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In case you haven’t read it (although clearly a number of you have given the notes I’ve received) Heidi MacDonald at the Beat posted an interested story the other day titled "Why DC and Marvel will never truly target female readers." In it MacDonald states:
While I enjoy the heroic efforts on the part of DCWKA’s Sue, Kyrax2, Geek Momand the squadron of superhero suffragettes out there, and support most of their points, I feel their efforts are pre-doomed. Sure it’s obvious that a character like Stephanie Brown—a character with a younger,more vocal following—deserves to be featured in her own book. Sure it’s obvious from the licensing alone that a Wonder Woman book aimed at young girls would find an audience.
And yet despite the money left on the table, embarrassing publicity, and public fist shaking, DC’s treatment of the Girl-Wonder.org faction over the years has ranged from tone-deafness to active pigtail pulling. And it’s systemic. In last fall’s reader survey, DC went out of its way to choose the lower of two figures for the female readership. This isn’t an accident. It’s a program.
Why? Well, all conspiracy theories, corporate DNA and the WB’s own woman problems aside, the simple fact is that on a meta level, DC Entertainment produces entertainment for boys. That’s its place within Warners, its demographic slot and I’m sure at some point Diane Nelson has overtly been tasked with keeping the boy audience engaged for films starring Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern.
We may think this kind of pigeonholing is stupid, but in a world run by branding, the message matters. By addressing female readers (and also younger readers), DC risks alienating its core audience of teenaged boys and men 25-35.
You know I respect Heidi a lot, but I just think she’s wrong. And I’ll tell you why.
And let me say first, I don’t mind being pegged as quixotic dreamer fighting off the windmalls of broke back and giant boobs while sprouting sound business strategy. That’s much kinder actually than the crap I get in comics forums where it is suggested there be a kickstater to get me psychiatric treatment.
But I think what I take the most issue with in Heidi’s article that it’s not speculation that Warner Bros. and DC think they might alienate audiences. That it is a fact it will dilute the brand when the thesis for that boils down to essentially the contagion of “girl cooties” I can certainly spend hours going discussing why that doesn’t make sense. (And, hey, I will spend the next few graphs doing that.). It’s the assertion that it will.
Given my day job I’m pretty familiar with the concept of branding and marketing. And really how the two aren’t the same thing (although certainly interconnected). And I’m pretty familiar with marketing being done with out impacting a brand. And that’s why the idea that DC (and I’m going to focus on them as Marvel has other issues at play) “risks” alienating boys by addressing or marketing to women flies in the face of brands that were more testorone filled that DC Comics will ever be, more focused on “entertainment for boys” the NFL and NASCAR, doing pretty damn good expanding their marketing and not alienating their core audiences and not diluting their brand. Is their risk, of course, there is risk in any business. But the reward could be much larger than the questionable risk.
And I also have to side eye the theory that Diane Nelson, the Warner executive whose main claim to fame is to maximizing Harry Potter IP into a franchise successful with both male and female audiences, as being given direction to make the “boy audience” a focus. Particularly when both the Batman and Superman franchises, long before Nelson show up were successful at driving both males and females to the box office.
I’d say the boy audience is engaged already as is the female audience. Why would they want to change that strategy or as my grandmother used to say, “cut off your nose to spite your face?” (Not that they aren’t capable of it and don’t do it but WB shows much more savvy then the comic publishing side).
Now on to the other assertion I disagree with; that DC and Marvel will NEVER change.
Never, as someone pointed out in the comments on the Beat is a long, long time. And I can think of a lot of things we’d thought we’d never see from DC (and Marvel). I mean good gosh, if we trusted DC to stick to the concept of “never” we’d still have Barbara Gordon as Oracle (come on that was just toooo easy).
We’d never have seen the LCS develop (what comic books move to specialized stores? What people have to order their comics in advance?) or embracing digital (what make our content available digitally and see our market croak like the record industry) or even the DC reboot (what renumber Action and Detective to #1 after 70 years?). Madness I tell you; change is madness!
Now certainly don’t think that change will happen overnight. But I don’t think it will “never” happen. If that were true we wouldn’t have seen DC blink after the efforts of Kyrax last year. We wouldn’t have seen DC and Marvel continue to put out books that feature female characters drawn so don’t have their tits and asses as the main focus (God bless you J.H. Williams III and Cliff Chiang). That those books sell well, kinda hits at some of the assertion of the Beat as well.
It also means you wouldn’t have DC bringing a new writer on Catwoman who said publicly its because the company wants a "female perspective." And as far as DC Entertainment goes you wouldn’t have DC Nation featuring content with real, gosh doggone GIRLS like Super Best Friends Forever, Amethyst and the Black Lighting sisters. I’m sure you could try and make a case that this is simply an attempt at a Brony play where female friendly content creates a male fanbase rather than emanating cooties, but really I think that’s unlikely.
Now none of those are particularly change agents. I’d say more they are cracks in the ice. Signs of a thaw. Signs that yes we do recognize that people who don’t identify as male are an audience and here’s content for them. But there’s another thing happening that I believe will lead to more change.
I’ve been throwing out the theory that digital was going to change things for the big two for a few years. My theory is that the right content combined with a distribution system that took that bricks and mortars out of the equation as the only source would lead to the realization there is opportunity outside the traditional audiences.
And earlier this week I read something that I believe points to that. When DC announced the digital spin-off of Smallville, I said that this was book that could have a big impact on realizing that female readers can bring incremental financial value (because if there is one thing the Beat and I do agree on is that money talks). The audience of television’s Smallville was made up up of about 1/3 women even slightly edging up closer to 50% at times.
The site iCv2 put up an interview this week with Dan DiDio and Jim Lee and Lee mentioned something very interesting:
And one thing I’ll add, through comiXology we had some data from our sales on Smallville and about 40% of people buying or downloading that comic book were new consumers; they had opened up new accounts. To me, that’s a staggering large number and I think it points to the way we’re going to see a lot of growth, especially in terms of new readers.
There’s not mention of who those “new readers” are but I don’t think it is too much to assume there are a lot of women in that 40%. Women drawn to a book that is a spin-off of a superhero show that had quite a large female viewership. I mean I’m sure there are males in that group. It could be males who don’t like the current Superman books (I’ve heard from those) or male Smallville fans who for some reason just didn’t think to pick up a Superman comic before or current Superman readers who can’t wait for the floppy to appear and need their digital fix of Superman.
All could be likely. But I’m going with my first guess; it’s a lot of women.
I’d heard from a few different folks in and around DC that the Smallville numbers were “surprising” to New York editorial. Perhaps because the book was driven out of the California and was off their radar. Clearly as seen by the recent “Stephaniegate” debacle it’s not off their radar anymore. Maybe this can be a good thing?
And let’s face it, Jim Lee along with some other folks at DC are actually pretty smart. Those Smallville numbers are saying something. Why else talk about them? It’s got to better than talking about what the Atlantic said this week about their industry:
But the prominence of comic books in the mainstream belies the fact that the industry is largely stagnant. Licensing, in the form of toys, merchandise, and movies, is now the primary source of revenue. The Avengers alone made more money for Marvel than the total sale of print comic books, industry-wide, over the last two years. Alex Klein at the Daily Beastargues that many of DC’s recent headline-grabbing moves, like Green Lantern’s coming-out and the re-boot of their entire universe, are less creative decisions than they are (largely unsuccessful) attempts to revive the interest of a waning fan base that has turned its attention to smaller and more adventurous independent publishers.
That 40% new readers that is probably made up of a lot of women suddenly seems, well, important? Meaningful? How about the potential of putting the concept of “never” to rest?
Change will come. It will come perhaps as slowly as the glaciers melt. But then again, the pace of that has been picking up dramatically as we saw recently.
And in the meantime the idea that one should simply pack it up and call it a day seems hasty and requires that you watch this.
And that I leave you with this: