Monday, February 28, 2011

Creative People Need Breaks

It's a well known fact that most American companies give drastically fewer days off per year than European ones tend to. And, in theory, I get it. More days working means more work gets done. And we Americans (well, some of us anyway) love to run ourselves into the ground with our all-important work. But you know what--that's messed up.

I've been working as a comics editor, writer, and teacher for almost 10 years now, and you know what? I've got a couple of regrets. Don't get me wrong, I'm very well aware that I'm in a field that I love and I enjoy the work I do that provides for my family--and I completely understand how important that is and how lucky it makes me, so I'm not complaining--no sir, not by any stretch. Okay, that said, onto my regret (I'm only going to hit one here tonight)...

I regret not slowing down more often. Every time I take a vacation, I come back refreshed, wanting to work and brimming with new ideas from storylines to ways to market comics, to pricing strategies and so on.

And I'm guilty of doing this to myself. I have my staff job, I run Comics Experience and I write. So, I can't blame anyone else for my working habits.

Lately, I've been spending too much time working on comics. I've got a new baby at home, and I don't feel like I'm even beginning to get to know him yet. So this weekend, I decided to put all comics related things on the back-burner. Figure some things out, refocus when I dive back in tomorrow morning.

You know what I did today though? I held my infant son and rocked him to sleep for an hour and a half this morning. Then I played with Cale, my older son, rough-housing a bit, before the whole family piled in a car to drop my wife off at a baby shower. She took Oliver (the new one, if you're having trouble keeping track) with her. So Cale and I went down to Mission Bay--a nearby park on the water--and biked together for five miles, stopping at playgrounds along the way to play games. After that, we went home and played outside with some neighbor friends. I got some more Oliver holding time in and we sat down for dinner. After dinner, Cale and I made a fort, played some more indoor games, and then he and I decided to have a sleep-over in his room. He's now konked out right next to me.

Then I started thinking--tired as I am--about going into the office tomorrow--and what I plan to do with Comics Experience over the next month or so. I spent the whole day NOT thinking about comics--only focusing on having fun with my two kids and wife. And the end result is that I have a million new ideas about COMICS.

My plea to employers everywhere is this: wise up. Give more vacation time. More Paid Time Off. Give a half day here and there. But let your employees recharge their batteries often. You'll get better, more innovative work out of them every single time.

Okay, got to put the computer away now before Cale wakes up!

But tomorrow, I'm starting to take two weeks off to refresh my batteries.



4 Workshop Guests That Will Blow Your Mind In March!

As many of you know, The CE Creators Workshop is the best place to get honest information, advice, and insight from professional creators. And March just proves again that we've achieved that goal! Check out these four outstanding guests and how you could interact with them in March!

1. JASON AARON -- best known for writing SCALPED and WOLVERINE joins the online and live Book Club on Tuesday, March 8th to discuss his book SCALPED vol. 1. This is the only chance you may ever get to read and then discuss a seminal work by a great creator. The session lasts two hours with a direct Q&A with Mr. Aaron!

This is an opportunity open only to CE Creators Workshop members! Can't make the meeting, don't worry. Each meeting is recorded with a secure link that only members can access for one month after the meeting. These "fire side" chats are the most informal and honest way to talk with the industry's most respected creators. Join the Workshop Today so you can attend!

2. JIM CHEUNG -- artist supreme and co-creator of YOUNG AVENGERS and AVENGERS: CHILDREN'S CURSADE will be reviewing the winning portfolio of this month's Artist pick from a Workshop member! Cheung has done incredible work over the last 15 years in comics and is easily one of the industry's top talents. This is a rare opportunity for sure!

This is an opportunity open only to CE Creators Workshop members! Jim does not often do reviews by his own admission. He's laid back and doesn't always feel comfortable. That makes this opportunity that much cooler! Jim's a rare talent who can tell one heck of a story, make it look intensely cool, and create a blockbuster hit while doing it! Join the Workshop Today so you can attend!

3. WIL MOSS -- DC Comics editor working with Matt Idelson on SUPERMAN as well as several of his own projects has agreed to review this month's script winner from our March challenges! He'll be giving a review of the story that gets posted back for all to learn from. Again, a rare opportunity to get your work in front of an honest to god DC Comics staffer!

This opportunity is open only to Workshop members. Wil has is an up and coming editor at DC today. He's the perfect kind of guy to want to get your work in front of. He's smart, knows his comics, knows story, and has a genuine interest in helping young or new creators improve their craft! Join the Workshop Today so you can attend!

4. DIAMOND DISTRIBUTORS -- A representative from Diamond Distributors will join us for our live, online Workshop session held on March 22nd. We're going to get the low-down on what it is Diamond does exactly, how to get into the exclusive PREVIEWS catalog as well as de-mystifying all other question surrounding getting your comic out to your audience in the best way possible! Another rare opportunity! Join the Workshop Today so you can attend!

The Creators Workshop is RED HOT in March! Sign up today!

Click here to read more about the Creators Workshop! And Sign up with just one easy click!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dwayne McDuffie

I was shocked this afternoon to find out that Dwayne died today. Apparently, from complications to surgery. I don't need to know the reason why he died, just that he did. Dwayne and I were friends and this was unexpected and frightening. Last week, another friend of mine, Perry Moore, died. He was the producer of the NARNIA movies. I was also surprised by that. I didn't know Perry as well as I knew Dwayne but the combination is really messing with my mind.

Does this have something to do with comics? I'm not sure, other than both men loved comics. While Perry didn't write any comics, he was a huge supporter of them in Hollywood. Dwayne, on the other hand wrote many comics--including some of my favorites in recent years with his run on JLA, and his run on Fantastic Four. He's just a great writer. He wrote a ton of animation that I loved. His episodes on JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED are largely responsible for my much renewed interest in DC Comics. I still don't understand why the comic doesn't capture the spirit of those characters as well as that cartoon did.

I honestly don't have anything profound to say, but I can't concentrate on writing anything else. Dwayne was great. Great at writing and great for comics. I've been thinking all day about the STAR TREK pitch he worked on for me when I briefly edited the STAR TREK line at IDW. It would have really turned some heads had we been allowed to do it. But we couldn't get it to work for all parties involved. And I was sad about that at the time and I'm twice as sad about it today.

If you haven't had a chance to read his work, do yourself a HUGE favor and go read some of it. He's a great talent for the medium and there are a great many of us that will miss him and his work.

Here's hoping that tomorrow brings some brighter news.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

5 Easy Tips to Improving Your Storyelling (For Artists)

Let's cut to the chase. You can be an awesome draftsman, but if you can't tell a story, then you're just not going to cut it (this has been true since about 1997). So, five easy ways to improve your storytelling if you're an artist are:

1. Always start a scene with an establishing shot. I don't care if the script doesn't call for one--you're responsible for the visual storytelling and continuity. Unless there is a STORY REASON not to have one, start with one. For drama, you can start with an extreme closeup in panel 1, but then you should immediately establish the scene in panel 2.

Establishing shots tell us WHERE we are exactly--sometimes you establish a skyline in one panel and then a particular building in the next or a particular room, perhaps. They tell us WHO is present and where everyone is located in relation to one another. And they often tell us WHEN the scene takes place--either time of day or a particular time period if the work is a period piece.

2. When creating your characters for a story give each one a distinct feature that is different from the rest. Whenever possible, give them all different silhouettes so they can easily be identified by your reader even from a distance. You want a great example of this: look at the original X-Men by Kirby. Each of the five members had a different silhouette and a different distinctive feature. You want a second example, look at the X-Men from Giant-Sized X-Men #1--new team, and new distinct features for all the characters.

On the Kirby X-Men, you've got a guy with wings, a guy made out of ice, a guy shaped like a gorilla, a guy with a weird red visor and a woman with red hair. All have distinct traits so that even when they're wearing matching uniforms, telling them apart is EASY. Now look at the cover again but clack out the shapes. If those were just black silhouettes, you'd still know the guy with the wings is Angel, the guy shaped like snow man is Ice Man and so on. It's amazing how brilliant Kirby really was. Heck, even Magneto, the villain of the piece has a cool helmet that stands out in the shadows as well.

3. Comprise your panels of squares and rectangles only. And leave a healthy gutter space between them. Easily being able to separate one panel from the next makes for a much easier and more enjoyable reading experience.

The point here is that many new readers (and vets like me who are lazy) just want to read a story. And when panel layouts get tricky, they can get very confusing. Even if reading order still works, often oddly shaped panels will lead to reading errors because the balloon order gets thrown off. Just avoid these pitfalls by only using oddly shaped panels when there is a STORY REASON to do so. And even then, don't do it every time.

4. Now take those squares and rectangles and place them all on invisible tiers (break your page into thirds, typically). All panels on tier one should sit exactly on the same imaginary line. And they should all be the same height and with equal distance between them (or width of gutter, if you prefer that term). Then on the next tier, the same principles apply. Rarely will you need more than three tiers.

Look at both the page above from WATCHMEN and the page below, also from WATCHMEN (because Dave Gibbons is perhaps the most under-rated comic artist of all time--and he's highly regarded as one of the best!). Simple rectangle and square panels. Three tier system. Notice that you intuitively know what panels come in what order. You also have no trouble reading the word balloons and captions in the correct order. It's all right there because of the clean and simple layout.

5. Knock off all that popping out of the panel nonsense. Every time you pop a character's head or blaster, or sword, or leg, or wagon, or whatever our of a panel, you're distracting your reader from what is INSIDE the panel. Keep it simple. Keep it contained.

The greatest comic book of all time (some will tell you) is WATCHMEN and in all of its 12 over-sized issues Gibbons NEVER breaks out of the panel. The entire story is confined to within those panel borders. He never lets the reader break any barrier. While there is much of his work to marvel at, he never intentionally draws attention to how good he is, and that just makes him that much better.

Follow these five steps on your next page and watch how easy it is to read. Watch how clean and professional your pages become--overnight.

Hope it helps. Now go sign up for the Comics Experience art class! :)


Students Publish Another Anthology!

The last Comics Experience writing class has gently published it's anthology book called More Tales From the Comics Experience. They have self publishers the material and that means they've accomplished probably the hardest task in all of comics.

Some people look at self publishing as what someone does when no publisher will pick up the work. Not at all true. While, sure, that does happen, in the case of these writers and artists, they never submitted the work for publication. That wasn't what this was about. This was about learning how to--and thereby gaining the confidence--to publish their own work.

You see, when a publishers accepts your work, all of a sudden, you've got a lot less to do. When you self publish, you're the project manager, your the editor, your the marketing department, the publisher, your printing it, shipping manager, and the retailer all in one. The is simply no other way to get the kind of experience and understanding of the comics industry than self publishing. So when I say tuner is nothing tougher, I mean it!

But enough about how hard it is to self publish. Let s get to the point. The content. The writers of this anthology all entered my class at different levels and all had different goals. Their goals are still their own. The course is designed to help writers get to the core of his or her idea and then teaches a methodology to help them break it down and execute it professionally and to full effect. Then I throw a big complication in the mix. They have to do it in just five pages. Now THAT is hard!

Jamie, Matt, Brian, TDR, Vaughn, Alex, Jim, and Greg all pulled together compelling and entertaining stories and found extremely talented artists to work with on them. This is a major achievement. You've got it all in here, too. Science fiction set in space, westerns, horror, the whole bit! If you like comics and you want to see a bunch of creators who have earned their comic book, check it out.

And if you want to support such independent creators, please order yourself a copy right here!


The Good Books: A God Somewhere

In my ongoing process to talk about great books that you may have missed and to talk about making comics or how to learn to write comics or learn to draw comics, I'm tackling some really good work in these "The Good Books" posts. Today's is A GOD SOMEWHERE and it's written by John Arcudi and illustrated by Peter Snejbejerg. It was released last year (2010) by Wildstorm.

The book itself has an intriguing cover that implies a contemplative approach to a dark super hero tale. It also implies that this is going to have some horrific bits in it. From a cover construction stand point, I think this one picture says everything the publisher would want a customer to read into it. Take a look. I think it's fantastic.

I haven't followed Peter Snejbjerg's (something I now plan to remedy) work over the last few years, but I have kept an eye on John Arcudi. Arcudi has written steadily for the last 10 or so years in the comics industry and has turned out some really brilliant work and has, in my opinion, never received the kind of credit he deserves for his creative talents. If you're not familiar with his work, I'm not surprised. But the fact is, you should be.

A GOD SOMEWHERE is my favorite thing that I've read of his. The concept is simple. An ordinary human who is much like many of us. Not a bad guy at all, but certainly flawed, is imbued with strange and wondrous powers. Only in this world, he's the only one who has them.

The journey that Eric undergoes through the course of the book is not an unfamiliar one. Unlike the super heroes in other comics, he doesn't instantly get imbued with a strict and unshakable moral code. He remains one of us. And as his power grows, it distances him from the rest of us.

I found myself thinking about celebrities in our own society. So rich, so powerful, so scrutinized, and surrounded with timid people, that they slowly lose touch with who they once were. I don't think Tom Cruise started his career off as the kind of guy who would jump up and down on Oprah's couch. Nor was Charlie Sheen likely the ego-maniac that we've come to see of late. These are the results of someone never hearing the word no or always being able to change it if he does. I'm over simplifying just to illustrate Eric's journey.

His journey is one of disconnect. As he becomes more powerful, more guarded, and more influential, he slowly loses touch with his own humanity. And begins to suffer delusions that he may be a god. It sounds, as I write this, like an over-the-top blockbuster, but the thing about this book that makes it so good is that it remains grounded at all times.

Arcudi's script keeps us focused on real people as much as the almost all-powerful Eric. His script does not hamstring the evolving character with super hero tropes about morality or justice. It's about a guy who becomes a god and what that does to the guy's mind.

A fascinating read. Highly recommended.


Killing Characters - how to do it right

There's been a lot of talk around the industry about killing characters off and what that means and how to do it right and that it doesn't matter because they always come back anyway... And those opinions just keep coming. In the wake of January's issue of FANTASTIC FOUR, and in April when my own G.I. JOE: COBRA CIVIL WAR kicks off with a couple of deaths, it seemed like a good time to discuss death in comics.

Every time a major character dies, there are those who claim it's just a publicity stunt. Now, there's a tricky bit there. Because, you're probably right in so far that it IS A PUBLICITY stunt. We will publicize a major character's death. It's the "just" part that isn't always accurate. The "just" implies two things: the first is that the character isn't really dead. Sometimes true, sometimes not. The second is that there is no other consideration in the minds of the publishers, creators, or editors when deciding whether or not to kill a character or not.

The fact is we ALWAYS consider other things. Here is a quick list that I run through when deciding whether or not a character to get bite the big one in one of the comics I edit:

1. Do the circumstances leading up to the characters demise make logical sense?

2. Is the death within the character as established--in other words, does he do something stupid to get killed because the plot demands it or does his death make sense for the character? Snake Eyes doesn't dive in front of bullets for no reason. He always has a way out, so it'd have to be a spectacular trap to get him. Not so true for say... Bazooka.

3. Do we get any new story opportunities from the character's death?

4. Do they outweigh the potential story opportunities that exist while keeping the character alive?

5. Is there a plan to bring the character back some how? Either he didn't really die or resurrection from the dead? Are their story opportunities here as well?

In TRANSFORMERS, I cleared killing off Ironhide--a mainstay of the cast for 25 years--because we had a plan to bring him back that we thought was really unique and would create tension amongst cast members. The Autobots (the good guys) were just too agreeable with each other--too chummy. I wanted something to cause some tension and this would do it.

Ironhide dying would also get us some attention in the media and wake up some readers who had left over the years and maybe bring some back in to see what was going on. We've gotten a lot of mileage out of Ironhide's death now in that book.

I also was the guy that signed off on killing Quasar during Marvel's original ANNIHILATION event. Again, Quasar died in large part to wake folks up and let them know this war was real. It wasn't going to end with a bunch of big heroes standing around combining their massive powers to solve the problem. That's not how things work in the real world, and that's not how they're going to work in Marvel's cosmic arena anymore (well, at the time).

Quasar's death had the intended effects. We did it primarily for the publicity of it. We also built in a way for him to return when we wanted that to happen, if we wanted it to happen.

In G.I. JOE, unlike in TRANSFORMERS or Marvel books, I can keep characters dead. Once we kill them, there's no returning from the dead. They can go missing, and they can cheat death, but this reflects our world in a different way. It's also about soldiers and so there are different rules that apply. So now that we're going to be killing off a few Joes coming up, they're not coming back in a mass resurrection BLACKEST NIGHT style.

So, to sum up, and I don't think I'm saying anything unique here, a death just for the publicity isn't a great thing. But if there's story to be had to come from that death, I think it makes a lot of sense. I'm not caught up on my FANTASTIC FOUR comics just yet, but I'm reasonably confident that the recent death of a founding member of that team will open up some very interesting story possibilities in that book. I'm reading it because I heard about the death. It's not the death itself that interested me, but more what comes after--what do we as readers get out of it. And if it's something new, different, or emotionally charged, I'm really going to enjoy it.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Writers Write, Artists Draw

Do you want to make comics? Do you want to draw comics? I come across a lot of would-be creators in my work both at Comics Experience and at IDW Publishing as their senior editor. And you would be amazed at how many writers I meet who don't write. And how many artists I meet who don't draw.

So this here Blarg is going to be short and sweet. If you want to be a comic writer, step 1 is START WRITING. Sounds stupid, and I've said it before, but you need to be writing every day. Even if you can only force in five minutes, write for five minutes. If this is what you want to do, it's got to be important enough for you to make time to do it.

If you want to draw comics, step 1 is START DRAWING. Doesn't matter if you're always drawing comics pages, or pin-ups, or character designs, or still life, or whatever, but find time to draw EVERY DAY. Keep an art journal. If this is what you want to do, it's got to be important enough for you to make time to do it.

It doesn't seem to matter how many times I say this, it's worth repeating again and again. DO WHAT YOU WANT TO DO--know what I mean?

If you need encouragement or a kick in the pants, then sign up for our Workshop of for one of our courses. We're a motivating and encouraging bunch and we'd love to help get you there! Learn to make comics here!


Comics Courses Open for Enrollement!

If you've wanted to make comics or learn to write or draw comics, this is the year for you! Take a look at the quick rundown of what is coming down the pike from Comics Experience to help you get your comics career jump-started!

Today's CE Blarg is about courses coming up. Slots are limited, so if you're ready to learn how to get started making comics--either for yourself or professionally--this is the time to sign up! Take a look and reserve your spot today!

Introduction to Comics Writing
Begins March 10th!
This six week course teaches everything from story structure to character development, from comic script formatting to finding artists and working with them, from marketing to printing. All at the hands of veteran comics editor and writer Andy Schmidt. Don't wait, reserve your spot today! Read more and sign up here!

Introduction to Comics Coloring
Begins March 7th!
Veteran colorist and Sotocolor studio head Chris Sotomayor leads this six week course that covers using Photoshop for coloring, flatting, rendering, color choices and storytelling choices. This course alone has jump started several careers already and it's not even a full year old yet! This is hands down the best way to get your comics coloring up to professional levels! Read more and sign up here!

Introduction to Comic Book Art
Begins April 27th!
Join Marvel and IDW mainstay artist Robert Atkins for a six week tutorial on how to approach scripted pages, create functional and eye-catching page designs, figure drawing, perspective, and a huge emphasis on storytelling--the key defining feature of comics creation. Learn from one of the best in the business to start drawing up your comic pages right away! Read more and sign up here!

Introduction to Lettering and Production
Begins June 20th!
Dave Sharpe has lettered for... everyone. He was the head of Marvel Comics' in-house lettering and production staff for several years and is one of the most well respected, talented, and professional letterers in the comics business. Join him for six weeks to get your comics lettering skills up to speed. Nothing brings great work down like bad lettering--and now to get professional lettering, you can do it yourself! Read more and sign up here!

Comics Experience has been around for nearly four years, and it's grown steadily every year. But it's grown with one thing in mind from me--every course, the workshop, in fact, everything Comics Experience does must live up to my own standards. And those standards are these:

1. Comics Experience is honest and encouraging. There is no soft answer--but there are encouraging ones.

2. Any course or class or workshop must be one that I want to take and wish had been around when I was trying to break into comics ten years ago.

I (and now we) are committed to making these the best, most comprehensive courses available--anywhere.

Thanks for reading!


The Good Books: ROAD

I said a while ago that I'd try to do some reviews of comics and graphic novels I find interesting and are a little off the beaten path. Well, this is definitely one--it's called ROAD and it is written and illustrated by Eddie Sharam and co-written by Jamie Woodhead.

The edition of this graphic novel that I have seems to have been self-published. It was given to me at the IDW Publishing office after someone else had read it. It had been given to him, and so neither one of us knows where it was actually originally picked up. The special thanks include DC Comics, and given that it is a horizontal comic, my best guess is that this came together through DC's Zuda, online comics program. Anyway, that's not all that important really, it just all seemed to kind of fit with the book itself in an odd way.

ROAD is set in what seems like Earth's future. There is a single ROAD that seems to have no point of origin and no termination point either. In this kind of post-apocalyptic future, there are pilgrims who travel the road looking for answers of a spiritual nature. There are towns and cities along the road, but it just never ends. One can spend his whole life traveling down the road and never come any closer to the end, it seems.

Sharam and Woodhead's story follows Felix, one of these pilgrims, who seems to go a bit rogue. This book has two big things going for it. The first is that the basic concept, to me at least, is intriguing. And the book goes beyond the initial concept and begins to flesh out a whole world here that is interesting, if at times a bit confusing. There are a lot of characters--all of whom have different agendas and allegiances. There's a lot going on, and the world builds quickly. But it's not usually confusing. The authors keep us tied to Felix for the most part. We're learning why he is so important and it's intriguing. It's a story well told.

The second thing ROAD has going for it is Sharam's art. It's a black and white book, and his art is really cool. The storytelling is at times choppy but by no means a problem for someone who has read his or her fair share of comics. But it's his set design and character designs that really shine. I know who his characters are right when I look at them. That's not to say they're only surface deep, but Sharam's designs give me distinctive identities and looks to latch onto right away. It goes a long way to preventing the book from becoming confusing--because the characters are all so visually distinct.

I was disappointed to get to the end to realize that there is no second volume yet published. I hope that Sharam and Woodhead can find another publisher to continue this story. I'd recommend anyone interested in making comics take a look at a book like this. It's an impressive feet for two guys to pull a work like this together, and there's a lot to learn in terms of visual design here for any creator--writer or artist.

So check it out!


Why Superheroes Dominate the US Market - Part 2

I touched on this on my last CE Blarg entry, where I covered how Dr. Wertham all but eliminated other genres and how the super hero genre had to change due to his "crusade." But that doesn't answer the question: Why didn't other genres resurface after Wertham's influence died down in public life?

There are two factors that maintained the super hero dominance in the US market (by the way, there are three acceptable ways to spell superhero--superhero, super hero, and super-hero--funny story as to why... perhaps another time). The first is the persistence and power of the Comics Code Authority. It alone (as outlined in the last CE Blarg) kept crime and horror and romance comics from resurfacing, but there is another major factor that doesn't seem that important at first glance: the rise of the Direct market.

I'll give you the short version of how the DM came about here. In 1972, (the Comics Coda Authority still in full swing) Phil Seuling approached comic retailers about getting comic books earlier than newsstands, at a higher discount per comic, but on a non-returnable basis.

The newsstand market can order as many copies as they like, and whatever copies they don't sell, they return (destroy, actually) to the publisher for credit towards future purchases. This is great for the 7-11s of the world, but not great for publishers who have to print way more copies than they sell. For that reason, publishers loved the idea of selling to a DM that could not return the comics after a month or two. The retailers who participate in the program would get comics a month earlier than the newsstands, and could control more precisely their inventory.

It was a win for retailer and publishers alike. The problem that came about because of this is that the newsstand market has almost completely disintegrated. It's important to note that there is a possibility that this would have happened even with the emergence of the direct market. Many people like to say that without the DM, the newsstand distribution would still be as prevalent, but that simply isn't the case. Changes in the newsstand market (newspapers, magazines, etc) would have altered the comic book market significantly and in different ways than the DM did. But again, that's an article for another time...

So, with the DM, retailers really only had super hero comics to order at the time (with few exceptions) and so they reached out to super hero fans. Those super hero fans became their customer base. Both publishers and retailers knew that they needed to keep those youngsters who would come in every week very happy. Great system and makes perfect sense.

And as those kids (myself included--I was born in 1976 and had two older brothers who were comic book fans) grew up, the comics publishers continued to "grow-up" the comics. By the time I was an angst ridden teenager, my comics were about angst ridden teenagers... with super powers. The dialogue was more sophisticated. The art was more representational. I had begun to pay attention to those credits in the comics, and publishers and retailers knew I wasn't the only one. They would hire popular creators to entice myself and others to buy comics we weren't already buying, or they'd cross a popular comic over with less popular comics to increase sales... to me.

The result was that new readers were rarely coming into the market. Kids weren't coming in as the comics had grown up and weren't for kids anymore. There was no incentive for retailers to order comics of any other genre since their customers were all super hero fans who had been reading superhero comics for years and shown no interest in other genres. And that was the crux of the super hero dominance.

Retailers had no customer base for other genres. They had major trouble reaching out to potential customers who might enjoy other genres because they were specialty shops created for super hero fans. How were they supposed to even let other people know that comics of other genres existed and were good enough to make a special trip to a hobby store for? And there was no longer the newsstand to act as a "feeder" to kids. To be fair, the newsstand market has not completely dissolved, but it mostly has.

Publishers, like the retailers, had little reason to create content other than super hero genre. They knew they could sell super hero comics in large numbers on a non-returnable basis. And if they tried other genres, the message would come back the same from the Direct Market every time--we have no interest in them. Why create content for a genre that will sell a 10th of another super hero comic and spend the same amount of money on its production? It simply doesn't make any sense to do so if you're Marvel Comics or DC Comics.

Over the years, both Marvel and DC Comics have made attempts to reach beyond super heroes. DC Comics has had greater success, but with only a handful of exceptions, none of these comics has managed to become a best-seller in a direct market shop. But so far, no comic outside of the superhero genre has been a consistent best-seller until the 1990s with DC Comics' Vertigo Imprint and SANDMAN.

Today, we have had a few more. Currently, THE WALKING DEAD is a comic book dynamo and there's not a superhero to be found in it. But from the early 1950s until the mid-1990s, there was simply no other game in town. And honestly, there's not been that much headway even in recent years.

Could this change? Absolutely. Should it? I like the idea of more diversified and healthy content. It feels a lot safer for my favorite medium. Will it change? Will super heroes become just one of several popular genres in comics stores? That remains to be seen...


Thursday, February 3, 2011

Why Super Heroes Dominate the US Comics Market

After a couple of posts on digital comics and the effect the closing of Borders might have on the comics market, a man known only as Paul commented on one of my blogs and asked a follow-up question that I thought was a good one. It seems I made an assumption in one of my articles that most people would know why super heroes dominate the US market. Of course, there's no reason why that should be common knowledge, so I'll give the quick version here before I go back to baby feeding. So, Paul asks:


I just found your blog through Google while I was researching the impending close of Borders. I found your blog post on that subject, and the one above, of immense interest. As a reader of comic books, and an aspiring writer, I am very curious about the market and your articles offer the level of detail I would wish for. You pointed out that superheroes are over emphasized here. I agree. I have heard this is "au contraire' in the french market, whose product selection successfully appeals to many, many more demographics other than superhero-worshiping geeks. Do you have any thoughts why this is not the case in the U.S.? --Paul

Thanks for the comment and question, Paul. The European market certainly has more diverse content than the US market and there is a traceable reason for this (actually two, but I'm only going to get into the first one here). It all goes back to perhaps the greatest super-villain comics has ever seen--Dr. Frederic Wertham and his book "The Seduction of the Innocent."

Werthem's book posited the idea that comic books were subversive and destructive to kids. And he didn't stop by just publishing the book--his views made it all the way to congressional hearings. The results of his "crusading" were as follows (but not limited to these alone):

1. The Comics Code Authority was founded. Not a bad thing on the surface, but the comics code decided to eradicate "subversive" kinds of content--doling out very specific kinds of restrictions on what could be published in comic books--and most retailers wouldn't carry comics that weren't approved by the code.

2. Public outcry against comics was huge. Forcing publishers to be very careful about what the published and constantly making sure that characters were happy and kid friendly.

3. Talented creators left the comics community.

What does this all have to do with super heroes? Prior to the 1950s, super hero comics were popular, but by no means dominant. War comics, crime comics, horror comics, and romance comics were among the most popular on the stands.

Believe it or not, in the United States, comic book readership was split 50/50 between men and women prior to WWII. But when Wertham's book came out and he went on a tantrum, he stated--and the public bought into it--that war comics encouraged violence, crime comics encouraged thievery and crime, and romance comics encouraged sexual deviancy.

The code took all of that into account and all but made those kinds of comics impossible to publish. So, almost overnight, horror, crime, war, and romance comics disappeared from the American market place. This cut off most female readers, and most adult readers. So how did super heroes survive if the others couldn't? That's simple. They had to change.

Let's take Batman for an example:

As depicted here in Batman's first appearance, Batman did not just arrest criminals, he would often kill them. He was dark, mean, and the comics were violent.

Then Wertham happened...

...and Batman takes on brighter colors, is partnered with a teenage side-kick in even brighter colors. Crime becomes fun to fight with equally colorful characters! Batman and Robin are all smiles and banter--no real sense of danger at all anymore. They have a strict moral code not dissimilar to the Comics Code Authority itself.

But this is not the same Batman we saw back in 1939...

...we don't really see him again until 1986. Enough time has passed that Wertham is no longer a direct concern. The Direct Market (distributing comics to specialty shops on a non-returnable basis) is well established. And DC Comics puts out BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. While the title fits the story about Batman in his sixties and getting forced out of retirement to return to the cowl, it's also fitting because it's a return to his original form in many ways. This is the grittiest Batman has looked since before 1950. The comic did NOT carry the Comics Code Authority's seal of approval.

While the CCA's power is almost non-existent now, the damage was done. Between Wertham's assault on an unsuspecting industry and then the conversion to the direct market, Super heroes became and will likely remain the dominant genre in the American comic book market place.

A note of clarification: the reason the direct market cemented this is that the comic fan base was shattered by Wertham--allowing only super heroes to survive. When the distribution model changed, it became very difficult for comics publishers to reach out new audience segments. How could they convince someone who wasn't a super hero fan--and therefore a comic reader already--to make a special trip to a comic book shop to try a new romance comic? Or crime comic? Or anything comic? And the super hero fan base grew up with these characters. And it's only become more difficult to get new readers into shops and to get other genres to become viable.

The good news is some headway has been made. We've recently seen both crime and horror comics make a small comeback. Thanks to the work of comics writers like Brian Michael Bendis with his books TORSO, JINX, GOLDFISH, and then his crime/superhero mash-up POWERS, he's almost single-handedly reinvigorated the crime comics market, even if he doesn't do a lot in that genre himself anymore.

And books like SANDMAN and more recently 30 DAYS OF NIGHT have helped the horror genre gain a real foothold in the current comics market place. Again, these comics were driven by strong creators like Neil Gaiman in the case of SANDMAN and both Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith for 30 DAYS OF NIGHT. And DC Comic's Vertigo imprint has continued to give horror titles a place on shelves.

I'll talk about the Direct Market's influence over comics content in a new blog soon.

So, Paul, I hope that answers your question.


Baby Announcement!

So, you may have noticed I haven't been posting much recently... or tweeting... or emailing... or teaching... or doing much of anything in an online community kind of way. Well, that's because my wife gave birth to our second son on Friday morning at 4:20 am (insert your pot-smokin' jokes here). So, I'm going to try to get the Comics Experience Blarg up and running again soon, but in the meantime, here's the new baby's character sheet!

Name: Oliver Nicholas Schmidt
Sex: He's a dude.
Weight: 8 lbs, 1 oz.
Height: 19.5 inches
Base of Operations: My living room.
First Appearance: January 28, 2011
Known Relatives: Me and the Mrs. and his evil older brother Cale.
History: Not much...
Powers: Makes women say, "awwwwwwww" an awful lot.

And here are a few photos just for fun...

Get used to me reading comics when I should be paying attention to you, Oliver. It's going to happen a lot...