The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 215 | Keeping it “real”: Further thoughts on Eric Stephenson’s ComicsPRO address

Leaving Proof 215 | Keeping it “real”: Further thoughts on Eric Stephenson’s ComicsPRO address
Published on Friday, March 7, 2014 by
Does it really matter if a comic’s featured intellectual property (IP) originated in the medium? Image Comics president Eric Stephenson’s ComicsPRO address has us considering the value of originality and craft in comics creation.

We started out the week batting around our opinions about the speech Image Comics president Eric Stephenson gave at last Friday’s Comics Professional Retailers Organization (ComicsPRO) annual meeting but there’s so much more I want to talk about regarding the points he raised that I hope you guys don’t mind me going over it again in this space.

For those of you coming in late to the story, here’s a link to the full text (PDF) of Stephenson’s ComicsPRO speech. ComicsPRO, by the way, is the premier North American trade organization for comic book retailers, so Stephenson was addressing comic shop owners and various other professionals involved in the comics retail industry. Keep this in mind, as it’s important that we not take Stephenson’s words out of that particular context.

Below, I’ve excerpted what I believe are the most important points that Stephenson makes in the first two-thirds or so of his address:

‣ Even though, on the surface, it may seem discouraging that sales for graphic novels are soaring on Amazon, what that really means is that the audience for comics is continuing to grow.

‣ Constantly re-launching, re-numbering, and re-booting series after series, staging contrived events designed to appeal to a demographic destined only to a slow march toward attrition, and pretending that endless waves of nostalgia for old movies, old toys, old cartoons, and old video games somehow equals ideas or innovation will not make us stronger. Nostalgia has its place, and I’ll admit, there can be a certain sepia-toned appeal to fondly looking back on our younger, more innocent days, but if we want this industry to outlive us, we have to start looking at things like grown ups.

‣ People know what Spider-Man is. People know what Superman is. They know Batman. They know the X-Men. And you know what? They’ve already made their mind up about that stuff, and that’s why the success of [the movies based on those characters] has yet to translate into an avalanche of readers into our industry. We have trained the world to think of comics as “Marvel and DC superheroes.” And the world has stayed away. We need to fix that. If we want to reach out to new readers, to different readers, we need to look at what we’re pitching them. More than that, we need to look at who our customer base is—not just who is coming into the stores, but who ISN’T—and ask what we can do to make our marketplace more appealing to them.

EricStephenson2013

Stephenson in 2013

By and large, I think the above points are relatively uncontroversial. Most informed readers and industry observers will probably (more-or-less) agree with Stephenson on these points.

Yes, sales of trades and hardcover collections of comics and original graphic novels in brick-and-mortar bookstores and online is growing, and it only makes sense that comic book stores should interpret this as a critical growth market opportunity, not an encroachment on their business by outfits like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

I agree with Stephenson that catering to the “nostalgia crowd” can only help the industry so much and risks making the comics community even more insular than it already is. It’s certainly a good starting point to developing a better business strategy to ask why certain people—like women, or younger readers regardless of gender, for example—aren’t coming into comic book stores in greater numbers and what publishers and retailers can do to encourage them to do so.

avengersmovieposter

Superhero films like The Avengers (pictured) and The Dark Knight Rises are breaking box-office records, but their associated comics aren’t seeing long-lasting boosts in direct market sales. It’s clear that superhero film viewers aren’t being converted in significant numbers to superhero comics readers.

I also share Stephenson’s view that the massive box-office success of superhero-based films doesn’t seem to have provided a proportional boost to direct market comics sales. Films like The Avengers (which has raked in over $1.5 billion to date since its May 2012 premiere) and The Dark Knight Rises (which has earned a little over $1 billion since its July 2012 release) are some of the most profitable films of all time, yet comics featuring the films’ characters are selling pretty much in the same numbers today as they were in the months prior to the release of the films. Batman #27 sold some 115,000 copies in January 2014 while Avengers #25 moved just over 65,500 copies in the direct market for the same time period. Compare those numbers to the direct market sales numbers for the January 2012 issues of Batman and Avengers, a few months before The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises hit theaters: Batman #5 sold just under 130,500 copies and Avengers #21 barely cleared the 54,800 mark. Whatever positive effects the films may have had on the popularity of the Avengers and Batman characters, they haven’t translated into consistent gains in the direct market sales of the associated comics and in Batman‘s case, direct market comics sales are actually showing an overall decline since The Dark Knight Rises‘ theatrical release, based on month-to-month sales numbers. Clearly, a record-breaking movie does not a record-breaking comic make.

Now, before we go any further, let me just lay out my (potential) biases and where I’m coming from when I dissect Stephenson’s statements. On a monthly basis, I probably read more single issues of comics from Image than any other publisher with whom the Comixverse maintains an active press relationship (this doesn’t extend to trades and hardcovers, as Dark Horse dominates that portion of my reading list). Part of the reason for this is that it’s an incidental effect of my duties for the website, as I routinely read and review copies of comics that Image’s PR and marketing team make available to members of the comics press, and that’s a lot of comics.

Saga, Vol. 1

Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga has managed to maintain, and even improve on, its direct market sales standing despite a lack of film, TV, or video game tie-ins. According to direct market sales data from ICv2, Saga, Vol. 1 (pictured) was the best-selling “graphic novel” of January 2014.

Beyond that, though, I will admit that the multiplicity of genres and styles on offer from Image Comics, week in and week out, is a real draw for me. I like variety in my comics-reading, whether for personal entertainment or for purposes related to my Comixverse work, and Image’s slate of titles is probably as genre-agnostic and stylistically diverse as one can find among North American comics publishers these days. It’s not for nothing that six out of my top ten favorite comics titles of 2013—Saga, Lazarus, Sex Criminals, East of West, Prophet, and The Activity—were published by Image. This isn’t intended as a statement blindly appraising the overall quality of the entire Image Comics line one way or another, of course. The eclecticism that informs the company’s publishing catalogue and the publisher’s willingness to let comics creators work with minimal creative and editorial oversight also means that I’m just as likely to dislike as I am to enjoy a randomly selected Image Comics title. But if there’s a publisher out there that’s poised to attract people who don’t care for superhero comics into comic book shops, Image is as good a bet as any, and the breakout sales success of non-superhero Image Comics titles like Saga and The Walking Dead provides compelling evidence of that.

It’s when Stephenson starts talking about licensed comics—comics that feature licensed third-party IPs (intellectual properties) with origins in non-comics media, such as Dark Horse Comics’ Star Wars, kaBOOM!;s Adventure Time, and IDW Publishing’s G.I. Joe—that he starts stepping on shakier ground:

‣ … repurposing someone else’s ideas as comic books isn’t innovation—at best, it’s imitation, and we are all so much better than that. New creativity that is native to comics is what makes this industry stronger. It shows what comics do, what comics can BE.

‣ People come to comic book stores looking for original content, because it’s what we do best, not for comic book versions of things that are done better in other [media]. If we seriously want to expand the marketplace and appeal to new readers, different readers, we can only do that by developing new things that only exist in our market.

‣  [The Walking Dead TV show] made people aware of the comic—and those people came to your stores to get that comic. Because they want the real thing. Transformers comics will never be the real thing. G.I. Joe comics will never be the real thing. Star Wars comics will never be the real thing. Those comics are for fans that love the real thing so much, they want more—but here’s the important thing to understand: They don’t want more comics—they just want more of the thing they love. Those comics are accessories to an existing interest, an add-on, an upsell, easy surplus for the parent products, icing on the cake. Comics are so much more than that, and this industry has existed as long as it has because of the ingenuity of men and women all over the world who yearn to share the fruits of their imaginations, not simply find new ways to prolong the life of existing IPs.

I’ve used this space time and again (particularly here, here, and here) to advance the argument that comics are more “interactive” than full-motion visual art like film and animation and that comics can be more than just “paper movies” or elaborate storyboards. While the storytelling and visual design vocabulary of comics is related to that of film and other similarly sequential media, there are comics-specific storytelling devices and techniques that resist easy translation and adaptation to film and animation and vice versa.

At the same time, contrary to Stephenson’s statements, I don’t see any real reason why a well-executed comic book featuring an IP with origins in other media can’t be an effective showcase for the unique storytelling and rendering strengths of the comics medium, or that it can’t convince the IP fans who are only buying the licensed comic because it’s “more of the thing they love” that the comic medium, in the right hands, is a valuable vehicle for entertainment and communication in and of itself, outside of its association with their beloved IP.

Licensed IPs do complicate matters as source material for comics because they usually come with certain conditions for their portrayal that have nothing to do with the demands of good comics creation, but that aside, there’s really nothing stopping a sufficiently motivated, talented, and empowered creative team from crafting a licensed comic that is in every way as good or even better than a comic that features an original IP. Originality is a great attribute to have in a comic, but so is excellence in technical and artistic execution, and neither virtue is innately dependent on the other.

Darwyn Cooke's recent adaptations of the Parker books count as our favorite back-issue shelf find of the year.

Darwyn Cooke’s multiple Eisner Award-winning graphic novel adaptations of Donald E. Westlake’s Parker crime fiction novels demonstrate that the use of licensed IPs is no detriment to the quality of a comic.

I contend that artistic vision and technical competence in craft and execution have just as much, if not more, bearing on a comic’s quality than whether the featured IP originated in comics or from a movie, a TV show, a novel, a toyline, or a video game. A comic’s featured IP—the “what” of a comic, so to speak—is important, but I think the “how” of a comic, the level of skill and the techniques employed by its creators and the publisher’s wherewithal to let the creators see their narrative and artistic vision through, is ultimately more vital to the work’s creative merits and its reception. If the North American comics industry is to survive and flourish amidst the fierce competition from other media, it isn’t going to be because of original IPs supplanting licensed IPs—IPs will come and go and wax and wane in popularity—it’s going to be because potential consumers will have come to appreciate the comics art form and enjoy the act of reading comics as much as they enjoy other forms of popular entertainment, regardless of the featured IP’s source.

The indisputable success of something like Saga didn’t come about just because the premise was original and that it was envisioned from the get-go as a comic book property, it also came about because Brian K. Vaughan happens to be a very good writer, Fiona Staples happens to be a very good artist, and their talents are beyond complementary—they’re synergistic, and the result is that they make good comics that just about anybody can appreciate and enjoy on some level. Would a Saga comic book without Vaughan and Staples (or an equally talented creative team with comparable storytelling quirks and proclivities) at the helm be just as successful? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

In his address, Stephenson said that “there are only two kinds of comics that matter: good comics and bad comics. Everything else should be irrelevant.” On that score, I agree with him completely and without equivocation. And that makes his implied contention that comics featuring original IPs are intrinsically better—by some vague and arbitrary measure of “realness”—than comics featuring licensed IPs even more baffling.

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