THE MYTH OF THE RATIONAL READER
I haven't been reading as many comics in the past month as I usually do, but I've been thinking a lot about them -- and thinking about why I'm not reading these dozens of single issues that have piled up on my tables and nightstands and shelves.
And I've been thinking about what it means to be a reader, and, in the larger sphere, what it means to be an audience of readers.
Part of that thinking comes from my recent participation in the public playtest of "D&D Next," the beta version of what will be released in 2013 as the new Dungeons & Dragons ruleset. My comic book reading came out of my interest in role-playing games as an elementary school student, and now, thirty years later, I find myself more interested in world-building and game-playing and far less interest in passive consumption of product, even when the product is well-made.
So I'm in the mindset of thinking about the very nature of playtesting, and focus group surveys, and reader responses and how much any of that matters.
And I know games are not the same as comics and neither are the same as movies, or cleaning agents, or automobiles, or running shoes, or whatever example you want to throw out there, but this week's column is a chance to run through a few thoughts about the whole notion of marketing and audience demands and what it means to position yourself (as a company or as a product) toward a particular demographic. What it means to be a consumer, or a reader, living in such a landscape, and what we might be able to do to react to it all.
Maybe I don't know if I have any answers, but I certainly have some thoughts I want to explore this week and see where they lead. The When Words Collide Forum is yours to run wild with. Refute my assertions, call my bluffs, and give me your honest opinions this week.
WHAT PLAYTESTING D&D NEXT HAS TAUGHT ME ABOUT COMICS
In my playtesting of the new D&D rules -- and you can read my admittedly ridiculous account of my family's in-game experiences over at my blog -- I've been paying attention to what works and what doesn't with the new game mechanics, but I've been more interested in looking at how the sensibility of the game comes out of those mechanics, and how the audience at large responds.
The game feels different with some of these new rules, but it doesn't feel like a completely different game, and yet in my tracking of audience reactions, I find almost nothing but extreme reactions. From the Twitter #dndnext hashtag to the Wizards of the Coast D&D Next Forums, you'll see a lot of "Why This is Terrible" and "The Game is Better Than Ever" kinds of comments, with the thoughtful, precise language of other specific criticisms or accolades drowned out by overreaction.
It's nothing surprising to anyone who has witnessed the discussion of comic books (or anything else) online. But it's not just a vocal audience response, it's a permitted vocal audience response. An asked-for one. It's a structure that says, "try this thing out, for free, and tell us what you'd like to see fixed before we make you pay money to get it." Criticism is expected, but in real-internet-life it devolves into emotional outbursts more often than targeted constructive commentary.
Wizards of the Coast knows this. Head D&D honcho Mike Mearls has talked about the public playtest on the company podcast and said that the feedback they are most interested in will come from the surveys, and even then they'll be looking at the numbers, rather than the passion, of the responses. If 93% of the playtesters respond to a question about, I don't know, Armor Class by saying that it needs to be higher, then the rules will likely be tweaked to reflect that preference from the audience. If 20% of the playtesters write passionate, vitriolic screeds in favor of Armor Class being lowered, they may take note, but it's not likely to sway any game designer opinions or change any rules.
I'm oversimplifying what the company plans to do, surely, but they state that they're more interested in what the crowds say, rather than what the most well-reasoned arguments say. And that's because they're trying to build something that the maximum number of people will want to play.
Just like Marvel and DC want to produce comics that the maximum number of people will want to buy. Which is why we get "Avengers vs. X-Men" as an event timed to coincide with the Avengers film. Which is why the DC relaunch rebooted characters with potentially convoluted back stories.
But like Wizards of the Coast, Marvel and DC are getting feedback from the wrong people.
THE VORTEX OF INSULARITY
The D&D playtesters are coming almost exclusively from the ranks of those of us who (a) currently play some version of D&D, and (b) are already somewhat active online and have an account set up with Wizards of the Coast or don't mind taking the time to make one. Wizards is trying to build something new that will feel like something old so they can sell it to someone who already has something very similar to it.
Comics, at least corporate ones, are much the same.
The Marvel and DC comics are positioned to sell to retailers -- not to readers -- who get their comics from a single distributor, sometimes with inconsistent information about which writers and artists will be involved with the product and often with inaccurate shipping dates. The readers of Marvel and DC comics are insular to begin with -- they tend to like things that are like things that they like (got that?) -- and when you add the layer of retailer conservatism (why should they risk overordering on something that might be good when they know David Finch's Batman comics will sell more copies than the good comic anyway?), you get a mass of readers who do speak with their wallets but don't have anything interesting to say.
And online you get flame wars over whether or not "Before Watchmen" is the worst thing to happen to comics or just the worst thing to happen this year.
Everyone is pandering, and they don't even know who they're pandering to anymore. It's like one desperation move after another.
EVER CONSIDER THAT THE READER MIGHT BE WRONG?
If you crunch the numbers, and you look at sales trends or reader interest surveys, you would have a picture of the mainstream American comic book market today. But basing creative decisions on those numbers leads everyone down the path of insipid comics. We've seen it happen. Trying to ride the trends or predict what audiences will respond to gets you that "Battleship" movie and yet another "Batman" series and probably a comic where someone gets married to someone else, the bigger mainstream media coverage of that, the better.
Good stories? Good comics? Why bother? The audience isn't there for them.
See five hundred cancelled-too-soon comic book series, and all the great young independent artists who can't even make a living drawing comics, for further examples.
So what's to be done? How can a company, built around maximizing profits, bother with quality when it's so damned expensive? How can they stick to what they know is good -- trust the talent to produce something new and interesting -- when the audience cries foul at every perceived wrong move, and ignores most everything that looks a little different?
Sorry, but I don't know. But I do know that having the courage to produce something great even when it might not be popular right away (or might be costly to produce with no guarantee of return) is one of the hallmarks of true artistry, and a company can support such an environment is capable of growing into something amazing. Apple knew it. Pixar knew it. (I'm not sure either of them still know it, but there was a time not so long ago when they did.)
Marvel and DC are both part of huge entertainment conglomerates, but they don't have to act like they are. They can be better. They should be. If they want to continue to matter.
Because I'm looking at my pile of comics, and I don't feel like reading any of the Marvel or DC comics this week, or last, or the week before. I'm not boycotting anything, or taking a moral stand because of perceived creative slights. I'm just not interested in the mass of them. They're products, and though that's always been true, they feel more like it than ever.
A rational reader would walk away for a while, right?
I probably won't. Will you?
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.