This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on November 2, 2016.
Based on the name of this site, you could probably guess that those of us who write here really love comic books. We cover the whole spectrum of pop culture, but most of us come from a background in comics and love having the opportunity to share that passion with a wider audience.
There’s no denying that comics are a niche medium, but also one with a lot of potential for growth. A lot of thought goes into questions of how comics can reach that potential and why it isn’t happening more quickly. While the answer is complex and multifaceted, there is one element that seems to have fallen short in recent years: marketing.
While Marvel and DC Comics continue to bring their properties to the movies and television, they only represent two publishers and one genre of comics. Bringing attention to the medium goes far beyond finding new fans of Batman, Iron Man, or Wonder Woman. Comics readers are aware of the incredible array of science fiction, horror, fantasy, slice-of-life, and so many other stories coming out each week. Yet many remain popular purely within that same audience of current comics readers. How does a property break out from this niche status to be acknowledged by a wider audience and attract the elusive “new reader”?
The most obvious way to overcoming this hurdle is creating a hit.
That’s something tremendously easier said than done. There is no special recipe to creating a hit series and it’s something everyone wants to do. No one creates art hoping it will not find an audience. Yet creating a true smash hit of a comics series is one of the best ways to attract new readers. These are the properties that begin to be pushed by mainstream booksellers like those at Barnes & Noble, are regularly mentioned by notable publications like The New York Timesand Entertainment Weekly, and even pop up in television programs like The Big Bang Theory.
Image Comics had a streak of hits over the past decade, specifically Saga and The Walking Dead. As the current Image revival began around 2012, they appeared to be regularly publishing the hottest new thing from popular creators like Brian K. Vaughan and Jonathan Hickman. That has slowed over the past several years and it’s difficult to find a comparable hit coming from the direct market in that time. In spite of all the excitement about a revolution, it seems as if things have reached a new status quo.
Looking at this as a problem for creators and fans alike, we’ve noted a few key problems and potential solutions to creating new hits in comics. There’s no special recipe, but the challenges of the current market also present opportunities for comics creators, marketers, journalists, and fans. Nothing would make us happier than to see new series not only find, but exceed the audiences grown by successful new series at Image and elsewhere. We spoke with comics writer Jim Zub about how this might occur and came up with a few ideas based on his thoughts and our own.
Big Two Domination
It’s incredibly difficult to compete with Marvel and DC when marketing a new comic. They have deeper pockets, more resources, bigger teams, and longer histories than any other publisher in the American direct market. On top of all of that, their news stories tend to attract a higher volume of traffic which incentivizes news sites to cover them more often. You can complain that the game feels rigged when looking at this arrangment. Comics is ultimately a business though, and these publishers are good at the business and it’s good business to cover them.
Rather than focus on their current domination, the best strategy may follow the idiom “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Consider many of Image Comics biggest hits of the past decade. Writers like Vaughan and Hickman gathered a following at these big publishers before moving into their own work. The marketing machines helped transform them into recognizable names and generated goodwill that was not exclusive to any one publisher. Feeding off of that positive word-of-mouth and discovery process presents opportunities to build on momentum that is expensive and difficult to create initially. Writers like David Walker and Tom King have seen their profiles rocket in the past couple of years, watch out for where they may be in another five.
Zub notes that it’s not just about pushing the profile of movies and TV shows based on these properties either, or their historical origins. It’s important to establish that comics are still being made today and are as diverse and artful as they have ever been. Creating a connection between these publishers hits and the best comics being produced elsewhere is an important strategy.
Lack of Resources
Scarcity is the fundamental driving force of any market, and that includes comics coverage. Sites can only run so many stories each day and readers will only consume so many headlines. The same thing applies to tweets, podcasts, and just about any other form of hyping. When you combine this with the aforementioned dominance of a couple key publishers, the massive number of new titles being published each month, and very few paying comics sites… it becomes very difficult to receive much attention. It has been said that a comics’ success relies on creators, readers, and coverage before. No matter how difficult it may be to find boosters in the current market, finding them is absolutely key.
The best way to overcome this particular challenge is to make it a key part of a new comics launch and pursue it relentlessly. That doesn’t mean simply sending out mass e-mails and review copies. Targeted marketing is the key to finding space and new readers. Consider sites, writers, and readership when pitching a new launch to comics journalists. Every person and group who covers comics has a unique style. Providing something unique and that matches their style is more likely to find ideas a home. The word “exclusive” gets thrown around alot these days. While making something unique to one host is a good step, providing a spin or perspective that elevates the content is even better.
Zub also pointed out the value of hand-selling. While buzz on Twitter and news sites may seem important, it’s much more difficult to ignore a retailer (at a local comic store or bookstore) providing a recommendation. Utilizing methods to support retailers and build fan bases among those who sell comics in person is an overlooked strategy for many new releases. Providing something special to encourage handselling of a comic could pay dividends that are difficult to measure in online content.
Breaking from Tradition
There’s a cycle to comics publishing that anyone who’s used to getting new books on Wednesdays is very familiar with. There’s an announcement, then some interviews and previews, then a #1 hits stands, the reviews roll in, and things either explode or (much more commonly) trickle off from there. It’s the routine of the direct market: wash, rinse, repeat. Following that routine may not hurt a new series, but it’s not very likely to help it either. Comics marketing and publication is in need of new ideas, and those ideas can come in the form of marketing.
Just consider the biggest hit comics of the past couple years: March and the many comics of Raina Telgemeier (most recently Ghosts). While you can find both in comic stores, they didn’t rely on that market. They sold themselves as important historical narrative novels and young adult literature with mass appeal, respectively. Having someone like Rep. John Lewiswriting a comic certainly doesn’t hurt, but the way that March was sold to the public, specifically educators, was brilliant. Looking outside of the direct market and past strategies is key in finding new audiences and a way to stand out among the deluge of current titles.
It’s important to note that this is not easy as Zub says “getting coverage… as a series continues is an even tougher uphill battle.” Finding ways to pitch a new release differently should also be accompanied by strategies to keep a series fresh and relevant. While the aforementioned titles have the benefit of being one-time launches for complete collections, ongoing series must struggle to stay in the public eye each month.
What Comes Next?
At the end of the day, discovering new readers and launching new comics series will always be a challenge. Comics coverage, much like the state of the Direct Market, makes it difficult for even the best new titles to thrive. However, that doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. Each year we can find a few exceptions to the rule. In 2012 it was Saga and now in 2016 it appears to be March and Ghosts. The key is to look at these exceptions and learn how to make more of them.
Marketing is difficult, especially when it’s placed on top of the responsibilities of creating an entire comic book each month. It’s an integral part of a comics’ success though. It is something that must be done and done well. Taking advantage of larger organizations, targeting marketing, and inventing new means of marketing are a few ways in which this could be improved.
Of course it’s much easier to throw those ideas out there than it is to enact them. That hard work will depend on creators, publishers, and journalists. But those up to the challenge of pushing harder for the comics they love will likely be rewarded.