Audience, Fans, and Marketing to Women

The question, “what audience do superhero comics aim for?”, has been of much discussion (at least, around my house) this week. Brian Hibbs, after telling an adorable story about his son making a Leprechaun Trap, starts things off pondering what kind of entertainment is suitable for his 7-year-old.

despite the perhaps foolish nature of some of [Buddy Saunders'] complaints, a tremendous amount of what he said ended up coming reasonably true — “mainstream” superhero comics are really unacceptable for kids these days; I literally can’t have my son look at this week’s new books until I fully vet them first, and that’s a pretty drastic sea change from 1980-something, and probably not one for the better.

He goes on to talk about specifics with recent DC Justice League and Green Arrow comics:

on-screen graphic murder and dismemberment, with blood spraying everywhere… clearly “Justice League”-branded material is no longer suitable for kids, but I don’t know any adults who are saying that this is what they want or need to see.

Me neither. I’d like to read more superhero comics than I do, but they’re all so violent and depressing and pointless and joyless and hopeless. But then, I’m female, so that still makes me something of a nonentity when it comes to many comic publishers and the audience they aim for. Valerie D’Orazio points out (link no longer available) why that’s stupid, with four key business principles that illustrate how women should be part of your target market, two of which are: they control the vast majority of spending in the U.S., and “seductive”, sexy selling turns them off.

But note that they’re smart shoppers, and sometimes comics’ value isn’t obvious. Kelly’s thinking about that problem, about time spent versus price:

I’ll blow through an $18 graphic novel or trade in a couple of hours and while I’m entertained, I suddenly have this book in my hand and an $18 hole either in my pocket, or of the pocket of the friend who bought it for me. I brought a few of the Buffy trades with me on a week-long vacation and had to stop reading so I wouldn’t be done by the end of the first night. … As near as I can tell each [single] issue isn’t a complete “episode” and I’m faced with a week or month-long commercial break. I’m impatient and I have a short attention span. … With either books or single issues, I feel “done” long before I feel like it’s time to be finished.

I haven’t even mentioned the abuse female fans often face, as Melinda Beasi takes abusers to task:

somebody, please explain to me how–in a fannish universe filled with things like lolicon, yaoi, replica underwear, and Hot Gimmick, all revered with levels of obsession so great they have a special word for it–there can possibly be anything wrong with Twilight fans. They are too obsessed? They are too vocal? They are too weird? Seriously, people have you looked around at your own fandom lately?

Sure, teen girls get goofy over things they love. So do teen boys and adults of all ages and types. Maybe we could all find comfort in our similarities instead of trying to make ourselves feel better by hating someone else?

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26 Responses to “Audience, Fans, and Marketing to Women”

  1. Tracy Williams Says:

    I totally agree how depressing today’s SH books are. I only began buying SH books last year, and all of them are years old. The JLI collections remains one of my favorites and I was so upset when they announced they weren’t going to publish past vol.4.

    Can we get books like that to return? Or at least continue printing the collections, I’m dying to read about Guy and Tora. /nerd

  2. Thad Says:

    “on-screen graphic murder and dismemberment, with blood spraying everywhere… clearly “Justice League”-branded material is no longer suitable for kids, but I don’t know any adults who are saying that this is what they want or need to see.”

    I haven’t seen anyone say anything good about the ending of Cry for Justice, yet people continue to buy books like that. Ian Sattler cheesed some people off this week with the dubious logic that if people are upset, it means the story must have been good — as if people can’t get upset at things that are bad.

    I don’t know why people buy comics to complain about them — maybe it’s a Statler-and-Waldorf thing, where they must be deriving SOME enjoyment out of it because, after all, they’re there every week in the best seats in the house. Or maybe it’s morbid fascination — maybe it’s like a train wreck and they want to see what happens next even though they know they won’t like it. Or maybe they’re books and characters that the readers USED to like, and they’re just desperately hoping they’ll eventually get good again. I used to be like that — and then I turned 16.

    …at any rate, speaking of Statler and Waldorf, at least we’ve got great all-ages books like The Muppet Show. Not superheroes, I realize.

    @Tracy Williams: I missed the JLI era, but apparently they’ve got a biweekly throwback series coming up. Don’t know if it’ll be any good, but just in case you didn’t know about it.

  3. Geoff J Says:

    ” Maybe we could all find comfort in our similarities instead of trying to make ourselves feel better by hating someone else?”

    Oh if only. This attitude sadly inhabits our society far too much.

    And given the amount of things in this world to hate (all the isms, war, death etc) bashing with a lot of vile Twilight or Halo or whatever seems a waste.

    @Tracy Williams: why not simply make yr own trade after buying the remaining issues?

    …oh and all you moaning about the lack of good, not too violent SH comics, well where were you when Capt Britain & MI:13 died it’s far too premature death. Or She-Hulk. :)

  4. Johanna Says:

    Thad, I think there’s a small fallacy in your point — these days, you don’t have to buy the comics to complain about them.

    But yes, there are some great comics out there. There are even great superhero comics, like Love & Capes. I was reading Captain Britain and Hercules, but I guess there aren’t enough people like me out there.

  5. Tara Tallan Says:

    Although I know what you’re saying about the main superhero titles, I don’t seem to have any problems finding new SH graphic novels for my kids. There’s the Tiny Titans, which even I adore. There’s a whole series of Power Pack books guest-starring various Marvel heroes. And there’s also the semi-recent TV-spinoff versions of the Legion of Superheroes and the Teen Titans. My kids (6 and 9, currently) eat them up. And further afield than the SH genre, there’s all sorts of great stuff for them. Seriously, I can’t keep up with it all.

  6. Johanna Says:

    True enough. I’m glad they’re finding so much to enjoy.

  7. Dwight Williams Says:

    I was there for Captain Britain/MI-13 from start to finish. I still want more.

    And I want Alpha Flight back.

  8. Wesley Smith Says:

    I’m one of those parents that bemoans the lack of quality super-hero comics even though we have things like Marvel Adventures and Brave and the Bold and Power Pack.

    But I think a large part of the problem is our viewpoint. We’ve got these “good old days” goggles on, where we’re just nostalgic for the kinds of comics we read as kids. They haven’t been around for years, but the evolution was so slow that we just didn’t notice it until we started having kids of our own, went looking for “old-fashioned” super-hero comics for them and found Cry for Justice instead.

    But super-hero comics have slowly been maturing as the audience aged since Watchmen, progressing until we can basically witness the rape and eventual murder of a major supporting player so the author can get a minor villain over in Identity Crisis. That’s not a value judgment of the book, it’s just how I think we got there.

    There’s a philosophy in baseball that says that while it’s more exciting to hit homeruns, it’s more productive to just get on base and manufacture runs that way. I think as long as super-hero comic book writers are swinging for the bleachers and trying to shock the audience with gimmicks that grab headlines instead of crafting a good, solid story, we’re going to continue to see more stories like Cry for Justice, not less.

    Between Brightest Day and the Heroic Age it looks the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way and DC & Marvel are realizing that they need to write their comics for a more general audience, but only time will tell if that mentality sticks.

  9. Jer Says:

    I haven’t seen anyone say anything good about the ending of Cry for Justice, yet people continue to buy books like that.

    Do they? Let’s look at the sales figures …

    Here are DC’s sales figures for Jan. 2010, courtesy of Marc-Oliver Frisch at The Beat. You can scroll down to “Cry for Justice” – it’s the 24th best selling book for the month of January.

    It sold less than 50K copies.

    It’s a book in the top 25 for the market and the number one book for January sold a bit more than a 100K copies, so by one view you’re right – lots of people who are reading monthly superhero comics must have been reading it. Or at least lots of retailers who sell comics think they can move copies.

    But let that sink in for a minute.

    It sold less than 50K copies.

    By another measure – one that I would argue is a more objective one – almost no one read Cry for Justice. We’re talking less than 50K copies here – that’s not a lot of people. Pick a single NFL stadium in any city in the country – you can give everyone who bought a copy of Cry for Justice a seat and there would be seats left over.

    The folks who don’t want to read books like Cry for Justice have mostly just stopped buying monthly comics. Some of us wait for the trades just to make sure that we’re not going to get bait-and-switched at the last minute. Some of us just wait for the animated series or movies at this point.

    (And I fully expect Marvel and DC to be pulling some serious “bait-and-switch” with Brightest Day/Heroic Age at this point. I doubt they’re planning to do anything more than set everything up for “new heroism” and then yank the rug out from under everyone in a “shocking twist” that ends up with some C-list or D-list character brutally murdered/tortured/worse. I don’t actually think that the current crop of writers beyond a noteworthy few know how to write superheroes straight-up, and I don’t actually think that the majority of the readers left in the Direct Market actually want to READ superheroes straight-up.)

  10. Alan Coil Says:

    As Johanna and others pointed out a few weeks ago, there are many, many comics for kids these days. As a retailer, Hibbs knows that, yet he decided to write about the lack of comics for kids. Huh?

    Off the top of my head, every month there are Archie, BOOM!, DC, And Marvel titles that are suited for kids, including some that feature super-heroes. Plus it seems you can go to almost any comics convention and pick up oodles of past kids comics for a buck or two. I even bought some old stuff from my LCS a few weeks ago. Today, he had a stack of Richie Rich comics from the late 70s that he would probably sell for a buck each.

  11. john Says:

    Alan, Brain Hibbs wasnlt talking about a lack of comics for kids, he was talking about not being to give ‘mainstream SH comics’ to his son.
    I quote: ““mainstream” superhero comics are really unacceptable for kids these days; I literally can’t have my son look at this week’s new books until I fully vet them first, and that’s a pretty drastic sea change.”
    I’d suggest you read his post a little more carefully.

  12. Johanna Says:

    Thanks for pointing that out, John. I agree with what he’s saying, because while there are lots of kids’ superhero books these days, the main lines are clearly adults only (although no one’s really made a fuss yet). That seems wrong to me, given the innate appeal of the material to teens, who find great value in fantasies of power and justice. I guess they’ve all moved on to supernatural books instead. There is a difference between “for kids” and “all ages”, and I wish we were back to the point of the latter. If comics were movies, we’d be in a world where they were all R-rated.

  13. Richard J. Marcej Says:

    While I would love to join the chorus, that there are a lack of a lot of comics for kids to buy & read, or even that there aren’t many mainstream superhero comics for kids to read, Wesley Smith’s comment made me stop and think:

    “But I think a large part of the problem is our viewpoint. We’ve got these “good old days” goggles on, where we’re just nostalgic for the kinds of comics we read as kids.”

    Correct.
    But that just doesn’t cover comics.

    Look at television. In the 1970′s/early ’80′s, during Mainstream comics last days of news stand presence, what did the 3 TV networks (well before cable came to life) air early in the evening, when families would be watching?

    The Brady Bunch, Mork and Mindy, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Welcome Back Kotter, etc… Comedies that would cover character situations, but not controversy. And even though shows that did, like All In the Family, the language was suitable (for the times) and sex was rarely if ever brought to the forefront.

    And violence? Well, network TV wasn’t overly graphic, but violent and “adult situation” dramas would never be run early in the evening. 10:00 PM EST. was where you found most if not all police and mature dramatic shows.

    So look at today’s TV. The same kid audience that the comics companies would hope to attract are being offered more explicit and sexually aware sit coms, as early as 8 PM (or rerun sitcoms shown earlier in the evening) and cop, dramas and other shows filled with violence can be seen throughout the evening and during the day.

    And that’s just network television. One could almost bring up the same examples using cable TV, movies, music, etc…

    I’m not saying what’s right and what’s wrong. I’m not saying that the “old days” were better or the current times are bad.

    I guess what I’m saying is, before we make some all encompassing conclusion to a question like “what audience do superhero comics aim for?” let’s first look at what that audience wants to read. It’s that gap, between very young kids and very late teens that the industry needs to attract. And what they consider entertainment worth buying, reading and making a part of their regular leisure dollar have been shaped by what other venues are offering, they may have no other choice but to comply.

    Yes, it’s very easy to say “Comics in my day….”

    but you know this ain’t “my day” anymore.

  14. Johanna Says:

    Excellent point, Richard. And one has to remember that it’s all relative based on one’s age and what one grew up with (anything too far after is “those kids today!”). Then it starts getting into ratings, because TV has v-chips (which no one knows how to use) and shows can be allowed or blocked based on information provided. I guess comics are just following bookstores in not having ratings and most of the material not being aimed at kids or the squeamish.

  15. James Schee Says:

    I was reading an old Legion of Super Heroes comic last night, #297 of V2, that made me think of this discussion.

    It had adult themes with characters talking about their love lives, Cosmic Boy’s parents and brothers being graphically burned by a nuclear explosion, etc.

    The only real difference in it and the comics now, is when Cosmic Boy went seeking out those responsible for doing this to his family. He went as far to the point of being about to kill them, torturing to nearly the point of death, when he realized that doing so would make him no better than them and turning away. Thus showing at his core the good and decent man he is at heart.

    All I could think of, was that in comics now he would have killed them. Then spent years worth of stories bemoaning the fact that he did. Because they can’t show characters making the right decision, its only about making the wrong ones and bemoaning it.

  16. Johanna Says:

    I couldn’t figure out how to capture that distinction, but you have, thank you. It’s not just what we’re seeing but the meaning behind it. Superhero comics today seem to wallow in violence and exploitation for their own sake, with no redeeming message. And yes, I have the same problem with other media. :)

  17. Alan Coil Says:

    Mainstream movies aren’t for kids these days.

    Mainstream television isn’t for kids these days.

    It’s a new world, and we are remnants of the past, dinosaurs.

    Let’s all go back to the 50s.

  18. Hsifeng Says:

    Brian Hibbs Says:

    “…I literally can’t have my son look at this week’s new books until I fully vet them first…

    “…on-screen graphic murder and dismemberment, with blood spraying everywhere… clearly ‘Justice League’-branded material is no longer suitable for kids, but I don’t know any adults who are saying that this is what they want or need to see…”

    That reminds me of all the superhero brands that include both products marketed to adults and products marketed to small children. For example, to someone who’s not already familiar with comics the Batman spoon and spork set is just a Batman-branded product and probably makes it look like Batman-branded material is for little kids (give or take a few recalls) instead of any of it needing to be vetted by the kids’ parents first. How many non-superhero brands are marketed this way too?

    john Says:

    “Alan, Brain Hibbs wasnlt talking about a lack of comics for kids, he was talking about not being to give ‘mainstream SH comics’ to his son.
    I quote: “”mainstream” superhero comics are really unacceptable for kids these days; I literally can’t have my son look at this week’s new books until I fully vet them first, and that’s a pretty drastic sea change.””

    Yeah, it’s sort of like the way you can find a whole bunch of adventure movies for little kids these days, but you might not want to let a kid watch just any current mainstream adventure movie without checking if it’s appropriate for the kid first.

    Johanna Says:

    “…And one has to remember that it’s all relative based on one’s age and what one grew up with (anything too far after is “those kids today!”)…”

    …and based on what one’s parents let one watch back in the day too, right? For example, 30 years from now I bet Hibbs’s son won’t remember the children’s entertainment from when he was a child as having “on-screen graphic murder and dismemberment, with blood spraying everywhere.”

    “…I guess comics are just following bookstores in not having ratings and most of the material not being aimed at kids or the squeamish.”

    Good point, especially since the majority of the literate population isn’t children.

  19. LRH Says:

    My 9-yo joins me in not understanding why the makers of everything from Transformers to Spider Man are not making movies we can both go to see. Same in comics. He can’t read mine. I won’t let him. And I suspect he doesn’t really want to. And there are things I don’t even want to read.

    If I continue in this vein, soon I will cross the line from comics reader and occasional comics generator to boring suburban mother dully lamenting the destruction of childhood and the loss of societal taboos. (Please note that I’m not a raging god-bothering rightie wingnut — just a person who’d love to be able to turn on the evening news and a) get news and b) not have to chase my children from the room. *Some* societal taboos actually give value to the things that are taboo…)

    I’ll also add that in this discussion, I’m hearing the ghost of comics past whispering to us: ‘comicsssss code…’ And somewhere, Tipper Gore is nodding: I told you so.

  20. Johanna Says:

    It can lead to a slippery slope, if you’re not careful, but I’d like to go in a different direction. If comic companies want to put out violent, gory superhero stories, fine (except for the potential brand confusion that Hsifeng notes) — but don’t make *everything* like that. Have some variety. But the trend these days is to tie everything they possibly can into one big “story”, so that eliminates the diversity. Which narrows your customer base.

  21. Hsifeng Says:

    LRH Says:

    “…I’ll also add that in this discussion, I’m hearing the ghost of comics past whispering to us: ‘comicsssss code…’ And somewhere, Tipper Gore is nodding: I told you so.”

    Wasn’t the pre-comics-code problem adults-only comics marketed to children? Seems to me the comics code was purely backwards – it targeted the adults-only comics part instead of the marketed to children part. What the coders should have done was left the actual comics alone and cracked down on marketing them to children.

    Johanna Says:

    “…If comic companies want to put out violent, gory superhero stories, fine (except for the potential brand confusion that Hsifeng notes) — but don’t make *everything* like that. Have some variety. But the trend these days is to tie everything they possibly can into one big ‘story’, so that eliminates the diversity. Which narrows your customer base.”

    Exactly! :D

    If DC, Marvel, etc. had simply used new characters and told freestanding stories (standalone one-shots, separate series, whatever) when they started to put out violent and gory superhero comics, instead of adding adults-only episodes and spinoffs to their previously all-ages series, then half this problem would be moot.

    Coming up with new characters, stories, and brands when targeting new audiences isn’t a problem for storytellers in just about any other medium. It isn’t even a problem for other artists in comics (the Luna Brothers’ superhero miniseries Ultra : Seven Days wasn’t marketed to little kids who like superheroes). Seems to me that a few particular storytellers didn’t bother to be creative enough.

    Anyway, now that Spider-man, Batman, etc. are brand names on some adult-only material that won’t and definitely shouldn’t go away*, the fix might be to quit marketing those brands to children.

    What if no new new Spider-man, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. toys and Halloween costumes and spoon and spork sets were marketed to little kids…

    …and instead DC and Marvel come up with new superheroes and superheroines, telling all-ages stories about them in comics that don’t have any crossovers with or characters from the adults-only stories, and offering books and toys and Halloween costumes and spoon and spork sets under those brands to little kids? :)

    * Even if no new gory episodes came out, the older ones would still be in collected volumes in libraries where fans of any age could look ‘em up and find them, so the brands would still be on some adult-only material. There’s no turning back that clock.

    As for storyline branches like Tiny Titans, they definitely shouldn’t go away either! :) Keep ‘em in all their non-gory glory but have any ratings labels be the one same rating for each “one big ‘story’” – like the way Tokyopop gave all of Suppli the same rating, not marketing vol. 1 to a younger audience even though vol. 1 doesn’t have sex scenes like vol. 2 does. This way, those works neither get censored nor market their brands to children as much.

  22. Johanna Says:

    Warner does seem to be creating new, unrelated products (like the pink and silver Supergirl clothing) but they aren’t willing to lose the name value.

    Marvel, on the other hand, has created a new character or two for its kids products, like a Spider-Girl (not the alternative future version) for that super-deformed toddler line and Giant-Girl for its Avengers kids comic. That’s to increase the diversity, too, which is another problem in marketing to the young.

  23. Hsifeng Says:

    Johanna Says:

    “Warner does seem to be creating new, unrelated products (like the pink and silver Supergirl clothing)…”

    Unrelated? I thought Supergirl was a character in Superman.

    Johanna Says:

    “… but they aren’t willing to lose the name value…”

    As if the name brand has the same value for all market segments. :/

    Johanna Says:

    “…Marvel, on the other hand, has created a new character or two for its kids products, like a Spider-Girl (not the alternative future version) for that super-deformed toddler line and Giant-Girl for its Avengers kids comic…”

    Isn’t Avengers part of Marvel’s “one big ‘story’”?

    “…That’s to increase the diversity, too, which is another problem in marketing to the young.”

    Now I’m even more confused. Isn’t increasing the diversity reducing the problem in marketing to the young (who are pretty diverse themselves, especially given the different age groups within childhood!)?

  24. Johanna Says:

    Sorry, I was shortcutting that last bit. The lack of diversity is the marketing problem. The established characters are all older white males. Licensees tend to want more diversity, which is why they’ve created or promoted some of these characters.

    And I’ve never seen Supergirl in the comics wear exclusively pink and silver — have you?

  25. Hsifeng Says:

    Johanna Says:

    “Sorry, I was shortcutting that last bit. The lack of diversity is the marketing problem. The established characters are all older white males. Licensees tend to want more diversity, which is why they’ve created or promoted some of these characters…”

    OK, got it now, thanks. :)

    Johanna Says:

    “…And I’ve never seen Supergirl in the comics wear exclusively pink and silver — have you?”

    I’ve never seen the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park wear exclusively pink either, but that doesn’t make those pastel pink caps with the “B” logo a lot of people wear around here somehow unrelated to the rest of the products marketed under the Boston Red Sox brand. There’s still some relation there. ;)

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