The Hot Seat

Mon, November 26th, 2001 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
The Hot Seat, Columnist

Welcome to week #3 of The Hot Seat, CBR's weekly guest editorial column written by industry professionals.

This week we've invited writer Danny Donovan to sit in our rather warm seat. Danny's work can be found in Committed Comics anthology "Threads," he's contributed to the 9-11: Emergency Relief benefit project and has a story that will be appearing in an upcoming issue of "X-Men Unlimited" with art by Thomas Giorello.

A news item goes out, within moments people are bickering back and forth, industry pundits weighing in with their two cents, and consumers expressing their disdain or joy over the news. Sounds like and episode of cross-fire doesn't it? Well in actuality it's just the weekly-as-it-dictates press conference from the major comic companies. For me it's fun, for others it's frustrating.. I come in under very special circumstances. I'm a freelance writer, whose gotten to work with some of those guys and know most personally, I'm a fan that loves the medium and is always excited when something comes along to make it grow, and I'm a retailer.. I see what moves in the shop I work at, and I hear from others so I know what's hot in other areas.

But it shocks me how many people put the blinders up when it comes to comic books. Now, keeping with the news analogy, we've seen a bit of a newswire expansion in our little corner of the entertainment universe much like that of the 24hr news networks that CNN spawned. And as they have their own ways of hearing the publics response we have... the message board! Never have so many people that know so little been able to say so much. This isn't a dig at anyone per-se mind you. Everyone has the right to convey their feelings but sometimes it gets nasty and things end up bubbling over into other areas.

As I'm sure many other retailers and creators and fans tend to do there's a list of sites that are daily ritual. (Comic Book Resources among them) And viewing the backlash of fan reaction to the news is also a fun little venture. But as a great character once said: "With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility." At any given day you can find out how others feel about certain initiatives. And with the anonymity of the Internet more and more people are less afraid to speak their mind knowing that no one will know who posted the message. With that power comes great fear. Most retailers check these boards to see what's the product that's most on everyone's lips. And what gets those lips yammering the most? Change.

Change of costume, character, or revelation of long secreted past, change breeds fear. Now we exist in a niche market because of that fear, we don't challenge our audience and strive to keep things new and exciting because the audience is so small you're afraid to take the risk of "offending" them. Retailers put a lot of stock in fan boy prattle then they do getting out there and selling a product. Publishers used to shy away from more out there material, or touching on certain subjects in fear of alienating the following.

Some fans are quick to judge that aspects of a project based on one sentence write ups and two page preview spreads. Well versed in the school of :"I know what I like and this ain't it." Retailers see comments so adherently vehement, and so assured that it becomes a self fulfilled prophecy. We exist in a niche' market because of the fear that any attempt to broaden our horizons in the market will be met with failure by those that claim to be in the know. It reminds me of the not to distant past where you couldn't buy a comic without blinding a member of the MIR space station crew. The chromium cover craze that spawned an endless array of the same variation all because it sold so well it was just easier to toss it out to those that already bought it then risk losing money on trying to lure a larger audience with better stories and better art.

Soon the bottom fell out of the boom days when the market shrank due to too many products that were indistinguishable from each other, and what was once the sweet gravy train had run dry with nothing to refill it with. As a creator you want to reach as many people with your stories as possible. Go beyond the less then 1% of people that are already out there reading it and put asses in the seats! While most people still try to play it safe there are those that are pioneering the industry and on all fronts, creator, fan, and retailer, I hope more follow.

Marvel Comics' Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada are doing some of the best work I've seen in years. Bill takes some hits but I think that the work should stand for itself and the world should unclench a little. DC is making some serious strides with some of its mainline books and I hear that there may be a book based on the WB show "Smallville" to which I say -- About time! Probably the best weekly TV show on today. This is where the fear sets in. A book that was released or in the works when the show premiered or sometime shortly thereafter could only help the other books. But there must've been worry of what would happen if the show tanked or it did like the "Flash" TV show of the early 90's which was masterfully done, but never caught the audience as much as CBS had wished. (However if the network would've stopped moving the show it might've built a better following. but that's another rant.) MARVEL hit the same roadblock with "Mutant X." Although they already had a book prepared and solicited for release closer to the premiere, people got a little scared of what would happen if the show doesn't go the distance. Usually syndication is a hard market to keep an interest in. The series was shelved and the show met with critical praise and became the highest rated syndicated show on a weekly basis.

We are coming in an interesting time where more and more comics are reaching that brass ring of general acceptance. Although there are still those content to live in relative obscurity. When the "X-Men" movie hit big at the box office it was a prime time to streamline the books to reach the wide audience they built. Although the proper changes weren't made, again because of the underlining fear of making it to different and losing the core fans and not making it back in the new readers. Or at the very least trading one niche for another. Admittedly, back in 1992 when the Fox animated cartoon debut the popular mutants more closely mirrored their comic book counterparts. However, when the movie was making its rounds they had killed off one of the major characters!

When Marvel re-imagined themselves they went a step beyond the casual "Let's just retell the heroes origin and try again." Or drain the wallets of readers with 5th week events geared toward gradually revamping a character. They did the wise thing and said: "What isn't working here and who's the best to fix it?" They didn't look just at the Wizard Top 10 writers and artists they actually matched up the characters to the people they wanted to see them tell the stories. DC Has followed suit recently taking chances on more small press and indie talents to head up usual big name books.

And bravest of all there's CrossGen. They quickly became a major player on the comics scene daring to break the superhero stranglehold on the comic consumer's subconscious with Fantasy projects. Granted, Mark Alessi (founder of CrossGen) had the Benjamin's to back it come what may, but even though wary retailers ordered conservatively it found its market and now is working its way up the top 100.

We are quickly headed for a bright future as long as publishers stand strong in their decision and retailers learn to trust their instincts and try to get shops laid out for those less then inclined to walk in, or at the very least find a way to let the world know they exist. If you're shop is in a strip mall set up, or is located in a heavy foot traffic area, take the posters off the widows and let the people get a good look at the wares! Creators will soon learn that if you tell a good story the audience will come, don't believe the hype (or pre-hype). When you pander to the niche the medium suffers. Tell the story that needs to be told. Break the cycle of fear. Tell the mysterious characters origin. Touch on real life tragedies. Don't be afraid of what people "might think." Tell a story, tell it well. Avoid "shock value" material unless it's necessary.

In the best of times we beat everyone else hands down when it comes to filling peoples imaginations and unfolding dreams in our books. In the worst of times we're a running joke on "The Simpsons." *worst episode, ever..* We need to look forward and not worry about things changing, we evolve or die. It's the law of nature. Thanks to some daring projects we are seeing more people in the shops then we have in a long time. Let's keep inspiring each other to do better and not cave into the fear of that which is different.

-- Danny Donovan

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