Marvel and DC cross paths at crossover central this month, but while DC's big event tried to serve the existing audience, Marvel appears to be trying to court a new one. Paul O'Brien wonders which company has the better idea.
08 May 2006

Ladies and gentlemen, we have now reached the symbolic turning point of the year - the end of DC's INFINITE CRISIS and the beginning of Marvel's CIVIL WAR.

I shall pause there, to allow the whoops of excitement to die down.

And some people, no doubt, are bursting with enthusiasm for both projects. My own feelings are rather more muted. The last couple of years have seen a swing back to bloated megacrossovers that is singularly uninspiring. DC, at least, may have worked it out of their system for the time being. Marvel have a few more months to go with CIVIL WAR, followed by ANNIHILATION, by which time somebody will probably have announced another massive storyline set to run through to autumn of 2009. I'm just keeping my head down and hoping it all blows over before I lose interest in the medium entirely.

But let's leave my own feelings aside for the moment. Marvel and DC are taking rather different approaches to their two projects. This is interesting - more interesting than the comics themselves, some might argue - because it sheds some light on where they see the business going.

Over the last few years, we've seen Marvel and DC try a variety of approaches to expand their audience. One approach was to produce hybrid books combining superheroes with other genres - most notably with titles such as SLEEPER, although Marvel did it to a lesser degree by drastically shifting the tone of some of their existing titles. These books tended to get very good reviews but sold appallingly. Another approach was to ape manga by adopting their format and trying to get onto their shelves. This has worked a little better, but the native publishers still haven't really been able to crack that market.

'The crossovers shed some light on where Marvel and DC see the business going.' All of which brings us to the present day. INFINITE CRISIS appears to see a drastic shift of policy by DC. It is difficult to imagine a book less tailored for new readers. IDENTITY CRISIS, which kicked off the whole storyline, was promoted aggressively as a superhero/detective hybrid and ideal for new readers. INFINITE CRISIS, in contrast, seems to be purely for the long-term DC fans. Now, to be fair, I didn't actually read it. I was driven screaming to the hills by the first few issues of the tie-in miniseries, which varied somewhere between obnoxiously inaccessible and utterly incomprehensible.

Among other things, though, the story involves characters from Earth-2 (as destroyed back in the 1980s) returning to challenge the post-Crisis DC Universe, explain away various continuity points, and generally mess about with DCU minutiae. There may be more - I tried reading a couple of synopses, but quite frankly, even in that form the story was so unfathomable that I gave up in despair. Nobody but an existing DC Universe fan could conceivably care. Indeed, nobody but an existing DC Universe fan or somebody with tremendous perseverance could conceivably work out what it was they were supposed to care about in the first place.

And DC must surely know this. Indeed, they've openly accepted that IDENTITY CRISIS and the accompanying "One Year Later" stunt were not particularly aimed at new readers. And that's a significant change of attitude. Until now we've seen Marvel and DC try to work out how they're going to sell superhero books to the mainstream audience. DC's answer now appears to be: we're not. We'll sell the mainstream audience something else entirely. The superhero books can sell to the ghetto, just like always.

'Nobody but a DCU fan could conceivably care about INFINITE CRISIS.' This may seem a touch cynical, but to be honest, there is much to be said for this approach. There's undoubtedly a mainstream audience for superhero stories - look at the audience figures for SMALLVILLE, or the SPIDER-MAN movies. But they prefer the spin-off media. New comics readers are coming from a different direction and it makes sense for DC, who have a wide range of material anyway, to go with the flow.

Marvel do not have a wide range of material, and they see things rather differently. CIVIL WAR - solemnly billed as "A Marvel Comics Event in Seven Parts" - has been promoted heavily to the mainstream press. Issue #1 ends with an editorial by Joe Quesada unequivocally targeted at the new reader. After a brief and entirely legitimate dig at DC ("Usually when you come across huge universe-spanning events of this kind, even the most hardcore fan finds himself needing a road map"), Quesada proceeds to recommend some trade paperbacks that you might want to buy in order to learn more about the characters. Frankly, any new readers are unlikely to be endeared to such a shameless two-page plug for the back catalogue. But it's certainly clear who Marvel are aiming for.

It's certainly a much more accessible series than INFINITE CRISIS, based on a single straightforward premise, and requiring only a superficial familiarity with the characters. While INFINITE CRISIS was essentially an extended piece of comics-industry navel-gazing with added fight scenes, CIVIL WAR has a concept that Marvel can pitch more easily to the general public: the government finally gets around to passing a superhero registration law, and the superheroes fall out about how to react. It's a blatant civil liberties metaphor, which at least means that it's a story about something that a new reader might already care about. And CIVIL WAR has indeed picked up a respectable amount of media coverage.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether CIVIL WAR really does bring in new readers or simply extracts a lot of dollars from the existing ones. But while it may make for a cute filler item in the newspapers - and be honest, how many of them do you actually remember after you've turned the page? - I'm sceptical about its drawing power with new readers. Granted, it's not in quite the same category as the Storm/Black Panther wedding, which is receiving a massive promotional push on the apparent theory that black people who presently couldn't care less about comics will suddenly get excited because two black characters are getting married. The whole idea seems utterly divorced from reality, and I'm quietly amused to see that the wedding issue has suddenly become a CIVIL WAR crossover.

'CIVIL WAR has a concept that Marvel can pitch to the general public.' But the pitch for CIVIL WAR is essentially 'comics do civil liberties'. I'm very doubtful that this sort of high concept will draw in readers - they've all read the 'comics aren't just for kids' articles before, after all. Now, if you've got an existing product with a ton of good reviews and buzz behind it, and you want to push it to the general public at the trade paperback stage, then that's one thing. But a big influx of new readers to the miniseries itself, based solely on a high concept? Really? It doesn't sound very persuasive to me.

On top of that, even if you get them in the door, you've then got to deliver. Marvel is essentially promising an exciting adventure story with a political undercurrent. What they're going to deliver is (by my count) a seventy-eight part crossover - featuring politics courtesy of Mark Millar, a writer not exactly noted for his subtle use of subtext. And the metaphor is problematic to start with, since the acceptability of vigilantes is effectively a ground rule of the genre. That makes it a concept that is primarily interesting for the way in which it plays with the genre conventions, which is precisely what they shouldn't be doing for an audience of newcomers. Without getting into that territory, it's incredibly difficult for the anti-registration side to make any sort of convincing argument, and indeed, issue #1 sees them falling back on, "Yeah, but it's always worked in the past". Obviously there's a long way to go, but suffice to say I have grave doubts that this can really be made to work as a civil liberties metaphor. The dramatic tension in the idea lies more in it banging up against the conventions of the genre than in any real-world argument it might relate to.

Nonetheless, this is the direction Marvel have chosen to go in - a book that tries to straddle both audiences by serving as a massive event for the existing direct market crowd, and yet which is still trying to reach out to the wider public to sell them the superhero story they never knew they wanted. Perhaps it really is just a matter of finding the right presentation, but it seems increasingly likely that direct market superhero comics are simply the wrong product for a mass audience.

DC's approach - even if it relegates their superhero books to an exercise in milking the existing audience - may well be more in touch with reality. They're at least trying to give each audience what it wants. Marvel still appear convinced that they have a product that the mainstream would love if it was only promoted right - or at least, given that they've got a policy of not pursuing any other type of comic, that's the only outreach strategy available to them. But the evidence isn't exactly inspiring.

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

All contents