Friday, February 24, 2006

Abraham Maslow and the Underpants Gnomes Part 1

I thought this week was going to be about fandom but this came to me in a dream so I thought I'd run with it.

There's an hierarchy of needs in the comic industry but damned if I can tell whether anyone knows it! Actually, that's not totally true, while many folks don't have a clue, it often seems that even those those who do, seem to believe that they somehow transcend them.

Abraham Maslow theorized that, "... crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy." A quick peek at the industry reveals that he might have been prophesizing about comics.

Only when the lower order needs of physical and emotional well-being are satisfied are we concerned with the higher order needs of influence and personal development. Unfortunately too many in the industry never meet the most basic Biological and Physiological needs - food, drink, shelter, sex, sleep, etc... to ever move up the pyramid.

For those who are zoning out at this point, how about a South Park shout out? South Park addressed a similar concept in Episode 2-17 "Gnomes" where The Underpants Gnomes have a three-phase business plan, consisting of:

  1. Collect underpants
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

None of the gnomes actually knew what the second phase was, and none seem to concerned about that key missing part as if their dogmatic allegiance to steps 1 & 3 would magically resolve step 2. Much of the comic industry believes:

  1. Make/buy comics
  2. Profit!
Without even an allusion to a step 2! But back to the Hierarchy, the Comic Industry's Hierarchy, as I see it goes something like this:

  1. Profession or Hobby needs - Decide this before anything else. Will you need this to provide for your food, shelter, drink, sex, etc.?
  2. Safety needs - have back-up to ease "unforeseen" stumbles. Have issues in the can and capital to cover materials or inventory when reality doesn't rise to expectations. Know your responsibilities to others and theirs to you.
  3. Belongingness needs - find your peers as well as your client/partners, share and learn, but also find your Jiminy Cricket, that voice that will tell you what you need to hear, if not always what you want to hear.
  4. Promotional needs - advertising, promotion, public relations, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.
  5. Self-Actualization needs - realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences, forget about just being better than those around you and focus on being the best you can be.
This applies to every facet from Publishers to Creators to Retailers but don't just take my word for it, lets take a look at why this fantastic industry, while putting out some of the best work and receiving the most media attention ever, is still incapable of supporting more than one full line distributor and the one distributor it has is spending more time chasing toy deals than in working with it's small press vendors to ensure that they can be profitably distributed in the direct market.

Creators. Without someone creating comics there would be no comic industry. No need for publishers, distributors, retailers, fans... Probably more than ever before, their is more creative output and a lower barrier to entry for creators to bring a comic to market. While this has yielded many gems, unfortunately this has also resulted in not only a ton of half-assed creative efforts but also many fantastic efforts stillborn due to half assed promotional and fulfillment efforts.

Sturgeon's Revelation, "Ninety percent of everything is crud", can explain away many of the creative failures but to see books like Hawaiian Dick, Rex Mundi, Wahoo Morris, Finder, Nothing Better... rendered commercially unviable (at least in the print comic format) is a sin. Actually Rex Mundi started well due to the fan base generated by the Brother Matthew Sunday Style Online Strip, a unique story line that introduced the public to the world of Rex Mundi. It ran for a year prior to RM's release, but the repeated failure to meet their solicitation schedule killed the creators' credibility and all but killed the title.

Unfortunately the titles above are just the tip of the iceberg and in most if not all cases, this is due to the creators failure to understand the hierarchy of needs. "If you print it, they will come", might make a cute movie premise but it just doesn't work in the real world. Comics need promotion as much or more than CDs, DVDs, Video Games, TV Shows... Not only to reach current readers but more importantly (especially for non-spandex work) to reach beyond the direct market customer, to the potential new reader who has no clue that there are comics that would be of any interest to them nor where to find them.

When was the last time you went to the movies without knowing the exact movie you were going to see? Why? Probably because of ads, interviews, reviews, online trailers... and while at the theater you probably also saw a lot of posters, maybe ads on your soda or snack package and certainly some trailers which planted the seeds for the movie you would see on your next visit. Comics can't afford to market like this? Bullshit, they can't afford not to, any of 'em. See what John Taddeo is doing to promote the release of his series, Zoom Suit. Do a Google search on Zoom Suit and see how many hits come up and where John's home page falls. Then run a similar search on your favorite underloved comic. Do you get any hits? Where does the "Official" site show up if at all? As a retailer I am constantly frustrated when trying to find info on small press books that are unavailable from Diamond or Cold Cut (more on them in the Distributor section) because these folks haven't even bothered to set up a home page and fed the search engines!

Man, if movie studios tried that, there would be no theaters and guess what? The only way to see a new flick would probably be online, assuming anyone could afford to film one without any capital. Maybe they could do it in 15 minute increments over a few years, eh? It's a great story, the fans will wait, right Messrs. Tucci, Campbell, Maduriera and Liefeld?

How about the music group that put out their CD recorded on their answering machine, in mono, because they couldn't afford studio time or real recording equipment and oh yeah, it still costs as much or more than most CD releases but you should still buy it because it's an alternative to the big studios.

Look, I love a wide range of comics from up and comers like Shana Manion, Ryan Claytor, Julia Sage, Robert Tritthardt and a host of others along with my Batman, Astonishing X-Men, Y the Last Man and the rest of the Big 2 output but I don't owe them a living. One of the reason I love the creators I just mentioned is that they show respect both to the industry and to me as a retailer and a fan. They don't look for hand outs, they work to create awareness for their projects, they deliver what they promise and they don't make excuses. I would go out of my way to promote their work to my customers and friends because they've earned it.

Oh and just to set the record straight, yes, I know the industry is heavily reliant on super hero comics but here's a little known secret... IT'S BECAUSE THEY SELL! And you know what else? They sell at the movies too! Who had the bigger box office, X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman or I, Robot, Ray and The Note Book? And it wasn't comic fans driving those ticket sales. it would take each of the 150,000-200,000 people who buy New Avengers or Infinite Crisis to buy 2,000 tickets each to achieve their Domestic Box Office totals. Artificially preventing the public from buying what they want won't make your work sell better, making your work better than what is currently available and making it accessible just might.

End of Part 1. More to come this weekend...

Publishers, Distributors & Retailers, oh my!

1 comment:

  1. Captain Math asked me to post his comment on this:

    "And it wasn't comic fans driving those ticket sales. it would take each of the 150,000-200,000 people who buy New Avengers or Infinite Crisis to buy 2,000 tickets each to achieve their Domestic Box Office totals."

    The total combined domestic box office for the three films listed is a bit over $800 million. If these 200,000 people each bought 2,000 tickets, that would be 400 million tickets, so that would mean an average ticket price of a shade over $2. Even in 1989 when Batman was released, the average ticket price was $3.99, and they have gone up considerably since then.

    Of course, when you buy your tickets 2,000 at a time, you might get a price break, I suppose.

    And with that, Captain Math flew off into the mist.