Raising the bar for comics

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201110271345 Raising the bar for comics

Darryl Ayo is at it again with another in his ongoing series of rabble-rousing blog posts. This time he suggests that we need to take a look in the mirror in order to get comics more visibility.

It’s no coincidence, people. A resounding success in comic books is a hundred thousand units sold. A thunderous applause in comic strips is merely getting a new strip into the door. In rap music, bragging about either of these things would get you laughed out of the industry. The bar for success in comics needs to be set much higher and it should be enforced by those of you who operate under the pretense of bettering comics. Slowly, but surely, we will not find ourselves needing to boast about terrible sales or projects that merely get optioned.


It’s often noted that the comics industry is one of the friendliest creative fields, with the entrance level set at no more than a handful of mini-comics or webcomics, and success isn’t even defined as making a living from your work. As a result, sheer creativity is elevated and egos (no matter what you think of so-and-so) usually blow in at no more than a Category 1.

Nonetheless, Ayo does hit on a worrisome thought that most of us professional observers have pondered. Are we just TOO easygoing? Have comics become like that scene in THE INCREDIBLES where you get a ribbon just for entering the race — with the result that actual success is downplayed?

Ayo has a list of generalized suggestions for various comics practitioners to up their game. So who’s been dogging it?

Comments

  1. Balls to that. Comics are not rap music. If you want to compare media, how about novels? 100,000 sales of a novel in a week would put it to the top of the bookseller lists. Aren’t they more comparable?

  2. Synsidar says:

    100,000 sales of a novel in a week would put it to the top of the bookseller lists. Aren’t they more comparable?

    No, they’re not. Novels have the potential of appealing to millions of readers across the country. Publishers put out novels knowing that most of them won’t sell millions, or even come close, but with a novel that the publisher thinks can reach several demographic groups, the potential for a hit exists.

    The potential audience for superhero comics, conversely, is measured in the hundreds of thousands. The potential audience for works like ASTERIOS POLYP or Crumb’s GENESIS might be larger, but will be reached over years.

    Part of the problem with comics is that criticism isn’t taken seriously by the publishers, or by many consumers, and the publishers infantilize the reactions to their comics by reducing audience reactions to “like” or “dislike.” FEAR ITSELF has been panned widely since it started, and the final issue has been criticized as vehemently as any issue I’ve seen in years, but there have been no signs that I’ve seen that Marvel has taken the negative reactions seriously. They’re proceeding with their plans as though FEAR ITSELF was a monster hit.

    If a book is damned by reviewers, and by enough readers, people can be shamed into not buying it, or into not admitting that they enjoy the content. One sign that comics are taken seriously as publications will be when reviews actually influence purchases and publishers’ editorial plans.

    SRS

  3. Torsten Adair says:

    100,000 a copies a week? Or a month? A $2.99 comic book compared to a $16 trade paperback (The Help)?

    100,000 / 300,000,000 = 0.0003 or .03%
    3/100ths of 1 percent

    Okay… let’s compare apples to apples:

    What does the Audit Bureau of Circulations say about sales of magazines? Anyone have access?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_magazines_by_circulation#United_States

    #100 = Bloomberg Businessweek = 921,839 ($4.99 cover price)

    Businessweek is a weekly, so that’s not an exact match. GQ, a monthly, sells 939,067 issues of each monthly issue, price $4.99.

    Where does a title with 100,000 sales rank? Where do the comics periodicals chart?

    Shonen Jump? 215,000? $4.99
    MAD? 200,000? $5.99
    Archie’s Double Digest? 103,000? $3.99

    How about those British newsstand sales? Compare per capita circulation (61M vs. 300M).
    2000 AD? Beano?

    Then there is continental Europe, where Disney reigns supreme. Anyone have any data on the translated American titles?

    I’ve heard that for every issue of a Denmark Disney comic sold, four people read it (usually in the same household). What are the figures for an American comic? <2?

  4. Synsidar- Marvel seems to be, understandably, looking at this more like the movie business rather than publishing. Who cares if there are bad reviews when there is a large audience reading/purchasing regardless?

    Low reviewer scores didn’t change plans for Transformers movie sequels and why should they? The audience came out in droves for all three films. All they care about is asses in seats.

    Critical acclaim is not necessarily their goal. Entertainment criticism as a whole is accepted by a company when it bolsters their property and ignored when it’s negative. As long as sales are strong they’ll keep heading the same direction. If sales were really poor then they might look to reviews for the post-mortem, but that’s about it.

    Marvel isn’t doing anything wrong. They’re just being an entertainment company.

  5. Charles Knight says:

    I doubt many Brits will admit to ‘dogging it’ since to us it is a reference to a sexual sub-culture that involves going to a sexual carpark to have sex with some random stranger while other people watch.

  6. Charles Knight says:

    Arf… Blame the auto-correct for the reference to a ‘sexual carpark’

  7. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Pressing after some vaguely defined broad measure of success can be a trap in that better measures are the quality of the art and how the creators of that art are able to profit to fair and maximum effect from their work. More people have probably watched certain YouTube videos than the entirety of Bone, but Jeff Smith’s a resounding success by any rational measure and not just to the percentage of Bone readers to stupid YouTube video watchers.

    There is, however, a distressing trend culture-wide for a lot of people to aim low, to be perfectly satisfied with delighting the 40 people that follow you closely on Facebook with your clever remarks as opposed to finishing that novel. I think that’s part of the disconnect many feel from the potential of any other kind of reward, and I think that’s part of the result that more people are in that particular game. It’s always been part of an artist’s personality to play to the room, which is one of the reasons why industries grow up around them.

  8. Synsidar says:

    Who cares if there are bad reviews when there is a large audience reading/purchasing regardless?

    But the audience isn’t large, relative to the national population, the number of movie-goers, the number of TV viewers, or the buyers of Wimpy Kid books. It’s large only when compared to the buyers of other Marvel and DC publications. And those purchases aren’t based on perceived quality.

    SRS

  9. Not a good thing but in the most profitable cases; perhaps the 22 page source material has finally become the transmedia complement to the film franchise.

  10. Synsidar- I totally agree with you that it’s not a large number overall, especially compared to other forms of entertainment. I’m not saying I’m happy with comic sales numbers or that they’re a resounding success. Sorry if it came across that way.

    I also don’t want it to come across like I think Marvel is intending to produce low quality/poorly reviewed books.

    What I am saying is that regardless of reviews, it’s selling well in its field so they don’t have incentive to make big changes. DC had sales incentive and the will to shake things up. Right now Marvel doesn’t.

    The Marvel character brands, their longevity and the general buying habits of their readers have more sway than reviews/critical analysis do.

  11. In terms of storytelling, a comic is most similar to an episode of a tv show. it’s (generally speaking) not a complete story, but pushes the plot and characters of a series forward. if you’re talking about a tpb/hc/gn/ogn, it’s most similar to a novel or a DVD boxset of a television series.

  12. jamesmith3 says:

    The fact that “do better” constitutes noteworthy criticism in comics pretty much proves the point.

  13. FaFaFlooey says:

    Synsidar wrote ,”Part of the problem with comics is that criticism isn’t taken seriously…”

    And here in lies another issue — respectability of comics reviewers and critic. Just because I eat food, does not qualify me as a “food critic”. I watch a lot of football, but does that qualify me to provide analysis for the sport, much less in a position to coach or play on a team? It doesn’t take much to get a FREE blog up and running. It doesn’t even take much to write for a comics “news” site. Speaking of which, how many of the staff writers on a comics news sites do you think have even taken a course on journalism?! How many of them have even taken a course on comic book storytelling?!?

    Most of the people in this industry grew up as fans and readers of comics when they were young. They followed their favorite characters and writers and artists. But being a fan, does not qualify one to be a critic. Very few outside working professionals actually have an understanding of the craft and process of comics. What is the writer’s portion versus the artist’s, versus the colorist’s, versus the editor’s, etc in the final product?

    I read comics reviews all the time and in an average review of perhaps 5 paragraphs, maybe, maybe the last one will cover the artist’s role. Yet, the artist — in comparison to movies — is the director, the actor(s), the cinematographer, the special effects guy, all rolled up into one! How does that make any sense? Have you ever read a movie review with the same disproportionate ratio? NO. Most movie reviews focus on the director, actor, then writer. And not to say that is right, either.

    In addition, the reviewer might talk about “nice drawings” or that things were “drawn well”, which, again using the same analogy, equates to “ohh, the actor was attractive” or “and the props and sets looked nice”. Everything in between — and around — is often ignored/overlooked/not absorbed, because most comics reviewers (even ones on major sites) are fans, and not qualified to give a respected critical review.

  14. bad wolf says:

    Wait, tell me more about this ‘sexual carpark’

  15. “Do better”?

    Gosh, why did *I* think of that? I’ve been deliberately spending every evening doing half-assed work instead of actually trying.

  16. Joseph says:

    Also, you stupid You-Tube-watching kids get off Tom Spurgeon’s lawn!

  17. Sinsidar wrote: “One sign that comics are taken seriously as publications will be when reviews actually influence purchases and publishers’ editorial plans.”

    Sorry, but you’re making an outrageous leap. If the market ceiling for comics is a few hundred thousand, what’s the market for comics criticism? a few hundred? Comics criticism can’t even maintain a print presence. Comics Journal, Wizard, CBG–whatever the angle, these all fail as print periodicals in today’s market. Looking to criticism to help save print comics is like a flounder asking a minnow’s advice on how to best swim with the sharks.

    Things work far better in the other direction–when mass, general awareness filters down to the books. Watchmen sold a million copies in the year surrounding the film. That’s more copies than could ever be moved by the collective thumbs-up of every comics critic tastemaker.

  18. Joe, sorry — only mods can post html in comments. I tried to retrieve your original posts but they had been eaten by WordPress.

  19. Synsidar says:

    Consider Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (DVC). Released in 2003, the book had been bought by 40 million people by 2006, and six million paperbacks were issued. Why was that book such a hit? If part of the reason was people wanted a thriller, and DVC satisfied that appetite, then the rnarket for close-ended thrillers is much, much larger than the market for serialized stories.

    Lessons might be learned by looking at huge bestsellers and seeing what made them so accessible. There’s no benefit in assuming that the comics format puts a ceiling on a story’s appeal, but just trying to appeal to readers who like thrillers, for example, shouldn’t be that difficult to do.

    SRS

  20. Synsidar says:

    If the market ceiling for comics is a few hundred thousand. . .

    The market ceiling for superhero comics is widely thought to be a few hundred thousand. The ceiling for comics created to appeal to mass audiences isn’t known, because too few publishers try. The point of citing reviewers’ opinions is that in the market for books and movies, they’re not unrepresentative of the masses’ tastes. If a reviewer says “Don’t go see _____,” the sensible thing to do isn’t to go see it. Their reviews are based on widely agreed-on standards for good storytelling, not whether they like certain characters, actors, or actresses.

    SRS

  21. I appreciate the comparison to rap music. I loved rap music a kid (bought my first album in 1980), listened to it into my mid-20’s. At first sales were crap, but then started to “boom”. Great artistic rappers began to disappear as copy after copy after copy of whatever was a “hit” began spewing loudly while saying zilch.

    Today’s world of rap is nothing but the same words over the same music with no originality or artistic value…..is that what we want for the comic industry? I sure hope not!

  22. I don’t see the connection. Plenty of comics (superhero and non-superhero) get reviewed in mainstream venues. Certainly the NYT Book Review and PW, but also numerous local TV, web, newspaper, &c. Some reviews are competent.

    Marketing VPs at DC used to say a starred review in PW is worth about 5,000 additional sales on novels OR graphic novels. I’ve worked on some of the best reviewed (by mainstream reviewers as well as industry reviewers)stuff, and it doesn’t always translate to remarkably better sales.

    Watchmen sold a million copies in a year, and it’s superhero.

    Ms Mainstream, Katie Couric, told people not to buy Superman: Earth One and it boosted sales considerably (on, what, about 100,000 total sales to date?) because she snidely compared it to Twlight.

    I know a couple of (prose) novelists who are perennial NYT Bestsellers AND always well-reviewed–but don’t move more than 20,000 copies.

    Da Vinci Code is terrible by any valid critical aesthetic standard.

    Good reviews might help a bit; bad reviews probably won’t hurt too much; mostly in comics it has little effect.

    It would be nice if comics could do Stephen King numbers. It would be nice if Stephen King COMICS could do Stephen King numbers. But while I’m all for better criticism, those millions of potential readers are more easily reached by new ideas in marketing and distribution.

  23. Matthew Southworth says:

    The very LAST thing comics publishers need to do is start paying attention to critics and reviews. Trying to please a diaspora of bloggers is only a viable option for people who have nothing of their own to say.

    Comics (and movies, and music, etc.) are nearly always better when they are created freely, without intrusion by the audience. Hopefully those works of art do connect with that audience in the end, but trying to unify thousands of disparate comments into an artistic direction creates compromised, crippled, and often embarrassing art.

    Good art, to my mind, is never democratic.

  24. Darryl Ayo’s point is a good one, but what to do about it?

    One case in point, I self published a non-superhero graphic novel about becoming a father called Five Pounds & Screaming. I did an interview in a local newspaper describing the 142 page count, that it’s a black and white graphic novel, the parenthood subject matter, the basic plot of the comic. And the most common response I get around town is congratulations (which is great!) on the “children’s book.” The interview does not say children’s book anywhere. The book is meant for parents, or will-be parents. ?? I love the attention, don’t get me wrong, but the message seems to have been misinterpreted.

    I don’t know how to overcome it, but it seems many people never have and never will pick up a graphic novel – made by Marvel or not – no matter the subject matter.

    Read the Amazon.com reviews for Troublemaker by Janet Evanovich, Alex Evanvovich, with art by Joelle Jones if you want to see everyday readers with their first graphic novel experience. Troublemaker is called some horrible things, often by the same fans of the writers.

  25. Chris Hero says:

    The rap music comparison is asinine. In indie rap, selling 100,000 units = a half million dollars for the artist. So, 100K is something to be proud of. Artists like Murs and Atmosphere have made a small fortune without any mainstream acceptance.

    And there’s a *ton* of wonderful modern rap music. New artists like OFWGKTA (Golf Wang!), Jay Electronica, Curren$y, and Lil B are coming out with some pretty awesome music.

    Really, every time someone tries to compare comics to hip-hop it just goes badly.

  26. Apollo9000 says:

    Comparing Hip Hop and comics makes more sense than some would think at 1st glance.

    We all know ( or should at this point) that best selling doesn’t mean the best. Neither the “majority”.

    When the word “comics” comes up in general, mainstream cycles, it’s basically thought of as “superheroes”.

    Comics isn’t thought of as a medium- their top selling genre is.

    Comics are the ghetto of the entertainment world.

    Sure Superman, Batman, Spiderman and the like made it out but, they always come back to their old block. So much so, that it seems as if they never left. They act the same, still loud and rowdy as when they first came on the scene. ( Batman and the X Men might be the exceptions, being allowed to change their look often.)

    Then, there are the “alternative/ indie” artists that make it big. Or, atleast, make a name for themselves.

    The Hellboys, Scott Pilgrims, TMNTs, Bones, Sandmans, Walking Deads and so forth.

    They’ve all had sometime under the mainstream spotlight. Some shining brighter than others. Even more so than those tied with the big name artists.

    Dr. Strange has been close “labelmates” with Spider Man and, recently, with the Avengers. Yet, he hasn’t been able to build of the buzz.

    Blade, being more “regular”, was to “get on” before him.

    Sure the big name “artists” had big name “producers” like Moore, Miller, Waid, Claremont, Morrison, Bendis, Millar, Johns, and like to help them.

    Some “producers” helped a few of the “artists” reinvent themselves ie. Morrison with the New X Men.

    Similar to the effect that Jay-Z had once he started rhyming over Just Blaze/ Kanye West beats. ( It’s not the the “artist” could n’t move any units. It’s that some felt that he was getting a little soft, losing a bit of an edge. Still, the artist was successful, even being able to “spin off” fellow labelmates.)

    For those a bit miffed by the above: artist = comic character, producer = writer/ penciler, spin off = secondary titles ( X- Factor, New Avengers, Green Lantern Corps).

    To many, comics are just a couple minute offerings full of colorful characters who speak of a life the audience can possibly live. A life too grand, too lavish, too epic, where everyday is an event.

    If comics could see how the public views them, maybe it can do better. Comics should try, I’m mean Really Try, to show more than one side for the public to see. In turn, comics might see more of everything.

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