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How to Succeed in Comics Without Really Trying

January 3, 2011

Had a few comics-related conversations over the holidays, and particularly their similarity to theatre. Comic books, like stage productions, cannot show elaborate cinematic scenes. They suggest, and the audience (or reader) fills in the rest from their imagination. Panel 1: close up on a Bat-glove, fist cocked. Panel 2: DEMON minion lying on the floor. You don’t SEE Batman attack (reminder if you haven’t seen the Arkham City trailer, you haven’t seen CGI Keysi Shakespeare the way it’s meant to be played), you create it in your own mind, and that folks, is why fanboys are more INVESTED in these characters and these stories. We are more possessive because they truly are OURS more than something we only see in a movie or on television.

Because of that similarity, and because theatre has had to reinvent itself for thousands of years to keep entertaining in a changing world, the modern comics professional can learn a lot from the theatre world. The big one to consider today is literally the difference between a theatre that failed in the last 10 years, and one in the same city that kept its lights on and is still performing shows. The philosophy is simplicity itself:

Look on every single performance of every single show as your one and only chance to win over someone in that audience and make them a lifelong theatre goer. Someone out there has never come to the theatre before, and what they see and hear and experience tonight could be so overwhelmingly magical for them that they are hooked for life.

Look on every single performance of every single show as potentially the last straw for someone who has seen one bad show too many.

Remember The Dark Knight? That movie brought people into comic shops for the first time. They were looking for Batman. If what was in the comics DELIVERED what they wanted, some of them would have come back. (And maybe some comic shops that have closed in the last 2 years would have weathered the storm, but that’s a question for another day.)

But it doesn’t take a movie. It doesn’t even take a cartoon. SOMEONE is be walking into a shop for the first time EVERY DAMN DAY. Every issue of every comic is a chance to win them.

Every issue of every comic is also a chance to LOSE them. There is a misconception out there that because fanboys howl and complain, because they have always howled and complained, that it’s fine and even desirable, to anger, disappoint and insult them. And it isn’t necessary to master or even understand the basic tenets of storytelling because a bad story will pass the time for the next 6 months as well as, or better than, a good one. There is a reason it is writers with roots in or ties to other media who are having exponentially more success than the hacks: because they understand real readers and audiences. They know that those hundred guys on forums are not representative of anything. The vast majority of readers you never hear from either way. They like it and they buy again, or they hate it and they don’t.

Things can be bad enough for long enough that the most vocal and committed fans decide enough is enough. We’re seeing that happen in increasing numbers, but those are the extreme cases. Every issue of every comic IS a chance to lose one of those diehards, but it is also infinitely more probable it will lose a hundred casual readers. Particularly when the actual goal is to cause maximum offense. It’s not okay to know something is wrong but wait until next year to fix it. Every single issue of every single comic is an opportunity to win or lose. And like life, you simply don’t know how many chances you have left. The Reaper is out there, folks, and there are major titles whistling in the graveyard, acting like it doesn’t matter, they’ll fix it next year. It really doesn’t seem to occur to them that there may not be a next year.

It’s a new year, and I wanted this entry to be an optimistic one. I want to offer more encouragement to those pros out there who honestly do seem to be trying to fix this. I know things that have been breaking for 20-plus years can’t be fixed in a day, but unfortunately, that’s what’s required here.

There’s another theatre principle: the miracle. It’s 30 minutes to curtain, the paint is still wet, they’re finishing off the second act costumes with a glue gun, the props table fell over, breaking the decanter we need for the first scene, the leads are having a shouting match in their dressing rooms, the fire marshall is seizing all the pyro earmarked for the end of the first act, and the ASM is locked in the costume loft. But the show goes on because even though it is f-ing IMPOSSIBLE to overcome all that in less than half an hour, we dig in and do it, because we gotta. Because we give a damn.

So maybe, just maybe, this can be an optimistic entry after all. All you guys need to do is dig in and give us a miracle. If it sounds like a lot to ask, look at your cousins in theatre who’ve been doing it for just over 5,000 years.

Chris Dee
www.catwoman-cattales.com
cattales.wikispaces.com

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