Confessions of a Comic Book Guy is a weekly column by Steve Bennett of Super-Fly Comics and Games in Yellow Springs, Ohio. This week, Bennett (with an assist from famed artist/writer Barbara Slate), explains why comics for girls get cancelled.
The major problem publishing comic books for kids today, especially those for girls, has always been the obvious: they don't sell as well as superhero comics, especially in the direct sales market where it's always been the tiniest of niche markets. Of course there are other markets for them: newsstands (even though there are increasingly fewer of those), trade paperback collections, subscriptions, foreign markets, digital, etc. And of course they serve as breeder farms for new readers -- which is theoretically what everyone wants, but nobody wants to pay for.
Kids comics always been easy for hardcore superhero fans to marginalize and mock, as they're a painful reminder of the days when comics = "dumb kid stuff," the same way it's always been easy for publishers to diminish their importance because they "don’t sell," in the sense they don’t meet the same sales plateaus as superhero comics. So when they're invariably cancelled, publishers can invoke "the bottom line" (i.e., you just can't argue with the math).
You would think companies owned by major corporations would be able to afford to make a little less up front and could write off this "loss" as an investment in helping to grow a potentially multi-million dollar market. But unfortunately short term profits are all that matter in a world where “publishing” has more to do with capitalizing on intellectual properties on multiple platforms than actually publishing. So comics for kids, girls in particular, are considered "loss leaders," something that when done at all is done reluctantly and grudgingly.
Oh, Marvel and DC still try. They try on a fairly regular basis. DC still has a handful of Johnny DC as well as a surprisingly good selection of free digital comics available on line, like Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade and Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam. And not so long ago Marvel had a bunch of kid's titles several rungs above their usual assortment of kid-friendly superhero titles (not that there’s anything wrong with those). Like Franklin Richards, Son of a Genius; Mary Jane (which morphed into Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane); Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers; and more recently, Thor the Mighty Avenger.
They try, but invariably fail. None of those titles are being currently published so I want to be hopeful about the chances for Marvel's current Share Your Universe initiative but after seeing these kind of comics fail year after year it's hard not to be realistic. Take for instance the 1990's. Marvel had a great line of comics for girls including Barbie, Barbie Fashion, Sweet Sixteen and the girl-skewing Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Then they were cancelled, like a lot of other Marvel comics were, this being the "bust" portion of the boom and bust 90's, but even at the time this struck me as being spectacularly short-sighted.
And it certainly didn’t make sense to someone who was there. Recently I had the opportunity to speak to Barbara Slate, who wrote the book You Can Do a Graphic Novel, and wrote and drew the comic Angel Love for DC Comics. She also wrote and drew for all of those 90s Marvel comics I mentioned, and this is how she remembers the day it was over:
"It was shocking! One day I went into Hildy Mesnik's office, my Barbie editor, and she said 'Barbie is over. We are cancelling the Girl Line.' I was heartbroken. We had a great group of Barbie writers and artists. We were all passionate about Barbie. Our Barbie was a feminist. She was the girl who could do anything and live anywhere! Each month Barbie could be an astronaut, a model, a scuba diver, a teacher. Funnily enough, just months before the cancellation I wrote a Barbie story for April Fool's Day about the Barbie comics being cancelled. The last panel was APRIL FOOLS! I guess the joke was on me."
And if anyone was wondering if this sort of comics could really have any kind of genuine impact on its readers, well, I asked Barbara if she ever had any contact with the girls who read her comic:
It's hard not to see the cancelling of those comics as a missed opportunity, or to not think about where the market might be if they were still being published. But that, of course, is just wishful thinking, because no matter how good the intentions of publishers, or good the comics themselves, somebody has to be willing to spend money to make money. And that doesn't seem like it's going to happen anytime soon.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
Column by Steve Bennett
Posted by ICv2 on August 27, 2013 @ 6:04 pm CT