Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Potential of Bloggers and of ComicSpace to Change Mainstream Comics

I love visiting the When Fangirls Attack blog. I have a number of blogs I like to visit fairly regularly already linked on my sidebar, but it's nowhere the amount of comics-devoted blogs that are actually out here in the webosphere that are worth reading or at least checking out. The WFA ladies, Ragnell and Kalinara, do a great job of placing all sorts of links to different and varied posts commenting on everything related to women and comics. Visiting their posts and links you can see what loads of comics fans are concerned and talking about.

Today I just read a fantastic post by Cheryl Lynn on her Digital Femme blog that I simply have to quote and comment on here. (Strong language used, in case you have sensitive eyes. I'll loop it out here.) In a nutshell, Cheryl says: "...I can see that I am going to have to make the ****ing comics ... And you see, I don't want to make the ****ing comics. Making the ****ing comics is hard ****ing work...But the ****ing comics need to be made... Why? Because black and Latino girls are reading. A lot. I see them. They're piling onto trains and buses with little colorful paperbacks tucked into their pockets. And those colorful little paperbacks are full of ****. Complete and utter pandering materialistic gangsta bull****..."

I agree with her 100%.

It is monstrously hard to make comics. Ideally it's a team effort. It costs money. It requires planning. People get into and try to publish their comics all the time and simply lose their shirts because they don't know to prepare and don't know what a business plan is or what "Marketing" is, they just want to make comics.

And yes, we are going to have to make the comics ourselves or at least support others who can in order to make a change in the content that is becoming more aimed at a skewed readership, and that is presenting and glamorizing lopsided behaviors that become functionally unhealthy for society (dressing sexy is one thing, but dressing for sexual attraction as if that were the only thing women are good for is not healthy; presenting one-dimensional female characters who are basically just eye candy or sex toys is not healthy, etc.)

Mainstream comics are generally headed by people with a certain mindset and certain expectations towards a certain readership that simply doesn't encompass the audience potential. The new DC Minx imprint notwithstanding (whose very outdated name just apparently infuriates bloggers everywhere) it seems like mainstream companies don't even think of adding more imprints to try to expand their audience. Then sometimes when they do they don't think it through so it never finds its footing and readership then it either folds or is ineffectual.

Some publishers only seem to only want to milk the current main house imprint. In effect it renders it useless for everyone because then it's not what the hardcore readers want, and it's not what the all-ages readers want, either.

Look, twelve versions of books on basically the same characters is NOT going to be helpful if they are all the same half-**sed, watered-down concept and universe that only splits a character and their story into hairs. I'm not going to care if Fulano-Man Comics tells me what Fulano-Man did on Tuesday, and then forces me to buy and read Totally Fulano-Man Comics Presents to tell me what he did on Wednesday. I'll drop it first, the money-grabbing is so obvious. Tell me a story, for crying out loud. You want me to come back and buy it next month, then make it interesting!!

The only direct way to affect and get publishers' attention when they're failing to attract readership is to drop the offending title and then write the editor, managing editor and editor in chief and tell them why the title is no longer being bought. But even this can be very discouraging, though. With this feedback you'd think there'd be a learning curve involved; after a certain amount of starts and stops you'd think a direction that would actually work might be figured out ... but even with that, the same books keep getting dropped and rebooted (Spider-Girl. Supergirl), and then most become basically suckier every time.

I've said this before but in general, there seems to be no clear demarcation of target audience in mainstream comics nowadays. Aside from Vertigo or Maxx, and the OBVIOUS cartoon-looking kid-aimed comics (and after a certain age, some kids don't want to be seen reading what appears to be "baby" comics.) everything else is blurry. Nothing seems to be truly All-Ages material all the time anymore. Even titles themselves can be inconsistently handled from issue to issue. The ratings systems -- when they're even used -- are not plainly placed to help identify and are not easy to understand. The comics code authority is a joke. Foul language is used regularly, there's inappropriate scenes presented on panel without regard to who might be reading it, there are costumes that are excessively revealing for what used to be an all-ages title.

Look, I'm not for bland comics. But I want to know what to expect, not be horrifically surprised by an on-panel rape scene, like in Identity Crisis. I mean, how inappropriate was that visual for what is usually an All-Ages line of comic books? I'm for All-Ages comics to be All-Ages comics, especially when its related licensed products are aimed at All-Ages. Sorry, guys. The corporate structure you work in is specifically set up this way so it can reach the widest target audience (DUH) -- so deal with it.

Maybe people in charge are losing the vision and love for the medium.

Then theres' the whole women read comics issue. Women read comics. Minorities read comics. Why is it still such a mystery that women and minorities (and female minorities, even!!) ALSO want to read comics? Why does this continue to be such a surprise when America itself is a cultural melting pot? The major mainstream publishers are all located in the GIANT cities on the coasts -- those cities who are always boasting about how they are so much more accepting of diversity than the rest of America. So. Ok. But then who's simply not paying attention to the people just walking next to and around them on the street?!

Does ANYONE remember the X-Men back in the mid-80s -- you know back when there was only ONE (!) X-Men title that had a print run of over 300 thousand copies, since both women AND men were buying and reading it, because the stories were actually interesting, exciting, fun and fair to the entire diverse team?

Storm's costume was sexy -- but not exploitative. Phoenix's and Rogue's costumes were not exploitative.

Has anyone tried to analyze WHY this ONE book actually worked and sold soooo many copies that the creative team made monster royalties 20+ years ago?? (I'm not introducing the argument about how Chris Claremont overwrites to death; work with me here.)

Maybe this is why the TV show Heroes is becoming so popular now. The cast is diverse. We want to know their stories and hope they are not stereotypical. (I've only watched one episode so I'm just guessing by the buzz)

Here's another mystery: why is it that the Supergirl comic is tanking so badly lately that not only is it regularly and soundly mocked in blogs across the web, but its editor is now actively seeking out female readership in an open letter to fans?

Let's see ... Supergirl is a teenager and is Superman's cousin. Superman's got the big reputation of being a good, and non-killing SUPERHERO. By relationship and potential then, Supergirl should then be fun, probably in school, young at heart, interesting and full of new stories of being an alien super-powered teen, right? Okay.

Instead, she is visually presented as a one-dimensional character, whose costume instead of being sexy/cute is rendered to make her look like a slut, and who continually gets posed in compromising and overly-suggestive, age-inappropriate positions again and again.
That is not superhero behavior.(No really, spare me. Even if teens "do certain things" it doesn't have to be depicted on an all-ages cover).

So, oh my gosh, Supergirl is no better than any other local bored neighborhood kid whose parents (if she even has both) never expects much of her, so she gets into sex and drugs and alcohol because she doesn't know what she can really become if she just applied herself to her future!!

So what does all this make this title, then?


That's why your title doesn't sell. It's ****ing boring. The sexy costume, the sexy poses, the stupid facial expressions -- there has just got to be more to Kara than this.

Who wants to read boring?

Now for the amount of women who actually work on staff at comic book companies, you'd think there'd be more sensitivity to them as a gender. We work in production, in accounting, in marketing, in other supporting staff positions, and as assistant editors. You'll even find the occasional female Editor. But unfortunately in very general terms, while you'll find plenty in indie comics it seems like women are not very often on the mainstream creative teams. Women and minorities curiously don't often seem to get as far as actual staff editorial control, considering the proportions (again) already on staff.

But then let's see -- even if they did get control, who then wouldn't quickly find themselves in Valerie's position, where they've suddenly become part of a System and need to prove they're "with it" and part of the "boys' network" and get sucked in? It's easy to be. How can you fight that?

I don't keep tabs on who is currently a female or is a minority and working as an editor at DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse etc, but even the Friends of Lulu site doesn't list women in a separate category for editorial positions. If they did, we might be a little shocked at the lack. Editors are instead listed together with other comics creators here but even a quick scroll down that listing shows you there are not too many of them, and the list needs updating besides -- so we even lose one or two. You'd think it's be easier nowadays, but I daresay it's not hugely better now for women and minorities to get an editorial position now than it was back in the 80s when I began visiting the Marvel offices and Jo Duffy was on staff at Epic and Jim Owsley was on staff at Marvel U (and I'm not sure when Louise Simonson was on staff editing over on MU).

I wonder how much of that lack is truly due to a shortage of qualified minority and women applicants for the available jobs ... but I have wondered why there was a general high turnover of female assistant editors back at DC when I was on staff. And several people who were already there but were either female or a minority seemed to have been overlooked for promotions to editor, although they were there long enough to "pay their dues" and learn the ropes ... I dunno how much of that was they had not plainly applied for the job, though.

But surely there is a constructive way to approach this problem and not freak out the poor ivory tower people. Surely they'd want more readers as much as we want good comics.

I must agree with Valerie over on Occasional Superheroine and her comment that "...The System has to change. And it stands a better chance of changing from without than within. Within the System, you're sort of trapped. I could not do a damn thing for "women in comics" of any value until I was out of that particular System. All the articulate, empassioned bloggers and posters out there who agitate for change is what's going to change this System. Letter-writing campaigns are what's going to change this System. Voting with your wallets is what's going to change this System.

"And this System WILL change. Please do not think that your letters and editorials do not get noticed up on Mount Olympus. Please do not think that higher-ups more higher-up than the higher-ups don't read this stuff -- or at least get briefs on it by their assistants..."

It's bloggers and webcomics networking and hosting sites like ComicSpace [R.I.P. 2002 - 2012] that can potentially change the turgid state of mainstream comics. Find more people. Talk out loud. Discuss the problems. Cheer the good stuff.

It's like when you discover you're an alcoholic. The first step is admitting it, so you can deal with the problem. We all know we have a problem with mainstream comics and its exploitative tactics. It's one we can actually fix.

Who wouldn't want more comics to be fun and exciting again?

Yeah, we'll happily buy the mainstream comics when they're actually good and worth reading (She-Hulk!!).

And sometimes we might find we'll just have to make the comics ourselves.


kafraco said...

Very nice post. I am curious where you think audio and podcasts fit in the current comic book fandom ecosystem.

Erica Well said...


I didn't realize how widespread audio and podcasts were and are becoming until I joined ComicSpace ... but I'd put them right up there with blogging and ComicSpace. It's all helping to level the playing field and essentially make it more fair.

Philosophically, I think everyone wants to be heard; blogging and podcasting and having stuff like YouTube gives us all this chance to be heard. The brilliance of these forums is that it gives us, the "Everyman" (to use an easy phrase) a chance to speak out and not just accept what we are being fed as the be-all, end all of everything.

The world is full of variety and full of talented people.I think we can learn to appreciate each other's (even modest) talents when we are able to share them.

I think -- like many others -- that Mainstream comics suffer from being too insularly run. Having worked in the industry, it's nothing personal against them ... but the people in charge have become emotionally and professionally disconnected. This disconnect makes them create and shepherd poor product and the disconnect also makes them defensive and unable to hear it when the fans are unhappy.

Surely there is a way to reach them ... and by going around them and us showing them what IS great and fun and wonderful and being done in comics and what could be done -- besides the same ol' same ol' -- could surely help ...

I mean, cause after all, aren't we really all in this together?