On Trolls, Children
The word "troll" was entirely redefined in the 1990s. Resurrected from the obscurity of fairy tales and role-playing games, the troll came to new life on the Internet. Classically, trolls were misshapen monsters who were generally disagreeable and up to no good, who hid in crevices and emerged only to torment. That's why it was the perfect term to reinvent when similar critters appeared online.
On messageboards, in chat rooms, in newsgroups, perfectly normal and happy users would be in the middle of a calm and reasoned conversation when up would pop this nasty creature cursing like a sailor, hurling insults, spouting crazy theories and slinging lies. Impossible to drive away without calling a moderator to get them banned, they would feed off the angry replies and admonitions to behave like a responsible citizen of the online universe. They'd even post under other names pretending to give support to their initial persona. Such lousy examples of humanity, clearly driven by raging ego and antisocial tendencies, were thus dubbed "trolls."
I mention all of this, for those few who didn't know the modern definition, because it's essential to understand the revelation I recently had, which inspired my thesis for this month:
Marvel Comics is now run by a troll!
Joe Quesada, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, appears to be on a one-man mission to restore America's pre-September 11 view of New Yorkers as foul-mouthed, rude and self-absorbed. Nary a week goes by that he isn't making an obnoxious media appearance or posting an insulting announcement on the Newsarama message board.
It may be true that there is no such thing as bad publicity. His antics have definitely had an effect on me. Until now, I haven't been a Marvel reader, but I've always wanted ALL comic book companies to prosper because it means a healthy industry. Now I say, DEATH to MARVEL!
(What can I say...I read comic books, and I don't believe in letting an evil man win.)
I want DC Comics and CrossGen and Dark Horse...and even Image (Why not? The Flash will team up with Mirror Master to defeat a worse foe, right?) to commit to kicking Marvel's butt, if I may be permitted to stoop for only a moment to Quesada's level. The sad thing is, even if they succeed, Quesada will take credit for having inspired the competition.
How to Defeat an Evil Geniu-, well, Jerk
The key to whupping a supervillain is to find his fatal flaw. Often, this takes cunning and strategy on the part of the hero. But sometimes, a really bad supervillain will circle a big lever with white paint and scrawl, "Don't pull this or it will make my laser blow up."
Joe Quesada did the equivalent of this in a recent interview with the New York Observer. Note: The article is not fit for children...or anybody else, really. It is quite revealing that, in the midst of all the Spider-Man hype drawing kids' attention to Marvel comics, the bright idea of the editor-in-chief of Marvel is to give an expletive-filled interview detailing his derision of kids as a potential audience for comic books (in between describing his smutty scene from "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" and relating how he flunked at two art schools because he wanted to devote time to being in a band...what an inspirational figure this guy is).
Joe reveals his fatal flaw in this statement.
"I think the 8-year-old comic reader is a myth," he said. "It's not a concern to me. A year ago, when I took that job, that's what I was concerned with. I heard comic-store owners saying 'Where are my 8-year-old readers?' You know what? I don't think they were ever really out there."
Now, I have to concede that Quesada is almost on the verge of being right about something. Obviously, he isn't right; if Joe Quesada were right about something, the Earth would tilt on its axis, blood would be dripping from Kathy Ireland posters and our cats would start talking in English with the voice of Vincent Price. "Unlikely" may have been a shorter phrase I could have used.
True, there has never been a time when 8-year-olds sought out comic book specialty shops to purchase their comics. Until the late 1980s, it was not necessary. Comics were in gas stations, drug stores and grocery stores, on general magazine stands and in bookstore magazine racks. Comics were in all the normal places kids would be taken by their parents and they were cheap enough that parents would buy them to keep the kids quiet.
Then, seemingly overnight, the comic industry switched over to a distribution system where comics were more expensive, not really disposable and only available in dank little rooms (often filled with greasy fat guys) which were called "comic shops." Instead of being available on every corner of Main Street USA, the number of vendors in a city could be as low as zero. (I lived in Wisconsin, where there was one vendor every few hundred miles.) This shift was made somewhat passively, without any real thought given to where new readers would come from.
Kids didn't desert comic books. Comic books deserted kids.
One can almost forgive Quesada's confusion in thinking that the number of small children in comic shops is an indicator of whether there is a young audience for comics. As the article makes clear, he didn't really get into comic books until 1986 when he was 24 years old and comic shops were taking off. Thus, adult fans in comic shops is all he has known, and it's clear that Quesada's ego defines his universe. The only way for him to assume otherwise would be to listen to the opinions of another person or think for thirty seconds...and the odds of that happening are, well, blood from Kathy Ireland posters cats speaking like Vincent Price yada yada yada.
So...in Quesada's view, 8-year-olds don't enjoy comic books.
Of course, the article does say that he read "Amazing Spider-Man" issues #96-98, which were published in 1971. And we're also told that he is now 40 in 2002, which would make him just about 9 years old at the time. Possibly 8, possibly 10. The Observer does not say whether he read any other comic books at the time, or whether his sole exposure to comic books was three issues of Spider-Man.
Let's pretend that those three issues didn't make any impression on him, just for the sake of argument. Let's say Joe Quesada didn't read any comic books until he was 24. It's not that relevant. The relevant thing is that the e-i-c of Marvel Comics assumes that his path to comicdom is the norm, so Marvel must follow. Thus an entire wing of the comics industry must be tailored to fit his worldview.
Now, I could be like Joe Quesada and just use my own life story as The Truth For The Ages By Which All Things Shall Be Judged. Me, I was reading my uncle's old comic books by the time I was seven. I finally started collecting when I was twelve (not that my interest changed, but let's just say the nation's economy had recovered enough by 1982 to the point that I was allowed to spend 50 cents on things I wanted). I could assume this is the way it is for the vast majority of the comics readership just because that's the way it was for me.
I'd be right, mind you, but I shouldn't assume that based on only my personal history. Instead, I base it on the results of conversations with comic fans online and in person. I'd estimate well over 75% of fans I've met started when they were little kids or pre-teens, with a smaller segment starting their comic reading in high school. I've always known that there must have been some fans who had absolutely never read a comic book until they were fully-grown adults, when a fellow traveler thrust "Watchmen" or "Dark Knight Returns" into their hands. But Quesada's the first proof I've ever encountered that such an entity even exists. Yet he thinks he's the norm!
Fair enough. Even though my view is backed up by every comic fan I know, it's still anecdotal. It could be I'm wrong because all the people I've encountered are only a small fraction of the total audience, skewed towards the polite segment of the comic crowd. Perhaps, if I were hanging with Joe Quesada's buddies, I'd find that they all started reading comics as adults. Assuming I could find his buddies at all, what with all the thick clouds of reefer smoke. I suppose I'd just close my eyes and head for where the swearing is loudest.
I might be right. He might be right. We may never know. As Chuck Dixon has mentioned during at least one Wizard World conversation, the comic industry is about the only industry that doesn't do any market research.
What About That Title?
Ah yes. I should probably get to the whole purpose of my new "If I Ran DC" column. What does all this Quesada-kicking have to do with the point of the column, right? I may have belabored my point about what a bonehead this guy is. I can't help it. I have great disdain for no-account bumpkins who hold a high position despite being power-mad, incompetent egotists. I really thought I wouldn't feel this way about anyone again after January 2001. Now that same old feeling is back.
I needed to drive home the phenomenal inaccuracy of Joe Quesada's delusions. As I said, comics have deserted kids...and Marvel under Quesada is not going to make any effort to get them back.
DC should. Winning back the kids is essential to keeping the industry alive anyway, which is why so many of us have been clamoring for it. Now, if DC acts to bring in kids in a big way, they'll have the huge added bonus of totally dominating the attention of the future audience because Marvel will be nowhere to be seen!
I'd like to tell you a personal story
On May 15th, my boss Terry came over to my house to help me do some electrical wiring. He brought his son Ian who is seven years old. Ian saw a long box of DC comics in my home office and said, "Wow, you've got a lot of comics!" So I showed him the basement room where its 20 cousins were stacked, with two huge piles of unbagged comics as well.
Big mistake, of course. He started grabbing. I yanked a "Birds of Prey" out of his hands before he could carry it around by the top cover. Since I wanted to give him something he could wreck, I found a "Supergirl" that I'd bought just for the Joker: Last Laugh story arc and never read. I told him to keep it and ushered him out of the hobby room, explaining that the others were valuable. (Well, I suppose last month's Birds of Prey isn't that valuable, but you understand.) I plopped him down on the couch with the Supergirl comic and put a DVD in the player ("Underdog", which he'd never seen before...I can't tell you how sad that is) while the menfolk went back to jabbing wires into the plaster.
Today, June 7th, his dad told me that he is still carrying that comic book around wherever they go. It's the only comic he owns. "Cripes, he likes comic books, but we never see them anywhere," Terry says, and I realize it's true. Rochester MN only has two comic sources, one of which is the local music store with leftist bumper stickers and drug paraphernalia, and the other is a rather inaccessible used book and comic shop. The only general purpose store that carries comics (other than Archie digests in the checkout line) is Fleet Farm, which has a small metal rack on the end of a shelf.
Kids Still Love Comics
The above is just an anecdote, but I know that it's true because kids are kids, and believe it or not they haven't changed in 20, 30 or 40 years.
The New York Observer article repeats the same tired garbage about how kids aren't interested in comic books because they're into WWF wrestling, video games and Harry Potter. Now it's Harry Potter. Three years ago, it was wrestling, video games and Pokemon. Before Pokemon, there was something else.
These are just excuses. As I wrote three years ago in "How To Save The Comic Book Industry", there is just no way that these things are the problem. When I was growing up, we had video games. The Atari 2600 was just as hot as a Gamecube, and about as expensive in today's dollars. PLUS we had arcade madness, with Pac-Man sucking quarters out of our pockets even faster than he ate power pellets. And wrestling was just as hot in the 1980s. And we had our fads, too, our Cabbage Patch Kids that were the precursor to Pokemon and Beanie Babies.
And what happened in the 1980s, with video arcades, Atari 2600s, Atari 5200s, Intellivision, Commodore 64s, Colecovision and the first Nintendo systems? The comic book renaissance, that's what happened! We had Watchmen, Dark Knight, Maus and Crisis on Infinite Earths. But on top of that, we had great comics like New Teen Titans, All-Star Squadron, Suicide Squad, Man of Steel...and I've heard that a little old title called X-Men didn't do all that badly. Somehow kids managed to find the 75 cents for each one, despite having to buy tons of game cartridges for each system we bought.
Folks, the toys change, but the kids are the same. Please, let's bury the canard for once and for all that today's kids just aren't interested. There isn't one iota of evidence that kids are awash in comic books and have turned up their noses at them.
Indeed, "Free Comic Book Day" generated many threads on message boards about how parents brought their kids in and the kids were hopping to get the free comics. This isn't exactly spinach and broccoli to them!
But it was still necessary for parents to go out of the way to comic shops to get the comics for their kids, and that is really the problem.
I've heard many reasons for the change in comics from cheap newsprint
media sold everywhere to ridiculously priced shiny collectibles available
only at comic retailers.
All of those and more might be true. None of them have anything to do with what the next crop of kids wanted.
Forget all this "early 90s collectible market whose bubble burst" stuff. If that were truly the problem, then the numbers would have merely fallen back to the respectable level they were at before the advent of multiple foil-stamped variant die-cut covers in bags that you were never supposed to open. Instead, they've plummeted much further.
Today's slump in comic buying is because of the neglect of kids, plain and simple. If kids had been buying comics in the late 80s and early 90s, they'd be the teenage/twentysomethings that the market needs right now.
What I'd Do
Here is how I'd do this if I ran DC.
First off, kid-accessible comics must be everywhere that magazines are sold. Period. That is what's needed. It doesn't do a damn bit of good to publish Cartoon Network tie-ins and Timm/Dini -style animated books if you're going to just put them in comic book stores and wonder why the kids aren't showing up for them.
Now, it may be that the entire format will need to be rethought. The $2.50 for 22 pages format is probably not workable for general stores. You can't sell that easily to parents, for one thing; parents still remember when they were 50 cents (and may claim to remember them when they were a quarter). And all these stacks of thin little individual titles are messy to display, especially when kids go pawing through them.
Option #1 is to bring back the digest. Perhaps not as small as the old "Blue Ribbon Digests" that DC once ran, for the simple reason that I don't think modern comics lettering would be as readable when shrunk for reprinting as a digest. A slightly larger size could work. But whatever, at least experiment with the concept! And get the darn things in the checkout line next to Archie, no matter who you have to bribe or how much you have to pay to have custom-sized display racks.
Option #2 is to publish comics in a more magazine-like format. Perhaps a mix of current and old reprint comics. One big "DC MONTHLY MAGAZINE" could then be sold and distributed as a magazine, and there would be no other titles behind it requiring the kids to dig and re-sort.
I could write thousands of words more about how to go about distributing and repackaging comics to work in general merchandise stores, but that would be rather dry. Besides, for all I know DC might hire me as a consultant (paste in the Vincent Price thing about the odds of it happening) and it would be dumb on my part to do an entire marketing proposal for free. All that really needs to be said about it is that it surely must be possible. I just don't think that it's anything that DC and the other companies are pursuing, and they should.
How To Sell To Kids
Until the 1980s, all of DC's titles were accessible to kids. That doesn't mean that they were aimed only at kids, but that the comics didn't contain any offensive language or sexual situations, and the vocabulary wasn't too difficult. Today, mainstream superhero comics don't often meet this standard. A few do, but not consistently, and more importantly there is no way to know whether a book does or doesn't. DC still abides by the Comics Code Authority, but not all of their books carry the CCA label. And the Code has changed over the years; it used to signify a comic comparable to a G or light-PG movie, but today books with CCA labels can be anything up to a PG-13 in content.
I realize one hundred paranoid comic fans just fired up their e-mail, so let me say that this is not a demand to tighten up the Comics Code or even say that DC should only do kid-acceptable books. There are great books that just aren't right for little kids and shouldn't be...like "Green Arrow," "Starman" or "Hitman," to name three.
But DC should do something to mark off the obvious divisions. An alteration to the bullet corner of the comic which marks it in a straightforward way. Something to tell kids, parents, shop owners and distributors that these books are fine for kids and those are better for teenagers.
What To Sell To Kids
Now, this is key: too many people assume that when a person says "okay for kids", they mean "squeaky clean, inoffensive material without any ideas or appeal to anyone over ten." Well, it can mean that, certainly, but as I said in the previous section, all of DC's books used to be just fine for kids while not talking down to them.
Have you ever seen "My Cousin Vinny" with Marisa Tomei, Fred Gwynn, Joe Pesci and Ralph Macchio? It's a terrific PG movie that the whole family can enjoy...except that the F-word is in it about a half-dozen totally unnecessary times, so it's actually an R. If you watch it on TV, they edit out the effenheimers and you don't even notice. They weren't essential to the movie.
Making comic books for kids doesn't mean that it has to be all "Justice League Adventures" cartoony and simplified. A kid-accessible book can also be something like Geoff Johns' current run on "The Flash" with only the added condition of watching for swear words and keeping a critical eye on scenes like Grodd's bloody rampage.
If I Ran DC's Kid-Friendly Comics Line...
All right. If I were in charge of putting together a whole line of child-accessible DC books, here's what I'd do. Let's assume that these are all getting marked as a separate line of books with a green background for the DC bullet and some imprint logo.
The Cartoon Network and "...Adventures" titles are fine as they are, but I'd group them under this new separate line. To that I'd add the following.
"Superman: Man of Steel" and one of the lousier Bat-books would be canceled so that this kids line could include a Superman book and a Batman book. These would be written as normal comic books but with tighter editorial guidelines regarding the content and vocabulary. There would be ten-page backup stories, too, featuring short tales of the hero or someone from their extended family of characters (Supergirl, Robin, Nightwing, Jimmy Olsen, Oracle, etc). One real advantage of telling stories to kids is that you can pull off a ten-page story and they don't whine because you didn't have a subplot or a lot of character development.
The best part of these Superman and Batman books in this line is that they couldn't crossover into the rest of the Bat-books. Thus, they'd be largely self-contained. Allow me to place a bet right now that these books would be phenomenally successful because all of the teen and adult fans of these characters could start reading Superman and Batman without finding themselves committed to a meandering plotline or ongoing soap opera.
"DC Comics Presents" would be revived as a sort of anthology/team-up title, which would be a way to tell stories with the vast majority of DC heroes who won't be able to have their own DC Kids book (and even those who can't hold down their own regular title). Every month would be a team-up story featuring Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman teamed with one or more other heroes. This book would also feature a ten-page backup story.
"The Metal Men" would get their own title. They are the perfect superteam for kids, as they can have silly and outlandish Silver Agey adventures and it seems sensible. The real selling point of this is that (SHHHHH!) it's educational. Any parent would love to see their kid reading a book where a specific metal robot is selected to fight a fire creature because of his high melting point.
"Funny Stuff" would be another sort of anthology title with an anchor character(s) and rotating backups or second stories. I'd nominate "The Zoo Crew", our featured characters this month, as the core of the book. As back-ups, DC could pick from their vast history of humor titles: 'Mazing Man, The Heckler, Vext, Inferior Five, Angel and the Ape, Stanley and his Monster, Ambush Bug and more.
Similarly, "Adventure Comics" could be brought back. (See how many terrific titles DC has just lying around unused?) This could be a mix of action heroes like Adam Strange, Challengers of the Unknown, Cave Carson, Codename: Gravedigger, Rip Hunter: Time Master, Space Cabbie, Star Hawkins and dozens of other heroes who just don't "work" in the current DCU because their adventures are too "silly". All attempts to make these guys "serious" and integrate them into the world of Batman and Superman have been miserable.
Remember that horrible Cave Carson story in Secret Origins where the guys are drunk driving around subterranean caves in their big digging car? Horrible. What about Adam Strange as a cheating slob? Awful. And can anyone really argue that the Metal Men function better as angst-ridden humans trapped forever in robotic shells? Give me that goofy old team that fought robot spiders.
I haven't really addressed the issue of whether these would be "in continuity" or not. I suppose they would be. But, if they weren't, it would open up a world of possibilities. Imagine being able to hit the reset switch on some characters and return them to their great, original premises...or better yet, divorce them from the interconnected DC Universe. Imagine "The Challengers of the Unknown" back in purple jumpsuits operating out of a mountain again. Imagine comic books where the main character is the only one who can fight off an alien invasion without having to answer why Superman and hundreds of other superheroes aren't also there to stop the aliens.
This could be fun!
Oh, sorry, I forgot...comics aren't supposed to be fun.
Anyway, that's what I'd do if I were running DC. Obviously, that's not going to happen. But then, it seems any idiot can run a major comic book company these days.
is Editor-In-Chief of Fanzing.com. He is the world's biggest Elongated Man fan
and runs the only EM fan site.
He lives in Rochester, MN.
All characters are DC Comics
This piece is © 2002 by Michael Hutchison.
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