Another year, and another San Diego Comic-Con has come and gone. I didn’t pay too much attention to the news coming out of this year’s convention, not just because the SDCC’s significance in the grand scheme of things paled in comparison to matters unfolding elsewhere in the world this past weekend, but also because I haven’t found North America’s premier comic book “event” particularly relevant to my interests as far as the medium of comics goes for quite some time now. I am glad that pioneering Filipino comic book artist (and Jonah Hex and Black Orchid co-creator) Tony DeZuniga and Mad writer Dick DeBartolo finally received well-deserved and much-belated Inkpot Awards from the SDCC organizers, but other than the announcement that Marvel Comics plans to make digital versions of their Spider-Man and X-Men comics available on the same day as the print editions before the end of the year, I wasn’t really all that interested in the various Con-related reports and updates.
My indifference to SDCC in recent years is an outgrowth of the fact that the signal-to-noise ratio as far as actual comic book-related dialogue in the Con seems to be trending downwards. There’s a lot of talk about comic book spin-offs in the form of movies, toys, video games, websites, and TV shows, but precious little about the actual comic books. I realize that the comics industry isn’t just about the printed product anymore, licensing characters out and making films featuring those characters are where the real money is at: During the nine month fiscal period ending September 30, 2009, licensing and film production accounted for 43.3% and 35.3%, respectively, of Marvel Entertainment’s total net sales, significantly more than the 21.3% contributed by the company’s publishing arm (see table above, left for details). But as SDCC inexorably makes the transition into what basically amounts to a showcase for licensors and licensees, I find myself paying less and less attention to it.
In retrospect, the progression of the mainstream comics industry from being a publishing-driven concern to one that mainly revolves around licensing and “summer blockbuster” film production should not surprise anyone. Comic books, particularly superhero comic books, lie squarely in the intersection of commerce and art. The joint status as both commercial brands and pop art artifacts accorded to superheroes such as Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, and the X-Men is at least part of the reason why creative obstinacy and derivative aesthetics are so commonplace in superhero design and comics. There’s little profit to be made in “reinventing the wheel,” so to speak (or rather, there is great potential profit, but it also comes with a significant outlay and no assurance of a return on the creative and material investment), and the two major North American comic book publishers seem content, with the rare exceptions, to build on existing, tried-and-true, decades-old brands rather than spend the time and resources developing new properties that may or may not pay-off in the licensing end of things. It’s a perfectly reasonable way to do business when you get down to brass tacks, but I don’t know how long this approach can last before the industry hits the point of diminishing creative returns (if it hasn’t already… I’m sure I’m not the only person wondering why we’re seeing a “new” and “rebooted” Spider-Man movie franchise so soon after the last film in the previous trilogy came out).
One company that has had a lot of past success in licensing deals is Hasbro. The Rhode Island-based toy manufacturer hit a pair of home runs in the early 1980s with their introduction of two “boy’s toys” lines, the military-inspired G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and the robotic Transformers, with a little help from licensing deals with Marvel Comics. Besides agreeing to produce licensed comics featuring characters based on Hasbro’s toys, a pair of Marvel Comics writer-editors also had a direct hand in developing the background for the characters making up the toy line rosters. Larry Hama came up with the names and personal histories for the characters we now know as Snake-Eyes, Scarlett, Stalker, and Hawk while Bob Budiansky crafted a coherent narrative around Hasbro’s panoply of transforming robot toys imported from Japan, giving us Optimus Prime, Megatron, Bumblebee and other characters that have become ingrained in the popular culture landscape over the years. Marvel’s licensed G.I. Joe comic book became one of the 1980s’ biggest sellers, holding on to the top sales spot for several consecutive months in the mid-1980s, significantly outselling titles like Marvel’s own Uncanny X-Men and DC Comics’ Detective Comics. Hasbro also had Marvel Entertainment co-produce wildly popular Saturday morning cartoons featuring their two flagship properties. As I outlined in a review I wrote for the premiere episode of G.I. Joe: Renegades
[G.I. Joe] debuted on the small screen in 1985 on the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero show, a Marvel/Sunbow co-production animated by Toei Animation of Japan that ran for 95 episodes and continues to be shown in syndication on specialty cable channels to this day…
… a second G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero series would debut in 1989 produced with DIC Entertainment but, perhaps as a reflection of the toy line’s fading fortunes as well as DIC’s perceived lower production values, this incarnation would only last 44 episodes. Animated G.I. Joe TV shows would appear at various times throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s (the most recent being 2009′s G.I. Joe: Resolute) but apart from [2005’s G.I. Joe: Sigma 6], none would come close to replicating the rampant popularity of the original 1985–87 series (or the less well-received 1989–91 series for that matter).
Looking to have a more hands-on role in recreating their 1980s crossover media success with G.I. Joe, Hasbro recently decided to move their efforts at creating original G.I. Joe animation in-house. The result was G.I. Joe: Renegades, a cartoon produced by Hasbro Studios and aired in the United States on The Hub cable TV channel (formerly known as the Discovery Kids channel) jointly owned by Discovery Communications and Hasbro. The final episode of the show’s first season aired last week and it is set to go “on hiatus,” which is a polite way of saying it’s getting canceled for all intents and purposes.
It’s tough to get a read on how well the show was received by viewers (although I tried my best to give it a fair shake in the reviews I wrote for the series’ early episodes), partly because I don’t think it really got the opportunity to find its audience in the medium it was intended for. In the United States, the show could only be viewed (legally, that is) exclusively on The Hub Network, which has continued to struggle to carve out a niche in the crowded premium cable channel landscape. But even freely available, copyright-infringing video captures of the episodes on Youtube have relatively few views, topping out at a tick above 89,000 for the first nine minutes of the first episode. Even more troublesome is the show’s apparent inability to hold viewer interest: the video capture of the first episode, posted on Youtube in two parts, saw a 45% decrease in the number of views between the first segment and the second segment (see the screen-capture above, right). The sixteenth episode averaged a little over 4,300 views between its two posted segments. That’s a 95% drop in viewings from the first episode’s first nine minutes. These Youtube view numbers are hardly a reliable metric, of course, and we’d be foolish to draw any hard conclusions from them, but at the same time, their downward trend is so marked that it’s impossible to dismiss their implications out of hand.
It’s easy to pin the blame on G.I. Joe: Renegades quasi-cancellation on The Hub’s problems but that ignores the fact that even on an internationally available free viewing outlet like Youtube, the show failed to develop much of a dedicated following. I had stopped writing reviews for the show by the tenth episode because I had come to the conclusion that, while it was a competently produced cartoon, I also didn’t feel compelled to keep up with it. With so much material out there competing for viewers, competency just isn’t enough any more.