Comics, Marketing, and Me

About a month or so ago I stopped reading all the comic industry marketing.

I stopped reading the news sites, and the press releases, and the previews. I stopped clicking on links on Twitter. I stopped reading the marketing for a simple reason — it’s not for me.

In fact, comics marketing is almost, nearly, anti me. Luckily, this isn’t quite true of the comics themselves.

A few months back I was reading the previews of Marvel’s forthcoming Fear Itself summer event. And I was complaining quite a bit about how this looked like a storyline with nothing in it for me. How it looked like a bunch of straight white guys and their daddy issues running around fighting monsters I’d never heard of before. This is not why I read Marvel comics.

I read Marvel comics for the scope and breadth of real-world consequences. I love stories such as the year of Norman Osborn’s Dark Reign, I love the No More Mutants consequences of the Avengers stealing Wanda’s children years ago. I love that all of these people, these characters, exist in networks of community and family. I love that they are heroes, dedicated to protecting those who cannot protect themselves from threats beyond imagining. I love consequences, and hard choices, and living with who you have become. This is my Marvel comics. I didn’t see any of this in the Marvel ads and previews and press surrounding Fear Itself. So I complained a bit, and then stopped talking about it altogether, because a number of the creators involved in this forthcoming project are people whose work I like and respect, and I didn’t want to say bad things about them — especially since I hadn’t seen the books yet.

I picked up the first issue of Fear Itself with a sense of resigned doom, figuring I’d take a look and then save a lot of money this summer not buying it.

I won’t go into too much detail here, but Matt Fraction, Christos Gage, Kieron Gillen, Nick Spencer, Jeff Parker, and Brian Bendis are delivering incredibly good stories. I have actually covered my mouth in horror at scenes in Invincible Iron Man and Fear Itself: The Home Front. My opinion of this summer event, based on the previews, press, and ads, was entirely wrong.

Gentlemen. I am so sorry I doubted you. I am loving this entire Fear Itself event to pieces, loving all the tie-ins, loving the scope and grandeur of the event. Not to mention the writing and art are, overall, superb.

I blame my doubts on the marketing of superhero comic books. The more I saw about Fear Itself in the previews, the more I felt that I – a late-30s queer woman, a parent, a life-long geek – was not the object of the press. The press covering Fear Itself talked about Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, and other Avengers-related characters. But I saw little-to-no mention of the Avengers who matter to me — Carol Danvers, Jessica Drew, Jessica Jones, Bobbi Morse, and Luke Cage. I saw little-to-no mention of the Avengers Academy kids and their teachers. I didn’t see a lot of ads in the comics leading up to Fear Itself talking about Sue Storm-Richards, or reporter Norah Winters. I saw little-to-no mention of the fact that this story encompasses the entire world of Marvel, not just the heroes, but the innocent bystanders as well. None of the things I read Marvel for — great women, great family and team dynamics, and a strong sense of consequences — were emphasized in the press. Whoever Marvel was trying to woo with their previews, it simply wasn’t me.

I thought about this when DC began announcing their universe reboot planned for this fall. And the week of the first announcements I stopped reading all comics-related news. I don’t have a ton of faith in DC’s attention to the kinds of things I like to read. But there are a handful of creators working there whose work I value and respect. I’m going to give them a chance to win me over to the new universe of DC. I want to give them their shot, not in interviews or previews, but in the actual work itself. I want to read the comics and judge the story as it happens.

Neither Marvel nor DC is marketing to me. The way they describe their own product — product I happen to love — makes me feel semi-revolted. The emphasis on NEW and DIFFERENT invalidates my love of the continuity. The nigh-exclusive representation of straight white male legacy characters makes me and the characters I love invisible and irrelevant. The emphasis on action-based stories ignores the family- and character-based stories I love. The removal of female characters from covers, from ads, from books, the removal of the heads, clothes, and faces of female characters from those that do make it into the previews, this all rejects the female characters I love from the stories themselves. Now, experience has shown me that the elements I love are indeed still present in superhero comics. But I never know it, looking at the previews. Marvel and DC don’t market to me.

It’s … It’s hard, sometimes, to see all that effort and energy expended on marketing, and to see that it cares absolutely nothing for me and my demographic. My demographic in this case being “women.” It’s hard, and hurtful, to see fifty percent of the planet represented in ten percent of the covers and ads. There is a corollary message, intended or inadvertent, that I am irrelevant to Marvel and DC. That I can take what they provide or not, and screw me if I don’t like it, because they don’t want me or need me or even see me standing over here, patiently reading their comics for twenty-five years. No, of course Marvel and DC don’t owe me anything. That’s not the nature of the producer-consumer relationship we have. They make it and I buy it or not. But there is a second relationship here, one that gets trampled in the realities of marketing. And that is the relationship I have with these characters who have been a part of two-thirds of my life. I find it hard to walk away.

I have a few choices. I can read all the press and marketing, pre-judge what’s possibly coming, feel hurt and angry at a system that consistently dismisses me as not worth a second of its time, and then feel like a chump when I buy the comics anyway. I can stop reading comics based on what I think is coming. I can pirate the comics in order to read the stories I like while refusing to give my money to a company that disdains me. Or I can buy the comics and ignore the press, and enjoy the work these writers and artists are giving me. I’m not going to stop reading. I’m tired of feeling taken for granted by a comics industry that sometimes seems to be actively trying to repulse readers like me. And I truly like and respect the creators I like, and I want them to keep paying their rent and affording their expensive out-of-pocket health insurance. So buying the comics and ignoring the press it is.

It’s made my comics-life — for now — a bit happier. But the morning that I wrote this another piece of comics-news was brought to my attention, namely that Marvel has made a deal with LEGO, and LEGO announced the first licensed mini-figs this morning. Five straight white guys. Five. Straight. White. Guys. This is only the first announcement, of course — I’m certain that LEGO and Marvel have more mini-figs on the way, more diversity, more plans for games and sets and tie-in products that cover more of the Marvel Universe. But the initial roll-out, the initial marketing and press and coverage and excitement, it’s five straight white guys. It’s not for me.

At this point I would take tokenism in comics marketing and be grateful for it.

by Sigrid

Email: sigrid @ fantasticfangirls.org
Twitter: sigridellis

  • Anika

    I agree with everything you say and your decision. I don’t know if I can do it. My issue, since I cannot get to a store more than once a month at best, is that unless you or someone else TELLS me to go get such and such comic I will never know that comic even exists if I don’t pay attention to the marketing/press/fan babble. But the marketing/press/fan babble doesn’t make me very interested and as you say, usually makes me NOT want to pick something up.

    So, at this point I am relying on you for pretty much all my comics interest. Sorry?

  • Sigrid

    This is why I send you Twitter or text messages! :grins:

    But, yes. If I relied on comics-news, I would have stopped reading IRON MAN, and, oh my, goodness, do I ever love Iron Man. Yet, I rely on people who *do* read comics-news to mention things I might like. It’s like, I only have a netbook computer, right? And I don’t need a bigger one — because I live in a house with a home server and three desktops and a Roku and two Xboxes, all belonging to other people. I exist in a computer — and comics — community and infrastructure that allows me to boycott that which I dislike.

    I don’t know what the answer is.

  • Caroline

    This is an interesting discussion. . .

    To me, I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘marketing.’ There was a period where I took all the hype I saw at face value, but that got old fast and wore out my energy. On the other hand, I feel like I’ve been doing at this long enough to know whose opinion is worth listening to, and what creators I’m interested in — so getting their take on what they’re doing, and what they’re liking that other people are doing (to the extent it’s a conversation about substance and not just glad-handing and hype, and I like to feel I can usually tell the difference). And people talking about their own work is also a kind of marketing?

    I understand the problems with the big-hype marketing (it’s similar to film trailers; as we discussed on the GL podcast, Carol Ferris had a significantly bigger & stronger part in the film than you would have thought from the ad campaign.) Though I’m not sure I see quite the disconnect between the marketing and the content of the books as far as representation shows. There were a lot of white dudes in the heroic age banners, but that reflected the fact that the adjectiveless Avengers book they were launching had a lot of white dudes. That there IS a disconnect in marketing I don’t dispute, but I wonder if that has more to do with the way it’s easier to put ‘dude you’ve heard of with a hammer’ on a poster than ‘lots of people you’ve never heard of pull together and respond to a crisis in a way that thoughtfully reflects the impact that real-world disasters can have on the global community.’

    Or. . .let me put it another way.

    What kind of ad campaigns are you suggesting they should run?

  • Sigrid

    @Caroline I am suggesting diversity in ads, if that is possible. I think that the Big Two have a narrow vision of their potential market, and they are aiming very heavily at that narrow vision. I know what they think sells comics, and they must be having some success with that. But if there was some room, somewhere, in the marketing budget, to include ads that accurately represent the comics they make — to include some of the women when they are actually in the books — would make me happy.

    I think you are RIGHT that the marketing reflects the product, hugely. But sometimes it doesn’t, and I am just … I’m tired of being angry about it, especially when the anger was not justified by the comics.

    I might be better served by reading just the INTERVIEWS the creators I like give. But some of the comics-news sites that do the interviews, I find them problematic, so I tend to avoid those, too. And, like I mention to Anika, I have YOU, Carrie, to tell me good stuff I will like!

  • Caroline

    @Sigrid i get that, but I mean, specifically. . .what would have had to be in an ad campaign for Fear Itself or The Heroic Age that would have more accurately reflected the books & appealed to you? I think your idea is really interesting I’m just curious how you’d apply it.

  • Sigrid

    @Caroline I think I would have liked to see more Black Widow, Mockingbird, Carol Danvers, Luke Cage, Moonstone, and Songbird in the ads for Heroic Age. (Those are just the characters in the titles I read, that were part of the Heroic Age movement.) An ad showing Moonstone and Songbird facing off, with some sort of text about who can be a hero again. Black Widow and Sharon Carter taking down some generic Hydra agents. Mockingbird getting the drop on some bad guys. Luke Cage holding Dani while Jess Jones punches a mugger behind them. Carol Danvers holding up a navy jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier as it’s being repaired, while signing autographs with her other hand.

    For Fear Itself I would have liked to see Norah Winters facing down shadowy bad guys while Spider-Man tries to get up in the background. Or Pepper Potts with great reluctance and trembling getting into her Rescue suit. Or Spider-Woman facing down a blacked-out monstrous figure with a hammer.

    I think that, if comics are being marketed to the already-existing market, then it might be nice for a change to be recognized as part of that market. If comics are trying to get NEW readers, then it might be nice to see what little diversity there IS in comics be shown, with the goal of getting a more diverse new-reader audience.

    But I know money is finite, and someone at Marvel and DC has decided that it’s not worth their effort. I am not certain I completely understand how and why, and I can’t judge that. I’m not arguing that market to me is actually in Marvel and DC’s best interest — I have no data — I just *wish* they would, sometimes.

  • Caroline

    LOL, see, I didn’t even know there was a Norah story in Fear Itself?

    These are good examples! Also, the name recognition thing doesn’t even necessarily obtain in the choices they make, since IIRC DC is kind of famous for leaving Wonder Woman out of things DESPITE her being one of their best known characters. But yeah, you’d think Marvel could have used (AT LEAST) Luke Cage & Spider-Woman & Black Widow, since those are characters they’ve theoretically been trying to push.

  • Sigrid

    Norah is in the Spider-Man tie-ins!

    And, yes. Those of us READING the Avengers know who Mockingbird is, and might be excited to see her. Those NOT reading the Avengers might see her and go, “hey, I didn’t know there was an AWESOME female spy in the Avengers! Cool!”

  • Caroline

    To be fair, I don’t pay attention to Spider-Man books anyway so that’s not necessarily down to marketing.

  • Nikki

    Thank you, Sigrid. You have almost hit the nail on the head for me. The part that is missing for me is the trickle down effect this marketing has on the rest of the comics community. There are people on the various social media sites that I like to follow because I enjoy their knowledge & take on storylines. But they have become so vitriolic over changes, such as DCnU, that they are not even willing to give it a chance. Yes, the marketing sucks and yes, some of those covers leave a lot to be desired. But a good comic book is so much more than marketing or covers. My wish is that more people would take your lead.

  • Sigrid

    @Nikki Thanks! I have to say, though …. Anger has its place. Anger is part of how changes occur. Yet I want my anger to be based on the work, not the advertising. I was fairly against the new Steph Batgirl series, because I wanted Cass back. And I LOVE this series now, and am sad to see its end. I want my anger to go in the right direction, that’s why I’m avoiding the comics-press.

  • http://www.girl-wonder.org/supergirl Jess

    This post was painful for me to read, because yeah. That’s how I feel every time I see the way comics are marketed, that’s how impotent and angry and invisible I feel.

    If I were just reading for pleasure, I’d probably follow your lead and just read the comics and not the marketing. But I feel like for the comics activism I do, I have to follow the marketing and the hiring practices and everything else in the industry, even when it makes me feel…well, impotent and angry and invisible. So I’m stuck.

    (Which is not to say “My activism is better than yours” or anything like that! I just feel that I’ve chosen/fallen into a role that has to confront how comics are presented as much as what they contain.)

  • http://38blue.tumblr.com RD

    All of this, yes! I quoted and linked to this post on my tumblr. As I said there, I’m not willing to read the books to see if they’re better than their marketing. That’s not to say that I don’t read anything anymore, regardless of marketing, but I stick to things that are highly recommended by others who have read them, or books that I find in the shop by wandering and picking them up and looking through them.

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  • Marfisa

    The whole Fear Itself ad campaign looked like yet another “all fight scenes, all the time” big event gimmick to me. So I had no intention of picking it up until I heard that the main villain was the Red Skull’s daughter Sin, whose existence I had previously been unaware of. (This actually turned out to be not quite true. Although Sin is the catalyst that kickstarts the whole disaster, after that she becomes more the main villain’s right hand woman.) So I glanced at the Fear Itself prologue issue in the store–the one where Sin goes hunting for her dad’s leftover McGuffin that turns out to be sort of the villainous equivalent of Excalibur–and found both Sin and the storyline interesting enough to buy most of the main Fear Itself issues. (Although since “Fear Itself” and “Fear Itself: The Homefront” are $3.99 each, I usually wait until either Midtown Comics or Jim Hanley’s Universe has a 20 or 25% off sale, which one or the other of them has been doing approximately every three or four weeks so far this summer, before buying them.) So, from my perspective, it would probably also have been helpful if at least one of Marvel’s ads had mentioned or visually identified Sin/the Red Skull’s daughter as being involved in the story, even though she’s not a big name villain–or at least hasn’t been in the past.

  • http://www.heroinecontent.net Skye

    Sigrid, thanks for posting this, because I wouldn’t have had a clue there was anything for me in Fear Itself. And I’m one of those “but I have to know what’s going ONNNNN” people, so you have to work pretty hard to alienate me from big crossover events.