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Article 10: Beyond The Fringe
I've been reading comics long enough that I really should know what to expect by now. And yet the big publishers continue to surprise me. Month in and month out, I read the new solicitations and there's always at least one new title that leaves me wondering: what on earth are they thinking?
It's not the self-evidently terrible books that I have in mind. There are plenty of those, of course, but at least you can generally work out why the publisher gave it the green light. The gruesomely extended crossovers, the Rob Liefeld comeback books, the forty-ninth monthly Batman title... these are all, in a creative sense, probably bad ideas. But at least they're likely to sell. Approached in a suitably commercial spirit, they can easily justify their existence.
Nor is it the prestigious but marginal titles. Vertigo in particular produces plenty of low-selling books, but that's fine. After all, it's their remit to experiment. As long as they hit paydirt once in a while, they can justify a large number of misfires along the way. They retain their brand image as an imprint worth checking out, as long as failures are interesting failures.
No, I'm thinking of the curious middle ground of under-promoted, marginal projects by creators who aren't particularly big names, featuring characters who don't have much of a fanbase. Both Marvel and DC produce a steady stream of these things. Marvel, at the moment, is offering miniseries featuring characters such as Ares and Doc Samson. DC is somewhat better focused with its core universe, but the WildStorm imprint continues to put out books with no realistic prospects of success - yet another AUTHORITY relaunch, or a MAJESTIC ongoing title following hot on the heels of a poor-selling miniseries.
Take a title like SABLE & FORTUNE, which stars the thoroughly C-list Silver Sable and the thunderously obscure Dominic Fortune. It's written by Brendan Cahill, a webcomics creator, and drawn by John Burns, a legendary British artist whose name means nothing to the majority of American comics fans. Neither the characters nor the creators have an existing fanbase that they can bring to this project. It has no obvious crossover potential to the manga audience beyond the token fact of being a spy book rather than a superhero comic. It serves no real purpose in the wider scheme of things - either in terms of Marvel's publishing schedule or their continuity. And it's received virtually no publicity at all besides the obligatory website promotional interviews - but everyone gets those, and they all blur into one.
Now, don't get me wrong. Judged purely on its merits as a piece of creative work, there's absolutely nothing wrong with SABLE & FORTUNE. It's a perfectly good comic. But what earthly reason was there to think that it would sell? None that I can see. And the sales back that up, with last month's issue #2 charting at number 154 on the Diamond charts, with estimated sales of around 11,000. This is not very good. But it's about standard for such titles. It's virtually unknown for these books to suddenly break from the pack and become hits, no matter how good the reviews are. Which begs the question, why bother? What's the point?
The publishing philosophy seems to be simply to throw these books out there and see what sticks. This would be all well and good if anything ever stuck, but they never seem to. Under-promoted ongoing titles can at least hope to be relaunched on the back of good reviews; miniseries tend to sink without trace. There's no apparent plan for these books - no plan to promote them, no plan to follow up if they're successful, no plan to use the characters in other titles. The idea that one of them is suddenly going to buck all market trends and become a hit is unreal.
A decade ago, this sort of approach would have been a little more realistic. During the boom period of the early 90s, if nothing else, almost any title had a reasonable shot at finding an audience. Even the much-derided SLEEPWALKER survived for three years in that market. By the turn of the century, it was really only the major hyped franchises that had that sort of automatic drawing power, but they were still able to guarantee big sales for all of their tie-ins. Not surprisingly, this prompted both publishers to shoehorn questionably related books into their major franchises, diluting the drawing power. In the long run, of course, this has proved to be a mistake. It means the X-books can no longer even successfully launch an ongoing title for a major, established character. Compare that to 2001 when BROTHERHOOD #1 debuted in the top ten.
The 'let's see what works' school of publishing, being realistic, belongs to a bygone era. It's a common complaint from indie publishers that the superhero books squeeze their work off the shelves. But if anything, it's even more true that the biggest and most hyped superhero books squeeze their under-promoted sister books into relative oblivion. After all, they're competing for the same readers.
It's still possible to build an audience for a new character or a new title if you go about it properly. DC have used INFINITE CRISIS effectively to promote new books like SHADOWPACT, which will now be treated as a big deal rather than a bizarre curio with a talking monkey. Marvel successfully turned X-23 into a money-drawing character by pushing her heavily. Granted, there are misfires - NICK FURY'S HOWLING COMMANDOS crashed and burned despite being promoted with previews across Marvel's line. But then, it's a rare case of a comic so abundantly dire that it was a mistake to let anyone see it at all. More generally, it's clear that promotion is the way to go.
Joe Quesada has, in the past, defended the prioritisation of the top-selling titles on the basis that money spent advertising the big sellers generates more of a return for Marvel than money spent advertising smaller books. This is probably quite true. But it doesn't quite answer the complaint. For one thing, if it's not considered worthwhile to promote these smaller comics, the logical conclusion is that it's not worth publishing them at all. Just run with a slimmer, focused line instead.
Looked at the other way, if you're going to bother publishing marginal titles that clearly need the advertising support, then you need to commit that support even if the financial benefits are not immediately obvious. The objective of creating new titles or reinventing existing characters as potential lead characters is, one imagines, to create moneyspinners for the future. The promotional budget needs to be seen as a long-term investment. Readers need to be re-trained to believe that these new titles are worth checking out. Some form of vehicle for new stories needs to be created. If you're going to publish an anthology title then you need to pair the exciting new story with something that's actually going to draw a crowd. At the very least, the logical approach is to cut down to, say, one new book a month and promote it properly.
It will not do for publishers simply to shake their heads sadly and lament the state of the market. Their job is to work with the market they've got, and shoving meaningless titles out there in the hope that a miracle occur is not a sensible way of going about it.
Paul O'Brien is the author of the weekly X-AXIS comics review.
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