Friday, 5 October 2012

Atoll Comics Industry

Or the Darwinistic practices of DC and Marvel Comics

The original premise of this blog was to save money by only reading ten ongoing comics and four graphic novels/trade paperbacks a month. Setting these rules forced me to drop a lot of books and focus on my favourites. As a result I read fewer comics (at least Marvel and DC comics) but greatly enjoy every comic I read. It's like my reading habits have undergone a comic book evolution.

Something I've realized recently is that Marvel and DC are conducting similar experiments in Comics Darwinism.

A core tenant in the Theory of Evolution (not a theory) is that species adapt through time in response to selective pressures. Which is fancy Science talk for saying that living things compete with each other for resources and, well, survival. This can be as simple plants fighting one another for light or animals trying to avoid being eaten or animals attempting to eat those other aforementioned animals. Individual organisms that are able to outcomplete other members of their species for resources will tend to outlive, and therefore, outbreed their relatives. They have more offspring and then their offspring have more offspring, and so on, until eventually the entire species more closely resembles that first successful organism. This is "Evolution". The same process happens on a species level: species that are well adapted to a particular environment can get more resources and therefore outcompete other species and take their spot. The species that are not very good at competing decline and in extreme situations  may eventually go extinct. This process of competing for resources is "Natural Selection".

DC Comic's New 52 is a a sales gimmick, a reboot, a simplification, and I would argue an example of comics Natural Selection. As part of their current publishing strategy DC is committed to publishing 52 titles; no more, no less. Nested in this approach is that whenever DC wants to lunch a new title they have to give another, underperforming ongoing series the ax  Which is to say, comics are allowed, or even encouraged to fail. DC comics has therefore created selective pressure for their books to succeed or be replaced by newer, faster, younger premises that are then given a chance to find an audience. DC has essentially enacted the publishing equivalent of natural selection by only allowing comics with a stable or growing audience (resources) to survive. In theory such a Darwinistic approach should ensure that DC only publishes the best comics (as judged by market forces).

But natural selection isn't the only process by which species adapt and change over generations. Survival of the fittest selects for survivors and breeders and not any of the numerous other things that might be desirable to humans. For instance people enjoy things like giant cows that contain a lot of meat. Such cows tend to be slower than smaller cows and therefore much more susceptible to, say, wolves and wouldn't occur naturally. Similarly people want to have ginormous tomatoes which require more resources to grow and seed than normal tomato plants and also wouldn't do particularly well in a natural setting. The solution for people who want this ungainly organisms is another Evolutionary process called Positive Selection. This is essentially taking two remarkable individuals who exemplify some desirable thing and mating them. For instance ranchers wanting huge cows would take two really big cows and breed them, and then breed their largest babies, and their largest babies and so on. Eventually they would get a weirdly big cow. This process of positive selection underlies pretty much all of the food we eat and why we have so many breeds of dogs.

Marvel Comics seems intent on exploring Positive Selection in its publishing strategy. Marvel is pursuing a publishing strategy where they ship fewer titles, but ship each ongoing series about twice as often. This means that instead of replacing its weakest books with new titles, Marvel is reinvesting its creative resources into its most successful books as a way to increase sales. In this way, it seems like Marvel is trying to positively select for popular intellectual properties or titles/characters that have cross media appeal. Taken to an extreme, this approach would let Marvel maximize the value of any given property and, in the process, create a streamlined lineup of its best possible titles.

To a certain extent I think both approaches have merit. DC's 52 book natural selection approach certainly encourages commercial success and Marvels positive selection for popular books provides hungry fans with more of their favourite content and ensures increased sales for Marvel. In an ideal world where comics consumption is limited only by interest (people would buy more books if only there were more that interested them), these strategies would globally increase sales by either increasing the overall quality of comics or by catering to existing interests.

Trouble is, I don't think we are living in this ideal world.

I figure comics are facing a scarcity of resources:the amount of comics a person consumes is generally limited by their own finances rather than their interest in comics. That is to say, people have a comics budget and that defines the number of comics they buy. I can't imagine that even if ALL of DC's 52 comics were dynamite that anyone would buy every series. Similarly, if Marvel put out four outstanding titles every day, no one would follow even a single title completely. And honestly, Marvel's double publishing strategy does nothing to address the limited resources of consumers... it just places readers in a position of awkwardly trying to raise their budget or to drop half their Marvel reading list. Basically, I think that although these Darwinist strategies are sound for creating better/commercially viable comics, they fail to address the real issue facing comics: a scarcity of consumers.

I think a more apt strategy for DC and Marvel to increase revenues is to attract new readers. I think the biggest problem facing comics is how inaccessible they are: you have to go to a comic store or website to get them, and you'll only do that if you are already actively interested in purchasing comics. People who have no experience with comics don't know they want them will never get them. Besides trying to sell comics outside the direct market, I think DC and Marvel have to find an effective way to advertise to new audiences. I'm convinced part of the solution is to put some big chunk of content online for free (whether it be old and good or newly created for such a purpose). The other solution, as I see it, is to diversify. One of the tenets of evolutionary biology is that success can be attained by niche filling. A pigeon is successful as a species for very different reasons than a mosquito, a rat, or a human. This is because these organisms are all radically different and occupy very different environments. DC and Marvel, for all of the very talented people who work at each, are ultimately publishing variations of masked vigilante punches villain. While this is awesome and fun and appeals to a great many people, perhaps more people could be attracted by telling all kinds of different stories in the comics medium. For instance, I think the diversity of storytelling at Image Comics is one of its greatest strengths (and maybe why Image finds audiences outside of comics). So yeah, I'd recommend that the Big Two diversify and come up with an effective strategy to attract more readers and therefore money/resources.

Otherwise, it'll just a be a desert with Batman in it.

(Also, prices could be dropped a touch to make comics more competitive with other types of media. Just sayin'.)

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