Make me want to light a cigarette.

SilhouetteThis image was published on the Kotaku website yesterday. The image used, the place the image was displayed, and the date that the image was released combine to tell me three interesting things about the Before Watchmen marketing strategy. One, DC is selling directly to specialty retailers who focus specifically on pamphlets over graphic novels. Two, in regards to the Before Watchmen project, DC has embraced the mainstream superhero fan and has temporarily abandoned the highbrow reader of alternative graphic novels. Three, DC is fighting fire with fire—using one manufactured outrage to quell another more organic one.

I am surprised, but only mildly. DC is willing to jettison Before Watchmen’s long-term monetary success as a critical darling and teaching tool to amass as much cash as possible from fans of monthly superhero comics in the short term. And why not? This project has been shunned by the “comics elite,” who are more concerned regarding the rights of creators than they are about examining the histories of the characters invented by said creators. Their support and free marketing resource cannot be counted on. If they are able to be “won over” at a later date? Fine. However, there is no point in pouring time and money into marketing to a group that is not open to one’s project.

Who does that leave? It leaves a particular type of comic fan—one who wants his Avengers movie and his Captain America comic every month and just wishes everyone would keep quiet about Kirby’s poor treatment and stop interrupting the pipeline flow. He declares this repeatedly on popular geek sites such as Kotaku. (It is interesting to note that the image appears on a site devoted to video games, as if DC desired an opportunity to reach the “geek” audience while at the same time avoiding naysayers who frequent sites focused upon comics. It is an understandable move.) He loves Rorschach’s violent, quirky nature and the adult themes of Watchmen, even though he felt the book was dull at times. He downloaded a copy from a torrent site to read before he saw the movie.

There are many of these fans, they have a great deal of money to spend, and a plethora of Before Watchmen projects featuring popular creators will no doubt draw their attention and dollars. Of vital importance? They do not consider the rights of creators to be more significant than their right to be entertained. However, to sell to these individuals you must sell to their supplier first, hence, the appearance of this image months before the Before Watchmen line will be available in specialty shops. A “buzz” must be created in the mainstream comic community very early on so that retailers will notice said “buzz” and order accordingly. A marketing man worth his salt will do his best to encourage that “buzz” from the date his project’s appears in Previews until its appearance on store shelves. A poor one will simply breathe a sigh of relief once he has saddled retailers with the merchandise, the work now becoming theirs to sell.

But how is a “buzz” created? There are three options. The first is a media blitz—a complete saturation of the market with ads. This is a horrifically annoying method and can easily backfire if potential customers feel their leisure time has been intruded upon. The second option is to simply stand on the merits of your work and let good word of mouth carry you to success. Unfortunately, this can and does result in many quality books receiving poor sales. Depending on eager fans is not enough. Your fans must be enthusiastic and influential in order to bring more potential customers to the table. Finally, controversy—either real or manufactured—can keep one’s material in the public eye without the annoyance that accompanies blanket advertising. Many companies try a little bit of everything.

The image of a battered and bruised Silhouette is pretty controversial, especially in an industry that is currently quite sensitive and very vocal in regards to depictions of violent acts against women and minorities—perhaps vocal enough to supplant one cause with another. Releasing the cover has certainly sparked a discussion. And that discussion has been carried here as well! Yes, in blogging about it I’ve willingly made myself a cog in the machine, but I can’t help it. I find this marketing stuff fascinating. Ah, me! There’s always the next post, I suppose.


A graphic nature.

Within a month Book Expo America 2012 will be upon us, unleashed at the Jacob Javits Center in order to bring us the latest developments in the world of book publishing. For those comic companies with an impressive catalogue of graphic novels to showcase, Book Expo America provides a place for one to woo librarians and buyers for brick and mortar businesses, ensuring that the prize jewel of one’s collection obtains the most precious of shelf space. It is an important convention, and yet is one that does not receive the attention it truly deserves. It’s an extra empty basket, presented at a time when most comic companies are well aware of the fact that all of their eggs should not go into one.

And yet some will place all of their eggs in that bin marked specialty retailer regardless.

Of course, there should be some eggs in that bin! Quite a few! The comic shop retailer should be wooed—must be wooed—if a company desires access to long-standing readers of graphic novels and, as always, fans of the superhero genre. But that relationship should not be maintained at the expense of other avenues of revenue. Appealing solely to specialty retailers has resulted in the isolation of the comics industry, cementing the reputation of reading comics—now considered collecting comics—as a mere hobby instead of the legitimate engagement in a literary medium it should be. Major book publishing conventions, such as BEA, are family tables awaiting a Prodigal Son. Some have returned; some have not. For those of you noting a lack of DC and Marvel, I assume that both publishers will be heavily represented at the Disney and Warner Bros. booths. However, when neither shows up in a simple search for graphic novels, one can’t help but be a bit dismayed. In addition, Disney is located a distance from the other comic publishers (yet is smartly located near the ever-popular Children’s Pavilion); Warner Bros. is on an entirely different floor.

For DC in particular, this move is confusing. With the soon-to-be arrival of the Before Watchmen line, which will no doubt be available in trades shortly after the pamphlet debut, DC desperately needs an arena where it can reach potential readers who have yet to be tainted by the controversy surrounding the project. Those readers will be found in bookstores and libraries, and their suppliers will be found at BEA. Unless DC has decided to aim the Before Watchmen project at mainstream superhero fans instead of the free marketing resource of scholarly devotees that has made Watchmen a critical darling and commercial success—a bizarre move in itself—Book Expo America is a must.

Though it is clearly understood why the comic companies appearing at BEA desire separate booths, joining together to lobby for advantageous locations or other perks appears to be a good idea in theory. It would ensure that comics are clearly represented at BEA in one physical block. Also, joining together might allow for the pooling of resources or access to bulk discounts. Perhaps the feasibility of such an idea should be tested at later exhibitions?

I plan to be at Book Expo America and also plan to take a moment or two to peruse the booths exhibiting graphic novels. I’ll be sure to report back what I find!


Ether.

My last post concentrated on damage control tactics for DC regarding the Before Watchmen project and DC’s early termination of Chris Roberson’s stint at DC. I’d like to use this post to “hop over the fence” and discuss possible ways in which independent companies such as Image and Dark Horse can capitalize on DC’s large public presence and apparent marketing weaknesses.

DC is an industry behemoth—fat, sluggish, and slow, but also massively powerful. Its size is a blessing that affords it the best spot in Previews, constant press from popular news sites, and the rapt attention of a legion of long-devoted fans. Its size is also a curse. It has become an antiquated bureaucracy, limiting its speed. It is unable to make adjustments quickly in regards to negative press, unhappy fans, or dissatisfied talent. Any action required is initially bound by ribbons of red tape unfurled by editors elucidating edicts from on high. Its inflexible nature forces it down narrow paths that will one day restrict its growth, for example, catering to a shrinking subset of homogeneous readers or allowing nepotism to dictate the talent pool. But we all know what DC is. The question for the competition is this, how can we—as independent publishers—make money from it?

In my last post, I stated that DC should make moves to appear creator-friendly. Dark Horse and Image need to show that they are truly creator-friendly and sabotage any inroads made by DC into their creator-owned domain. And, much to my pleasant surprise (because there is nothing that delights me more than a shrewd PR move), this is already occurring—cheaply and efficiently. Again, DC’s size affords it instant publicity. Attacks on the behemoth bring publicity too. A simple blog post from Stephenson or a Facebook interaction between Mignola and Hama will be picked up by news blogs and fan sites to be carried far and wide. And, amusingly, DC has played directly into their hands by responding, naming, and calling attention to both the attacks and the competition, assuming the role of Ja Rule instead of Jay Z. Think long and hard about the fates of both of these public personas, and of the two men who challenged them.

But it is not enough to simply stick and move. The comic industry is, to put it mildly, incestuous. Of course, its incestuous nature allows for certain deals to be easily made. Creators move from project to project with a speed that rivals the label-hopping of current rap stars or bed-hopping of video vixens. A young industry hotshot cuts his teeth at Image, builds his reputation at DC or Marvel, and perhaps has another dalliance with an independent publisher when the restrictive nature of the two conglomerates occasionally curtails his creativity. The goal of the independent publisher is to increase the frequency of said dalliances until a permanent relationship with a creator is formed and it becomes the first option a creator considers when attempting to launch a project. How can one accomplish this goal? Spit game. Editors from Image and Dark Horse need to aggressively pursue well-known creators working at Marvel and DC—especially now that budgetary concerns at both companies have forced the conclusion of certain exclusivity contracts. Woo them with words that prove you can provide the best of both worlds—the freedom of Kickstarter and the brand security of a long-standing company. Not only will you be rewarded with a successful project, but the publicity that comes from a former unhappy and currently famous creator raving about his new “crew” and disparaging his old one is icing on the cake.

However, some successes cannot be stolen or sabotaged. Sometimes, they must be methodically recreated. DC sits upon a tower of icons and industry lynchpins. Said tower was not created overnight, but required decades of creative input and calculated marketing. When I say that DC’s success should be recreated, I do not mean that companies should produce thinly-veiled versions of DC characters. No, what should be copied is DC’s slow and steady method of building franchises and brands. I want Graham’s excellent work on Prophet to be bound as soon as possible to be pushed as a mainstay for college literature courses. I want to see Hellboy and B.P.R.D. constantly cycling through high-profile film, television, and comic projects, never getting a chance to fade from the mainstream’s collective memory. I want to see an Empowered short story published in Playboy. I want a copy of King City to be found in every Barnes & Noble.

What I don’t want is for a creator with exceptional talent and an interesting project to be handed nothing more than a logo and a handshake. Foster loyalty, foster a crew, and then foster an image (no pun intended). Show and prove.


You played yourself.

This started off as a flurry of locked Twitter tweets. It is now warping itself into a blog post due to the urging insistence of David Brothers. And as we all know, Comic Industry Rule #4080 is that the words of David Brothers must be obeyed. Comic Industry Rule #1 is that comic companies are shady. And so here we are.

The title, apt and rapped, owes its life to De La, of course, from a song that has long been one of my favorites. DC has indeed played itself, and we’ve all watched—some of us in horror and some of us in amusement—as the company rode an initial wave of success brought about by its superhero relaunch only to crash upon the shores of a horrid public relations catastrophe with Before Watchmen. With each negative statement publicly made via blog posts, interviews, and news reports, DC is in grave danger of losing the reins of this publicity behemoth, something no company wants to have happen. When you lose control of the marketing, you lose control of your money.

I’m not going to discuss the ethical implications of Alan Moore’s treatment (or Chris Roberson’s, for that matter) here. A much better job of that has been done elsewhere. Besides, my tweets were mercenary in tone and were focused on the only thing of importance to DC: How can we get people to stop badmouthing us in the press and embrace the Before Watchmen project?

The solution is found in something near and dear to many of us—rap music.

In the earlier days of the nineties and aughts, when rap could equal commercial success but still had legitimate ties to black urban youth culture, record executives who wanted to sell their new rapper to lucrative middle and upper class white audiences still had to have the “streets cosign.” In other words, poor black kids made stars, rich white kids gave them money so they could shine.

Before Watchmen is that star. The indie comics community—both reader and creator? “The streets.” And the rest of us? Bored white kids with pockets chock full of money. DC’s first mistake was thinking it could sell directly to the masses and ignore rumblings from the indie circuit. Jamal Henricks standing out in front of Marcy Projects in 1995 damn sure didn’t want some suit trying to sell him soulless suburban rap. And he and his crew could end a career with one bad comment. Ask Kwame. Likewise, Brendan the English professor who reads The Comics Reporter and uses Watchmen for his class on ethics in literature doesn’t want to hear a slick Before Watchmen sales pitch. The trust fund kids who play poor in Williamsburg and dig the indie comics scene don’t want to hear from company men in Green Lantern t-shirts and baseball caps. And the men and women who are the working poor that make up the indie comics scene certainly don’t want to hear from Lee (who, though a nice man, has a terrible reputation for being a sell-out), Didio (who bleeds and breathes commercialism), and JMS (who, whether deservedly or not, currently has a reputation for being a rich blowhard dismissive of creators’ rights).

That’s a serious problem, because those groups I just listed? That’s DC’s free Before Watchmen street team. You think the retailer who tweets about Scarlet Witch’s tits is going to sell Before Watchmen to college bookstores and libraries? You think the fanboy cosplaying as Nightwing is going to push Before Watchmen projects at Barnes & Noble? No. And the people who would? Right now DC’s free street team thinks the worst of DC and the Before Watchmen project—an assembly of scabs, leeches, and cornball sell-outs. This attitude must be rectified. But how?

First and foremost is to announce a creator-owned imprint—big names, big press, and contracts that are deemed fair and acceptable by the industry. DC needs to be seen as creator-friendly. I commented earlier regarding the subject:

“What’s needed is a ‘keep creators happy’ imprint. Are you a big name? Have you produced a commercial success for us? Let us do the same for you. Terrible Company Man POV: Look, we swiped you from Image and let you beef your name up with DC characters, why should we hand you back? Main goal: Keep that DC logo on all books that draw eyes. Some will make a ton of money, some will make a little. It’s all publicity. Most articles about the Walking Dead TV show have an Image mention tucked away. Tying your company name to a success is always good.”

Cheryl Lynn Eaton

Next up is to quietly pull incendiary hucksters from the table. This is a Watchmen project, not Teen Titans. Move creators with good reputations like Conner and Azzarello to the forefront. Focus on Jae Lee instead of Jim. Think quirky instead of commercial. Biggie never danced in a shiny suit.

Finally, damage control for the Roberson situation is required. Of course, the best approach would have been to let Roberson leave when he had announced he would leave instead of pulling him from a project.

“So, you slip in a co-writer with Roberson. Someone young and eager that Roberson can shape and show the ropes. And you treat that kid nicely. When Roberson bounces, you have a baby Roberson in place that has swiped some of Roberson’s shine and his small fan following. As talented? Maybe not since she’ll be younger and less skilled. But she’ll only get better. And yes, you get a woman in there to keep fans from bitching about the co-writer deal. ‘Oh, we thought you wanted more women in comics.'”

Cheryl Lynn Eaton

Of course, DC went for the worst possible PR move and yanked Roberson instead, but they can improve upon the situation by assigning a female writer of YA fantasy novels to the Fairest title.

Long story short, I’m very interested to see if DC manages to turn things around. Right now the company is walking a tense tightrope between Drake and Yung Berg and Image is eyeing chains hungrily. We’ll see.


BHM: Before Watchmen, post-racial.

Newsstand BoyIn a stellar move that has stunned the comics community and has quieted critics who have claimed that DC isn’t making proper strides in regards to ethnic and racial diversity, DC has released information concerning the final prequel project in the powerful Before Watchmen arsenal. Newsstand Boy by creators Eric Wallace and Scott McDaniel was announced this morning by DC’s co-publisher Dan Didio.

“We are absolutely elated to be moving forward with this project featuring Dave and Alan’s most popular African-American character. I think it is important, especially on the cusp of Black History Month, to show that DC is willing to stand behind its creators and characters of all colors and creeds—from white to black, and even blue! Hey, even Superman was blue! All shades here at DC, man. All shades.”

Eric Wallace was equally as excited regarding the project. “Honestly, it’s just an honor to be considered. When Didio contacted me this morning and asked me to sign on, I couldn’t believe it.” However, when pressed for details, the writer became coy. “Well, I don’t want to give away too much, but Scott has brought some amazing things to the table and I can’t wait to dig in!” The amicable creator seemed unconcerned about scheduling issues given that he was brought on at such a late stage in the project. “We’ve actually pulled ahead of all the other creative teams. Scott has already completed all four issues, so now I just need to put my finishing touch on the product—bring to the table what only a black man can. Like sprinkles on the ice cream.”

And what of the ice cream? McDaniel was quick to elaborate. “The stuff that Harvey and I have come up with is phenomenal. It’s going to knock your socks off. I finally sat down to read Watchmen last night and I’m certain that Harvey and I have created a work that honors what Dave and Alan have produced.”

Dave Gibbons, co-creator of the original Watchmen series, agrees. “The fact that DC feels so strongly about what Alan and I concluded so long ago that they wish to move forward with new stories is astounding. And that DC will be compensating Alan and I for our creations with a portion of the proceeds from the sale of these new works is a testament to the fact that DC truly cares about its creators.”

Alan Moore did not wish to issue a statement.

Usually tight-lipped about successful launches from its “distinguished competition,” Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort was surprisingly quick to comment. “Marvel wishes DC all the success in the world with Newsstand Boy. Any project like this, no matter the publisher, helps to get fans in the stores and more eyes in front of Marvel comics. And with our upcoming release of Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers, a lost creation from the late Dwayne McDuffie, we believe we’re producing the kind of comics that will make fans take notice. Fraction and Bagley have something really special with this one, something Dwayne would have wanted.”

Will Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers be able to best Newsstand Boy in the eyes of retailers and fans? Only time will tell. But Bob Harras believes he has the answer already. “We’re not about looking over our shoulder to see what Marvel rushes to create in our wake,” the editor-in-chief explained.

“We’re DC. We keep moving forward.”