Shelf Life

Thu, December 30th, 2010 at 1:58pm PST

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist

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TOO DAMN MANY SUPERHEROES

As good as comics like "Uncanny X-Men" may be, they're rooted in years of potentially imposing continuity

You like pizza? I like pizza. New York style, Chicago style, traditional, white -- I like pizza in all its varieties. Doesn't mean I want to eat pizza for every meal. Most of us realize that if you stuff pizza into your face at every sitting, you eventually turn into an unhealthy puddle of goo.

I like superhero comics, too. I've written a lot of them. For the first decade of my career, superheroes were the vast majority of what I wrote. But just as I don't want pizza for every meal, I don't want to read only superhero comics. Yet that's most of what we serve up as an industry. And in the long run, it's about as unhealthy as a daily diet of Pizza Hut and Domino's.

Let's get this out of the way: I love superheroes. I love the icons like Batman and Superman and Spider-Man. I love the stuff that meant something to me when I first discovered comics. I'll fight anyone who tries to make off with my Simonson "Thor" run. I'm not an indie snob; I have virtually no interest in reading a poorly-drawn, black-and-white account of somebody's teen angst over not having a girlfriend in high school. If that's your thing, fine, but I'm not coming along for the ride. I like stories in which things happen, in which characters strive and triumph, or strive and fail. I think a lot of people like those kinds of stories … except when those stories are dressed up in spandex and lugging around decades of continuity minutiae.

Did you go get your new comics yesterday? That's what the hardcore readers do, right? Hit the local comic shop as soon as the books are out of the Diamond cases, and get their weekly fix. It's a way of life for a lot of fans, and believe me, everybody on this side of the fence appreciates that kind of loyalty. Did you happen take a look around the shop while you were there? Probably not, because you've been there dozens (hundreds?) of times before. You know where everything is, you've seen it all before. You were intent on culling the week's new reads. That's cool. But next time you're in the shop, take a step back and really have a look around, especially at the racks that display the releases from the past month or so. That's a pretty good sample of what's published, what sells. And in most shops, the majority of what you see is Marvel and DC superhero comics. In a great many shops, as much as 80% to 90% of the new comics are supers from the Big Two. That's an awful lot of shelf space devoted to a pretty singular storytelling niche.

It's the equivalent of Barnes and Noble stocking only bodice-ripper Romances, or four out of every five movies at the theater complex being a Western. But it doesn't stop there. Imagine if those Romance novels or those Western flicks had complex back stories and regularly crossed over with another, requiring the audience to keep up with an ever-increasing number of stories. That might appeal to the few hardcore fans of the genres, but the rest of the audience would walk away.

The hard truth is this: very few people in the general public are interested in reading superhero comics. At this point, the argument I inevitably hear is that everybody loves superheroes, just look at the box-office numbers for the "Batman" or "Iron Man" or "Spider-Man" films. Sure, added together, it's not in the hundreds of millions of dollars, it's in the billions. But superhero movies are not superhero comics. You don't have to seek out those movies -- they're everywhere. You don't need to bring any background knowledge with you to enjoy the movies. For all the vast money that the films generate, sales of the monthly comics that inspired them have stayed flat. That strikes me as a pretty good indication that a large segment of society is not terribly interested in reading superhero comics, or at least the superhero comics presently offered.

DC Comics experimented with non-super hero comics with their recent War-themed one-shots

Yet the direct market -- the shops that buy comics from publishers on a non-returnable basis -- seems to crave nothing more than superhero title after superhero title. Quick anecdote: when I came back to "Green Lantern" for a six-issue arc to wind up the previous volume, I brought Luke Ross along as the artist. The issues sold pretty well. The next project Luke and I did together was "Samurai: Heaven and Earth," our creator-owned historical adventure for Dark Horse. Obviously I'm not an unbiased observer, but I think it's my best writing and Luke's best artwork. Yet "Samurai" sold about 25% of what our "Green Lantern" issues did. Same creative team, better story, better art, yet roughly only a quarter of the sales. It's a sobering reminder that in the direct market, superheroes sell, not much else does.

There are more good, diverse comics being published now than ever before. I firmly believe that. But in terms of copies sold, superheroes still rule the direct market roost. So we end up with a majority of what's published directed at a very narrow audience, and much less product directed at everyone else. Why is that? Are there too many superhero titles because that's what the existing audience demands of publishers? Or are there too many superhero titles because that's what publishers are forcing down the throats of the existing audience? Kind of a chicken-and-egg question, isn't it?

The easiest thing in the world is to preach to the converted. In this case, that means offering up an array of long-established superheroes to an ever-shrinking demographic. The stories appeal to the faithful, but relative few, who have been reading for 10 or 20 or even 30 years. In the last few years, the preponderance of event plotlines, with large-scale interconnectivity across titles, has made publishing lines even more insular. The overall universe becomes the unit of storytelling, rather than the individual title, with a hefty price tag to follow an event and its numerous tie-ins.

In theory, this is providing the existing audience with what it wants. But here's the problem: the existing audience is already too small, and shrinking. Look, this is our secret club, but you only have to look at sales figures to see that membership is trending in the wrong direction. How many people shop regularly in a direct market store? I've seen estimates that put that number somewhere around 100,000. That's frighteningly low, and a leading reason of why comic shops are failing. We as an industry cater to a dwindling demographic. It's essentially the "blood from a stone" theory -- we're so busy clinging to what's left, there aren't enough resources being applied to attracting new readers. A drowning man is too busy treading water to build a boat.

So who's to blame here? Take your pick: everyone or no one. Publishers are in the business of staying profitable; they supply what the market demands. Readers buy what the publishers put the most muscle behind, as well as what they pick up out of habit. Retailers stock what they think they can sell, which often means extra rack copies of "Batman" or "Avengers" at the expense of taking a chance on something new from a non-Big Two publisher. Everybody's just trying to survive, and in doing so, further contributing to the death spiral.

The sales numbers for Marz and artist Luke Ross' "Green Lantern" run were about four times greater than their "Samurai" series

It's a bleak picture. But I do think there's hope on the horizon in the form of digital publishing. We now have the distribution tool to reach wide audiences, to make access to comics as easy as the click of a button. But we can't make the mistake of offering this prospective audience only the same material that the Every Wednesday Warriors want. The casual audience, frankly, doesn't give a shit. The casual audience doesn't know or care about the details of the Kree-Skrull War or pre-Crisis continuity; they want to be entertained, and we'd damn well better come up with a wide range of material to do it. Yes, superheroes should (and will) be part of it. But so should everything else -- romance, Western, mystery, horror, science-fiction, historical adventure, fantasy, non-fiction. We've allowed most people who aren't in our secret club to think comics is a genre (superheroes). We need to show them it's a medium.

I expect a lot of Vertigo titles will be embraced digitally. I'm excited about Marvel reviving some CrossGen titles, not because of my history with CrossGen, but because it's a step into other genres. The "Oz" adaptations are brilliant. Publishers like Image and Dark Horse and Archaia offer up creator-driven material that's likely to garner more interest digitally than in the direct market. Yes, there is an array of material out there, there's just not enough of it.

So how about this for a New Year's resolution: next time you're in a store, try something new, something different, instead of what's familiar. Realize that every time you buy a comic, it's a vote for more of that kind of comic. Send the message that we deserve more than pizza and superheroes.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts," "Witchblade" and "Magdalena" for Top Cow, and his upcoming creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image, set to debut in 2011. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com

TAGS:  shelf life, ron marz, green lantern, samurai heaven and earth

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