What We Can Learn as Writers From What's Gone Wrong at Marvel Comics
You would think, looking at the decade-long success story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, earning billions with every film and regularly topping fan polls with superhero adventures one after unfailing one, that Marvel Comics would be doing a roaring trade, wouldn’t you?
Actually, the opposite is true. For those of you who are really interested in the details, please read this article from The Atlantic which gives you all the facts and figures: in brief, the comics industry, and Marvel in particular, are in real trouble in terms of turnover and readership.
Why is this?
In answering that question, we can learn an important lesson for all creatives.
The article explains that for several decades now, starting in the 1970s, Marvel (and other comics companies) have adopted a marketing strategy which is slowly killing them. In summary, back in those days comics used to be sold along with newspapers and magazines, from newsagents and newsstands around the world. If you wanted the latest issue of The Amazing Spiderman or The Mighty Thor, you would visit your local news vendor and pick up a copy from the shelf or place an order through that individual business. Obviously these news vendors had limited space and also a business which depended upon a mix of things on display and on sale - they weren’t particularly comics-focused and sometimes certain issues wouldn’t appear on the shelves or would be neglected.
Then came the bright idea: instead of depending upon news outlets, why not set up direct sales? This was the beginning of direct marketing for the comics industry - readers would be able to order direct from the publishers. In effect, a corporate monopoly called Diamond Comics Distributors, the middleman between retailers and publishers, ran this show, but the principle was achieved: comics sales now took place in a separate marketplace, not reliant on news outlets at all.
At first, sales boomed as comics enthusiasts took advantage of this and bought everything that they could lay their hands on. This encouraged the market people to go further, and speculation was rife - by the 1990s, comics were bought as market commodities rather than as entertainments or works of art, and the whole thing became an investment exercise rather than a passion. It eventually crashed, as all such bubbles do.
This had some interesting long-term effects, from which the industry has never really recovered. Again, The Atlantic article has the details - what is particularly fascinating is the principles behind the details.
Marvel Comics in particular has not yet spotted the wrongness in what was done back then, and perhaps neither have you. But isolating that error is key to understanding what might also happen to individual writers and anyone involved in a creative field where the primary product is the entertainment or enlightenment of a readership.
It’s not complicated or esoteric. It’s the simple fact that the eyes went off the ball. Instead of creating wonderment with the intention of wowing and wooing a readership, the attention went on to the money.
Back in the 1960s, before any of this happened, Marvel Comics had a name for itself: The House of Ideas. This was borne out in truth: strange and wonderful things kept emerging from Stan Lee’s ‘bullpen’ back then, including a super team which had family issues, an anti-hero who was a raging behemoth, a Norse God who walked the earth disguised as a frail doctor, a blind superhero, a neurosurgeon who became a master of the mystic arts, a resurrected super soldier from Word War II who found himself alive and awake during the dark days of the Vietnam War, and a black superhero who had his own secret African kingdom equipped with world-beating technology. Ideas - colourful, unique, vibrant, challenging ideas - poured out of Marvel’s offices in Manhattan at an incredible rate. The brand developed fans all over the world - fans who rushed to local newsagents to get the latest copy of their favourite hero’s adventure before it sold out, who avidly read and contributed to the letters pages in the back, and who deeply regretted missing key issues in various sequences.
I should know - I was one of those fans.
In short, Marvel was alive: ideas were attractive, extracting emotional commitment with ease; plots were enticing, often crossing over into other titles with cosmic scope; styles occasionally bordered on the poetic from the Shakespearian language of The Mighty Thor to, in one issue of The Avengers, the entirety of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ being quoted. The overall effect was a loyal, eager fanbase who had developed that treasure lusted after by marketing departments everywhere: an affinity for the brand.
Yes, the mechanical outlet between the publisher and the reader - the local news vendor - was frustratingly small. It was a bottleneck: fierce demand outstripping the power of the network to supply. It’s completely comprehensible, therefore, why the idea of bypassing the news outlets and going for direct sales was appealing at that time. But conceptually something happened over the next few years which few could have foreseen: in the frenzy to sell more and more, the emphasis went off the product itself and onto the sales.
This happens in the world of commerce all the time: a product becomes popular, fulfilling a need for a customer; the product sells more and more; the glitter of the money being made (or potentially being made) outshines the glitter of the product itself; attention goes off the product onto the money = short circuit.
To succeed, a writer or any type of creative person must stay focused on the higher goal, on the product, the thing being created, and recognise that the money, the exchange coming back from the product’s sales to its creator, is a kind of after-effect, like the wake of an ocean liner as it sails by. Put too much attention on the wake and the ship soon sinks.
Meanwhile, over at Marvel Studios, the lesson appears to have been learned, at least for the moment: Kevin Feige, the mastermind behind the most commercially successful cinema franchise of all time, is managing to keep the main focus of attention on the storyline of the movies as a whole. That focus, with its energy going into entertaining scripts, dynamic special effects and just general fun, is pulling the franchise along like a huge ocean liner, and its wake grows bigger and bigger with each release. Only when audiences sense that the focus has shifted - that the stories no longer have soul, that they are just lights and colours designed to get ‘bums in seats’ - will those seats start to empty.
It’s a lesson that Marvel Comics should - and relatively easily could - learn: put attention on the soul of the characters and plot lines and creative teams and let them get on with the job of building brand affinity, and be patient until the ‘wake’ of that effort washes by with its accompanying commercial rewards.
As individual writers too, this is a lesson that it is important to grasp: do not write with the expectation of making commercial returns. Commercially written material may or may not bring in money: if it does so, it is because of the faded shadow of soul that such a story might conjure up by accident.
Focus on the soul - the body will follow.