I set out on Friday to write an article lampooning a recent interview conducted by Newsarama with Marvel Editor in Chief Axel Alonso and VP of Marketing David Gabriel, but as I was writing it, I found myself becoming more and more annoyed at what I see as a pretty big problem with the comics media, so I decided to let it stew for a bit and devote a more extensive look to an issue that's plaguing not just comics, but online media as a whole.
Here at The Outhouse, we've relentlessly mocked the way that big comics news sites (and wannabe big comics news sites) behave as if they work for the big comics publishers they report on, writing fluff pieces in exchange for exclusive content and access to talent. One of the most obnoxious examples of this is the "executive interview," Q&A sessions with big execs from Marvel or DC where the interviewer asks softball, pre-approved questions that are less about what their readers want to know and more about the message the publisher wants to put out there. It's funny, because ass-kissing is funny, but It's also insidious, because these interviews give the illusion that comics publishers are interacting with the readers with the press acting as a conduit, but it's really a one way exchange. It's marketing disguised as journalism, and readers deserve better.
The Big Two Interview Paradigm
You could take a look at CBR or any big site on any day of the week and find a good example of this, but for our purposes today, we're going to pick on an interview between Newsarama muckity muck Michael Doran and Marvel execs Alonso and Gabriel. Why Doran, and why Newsarama? Because you should always attack upwards, IMO. Newarama is still one of the biggest sites covering comics on the net, and as such, they're considered leaders. Newsarama does have some fine writers and they publish interesting content. But this interview is interesting for all the wrong reasons, when you look closely at exchanges like this:
Nrama: Axel, is sales/marketing merely adding the branding to titles you were otherwise already developing when appropriate, or are the brands now directly influencing creative decisions and editorial direction?
Alonso: All of the new series were born in editorial. Sales/marketing is there to communicate why each of them is exciting, and they do a great job of that. Indeed, Sales/marketing picked up early on the emerging trend of female-lead series so it definitely added fuel to the fire.
Gabriel: Sales and marketing has worked closely in tandem with editorial to craft the entire ‘All-New Marvel NOW!’ initiative but editorial has final say on what titles make the cut.
Notice that the thought didn't cross anyone's mind here that maybe comics creators should drive comics creating. "Is it marketing, or is it editorial?" Ugh. What a shitty choice. But it's presented cheerily, setting the tone for the entire piece.
Doran and the boys then go into a long back and forth on how smart Marvel is for relaunching their books all the time and how successful it's been, though no proof is ever offered for that success. There's a lot of talk of "sell-outs," but these sell-outs occur at the retailer level, not the customer level, so there's not necessarily a direct relationship between readers and these sales. Doran also doesn't mention that sales have been down the last few months, and the industry may be entering a decline. The fact that so many books need to be relaunched or canceled because they're not selling well is glossed over too.
Instead, we get questions like this:
Nrama: We’ll get to the ‘#1’ thing in a few moments, but do you think the quality of the recent titles is indicative of a long-time consistent level of quality and the brands are helping you attract attention better than before, or do you think there as been a noteworthy improvement in the quality of titles lately, and if so, why?
"Do you think your books have always been great, or are they better than ever?" The people of Crimea answered less leading questions on their secession ballot. What did the execs have to say?
Gabriel: Three years ago, before we launched ‘Marvel NOW!’, we noticed a lethargy in the industry. It needed something new. Something to get fans excited. Editorial really put their nose to the grindstone and tasked creators to come up with the best possible stories they could. With ‘All-New Marvel NOW!’ we wanted to bring that same level of quality, but hone in on some different areas of the Marvel Universe and take some new chances.
Alonso: Exactly. ‘Marvel NOW!’ was a line-wide game of musical chairs amongst our top titles and talent that provided a door into the Marvel Universe for new readers, and a breath of fresh air to old ones. ‘All-New Marvel NOW!’ created new doors into that universe through exciting new titles and talent. It added to the line.
That's all well and good, and Marvel NOW! was a success, but these answers leave out a crucial component - the Marvel NOW! relaunch directly followed DC's Nu52 reboot, which was, at the time, still a wild sales success (though a critical disaster). It kicked off sales growth for the industry after several years of decline, and preferences about quality of books aside, it's pretty disingenuous to claim that DC's reboot had no impact on Marvel's decision to do something similar, and it's factually incorrect to say that the industry was lethargic. It was already the beginning of a boom, one started by DC's much-maligned reboot. So Doran called them on this, right?
Nrama: Onto the ‘#1‘ thing.
Marvel NOW!’ and ‘All-New’ both seem to be about influencing retailers and retailers to sample new titles, and while you’ve also added the suffixes like .NOW (‘Marvel NOW!’) and .INF (‘Infinity’), renumbering/relaunching titles has certainly been a tool you’re using and the pace of which titles are being relaunched and renumbered is accelerating in recent months/years.
This is a perfectly obvious question but we want to hear your answers anyway: why is Marvel now renumbering/launching titles so (relatively) frequently compared to the past?
Gabriel: We actually spent a lot of time talking about this at our last editorial retreat. People consume their content much differently these days than in the past. Renumbering titles offers us an opportunity to provide readers with an easily digestible chunk of content, not unlike a season of a television show.
Renumbering has its critics, but at end of the day we’re much more focused on making good stories than where they fit in a longbox. If you look at the numbers, books sell better after a relaunch. And even if the numbers eventually settle back to where they were after a year or two – that’s still 2 years of retailers selling more copies and 2 years of more Marvel comics in the hands of fans.
So if I'm reading this right, Marvel is focused on quality, not arcane numbering systems. That's why they... create a new system of arcane and elaborate numbering, including but not limited to inventing an adding several real and fictional decimal places to their books, maintaining a rolling series of straight up reboots, reboots where the book keeps its regular numbering but gets a #1 on the cover too just because, and cancelations leading to new books with different adjectives but the same concept. None of that makes any sense, but Doran is unphased by this.
And here's where I started to get really annoyed. Watch Doran almost apologize for even asking the following question, pointing out that he's merely playing devils advocate for fanboys, the implication being that these are irrational concerns from online malcontents and Doran would never be so crass as to ask Marvel questions that are mildly uncomfortable if not for the inconvenient bleating of the unwashed masses.
Nrama: You both are aware that while numbers are hard to quantify, as you say David, there are critics of renumbering. So to play “fanboy’s advocate” for a moment, what do you say to the common argument that if the quality of the titles was there, publishers wouldn’t have to renumber in order to boost or maintain sales?
Gabriel: Quality doesn’t always mean big sales numbers. Any publisher will tell you that. Daredevil is a perfect example. Nobody would argue that Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s title is lacking in quality with all the awards they’ve won. It’s not selling poorly by any means, but relaunching the title for ‘All-New Marvel NOW!’ has almost tripled the numbers on a title that was nearly universally critically acclaimed. And to us, that’s putting a critically acclaimed comic into the hands of more readers.
But wait, I thought Gabriel just said that "Marvel is focused on quality." But quality doesn't matter now? Which is it? Doran continues, this time asking whether it isn't our fault (or maybe the fault of retailers, depending on how you read it) that Marvel has to do all this relaunching and rebooting and renumbering. Is it a "flaw in the marketplace?"
Nrama: Is it indicative of a flaw in the marketplace that publishers need to relaunch to get worthy titles attention wherein past decades they did not? Or is that just a unique characteristic of the marketplace?
Gabriel: I wouldn’t say it’s a flaw. More of where the market for all entertainment has moved toward in the past five or so years. People want their content immediately, and in digestible chunks.
Marvel variant covers for April-MayPin It Captain Marvel #2 J.G. Jones variant
Alonso: You see it across all media platforms, particularly in TV, where each season offers a chapter of a larger story that offers at least partial closure for the viewer.
So it's settled. Marvel's hands are tied here.
Nrama: Okay, so to get very macro on you, why do you think sales attrition is the norm for the Direct Market, requiring new #1’s and marketing brands like ‘Marvel NOW!’ to boost and/or reset sales of deserving titles?
Gabriel: It’s a lot easier to start at the beginning of a story than in the middle isn’t it? A new #1 provides existing readers with a point of entry into a title they may not be reading but aren’t able to just jump into. Better yet, it’s a signpost for a new reader that says “you can start here!” If ‘All-New Marvel NOW!’ has gotten one new person to start reading comics, we’ve done our job. We’re proud to say that we’ve had considerably more than just one person checking out these new launches.
Then... why are sales down for the last few months? Why do titles immediately see a huge decrease after that first issue, and continue to decay until cancelation or another relaunch occurs. These are the kinds of follow-up questions a journalist should ask in this scenario. Doran just accepts their answer as given, because that answer was always the point of this. The questions are written around the answers, not the other way around. This Q&A is a delivery system for marketing promotion, the needle to the publisher's heroin injected, directly into the neck vein of the reader. It's an abomination.
To wrap things up, Doran asks Gabriel and Alonso if they have anything else to promote. Just in case they didn't get enough of that in.
Nrama: Finally, because you guys know it’s always what readers are looking for, can you tell them one thing about a Marvel upcoming title, project or event they don’t already know?
Gabriel: Original Sin is going to be unlike any Marvel event you’ve ever seen before – in terms of both story and structure.
Alonso: I’ll second that. The core series is an action-packed murder mystery that spans the Marvel Universe – and the victim is someone that readers really give a $#!# about, so there’s a real consequences from his demise. The tie-in series are self-contained dramas that rock the world of the title character.
Follow-up question: why? Why is it going to "rock the world of the title characters?" Why does every single Marvel event shake the universe to its very foundations? In what ways is the Marvel Universe never going to be the same again? Marvel's hyperbolic banalities about changing the "Marvel Universe forever" is bordering on self-parody at this point. Just once, I'd like to hear someone actually explain what the fuck this bullshit means.
A Culture of Fear and Intimidation
But Doran never asks these questions. In fact, he never asks any thoughtful follow-up questions, such as ones about what type of long-term fatigue affect all this gimmickry might have, or whether or not these "sales boosts" really mean anything when no one releases numbers on actual consumer sales of direct market comics (though Dennis Barger's COBRA has announced that as one of their goals). I'd like to know what Marvel's long term plan is. Not the six month blockbuster crossover event plan. Where does this lead us five years from now? But Doran is merely a prop, a storytelling device that allows Alonso and Gabriel to hit all the proper beats in their tale of Marvel's current and future success (all while the industry as a whole, including Marvel, is seemingly in a slump).
Now, I don't know if Doran wanted to ask these questions. Maybe he did ask them, and was shut down. Maybe the publishers don't allow follow up questions. Whatever the reason, there's a disconnect between what readers want to know and what is being asked.
It's sad. These interviews are not a service to readers. They're a service to publishers.
But then, we know that comics execs don't talk to websites (or let their top talent talk to websites) unless those websites are willing to act as de facto extensions of their own PR department. That's just how the world works nowadays. Don't get me wrong - I like a lot of the guys and gals in the blogosphere, including several at Newarama. And there are some sites out there with honest voices and integrity (like The Beat, and if we define "integrity" loosely, Bleeding Cool).
But for most of the major sources? It's all fluff. Come on, Newsarama. What are you afraid would happen if you asked a hard hitting question?
We've seen what happens when even big sites like the 'Rama and CBR try to engage publishers in real conversations. The publishers threaten to pull their exclusive content deals and maybe give them to a competitor. That's why these types of deals are no good for anyone (except the publishers). It creates a system of reliance on this exclusive content for survival. When your bread and butter in pulling in hits comes from the exclusive interviews and previews you get from publishers, then you no longer have any control over what you write. And then you're just bamboozling your readers on behalf of the publishers. Doesn't that feel sleazy to you?
As I mentioned at the beginning, this problem isn't exclusive to comics - Sarah Lacey did a great piece on this trend in the tech blogosphere for Pando Daily back in 2012, which I've referenced in the past whenever this topic comes up, because it was so well put:
Because of the volume demands of most blogs, reporters who have to file multiple stories a day are under intense pressure. This has lead to a slippery slope of PR people controlling more and more of the messaging, and these commercials are just the latest versions of this.
This is dangerous, because when you talk to just the company or the company’s investors, you are already a giant step closer towards the company controlling what you write.
I think as an industry we need to stop and ask ourselves: What again is the role of the journalist here? I say, if companies and PR folks want access to a readership that we have painstakingly built, they have to play by our rules not the other way around. If they want to write their own news, they should put it on their own blogs, not rely on ours, and let the readers pick which one they want.
Does any of this sound familiar?
You Don't Know How Things Work
While things look bleak, all is not lost. Bleeding Cool's meteoric rise over the last few years, supplanting Newsarama as the number two pure comics site behind CBR, is evidence that there is an audience for mostly unfiltered news. We like to think we do okay here at The Outhouse. And there are some blogs have been keeping it real for years. The Beat is good. The Comics Journal. But at the top, there's so much fluff, and it's a shame, because despite all the hard work those big sites do to curry favor with the publishers, the publishers would still rather give the exclusive to USA Today if USA Today is willing to pay attention to them. CBR and Newsarama are like Marvel and DC's favorite booty call, but they're never going to get married.
Comics journalists: you don't have to be ass-kissing sycophants to be successful. Believe it or not, comic book publishers need you more than you need them. Based on what I understand about web traffic numbers, I'm confident in saying that more people read Newsarama on a weekly basis than read any single monthly issue of a Marvel comic book. That kind of influence can be the carrot for publishers, but it can, and should, also sometimes be the stick.
As "the press," you are responsible to your readers, not to Marvel or DC. That's one of the basic tenets of journalism. Sure, The Outhouse might not be your go-to place for journalism lessons, but how about Journalism.org? Sounds legit:
1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
2. Its first loyalty is to citizens
3. Its essence is a discipline of verification
4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover
5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power
6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise
7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant
8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional
9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience
Newsarama, that interview utterly failed on principles 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, and to a lesser extent 8. It was completely irrelevant to 3 and 7, and as for 9, well, ol' Jiminy Cricket is little more than a green smear on the bottom of Marvel's jackboot after that.
While I'm sure I'll be the subject of much passive-aggressive derision on Twitter from the comics journalism "elite" for speaking above my station, I have a message for the big news sites: stop this crap. Stop it right now. Cold turkey. No more fluff interviews. No more fluff features. Write for your readers, not your subjects. You're supposed to be the responsible ones, so we can hang out on the sidelines and talk trash. That's the natural order of things, and we like it that way. At the very least, just have Vaneta Rogers write every article.
"But you don't know how things work, Jude Terror. The journalists want to ask these questions, maybe they even do ask them, but the publisher ask for edits. They ask for stuff to be excluded. We have to play ball."
You don't have to play ball. Your influence, your readers, your journalistic talents are more valuable than that. There's some give and take. I understand that. You can't expect publishers to work with you if you're hostile. But we've seen publishers running roughshod over the big comics media for a while now. We saw Vaneta Rogers scolded publicly by DC execs in an interview. We saw DC pull their interview column from CBR and start up their own news site where they could have complete control (and greater leverage over news sites to make them play ball). We've seen a publisher directly tell a siterunner that they'd prefer the site not cover their stuff at all if they don't want to play ball. We've seen Image publisher Eric Stephenson speak out about bullying and coercion from Big Two publishers against talent. What makes you think the bullying against the press isn't even worse? It's clear that they view us little more than a nuisance, a frustrating complication in the pipeline of hype and promotion. This has to stop.
Maybe - and this is important - maybe the journalists ARE asking these questions, and the publishers are saying "no comment," or "we'd prefer you don't put that in the interview." A "no comment" response is still a response, and it should be on the record. Publishers shouldn't have the ability to shape the content of these interviews, but in the current state of things, they do. Did you notice how pissed off the blogosphere seemed to be when Rich Johnston broke the DC moving to Burbank story on his blog? That's because all of those sites were aware of the story, but they didn't run it because they were "playing ball," only to have it "scooped" out from under them by a guy who doesn't give a fuck about playing ball. What you were seeing in action there was jealousy, envy at the freedom that's been, for whatever reason, taken away from the mainstream comics press.
Even The Outhouse caught a lot of flack when we were "blacklisted" by DC. How dare we make a stink about that? Who are we to rock the boat?
I'm not saying that all interviews need to be attacks, or that you can't have a cordial relationship with publishers. Sometimes, the comics execs do have the answer. Sometimes, the fans are worked up over nothing. Marvel and DC do put out good comics. Occasionally, one of them really might change the Marvel Universe forever and ever. But how can you tell the difference when you don't ask the questions (or don't publish them)? That's not healthy for the press, and it's not the point of the press. Frank and honest questions aren't hostility. They're journalism. So grow a spine, big comics media. Have some self-respect.
Comics execs, if you feel you're being persecuted here - our door is open any time you want to chat on the record. Readers, take big comics news site with a grain of salt. If the reporting at your news source is geared toward the best interests of Marvel or DC, then your interests are a lesser concern. Critical thinking is your friend here, and you shouldn't assume that the media is doing that for you, even if it is their job.