I’m Thacher E. Cleveland, one of the Super-Fly Comics podcast hosts and until the end of November I was one of the two owners of Super-Fly Comics & Games. After a lot of soul-searching I decided it was time to hang up my Comic Guy license and move on to new adventures. Not only do I have a new job in a new city but I’ll be buying comics again for first time in almost 7 years instead of just reading whatever I want, whenever I want. With the comic industry at a turning point with price wars, “event fatigue” and digital distribution, I’ve picked a hell of a time to get…Back in the Game.
I’d written a little bit about the business side of the comic industry a couple of weeks ago when it was reported that Jim Sokolowski, Marvel’s Chief Operations Officer, was let go. This past week it came out that at least 11 more staffers were let go at comic’s biggest publisher. The layoffs were apparently done as a cost-cutting measure, despite the fact that Marvel continues to be a profitable entity (something that’s a bit of rarity in…well, the entire country).
I mentioned in that article how the comic industry seems like a small town at times. As someone who escaped a small town last year, I can tell you that small town people love to talk (an it’s not really limited to small towns, it’s neighborhoods and other communities as well; small towns are just easier to single out because the people involved tend to stay put). Those of us that follow comic news closely know that our little industry loves to talk also, and something like this really brings that out. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as places like The Beat and Comics Reporter have some interesting analysis about the layoffs with figures and conclusions that those of us who don’t have eyes on the big publishers 24/7 maybe wouldn’t come to.
It makes for great reading and great analysis, but we should remember that these are at least 12 people that have lost their jobs in a very shitty economy and have been working in this “small town” for a while. Not only that, as Tom Spurgeon of Comics Reporter says, “When a publisher with roughly a third of its primary market and enormously successful programs in other media decides to fire people, everyone shudders.” The small town aspect of the industry also leads to a lot of close attachment to those that work in it. The age of social networking has made it so that it’s very easy to hear from people you normally would have no connection or exposure to, for good or for ill. One of the editors, Alejandro Arbona, I knew only by name and Twitter handle as he was mentioned by other comics talent. I couldn’t pick him out of a line-up nor do I know the full specifics of his work at Marvel but it’s clear that he was well liked and many will miss him (Matt Fraction said on Twitter that Arbona would still be editing Casanova for Fraction).
While I’m happy to hear that the people working in a medium I love can forge strong bonds of friendship through professionalism, I wonder sometimes if the industry’s openness with its fans creates more problems than opportunities. From a professional stand-point, it makes sense for creators to foster a relationship with their fan-base, be it through message boards, Twitter feeds or convention appearances. A reader is more likely to invest their money and time in a book if they feel that there’s a connection with a creative team, and if they like something, are moved by it and want those creators to succeed they’ll, for lake of a better term, evangelize it to others that that come across. That kind of relationship isn’t relegated to just fans but to shops as well. Many people who have picked up a comic that doesn’t feature a well-known character or genre have done so because a comic-shop employee recommended it to them. Creators know this and many of them work hard to build that rapport.
The problem is that once that bond has been forged many fans feel that the investment has granted them certain privileges. The fans fell they’ve supported that book or that creator or that company and now they deserve to be listened to. The awkward truth that many of those fans don’t seem to get it…they don’t. Fandom isn’t a two way street and no publisher or creator should produce art by democratically sampling the opinions of the fans. Regardless of how much someone likes a creator, character or company they don’t get a say in how those things are managed.
There are plenty of things Marvel and DC have done that I, as a fan, would like to have seen handled differently. Does that desire affect what and how I buy from them? Sure. Does that mean I need to constantly inform the company or creators what decisions are and what I think they’re doing that’s wrong? No (although I do have a podcast where I can do that and they’re welcome to listen). Granted, there are plenty of times when those concerns about content become conflated with “real world issues” and the situation becomes a bit trickier than just “You should do more/less with Deadpool.” While there are no definitive answers to some of those questions, it is important to acknowledge that fan “entitlement” can play a big role in them (“I like this character/creator but you aren’t using them for some reason and they come from an under-represented group in the industry, therefore the problem isn’t the character/work but the fact they come from that group.”)
The “smallness” of the industry that has been used to try to cultivate and maintain the dwindling fanbase has become a double-edge sword as some of the most, shall we say “enthusiastic,” fans become the loudest voices in the discourse we’re privileged to have with the companies and creators shaping the industry (think about it: how many industries have as many opportunities to meet and interact with the people “behind the scenes” making the things we love? Not a lot). This has grown to the point where, as we hear about these lay-offs at Marvel and are able to analyze them as thoroughly as we can we find out odd little tidbits like the fact that the Marvel offices only have one single bathroom per gender for the entire office. Yes, that’s a head-scratching bit of office design and illustrates how financially conservative the company is, but is it something that we as fans should be up in arms about? Sure, they may well be violating OSHA standards and creating a difficult work environment for their employees but how much of that are we supposed to be up in arms about as fans?
The openness of the social network and its increasingly fervent devotees isn’t just a problem for companies and creators but it can pose a problem for other fans as well. I follow a lot of comic people on twitter and a read a lot of comic news and sometimes I think I get over-exposed to the criticism and analysis that’s out there. I just want to enjoy what I’m reading, not be overly burdened with the penny-pinching behinds the scenes behavior. I may like a creator’s work but sometimes following them on twitter makes me hate them as a person. Sure, it’s my choice to read what they have to say as I try to find out about their new projects but that doesn’t mean I have to like their smug self-aggrandizement, the retweeting of every positive thing anyone on the internet says about them or the random babble they throw out there just because they can. Couple that with concerns about a company’s business practices and worry about the industry’s future and all of the sudden paying close attention to comic news becomes like watching sausage get made. The end product might be delicious but the process just ruined your appetite.
I offer my sincere good luck to those Marvel staffers that have been let go. I hope the comic industry continues to keep its head above water and grows, making room for all of the talented people that want to contribute to it. This transformative age for publishing may have some missteps and pitfalls but, like the big social network machine, it can still do some good as long as it’s tempered with thoughtfulness.
Filed Under: Back in the Game