GOTHAM ON THE THAMES
For the past couple of weeks, Batman and Spider-Man have been front-page news in the UK. It's been practically impossible to avoid seeing Batman's latest exploits in every single tabloid British newspaper, and in more than a few of the broadsheets as well. And what brilliant marketing masterstroke have DC and Marvel undertaken to achieve this level of exposure, I hear you ask? Well... absolutely nothing.
No, the Caped Crusader and the Webslinging Wallcrawler were actually members of a protest group, Fathers 4 Justice, who are campaigning for more access to their children and against perceived injustice in parenting laws. Their gimmick is to dress up in superhero costumes and place themselves in highly visible places - such as on the front of Buckingham Palace or on top of the London Eye - and to draw as much attention to themselves and their campaign as possible. Often this involves the protesters infringing laws and generally making a nuisance of themselves.
This must be something of a headache for Marvel and DC - lots of attention to some of their most famous characters, but the people dressed up as Batman are not only promoting an entirely different agenda, they could even be doing some harm to the franchises by breaking laws and provoking irritated reactions from people inconvenienced by the stunts. That's not to mention the mileage that headline-writers can wring from the whole affair.
While it's entirely understandable to sympathise with the protesters, they're still breaking the law, and they may even bring the characters they're dressed as into disrepute, which is surely the last thing those in the comics industry want.
SHADOW OF THE BAT
Publicity of a more positive nature is the reason behind the annual Free Comic Book Day, where retailers try to entice new readers into the world of comics by giving away free samples of the product. The date for Free Comic Book Day in 2005 has been decided by a vote, and 73% of those polled - all of whom were Diamond account holders, rather than publishers - chose May 7th.
This was a notable decision, as it had been presumed that the likely date would be June 18th, the release date for the BATMAN BEGINS movie, in order to capitalise on the media interest in the film. The vote indicates that retailers and other Diamond account holders believe that setting the date to coincide with a major comics movie premiere is not a good thing.
'The vote suggests Free Comic Book Day should be an event in its own right.' It may seem an odd decision to some, to spurn what amounts to free publicity and media attention, but the move was prompted by past experience. Free Comic Book Day has typically been held on the day of release of the year's big superhero blockbuster - SPIDER-MAN in 2002, X2 in 2003, SPIDER-MAN 2 in 2004 - thanks to no small degree of nudging by Marvel.
Unfortunately, this year the SPIDER-MAN 2 release date was set for the Independence Day weekend, and the event wasn't as successful as hoped. The result of the vote for next year is a clear attempt to demonstrate that Free Comic Book Day should be treated as an event in its own right, and should not be beholden to the movie business.
Are the retailers looking a gift horse in the mouth by attempting to break the connection between Free Comic Book Day and the movies? I don't think so - the retailers have to absorb the cost of the event, and if its success is entirely dependent on an accompanying film, even something as seemingly innocuous as changing the date of the premiere could completely scupper things. And it's fair to say that if the superhero blockbuster bubble was to burst, the event could find itself being hobbled by association with a movie that no one wants to see.
GLARE OF THE BATSIGNAL
It could be argued that the industry needs to be bolder in promoting itself, that it should seize on opportunities like movie releases or even eccentric stunts, or at least show a little flair, verve, and general hucksterism, the likes of which hasn't been present in the industry since Stan Lee was merrily blowing his own trumpet and hyping himself to the stars.
'The charge of peddling filth to kids is still sometimes levelled at retailers.' However, it's also true the media only takes an especial interest in comics when there's a definite story there, and the more sensational stories are not necessarily the ones that the industry wants to promote. DC's IDENTITY CRISIS, for example, has gained some column inches in the UK mainstream press due to its gritty and sensitive subject material - some of the most famous superheroes being involved in rape and murder storylines is a relatively newsworthy event.
Yet it's opened up a potential can of worms, as many concerned parents might not want their children reading about such hard-hitting storylines, fearing that these storylines might not treat the subject matter appropriately. And it has to be said, if there was one comic that you might choose display to the wider world as an example of the quality comics available at the moment, it probably wouldn't be IDENTITY CRISIS.
One area where the comics industry has been mortally afraid of publicity ever since the days of Frederic Wertham's moral crusades is with regards to obscenity in what is traditionally perceived as a medium for children. The charge of 'peddling filth to kids' is still occasionally levelled at individual comics retailers, and when it is, the organisation that stands up for their rights is the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
It was recently announced that the CBLDF Board of Directors - which includes some of the most eloquently outspoken members of the comics community, such as Neil Gaiman and Peter David - was to swell its ranks with the addition of two of the most important people in the industry; DC president Paul Levitz, and Diamond founder and president Steve Geppi.
The addition of these two names provides a massive boost to the CBLDF in terms of prestige and clout. The organisation can now boast of its influence right to the very top of the industry, with the ear of one of the most important publishers and the number one distributor, and that means the whole industry has to take the CBLDF's cause, and the rights of individual retailers, more seriously.
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