Sunday, March 25, 2012

"Avengers Assemble" #1: Mainstream comics creators really have no idea what's going on anymore.

Have you heard about the new "Avengers Assemble" #1? On March 13, USA Today had a big preview that is sure to whet your appetite for... well, um, more of the same. At least, if the cover is to be believed:

Obviously the first question when looking at this stupid image is, Why is Captain America leaping off from Hulk's crotch? Hulk has a super crotch, I'm sure, so it would take a lot to injure him, but Captain America has super feet, so there's still a chance for injury.

The second question is, Haven't I already seen this image before, about a million times already, including within the last year, on a comic book that made national headlines? Well, yes, as it turns out, you have seen this image before:

Let's see... There's a green one, a blue one, a red one, a gray one... there's a bunch of men and one woman... there's a bunch of action lines... there's a blue background with some photoshop lighting effects... they're all leaping up from a spot on the floor just outside camera range. But the characters are different. For instance, one of the teams has a wealthy industrialist with no real superpowers, but a lot of skill, and a suit that helps him fight crime. Then the other team has a nearly omnipotent godlike humanesque creature who wears a cape and can fly.

Anyway, they're forced to get together, despite their obvious differences and clashing personalities. They have to solve a problem that no one else could possibly handle.

Sorry. Got a little distracted there.

Last summer, when DC "rebooted" their entire lineup, they used this as the cover of their flagship title, Justice League #1. In fact, USA Today itself covered that reboot. Extensively. They've been all over it:
Justice League No. 1, with its A-list team of writer Geoff Johns and artist Jim Lee, kicked off DC's ambitious "New 52" relaunch in the fall and sold more copies than any other single comic during the year, according to Diamond Comic Distributors.

"New 52" issues dominated the pack, with 19 of the top 25 comics of 2011. Three Justice League, two Batman and two Action Comics issues cracked the top 10, which had only one Marvel title: Ultimate Comics Spiderman No. 160, which featured the demise of the Ultimate Universe's Peter Parker.
According to DC, as of last month the company has sold more than 361,000 copies of Justice League No. 1 and more than 250,000 each of the first issues of Scott Snyder's Batman series and Grant Morrison's Superman-centric Action Comics since September.
361,000 is a lot for a comic book, these days. Of course, the population of the United States alone is over 315 million. That means that at least 99% of people in the United States were able to resist that cover image. And remember that DC was beginning a program of releasing its books digitally on the same day as their print release. Are those numbers included? USA Today exhibits absolutely no curiosity on that front, but DC Comics has been exceptionally shady where their digital sales numbers are concerned:
[I]t looks like DC won't be releasing its New 52 digital numbers but will feel confident in making claims on their behalf. It also looks like comics sites will then repeat this claim as news, perhaps qualified by source or as a claim but still putting that information out there.

This should stop. I think DC has a really dubious history with using the hidden portions of their numbers to PR advantage -- call it the "I have a girlfriend in Canada" of sales analysis. My take is that this practice has intensified slightly ever since the numbers have become smaller and therefore more crucial.
It's not just "comics sites" that are repeating DC's sales claims as news. Actual "news" papers like USA Today are doing it, too. Speaking of which:
There was good news for the comic-book industry as a whole, too. Boosted by a slew of popular Marvel titles and renewed interest in DC's relaunch, annual single-issue sales to the specialty market increased in 2011, up 1.2% from 2010 figures, although graphic novel sales dipped 5% from the previous year.
But, what were the sales figures for 2010? Was that an up year? Not particularly. But saying that 2010's figures almost clawed their way back up to 2009 levels doesn't sound nearly as impressive, which is clearly what USA Today was going for.

But back to "Avengers Assemble" #1. It's been a fairly common complaint that superhero comics today are written exclusively by and for people who are hermetically sealed within the Fandom Bubble (as far as I know, I just made up that term, copyright and trademark by me!), and that there's nowhere for a curious outsider to jump in, therefore alienating a potentially new audience. Will "Avengers Assemble" #1 be the book that comics newbies can jump in with? Let's get back to the intrepid USA Today:
Writer Brian Michael Bendis has been hearing a lot from people wondering where to start in reading Avengers comics before the film opens. "Here's the place," he says, meaning Assemble. "It is a clean-as-a-whistle, come-on-in-the-water's-nice Avengers story."
Giving new fans an easy entry point into "what can be a confusing world of comics" is a goal for Marvel, executive editor Tom Brevoort says. But that's especially important considering the massive promotion en route for the film.
This makes excellent artistic and financial sense. Tell a new story in a fresh way, unencumbered by a melange of continuity, and you could potentially make a lot of money doing something artistically fulfilling. There's obviously a market for the characters and situations, since filmmakers have been mining the 70+ years worth of mainstream comics material to create massively successful feature films.

Maybe they're finally getting it. Maybe these creators and editors are starting to understand that there is a potentially massive audience out there, if they'd only reach out to it. Maybe they're starting to realize that for almost 20 years they have been actively antagonizing all but the most devoted fanboys, who don't have time to consult decades of back issues to understand what's going on in the latest issues.

Or, maybe not.
"Our problem is that people don't read anything, and kids read less and less," Bendis says. "That's my focus even more than the movie people. I want to get everyone on the planet into comics."
No. No, no, no, no, no. And no.

Mr. Bendis is so far into that Fandom Bubble that he needs a plumber to help him swallow his food. I don't know what that statement means, but is he aware of the massive popularity of, for instance, The Hunger Games? Does he not remember the phenomenon that was Harry Potter? How about Twilight? Bookstores were opening at midnight for the releases of the latest editions of some of those series. What about Artemis Fowl? The Percy Jackson books? Diary of a Wimpy Kid? His Dark Materials?

Kids are not reading "less and less." As the sales figures of the above books show -- some of them in the hundreds of millions of copies! -- kids are actually reading "more and more." What they are reading "less and less" of, Mr. Bendis, is comic books. It's now mostly white men in their mid to late 30s who read comics.

If you believe that what you're competing with is a cultural trend toward kids reading "less and less," and not with the material that the kids are actually really reading, then you've already admitted defeat and given up on expanding your base. You're going to continue to sell to the same core of about 300,000 or so people, who are just getting older and more entrenched. You claim that you want to get "everyone on the planet into comics," but nothing, absolutely nothing that you or the company for which you work has demonstrated that. And the same is true of DC. For all their "New 52" hype, they're still churning out the same old stuff.

Meanwhile, you're being lapped, by The Hunger Games. And all you can do is shake your head, and sigh, and say, Kids these days, huh?... They're just reading less and less.


Shawn James said...

I'd have to say many in the comic book industry from the suits in the offices to the fans are out of touch with the real world. When I point stuff out like this and tell them how WWE, Monster High and Harry Potter curb stomp comics in terms of sales on comic boards I get shouted down.

Many comic book fans and the publishers themselves don't see the bigger picture, just their small part in it. Kids born since 2000 have very little exposure to these characters outside of movies and old cartoons. when they grow up, they won't reminisce about superheroes or share them with their kids. And that's going to be bad for business in about 20 years. No, in their eyes Harry Potter, WWE, Monster High and other stuff will be to them what superheroes are to old guys like me.

I've come to terms that many in the comic book industry talk about new readers but don't actually want new readers to come in. Because if new readers were to start reading comic books they'd have to start taking responsibility for the content in those comics and tailor it for younger Tween and teen readers. That would mean no gore, no profanity, no heavy connection to continuity and no fanboy wet dreams on paper. I feel many in the industry are selfish and don't want to share these characters with the next generation because it means they're getting older, and they have to confront their own mortality. That they would have to actually grow up and be adults and actually pass these characters on and move on.

Kids are reading less and less comics because the content being produced is just not accessible to them. Moreover, they just don't relate to "mom & Dad's" heroes because they're OLD.

Kids are reading YA like Harry Potter and the Hunger games because it's actually easier for them to follow. Moreover, They can relate to the characters and their experiences. The stories are written with a sense of adventure and fun. This is why people wait outside a B&N at midnight for to buy paperback of a Harry Potter, Hunger Games or Monster High, and even have parties around these books.

Comic books WISH they could build that kind of momentum. The New 52 wishes it could get a million pre-orders the way HP and the Deathly Hallows had.

As for the comic book industry they're in such denial they just keep rehashing and recycling the same story models from the 1990's not understanding that story structure was obsolete in 1995.

300,000 is a best seller. Sad. 300,000 is barely 1% of the U.S. Population today. And the numbers for the monthlies of those books are 2/3 smaller.

So comics are actually a blip on the radar compared to other forms of media.

Personally, I feel Disney and Time Warner should clean house in their comic book divisions and rebuild with someone focused on building the comic division into a tween YA brand that's kid friendly and kid accessible.

Comics could have the exact same audience as YA paperbacks if it would just hire managers focused on building the brand towards those readers.

Ricky Sprague said...

Thanks for the comment, Shawn. I second just about everything you've said.

I definitely think that there are two strains of smugness and stasism that are ruining comics today. Yes, the publishers claim they want to bring in new readers, and it would seem to make sense, from a financial standpoint, to expand your market. But just one look at what they publish and it's plain that they have no interest in actually expanding their base.

When DC did their "new 52" reboot, who was in charge? The same people who have been running DC (into the ground) for years.

And Bendis's "Kids today" comment is more damning than any other commentary that anyone can offer.

So the publishers keep publishing the same stuff, and tell themselves This is for the fans. Real fans will get it. And the (ever-dwindling numbers of) fans keep buying it, and telling themselves, Yeah, I get it, because I'm a fan.

Even as they become less and less relevant.

You're absolutely right about the lack of attachment to comics among younger readers. The kids in my family who like superheroes get them from television and movies. And they read YA novels.

And the people creating comics, and the people reading the comics, are growing ever more isolated and clueless. Just look at the Justice League and Avengers Assemble covers.