In an age of social media reactions and trolls, nitpicking fan persons and historians one thing is clear – people have beefs with the big two, Marvel and DC. With reboots, crossovers, mis-characterizations, dark tones, bad art and a first person shooter perspective, the internet has become a buzzing hive of quick jabs to downright nasty attacks on both WB/DC and Disney/Marvel. Corporate comics (and the superheroes therein) are here to stay and the changes (pick one) have not always sat well with the fanbase – especially the purists.
However, the explosion of the geek culture in popularity and its growth, plus the fact so many care and that so many complain is proof that DC and Marvel are doing things the right way. If it didn’t matter…if there was silence…then no blockbuster film could pull them out of the grave.
So what exactly, amidst all what is clearly dereliction of direction in content to fans (no matter which particulars) are the big two doing that keeps them in the public eye and growing exponentially like never before into the popular culture? To wit, what makes this thang – a thang?
So let’s get this monkey smoking…
1. Brand Recognition/Marketing
If there is one thing the House of Mouse knows it is brand recognition and
marketing. Just try to name an object that hasn’t had a form with Mickey Mouse printed on it. Disney has taken Marvel (after the success of the first couple films) under its media blitz wing. At every turn there is an image of Captain America or Iron Man – on donut boxes, in donut shops, on soda, on crackers, on fruit snacks and candy. High end collectibles from Star Wars to Avengers are available like never before. With so much going on in comics and the wait between films the merchandizing department has picked up some of the slack. It is interesting to note a majority of this marketing is from the cinematic universe with classic versions splattered here and there on clothes and
WB/DC is no slouch either as towels, toys, clothes, key chains and the like all display DC heroes and villains. While not nearly as big of a machine as Disney, Warner Brothers has flooded the market to its fullest potential and set the stage for the debut of its expanded cinematic universe when Dawn of Justice is released. However most of their merchandising campaign is based on the classic versions of these characters which is smart because it allows fans alienated by the New 52 and Man of Steel to still spend their money on merchandise while keeping icons like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman in the public eye. DC has also exceled in marketing to the geek culture directly using toy companies and game companies to release limited editions and collectible one-of–a-kinds.
Why it’s good: High profile is what every fan wanted in the beginning. No matter if you just read your first comic or whether you have been reading them all your life it is obvious that the key to the survival of comics and our beloved characters is demand. High profile usually always equals demand (as does incessant internet wars). When superheroes are in demand there is always hope you will get one or more of them done the way you want, plus be pleasantly surprised from time to time along the way. Whether movies, comics, TV or book the fact WB and Disney have embarked in such mass marketing (and we haven’t even seen the Star Wars blitz yet) means that they believe in the properties and that in an age of 5 minute attention spans comic book superheroes are here for at least a while longer.
2. New Audience Appeal
It used to be that in order to grow a property you had to continually add new fans to the numbers already existing. However in recent years video game and TV have led the way in a new kind of audience building technique. This technique has been implemented in the open since 2011. Yep when DC’s reboot took place. Both marvel and DC are using now with great success.
The technique or strategy is one of regenerating new audiences at different intervals, allowing for ebb and flow and allowing readers, movie-goers and show watchers to leave and return at will. Basically recycling audiences and every time a few more come to stay.
Let me explain. Think of games like Halo that have die-hard followings but whose numbers in recent years have dwindled. This was of no concern to Bungie or Microsoft I am sure because they knew that Destiny and the upcoming for fall of 2015 Halo 5: Guardians would not only bring in previous players and of Halo and sell more units of the previous versions as well, but those who had never played would join too. What they figured out was that it was OK to give people a break from the product to create demand. And when there is demand people want to be in on it so audiences grow overall while ebbing and flowing in the moment.
Why it’s good:
With all the reboots (Marvel’s next year and whatever Convergence actually does) the big two have decided to start everything over at intervals to recycle their audience like games. With #1 issues, short runs on series and announcements every day of “world shaking proportions” people are coming in droves, leaving when the next thing comes along and coming back when it is new or hot again. Well played big two. And while weekly comics would seem to refute this logic think of those who don’t read comics because a month is too long to wait. Those people will come and go as they please from storyline to storyline as they choose and now they do not have to wait. 3. Not Listening to “Purist” and “Get Off My Lawn” Fans
For decades the Kryptonite of hardcore old timey comic fans (I include
myself here) was that we clung to continuity for dear life. It kept us from major movies and TV shows, kept new readers away and created hundreds of debates now invalid by retcons.
However we clung to our poisonous green rock with zeal and withsnarling defensiveness every time it was broken. Eventually it was broken too much and had to be erased. Over and over…and the culture grew stagnant and stayed small. Our intentions were good (standing on the shoulder of giants and legends is serious business) but in the end it was this need for utter sameness that repressed us to dirt malls, basement rat trap comic shops and conventions of 1,250 people in some cities.
Again we screamed at the dark characterizations of icons of light (I am among them, I know) saying no one wanted these versions. Again we were proven wrong as sales for films like the Dark Knight trilogy, Watchmen, and Man of Steel rose and the worlds of comics became grim and nearly post-apocalyptic. Doing as they have always done comics continued to reflect society as both mirror and harbinger.
As we did this we hurled insults and incredulous accusations at the two companies (some well-deserved ha ha *shakes fist) and they did what was right instead. You see what fans forget sometimes is that from the beginning of both companies it was business revenue (through subscription) and publishing that drove the industry, followed by storytelling and craft and lastly by artistic value – of which it was rarely acknowledged back then. My point is, they didn’t listen to the fans in the 30’s, nor the 40’s, nor the Silver Age nor the Bronze Age except in letters pages they hand selected and gave to the readers.
This practice of not listening to fans but to the cash register is HOW we got all these fantastic classic tales we love. It is unrealistic and unfair to criticize these companies for not hearing the reader when for decades we let them tell US what we liked.
Why it’s good:
If you think the stories and events in comics are hard to follow, convoluted and a mess now, imagine if the editors and owners changed direction every time outrage reached fever pitch. While there is much that fans have every right to complain about the fact is that money is the best indicator of success to two companies who know business as well as any. Marvel and DC have done what any successful company would do, take control of their own reigns and drive their own caped horse. This has led to the new age of pop culture where geek is chic and superheroes are king.
4. Embracing Other Mediums, Other Mediums Embracing Back
In years past due to technical limitations in film and TV, bad planning and storytelling in gaming and the general attitude of large media to comics in general superheroes have been reduced to bumbling teachers in alien suits and largely non-existent up until Blade made its debut spawning a small explosion of films that led to the current boom like X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman Begins.
Marvel sold their souls and the rights to their properties and may have lost them forever out of house to Fox and Sony but the movies (despite not always being very good films) did well at the box office and awakened a culture for Iron Man. By the time Thor hit theatres film studios for the first time had a new attitude about superheroes pics. First the comic companies gave up their bright shiny costumes, dialogue and spandex, and then the studios gave up the cash.
All the while DC invested in Vertigo and Non-Superhero properties like 300, A History of Violence, From Hell and V for Vendetta, (along with other companies jumping in from the Crow to Hellboy) waiting to see where Marvel’s superhero movies would go, and the culture’s reaction to the genre in general. DC also jumped into TV with Smallville and Birds of Prey. One a hit, the other not so much. But they established a tone and a relationship with a new audience and started their own superhero films by continuing with the dark Knight trilogy, Green Lantern and Jonah Hex with Man of Steel being released in 2013 where geek culture and superhero enthusiasm had struck fever pitch. There seems no end in sight.
These basic approaches spawned a massive branching out by both
companies into other mediums with DC leading the way in sheer diversity. With four Game of the Year editions (Arkham Asylum Series and Injustice) DC has mastered what superhero fans want in video games with stories that are far more entertaining and complex than their comic counterparts often are. Marvel has joined the Disney Infinity sandbox and collectible Marvel heroes and characters go a long way to increasing appeal of the Infinity universe. Marvel Heroes and DCU Online are booming with members and widely regarded as good games. Marvel is still waiting for its breakout hit like Marvel Alliance did for the company way back when.
DC has more TV shows in development by far (not to mention airing) but Marvel has stepped up its game too. TV audiences are often very different than comic and even movie audiences and the long running story concept is proving to be perfect for seasonal episodic TV as all shows about Marvel and DC characters are killing it in the ratings.
Why it’s good:
While overload and burnout are always concerns exposure and variation are the best tools for keeping superheroes alive in this new age. With more variations there is more chance for appeal. If given a hundred versions of Superman even the stodgiest of fans can find at least on version they like. Choice opens up the potential for a legendary run or a new definition of a character that completes the original intent. The variation so inherent in comics is a perfect fit for multiple mediums and is a sort of built-in self-defense mechanism against over saturation because there are so many stories to draw from and so many characters to play them. 5. Embracing Geek Culture
There was a time that while both companies were proud of their product they were not always thrilled with the fans comics created. At least not at the business and marketing level. Time and time again through the 70s, 80’s and 90’s attempts were made to made the fanbase (Dazzler anyone?) hipper and more mainstream. Garnering the same regard as stamp collectors and geologists on the cool scale by the general populous was bad for companies who marketed larger than life stories by handsome, popular and social characters seemed in-congruent for so long to the sensitive, thoughtful introspective fans who had migrated from all over nerdom when the golden age of sci-fi ended in the mid-70s.
Fans themselves often retell stories of exclusion and ridicule from not only other facets of society but from the publishers themselves after writing them or sending submissions.
All of that has changed. With popular TV shows outside of the family tents like Big Bang Theory geek is chic and Marvel and DC are largely responsible for this.
It really started to change in 2001 in this reporter’s eyes when DC and Marvel started pouring vast resources into comic-cons and geek events all over the country like never before. Wizard World was in its heyday and new cons sprung up all over the country, little by little (except you Denver, Montreal and Salt Lake you just sprung up HUGE). Exclusives, big name talent properly promoted and sneak peeks brought fans in and they brought their friends. When Cosplay started its resurgence further sealing the popularity of the open geek culture the TV crews and the News came too. Why it’s good:
To this day the Big Two are letting their geek flags fly. Even DC has a
superhero on TV in a bright red suit. This embracing of the culture facilitates inclusion (some would say too much but not me) and it creates a sense of unity rarely felt over other topics or in other sub-cultures. It enriches the trust needed to connect with other fans and eliminate the animosity while preserving our different opinions of our heroes.
So while I still despise David Goyer’s Superman… I like his Constantine. Remember the big two are doing some things right.
Tell the monkey to crush his butt…