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May 27, 2007

CR Commentary: Five Industry Changes

For your perusal and musing purposes, a few thoughts on things that comics entities of varying types and sizes could do right at this moment to make for a better group of industries. I've tried to focus on direct, mechanical efforts and policy changes as opposed to wish-based outcomes and projections of the "comics should be more like this" variety. I may have failed, though. I hope you enjoy the speculative thinking on this lazy holiday weekend, and that this triggers similar thoughts from you, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

1. Marvel Should Hire an Ombudsman

imageIf the sports channel ESPN can use Le Anne Schreiber to process the point of view of its fans regarding such issues as sports anchors that yell too often or the lack of balanced coverage regarding sports like hockey, surely Marvel could put someone in place to better engage things like sexualized content aimed at children or the unfortunate spectacle of a cover showing one of their few prominent black heroes being set on fire.

Without a focused way to deal with such issues, what you have is exactly what we saw this week in comics' on-line circles regarding passionate discussions triggered by an idiotic-looking Mary Jane Watson statue and an icky Heroes for Hire comic book cover: scatter-shot reactions ripping into the issue from a dozen, slightly different viewpoints where those differences are then set against one another, and the target of those criticisms choosing a strategy of dismissal and denial rather than open themselves up to what is admittedly a scary level of laceration and potentially deep, chaotic repudiation. An ombudsman would be a first step in giving Marvel a way to embrace such concerns comics from its fans and industry critics, if only by symbolically admitting that mistakes are going to be made and need to be overcome or negotiated, not argued away.

I can't imagine how it wouldn't be to comics' benefit to have someone on the inside of one of these companies -- or all of them, really -- that was going to take up such issues on its behalf.

2. Diamond Should Grant Its Long-Time Clients a Greater, Partnership-Based Status

I don't think there's anything that can be done at this late date about some of the ridiculous deals signed by Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. with several publishers in the 1990s regarding cover space and the counter-intuitive way some books are presented to Direct Market buyers. Barring aggressive language in contracts that explicitly forbids certain deals with other people -- which I can't imagine the Justice Department ignoring no matter how they define comics distributors -- Diamond could finally rid itself of the last vestiges of its pay-for policies from the era when they competed with other comics distribution specialists in terms of offered services. Diamond should more fully partner with its established publishers in a way designed to increase the bottom line for the industry, not Diamond directly.

To that end, every publisher with over ten years of listing product through Diamond should be granted access to any and all information Diamond has to where and to whom their comics sell, where related works sell and so on -- whatever Diamond has that one can reasonably argue will help publishers sell their product. In addition, the fee aspect (as opposed to the cost aspect) of any and all targeted marketing should be eliminated. Any company that's been with Diamond for ten years is in no real danger of wasting resources to circumvent Diamond's link in the consumption chain, as the company has long been said to fear. Getting the information in the hands of the right people so they can use it will increase the bottom line over time and make for a healthier, more ethical market.

3. Comics Companies Should Release Reliable Sales Numbers

Okay, this will never happen. Keeping actual numbers close to the vest offers ethically dubious yet undeniable advantages in areas ranging from how companies present themselves publicly, how they're able to negotiate professionally in lot of different arenas, and how they orient themselves through certain strategic initiatives.

If it did become a priority, legitimate, bottom-line accountability could transform the business and culture of comics. A lot of what proves to be unnecessarily toxic about comics as a professional culture comes from an ongoing, inaccurate portrait of the field's potential rewards. A more rigorous attention to actual numbers would benefit those comic books that currently perform in ways that are difficult for those that accumulate estimates to recognize. In comic strips, editors would have another, easily-accessible tool on which to base their decisions on what to carry, and comic strip fans would have a way to latch onto features of growing interest. It would be a world of better informed decisions and fewer degradations caused by a diet of perpetual BS.

Still: never going to happen.

4. Digital Comics Initiatives Should be Accelerated But Also Re-Considered In Terms of Existing, Beneficial Partnerships

imageI have no idea why every comic book out from a major publisher isn't available right this very moment in digital form. And I say this as someone who deplores comics' front-running impulse, the way that one strategy for selling work is presented as the future and everything else is depicted in almost savage terms as a brutal, obsolete past that should be ignored if not eliminated outright.

Even for someone who values traditional markets like I do sees there's a new avenue for sales through digital means; a way of getting comics to people that hasn't waited on the full participation of certain brands, or even legal permission. I don't see any reason why a new market shouldn't be pursued. If it's a matter of poisoning existing business relationships, as I suspect it may be, that's an argument that initiatives should be adjusted to include these existing partners in the discussion. It's not a sign that the discussion shouldn't take place or take place so slowly that eventually you shrug your shoulders and claim that you have to follow a certain path because the nature of your participation has been decided upon for you. If it's a matter of biding one's time until optimal platforms present themselves, waiting until the market ossifies reduces the room for movement that might be necessary to see to any outside concerns.

In all areas, comic strips is astonishingly further along than comic books in finding a suite of on-line strategies that make sense and meets needs, but they still haven't found that last crucial solution for a way of presenting comics through on-line newspapers that matches the role comics play in attracting readers and revenue in print. So they have work to do, too. The only thing that will make any of this impossible is not trying.

5. A Group of Comics Companies Should Consider Embracing a Variation of the NFL's Rooney Rule

The National Football League requires that teams interview minority candidates for head coaching jobs. The smartest aspect of this initiative is that it simply requires an interview, not automatic or encouraged hiring. It solves a perceived traditional lack of opportunity with actual increased opportunity, and trusts in both the self-interest of the owners and the quality of the minority coaching candidates for an eventual positive outcome -- stressing also that simply including certain voices in the interview process is a positive for both sides.

Could something similar be done in comics? Could every pitch at a mainstream comics publisher for a pledged period of time, say two years, include at least one from a person not a white male? Could every fifth proposal considered at a proposal-driven comics company for a pledged period of time be from a person not a white male? I can see every possible way in which this could be insulting to some people and also could also be abused or ignored or downplayed in its execution, but if an enterprise as big and successful and as much a piece of modern Americana as the NFL sees a benefit in goosing traditional recruitment practices for the sake of bringing more people into the process, why wouldn't a group of comics companies -- and comics in general -- benefit in the same way?
posted 3:00 am PST | Permalink

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