The most important speech given to a comics industry audience since 2004, part 2

As discussed in the previous post, Eric Stephenson’s comments about female readers were spot-on. His speech shows a clear understanding of why reaching out to new audiences is the comics industry’s most important task. Where he began to go wrong was in his comments about licensed comics, and this is the part of the speech that has inspired the most controversy. Indeed, the public reaction to this speech has focused largely on Stephenson’s criticisms of licensed comics, while ignoring his claims about female readers. For example, on Bleeding Cool the story about Stephenson’s speech is deceptively headlined “‘Star Wars Comics Will Never Be The Real Thing’ – Eric Stephenson, Publisher Of Image Comics, Talks To ComicsPRO.” I don’t know whether people have no objection to Stephenson’s claims about the importance of female readers, or whether they just don’t care.

Anyway, what Stephenson said about licensed comics was this:

We talk about being obsessed with expanding our audience, but if publishing lesser versions of people’s favorite cartoons, toys, and TV shows is the best we can do, then we are doomed to failure.

Simply reframing work from other media as comic books is the absolute worst representation of comics.

We can invite readers to innovate with us, but repurposing someone else’s ideas as comic books isn’t innovation – at best, it’s imitation, and we are all so much better than that.

And subsequently, after talking about Walking Dead:

Like I said, THE WALKING DEAD comic book was selling great before it was a television show.

Now it sells even better.

And that’s because the show made people aware of the comic – and those people came to your stores to get that comic.

Because they want the real thing.

TRANSFORMERS comics will never be the real thing.

GI JOE comics will never be the real thing.

STAR WARS comics will never be the real thing.

Those comics are for fans that love the real thing so much, they want more – but there’s the important thing to understand:

They don’t want more comics – they just want more of the thing they love.

Those comics are accessories to an existing interest, an add-on, an upsell, easy surplus for the parent products – icing on the cake.

Comics are so much more than that, and this industry has existed as long as it has because of the ingenuity of men and women all over the world who yearn to share the fruits of their imaginations, not simply find new ways to prolong the life of existing IPs.

I think the controversy is justified. First, this part of the speech is undignified because it reads like a petty attack on IDW and Dark Horse.

Second, it also reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that transmedia storytelling works. As Henry Jenkins explained in 2007, and as I’ve explained it to my students, the whole point of transmedia storytelling is that no single element of a given intellectual property has an exclusive claim on being “the real thing.” My Little Pony comics, for example, are no less “real” than the corresponding TV show. They are designed to be effectively coordinated with the TV show, while also allowing the writers and artists a degree of creative freedom. In his Twitter chat with my class on Friday, Andy Price emphasized that he and Katie Cook receive a significant degree of input from Hasbro, but that Hasbro does not force him to follow a specific horse style, I meant to type house style but I will let the typo stand. (This is a difference between the MLP comic and other licensed comics such as Peanuts, which is drawn in a much more standardized style.) This means the MLP comics are both a genuine labor of love and an independent element of the franchise, unlike many earlier licensed comics, which really were just ancillary works that did not expand on the source material in any way. Probably that was the sort of comic Stephenson had in mind when he said that licensed comics were not the real thing. But MLP is not that sort of comic, and neither are, for example, the IDW Transformers comics, which seem like genuinely high-quality works; I haven’t read any of them, but I’ve seen excerpts from them that look quite intriguing. It is also worth remembering that licensed works often make important contributions to the narrative of the parent work, and so on; we all know that kryptonite first appeared in the Superman radio show, not the comics, and people have pointed out that many Transformers characters were originally developed in the Marvel comic rather than the cartoon. The notion that licensed works are inherently second-tier, ancillary works has never been entirely true, and in the age of transmedia storytelling, this notion is less true than ever.

But third, if Stephenson’s goal is to attract new readers to the comics medium, then empirical evidence suggests that licensed comics can do that effectively. This is a key point that IDW publisher Ted Adams makes in his response to Stephenson:

- My Little Pony has brought in tens of thousands of new readers to comic shops. I’ve been traveling a lot in the US and every city I visit, I stop in to the local shops to learn what’s working and what isn’t. Every single store I’ve visited tells me that MLP comics have brought kids into their shops in a way that no other title has. This has led many stores to start or increase the size of sections aimed directly at kids. In case it’s not obvious, over time, kids reading comics turns into teenagers and adults reading comics. We all had to start reading comics somewhere and even though those comics aren’t “real” in Eric’s world, they are for the kids who love them.

- IDW titles are regularly sold through Scholastic Book Fairs and Books Clubs. This season we have books featuring My Little Pony, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The print runs of each one of those books is 3 or 4 times the best-selling comic in the direct market. Why is this important? Because if the kids who buy those books at school want more, the next place for them to buy them is their local comic shop.

The MLP comic has been phenomenally successful in bringing in new and younger readers, perhaps more so than any other comic in recent memory. And this is not just because of its exemplary level of quality, but also because IDW has effectively marketed it to children who are already fans of the show, placing it in venues like Scholastic book fairs where it can reach children who would never enter a comic book store. In that sense, licensed comics can be a gateway drug that gets children into the comic book store and sparks their interest in the medium more generally. In fact, this is exactly how I got into comics. When I was about 7, my dad took me to the College of Comic Book Knowledge in uptown Minneapolis and bought me some Transformers and GI Joe comics, because I was already a fan of the corresponding toys and TV shows. Somehow my interest in those particular comics transformed into an interest in comics in general, and now I’m a comics scholar. Mine is an extreme case, but it suggests that licensed properties can be as effective as original IPs in attracting new readers, perhaps even more so because of those readers’ existing familiarity with the material.

Now Stephenson himself admits that this process can work in the other direction — that licensed properties based on comics can drive sales of the original comics. He says:

Like I said, THE WALKING DEAD comic book was selling great before it was a television show.

Now it sells even better.

And that’s because the show made people aware of the comic – and those people came to your stores to get that comic.

As anecdotal proof of this, on Saturday I shared a taxi with a middle-aged couple, and when I told them I was going to a conference on comics, the wife said that she had started reading Walking Dead comics because of the TV show. And this woman was obviously not the stereotypical type of person who would normally go into a comic book store. So clearly Image is doing something right when it comes to using licensed works to promote the original comics. (On the other hand, of course, Marvel and DC have been famously unsuccessful at using their movies to increase sales of their comics. I’ve never understood why Marvel and DC can’t do this effectively, but that is beyond the scope of this post.) Stephenson’s mistake, however, is to assume that this process can only occur in one direction — that licensing is only good for the comics industry when comics are adapted into other media, and not vice versa. Again, one of the core principles of transmedia storytelling is that transmedia properties have multiple entry points, and that readers can start with any of the works in the franchise and move on to any of the others. (For example, in my own case, I encountered Queen Chrysalis in the MLP comics before I had gotten to that episode of the show.)

So I think that Stephenson is wrong about licensed comics and Adams and Richardson are right. Ultimately, though, the similarities between their positions are more important than the differences. The key point here is that comics are a versatile, flexible medium, capable of offering many different pleasures to many different audiences, and the benefits of reading comics should not be reserved for adult men like me. Stephenson, Adams and Richardson are all aware that the central problem facing the comics industry is how it can reach out to people outside its traditional target demographic of adult males. Their disagreement centers around whether the best way to do this is through licensed properties or original IPs, but these two options are not mutually exclusive.

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