Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Comic Book Media Past, Present, and Future

In light of what seems to be a spate of reshufflings and shutterings of comic book news sites (along a backdrop of similar situations in geek/nerd culture entities such as G4 and CNN Geek Out), I wanted to provide you with some insight on how where comics media has been, how it currently works and where it is going.

Where Comics Media Has Been
Comic book news websites have been around, in one form or another, since the start of the Internet: from message boards to fan sites to Big Fan Sites to Big Big Fan Sites to mass-audience corporately-owned sites.

Ten years ago, when I was working at DC, I was an editorial liaison to the marketing and promotions department. My job was to scan a steady stream of original art to specifically feed to Newsarama and Comic Book Resources. These were the two biggest shows in town, and the publishers generously catered to them. There was also, but that was already waning and within a few years it would be a shadow of its former self.

The comics news landscape, then, was made up of the aforementioned Newsarama and Comic Book Resources, Comicon, a few "indie" sites like Journalista (which would regularly grouse about the "wasteland" of contemporary comics) and a burgeoning group of independent blogs. This latter category reflected the "Wild West" spirit of the blogging revolution in general that was gripping the world; while content at the biggest sites could be "tempered" a bit as to not piss off the publishers (this doesn't include the oft-insane message boards of said sites), the blogs were given free rein to pretty much say whatever the hell they wanted.

As for mass-media websites, they rarely covered comic book related topics, outside of superhero movies, a handful of "mainstreamed" comics, and something like Batwoman being gay.

How Comics Media Currently Works
Around five years ago, the landscape of online comic book news started to radically alter. This was due in part to the increasing blockbuster status of superhero movies, which led to the Geek/Nerd fad in popular culture (as typified by "The Big Bang Theory"). Observing that comics culture could equal big website hits, mass-market news sites began to have their own comics niche blogs or spin-offs.

Meanwhile, the realization by the overall independent website/blogger community that there needed to be some income generated to make up for all their hours of work led to several sites being sold or partnering with mass-market news sites.

What ended up happening here -- and this is key -- is that publishers slowly being to realize that they could get their PR blasted through the mass-media instead of niche sites. This followed an overall edict by the publishers' corporate owners that they need to reach a larger audience -- the same audience that was eating up the movies.

So instead of getting your new event touted at Newsarama and CBR, you could get it at USA Today, the L.A. Times, The New York Daily News, MTV, CNN, and AOL. No matter that the news was often covered on these companies' niche spinoffs or blogs. All that really mattered was putting "USA Today-approved" on your cover or advertising materials.

And what is the natural consequence of this development. Yes, you guessed it: the big exclusives started going to the mass-market sites inside of the niche sites. As you can imagine, this pissed the fuck out of these niche sites, some of which tried to "strong-arm" the publishers into not pitching stories to the mass-media.

You also had the phenomenon of publishers literally selling exclusives to mass-media sites. I never observed this at MTV, but I was informed that this indeed took place with at least one major publisher and mass-media website, who had an "arrangement."

It might seem shocking to you that news stories were sold to a website. But having worked on mass-market websites before MTV, I learned that this is a common practice (especially in the gossip/entertainment realm). And it can go either way: the mass market site pays the publisher/publicist, or the publisher/publicist pays the mass market site.

Is this really journalism? As Gawker might say, it is more like "Journalismism."

But such a judgement assumes that if you take the "pay-for-play" out of the equation, you will have the equivalent of Edward R. Murrow level comic news coverage. No.

Across most major news sites -- comics and otherwise -- there is the constant struggle between reporting the truth and not alienating publicists/studios/publishers/networks.

Does the door get "closed" if you poke the Entity in the eye too much? Yes. This has not really happened so much to me, even when I have written posts critical of a particular comic or publisher. But I worked for a mass-media news site.

But what if you're Newsarama or CBR and you do this? What if you're a small comics news site?

Here are stories I overheard:
* A major publisher asking a niche site to shut down their message boards, because too much "smack" was being written there about their comics and talent.
* A major publisher discouraging reviews in favor of features -- because features are more likely not to have any criticism.
* Publishers requesting that parts of already-posted articles be "edited" to remove criticism.

How can niche comic sites both stay in the good graces of the publishers and write occasional criticisms and "negative" stories? What sort of leverage do they have?

Increasingly, they do not have that leverage anymore. Except. By being bombastically critical. More on that later.

Lastly, I want to note how dealing with the mass-media actually shapes the content of publishers. You may have noticed that publishers these days seem to be a lot about one "gimmick" after another in their books. Somebody dies, somebody is gay, there is a new version of somebody but in a different hue, somebodies shack up, etc. This is absolutely done with the anticipation of having it covered by the mass-media sites. Each gimmick is measured as a certain amount of PR "hits."

For the publishers, there is no reason not to do this anymore. Ditto for "spoiling" various twists and turns in their stories. If you can get on the front page/homepage -- or at least somewhere "above the fold" -- you're golden.

The Future Of Comics Media
Mainstream sites like Gawker and TMZ are routinely hated by publicists; they live to snark. And yet, these sites will still be "courted" by publicists. Now why is that? Because negative publicity can be deadly, and lingering; just like a nice, big burrito fart.

Take the case of Beyonce and her "ugly photos." The singer's publicist contacted a number of major websites to remove the offending pics from their sites. The result: the sites indignantly blasted those photos EVERYWHERE.

The future of comics media is that the niche sites will increasingly get bold and more critical of publishers, in a way they wouldn't dream of only a few years ago. This will both be good and bad. It will be good, because we will see more actual journalism -- which might, if we're lucky, produce actual positive change in the industry as a whole. It will be bad because this is, theoretically, a no-limit situation.

What I mean by "no-limit" is, you know how Gawker posted a video of Hulk Hogan fucking his friend's ex-wife? And then there was a court case and Gawker was ordered to take down the video and the site was like: "fuck that"?

Comic creators and staff are the celebrities of the comic book community. Extend the metaphor from there.

While all that is going on, in the mass-media the geek/nerd "fad" will be on its way to dying out, being absorbed back into the larger rubric of "Entertainment." This is why CNN axed their niche site, and this is why G4 was turned into the Dude Channel. I flipped through a new magazine called Geek a few months ago, and it was mostly a men's culture mag with "The Walking Dead" on the cover and almost no comic book related material other than "WD" and a blurb on the "Dark Knight" animated movie.

Will that mean that publishers will then go back to the indie niche comic sites with their tail between their legs?

The problem here is, as I outlined in a recent post on the future of the comics industry, that the major publishers will increasingly only put out content that caters to the mass-market, movie-going, TV-consuming audience.

In Conclusion...
I'm going to try to end this post with a positive "spin" on this topic. Here goes:

I'd say that if you are a person who loves comic books -- or horror movies, or video games, or whatever -- go write about your passion if you are so inclined. Just go and write. Start a blog, start a small website. Being an independent agent, you have a bit more freedom -- and you should take advantage of it (within the bounds of human decency; though I know that "human decency" is a concept that is considered "subjective").

An observation: don't depend on "comps" and review copies. The moment you start accepting these things, you immediately set up a relationship of implied "give and take" with the publisher. Even if you consider yourself steadfastly uninfluenced by such things, there might still be this subliminal residue where you're like: "well fuck -- they were so nice and gave me this." This is not to say not to accept comps. But be aware of this. And be aware that you might not receive comps anymore if you are too critical. And be OK with that.

Also, if you are ultimately seeking a job writing/drawing mainstream comics, consider that going into comics news may not be for you. Unless you're "playing the game" and know exactly what you're doing -- which would be to trade good PR for implied gigs down the line. Which is kind of a shitty thing to do. But it is done.

In the end, the comics industry as a whole is very dog-eat-dog. Media is very dog-eat-dog. There is a place for -- nay, a gaping, sweaty hunger for -- hard-hitting news and the truth. But don't expect a fucking medal for it. Do it for yourself.