Superhero Brand Management 101: One Pure Version Needed

 

Despite the success of the New 52 comic books from DC Entertainment’s DC Comics division, I’m still not seeing an ability by TPTB to consolidate their superhero properties into one source material. I’m a lifelong comic book fan, with a professional background in branding and licensing. I look at superhero properties not only as a fan but also as a brand manager. Here are a few problems I still see superhero companies like Marvel and DC struggling with:

 1) Superhero properties must be cross referenced and cross compatible. There isn’t one clear, solid mass consolidation of the characters across all major media- film, TV, video games, animated series and their related merchandising ventures. This goes for DC, Marvel and, to a certain degree, other comic book companies who overextend their properties. I think they’re taking the wrong approach. This is brand management failure in the making. By that I mean that there are too many versions and variants of characters and their costumes and storylines and it dilutes the core characters. At DC, they have a big problem: Why isn’t Superman’s costume and storyline from the regular comic books seamlessly tied into the 90’s Superman Animated Series, the CW’s Smallvile, DC Universe Online game and the new upcoming Superman movie? BTW, the next Superman movie has no relation with the past films, and is being produced as a relaunch/remake because Superman Returns wasn’t a big hit. Noticing how The Dark Knight made more money, Warner Bros. want the new Superman movie to be “darker.”  Unfortunately, they are all standalone, independent works with no consideration on how any one of these iterations relate to each other.

 Footnote: DC Comics editorial, Superman writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank superbly consolidated elements of the Superman movies and his past comic book iterations. Frank was allowed to illustrate Superman in the likeness of the late Christopher Reeve; the crystalline Krypton- designed for director Richard Donner’s Superman  by brilliant production designer John Barry, was incorporated into comic book Kyptonian architecture. The movie’s three Kryptonian villains (General Zod, Ursa and Non) finally appeared in the comic books. While General Zod originated in the ’50s comics, Ursa and Non were created for the  movies. It was Johns’ inspired idea to suggest they include all Kryptonian costumes designed by all comic book artists from the ’40s to present time, explaining that Krypton’s fashion was as diverse as Earth’s and what Kryptonians wore depended on their guild. Kryptonian fashion illustrated by John Byrne, Curt Swan, Gene Ha and from the films were all finally intermixed successfully. With the relaunch it’s unknown if they’ll keep that Kryptonian integration.

2) Too many %^$#**&$@ iterations of one character. Marvel suffers from this with all their properties. How many Wolverine comics are out there? There’s a title called Dark Wolverine and it’s not even the regular version of the character. And Logan once a proud loner is now in a whole bunch of teams! (Previously, he joined only the X-Men, that was the charm of it!) My question is: How does the comic book relate to the ’90s X-Men animated series, or 20th Century Fox’s X-Men movies, multiple X-Men video games, and other animated series? And now that’s happened with Spider-Man (the underdog loner) and all his different costumes. And let’s not forget there are two different Marvel Universes- the mainstream Marvel Universe and the Ultimate Universe. I know the reason behind it- sales and profits. Spider-Man and Wolverine are fan favorites. Marketing execs must love these infinite variations of the popular Marvel character since they can sell more comic books and toys, but it is confusing and turns away new readers.

3) Cost prohibitive and time prohibitive story lines.  I go across comic book aisles and see special event comics and multiple tie-ins and special issues (Blackest Night, Secret Invasion, DC’s numerous Crisis events and tie ins) and it turns me away. It’s unaffordable! It seems as if the larger companies are targeting upper middle class and upper class readers because the average fan cannot afford to buy so many comics just to get a complete story.

4) DC needs to scale back the amount of comics even more per month. Until the New 52, each month DC put out 52 regular titles, plus many four- and twelve- issue miniseries, and event comics for the tie ins and TBPs. Now they relaunced the DC Universe and cut back the number of monthly comic books to just 52. But it’s still too many comics to afford at $2.99 or $3.99 for each comic book. To read the full interrelaed story, the average buyer needs to spend $150 a month, and that’s for the New 52 comics alone! What about your favorite comics from Marvel, Dark Horse, IDW, or Dynamite? But even if the prices were lower the bottom line is that the average fan doesn’t have time to read every single monthly comic book that comes out per month. It’s impossible. We have to pick and choose what we read and often it feels like we aren’t getting the full experience because no one is picking up every single tie-in. This was a problem when the comic book companies flooded the marketplace with too many titles and eventually everything imploded as a backlash from the speculator boom and the industry still hasn’t recovered from that. Back in the ’60s Marvel had a very manageable lineup with about twelve titles per month. It was easy for readers to jump aboard, experience the full Marvel Universe and not feel overwhelmed. Remember the adage, less is more!

5) Superhero costumes need to be consistent to maintain strong branding. Getting back to the New 52, one big example of this problem is the Superman outfit. In Zach Snyder’s upcoming film, the colors are way off; it looks bluish grey with red violet and no red trunks. In the New 52 comic books, the costume has the right red and blue colors, but no red trunks, just a red belt. And a collar, which seems to be a superhero prerequisite in DC’s New 52. Superman’s outfit is still not consistent from one medium to another. Unfortunately the producers of the new Superman movie, and DC Entertainment clearly didn’t want the classic costume meaning the costume differs from the one Supes wears in the New 52. The result is that already many fans aren’t happy. The same thing happened with Green Lantern. They made a choice with the film to have the costume appear organic and that was fine, it worked. But they should’ve used that costume when they rebooted the New 52 Green Lantern comic book. As a matter of fact, many fans expected they would do that, and were disappointed. DC had the perfect chance and pretext last month with the relaunches to do this but they didn’t. They need to realize that the movie medium is the strongest medium and should be the strongest point of reference.

6) Superhero Genre: We need to understand that superheroes aren’t a medium they are a genre that spans several media. This was proven back in the ’40s when Superman became a radio star and ceased to be confined to the comic book medium. What should be done is to just pick the version that is most popular, whether they be the movie version or the comic book version. In other words, all media should be cross-referenced to be compatible, with the highest priority given to the look of the costumes. This doesn’t mean that story isn’t important but comic books are more of a visual medium so the costume and visuals can’t be screwed up.

 

7) Executive-level decision mass consolidation of the characters and stories across all major mediums. This has to come from the top execs of WB and Disney sending  directives to DC Entertainment and Marvel respectively. For example, the likeness of an actor portraying the superhero or villain should be used in the comics, toys, etc. This can be expensive in terms of royalty but it just means they need to better negotiate this when coming up with the contract.

8 )Power to the (fans and consumer) people! Another thing the companies can do is have some kind of fan base council (with power and influence) that report to the big guns as to what is popular and what isn’t based on direct feedback from fans who can provide comments or answer polls. This will help bring about the highest level of consumer satisfaction.

 9) Price and online incentives: The price of a paper copy New 52 comic is the same as it is with the digital copy. The digital copy has no enhanced features. Why not? DC is missing out on a huge online opportunity: Incentives for digital comics could be online content like official character websites, commentary, videos, etc. Senior level direction is needed to map out where everything is in terms of the characters’ bios. Online charts and maps should be provided to help new readers understand what is going on, draw them in and appreciate any character’s rich history. 

Conclusion:

 There has to be one pure version of the property, and looking at this from a branding perspective, the property is still muddled. The standalone, independent business model that superhero companies are following is a bad idea. Their properties must be cross-referenced and cross compatible for all mediums, and whichever company has the guts to carry out this properly will win in the long run.

 

GEO

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DC’s Digital and Print New 52: The Game Changer

DC  Comics unveiled this Wednesday their reimagined universe with Justice League #1, (written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Jim Lee and Scott Williams). This isn’t an ordinary reboot per se.

Variant cover to Justice League #1 by David Finch

Rather it’s the next evolution for comic books.  As every comic book fan knows, on August 31, 2011 DC simultaneously released print copies of Justice League #1 and digital downloads of the same issue. While comic book shops received their copies on Tuesday, they weren’t allowed to put them up on shelves until their stores opened the next day. With the digital downloads, however, they were ready for consumers at 12 am  midnight on Wednesday.

That already is one plus side for downloads and in theory this means that everyone, anywhere with Internet connections can get a copy of their favorite comic book.  If you lived in big cities like New York that have many comic book stores it’s fairly easy to find any kind of comic book. But if you live in small towns, often you’d have to travel many miles scouring the landscape for a new release and hoping that the small store you find still has a copy of the release. That is if they even carried it in the first place.

Upcoming Detective Comics #1, Cover by Tony S. Daniel

This could spell trouble for comic book stores. But if they’re smart they can re-tool their business model and possibly gear their stores more to sell merchandise based on the comic books. That’s just one idea. Either way, they need to adapt or go the way of travel agencies and record stores that were decimated by travel websites and iTunes. But for fans and publishers, digital downloads are the way to go. But it’s not without its drawbacks.

First of all, it’s one hundred percent web dependant. If your Internet connection is poor or the signal is cut off you can’t read the comic book. See, if I was living in the Legion of Superhero’s perfect 30th century world where technology was very advanced this wouldn’t be much of a problem. But today, it is still easier for me to walk five feet over to my bookshelf and pick up a print copy than to turn on a computer or tablet or smartphone and search for the same comic book in digital form. Also, there’s no interactivity with the Justice League download. The word balloons and art are static, but on a plus side, there are no ads and the images are hi-res. In fact, the final four pages consist of costume sketches by Lee and Johns.

Being that it’s a protected download, you cannot copy it and send or sell it to a third party. If your friend wants a copy, he or she can’t just borrow a print copy and give it back to you; it has to be bought. For publishers this is a godsend since I think this may help boost sales.

Speaking of that, I believe that the downloads will wind up selling five times more than print copies. Eventually we may see sales totaling about 500,000 per issue versus today’s dismal 20,000-30,000 figure. Of course, I doubt it will equal or top the World War II figures of millions of copies per issue and that’s because there is so much media for comic books to compete with.

Upcoming Action Comics #1, Cover by Rags Morales

A good ripple effect from downloads is that poor-selling titles may have a longer life. Ordinarily, a comic book with low sales would be canceled for economic reasons. But if it switched to being solely a digital download then production costs will be low enough to keep it going. While fans of that title won’t be able to own a print copy, they can at least follow the title on-line.

As downloads and new apps and technologies emerge and come of age, it will be easier for new generations already accustomed to the new technologies to buy downloads and actually prefer it over running down to the store to buy a print copy. This is truly a game changer not only for DC but the comic book industry at large. Now for the perfect connectivity, what’s the name of that 30th century Internet service provider?

GEO

From Flashpoint To A New Universe

All I read about DC Comics, these days, is what the New DC is…

DC’s Flashpoint the newest “event” series, is meant to last only six months. It will end at the end of August. This takes place in the screwed-up evil DC heroes universe, where Barry Allen, aka The Flash, is the only one who remembers the good ol’ wholesome DC universe.

This September, all of DC’s comics will relauch as #1, and this will be the new permanent DC. The comic book company says it’s not an “event,” not a prequel, a sequel or an alternate universe. For the current and next generation of DC readers, the DC universe starts here, in September.

Justice League #1 Cover by Jim Lee and Scott Williams

By the way, pick up the new DC’s Justice League, on sale Wednesday, August 31, by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, who are the chief creative officers for DC Entertainment. The new DC will center around the first issue of Justice League#1 so this will start it all.

I could be wrong, but my guess is that in August, the Flash from Flashpoint, in his efforts to right what was wrong and go back to the old DC universe, never truly succeeds. Kinda like Old Spock from the 2009 Star Trek film. or maybe the readers get to see Flash make it back home, but that old DC universe is closed for readers. No more old universe. The end of Flashpoint I imagine will be the destruction of the Flashpoint Universe (which was truly dark, evil and edgy- darker than Marvel) and from September on, a new DC Universe will appear, and although it’s not as dark as Flashpoint, it seems to be way cooler than the old DC. I know DC wants to match the coolness of Marvel. DC will never portray the original DC Universe as the main universe again. It’s timeline and continuity, they believe, served its 70-year purpose.

And that’s the objective- by every one of these books relauching at #1, DC has the means to start fresh with modern sensibilities.

DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986 did much of that, but back then, only Superman and Wonder Woman had a few of their books that relaunched at #1. And what they did then was consolidated dozens of Earths into just one. The 2011 DC Universe, is designed for readers who know nothing about DC, and is also designed for familiar readers. The reaction I sense from old fans is somewhat positive, maybe 70/30 split. But the majority of the old school readers who actively buy comics are approaching or are middle age. the new DC needs to maintain popularity with a fan base for young readers. With TV, movies, web, Youtube, videogames, and other adventure-based presentaions, comics have an uphill battle. And when guys discover girls, comics sustain a bigger loss LOL! In WWII, a single issue of Superman sold five million copies a month! A single monthly issue. These days Superman may sell only 30,000 copies, on a lucky month. And the majority of the readers today are aging fanboys.

BTW, all 52 new DC monthly titles will be available as a download or you can go to the stores and buy the paper comic. Digital download comics are undoubtedly the wave of the future. Every Wednesday, the latest DC comic will be available online and at the local comic shops. That’s a big step. According to DC editor Paul Levitz, digital download comics sell five times more than paper comics- that’s one reason why I believe this could work.

This new DC will work only if it attracts new readers, elementary school, middle and high school kids, who can click their iPhones to download the latest issue of Superman.  And these up and comers will need to want comics more than kids have in the last 30 years who had a ho-hum reaction to comic books up to now. This current generation (sometimes called millenials or Generation 9/11) has been raised on videogames, DVDs, the web, pop music and other entertainement that compete for the user’s attention against comics.
The majority of faithful comic book readers, historically fell into three groups–WWII-era young adults (young GIs stationed in Europe and the Pacific collected comics), baby boomers (who picked up their hobby from their parents) and those from Generation X. Any generation after that were less inclined to buy or collect comics. DC seems to be putting all their cards on the table for one huge gamble. If this doesn’t take off then this “relaunch” will be just another “event.”

Although it’s an uphill battle- these are the positives: it’s designed to be a new universe for new readers to jump in igital download for iPad, iPhone and Droid phones. There’s no need to walk into a store to get new DC comics every Wednesday. Of course this spells trouble for bricks and mortars businesses who will have to be innovative to survive.

My guess is that it will be more successfull than the overall 2010 sales for DC comics, at least, because 1) in 2010 only a select few DC comics were digital downloads and what DC saw is that digital downlad comics made five time more money than paper comics, and 2) from now on, all monthly DC comics are high resolution digital downloads (for the same price as paper comics).

So at the very least, the key to DC’s (and the comic industry overall)  survival is digital download sales, and the high likeleyhood that DC will make more profit than than in any given year in the last 20 or so years.

Geo