Monday, April 18, 2005

Think About Your Troubles

Picture the scene: An anonymous office at DC Comics, a year or so ago. Two executives are looking over sales figures, disappointed.

Exec #1: Our books are dying in bookstores.
Exec #2: Is that because of the content or the marketing?
Exec #1: I have no idea. How can we tell?
Exec #2: We should put out someone else’s books, someone that all the critics are always saying would sell better if they came from a big company like us. Something foreign that hasn’t made a big splash here in the US, so that we can get the rights cheap. What about something European? They’re always saying that they can do the bookstore thing.

Cut to the same offices, a month ago.

Exec #1: Those Humanoid books are dying in bookstores.
Exec #2: Same with the 2000AD books.
Exec #1: Looks like it was our marketing all along then.
Exec #2: Okay. Let’s rehaul our bookstore marketing department and get new people who know how to sell our books, and pronto. The hardcover Identity Crisis is out in September. Oh, and ditch the eurobooks. They’ve served their purpose, and it’s not like they’re bringing any money in for us.

They call me Mr. Cynical. Yeah, that’s my name…

Of course, I then go on to commit the ultimate pundit faux-pas by not really being that bothered by the news that DC are dropping their Humanoids and 2000AD imprints. Yes, yes, I know that it’s supposed to be a failure for diversity for one of the two largest publishers in the Western Comics World, and I’ll happily agree that it was definitely a failure for DC’s marketing department who didn’t really do anything to, you know, really sell any of the books (Was there any promotion for the Humanoids books at all?). But still, it’s not really as if I was a big fan of either line, partially because I’d read a lot of the 2000AD books when they were serialized in the original anthology years ago and don’t really feel that they hold up to what today’s readers would be looking for, especially considering that said readers would be coming at a lot of culturally-specific material unprepared.

Not only that, but to be honest, I could never really see what the big plus was for DC to co-publish the books in the first place. I mean, I found it somewhat hard to believe that there was a large previously-untapped – or perhaps even unknown - market for European science-fiction comics in America in the first place, never mind one large enough to support two trades a month each from two separate imprints at the same publisher. The main draw for DC, from what I could see, was the cultural reputation that each line had in the existing market… A lot of which, it has to be said, probably came from the scarcity of the original books in the first place. It wasn’t that everyone loved 2000AD or Humanoids, but that a small number of people created enough buzz about them that the majority – who hadn’t really had the chance to see the books for themselves – happily believed that they were amazing works that were sadly denied to the masses due to their nationality. The Emperor’s New Clothes. Or, if you like, the Emperor’s New Graphic Novel Imprint.

(James Sime will strongly disagree with me about this, but I think that a lot of what DC put out under their 2000AD line just doesn’t stand up in today’s market, for any number of reasons, not least of which is the throwaway magpie nature of 2000AD in its first decade or so – Putting something like the original 1980s Rogue Trooper stories out these days, Dave Gibbons art or no Dave Gibbons art, seems oddly cruel as it makes the crudeness of the writing very obvious, even in a medium where J. Michael Strazyncski is seen as one of the leading lights.)

I guess that DC were looking to move into different markets outside of the saturated “mainstream”, where – Identity and Infinite Crisises aside – Marvel continually outsell them and have a more loyal fanbase. The strange thing to me is that they didn’t try and do it with material that they already own, especially in regards to their decision to go for the 2000AD rights. The stronger 2000AD creators, with only a few exceptions, have produced work for DC (or, more usually, Vertigo) that is probably better suited to an American audience not familiar with genre conventions than their 2000AD work. And a lot of that work is still not available in trade. If DC were really looking to use Peter Milligan, say, to find a new audience out there, wouldn’t his mid-90s Vertigo work like Girl (A teenage girl with an overactive imagination tries to escape her mundane reality by fighting the system somewhat ineptly) or Face (A plastic surgeon gets hired by a psychopathic artist who wants have his face remade as a cubist masterpiece) find that audience more than his Bad Company (War Is Hell in space, too), as good as that is? Wouldn’t Garth Ennis’s Hitman sell better than his Judge Dredd?

DC’s problems in the bookstores seem twofold, to me. Or, at least, there is a Big Two that I keep seeing. There’s been a lot of movement in DC’s marketing division lately, which suggests that perhaps they’re recognizing their own limitations in terms of marketing – and wouldn’t that be nice? – but I’d love to see the publisher take advantage of their existing inventory to diversify their audiences. Currently, the decisions made by DC regarding what gets put out in bookstores relies far too strongly on the company’s existing direct market fanbase, so that non-superhero titles are welcome oddities instead of regular occurances. Why not collect (and format) things like the Vertigo Pop series, or Millennium Fever, or a Kyle Baker anthology collecting his graphic novels, for a mass audience familiar with Buffy Summers but not Hal Jordan? Why not do something with the vast library of DC’s war books, horror, pulp sci-fi or kitschy romance books? Even within the superhero bubble, why not market the relaunched Legion of Super-Heroes series as a quarterly series of manga-format books, and play up the central concept – They’re teenagers! In the future! With super-powers! – to appeal to kids who may be interested in manga and have never heard of the series before and don’t care whether or not Wildfire or Dawnstar are going to appear anytime soon?

The loss of 2000AD and Humanoids to DC isn’t horrific to me in itself – I think both imprints are likely to get more attention, promotion and success at smaller publishers, and as I said above, I’m not sure that DC was really gaining that much from them anyway. But if it results in shaking DC management up from their laziness in exploring and exploiting the potential of the bookstore market and audiences, then it might end up being a blessing in disguise after all.

Yeah, I don’t know where the cynicism went either.