The Big Idea
As some of you may have heard me mention, I’m one of several million Americans still on dial-up internet. This isn’t a money issue; even if I did have sixty bucks a month to hurl at my desire for webisodes and porn, I live in a rural area where high-speed internet is straight up unavailable. The subdivision down the road from me has it, but the local provider (a legal monopoly, by the way) can’t be assed to add the capacity for me and my neighbors to get connected.
There is a tiny silver lining though. Over the last month, it seems that my dial-up provider has increased my connection speed by a significant factor. While I won’t be streaming movies anytime soon, I have been able to use the magic of Firefox plugins to download videos from YouTube.
What does this have to do with anything? Well it made me aware of a wonderful little webseries called Atop The Fourth Wall. Some of you might have even noticed that I’ve referenced the site several times in the last month. Now you know why. I’ve been devouring episodes as fast (or as slowly) as I can download them.
I could write a whole post about how much of a fan of this series I am. Frankly, if not for the fact that he’s heavier into DC and I’m more of a Marvel zombie, he would be saying almost everything I want to say about comics, from what we both hate (pointless events, even more pointless character deaths and EXTREME GRIMDARK) to what we like (fun if ludicrous things like gorillas fighting robots and character development), but what I’d like to talk about here are his two contributions to the idea I’ll be outlining below.
The first comes from his recent retrospective on his favorite superhero franchise, the Teen Titans. As I watched it, I started to get the sense of a problem the industry has when it comes to new characters. The fact is, a new character is like any other product: when its fresh and untested, it is at the mercy of early adopters.
In order for a character to stick around, they have to sell or be part of a group that sells a lot of books. If they don’t, they don’t get put in new books and become considered C-List Fodder that lazy writers can use in LOL-Deaths.
Here’s another parallel between me and Linkara: both his favorite franchise (Teen Titans) and mine (X-men) are prime examples of this. Both teams are constantly adding to their roster and constantly getting those rosters culled of less profitable characters.
This causes readers to be much less likely to try comics with new or obscure characters (because why bother when they’ll just get their books canceled and be killed off before issue #50?), which drives down sales of new character headed books, which loops back around and makes readers even more wary. I’m not saying every new character I like would become a classic in the fullness of time, but I have to imagine that if people gave some of them a chance and editorial gave them time to become developed in their books (for example, not forcing them to take part in yet another event before they even establish a status quo—looking at you, Avenger’s Arena.), they might start to pull better numbers.
Now, the second ingredient for this post from AT4W was Linkara’s recommendation of Demon Knights. Between the very cool, yet obscure character Etrigan, and the superheroic fantasy premise, I was excited to hear about it.
…And then I saw that it was canceled the very day I heard about it.
Looking online, I found the usual compassionate, understanding response I’ve come to expect from the internet: ‘LOL, it didn’t sell, so it sucked! Good thing I didn’t read it!’. Okay, some of them were more well stated than that, but there’s something disturbing that people are okay with people being okay with art (and Demon Knights has had some good critical reception from what I could tell) getting its throat slit for not being profitable.
And I know, art and entertainment as similar, yet different things, and I’m usually on the side of entertainment, but I want my goddamn Etrigan comic, okay? And I’m annoyed that it wasn’t canceled for being bad (if comics were canceled for being bad, Avengers Arena would be out of here), but because it didn’t shill hard enough.
Actually, because DC, the people who canceled it, didn’t shill it hard enough. I was still making the 30+ mile trip to buy comics and following comic news when Demon Knights came out and a week (two by the time this is posted) ago is the first time I heard more than the name. If this sounds familiar, that’s because that’s what the Fox Network (no direct relation to the conservative news outlet) did to Firefly, Futurama, Wonderfalls—okay, just click on the Fox link, because there are a LOT of them.
Alright, so ‘LOL capitalism’, ‘LOL profit motive’…
…but just how much money was Demon Knights costing DC to justify canceling it? Well, in internet tradition, I’m not going to get off my ass and check out the real figures. The numbers I’ve heard bandied about most are 20,000 issues a month and 15,000 issues a month. Let’s split the difference and say ~17,500 issues monthly. For you math lovers, at $2.99 American, that comes to $52,325 a month. Some of you recognize that as ‘more than you make in a year’.
But let’s be fair. Comics aren’t free to produce and distribute and you have to give some saltines and tap water to the creative team to keep them alive, plus a salary to the editor for ruining things while not doing their job. Let’s assume that this accounts for 80% of the money the comic makes.
A bit of mathing tells us that’s ~$10,000 a month, or $120,000+ a year minus tie-ins and other cash grabs. As ‘failed’ comic books clears enough profit to account for more than a quarter of what The President of the United States makes (discounting ‘campaign contributions‘)!
Sweet bejean, I wish Welcome to Freeland House had met with that kind of failure.
So why free throw that kind of money directly into the garbage? Because there’s really only so much shelf space at the comic shop and printing capacity at the printer’s. And DC feels that they can use those resources to put out a comic that makes even more money (but not one featuring Stephanie Brown, Wally West, or Cassandra Cain, because… because.).
Fine then. That makes a kind of cruel sense. You’re still greedy scum, but sure.
‘Man, if only there was a delivery method for comics that featured an infinite amount of shelf space, cost fractions of a penny on the dollar to deliver the goods, and connected the comics industry to the hip, new generation with their tablets and palmtop computers (they are NOT phones anymore)!
Oh. Wait. They have those. They have multiple platforms of those.
Which brings me to the other piece of the puzzle, provided to me by a guy I post on another forum with, Jim Zub. You might remember how I plugged his Batman comic last week, and how I’m plugging the second half of that same comic literally right now.
When Zub made his announcement, it reminded me that comics have been digitally distributed for a while. This is doubly stupid when you remember that I’ve been distributing books digitally for two years. You may begin rolling your eyes.
But yes, dear reader, by now a large percentage of mainstream comics can be had via apps like Comixology, or downloaded straight to your Kindle of you’ve got one. Some of them are even cheaper in digital form, Zub’s book was 99 cents.
The digital system solves all of those problems I mentioned above: deliver costs fractions of pennies on the dollar, ‘shelf space’ is based on mere kilobytes of data and the printing costs? Zero dollars and zero cents (plus tax). There is the matter of infrastructure, but they already have that in place by now and if they did the corporate dirtbag thing and went exclusive with, say Amazon, the ‘zon would be the one hosting and delivering for them.
The thing is though that they haven’t digitized all their line-ups yet and at the moment, they seem content just to make digital versions of their print comics.
You’ll notice, however, that everybody and their mother now has tie-in web comics. From Heroes to Portal. These are not comic companies, or even companies that normally have anything to do with comics, and yet they easily produce and post professional quality comics online, web exclusive.
But Marvel and DC don’t. Because since the 90’s there has apparently been a secret court order prohibiting these companies from making good decisions when it comes to print properties. This would explain the aforementioned Avengers Arena rather nicely, actually.
So here’s the breakdown of what we had:
One: Both of the Big Two are basically letting money fields lay fallow by not nurturing new characters the same way they once did with Spider-Man, Wolverine or Superman. This is because it isn’t in their best greed-interest to let any series gain momentum due to print and distribution costs.
Two: As a result, both have accumulated a ton of C-List characters; so many in fact that they can literally think of nothing better to do than kill them off in increasingly stupid and audience-insulting ways.
Three: They have a platform with almost null print and distribution costs where most of the money they make will be pure profit.
I hope you see where I’m going here. But in case you haven’t, here’s The Big Idea, live and in technicolor!
Step 1: Create a Group for Unused C-listers
You might not know this, but the Big Two have entire separate editorial staffs for their major franchises. In Marvel, there is an X-men group, for example, a Spider-Man group, and an Avengers group (who get to stomp all over the previous two). DC similarly has groups for Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman, etc.
The job of these groups is to control the continuity, flow and cohesion within their own little corner of the universe. This is where there was so many more Bat Family or X-family book crossovers and why it often seems like these guys work in a vacuum between events (when there are rare moments between events these days).
It is also their job to look out for their toys when someone from another corner of the setting plays with them. They’ll demand things like script changes to make sure Spidey is acting in-character (or, like Dr. Octopus impersonating him.) and things such as this.
So the first thing that must be done is to put all the C-listers into their own group with people whose job it is to fight for them and protect them from LOL Deaths.
Step Two: Hire New Talent
This isn’t meant to be a slight against the existing writers and artists in the Big Two’s stables. I mean I highly respect guys like Christos Gage, Daniel Way, and Peter David as writers in their own right. I… rarely look at artist names because I’m a story guy, but there’s a lot of great artists there too.
What I’m getting at is, those guys? They’re known qualities and that means you can’t throw them a handful of cornmeal as pay.
But you know who you can throw literally chickenfeed to and convince them to write new, unused characters like Hellion, Mercury (heh), Dust, Rockslide, Hazmat, Mettle, Bunker, Skitter, or Solstice? (God, I love a lot of characters from the previous decade)
No seriously. I would take sub-minimum wage to write new stories for those characters if I knew that I would be able to get my story arcs done without some event interfering or some other ass-clown offing them before my run is over.
And if not me, others like me. The internet is full of talented writers and artists, some of whom are actually putting out their own independent, professional quality work for free. Don’t believe me? Look. At. These. All kickass, all beautiful, and all being done in the hopes of selling swag and ad revenue. Imagine what these people could do if Marvel or DC offered them even just enough that they could quit their day job?
I’ll accept that maybe my writing style is too light and soft for the mainstream sensibility, but you can’t say the same for the writers of Worm, The Last Skull, or Star Harbor Nights, now can you? And I bet they cost a lot less than Brad Meltzer (I could bite on some of Meltzer’s stuff, but I’ve read his novel The Book of Lies and I have to respect the man’s passion for comics and stories in general.).
Step Three: Put Them Under Strict Contract
As much as I respect webcomicers and my fellow web serial writers, there is a reason we make jokes about Web Comic Time. Web comics move slow. So slow that it makes the glacial pace of decompressed comics look like greased lightning duct-taped to the Flash’s ass by comparison.
And it makes sense; a webcomic that updates five days a week turns in 20 pages to a print comic’s 22. And that’s not even mentioning that most web comics are on a 3/week schedule.
Granted, a lot of that is because a webcomic is usually a hobby done on the side from work and such, but still (and I say this as a former webcomic writer myself), our lot has something to prove when it comes to keeping to a schedule.
Thus, the contracts have to be very strict and allow now delays short of medical emergencies. They must also promise the writer a full run barring extreme cases, because this kind of transition is a risky proposition for an artist who probably has a day job up to this point.
Step Four: Give Them ‘Nextwave’ Continuity
And a meme generator.
The comic’s claim to fame was being outright bizarre and built around the idea of Crazy Awesome. Officially, Nextwave was out of normal Marvel continuity… but they editors really did nothing to stop other writers from acknowledging events and characterizations they liked from Nextwave in their own books.
This, I think, is key to the success of the idea. Let’s be honest: there is no way the Big Two would want to take a chance at allowing untested webcomic folk to tinker with their precious continuity and the hint of them being able to do so kills the whole idea in the water. On the other hand, you want fans of the main continuity to care what’s going on in these comics, thus the idea that individual writers being allowed to allude to parts they like.
And most importantly to me, it gives these writers the freedom to just ignore the major events and actually tell their story.
Step Five: Make it Online Exclusive
Okay, this one is obvious, but there are several reasons for this.
First, of course, is the financial component. Doing it this way, all these experimental comics really don’t cost the company much of anything. Only in a catastrophic failure would they be in the hole for paying the writers and artists. Meanwhile, the ones that do well, will be raking in money and building new brands.
Second, this encourages the hardcore fans to start in on digital comics if they haven’t already. It is the future of the industry, after all and its time to do more to get people used to getting their comics from the magic box in their pocket.
Third, and people might not even think of this: digital comics are linkable. Why is that important? Because back in step two, you hired a bunch of webcomic artists and webserial writers. You know, people who have followings of their own and who know a thing or two about flogging products via links. Wave hello to a whole new market.
Step Six: Shut Up and Let it Happen
I was snarky about the role of editors a bit earlier, and there’s good reason for that. For whatever reason, the folks whose job it is to keep the creative talent from going off the reservation have a tendency to feel a need to impose their own artistic vision on the works the supervise.
It’s not just editors, but producers too, as illustrated here by Kevin Smith:
To get fair, I like giant spiders.
Note that this… isn’t actually their job. They just use their authority to make it happen. Thus you have the nightmare of bad decisions known as the Clone Saga, the mess of a series we call Countdown/Countdown to Final Crisis, and all of the terrible, awful, no good, very bad event comics I’ve been harping on. They are all the result of an editor saying ‘I want something where X, Y and Z happen’, then they toss it in some poor writer’s lap. That, or a writer has an idea which the editor saddles with their own ideas.
It isn’t all bad though. There have been times where the steady hand of an editor prevented a creative team member from blowing everything up in a fit of madness, like the time Marvel decided that maybe Holocaust survivor Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr wouldn’t get high on yeast and march people into ovens like Grant Morrison had him do. The fix was awkward and Morrison’s earlier half of the X-men run was brilliant (mutant culture rocks!), but it was better than… whatever the hell happened during Planet X.
That said, hands off, bub. Just check the continuity, tone and story flow, then float on, okay?
What these characters need most in these formative issues is a single, clear vision behind their words and actions to solidify them as a character. Juggling creators or storylines is a recipe for disaster, so DON’T DO IT.
Hell, if you have an itch… grab some C-Listers of your own and get to writering. There’s plenty to go around.
Step 7: Profit
I feel that after a pilot period of about two years, not only will these books be making money, but many of them will have growing and thriving fanbases enough to make the leap to print. Not only that, but without the ability to just throw C-Listers in the garbage to create fake drama, the writing in the main line books will improve as well.
All it takes is for the industry to give it a try.
And that’s where you, dear readers, come in.
Step Zero: Propagate The Big Idea
Seeing as this is a webserial about superheroes, I’m willing to bet that most people reading this are fans of superheroes, comics and superhero comics. Also, given the nature of the kind of stories I tell, I’m also willing to put some money down that your tastes don’t run only in the direction of the A-list heroes either; that, or your would like some of my favorite new characters if you (and they) got a chance.
If this is the case, I humbly ask you to get this article out there. Share it with your fellow comic fans and ask them if they would read the kind of books the Big Idea would spawn. And if the answer is yes, ask them to spread the word too.
I’m not actually trying to get a job out of this. In fact, this article is no doubt full of typos and grammar mistakes because, well, it’s a blog post and we’re lucky if I run it through spellcheck first. The idea is the important bit. I want to save my favorite characters and read new adventures about them that aren’t shipping fics or crossovers where they get exploded.
More than that, I want to give back to the industry that has entertained and inspired me for most of my life by making it better.
And that’s about it for this week. Next week, we celebrate the release of my fifth ebook: The Path of Destruction (Rune Breaker, #3). See ya then, and also check out my new vanity plate for posts below:
This post was written on Sunday night. On Wednesday morning, Amazon.com announced Amazon Worlds, a program that would allow independent authors to publish stories for specific licensed works. The internet is touting it as ‘paid fan fiction’ with all the maturity the internet can muster regarding fan fic (despite loving mainstream comic books).
As the story’s unfolded, however, the level of oversight and restriction suggests that this is a way of doing no-solicit licensed novels, something more akin to Warhammer 40K’s Ciaphas Cain books. It isn’t exactly like the the Big Idea (missing things like an editorial staff in-house), but if Warner Brothers can entertain this idea for their Alloy Entertainment arm, maybe they’ll be open to the Big Idea.
Questions, comments, verbal abuse? Please post them below in the comments, or the forum.
Bookmark the permalink.