Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Datablog: House of Ideas versus House of Management

Hi, welcome to the Datablog. This week: business versus storytelling.

To begin, let's start by having you, dear reader, go to the official DC Comics website, and then to the official Marvel Comics website. Go on, go check 'em out. I'll be here waiting.

Now, what I want you to do next is go back and look at each site each and ask yourself a simple question: which of these websites is promoting nothing but comic books, and which of these sites is promoting an entire business?

If you're guessing Marvel Comics is the latter, you're guessing correctly.

Now, it's a little unfair to say that DC Comics is only promoting comics on their website; there's the DC Direct link, and links to MAD Magazine and ZUDA. But go back to the Marvel site and you'll find multiple hubs related to not only comics, but to kids entertainment, internet games, digital media, the Marvel Store, TV & Movie news, and even Corporate News. This isn't merely the website of a comic book publisher, it's the website of a media franchise establishment, and that, dear reader, is why Marvel Comics dominates the sales charts every month. Forget whether or not they're telling the best stories, or have the best artists, or strive for the most quality month in and month out. Marvel Comics understands, nay, Joe Quesada understands that comic books are a business just like any other business, and people want to get fed. Marvel Comics are in the daily spotlight in both internet and print news, on the Colbert Report and on Spider-Man is in video stores in cartoon and cinematic forms, in video games and action figures. Walk down the aisles of any local Target and you're going to find more Spider-Man and Marvel figures than you will DC Direct toys. Why? Because Marvel has grasped something that it appears that DC has not: in order to make the sales, you have to branch out beyond simple comic books.

But is that a good thing?

Let's look at the much-hyped Hulk comic book: once upon a time, under Greg Pak, it was a thrilling story about the green giant on a world where he could be respected, and could finally allow himself to be at his most destructive. But that came crashing down, the Hulk took the hurt to those he felt was responsible, and gave up at the end once he realized he was defeated. Some seriously epic storytelling. Now Jeph Loeb has taken the reins of the Hulk title, and we have a massive, red-hued Hulk running about, defeating every over-powered hero/villain in sight, which includes cold-cocking Thor and even Uatu the Watcher. I think that is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but nevermind that for now; the point is that Hulk's sales have never been better. And I say that without looking at sales charts for reference. Secret Invasion as well is an excellent demonstration that one writer can control an entire universe by simply tossing a left-field twist onto the end of an event title that needed two or three other books just to make sense. Illuminati, Initiative, Invasion, impressive. Brian Michael Bendis deserves an Eisner for simply being able to write as many books simultaneously and have absolutely none of them be near the quality of any single issue of the Distinguished Competition's "secret" book, Secret Six. Seriously; compare any issue or tie-in of Secret Invasion to any single issue of Secret Six and the Six will win. Why? Two words.



Look, Final Crisis is what it is, and it's just as guilty of using other titles to tell a story. However, I argue that FC kept it mostly contained to the tie-in books, not the regular monthly books (excepting two issues of Batman, and a couple issues of JLA). Comparing one event to another isn't the point: the point here is to compare one publisher to another and decipher why one consistently sells more comics. Well the proof is in the pudding. Marvel simply goes balls out to promote and sell the fuck out of their product. That's what comic books are to Marvel: product. Is that bad? Not necessarily. Anything is a product. Go buy anything, that's product. What potentially is bad here is that "product" could become another word for "mass-produced shit." Look, McDonald's isn't nearly as good as the local burger joints I frequent, but I'll still go to McDonald's. And quite frankly, I feel I can make a better burger than any of them. But I'm not selling burgers, I'm buying them. And if I want a damn good burger, I'll go to the local joint and get a damn good burger; that's usually what I do. But if I want some overall good food, I'll go to McDonald's, because there's something for everyone, and the family wants food too. You see what I'm saying?

I love DC Comics; I love the quality storytelling, I love the promise of a good book almost every time I crack open the cover. I like Marvel; I like that it's cool and hip and wow and tells a good yarn. But quality every time isn't what I get from Marvel. I get a lot of bang for my buck, but sometimes I just get hungry again half an hour later. Mostly, I get satisfied from reading the latest issue of Batman, or Action, or Green Lantern. I am also a reader of very discerning taste, so if I'm not into a particular character, either the writer or the artist had better be the draw, or I'm not reading it. That's mostly why I haven't read X-Men in forever. Lately, Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi's Astonishing X-Men has drawn me in like a horny man to a trashy bar, and in diving in so very little to Marvel's merry mutants, I'm discovering that if there's one book I don't like, there's several more to whet my appetite. Classic X-Men? Try Legacy, or Origins, or First Class. Modern? Uncanny and X-Factor, or X-Force to give you a go. And don't get me started on the number of fucking comics Wolverine is in; I'm buying at least one of them starting in April, and we'll see where it goes from there.

But that's the thing about Marvel: there's twenty books that are at least related to whatever character or team you like, so it's always something for you to buy. DC doesn't really have those options. Don't like what's going on in Batman? There's always Detective. Or, um, well, you know, some other book with Batman. Like, uh, Cacophony. You know, that Kevin Smith mini. And Superman! Superman is in his book, and Action Comics, and, ah, well, oh, Superman/Batman. You can get Superman AND Batman in one book! Or in Justice League. Or Super-Friends! Meanwhile Spider-Man is published three times A MONTH on top of the other fifty books or so he's in. You see what I'm saying? Marvel's on top of the options game, and running those numbers is staggaring. Marvel has it's own film production offices in Manhattan Beach, CA, right down the street from where I used to live, while DC is owned/run by Time-Warner who is really dragging their feet about doing, well, ANYTHING cinematically that doesn't involve Christian Bale. Marvel, for their business savvy, is CELEBRATING comic books! Celebrating and selling comic books! DC Comics is telling damn fine stories, but man, where's the beef? Where's the Watchmen Babies? Where's the film version of the Flash for fuck's sake? Cartoons of Wonder Woman are great for fuck-all in my opinion; Watchmen is posed to be the best thing DC and Time-Warner have put out yet.

So, really, it really just boils down to which matters more: getting your name out, or concentrating on the base product. Selling action figures (which, in turn, sells comics when you think about it), or selling comics. DC sells comics, tells comic stories, and arguably tells better stories than Marvel does. Marvel sells comics, video games, T-shirts, movies, offers digital versions of their library, action figures, the works. But do they tell better stories? Arguably no. But do they love their comics? Yes they do; look at how they pimp them.

So what do you care about more? Which gets your dollar? McDonald's? Or the local burger joint?

I still think I make 'em better, but that's besides the point.


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