Saturday, 31 December 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Forty-eight)

Just occasionally there’s a gesture from the publisher that makes you wonder what happened? Did you wake up in one of those Captain Britain alternate comics dimensions where everything is the same, but something is different? Take British comics heartthrob Neil Gaiman, a pretty good novelist and writer with his past rooted mainly in journalism. Comics are a passion for him, most of the time, and he appeared on the DC scene very quietly and with little fanfare. He did a few things, mainly Vertigo prestige format stuff and then was given, like Alan Moore years before, a character with little future to do with as he saw fit (Moore did it with Swamp Thing, Gaiman did it with The Sandman). He assembled an unusual art team, not the sort of artists one would expect to see on a DC comic, regardless of how diverse the company was becoming.

Gaiman took an old concept created by Gardner Fox, revamped in 1974 by Jack Kirby and fellow 1940s comics guy Joe Simon and totally reinvented it; actually, he just took the name and did something else entirely. The Sandman was a hero who visited people in their dreams and fought crime in this way (at least that’s what I remember from the Kirby and Simon version); it definitely wasn’t anything like Gaiman’s re-invention. Gaiman discarded everything and just left the dream element. Instead of having a human protagonist, his hero was one of seven elementals who had walked the earth since the dawn of time. His comic was to focus on Morpheus, the master of dream. It began as a standard action comic and soon went existential on us in a big way. The Sandman became DC’s best-selling alternative comic and it continued to attract new readers every month – it really was the first real ‘outreach programme’ albeit unintentionally. People not reading comics would be reading The Sandman and the collected editions would be reviewed in broadsheet newspapers. This comic (albeit owned by DC – a major publisher) changed a lot of perceptions and offered people an entrance into a new medium. The Sandman was the best effort by a comics company in the last 30 years to try and win a different audience, but DC ultimately blew it because they were both nice and naïve.

Gaiman has expressed from the beginning that he saw The Sandman as being a finite story. He had a beginning, middle and end and he felt he couldn’t compromise on quality if DC expected him to stretch it out. A deal was struck and Gaiman would produce The Sandman as a finite series of an as yet undetermined length. The deal suited both parties at the time (I mean, what chance did Gaiman have of turning The Sandman into a hit?), but five years later when Sandman entered its penultimate year of publication DC’s execs must have been spitting teeth. Gaiman called time on the comic with #75, he had gone on a lot further than he had originally anticipated (he thought it might make 50 issues) and DC agreed that The Sandman would end. They renegotiated a deal whereby they could still use characters and themes from the series, as long as they didn’t try to resurrect The Sandman or his comic. It was the best DC could get from the deal. Subsequent Sandman spin-offs have had their moments, but essentially the opportunity of a lifetime was lost – there was nothing out there that could appeal to such a wide section of people as The Sandman. Even if the main character never appeared in the story (which was often the case) it was the overall addictiveness of the writing and the ideas and the subplots unfolding like some complicated flower that kept people coming back and intrigued new readers.

Now, all the spin-offs were largely unsuccessful – it didn’t matter who appeared in what, there was no Gaiman; there was no Morpheus, so therefore there was no point in the casual readers hanging around. A brilliant outreach programme it might have been, but there were no ideas men at DC who could come up with something, some strategy, to keep the new fans. They couldn’t and the more spin-offs that happened, the lower the quality threshold got.

Who was to blame?

Well, you could blame Gaiman. His being there was mainly responsible for the success and his departure was the thing that prompted most of the readers to follow suit. When you compare sales of Sandman in 1991 to sales of a Sandman spin-off like The Dreaming in the late 1990s, there’s ten times the difference in sales. The Sandman comic regularly sold more than 60,000 copies a month; (and trust me for a mature readers comic that was phenomenal!) but most of the others were cancelled when sales dropped below 5,000. And DC’s biggest problem was instead of leaving well enough alone and moving on, they continued to try and milk the remnants of that market, by releasing more and more tenuous spin-offs. Only Death proved successful, but she was arguably a far better character than Morpheus; but even her tales were weak compared to the original source material.

Here’s a spoof comics piece, this time written by Chris Spicer for Borderline that properly put the Sandman’s comic plight into perspective:

Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman Notebook (Some DC editors. Gaiman’s never been near it. Trust me.)

DC continues to strip-mine The Sandman’s legacy with this exclusive look at one of the notebooks used by Neil Gaiman himself while he was writing the title. Journey into the mind of one of the comics industry’s best loved sons by looking at poorly-conceived scribbles drawn to pass the time and half-baked story ideas which Gaiman wisely decided should never see the light of day. Thrill! To the incredible sight of Gaiman’s own portrait of Morpheus, drawn at three in the morning while wasted on a combination of absinthe and non-prescription flu remedies. Marvel! At the epic “Tomorrow’s Shopping List!” Listen! To the desperate sound of DC scraping the barrel!

Hardback, with free razor blades so that Gaiman’s hardcore following of self-abuser fans won’t have to go down the shops to commit suicide.

Neil Gaiman had the ability to drag a nation of new readers with him, but chose to move away from comics and into novels and TV work. You can’t blame him for wanting to enter into the real world, and you definitely couldn’t make him stay on something or do something he didn’t want to, that would end up being counter-productive. So DC came out as the good guys – the company that didn’t fuck over a creator for the sake of a buck and a book. They basked in the limelight of allowing a comic to die a natural death for about 30 seconds... Then someone was moaning about some other DC cock-up or bad product and it disappeared into history.

DC has to take the blame in many ways, because they failed to exploit the potential of The Sandman. They did nothing whatsoever to try and keep the hordes of fans that only read The Sandman. The problem is no one in comics has ever launched a ‘successful’ advert campaign outside of comics – it’s a fool’s errand. It costs far too much money for comics to be able to justify and there is no immediate way of gauging the success. But this is where the industry really suffers from the vicious circle it has created. The industry has created a market that is governed solely by the law of diminishing returns. There is no targeting of new or young readers; the adverts that run in their own products are preaching to the converted.

In 1992, Malibu Comics attempted an ad campaign outside of comics and targeted at the West Coast, where they were based. Adverts were blazoned on the sides of buses and billboards as Malibu attempted to get the average punter to read its brand new Ultraverse series. They even stretched to some TV and radio advertising. The company was eventually bought out by Marvel a couple of years later, they failed to break the monopoly and lost shit loads of cash in the process – no one was going to make Malibu’s mistakes again.

So what could DC have done? It isn’t as simple as that, for DC to have been able to do anything to sustain the success of The Sandman they would have needed to have people working on it from the moment The Sandman started to rise in sales, every month. This requires something called ‘foresight’ and frankly this has been non-existent concept in comics since they began. The people involved will vehemently deny this, but neither of the big US superhero publishers knows what to do when they have a success on their hands. It’s like they all sit around gawping at the success for months and months until someone says ‘hey we should do something with this’. In the research for this book I approached both Marvel and DC and asked them if they would be prepared to share with me what sort of money the companies put aside for future development; neither wanted to share any information with me. So, I wrote back and explained what I actually meant by future development, and I made this clear to my contacts at both companies, was how much money or what percentage of money was being put aside to look into ways of expanding the industry’s readership base, what ways are being considered to bring new readers into comics, and how much of a commitment both companies have to the future of comics? I heard nothing and you can draw whatever conclusions you want from that. I know what I’m hedging my bets on – they don’t have contingency plans for any future development. Outreach programmes are great ideas, but they tend to be Marvel and DC shipping all their overstocks to schools, youth clubs and hospitals. This isn’t a bad idea, but it doesn’t really go close to attempting to exploit the appeal of the medium to anyone other than kids.

The reason for never having any money for development is because the cost of comics has been rising faster than the actual physical costs and that is because the industry needs to make a break-even target and the only way it can be done is by trying to get more money out of a dwindling market place – yet there are still tens of thousands of people prepared to be the crutch for an industry that is only just surviving by milking more from the people they’re paid to entertain. I see no outside targeting at all for or from comics, they depend on the strength of the next movie adaptation or TV spin-off to help attract the uninitiated – the problem is there is no easy entry point for new readers. Comics stories are impenetrable, they cost far too much money (four comics cost nearly $20, for twice that money they can buy a computer game and be the superhero rather than read about one), and there’s the social stigma attached. You talk to people in comics about this and they stick their heads in buckets. Oh they acknowledge something has to be done about it, but not right now. Both Marvel and DC have done some things since the original draft of this book was written; there are more ‘easy entry’ mini-series available; limited run series; one-offs and other story gimmicks that don’t require them reducing the price. The best point of entry for the future comics fan would be cheaper product and nothing goes down in price.

Marvel, to their credit, tried something in the early 1990s, a series of 99cent comics, to try and tempt a new generation of readers at an affordable price. Because the company had tied so many writers and artists to massive contracts, they employed some of the worst talent in the industry to produce a series of rather stinky pamphlets. The experiment failed and the attempt became 'the law'. Cheap comics don't work. End of.

My friend, Fabian Nicieza, the former X-Men writer who made a fortune during the early 1990s and later moved to become editor-in-chief of Valiant Comics shortly after it was bought out by Acclaim, the computer software giant, said this five years ago; it still applies in 2011. “You can over-indulge or micro-analyse a problem to the point where it is all moot.

“Comics cost what they cost because all factors that go into their production and the cost of doing daily business (for the large companies) necessitated those costs. That includes the cost for print and paper, creative talent, shipping and distribution, promotion, sales and marketing, general corporate overhead (the cost of a comic also pays for the salaries of the people in the accounting department and the mailroom).

“And of course, you have to save a piece of the pie to line the pockets of corporate sharks looking to milk your company dry to the marrow. Costs for everything went up gradually over the last 30 years. The Snickers bar or gasoline price analogy isn't that far off. My Sunday New York Times costs exponentially more than it did in 1980.

“Do comics cost too much? Yes, they do. And no, they don't. Ultimately, a market economy determines whether something costs too much or not.”

The price of comics increase again and again. The prices of trade paperbacks will probably stay relatively constant, it appears that most companies have a slapdash approach to pricing most of these anyhow, it’s down to the marketing men looking at the sales of the comic and trying to devise a price where they might make some money on it – it all smacks of no one having any faith in their products.

Next up: the end of this part.


  1. I never read it myself and I don't know what the numbers were -- although I'd imagine they were far less than Sandman in its heydey -- but Lucifer was well-regarded and ran for a good long while, so not all the spin-offs were rubbish.

  2. I'm still intrigued by this review that got borderline in hot water. Having read it again and again I agree that it is harsh to Devon Grayson, but is it any harsher than Mark Lamar or Simon Amstell picking on Steps or any xfactor winner? British satire has always used uncomplimentary metaphors to convey a point and often with no other reason than for spite and to make people look funny. At least this borderline review kept the joke inside the industry, ie: it gave a legitimate point of reference, even if it used the reference to have a dig at graysons lack of ability rather than the positive sides of the review. This seems to be an age old problem, the americans failing to understand british satire and sarcasm and that applies to the predominently white bread comics creators.
    It shows one thing quite clearly - idiots will make mountains out of mole hills while allowing Frank Miller to spout fascist retoric with less reaction from comics fans than it warranted. Seems to me that comic fans and creators are more concerned about pathetic throwaway lines they can bandwagon jump on rather than dealing with proper issues like the amount of arseholes who talk a load of shit. I've always avoided fan-dom because it normally attracts the worse kind of people equally I avoid meeting creators because they're normally as dull and opinionated as the drunk at the bar. Being intelligent and having a sense of humour in comics is like being gay in the 1950s.

  3. That review is like a bad smell, it just lingers far longer than it's welcome... The thing is, donning the Devil's Advocate hate for a second, that 'comics fandom' still believes it is this 'family' of like-minded individuals thrown together by their love of something that is sneered at by 'normal' people. It is also, to a certain extent, still very colloquial - there has always been a small-minded mentality to it, even when it's a multi-million dollar business.
    It's not like I haven't seen reactions to things that don't sit right with fans or professionals; it's common place, because they - comics people - circle the wagons whenever some form of adversity arrives and usually it's just the footsoldiers - the fans - who do the necessary defensive work. You could almost argue that comics and their people are a little like a dominatrix and her slaves. In fact, I'd argue that that is a very pertinent analogy.
    Ironically, reaction is like the news: in a slow news week something that would struggle to even be included in a broadcast can become a major news story, while a major news story can also be lost in the miasmas of other stories.
    The interesting thing for me from an anthropological perspective is how blind loyalty works and why people allow themselves to take personally something that has no link to them. I suppose with comics fans it's the personal investment, of time and money, and therefore the people responsible for that time and money are revered and put on similar pedestals to those inhabited by film and music icons. The advent of social networking, Twitter and other 'cult of me' applications has allowed some creators to become even more celebrity-minded. Yes it was started in the late 90s by the likes of Warren Ellis, but he actually had to work at being a net-celeb, today you can achieve it by just opening a Facebook fan page and posting something there once in a blue moon. Arguably, these same applications have reinvented fandom to a certain degree, but creators are now allowed to instantaneously preach to their converted and their sycophants perpetuate the belief they are stars.