially if it was an effective ad, funny or eye-catching) is what lingers in the mind of the consumer until they have a need for a particular product or service. Then it's, "Hey, honey, have you seen yesterday's paper? I think I remember seeing an add or Cogswell Cogs. YES, I NEED a cog!"  

The point being that the consumer then calls Cogswell, and not Spacely, who only placed ads on the web.

And web ads suck. For one thing they are built on the exact opposite premise of how ads work. For some reason, web ad buyers have got it in their heads to expect immediate click-thrus, even though that's not how advertising works in any other medium. Yes, Geico can save you up to 15 percent on car insurance. But did you ever call for that savings the second that l'il gekko delivered his punchline? Plus, web ads do not sit in the reader's peripheral vision demanding space in the subconscious harddrive the way print ads do. An iPad screen is no broadsheet, and the reader scrolls right past ad ad there in the blink of an eye. 

So, not only is print a better advertising medium, doing things that help the eye linger nearby ads value to the advertiser, who, as we went over in Part II, is the publisher's true customer

In fact, because a full page of text generally takes longer to read that a full page of comics, the good ad salesman might even be able to elicit a premium from advertisers who want to be on a page opposite a letters column, as opposed to a story page, just as many are willing to pay more for the back cover, on the hope it will land that end up when the kid is done with it.



So, if Diane Nelson were to put me in charge, I'd hand down a decree that most DC comics we'll talk about exceptions in Part V when we discuss preferred publishing formats would contain four pages of mostly-text feature pages.

These would include:


A LETTERS COLUMN (3/4-page)
 

Less than a full page is needed as this feature will mostly be used to spotlight, summarize, and point to comments made on the title’s page on DC’s online discussion boards. So, much like the  letters column that runs in ASTRO CITY, these new column would be more of a letter (singular) column, printing the best fan letter (maybe two) each month (or half-month, depending on publication schedule)

The page can also be used to make a few additional editorial announcements, and for things such as pointing the way to online polls, contests, and promotional offers.

An additional alternative might be to go the ASTRO CITY route and also use the letters column page for the "credit box," thus saving a little bit of space on the splash page.
 


ASK THE ANSWER MAN (1/4-page)

Joined to the lettercol, the feature would allow the editor to respond to specific questions and requests from fans. The Answer Man (or Lady) columns would, of course, feature a caricature of the editor in the style of the classic Bob Rozakis column of yore. 

A clever editor could of course, use answers to tease upcoming issues, or other books within his or her editorial stable. But the point is this section of the page would feature meaningful questions related to the comic title it appears in probably culled from the message boards to continue the synergy between DC's website and its printed comics. It would not be 90 percent, "How much is my copy of FOUR-STAR SPECTACULAR #4 worth?"




WHO'S WHO IN THE DCU (half-page)

This would be a text feature (probably with one illustration) designed to compliment the main story in the comic. So, for example, say Terra-Man is the villain of the issue, the Who's Who page (in this case probably titled "The Krypton Chronicles" although I'd keep something akin to the original Who's Who design format) might detail how, why, and when the character was created, and how he has been used over the years, rather than the traditional "biographical" data.

One added benefit of this style of feature is that it allows hardcore fans to get their continuity fix in the form of acknowledging previous versions of the character, while easing them into the fact that, maybe this ain't your daddy's Terra-Man. Meanwhile, new and younger readers get a bit of history, understanding the genesis of the character and what purpose it served 20 years before he or she was born, without having all that backstory woven into, or worse, presented as the basis of the actual story. 

As an alternative, this page might occasionally feature different types of story-related info. For example, if the main tale is about time travel, the info page might have a text piece about tachyon particles, how they were discovered, and how they might enable actual time travel, at least theoretically, in real life. Other times, the page could be an addendum to the story, as when, back in the day, Legion comics sometimes featured a page from Shrinking Violet's diary, or some such, that added an extra layer to the comics story.

Of course, in the first month of my proposed All-New, All-Different, Totally Rebirthed New 52 (more on that in Part VI), this page would most likely be used to explain how the legacy numbering was calculated. Yes, I do intend to go there. 




DC PRO-FILES (half-page)

Nominally a spotlight on one of the creators of the main story, this would be a Q&A designed to go on the same page as the info text feature to compliment both it and the main story. Using the example above, the penciller of the story might talk about how and when he (or she) first encountered Terra-Man, what he (or she)  thought of the character at that time, what s/he thought of the character’s original design, along how s/he approaches drawing the space cowboy today, etc. 

As you can see, these info pages and profiles will take a fair amount of thought and planning, even if the actual creation of them does not eat up too big a portion of the work day. They need to compliment, add to, or shine an additional light onto the main story of the issue. They can't be just pure filler crap through together to take up space.




GROUP PROMO PAGE (full page)

Taking the place of house ads to a large degree, this would be a page promoting the other titles on sale that month (or upcoming) within its own editorial group, done in the style of the old Daily Planet promo pages from the 1970s, excepting only that the Answer Man and Direct Current sections are now broken out into their own features. 

But a few articles and "photos" in the form of a newspaper page would still work well, I think, especially if each editorial group has it's own newspaper. So, while the Superman family of titles might have a Daily Planet page, the Bat-books might have the Gotham Gazette, while the page used in the Flash books might be the Central City Picture News.

Oh, and we definitely want a Hembeck-style humor strip, don't yo think? 
  



DIRECT CURRENTS PROMO PAGE (full page)

A page promoting titles in other editorial groups, other DC imprints and brands, DC tv shows and movies, and DC merchandise, along with various contests, surveys and giveaways. This should include a sidebar column or interview in addition to some primary plug and a selected checklist of books “now on sale.” 

The column should be, I would think, something akin to the old Stan Lee's Soapbox section of the long-lost Marvel Bullpen Bulletin pages — which is why I'm using an old Bulletin page as the illustration for what I have in mind. Just think "DC Direct Currents" across the top instead of "Bullpen Bulletins.

Anyway. the Stan's Soapbox space might be a perfect piece for Dan Didio to take on when he's promoted out of the publisher's chair. What would we call it though? "Dan's Dispatches" maybe?

 Also, because we’ll be aggressively pursuing sales outside comics shops, and any given book may well have been purchased by people who don’t even know such things exist, this page should have a banner trumpeting the comic store locator service, as an olive branch to the friendly neighborhood LCSs out there.



Well, that's that, in Part V I'll go over the formats DC should publish its comics in, while in Part VI I finally get to the actual titles I'd like to see.



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