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DC Vs Marvel in the Age of Tweets

There is a facebook page entitled “Has DC Done Something Stupid Today?” The caption on the page reads “Are you tired of having to comb through dozens of articles trying to figure out if DC has done something cringe worthy today? Would you like to be the first person to know how long it’s been since DC alienated fans?” Call me crazy, but I suspect there might be a bit of bias there.

DC and Marvel have always represented opposite sides of the comic playground, even though the same creators often bounced from one company to the other. Beginning with Marvel’s creative heyday in the 60s, fans usually choose one side or the other, either proclaiming themselves a Marvel Zombie or a DC Fanboy. Of course, in the days before the internet, most of this allegiance was based simply on the characters and the perceived quality of the stories. It was no less passionate. Even then, you picked your side and stuck to it.

As it did with so many things, the internet brought change to comics fandom.

In 2012, Sean Howe published a book entitled “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story”. It is an interesting read and I recommend it…unless you are a Marvel fan. It details the various eras of Marvel and all the behind the scenes politics and maneuvering that went on before all those comics ever saw print. Even during the Stan Lee era there were inter company feuds and resentment over who-got-what-credit. The crucial difference was comic readers had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. We read the books, enjoyed the stories on their own merits and largely assumed those stories either sprang to life via magic, or that they were fashioned by happy, larger than life artists for no reason other than to create legends and make us happy.

Yes, I know. Was it possible people were ever really that naïve?

Contrast that with today’s post social media world. Today, when a writer or artist gets bent out of shape over any perceived slight, more often than not, they immediately tweet about it. The internet reports these stories and often the drama behind the comics is more compelling than the drama within them.

Interestingly, the drama actually serves to help delineate some of the differences between DC and Marvel that currently exist. Both are corporate entities, entirely driven by profit, but their views on just how to make that profit differ. Even before Marvel was bought by Disney, they had been following its model. Marvel, like Disney, views its properties as its primary business, rather than the stories about them. In other words, Marvel makes its money because it owns Spider-Man, not because it makes Spider-Man comics. In their view, the real money is to be made by licensing Spider-Man’s image out to companies who make lunch boxes, T-Shirts, bottle openers, action figures and doo-dads of every imaginable type. The comics themselves? Well, they need to be kept going, so that Spider-Man remains an active property, but whether they are great comics is largely irrelevant as long as they remain out there to keep Spider-Man in the public eye so the property can continue to be exploited.

This is not to say that Marvel Comics are never good. Sometimes they are quite good. But that is usually more of a happy accident rather than any careful stewardship on Marvel’s part. Marvel wants the books published, so they hire people to edit, write and draw them. Sometimes those people who are writing and drawing them do a great job, sometimes they don’t. It really doesn’t matter a whole lot to Marvel because what Marvel does really well is marketing and so they will sell the books with only nominal regard for the content.

On the other hand, DC focuses on the books themselves. Sure, they market their books, just not as effectively as Marvel, so they remain convinced the best way to sell more books is to make them better. There are people who would view this as adorably naïve. Because of this, DC is much less willing to give free reign to its creators. They have a larger plan for their universe and want creators to do their best work, but at the same time stick to DC’s editorial direction. One thing that hasn’t changed over the years: creative types usually prefer to be left alone. So is there any surprise DC’s stricter involvement is chafing some of its creators?

Understand, I’m not completely defending DC. Any company is made up of a variety of people and it is rare that egos and agendas do not start to at least partially drive the management machinery. All I’m really saying is this is not new, nor isolated to DC. Of course all this puts comic fans in something of a dilemma. We vote with our dollars and have to decide which is more important to us. While we love the characters and want to see them continue, we also love the creative teams who make them come alive and know that without them, our favorite stories would never have happened. It would be nice if it was as simple as choosing between corporate product and artistic merit, but the best comics have always been driven by a little of both.

All of which makes me want to go pull out some old Jack Kirby comics. He created or co-created hundreds of characters under work-for-hire contracts and never got anywhere near what most people feel he deserved for them. Does this make his work any less wonderful to read? I’ll leave that to you to decide.

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DC Villains Month

Traditionally the worst month for retail sales is February. People still have Christmas money (and gift cards) to spend in January and by March some people are starting to get their tax returns. But February is stuck right in the middle of a sales “No Man’s Land” and is the weakest month for most retailers.

Except us.

For us, September has always been the month when sales take a sharp dive. Two factors figure into this, albeit in a roundabout way. First, the kids are back in school and although kids are not a significant percentage of our customer base, their parents are. Second, the East Texas State Fair happens here every September and it is a significant money drain. Truthfully, very few of our customers even go to the Fair, but it still affects the economy in this town. Bottom line is, September is the month that we try and prepare for, but never quite seem to handle as well as we would like.

So, it is interesting that DC Comics has chosen September as the month they try to win back lapsed readers with company wide events. In 2011 they launched The New 52. There was an avalanche of grumbling about how DC was “pissing on decades of continuity”, but when the books were actually launched, most of those complainers were silenced. The launch was a resounding success and the best thing to happen to our store in many years. One year later they suspended regular publication of their core “New 52” books and offered “Zero” issues of each title as a way to introduce even more people to their characters and new line of books. It, too, was a terrific idea and helped keep their momentum going.

This year, they are again suspending publication of their regular universe books and instead hosting “Villain’s Month”. For the entire month of September, the DC universe villains will headline the books instead of the regular heroes (i.e. Joker will take over Batman). To make the deal even more interesting to collectors, DC planned 3D motion covers on each of these books. They are using some new technology that involved a very long lead time, so long, in fact, that they had to set the print runs for these books well in advance of the time when they would actually see any retailer orders. They printed what they thought were generous amounts, but then the comic shop orders came in with much larger numbers than they predicted.

Some publishers (I’m not naming names here) would have just alerted the press that these books were going to be in short supply, let the market go crazy and then use the aftermath frenzy to pump sales of all their other books. DC, however, saw that there was going to be a shortage and so they immediately scheduled a regular cover edition of all these books. They are even going to get final allocation numbers to us BEFORE we have to order these regular cover editions so we can plan accordingly.

All of this boils down to one basic principle, which I’m sure I’ll elaborate on in future posts: DC genuinely treats the comic shops as partners in publishing. My store has often been accused of being a “DC store” as we tend to push their books over many of the other publishers (not Valiant, though. Valiant also rocks!). And why wouldn’t we? I cannot begin to tell you how differently DC and Marvel treat retailers. DC is supportive and responsive where Marvel is generally secretive and belligerent. However, my point of this post is not to trash Marvel so much as point out the help that DC has given its direct market accounts.

I still see a lot of suspicion and general hostility every time DC makes an announcement of some future event or company wide plan. Let’s face it, there is a large chunk of the comic fan base that will never be happy with anything they do (and you know who you are). I think DC realizes they will never be able to make everyone happy, but they are genuinely trying to do the right things to insure that the comic market remains healthy in the long term.

So if we are guilty of being a “DC Store”, so be it, because their goals and our are the same.


Faux-Nerds

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The comic book store used to be a sacred refuge of the nerd. It was one of the few places where we could feel accepted and even understood. If you wanted to gloat about finding that rare Space: 1999 British Annual or discovering some obscure small press comic, the comic shop was a place where people understood. The people there shared the same passions, experienced the same general clumsiness and truly understood what it meant to be a nerd.

A few years ago that started to change.

A new threat has started to infiltrate all of the usual safe havens for obsessive pop culture geeks. You see them at comic book stores, proudly proclaiming they are the biggest Doctor Who fan you will ever meet and can even name all THREE Doctors! You see them at the comic conventions, wearing costumes that are expertly made, but often laughably inaccurate to the true nerd. You find them just about everywhere the true nerd used to feel safe. They are the faux-nerd.

It isn’t all The Big Bang Theory’s fault, but certainly that show shoulders a lot of the blame for this infestation. It took a group of cliché nerds, added some hot girls to the mix to showcase their social awkwardness and through snappy writing and a laugh track made these stereotypes endearing. The public at large loved them, but I don’t think true nerds are quite as taken with the show because “endearing” was never what we wanted out to be.

Now, you might at this point think, “But Dave! What’s wrong with more people discovering nerd culture? Is it not a good thing that there are finally more people that love Doctor Who and Star Trek and Comic Books and everything else that used to be stigmatized as “nerdy”? And what about the hot girls? There’re hot girls that now like nerd stuff! That’s got to be good, right?”

Certainly, it could be a good thing, if it signaled a true cultural shift, but chances are it is more fad than genuine cultural change. After all, the mid-sixties Batman TV show was a cultural phenomenon that had everyone doing the Bat-tusi and buying Bat-memorabilia, but within a few years most of them lost interest and by the next decade comic books were on the verge of extinction.

So for now we’ve got all these tourists visiting out comic shops trying to pretend they are one of us, that they know the difference between The Legion of Super-Heroes and The Justice League. The lines at the comic conventions are suddenly horrendously long, clogged by people who wouldn’t have been caught dead near a comic convention just a few years ago. And if you think this new found “Geek Chic” means you have a chance at a hot girlfriend just like Leonard on The Big Bang Theory, chances are you’re going to find yourself sorely disappointed. Still think the influx of faux-nerds is such a good thing?

So what do we do about it? I’m not completely sure, although I’ve pondered several ideas. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement didn’t exactly change the world, but perhaps true nerds could adopt their strategy and occupy all those Hot Topic stores until they take down their super-hero t-shirts and Doctor Who displays. I’m not advocating violence here, of course, but maybe a little “Nerd Indignation” would be just the thing to send these faux-nerds running back to their Starbucks and Gap stores. And then, after the dust has settled and the trendy nerds have all gone away, perhaps of the few new arrivals might stay behind, choosing instead to remain with their new found brethren in the deeper waters of pop culture immersion. Those are the people we should accept into our temples of nerd culture as we were accepted before them. Our ranks might grow only slightly, but it would be a true growth, rather than a false spike. For it would only be at that point that a select few might make the difficult transition from faux-nerd to true nerd and we could say to them “Welcome! Live long and prosper. And pass the Cheetos!”


Rediscoveries

I love pop culture. The first few decades of my life was spent discovering to various pop culture works that shaped my life. In music I began with Buck Owens, then discovered Paul Revere and the Raiders and someone it led me all the way through Front 242 and on to Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman. Television began simply enough with Super Friends and Star Trek, and of course comics played a major role.

I remember asking one of my high school teachers if life lost any of its flavor because the sense of discovery diminished as one grew older. She answered that there were always new things to discover. I was skeptical of that answer at the time, but now as I find my own years beginning to rack up a little more quickly than I anticipated, I realize she was right. However, I find myself more and more not gravitating toward new discoveries so much as rediscoveries. While I am still discovering lots of new pop culture, I am spending a great deal of time revisiting and reevaluating the pop culture of my past.

There is a certain irony in our media situation today. The digital revolution has taken over and caused people to sweep aside collections of packaged media. They no longer want to keep stacks of books on their shelves or store a collection of CDs or Albums. A number of new music and book releases aren’t even finding enough interest to release a physical package and instead just offering a digital release. Oddly, the one area where packaged media is still flourishing is in lavish rereleases of classic pop culture product. We’ve seen the release of uber-deluxe editions of classic albums like Dark Side of the Moon and Rumors with expensive price tags and extravagant hardcover collections of comic runs that would have been unthinkable just a decade or two ago.

Now, I certainly have no illusions as to the reasons behind these releases. The companies are looking to milk the last few dollars out of a diminishing market. But while their intentions might not be so noble, the results are very noble indeed. Interestingly, it is a great time to be a lover of classic pop culture. For some it offers the chance to experience works they might have missed on their original release. For others it offers the chance to revisit works that helped shape their lives. Even more interesting, I am finding now that when I revisit a work that I enjoyed ten or twenty years ago, it means something almost completely different to me now.

I’ve always maintained that the most basic definition of art is communication, and communication itself is not a passive act. There can be no conversation without both a speaker and a listener, no exchange of ideas without both a disseminator and a receiver. All of which means that we bring our own baggage to any work of art. Obviously our tastes are important in forming an opinion about a piece of art, but there is usually more than just that. Our mood on a particular day, our own experiences with the topic, our prejudices and beliefs all figure into to just how we receive a work of art and pop culture. As we grow older and evolve, the perspective from which we view a television program or hear a piece of music changes. We are no longer quite the same person and so the art doesn’t quite mean the same thing. I think it offers us an insight into ourselves, even if we don’t consciously recognize it right away.

So if you haven’t revisited a favorite work in a long time, take this opportunity to dust it off and see just what it means to you now. Reflect on what those changes say about you. Because when all is said and done, it is great to rediscover a work of art, but it is even more important to discover something about ourselves.

And really, wasn’t that what the art was trying to do in the first place?


Spidey Goes to Disneyworld

All of my nerdy friends (and let’s face it – that’d be pretty much all of them) are upset over Disney’s recent purchase of the Marvel Comics empire.

While I’m not wild about the implications, I’m not nearly as surprised by this move as some people seem to be. In recent years, Marvel has patterned itself pretty openly after Disney’s model. Both companies have long been more concerned about keeping their properties marketable than telling good stories. That’s not to say that their books and movies are never entertaining, many of them are. But it is almost a happy coincidence when that happens; a means to an end rather than the ultimate goal.

I’ve heard all the rants about large conglomerates being anathema to the making of art. I think too many fans want to view the characters and stories they love as something sacred, as “Art” with a capital “A”. As if the people who hold the copyrights to those characters are mearly acting in the public trust. But large media conglomerates exist to sell product, and as fans we are merely consumers of that product, nothing more. Some conglomerates see the music or stories their artists produce as their product. Marvel doesn’t. Marvel sees the iconic characters themselves as the product. The comics they produce on a monthly basis are simply a tool to keep these characters fresh and viable, because they know the real money is almost anywhere but in the comics. Do you think a successful run on the Iron Man comic has even a tiny fraction of the impact on their bottom line that the movie had?

Years ago there was a rumor running around that Marvel was giving serious consideration to “farming out” the actual production of their comics. Although it was never confirmed, they reportedly discussed allowing other companies to produce the actual comics for their characters, while they concentrated on the more lucrative business of licensing.  It made a certain amount of sense, even though it never came to pass. Instead, Marvel got into the movie business and that turned out pretty well for them.

Except for one disastrous attempt in the 90s, Disney has not produced comic books. It has simply licensed its characters to other companies and then reaped the benefit that came from the increased exposure by raising their licensing fees. But Disney’s primary business was never making comics. It was making films. Marvel, on the other hand, is primarily a comic book company that has recently gotten into film making and shown their characters, their “properties”, could be wildly successful outside of the fairly insular comic book market. Is it any wonder that Marvel attracted Disney’s attention?

One of my friends posted that these were “dark days” for Marvel. Considering this is the company that has gone survived the regimes of Ron Pearlman, Roger Corman and Bill Jemas, that’s quite a statement. I personally don’t see that many dramatic changes, at least not in the short term. Marvel has been very successful lately and Disney is paying too much money to mess with that success. Luckily Disney has deep enough pockets that they won’t be forced to do anything drastic to earn back that four billion dollars they ponied up for Marvel Entertainment.