Tucker Stone has a column up on Comixology about marketing and managing the Bat-brand. It feels a bit like a continuation of our back and forth about Bob Haney’s Batman, so I thought I’d continue the continuing continuation. Or something like that.
Anyway, Tucker says in part:
Now, if The Shield had operated the way the Batman comics do—what would have happened to it? Say that Shawn Ryan only decided to write specific episodes of each season that had to do with his overall idea of a long-ranging “important” story, he’d only vaguely described it to the other writers, and they’d decided to just insert various one-shot stories that didn’t match up to the ones surrounding them—characters had sex and then never mentioned it, dead people showed up alive and well with no explanation (just an assumption that the viewer would “figure it out”) and each and every episode was directed by directors of varying talent and wildly divergent style, like Yasujiro Ozu for three episodes and Michael Bay for a couple of bookends…..
It seems to me that you can’t get to that point where you can create great art while operating in a controlled environment until you quit pretending that you’re in the same business that companies like Picturebox or Image Comics are in—super-hero comics, the ones the big two publish, aren’t what people crave when they go looking for art. You stop hiring big name writers and telling them they’re free to do whatever they want, and you instead figure out how you get to the point where you’ve got the people who go into the comic shop every week buying every new issue that has their favorite character in it. It might be fun to cater to the 40,000 of us who want to keep up with Grant Morrison or Paul Dini. But you’d be better off figuring out how you cater to the millions who just like Batman.
Basically, Tucker’s arguing that, if Batman comics are going to be either good or successful, you need to treat them as corporate product, rather than the genius effulgence of individual auteurs. Individual auteurs can do interesting stuff occasionally…but the relentless demands for more product, and the exigencies of a corporate character, mean that all-auteur-all-the-time is going to inevitably involve a lot of auteurs who don’t know their auteurish asses from a whole in the ground, and so you’ll get a lot of dreck. As an added problem, the inconsistency in the vision makes the stupdendously popular property unmarketable to everyone but a small group of cultish fanatics.
There’s definitely something to this. My son has been watching the Batman animated series with some eagerness…as for that matter has my wife. I’ve watched a few of the episodes too, and they do seem to be pretty much exactly what a Batman series should be. Each episode is self-contained; they do have very limited continuity — characters (Superman, Green Arrow, what have you) recur, but not in such complicated ways that you can’ t figure out what’s going on. The style is…well, stylish, and it’s consistent — Batman and Robin look the same in every episode, though I’d doubt it’s the same team of animators working on every single one. The villains are colorful and a little scary, but the episodes are definitively kid friendly — people aren’t getting killed or raped; Batgirl doesn’t get gut-shot and crippled. They’re clearly inspired somewhat by the TV series, somewhat by silver age stories…they’re nice. They’re professional. They’re well done. And you do look at them and say, these must have a larger audience than the shambolic, incomprehensible, bloody-minded comics. These are, overall, better than the shambolic, incomprehensible, bloody-minded comics. Why don’t they make comics like this (of course, there have been comics based more or less on the animated series…but why isn’t that the standard rather than a sort of bonus sideline?)
So there’s that. But then, on the other hand, you’ve got manga, which are each (generally) by one creator, but which often have spin-off which carefully follow the original vision. Nana for instance; the movie version is very faithful to the original, and I think there’s also a faithful anime, not to mention music and other marketing. Yet the fact that the series are, in some sense, often the basis of marketing empires, and the fact that the creators are auteurs, doesn’t put them in the same mess as American comics, either in terms of sales or in terms of aesthetic inconsistency.
One thing is for sure, though. American mainstream comics have somehow reached a point where they can neither effectively market the amazingly popular characters they own to a mass-market, nor can they figure out how to create appealing new products for a mass market. If they’re lucky, they can sometimes get a hit out of their back-catalog, like Watchmen, but that seems to be the extent of their powers. If they were deliberately choosing to forego mass success for individualistic aesthetic excellence, that’d be one thing — but I don’t think anyone would claim that that’s the case. As it is, you just have to shake your head and wonder how on earth they’ve arrived at this pass…and how much longer they can keep it up.