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Saturday, February 11, 2012

WHY SHOULD WE CARE? The one question the Comic book Industry just can’t answer


New costumes.



New Number one issues.

New Universes.

Yet after all these efforts the comic book industry hasn’t been able to get any new readers in the past nineteen going on twenty years.

While there are other issues like distribution and pricing that keep comic books out of new readers’ hands the main reason why people don’t buy comic books today is the content. The stories published currently just don’t answer one question effectively: WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

If the reader doesn’t have a reason to care, then they have no reason to invest their time and money into the story.

If the writer and the artist can’t make the reader CARE they have failed.

And looking at the sales numbers, most comic book writers have failed at their jobs over the last past twenty years.

They tell stories that most readers can’t care about. Worse, they tell stories that new readers can’t access.

In their desperation, today’s comic book writers throw gimmicks at the reader in the hopes of getting the readers’ attention. Deaths, rapes, murders. Mutilations. Sex.

When that doesn’t work they retcon their mistakes with a retroactive continuity that makes a character’s history even more confusing and harder to follow. And when that doesn’t work they cancel that volume and start over with a new writer and artist and a number one issue.



And Again.

And when all these efforts don’t work, some publishers like DC Comics blow up their universe and start all over again. For the umpmillionth time.

Giving the reader less and less reasons to care about comic books. Why should the reader invest time and money in comics if the writer can’t commit to a telling a series of entertaining stories?

All of this focus on shocking readers with gimmicks and events shows me that the comic book industry has some half-assed writers working in it today. People with no sense of craft and no story sense. People phoning in work for a paycheck. People who don’t care. People who have no business in this industry.
If some of these comic book writers were in trade publishing, their stories wouldn’t make it past the slush pile. Yes, the storytelling is that bad these days.

Shock plot devices like deaths, mutilations, graphic sex, and profanity are the tools a hack writer uses to cover up their lack of storytelling ability. Bad writers need these plot devices to deflect the reader from their inability to make an interesting main character, an exciting premise and a compelling storyline.

Bad writers hope that by distracting the reader with gore, sex and violence they won’t see the house of cards comic books have when it comes to the basics of structure and form of storytelling. That writers don’t do their homework. That they don’t think the premise through. That they didn’t figure out the characters’ mission. That they didn’t understand the mission of an existing character. That they didn’t do the research necessary to get the little details in a story right. That they didn’t take the time to even figure out what direction they wanted to go in before putting fingers to keyboard.

The end result of this lack of craft are comic books with no story and no point. What today’s readers get are a bunch of random violent events that are meant to shock them and keep them strung along buying issue after issue until the writer figures out what kind of conclusion they want to tack on 24 to 100 issues later.

Part of good storytelling is showing. Putting pictures in the readers’ head. A good writer shows, shows, and show some more. Action defines character, and in a visual medium like comic books the reader needs to see a lot of action in the pictures. Showing a character in action allows the reader to visualize in their mind. Imagine the action coming to life. Hear the sounds of voices, noises and explosions.

Most comic book writers today don’t know how to write action that translates into exciting panels when an artist interprets their words. Most of the action in American comic books today is stiff posed like fashion models or television storyboards. It’s not bold, or dynamic. The reader can’t get into the story because everything is so unfocused. Usually most comics feature talking, talking and more talking and not doing.

I’ve read comics from publishers like Marvel and DC with long setups. Comics with unclear premises. Awkward dialogue. Underdeveloped characters. Taking 22 pages to write nothing but exposition.

Instead of writing compelling stories, most of today’s comic book writers spend their time pandering to the small audience of over 35 fanboys who are familiar with a character’s long history instead of writing in such a way that makes comics accessible to a new generation of Independent and Young Adult readers.

Worse, they pad stories out with a decompressed story model. In today’s comic book industry it takes seven to eight issues to get to plot point one and 24-36 issues to finish a story. At $4 a copy that lowers the entertainment value of a comic book to $0 compared to other forms of media such as video games, movies which provide a faster payoff for the customers’ entertainment dollar.

In this economy it’s a fight for every entertainment dollar. And comic book creators and publishers are bringing knives to a gunfight. And the movie, ebook and video game industries have machine guns, smart bombs and missles.

Today’s comic book writers, artists, editors, and publishers don’t know how to compete in a changing entertainment world. Sadly over the past ten years I’d have to say they’re regressing instead of adapting.

It shouldn’t take ten pages for readers to meet the main character in a comic. It shouldn’t take three whole issues for us to figure out what they want. And it shouldn’t take six whole issues for the reader to care.

If a good movie can answer these three basic questions in ten minutes then why can’t a comic book writer do it in five pages?

Comic book writers forget a principle element in writing: That the readers’ time is precious. Every second that a writer spends wasting time on exposition is a second that the reader can be lost. The longer a writer takes to setup a plot, the higher the chance the reader’s attention will be lost to another form of entertainment. With today’s reader bombarded with a million other options they aren’t going to wait three months for a comic book storyline to start setting up. Life is too short to wait for some writer to figure out what they want the main character to do in 22 pages. Why should the reader care about spending time to read a story if the writer doesn’t respect their time ?

Moreover, comic book writers forget the readers’ money is valuable. Three issues at four dollars a pop is $12. That’s twelve dollars. Compound this with the three months and it’s clear why the comic book industry is in dire straits these days. It’s just a waste of time and money for the customer.

A reader can spend twelve dollars on a 300-400 page paperback and get more for their money than they’d get in a 32-page comic book. That’s one of the reasons why people aren’t reading comic books.

Today’s slow decompressed approach to comic book storytelling doesn’t give the customer a reason to get excited about comic books. It doesn’t make them passionate enough to anticipate the next issue. It makes them head for the exit of the comic shop empty-handed. Worse, it makes them tell their friends not to pick up that book.

And that word of mouth is killing the comic book industry. Word-of-mouth is how books are sold. Friends tell friends about books. They lend friends their old books to read. They go to the store and ask retailers who sell books to order them special for them. And if retailers get enough demand for those books they stock them in their stores regularly.

That’s why it’s important for writers to write comic book stories readers of all ages can care about. If a publisher can’t build a demand by producing quality product, then they can’t sell the supply. Basic economics.

A comic book story should be easy to access. Readers should know who the main character and what they want in three pages or less. And the audience should be given a reason to care by page five.

It’s a writer’s job to craft stories that are well-written. Easy to access in five pages or less. Stories that feature characters readers can connect with, relate to and identify with. Stories that can give the reader something of value they can take and apply to their own lives. These are the things that make the reader care. These are the things that get people excited for the next issue, to plunk down their money for this issue and the next.

The comic book industry has to make the reader care about comic books again if they want to get sales back up again. Not with gimmicks, graphic violence, graphic sex and events that take a hundred issues to figure out. No, they have to make readers care about the stories they tell and the characters featured in one comic book. Until comic book writers can effectively answer the question of why should we care, then they’ll never get readers passionate enough to build the demand retailers need to begin stocking them again outside of comic shops.

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