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Characters vs. Creators: Which Publishing Strategy to Choose

Written by Christian Hoffer on Thursday, March 29 2012 and posted in Features

A look at the various publishing strategies used by the Big Two and their strengths and weaknesses.

One of the most interesting things about the mainstream comic book industry (Marvel and DC) is the delicate tightrope act the companies must play when planning and promoting their comics. To me, there are two types of publishing/marketing strategies in Big Two Comics: character-based and creator-based.

Character-driven publishing is largely fueled off of a fan's allegiance to certain characters, and pushes on you to pick up a comic just because a certain character is featured in it. This is why there are fifteen Batbooks and twelve X-Men series, often written and drawn by next-to-anonymous creative teams. The focus is on the characters and their futures, and is often editorial-driven. The marketing for this involves catchy taglines, ominous hints at characters' futures, and taunting portents. DC has been using this type of marketing a lot with the New 52, which pushes readers to focus on story and characters rather than shifting creative teams or the quality of talent involved.  

Creator-driven publishing, on the other hand, builds up talent as if they were celebrities. Creators are given more control (or at least the appearance of control) on books, and are heavily promoted as the next Alan Moore of comics. This plays up the idea that every project a creator works on is golden, regardless of the characters. Some telltale signs of creator-driven publishing are when you hear about a creator working on "exciting new takes" on certain B-list characters or revitalizing a certain property.   This publishing strategy relies heavily on building a "cult of personality" of sorts, which follows a creator from project to project, regardless of the characters involved. Marvel does this a lot, the "Young Guns" and "Architects" marketing campaigns being the most obvious examples.

That's not to say that the two are entirely separate from one another. If a book driven by a creator takes off, a publisher can successfully market secondary books that expand on the characters instead of the creative talent involved. Take, for example, the Green Lantern franchise. Over the course of the last decade, Geoff Johns has built up Green Lantern from a single "broken" franchise to the third most prominent character in DC's catalog. The franchise was able to build up steam because of Geoff Johns and then spun-off into four books, each of which focuses on a different facet of the franchise. Of the four books that focus on the Green Lantern world, only one series (Green Lantern) is creator-driven.

Conversely, should a relatively unproven creator deliver a strong story about a popular character, he can quickly build a fanbase that will be supportive of other projects.   Scott Snyder is the latest example of this. While Snyder was a proven indie success on American Vampire, it was his work on Detective Comics and Batman that transformed him into the hottest creator working for DC right now. Should Snyder move onto another, lesser-known DC property, you can bet that the first few issues of that series will be hot sellers.

However, both strategies have their flaws. An over-reliance on character-driven publishing can lead to a stale catalog highlighted by poorly selling, mediocre books. The aforementioned X-Books, for instance, have dropped drastically in quality outside of a few select books, and they rarely have stable creative teams. While there are a couple of quality titles- Uncanny X-Force and Wolverine and the X-Men come to mind- the rest depend almost exclusively on you picking up the books just to find out what happened to the characters.   If readers don't care about the X-Characters, chances are they're not going to pick up Astonishing X-Men, X-Men, X-Men Legacy, Generation Hope or New Mutants. Consequentially, the bulk of these books are mediocre sellers, only able to survive because of the dedication of certain X-fans.

Creator-driven publishing is also dangerous. It requires creators to constantly be "on their A-game". Should a creator deliver a poor series or arc, they might use up fan goodwill and lose a lot of the associated hype. Matt Fraction is a good example of this. While Casanova and Fraction's other early offerings gave Fraction a lot of success, his missteps on Uncanny X-Men and Fear Itself caused much of his fanbase to evaporate. Currently all three of his books, including his recently released Defenders, sit below Deadpool and Red Hood and the Outlaws- mediocre titles in their own right- in sales.

All in all, a balance must be struck between creator-driven and character-driven publishing. Neither company has come up with a perfect balance, which often leads to fans growing tired of characters or creators well before their time.   Which strategy do you prefer, and what company do you think handles their publishing and marketing better?

Written or Contributed by: Christian Hoffer

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About the Author - Christian

Christian is the exasperated Abbott to the Outhouse's Costello. When he's not yelling at the Newsroom for upsetting readers or complaining to his wife about why the Internet is stupid, he sits in his dingy business office trying to find new ways to make the site earn money. Christian is also the only person in history stupid enough to moderate two comic book forums at once.


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