Preaching Outside The Choir: Why Comics Need To Advertise

Joe Mulvery writes for Bleeding Cool:

My name is Joe Mulvey, and I love comics.

I love reading them and making them, and I don't care who knows it. In fact, I tell as many people as possible about comics. Every month, I interview non-comic book readers (you can read the interviews in a column called "What do you REALLY know about comics?") In these interviews, I try to introduce non-comic book readers to the wonderful world of comics. But first, I almost always have to correct the misconceptions people have about comics. It's been my experience that a large portion of the public has no idea what comics really are today.

Most people think of comics as simply a set of 4-color characters, rather than a rich storytelling medium. When I ask non-readers to define the word, they tell me "comics ARE Spider-Man" or "comics ARE Batman." While they usually understand that these comic book characters can be brought to life in other mediums – blockbuster movies, video games, and TV shows – those same folks struggle to see the medium of comics as anything but those characters.

When I talk to non-comic book readers (let's call them "civilians"), I ask them to think of the medium of comics like television (or any other form of entertainment really). If you put on a TV and see Sponge Bob Squarepants, you wouldn't assume that the TV only plays cartoons for kids (or stoners), and shut it off, would you? No, instead, you'd change the channel and search for something else that interested you.

Scam1Comics are NO different. If you don't like superhero stories, the medium has you covered in every possible genre of storytelling you can imagine. Westerns, noir, sci-fi, romance, horror, (and that's just East of West!), the list goes on and on. Bleeding Cool readers know this, of course. But somewhere along the line, despite the enormous success comic book properties have had in other media, it hasn't translated to a broader recognition of all that comics have to offer the general public.

There is a bright side to this. When I conduct my interviews with "civilian" readers, my next question is, what kind of other media do you consume? I hear about their tastes in music, movies, TV, and books, and then I put a stack of comics in their hands that reflect those tastes. They go off and read the books, and two weeks later, we chat again.

The result? Nine times out of ten, it's a new comic book fan.

During my many interviews most (though certainly not all) "civilians" walk away from our talk with a new appreciation for comic books. Most people are shocked by the level of storytelling in the books. And a lot of them ask, "Why didn't I know comics were like this?"

Why, indeed?

From a 10,000 foot view, in comic books, we have a great product, a product that's arguable better now than it's ever been, that not enough people know about. What would any sane industry do in this situation?  (Hint: What would Don Draper suggest?)

Scam2Why Don't Comics Advertise?

Advertising and comics is what I really want to talk about. Technically, comics DO advertise regularly…in other comics. Or in PREVIEWS, a book dedicated to people who already buy and read…comics. Or online, on sites devoted to fans of…comics. See a pattern forming here? It's an insular strategy, that does little to reach NEW readers, and fails to educate "civilians" about all the medium has to offer.

So, why not advertise outside of comics? When I ask that of professionals in the comic industry, the usual response is that advertising is a waste of money. You'll never make back the money you spend on advertising, and that it's pretty much a losing cause. Do I agree with that sentiment? ABSO-FUCKING-LUTELY NOT!

Before I climb up even higher on my soap box, know that I have literally put my money where my mouth is on this specific topic. In 2012, I first published my creator owned book SCAM, through ComixTribe. SCAM is a story about super powered conmen on a revenge heist in Las Vegas. (Think Oceans Eleven meets the X-Men.) Initially, we took a page out of Sam Humphries'Our Love is Real playbook, and did a targeted micro-distribution print run of just 777 copies that we sold to just 21 retailers.

We parlayed the success of that initial run into a Diamond distribution deal to get us access to the rest of the comic market. It was exciting as hell. But as a new publisher and a totally unknown creator, presence in the Previews catalog is no guarantee of sales.

We needed to get the word out there to all these new shops, so we wracked our brains, thinking of the best marketing strategies to employ with a limited budget. Sure, there were the usual insular options – drop a couple grand on a full-color ad in the back of Previews. Or take out banner ads and site skins on the bigger sites (like this one), which would also run several thousand dollars.

Looking over our options, and understanding that competing for attention in this pool, already dominated by the major publishers, with the budget we had in hand, was a sure-lose situation.

Scam3Then one day during a happy hour jaunt in Time Square, I found myself looking up at the billboards all around me thinking how amazing it would be to have one of them be for SCAM. How much could a billboard possibly be, I wondered with an admitted amount of booming positivity that only a bit of the drink can bring on. The next day those dreams were soundly crushed when a price quote five times the cost of site skin on Comic Book Resources was handed down to me like a death sentence.

After a few seconds to regroup, the salesperson was nice enough to suggest some other areas not as pricey as Time Square. But none of the locations had the impact to me that would be worth the cost. Then I asked about the prices in Las Vegas, the setting of my book. SHA-FUCKING-ZAM! Thank you crappy economy! As it turns out, a billboard on the Vegas strip was actually within my budget. So do we did it.

ComixTribe and I put up a billboard in Las Vegas, and also included Maximum Comics, one of the retailers we partnered with on the micro-distribution release of SCAM. (Maximum sold 100 copies of SCAM on day one of its release.)

Of course, the added bonus – because comics, as a rule, hardly ever advertise outside of the all-too-insular world of comics, putting up a billboard for a new series was a STORY. A story that ended up getting covered on all the comic book sites we were thinking about advertising on, anyway.

Scam4I believe in advertising comics and getting the word out about them. Right now, we're running a nationwide radio ad campaign for the SCAM Ultimate Collection Kickstarter, which collects the entire mini-series, plus a never before seen 100+ page anthology featuring characters from the SCAM universe by established as well as up and coming creators.

>>>Listen to the SCAM Radio Spot Here!<<<

Did the advertisement work? Well, SCAM #1 launched in more shops then we'd ever been in before and as of right now ComixTribe is stocked in over 250 shops world wide, as opposed to the 25 we started with. It showed retailers we were just as serious about selling our books as we'd like them to be, and it got new readers walking into Maximum Comics in Las Vegas asking about the book and the billboard. So yes, advertising has worked for us.

But in terms of brand awareness, character recognition or history, we pale in comparison to the bigger companies. Which is exactly why I find the scarcity of advertising so shocking. Sure, DC did a little when launching the New 52 line, and their sales during that time were stellar. To be fair, any relaunch with a whole new set of number ones will get a boost, but DC and retailers reported lapsed fans and new readers coming into shops to see what was up with some of their favorite characters.

Advertising comics can work. Right now we live in an age where comic properties are more recognizable than ever. Movies, TV shows and video games with comic creations are making billions of dollars. The brands have never been stronger. But what about the comics?

The two biggest publishers in comics are owned by two gigantic corporations. Disney and Warner Brothers each own every possible outlet imaginable to initialize an effective advertising campaign, yet, for the most part, choose not to. Both make billions off the properties born in the pages of a comic, yet seem almost determined not to put back anything into the creative medium they were born in. And comics, ever the truant art form, seems determined to succeed in spite of their neglectful parents. Comics are currently the only print medium to not just survive, but thrive, while digital sales also soar. 

To make sure I didn't sound like (too much) of an ass, I spoke with two professional advertisers in preparation for this article. Both agreed that much more could be done to advertise comics but also agreed that there were problems. For example, synergy between products. While a hundred million people may have seen the Avengers movie, those interested in following those characters exploits back to the actual comics won't have the easiest time. Sixty years of continuity, books, solo series, one shots, tie-ins, etc. all sit as a hindrance to a new fan, creating a labyrinth that can overwhelm rather than welcome. While pointing out the challenges, they did posit that if a product is growing without the help of advertising, imagine how well it could grow with it?

So I asked each of them the million dollar question: How would you advertise comics?

While the experts I consulted had many different answers and approaches, they agreed the most immediate way to reach the broadest audience was to advertise the digital platform, and use that a gateway to the print product. The power and immediacy of  a digital platform that puts the product directly in consumers hand is undeniable. The elimination of newsstands and the limitations of the current comic distribution model to specialty shops promotes an insular cycle within comics that doesn't allow for the casual fan or new reader to discover (or re-discover) comics anymore. Comixology, (currently the biggest digital comics platform available) is the equivalent of a newsstand for comics. The only difference is that now, comics have the benefit of having that retail store directly inside their pocket. With that accessibility, driving readers to that platform seems the most direct and effective way to advertise.

Scam5Now you might say, I don't like digital, I like print. So do I, but there's no denying the reach and immediacy the digital platform allows. I think there has to be a synergy between digital and print sales. The digital side can bring in the new fans, but the print books and savvy retailers will be what keeps them. Comic book conventions and in-store events like FREE COMIC BOOK DAY (which my book SCAM #0:CROSSWORDS will be a part of this year) are celebrations of comics that can never be replicated digitally. Comics really can have the best of both world with the two different types of delivery methods of the product.

Scam6I'm not saying this article has all the answers, and I'm sure the heads of marketing at the bigger publishers would tell me I'm wrong in a million ways.

But I do know that the idea to not advertise the most creative and innovative form of entertainment in the world is ludicrous. Mustard, tampons, and paper-fucking-towels advertise consistently…why not comics?

Comic books drive pop culture right now. What's going to be hot in a movie theater in 2016 is in your local comic shop NOW! All other forms of media (with much deeper pockets) have discovered what you and I have known for years, COMICS ARE AMAZING! I just want to see more people find out about them.

I've put my money where my mouth is, and I'll continue to do so. Because I love comics, but more importantly, because I believe a lot more people will love them, too.

Joe Mulvey is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer from Queens, New York. He is the writer/artist of SCAM from ComixTribe.

Joe's book SCAM: The Ultimate Collection is on Kickstarter right now. 

If ten Bleeding Cool backers support the project, Joe will draw Rich Johnston getting violently murdered by a ghost in the first issue of his next comic book series.

About Dan Wickline

Has quietly been working at Bleeding Cool for over three years. He has written comics for Image, Top Cow, Shadowline, Avatar, IDW, Dynamite, Moonstone, Humanoids and Zenescope. He is the author of the Lucius Fogg series of novels and a published photographer.