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 (link no longer available). 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?



16 comments

  • Tracy Williams

    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

  • Thad

    “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.

  • Geoff J

    ” 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. :)

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Dwight Williams

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

    And I want Alpha Flight back.

  • Wesley Smith

    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.

  • Jer

    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.)

  • Alan Coil

    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.

  • john

    Alan, Brain Hibbs wasn’t 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.

  • 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.

  • Richard J. Marcej

    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.

  • 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.

  • James Schee

    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.

  • 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. :)

  • Alan Coil

    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.

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