Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What's The Secret? part 1

In 2010, comic books lose readers between issues.  I think most people don't really think about these things. If you were to ask your average comics reader how the market behaves, they would probably guess that some excellent books gain popularity and build an audience, most stay about even, and some bleed readers because they aren't very good or are losing steam.

It makes intuitive sense.  It is also completely in defiance of the facts. The facts are these: whatever a comic's circulation is this month, it will go down the next.  There are three established ways of artificially defeating this law:

  • Bring a marquee set of names to a previously non-marquee comic
  • Slaps an "event" crossover banner on a book
  • Slap a new # 1 on the cover 

Incidentally, as soon as any of these tricks are employed, the comic starts hemoraghing horribly from that point.  There was a time when the correction was delayed, but these rabbits have been pulled from the magician's hat so many times now that audience has grown somewhat immune to the tricks.  Start a new # 1, and issue # 2 will suffer a 33-50% reduction.  Take the "Blackest Night" banner off of Booster Gold and it immediately sinks to pre-crossover levels.  Or worse.  Pretty dire, huh?

That's life.  For everybody except Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead, which has shown small, reliable growth since its inception.  So what's going on, and why in the great wide world of comics does this one singular title hold the antidote?  Is there something that Robert Kirkman is doing with Walking Dead that is unique, yet replicable?

Yes.  Sort of.  It isn't actually something that Kirkman is doing, but a collection of somethings.  What follows is an admittedly simplistic examination of those somethings.

Walking Dead is really good in all the right ways

This point is going to require serious elaboration.  The first point I'd like to make is that while it's fairly obvious that quality should help a comic book gain readers, I don't believe it actually has one crumb to do with its ability to defeat attrition.  None.

But don't take my word for that, look at the facts.  Is Robert Kirkman the only human being in the game producing good comics?  Absurd.  He's one of many.  The industry is loaded with talent on scripts and pencils.  No matter where we look - Brian Bendis, Geoff Johns, John Cassaday, Alex Ross, Grant Morrsion, Jim Lee....their books lose readers every month.  Robert Kirkman himself recently launched a werewolf title.  That didn't buck the trend.  Being good just isn't good enough.

Sometimes its better to be lucky than to be good, I'll make the case that Kirkman was exceptionally lucky to capture a sudden American yearning for zombie material.  Certain concepts just capture a group's fascination and grip it tight for awhile with no real logic attached.  Walking Dead was fortunate to step directly into a fashionable piece of the American zeitgeist, and I don't think that Robert Kirkman planned that any more than the creators of CSI knew that the country was insatiably ready for police procedurals.  It just happens.

Please don't misunderstand me and think that I'm minimizing Kirkman's contributions to the phenomenon.  A piece of crap zombie book would not have done the trick.  What Kirkman did was put down a virtuoso performance and dropped it into a national psyche ready for the genre.

The hook is sinfully simple - we've all seen and enjoyed the zombie horror movie...but what happens after?  Nobody had done it, and more importantly, nobody was doing zombie stuff with so much heart and flair for drama.  Read an issue of Walking Dead and just try not to care about any of those characters, I dare you.  The conflict is gripping, the suspense unbearable, the characters fully realized.  Nobody is safe, and the issue beats tend to end on cliffhangers.

So yeah, the book is good - but it's a special kind of good.  It had the good fortune to launch into a "pet rock" kind of frenzied acceptance. It had a significantly novel twist on a familiar concept - a reader could understand the rules in play, but you could also readily see that the game had been expanded and the rules were being broken effectively.  Black and white comic?  Usually a kiss of death.  But in a genre so in debt to Romero's Night of the Living Dead, it stands out against a rack cluttered with technicolor vomit - and it fits.  And at the end of an issue, the reader usually had a compelling reason to seek out the next issue.

Good is good, but it isn't enough.  Walking Dead is good in all the right ways.

Next up:  Consistency 

- Ryan

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