We have a systematic problem in comics. And it’s not “Who Can Pop Comic Artists”, which is the weirdest turn of phrase on the internet in at least, oh, a week.
Let’s recap where the madness began:
Marvel Sticks Its Foot Square Into Its Mouth
I can’t imagine any sillier thing for the leader of a comics company to say than something like this:
“It’s harder to pop artists these days,” [Axel Alonso] said.
OK, I can understand that part. There must be a frustration from the “glory” days of Wizard when one outlet held such mindshare. We’ve gone from Wizard to a million blogs and websites. Can’t herd those cats too easily.
But then he continued and dug way too deep a hole:
“There is no apparatus out there.”
If you have a soundboard handy, please play the sound of a record needle scratching to a stop for me, OK?
“There’s no apparatus out there.”
There’s no apparatus by which a visual artist might engage his fans, build his fanbase, and “pop”?
Quick memo to Marvel’s Digital Marketing Department: Please schedule an appointment with Axel Alonso for tomorrow morning at 9:00 a.m. He’s been Editor In Chief for awhile now. It takes up a lot of his time.
Alonso completely missed Instagram. And Facebook. And Tumblr. And Twitter. And SnapChat. And blogs.
Possibly the entire world wide web since the dawn of Netscape Navigator and the “IMAGE” tag.
But Wizard died a death that wasn’t fiery enough for the fate it deserved, so artists can’t pop anymore. (Honest question: Did anyone take those Top 10 lists seriously in the last five years of Wizard’s life? It was a retread of the same old list, punctuated by whoever they had an interview with recently and which company was buying the most ads…)
In any case, I hope the Digital Marketing Department can help. Unless they’re too busy shooting videos with movie stars to remember that they make comics, too…
Let’s Check Marvel.com
Wait, maybe that’s not fair. Let’s check the top stories on the Marvel.com website. Surely, there’s an artist they’re promoting to help him or her pop:
Movie, movie, movie. This song sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
It gets slightly better:
This is an ad for their podcast. That’s a good start. It’s a two hour show. The fist hour discusses the comics of the day,with their talent relations manager, a marketer, and an intern. The second hour focuses on the animated Guardians of the Galaxy. So, fifty/fifty.
Still, I can name a half dozen podcasts off the top of my head that will offer you interviews with artists on a regular basis.
Don’t expect artist credits on this video listicle.
The only thing Marvel really owns is its characters, so it makes sense to promote those.
They learned the hard way 25 years ago that they can’t keep artists, after all…
The Reality of Today’s IP Comics
Publishers can only promote what they think they can profit from. Their profit center is their intellectual property. It’s all they own.
Why would Marvel want to “pop” an artist? It would only succeed in making him or her popular enough to leave Marvel and creative something they own and make all the money from.
Marvel has no desire to create big name artists. It’s counter-productive to their continued success.
They can deal with writers, to a certain degree. Writers can write four scripts a month, so they’re not exclusive to Marvel. They can always be at Marvel even when doing work somewhere else. If the writer gets ridiculously popular from their Marvel work, they don’t have to give it up to pursue their own thing. It’s additive.
DC tried a few years back to start promoting its editors as the rising stars of the company, but it didn’t go very far. Editors, though, are employees of Marvel and DC, so it would make sense to do everything the publishers can to keep them happy and make some hay out of them.
Writers/artists/letterers/colorists? Freelancers, all. Feh.
Marvel/DC Don’t Hold All the Cards
We’re in the freelance economy with a wide open market. The rules are different. Creators aren’t employees of Marvel, excepting those who are under an exclusive contract and get all the benefits of being a full time employee for a year or two.
We’re in a world where Marvel and DC aren’t the be all/end all. Creators come and go, and not just between Marvel and DC, but also out to Dark Horse and Boom! and the rest.
They can go to Image and launch their own book and own everything and do what they want.
They can borrow the Marvel/DC spotlight for a little while to boost their visibility, then run somewhere where they’ll be better appreciated.
Somewhere, perhaps, where they might “pop.”
The Comics Creator as Brand
It used to be that the worst part of business for an artist was negotiating contracts, or not negotiating them at all because they just took whatever was offered because they didn’t know any better.
Every creative in the modern world will tell you today that the business end of things lays in creating a brand out of yourself. Give your fans something to flock to. Create something the fans can know, like, and trust.
Use social media to attract new fans and delight your current ones. Have a mailing list to connect more directly to your most fervent fans.
Have something to offer them. Ask for the sale. Post three times as much cool stuff as you do commercial offers.
Be consistent with your messages, with your style, with your art, with everything you offer.
Also, don’t hide behind the art. People like people. They respond to people. As much as you may hate it, you’re the star behind the art. Give your fans something to relate to. Show them you’re a “normal” person like them, and a fan of others as much as they’re a fan of you.
Share. Give until it hurts. Do that and you’ll be surprised how receptive your fans will be when you pitch something at them. (See Peter David.)
The One Shining Example in the Comics Industry
Do you need an example to live up to on this? There’s only one creator I can think of today who’s doing this right.
He draws pretty girls. People like that stuff. They (men and women, both) flock to him for it. So he specializes in it.
He chases down his animation origins and winds up drawing prints for Disney. He’s got a huge fanbase in the animation world, not just in comics. He draws video game magazine covers and gets fans from there.
He reaches out to the worlds outside of just the Wednesday Warrior crowd and pulls in new fans.
Then he offers exclusive covers for sale. He upsells with sketches and multiple covers in a set. A new release is an event to be teased and announced with great flourish.
He generates his own sketchbooks for sale, and collections of his published art.
Next, he promotes them across all his social media — Instagram, Instagram Stories, Twitter, Facebook, and maybe more. He has a mailing list that gets first notice of newly available merchandise.
To top it all off, he’s created a logo out of his signature. It all ties together.
(Others who have distinctive signatures that serve as brands: Walter Simonson, Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld.)
This branding allows Campbell a certain freedom to do what he wants to do and still make a living from it. He doesn’t have to spend his time drawing back breaking interiors anymore.
Everything feeds into everything else: He draws covers for Marvel. Then he sells books filled with images of those covers, and intermediate steps along the way to the finished covers. He can take small parts of those covers in progress and post them to social media. I’m not sure if he sells his original art, but that would be a huge chunk of change there, too.
The J. Scott Campbell brand is strong, and it’s making him a living, even when he hasn’t drawn a comic book in more than a decade.
You can hear a little more about it in his interview on the Bancroft Bros. Animation Podcast.
How to Do This
Go read every book Gary Vaynerchuk has written. Memorize them. Make them your playbook.
The lessons of digital marketing are starting to show up in the comics world now. Once you’ve followed the Pat Flynns and the John Lee Dumases and the Amy Porterfields and the Michael O’Neals of the world, you see their imprint everywhere.
Lessons I’ve learned from some of those people have even made an impact on this website. It’s not as blatantly obvious as it should be, mostly because I’m a bad student. But it’s there.
Also: as Portland is the hub of comics creators these days, so San Diego is the hub of digital marketers. They just had their big annual social media conference down there at the same convention center as Comic-Con. It’s weird seeing pictures of the convention center without cosplayers roaming around…
There’s more to the world of making a living in comics today than just making comics. It’s a new world, filled with new lessons to learn.
Sometimes, I wonder if Marvel and DC recognize that. And now we hear stories that publishers are keeping their creatives quiet on social media, which is — well, we don’t know all the detail of it, but it could be the single dumbest move made by any media publisher who would do such a thing. If they’re doing it. Marvel has denied it. Maybe this all a Hollywood thing, but — well, comics at the level of Marvel and DC are a Hollywood thing.
In any case, I hope comic creators realize what their jobs are in this day and age. It’s more than just sitting behind the desk and drawing all day. You need to do more to keep your profile high, and your work in demand. Some are doing it without realizing it. Precious few are doing it at all. You can’t expect your publisher to do it for you.
Are Artists Undervalued?
There’s another argument to be made about the devaluation of the artist in comics, in general. That’s a more systematic issue than I think we have time or space to cover here.
The world of comics has changed significantly in the last twenty years, but nothing about the system publishing comics has changed.
That’s caused some friction that will only resolve itself with some radical changes.
And we all know how much the comics industry loves to change…
Maybe I’ll tackle that in the future. It’s a big one.