My thesis is undergoing heavy reorganization, and, in order to make this process go smoothly, my advisor had me write out what I want to say in each section. After writing it, I figured that it’s a good “sparknotes” version of my thesis. So, for those of you who are interested in what my thesis is about, but don’t feel like reading all 100+ pages of it, this is a pretty complete–though, i should warn you, it’s under-explained and slightly rough–summary.
Entire thing after the break:
So, i’m attempting to explain what a crossover is in my thesis. This makes sense to me, but I’m not sure someone who hasn’t read comics would get it.
Here’s my description:
…many comics are marketed as “more important” than others, which can boost sales considerably. “Importance” here refers to a narrative quality very particular to comics—it refers to importance within continuity. As mentioned earlier, many comics take place within a shared universe, and, in the course of their narrative, will refer to something that previously happened within that universe. This “consistent backstory” is known as continuity.
Because every comic that takes place within the shared universe is considered “in continuity,” every comic published in that universe adds a small piece of story to the much larger metanarrative of that universe. After years and years of publishing comics, each company’s universe has developed a rich and detailed history that provides a backdrop for every current “in-continuity” comic published. However, this metanarrative is not completely static: in order to help the writers create new situations for the characters that inhabit the universe (“keeping things fresh,” in comic speak), comic companies will have “big events” that promise to radically alter the conditions of these shared universes. These “big events” often involve the characters from multiple books “crossing over” into each others’ stories. Not surprisingly, these stories are called crossovers.
Here’s the main part of my thesis prospectus, which will give you an idea of why I haven’t been posting that much as of recent:
On the surface, comic books appear to be no more than printed publications telling visual stories of super-powered individuals struggling to defeat evil and promote the cause of justice. However, this description belies multifaceted nature as comic books as an economic product: Comics, on their own, are indeed simply another form of disposable entertainment available to the leisure-seeking consumer. But this is not the end of the story: not only do comics serve as disposable entertainment commodities, but there also exists the well-publicized phenomenon of consumers purchasing comic books based on their expected future value. What’s more, as the recent acquisition of Marvel by Disney can attest, these functions are growing increasingly supplanted by the idea that comic books are valuable primarily for the intellectual properties created within. It’s clear to see, then, that comic books are much more complicated entities than one would originally perceive. Thus, the central question of my thesis is, broadly stated: What are comic books as an economic product?
Of course, before one even begins to pick apart the question, it will be necessary to wrestle down the definition of what comic books “are” for the purposes discussing the economic product. For now, when I refer to comics as a “product,” I will be referring to a single narrative arc of a story told using the printed comics medium, be it contained in a single issue or spread out in multiple issues. This definition also encompasses longer books that are both collections of serial issues and those that are written in the graphic novel format. This definition will work at present, though it is not set in stone.
At their core, comic books are printed publications combing words and pictures, usually to tell a narrative story, that come out monthly and are consumed mainly by a dedicated base of fans. While primarily superhero oriented, comics also extend into such genres as science fiction, horror, fantasy, and even romance, and cater to a wide range of demographic groups. In short, comics are an entertainment product, albeit a niche one. The idea of comics as entertainment commodities will be filtered through the lens of the entertainment industry, and much of my analysis will be concerned primarily with fitting comics into the corresponding economic models of “entertainment as a commodity” that have already been created for such products as television, movies, books, and magazines. I want to look at the reasons why people (such as myself) still consume comic books when other, “better” substitutes are out there (of course, Market Segmentation can explain some of this, but why that market segmentation happened is still a question worth examining). This idea could be used as a jumping off point for a topic I spoke about in my paper last semester—specifically, the idea that comic books are a product around which fans create a distinct “culture.”
Comic books also serve a second value in the economic realm: as investments in the form of collectables. It is impossible to talk about comics as a product without talking about how the first issue of Superman was sold for such and such price to a collector. However, far from being a small part of the industry, the idea that back issues will retain and increase their value is central to both the growth of both direct market distribution, which drove the shift towards the distribution of comics through the comic book shops, and the speculation boom of the 90’s, the popping of which threatened to (and did) put numerous comic book companies out of business. I will probably examine comic books as collectables through frameworks developed to explain collectability, with the unique considerations of comic books as collectables taken into account—that is, if there is anything particularly unique about comics as collectables, as opposed to such recent popular collectables such as Beanie Babies, sports cards, action figures and the like.
More importantly than being relegated disposable entertainment or investment vehicles, however, the licensing out of comics characters into more profitable formats, such as movies, television, and toys, is an even bigger industry than the publishing aspect of comics itself: In 2006, Marvel’s publishing produced $108.5 million, while licensing and toys delivered $243.3 million. Indeed, in my paper last semester, I asserted that comics are in the “creativity business.” However, to phrase things in a more economic manner: many of the most popular intellectual properties today are created within the pages of comic books themselves, and, as such, we can see comic books as a type of “capital” with which intellectual properties are created and nurtured. This idea of comics as intellectual property capital is far and away the most interesting thing I will probably talk about, as it’s entirely new territory; I want to figure out how intellectual property capital is similar or different any other type of capital (physical or human), what drives the demand for intellectual property capital, and, most interestingly what about comic books make them particularly suited to this function. This last question can be examined in some detail, and will allow me to utilize comic theory, a topic which I personally find interesting and would like to examine further.
This task of outlining the multiple economic roles of comic books and the resultant creation of an analytical framework will occupy most of my effort in at least this first phase of thesis research. However, creation of a framework would be pointless without something more concrete with which to ground it—i.e., I don’t want this examination to be an empty intellectual exercise. Thus, I think it prudent to attempt to use this framework to explain the changes present in the development of the American comic book industry over the 20th and 21st century. I will seek to explain that these changes happen in the industry because different economic roles become more prominent as the production of comics meets the demonstrated demand for comics in each economic role, and these demands are derived from other factors, such as technology and cultural shifts, that influence why people want comic books at a given point in time. This “economic history” will allow me to both ground the theoretical nature of the framework and allow me to test its validity. It will also allow me to assess different creative changes in comic books—whether the “cinematic” nature of comics has increased or decreased as a result of differing economic roles, whether companies resort to sales-boosting “events”, whether characters remain static or change, etc. can all be explained utilizing this economic theory.
Depending on how my research grows, I could comment on the growth of the digital medium of comic books, the effect of foreign competition, especially Japanese manga, on American comics, predictions about the future of the industry, the changing role of the comic book creator, or even the way the changing nature of the comic book affects the entertainment industry in general.
So, college move-in is finally finished and the whole time, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the Disney/Marvel merger. Reactions are generally mixed, with some people fearing Disney sticking their fingers into the editorial content of Marvel, and others salivating at the crossover potential that Disney has to offer (especially with Pixar). However, when viewing the motivations from the perspectives of the parties involved, a real narrative of the future emerges.
Disney has a lock on intellectual properties in the children’s demographic, but, as Ryan Gilbey points out, it has little way to access the teenage market. Thus, a watering down of the properties is not very likely, considering the already proven appeal of the intellectual properties with markets in which Disney has had only middling success. Thus, Marvel fans fearing the loss of violence that so characterizes their favorite books can rest easy, knowing that Marvel isn’t going to kill the Goose that lays the golden “14-25 year old male” egg. And anyway, Marvel’s debut of the “Superhero Squad” is evidence enough that an entertainment company can target both children and adults without dilution of its core brand.
However, Marvel fans have something slightly different to fear–that is, narrative being subordinated to intellectual property management. This is what I see happening in DC right now with Geoff Johns and company, with their their “let’s make these old villains cool again” formula. Any of Johns’ little “reboots” (Ultimizations, if you will) are perfectly suited to serve as templates for translation into non-comics properties, and that can explain how those types of stories are a major part of the DC universe right now. And mining that sort of formula is totally fine, as DC fans tend to love it, and it is pretty entertaining in its own way.
But my issue is that interesting, less “reboot-y” versions of characters like War Machine (see post below) and the Iron Fist, that attempt to push the boundaries of comics storytelling without really focusing too much on the properties themselves, will be discarded in favor of “ultimization” of mainstream Marvel properties. Of course, the Ultimate Universe looks like it’ll be fun post-awful-reboot (much in the same way as Spider-Man Brand New Day was fun post-One More Day), but to lose the cool narrative possibilities of mainstream marvel universe storytelling modalities via subverting the superhero genre would be a damn shame. Updated superhero stories would be cool, but the coolest stories being told right now by Marvel aren’t even superhero stories in a traditional sense, but the Ultimization of Marvel properties ala Johns and co. would necessitate sticking fairly close to superhero storytelling modes. And so, I’m wary. If I wanted Ultimization i’d read DC and the Ultimate universe. But I also want to read stories about badass Kung Fu tournaments that take place in alternate dimensions. And i’m worried that the Disney merger will take that away from the fans.
Of course, on a personal note, this whole merger changes my thesis dramatically. Though it makes my lack of summer research seem like less of a bad idea, so hooray for that.
War Machine, written by Greg Pak (World War Hulk) and illustrated by Leonardo Manco (Hellblazer) is probably my favorite book coming out right now. Bold statement, I know, but it pretty much combines everything I like about comics in a nice little package. For a bit of background, War Machine is about James Rhodes, who, after having all of his limbs blown off in an explosion, is turned into a cyborg who can see everything bad somebody has done. So they turn him into a literal War Machine and he goes killing bad people with perfect moral impunity. Read the rest of this entry »
Aside from comics, one of my favorite things to read and discuss is the subject of economics–indeed, I’m doing preliminary research on my senior thesis about the economics of comic books right now, so, economic questions about comic books are some of my favorite things to think about. (How cool am I?)
Anyway, Marvel and DC are both charging more for single issues. Marvel, in particular, is doing so without adding any new content. What does this mean for comic book consumers?
I wrote up a little highlight reel of San Diego Comic-Con 2009 for Air America. You can check it out here.
Update 1: 11:45 AM: Woke up bright and early and headed to the convention center, having spent most of last night lying low for the festivities ahead. Due to the grunge of the past two days, I decided to leave the robin costume home.
Anyway, the first panel I went to was one I just couldn’t miss:
Update 1 12:49 PM: After typing up the last update to my previous post, I did a lot of bumming around the con floor, which is significantly more crowded, and people are significantly more dressed up (highlights include a Joker carrying around a impostor Batman from the Dark Knight and forcing him to read a ransom note). Feeling low-energy (Not much sleep and a hangover will do that) I headed to the Batman Panel