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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Shawn’s plan for rebuilding the comic book industry.

There’s no one silver bullet that will fix close to two decades of systemic structural damage in the comic book industry. It’s going to take a long-term comprehensive business plan that includes retailers, educators, and forming a stronger relationship with the general public.

So how can the industry turn it around? Well, here’s what I’d do if I were editor-in-chief at a major comic book publisher:

Create core products for children ages 7 and up. Currently, the average age of a comic book reader is over 35. Most publishers like DC comics want to target readers ages 18-24. But they’re missing the chance to target an audience of twenty million independent readers currently in elementary school. Children usually start reading on their own at seven, and there needs to be an effort by comic book publishers to reach an audience of younger readers who will be the future of the industry for the next twenty years.

The comic book industry needs to make children ages 7 and up its primary target audience. In the middle of the biggest baby boom since World War II, there needs to be focus on promoting comic book characters that are child and family friendly.

Develop all-ages content with an emphasis on independent readers. When it comes to comics, All-Ages content sells the best. When comics are accessible to younger readers, they become something families don’t mind sharing and spending time reading together. Comic books need to go back to being family entertainment with good moral messages that promote positive values and good social behavior.

Show the public the value of comic books. To the general public comics are just funny books, disposable entertainment. Many don’t see the influence of comic books on much of the culture around us or its impact on the life of a child. The industry needs to tell more of the stories about people and famous people who were influenced by comic books throughout their lives.

For myself, comic books were the gateway to reading. They were the way I learned how to read, developed new vocabulary words, and learned about a dozen different science and historical subjects and career fields. I wouldn’t be a writer today if it weren’t for the comic books in my brother’s collection I read as a kid.

When comic books are a part of a child’s life, they open their imaginations and encourage them to try more challenging reading material when they get older like novels and classic literature.

Bring Back the Comics Code. The comic book industry has been a rudderless ship ever since it abandoned the Comics Code. Right now anything goes. Sex, nudity, graphic violence, profanity can be found in a Superman or a Batman comic. There needs to be an industry standard regarding content that every publisher has to follow. The Comics Code created a standard that all comic book publishers had to follow. That standard made parents comfortable about giving comic books to children and major retailers like Wal-Mart and Target comfortable about stocking them.

Bring in Early Childhood/Educational Specialists to consult/assist Editorial on content. Comic books can encourage a child to read. But I feel the content needs a strong educational component as well. I’d like to see more involvement from people with backgrounds in Early Childhood development and educational specialists in the editorial process. I believe these specialists could help with making sure comic book content educates readers as well as entertains them.

People with backgrounds in Early Childhood/Education would help with making sure stories featured strong vocabulary and themes that promoted good values. Moreover they’d ensure that children would learn something from a comic book, whether it be something about history, art, or concepts in science or mathematics.

Win back the moms. Mothers and Grandmothers are the ones who give kids money for comics. They control what goes in and out of their homes. Comic books are seen by many women today as extremely antisocial and misogynistic; that’s why they won’t let their kids, especially their sons read them. Women have no interest in buying comics for their sons nowadays because they feature images of scantily clad females, and panels featuring violence against women like Green Lantern’s girlfriend Alexandra Dewitt killed and stuffed in refrigerators, or major characters like Barbara Gordon shot and paralyzed by the Joker.

There has to be an effort to win back the moms and get them to support their children reading comic books again. To earn back that trust, comic books have to go back to being all-ages entertainment that promotes good social values and encourages children to read. Presenting more positive balanced images of female characters will go a long way towards persuading mothers to let their kids read comic books again.

Make an effort to reconnect with readers. The Comic book industry has withdrawn into itself becoming a reclusive secret society with its own secret set of social codes. Being closed off from the general public like this for close to twenty years has alienated many of the casual customers parents and the general public. Worse, it has made them apprehensive about sharing comic books with their children. I feel there needs to be an effort by everyone working in the comic book industry to reach out and connect with the public and show them the faces of all the hardworking men and women working behind the scenes of their favorite comic books. I feel if people formed a relationship with the people who work in the comic book industry, people would take more time to support comics.

Offer employment opportunities/make it easier to break into comic books Right now it’s harder to get a job in the comic book industry than it is to sell a script in Hollywood or publish a book with a trade publisher. Because the industry is so full of recluses at every level and so resistant to bringing in newcomers, it has stagnated creatively for close to twenty years. I feel there needs to be an effort towards making the industry more accessible to new artists, writers and computer designers. New creative blood could breathe new life into the comic book industry. But it can only do that if it were allowed a foot in the door. I’d make an effort to hire those new artists and new writers.

Along with the changes in marketing I would make an effort to promote diversity in the comic book industry. These would include:

Hiring more women and minorities in editorial. Editorial at comic publishing is mostly white and mostly male. That’s led to a comic book world that’s mostly white and male. I feel if more women and minorities were working in editorial there’d be a lot less misogyny, sexism and violence towards women in comic books. And I feel if there were more minorities in editorial there’d be a lot more diversity in the world of comic books.

Presenting more positive balanced images of women/female superheroines. One of the biggest black marks in comic books has been the depiction of women. Oftentimes, women are objectified, degraded and sexualized in comics. Many times they are the victims of brutal violence as in the case of Alexandra DeWitt, Sue Dibney, Jean Grey, and Barbara Gordon. This has to stop if the medium wants to reach an audience of new younger readers.

One of my goals as a writer personally was to write more balanced multi-dimensonal female characters like Marilyn Marie, E’steem and Isis. I’d love to see stronger more independent female characters in comic books like Catwoman, Spider-Woman and Storm and I’d be willing to give these books and characters all the support they needed.

Presenting more positive balanced images of African-Americans and minorities. Comic books have always been a white male stronghold. That’s also why they’re not selling. America is becoming more multicultural and that’s not reflected in the comic book industry. I believe if comics were more multicultural, there’d be an increase in sales.

Hiring more women writers. Reading a lot of well-done webcomics and online strips by women, I’d love to see more women involved in the creative process with comic books If I were running a comic book company, I’d make an effort to hire more women writers and I’d make sure to get their input on the development of any female characters being produced.

Hiring more minority writers. The comic book industry is 95% white and 95% male. Efforts at diversity in comics have failed because the concepts come from white males who create characters minorities can’t identify with or relate to. I feel there needs to be an effort to hire more minority writers so characters of color can be as multidimensional and complex as their white male counterparts.

Hiring writers and artists not from the comic book industry. In a stale industry like comic books, there’s a desperate need for a fresh perspective. Sometimes a new writer with a different point of view can revive interest in a character that wasn’t selling. Sometimes a new artist can make readers look at the world differently.

Along with efforts to diversify the creative staff in the bullpen, I’d establish standards for content. These would include:

Create new characters. There hasn’t been a new breakout superhero since The Punisher in the 1970’s and there hasn’t been a new breakout supervillain since Bane back in 1993. Comic books are a blend of art and politics and the best characters are commentaries of their time. Younger readers want characters they can relate to and identify with, who deal with the problems they’re having. They don’t see that in many of the older characters now. Comic book companies need to start focusing on creating new characters that reflect the world going on today and deal with the issues kids are facing in the world today.

Get rid of the tight continuity. Continuity can be a tool when used effectively, but it can also bog a character down. I’d like to set an editorial standard where events in one story don’t directly affect events in another. They could be referenced, but it wouldn’t be a hard and fast rule. This would give writers and artists room to tell their own stories without being bogged down by another writer’s baggage. I feel as long as a writer stays within guidelines and standards for a character they should be able to tell a variety of stories.

Get rid of the numbers. Sure numbers have been a tradition in comics for close to 75 years. But a #1 issue no longer matters in an age where series are restarted every 24 to 36 months and titles are on their fifth and sixth volumes. With comics featuring the same character getting cancelled so quickly, a month/year filing system would be more efficient.

Get rid of the adult content. I was flipping through a Justice League comic book and I was shocked to see nudity and sexual content. In an Avengers issue I flipped through characters like Captain America used mild profanity. And in a comic storyline called Identity crisis there’s a rape that’s covered up by superheroes.

Sorry, but this stuff isn’t gonna sell with the moms, aunts, and grandmoms who give their kids money for comics and have control over what goes in and out of their homes. When they see books with graphic adult content like this, there’s no way they’re going to allow them into their homes.

If Comic books are to make a return to profitability content must be G-rated or PG at best. No nudity, no foul language, and no sexual content.

Get rid of the gory graphic violence. Rapes, mutilations, bloody murders are the norm in today’s comic books. It’s the kind of stuff that makes many people correlate comic books with antisocial and criminal behavior. Many comics today feature the kind of disturbing content that led to congressional hearings and Seduction of the Innocent back in the 50’s.

While violence has always been a part of superhero comics, today’s comics feature gory graphic violence reminiscent of EC comics horror titles back in the 1950’s. That stuff is inappropriate in a medium that’s supposed to be for the youngest of readers and a gateway to reading.

Make good guys good. Today’s superheroes are shades of gray, being neither good nor bad. While that type of complex character has its place in adult literature, it has no place in a comic book. Comic book heroes should have good moral character, promote good values and stand for what is fair and just. They’re role models for children and their behavior should be what we want children to act like when they grow up to be adults.

Make bad guys bad. Today’s bad guys are not bad, they’re just plain sick. The behavior of villains today borders on sociopathic. Bad guys in comics today just go too far, and their actions are just inappropriate content for children and young adults.

When it comes to the actions of characters in comic books good or bad Editiorial has to draw a line in the sand. There’s a fine line between solid and sordid storytelling and it’s time comics went back to producing solid stories presented in good taste.

Stop the franchising of characters. It’s hard for Superman to stand out when there’s Superboy, Supergirl, Steel and a dozen other characters doing the exact same thing he does. It’s hard for the Hulk to stand out when there are red and green versions of him. Not everyone needs to be a superhero, nor does every supporting character need to be superpowered. The reader needs the civilian/supporting characters to identify with and relate to as much as the hero. More importantly, these civilian/supporting characters show the reader why a character like Superman and the Hulk are special and why they’re one of a kind.

Get rid of the multiple titles for one character. When a character makes multiple appearances in multiple titles it cheapens the value of that character and makes the reader to take them for granted. If a character has one title and makes sporadic appearances in a team book, then it makes them excited to pick up the next issue of the solo series next month.

Stop with the deaths/Coming back from the dead. At one time a death in comic books was a major event. When a character like Bucky died it had a deep and lasting impact on the reader. It gave readers an understanding that being a superhero was a dangerous job full of risks, and that heroes were brave people who were willing to sacrifice their own lives to do what was right.

Unfortunately over the past three decades death in comics has turned into a gimmick by desperate writers to spur sales during a slow period. Almost every character in comic books has died at least once, some twice. That has cheapened the impact of death in storytelling. Worse it’s prevented the growth and development of characters and prevented them from actualizing their potential.

The devaluation of death in comics has led to readers becoming apathetic and indifferent about what goes on in serialized comic books. It gives them no incentive to continue reading. Why should readers invest time and money in buying a comic where a character dies if they’re going to come back in six months, a year or even twenty years ago? If comics are to return to prominence, Dead characters should stay dead.

On the business side, I would focus on rebuilding the network of retailers who sell and distribute comic books. One of the reasons why comic books have had poor sales since 1993 is because close to 90 percent of the comic book stores have gone out of businesss. Worse, many of the outside retailers like CVS, Target, Supermarkets and mom and pop stores were burned by a direct market policy that make comic books unreturnable leaving them stuck with thousands of copies of worthless books in their storerooms. In an effort to get the retailers to start stocking comics again I would:

Offer to buy back old stock from non-comic retailers. As a gesture of goodwill to get retailers like drugstores and mom and pop stores stocking comics again, comic book publishers should offer to buy back all that unreturned comic stock from the 1990’s-current that’s rotting in stock rooms and on magazine racks. Many retailers were burned by the comic book speculator boom of the late 1980’s-1990’s and comic book publishers need to make an effort towards re-establishing a relationship with the thousands of stores across the country who were stuck with hundreds of thousands of copies of worthless comics that still haven’t sold to this day. Those thousands of copies (some of them 10-15 years old) should be credited at wholesale price to retailers in an effort to clear the shelves for new product.

Offer full returnability on all new print titles. In addition to buying back old stock for credit, comic book publishers must offer to take back product that doesn’t sell. This means if the titles don’t sell, the retailer can return them for credit on next month’s issues. Offering returnability on titles gives non-comic shop retailers like drugstores, grocery stores, supermarkets and big chain retailers like Target and Wal-mart a reason to stock print comics on their shelves. Long-term this increases the exposure of comic books in retail venues and allows younger customers like tweens and teens an opportunity to purchase them.

Offer retailers a more durable comic product with a longer shelf life. The 32-page comic book is becoming unsustainable as a product and not profitable as a business model. High printing costs, high retail prices, limited durability and a short shelf life will render the 32-page comic book obsolete in 5-7 years.

In order for American comic book publishers to compete in the 21st Century there is a need for a comic book medium that’s more durable, has a longer shelf life, is retailer friendly and a better value for consumers. Paperback digest Magazines like Naruto and Shonen Jump will be the future for the Amercian comic medium and the industry needs to start shifting its efforts towards publishing these new products now instead of later.

Offer optional a la carte ordering to non-comic retailers. Larger retailers like Wal-Mart, Target CVS, Rite Aid and Supermarkets mom and pop stores should be able to order titles that sell without having to carry other poor selling second and third-tier titles in the line. Most larger retailers would probably pick up books with more popular characters, but these titles would be in venues they weren’t in before.

Offer comic shops exclusive titles. Larger retailers will probably stock many of the more popular characters. However, second and third tier characters don’t sell well in traditional retail because they don’t have a large enough audience. For those titles, it would be more effective if they were sold exclusively in comic shops. Comic shop exclusive titles could give kids an incentive to visit a local comic book store for that title and search for others.

Offer free eComics. eBooks are a big market. But in order for the comic book industry to gain access to that market they have to establish their reputation for producing a quality product. The younger generation of readers may know a few superheroes, but they need a reason to CARE about them enough to read about their stories regularly. To build that reputation, comic publishers should start offering a free eComic or two to give readers an incentive to try the comics. If people like the sample, they’re more likely to try the product at the shop.

I was a big fan of comics since I was four years old and they were my gateway to reading and eventually becoming a novelist. It deeply saddens me that the industry is in this two-decade slump, and I’d love to do something to help save the medium for the next generation of readers. While my plans detailed here aren’t perfect, I feel it’s better than participating in the vicious cycle that continues to drive the industry into the death spiral it’s in right now. Nothing would bring me joy like seeing a young child reading a comic book again and finding the gateway to reading.


  1. Very well thought comments for this one are on the original Comic Book Industry post.

    Liz Isaacs
    Lotus Writing & Communications
    SEE my URLs:

  2. I agree, but doubt if anyone will listen. Maybe someone will get a clue and start a new universe based on oldschool superhero writing/values.

    I stopped buying new comics in the 90s because I was tired of the explicit content. Tried to come back years later, but it hadn't changed.

    Used to love Valiant, or at least certain stories, but they stooped to the lame sex n' gore formula too much.

    All I want is some traditional, old-style Bronze-Silver type superhero books. Everyone seems set on playing to the lowest common denominator though.

    I miss comics the way they used to be.

    1. I agree with you i do not like new comics at all i only collect older ones,there is way too much adult content in it while i don't mind a little its overkill at the moment to a point where it makes me uncomfortable reading them, i refuse to buy modern comics and think it needs that comic code back in again otherwise god knows how worse will comic books become.