The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 234 | On the DRM-free comiXology, Marvel’s illusion of change and “diversity marketing,” and what publishers can learn from the UFC

Leaving Proof 234 | On the DRM-free comiXology, Marvel’s illusion of change and “diversity marketing,” and what publishers can learn from the UFC
Published on Tuesday, July 29, 2014 by
In this extra-sized edition of Leaving Proof: We laud comiXology for dropping DRM, talk about Marvel’s illusion of change and David Brothers’ concerns about the publisher’s “diversity marketing,” and muse on what publishers can learn from the UFC in terms of promoting female-fronted books.

We here at the Geeksverse have made no secret of our opposition to digital rights management (DRM) in digital comics. We have made clear in past articles, in no uncertain terms, our view that DRM benefits no one save perhaps the parties paid to implement these schemes: Not the IP rights holder, given that historically, DRM has failed to curb piracy and has in fact been repeatedly demonstrated in numerous studies to hurt sales of digital media; and certainly not the consumer, who is not only inconvenienced but is also preemptively treated as a thief and pirate with DRM’s indiscriminate implementation.

As a number of digital publishing and distribution companies struggled, reconsidered strategy, and even closed their doors permanently these past few years, we’ve seen comics readers lose their entire digital comics collections overnight (such as in the case of JManga’s sudden closure in 2013) or become tied permanently to a discontinued Android or iOS app (such as in the case of Graphicly’s radical shift in distribution models in 2012) because of DRM measures and restrictive end-user agreements practically and legally preventing consumers from making back-ups of their purchases.

Pictured: Detail from the JManga.com Retail/Viewing Service Termination and Refund Notice FAQ [click to view in larger size]

Pictured: Detail from the JManga.com Retail/Viewing Service Termination and Refund Notice FAQ, posted a few weeks before JManga permanently ceased operations. JManga customers had no legal way to make back-up copies of digital manga they purchased from JManga before the company’s dissolution. [click to view in larger size]

I’ve been especially critical of comiXology, the industry-leading digital comics distributor, for what I saw as its stubborn adherence to an outdated and flawed distribution model built with inherent DRM, not unlike the one employed by the ill-fated JManga and the pre-2012 version of the recently-shuttered Graphicly.

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Better late than never: ComiXology’s about-face on DRM counts as among the most important stories to emerge from this year’s SDCC.

That all changed last week, when comiXology CEO and co-founder David Steinberger announced that comiXology would begin offering customers the option of downloading DRM-free PDF and CBZ versions of comics purchased from the company’s digital store. As quick as I was to criticize comiXology when the flaws of its DRM became fully exposed in last year’s SXSW server shutdown fiasco, I am now equally keen to give the company credit for its turnaround on this issue.

The move to a DRM-free comiXology isn’t as comprehensive as I’d like. As of this writing, only Image Comics, Dynamite Entertainment, Top Shelf Productions, Zenescope Entertainment, Thrillbent, and MonkeyBrain Comics have been confirmed as participating in comiXology’s new DRM-free initiative. These are all publishers who have either dabbled in distributing DRM-free digital comics before or currently operate their own full-fledged digital retail outlets separate from comiXology, where they’ve been offering DRM-free digital comics for quite some time before comiXology’s announcement—comiXology’s DRM-free initiative launch actually comes a little over a year after Image shook up the industry with the surprise reveal of its DRM-free digital storefront. But any movement towards a DRM-free future for comiXology—and digital comics in general—is a welcome one.

I’ve already downloaded back-ups of some previously-purchased Image Comics and so far, the process seems problem-free. Download times are reasonable, and resolutions for both the PDF and CBZ versions are what one could describe as “HD-quality.” The option to download DRM-free digital back-ups also has a fringe benefit: Users are no longer tied to comiXology’s proprietary reader—which could be finicky to use depending on the platform—and can now read the comics using the third-party PDF and CBZ readers of their choice.

Conspicuously absent from the list of participating publishers are Marvel, DC, IDW Publishing, and BOOM! Studios. In the case of IDW and BOOM!, I suspect their reticence may have to do with the fact that many of their most popular titles feature licensed properties, and those licenses may require that IDW and BOOM! employ some DRM-style restrictions with their digital comics. At some point in the near future, I think we can expect certain creator-owned IDW and BOOM! titles being offered with DRM-free back-up download options. As for Marvel and DC, if I’m being totally honest, I don’t really feel strongly one way or another if they never get on the DRM-free movement. Their respective corporate parents—Disney and Warner Bros.—have long-established reputations as hardliners when it comes to controlling how consumers access and use media that feature their IPs, and if they want to insist on DRM for their subsidiaries’ digital comics, hey, it’s their loss.

On Marvel’s illusion of change and “diversity marketing”

I briefly entertained the notion of immediately addressing the news of the changes Marvel is putting the characters of Captain America and Thor when I first heard about them last week, but as is often the case, it’s better to let a news story stew in one’s mind for a while, take the community’s temperature, and get a broader understanding of everything that’s going on before putting fingers to keyboard and reacting to it off-the-cuff.

FemaleThor_SamWilsonCap

A change will do you good: In the week leading up to SDCC, Marvel announced that Thor will be replaced by a distaff version of the Norse Thunder Deity and that Sam Wilson, the African-American hero known as the Falcon, will take over the Captain America identity from Steve Rogers.

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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: For all its character design changes, DC’s “New 52″ revamp resulted in more of the same generic superheroics.

There’s been the expected gnashing of teeth in certain segments of the comics community over these developments, cheers in some others, as well as people making fun of the exaggerated drama of it all. At this point however, I think the superhero comics industry and its sales-goosing gimmicks have been around long enough in the mainstream pop culture discussion that I think very few readers really expect either of these changes to stick or result in meaningful change. After seeing events like The Death of Superman, Batman: Knightfall, The Clone Saga, Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, and The New 52 promise that “things will never be the same,” only for the subsequent comics to resort to the same tired old genre conventions and even revert to the pre-event status quo, I think most veteran comics readers have grown wise to Marvel (and DC)’s hype and bait-and-switch games.

Marvel’s comics have traditionally been built on selling what Stan Lee—or Marv Wolfman, depending on your source—referred to as “the illusion of change.” This is the great secret of not just Marvel (and DC), but of pretty much all serial fiction that is intended to run indefinitely, with no actual end in sight. That most basic element of the traditional narrative, the ending, is antithetical to the business of serial fiction and helps explain why self-contained superhero stories occurring “outside of regular continuity”—Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson’s X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come—continue to be held up as the standards of great superhero comics. They stand out because they have a finality to them, a weight conferred by the meaningful change encapsulated in the firm ending that is absent in the “never-ending battle” sold to readers month to month.

As veteran comics writer Peter David observed in a 1998 Comics Buyer’s Guide column [emphasis original]:

All too often, the work of producing superhero titles harkens back to Paddy Chayesfsky’s newsman in Network proclaiming, ‘We are in the boredom-killing business.’ Batman’s back breaks, but we know he’ll be back. Superman dies, or becomes an energy being, but we know that—sooner or later—he’ll be back the way he’s always been. Fans perceive the changes simply as an array of gimmicks concocted to maintain interest in characters who have as much growth potential as Garfield.

The illusion [of change] only works for so long. The problem is that on the one hand fans want real change, want a sense that something has long-term meaning; on the other hand, as creators we’re boxed in. Things intended as changes in the status quo are seen only as the latest in an endless succession of unconvincing and temporary morphs, unless they’re dramatic enough that they can’t possibly be undone… at which point the fans go nuts and demand not only the reinstitution of the status quo, but the heads of everyone who had anything to do with the change in the first place.

It doesn’t help that we all know how much Marvel’s parent company Disney has invested in the film versions of Thor and Captain America. I’ll bet my favorite pair of running shoes that Cap and Thor will be back to their blonde, blue-eyed, buff male selves well before the ads for next year’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron start airing. Actually, I’ll go even further: I think the rumored line-wide New 52-style reboot Marvel has allegedly planned for May 2015 will be an attempt to synchronize the Marvel Universe canon with that of the “safer,” focus-tested, and much more bland and formulaic Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s precedent for this—Disney has already made the decision to discard 35 years’ worth of accumulated Star Wars: Expanded Universe canon as it relaunches the Star Wars film franchise and associated media.

More than the assumed impermanence of “Black Cap” and “Lady Thor,” what has certain folks talking is the way these changes have been pushed and contextualized by Marvel’s promotional outlets. Comics industry blogger and Image Comics staffer David Brothers wrote an especially thoughtful entry on his blog earlier this week relating his concerns about what he calls Marvel’s “diversity marketing” strategy [emphasis original]:

Marvel’s making moves to increase the character diversity in their books, and drawing ire from the usual gang of idiots. Which I’m all for, even though I’m way more for creator diversity, and believe is a good thing. But the thing that’s grating is that instead of putting the work out on its own merits and marketing it about how great it is, a lot of the conversation around it has been about the basics that hate it.

I’ve been seeing Marvel folks, mostly white dudes but not entirely, retweet or address or bring up racists and scumbags and sexists while pushing their books, positioning themselves as taking a stand against these people talking trash.

They’re hijacking hate to a certain extent, in the Situationist sense, and are using it to market their comics. The new black Captain America, the new lady Thor, both of these announcements were followed, within minutes, by people talking about the people who are hating on the project. ‘Big ups to all my haters!’ is such a soft position, because it positions you as good because these other people are worse.

On top of that, it also colors the reaction to the announcement. If you disagree with whatever for genuine reasons, but you phrase it as ‘I don’t like that the Falcon is Captain America,’ the reaction to that is now tilted heavily toward ‘Oh, what’re you, racist?’ instead of it being something more reasonable. By putting those people front and center, by tweeting about them and giving interviews about how you won’t change the project no matter the response because you believe in your stuff, you’re… it’s not ham-stringing criticism, but it’s definitely preempting it, in a way.

And I think that’s the gross part. I spend a lot of time consciously pushing back against the messages society tells me about being black. The unworthiness, the laziness, the dumbness… all of it’s fake. But I have to stay on the ball, I have to keep Black Is Beautiful in the front of my mind, because black IS beautiful, and it always has been, and it always will be.

But I remember being in kindergarten and getting called nigger on the playground. I remember fachas screwing with me and my friends in Spain. I remember getting followed around stores, people looking at me like I don’t belong, and getting ignored when trying to do my job because there’s a white dude next to me who people assume is the boss of me. This weekend I got confused for a few other black dudes in comics who I don’t even resemble, and it stings every time.

And I think it’s messed up to see somebody who doesn’t know that pain harness it to sell some comics. That’s what’s been grossing me out, that’s what I haven’t been able to properly articulate. It’s the corporate version of dudes crowing about how feminist they are, like being a decent human being means they deserve groupies. ‘One episode of The Wire, what you know about dope?’ right? And I feel like Marvel gets it on a certain level, and they certainly employ people who get it, but they don’t get it yet.

As a visible minority myself, I can relate to Brothers’ unease over the way the push for diversity has been co-opted to sell superhero comics and the way the meta-narrative has been cast by influential segments of the comics community in a strictly binary “you’re either with us or against us” context. As much as I am a proponent of more diversity in comics, I am also against conditions that stifle reasoned criticism and dissent. It is disappointing that a prominent industry voice like Brothers feels that the way “Black Cap” and “Lady Thor” have been positioned in the social discussion space by Marvel’s marketing efforts has seemingly bullet-proofed them from genuine critical comment. These types of inclusionary changes to Marvel’s comics canon—whether it’s Northstar coming out as gay or a Pakistani-American Muslim teen becoming the next Ms. Marvel or Sam Wilson taking over the Captain America mantle—can only do good if they encourage meaningful discourse, not inhibit it.

What the comics industry can learn from the UFC about diversity

Eventbrite_infographic_detail_gender

Women represent a large proportion of the current market for comics conventions [Infographic source: Eventbrite].

I do think Marvel is scrambling a bit in the wake of recent evidence showing that female comics readers are a growing segment of the market and that they may be potentially underserved by the company’s superhero comics line. Graphic Policy writer Brett Schenker recently conducted an informal study that showed that 46.6% of people who self-identify as comics fans on Facebook are female. That’s 11.2 million girls and women! And while only a fraction of those 11.2 million people (or the 24 million people regardless of gender who identify as comics fans on Facebook for that matter) are actually buying comics with any regularity as evidenced by monthly direct market sales numbers, the percentage of Marvel readers that is female—36.9%, according to Schenker—tracks below that of what we can assume is the proportion of the general comics-aware population that is female.

Online ticketing firm Eventbrite has also recently released the results of its comprehensive survey of major comics conventions, and what the firm has found is that the male-female split in con attendance is exactly 50/50 in the under-30 age group, with a 55/45 total split across all ages, essentially mirroring Schenker’s numbers. Anecdotally, I will say that my recent experience at conventions seems to reflect both Schenker’s and Eventbrite’s observations. To cite one example, at this year’s Vancouver Comic Arts Festival, I’d go so far to say that perhaps as many as 70% of the attendees were female, but almost all of them seemed to be more interested in webcomics, indie comics, and manga instead of superhero titles.

allnewmarvelnowmsmarvel

Ms. Marvel has found a reasonably large, dedicated following but its success still seems more like novelty than trend at this point, as far as Marvel’s female-fronted superhero comics go.

Marvel has been pushing hard to promote its newest female-fronted superhero titles like Captain Marvel, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Elektra, X-Men, Black Widow, and others but I don’t know if the publisher is seeing the female reader uptake or even general reader uptake that it would like to see with these titles, outside of perhaps Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel (which I’m glad to say looks to be a commercial success for now). This has naysayers going on about how readers—male and female, white or otherwise—keep clamoring for more diverse comics but then refuse to open their wallets when publishers put out comics starring women, citing this as proof that “diverse superhero comics” just don’t sell in today’s market.

I don’t think that’s the case at all.

What this says to me is that for whatever reason, Marvel’s comics creators just haven’t hit upon the combination of execution and promotion that will allow a female-fronted superhero comic to sell as well as any of the bestselling “white male superhero” comics. It may sound like a strange suggestion, but I think Marvel—or any of the leading comics publishers—could learn a lot from the world’s leading professional mixed martial arts (MMA) promoter and league, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and how it has developed a female fighter, “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey, as one of its top two or three pay-per-view draws and has elevated the profile of women’s MMA as a legit combat sport that can be appreciated by all MMA fans, regardless of gender, in the process.

The UFC, an organization that has been dismissed at times as the domain of macho meatheads, has gone from having no women on its fighters roster to having Rousey as one of its top pay-per-view earners and sponsorship draws in just the two years since it began allowing women to fight in the organization. And the promoter didn’t even have to do the lazy/obvious/sexist thing and “tart her up” and sell her as a sex object, although it probably does help that Rousey is easy on the eyes, as far as professional fighters go. Instead, Rousey was promoted by the UFC primarily based on her athleticism, her credentials as an Olympic bronze medalist in judo, and her potential to become one of MMA’s leading practitioners in the professional space. Sure, the novelty of Rousey being a female mixed martial artist figured in the promotional equation as well, but that quality wasn’t made out to be the be-all and end-all of who she is.

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Rousey’s armbar/jūji-gatame is the stuff of mixed martial arts legend.

One-on-one combat, in certain ways, is the ultimate meritocracy. All the hype and promotion behind Rousey don’t really mean anything when the doors to the octagon are closed behind her and she must make the person across the cage bow to her warrior’s will. And that is what Rousey has done, time and again, to the thrill of male and female MMA fans everywhere and justifying the UFC’s faith in her as a pay-per-view headliner. She is brutal and efficient in the cage with an undefeated 10-0 record in MMA, all of her wins coming by stoppage either via opponent submission due to her legendary armbar/jūji-gatame or via knock-out. Of those ten stoppage wins, nine came within the opening round, and of those nine, eight took less than a minute. Those are prime Mike Tyson numbers. And while the talent level of her early opposition could have been questioned, in her last four fights, she has defeated a Marine Corps veteran belted in kenpo and jujutsu (Liz Carmouche), a former USA Wrestling World Team Trials National Grappling Champion (Miesha Tate), an Olympic silver medalist in freestyle wrestling (Sara McMann), and a black belt in jujutsu and Brazilian jiu-jitsu (Alexis Davis). She has been so dominant as a fighter that she was in serious consideration for ESPN’s “Fighter of the Year” plum, an award normally reserved for male boxers. (UFC president Dana White was actually quoted as saying that Rousey could defeat eventual Fighter of the Year winner Floyd Mayweather in a street fight.)

Because her merits as a fighter and martial artist are so demonstrably unassailable, Rousey and the UFC have basically shut up all the “haters.” Oh, there are those that will attack Rousey for her abrasive public personality or her social media blow-ups or her designs on a Hollywood career or all the other bullshit that accompanies the life of a celebrity-athlete. But any MMA fan who knows anything about the fight game leaves the sniping at Rousey outside of the cage. Rousey’s work in the octagon has been bullet-proofed from criticism thus far, not because she is the face of women’s MMA in the UFC and should thus be “protected” from criticism, but because her technique and dedication as an MMA practitioner have been beyond reproach to this point, and any negativity in this regard seems like nitpicking or just uneducated fanboy (or fangirl) whinging.

A lot of the arguments being thrown out these days about how “superhero comics with female leads don’t sell” remind me of the old arguments stating that “nobody wants to watch women compete in MMA” (many of which were being made by UFC officials themselves) in the years before Rousey became one of the sport’s most popular and profitable athletes. But by putting its promotional muscle behind a fighter who consistently delivers, the UFC has transformed from a sports organization whose only public female presence was its bikini-clad, round card-toting “Octagon girls” to one that counts its top-ranked female fighter as its biggest star. Publishers like Marvel, DC, Image Comics, BOOM! Studios, and others can do the same by making readers care about certain titles not just because of the novelty of their female leads or because supporting books with female leads is “the right thing” to do, but because they are actually good reads. As I’ve written in this space before, at the end of the day, it all comes back to execution. No amount of good intentions can turn a comic made with mediocre technique and craft into a comic people will want to buy and read.

The Digression

I like to browse YouTube and Vimeo for animation students’ short films every now and then, and what some of these students can do with their limited resources is astounding, on par with professional studio shorts. Below are links to some of my favorite student short films from the past few years:

  • The Butterfly Dragon by Sushan Yue (University of New South Wales): A beautifully constructed, powerful work about the inspirational and redemptive power of art.

  • Out of Sight by Ya-Ting Yu, Ya-Husan Yeh, and Ling Chung (National Taiwan University of Arts): A blind girl has a brief adventure in the city center after she is separated from her guide dog (make sure to watch the credits as well).

  • Dia de los Muertos by Ashley Graham, Kate Reynolds, and Lindsey St. Pierre (Ringling College of Art and Design): A young orphan visits her mother’s grave during the Mexican Day of the Dead and has an unexpected, mystical encounter.

  • Heavyweight by Joe Sparkes (Kingston University London): Even those indifferent to combat sports will find a newfound respect for professional fighters after watching this poignant short film.


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