What Is DC Thinking? Sex, Violence, Racism, and Marketing

DC’s in the news again, and not necessarily for good reasons.

Red Hood and the Outlaws #5 cover

First, there was the report done by a Washington, D.C. TV station. According to ICv2, the story was introduced “with the titillating lead-in ‘Graphic violence and sex: that’s what you’ll find in the pages of DC Comics today.'” While I’m against dragging out the old falsehood that all comics are for kids, like many other people, I was disturbed by the bottom-feeding adolescent approach of such titles as Catwoman and Red Hood and the Outlaws. I suspect some parents will want to know about this kind of material in books that they think are for kids, especially superhero comics with a tie-in to the best-known media version, Batman.

Does any disagree that those two books, in particular, are selling themselves based on sex and violence? Just check out this latest cover, with a barely-clad Starfire in a puddle of blood. The first issue of Catwoman was about the title character and Batman having sex — the news report is not misrepresenting the content. I’m against sensation-mongering (although you may see more of this in February, which is a ratings sweeps month), but I’m also against DC putting out this kind of material and pretending there’s nothing wrong with it.

I agree with the basic premise, that the levels of sex and violence in DC’s comics has increased over the past few years. I think that’s a communication problem, fundamentally — DC can’t expand the mass media presence of its superheroes with material aimed at all ages or kids particularly (as with its cartoons) at the same time that it’s aging up its comics content WITHOUT clearly stating that these books are not for kids. A tiny “T” doesn’t communicate that message effectively, in my opinion. (I also don’t think their ratings are fairly determined, in terms of actual content, but that’s a different debate.)

In response to the report, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund released a retailer advisory on “how to manage a media attack”. There’s a lot of good advice, but nothing to address the publishers, who are the source of the problem attention in this case.

Co-Op racist ad

For a different example of the kind of attention the comic industry doesn’t need, there’s this co-op ad (using DC funds) placed by a comic shop in Orlando, Florida, that plays on racism and jingoism to draw attention. First, there’s the matter of calling Cyborg “Robama”, because of course all young black men can be mistaken for our President. (Tacky reminder that to some people, “they all look alike.”) More problematic is the offer to trade in a manga volume for any new DC 52 #1 issue. I guess the retailer wants more customers that are economically stupid, since manga retails from $9.99 to $16.99, while the new DCs were mostly $2.99 each. Then there’s the caveat, limiting the offer to one “per American citizen”. Does this charming shop check ID at the door?

I’ve seen this kind of “manga aren’t real comics, because they aren’t from here” attitude from retailers before, but never one who was so proud to advertise his dislike of the most successful new comic format of the past decade. Many manga readers aren’t that interested in American comics to begin with, but if you are serious about converting customers, maybe you shouldn’t insult what they already like? It runs the risk of driving them away. As marketing, it’s a failure, since it gives them no reason to sample the new product, besides the fact that you think they aren’t patriotic enough.

I have to wonder about DC’s standards for its co-op program, since I have a hard time believing they approved this use of their logo and characters.

Speaking of the logo, last week’s rumor is true: DC is changing their logo. Only it’s more complicated than thought: “The “C” can be customized to the colors and qualities of the property it’s promoting: silver and gray for the corporation, blue for DC Comics, or — as suggested by the graphic below — sparks for The Flash, green for Green Lantern, or a mist for Batman.”

DC logo versions

So what’s the black Alien-looking version in the top middle, then? And what, no Superman version? I guess he just isn’t as important to the company these days. Unlike Watchmen, which gets its own version in the bottom left. More changes are yet to come, including a revamped website:

[Amit Desai, senior vice president of franchise management] is building a new website that will showcase all DC properties, not just publishing, as it does now, and take full advantage of the logo’s interactive capabilities. Throughout the year, it will begin appearing on consumer and home entertainment products, TV and film graphics, games, and packaging.


27 Responses to “What Is DC Thinking? Sex, Violence, Racism, and Marketing”

  1. chess Says:

    It’s funny how these books are aimed at the teen market and up but most of the ads inside are geared towards younger children.

  2. Ed Sizemore Says:

    I guess this means the comic shop doesn’t sell any comics written by Canadian or British authors. And Heaven forbid, any comics by Arabic authors. Must be either a very small shop or lots of empty shelf space.

  3. Dwight Williams Says:

    And you’d think that comics shops and their customers alike in Ottawa would be more amenable to French-language product being sold therein. Certainly, Chapters/Indigo has figured that out!

    But none of that addresses Johanna’s points in this posting.

    Example 1: The dissonance in the messaging re: targeted age groups. DC told their retailers about the “age 18-34″ plan. But not everyone in-house seems to have understood the implications.

    Example 2: I hadn’t foreseen the customizability of the proposed new logo to the several branch properties published by DC. And as a design student, I should have anticipated this possibility. Puts paid somewhat to my complaints elsewhere about rebranding.

    If I’m wrong on either example, I expect to read about it in short order.

  4. James Schee Says:

    Gotta say I was a little disturbed by the reporter saying these books were for teens and adults, as the label says(whether labels are clear or not she clearly understood who they were for), then showing them to middle schoolers. Did she ask those kids parents if she could show those books to them I wonder?

    Are those books, especially Red Hood, books I like or support? No. But they seem to sell a lot to someone, so they deserve to be out there. Just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist.

    I seriously doubt the people DC hires to sell ads, have any connection to those who produce the comics. Letting their characters be used in that ad against manga is a bit mind boggling though, surely someone should have seen it wasn’t okay.

    The new logo just shows that DC really isn’t that concerned with print comics anymore. Otherwise why go to an animated/moving logo?

  5. El Santo Says:

    The new logo looks OK now that I’ve seen some mock-ups done on some comics. It seems more natural fit up on the side of the comic these days.

    As for the ratings: I think that a lot of the sex and violence is backlash from the Comics Code Authority era. However, a rating system is not an inherently bad thing, especially since the superhero media not within the comic pages (i.e. the Thor and Green Lantern movies, the WB cartoons) are targeted at a younger set. Really, if DC wants to go for a more adult audience, fine … but I share your concern that that’s not what they’re communicating as long as there’s a relatively kid friendly Young Justice cartoon on the air.

  6. Dwight Williams Says:

    James: I think the source of the report says so much about the intent of the report, don’t you? Hence the usage of the school-kids.

  7. James Schee Says:

    Dwight, very true.

    Oddly, I’d bet that lady showing those kids the comics was probably the first time some of those kids have even looked at comics. (though one kid said it looked kind of cool, hah so maybe she converted a kid to reading comics! lol)

  8. Johanna Says:

    James, middle school for me was 6th – 8th grade, which meant 12-14-year-olds. Young side of teen, yeah, but still teenage.

    I’m not saying those books shouldn’t exist. I’m simply saying that if you sell books based on (for example) sex, you shouldn’t be surprised when someone else points that message out. Some of the reaction to the piece was “how dare they, they’re so wrong!” While the tone was definitely exaggerated muckraking, I think the underlying point is valid.

    Santo, I agree, the logo isn’t bad when put on the top left corner of a comic. Looks pretty bad on a book spine, though.

  9. ShadZ Says:

    Calling Cyborg “Robama” does seem racist to me. And the “Buy American” message seems jingoistic to me, since most manga in the USA is still published by American companies and printed in America (or Canada).

  10. Jim Perreault Says:

    Thanks for posting this. I saw the promo, but ended up missing the actual broadcast. The Big Planet Comic interviews were actually done at my local comic book shop.

  11. James Schee Says:

    Huh middle school to me has always been 10-12, 13-15 junior high, then 15-18 high school. That may not be everywhere though, heck I know of a few communities in my area where kindergarten to high school are all in same building.

    I think her point of going to the school was to broadcast a message of “THINK ABOUT THE CHILDREN!!” Yet when she is the one exposing them to it herself, well…

    Too bad she didn’t ask the kids if they even read comics as I doubt many have. Though that one kid that said “It’s kind of cool” may start thanks to her.:)

    Yeah Catwoman and Red Hood’s first issues were about the sex. My main problem with Catwoman and Red Hood wasn’t that they were about sex, it was that they were badly done stories with sex.

    I like stories with sex, heck Palmotti and Conner’s Power Girl issues had sexual innuendo out the wazaoo. Yet they were done so well that I enjoyed the heck out of it.

  12. gdwcomics Says:

    “Many manga readers aren’t that interested in American comics to begin with, but if you are serious about converting customers, maybe you shouldn’t insult what they already like?”

    Do comic shops even sell Manga anymore?

    Looking at it from the angle of pitting the superhero crowd (a catagory his customers no doubt fall into) against the manga crowd, then that kind of makes sense. It’s crass, but I get what they’re going for. Not so sure it’s a failure if they don’t sell manga in the first place.

    I don’t see how any of this hurts DC at all. If anything it just serves to rally a fanbase that thinks the stuffy media snobs are attacking their comic books, much the same way music was attacked.

    As for the labels, probably doesn’t matter much if they specify 13 or 18, just that they have something to say “look! We put a warning, see?”

    “While the tone was definitely exaggerated muckraking”

    I’m glad the comic book websites never engage in that sort of unseemly behavior and remain, as always, above the fray. :D

  13. Mark Says:

    @Dwight

    re: “I think the source of the report says so much about the intent of the report, don’t you? Hence the usage of the school-kids.”

    Right. Because we never see the other side using kids to make a point do we? Oh wait….

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7L3xpElK0Y

    Whoops, looks like we do. Guess it’s okay as long as the kiddes are selling a message that you like, eh Dwight? Lord save me from hypocrites.

  14. Devin Says:

    I agree the “Robama” ad is silly, but your charges of “racism” are way off base. In what way is the depiction of Robama in the least bit racist? Because he’s a tall, strong superhero leading a charge of other superheroes? Obviously the reason Obama is referenced is for the Buy American theme. So now no artist can make any kind of depiction of our president without being called out as racist? And your digression on “they all look alike” is just bizarre – and frankly offensive.

    As a longtime reader of your column, I’m disappointed that you chose to indulge in this kind of hyperbole.

  15. Tom Ramirez Says:

    “Do comic shops even sell Manga anymore?” -gdwcomics

    They do here in California. They’re stupid if they don’t. Asian demographics and the more culturally adventurous tend to buy more manga and they tend to live on the west coast. However, I have seen comic shops in Texas selling entire rows of manga that rival those in my home state.

  16. Ed Sizemore Says:

    It does feels racist to me, because they aren’t offering a trade-in for books by Canadian publishers like Drawn & Quarterly or English publishers like AD2000 in their “Buy American” campaign. Nope, just that dirty Japanese stuff.

    @gdwcomics, Understanding you’re using a bit of hybole with your question, the irony here is that companies like Viz are trying to re-establish themselves in the direct market. Look at the how the size of their Previews section has grown over the last year. With the closing of Borders and B&N cutting back on their manga sections, manga companies are finding that they have to return to their roots-the comic shops. So it feels like this poster is something of a backlash against the return of manga to the direct market.

  17. Dwight Williams Says:

    Wondering if the top-middle version of the logo is meant to represent for Catwoman…?

  18. Johanna Says:

    Devin, that’s not a picture of Obama as a robot. That’s a picture of Cyborg that’s being referred to by the President’s name, as though all black men are interchangeable. That’s what’s racist about it.

    Dwight, I think maybe it’s for the Batman movie? Given the media emphasis?

  19. Dwight Williams Says:

    With what looks like a whip wrapped around the “C” part of the logo(/icon)?

  20. Ed Sizemore Says:

    I was thinking that logo might be a reference to Blue Beetle and his new armour? Does seem to suggest there is at least one DC hero whose look is not as iconic as they think, since we’re having a lot of trouble identity them.

  21. DeBT Says:

    There was a slight update to the “trade Manga for comics” story that I didn’t see mentioned here:
    http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2012-01-18/comic-shop-responds-about-its-buy-american-ad

  22. Brian Hibbs Says:

    There is NO WAY that DC co-op money was actually used for that ad, regardless of Rich’s reporting.

    DC is crazy baby-levels of sensitive about how co-op gets spent.

    -B

  23. Johanna Says:

    Brian, I would hope that they clarify that, then, since it’s their logo and art carrying this message.

    DeBT, thanks, I hadn’t seen that either. I don’t find the “it was a joke!” defense very compelling, since I don’t see anything funny about it, but if I recall correctly, this was also the comic shop that did a “photo shoot” with a scantily dressed woman leaning on the shelves and used a similar defense when people questioned that message about their customers.

  24. GJ Says:

    I’m not the biggest fan of Red Hood and the Outlaws but, to be fair, I’m pretty sure that’s Starfire’s hair and not a puddle of blood.

  25. Johanna Says:

    That river in front of Red Arrow? That’s more of her hair? I guess it could be, but I suspect a non-comic reader won’t make that assumption. :)

  26. Brian Hibbs Says:

    Johanna, you KNOW DC doesn’t comment publicly on things like that!

    -B

  27. Johanna Says:

    I never know these days, with all the changes, what they will and won’t talk to anyone about.




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