Monday, August 31, 2009

The Mouse of Ideas

So…Disney are apparently buying Marvel for $4 billion.

I doubt that there’s anyone reading this who hasn’t already heard the news, and who hasn’t already spent the day reading tweets and blog articles speculating as to what this will mean. The news coming from Marvel editorial seems to be that, in terms of the comics themselves, this will mean nothing. Disney will have no input into the editorial direction and publishing policies of Marvel Comics. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that this is a good thing, and I’d probably tend to agree with that.

That said, I would love it if Disney actively tried to make comics a mass market product again.

Stop and think about it for a minute… Marvel publishes comics featuring some of the most recognizable characters in pop culture. Spider-Man, The Hulk, Iron Man…all three have starred in major blockbuster films in recent years, grossing millions, if not billions of dollars worldwide. You’d be hard pressed to find a young boy in the developed world who doesn’t own an item of clothing with one of these characters on it. And yet looking at the sales figures for July 2009 we see that Amazing Spider-Man sells around 72,000 copies an issue…Incredible Hulk sells 92,000 copies an issue…and Invincible Iron Man sells just 50,000 copies an issue. These figures are tiny! These are not the sales of a mass market publication…these are the sales of a niche market publication for a shrinking audience of obsessive collectors.

I'd love to see Marvel's top books selling in the millions again, like they should be. At the very least I'd love to see the big main titles turning up in Disney stores in shopping malls across the world. Even if it was just one spinner rack in every store. I do think that would require a return to the more "all ages" approach of Jim Shooter's Marvel though...but I don’t think that's necessarily a bad thing. I'm just currently reading through New X-Men: Academy X (so that I can the read Young X-Men...and then read X-Infernus...and then read the new New Mutants much catching up!) and I think the tone of that series would be perfect for the mass market. I think that comics can be literate and appealing to adults the same time...appeal to a younger audience. Chris Claremont was a master at that. (And I think comparing Claremont's use of the Hellfire Club...where the sexual undertones were incredibly subtle and would have been missed by most younger readers...with Fraction and Land's over the top overtly fetishistic Red Queen illustrates perfectly the difference between making comics for kids that can be enjoyed by older readers...and making comics for an older audience which are completely inappropriate for kids).

I think it would also need a streamlining of the core you would just have a small number of core X-Men Avengers Spider-Man Iron Man Wolverine book...for the mass market...and then you could have a range of other books that could possibly be direct market only (or even digital only, with adds in the mass market core books for the online digital comics service…and maybe even discount codes in the print comics, or something), that could still tie-in to those core books, and reference what was going on in them...but you'd have to be careful that the core books didn't rely on events in the other books too much (although you'd work in subtle references to encourage your new mass market audience to seek out the other books...effectively drawing new customers to the comic shops…or to your digital comics).

But imagine if you had five core books, for example, and they were all $2 you could pick up all the core Marvel books for $10 each month...suddenly comics are a pocket money purchase again! Not only that but you schedule them so that one book comes out a that there's a new book or two each time the family visits the mall...

Cost is a huge factor in this. When I was a kid an American import comic was 70p…and, yes, I know that the price of everything has gone up since the Dark Ages when I was young…but let’s be serious, at £3 and over per comic, comics are not an impulse buy for most kids. They really don’t have that kind of money just floating about in their pockets. I remember going to the newsagent and getting a stack of comic to read whenever we had a long car journey to go on…no kid can do that when they’re £3 each.

I’m in the industry…not just the comic book industry, but I’ve worked in print and publications for over ten years…I know it’s possibly to print a 24 page comic book cheaply enough to get the cover price down below $2 a comic (and if you’re Disney and you’re using your own retail outlets and pre-existing distribution network then it should be even easier). And that’s without getting into economies of scale (basically that if you’re printing and selling in the millions rather than the thousands then your cost per unit inevitably goes down). And, hey, if you have to go back to lower quality paper, like newsprint, to do that, then do it! The world is not going to end if our comics aren’t printed on high gsm glossy stock! (I was tempted to go on a rant about the people who suggest that we need to cut out the “expensive photoshop colouring” to reduce the cost of comics…but let’s just all agree that those people don’t know what they’re talking about, eh?).

So…anyway…yes…in summary…in my little game of fantasy comic publisher…I’d love to see a small core of maybe five main books, produced cheaply and in large numbers, and distributed widely…to places kids already go. Those books would have the BEST writers and the BEST artists and would be a way of getting kids reading comics again. Rather than replacing the direct market, they would be a gateway to it, and also a gateway to the digital comics. The non-core books would still be viable…and, if anything, they’d end up being read by a LOT more people (and, if they went digital only, the cost of producing them would be drastically cut). For those of us who like our comics on high quality glossy paper, there would still be trade paperback collections. But the important thing is that comics would be available to millions of kids.

Of course...none of this will happen...but it's fun to dream...