The Curious Case Of An Entertainment Company And LGBTQ Comics

In January, 2008 a manager of business development for MTV/ LOGO, a subsidiary of Viacom at the time. The manager stated LOGO was interested in becoming involved in the LGBTQ comic world and wanted to learn more about it. After a brief exchange a list of topics was presented to me and I spent some time thinking and preparing answers. Of course, this happened nearly eleven years ago. If they or another company approached me tomorrow I’d have other ideas to convey.

So here it is unvarnished and only cleaned up for formatting though links are very likely dead.

Presentation to MTV/ LOGO

Where do you see the most opportunity?

The superhero genre in comics seems to rule as far as “mainstream” comics are concerned. Mainstream in this instance meaning traditional and popular. There are also “slice of life” comics like Strangers in Paradise and Love & Rockets, both with lesbian/bisexual main characters. Then there’s manga.

In an email to Jennifer I briefly discussed what are called “boys love” and yaoi manga that have been created in Japan, mostly by women, and aimed at primarily women. They seem to be mainly aimed at women in the US, too. A man I know, Lyle Masaki, wrote this intro to BL and yaoi manga recently for your AfterElton site. It’s a very concise and good article that gives a better understanding in a nutshell than I could give you. Here’s the link to it.

With few exceptions, manga in the US has consisted entirely of translating and reprinting licensed material from Japan, and now also Korea, and to some extent China. By their nature, these series reflect cultural, traditional, and creative norms or situations specific to the countries of their respective creators (also called mangaka). In the case of BL and yaoi manga, characters are drawn and written that don’t always correspond to Western ideas.

Licensing for manga in general and I think for yaoi and BL in particular is very competitive right now. I think if would be difficult to break into publishing this kind of licensed material. Only recently has there been any original English language (often abbreviated to “OEL”) manga from TokyoPop or boutique US publishers like Iris Print and Yaoi Press. Even in these instances, the manga I’ve seen tends toward a manga style than Western art styles and in both cases the target audience for these companies is the same as manga in general, women.

There was a two volume OEL manga titled “Steady Beat” that was, if I recall, a story about a woman who learns after her sister’s death that she was lesbian. There is hardly anything else equivalent in manga available here that is the lesbian equivalent of BL and yaoi. The Japanese name for this equivalent is “yuri.” There is a group of yuri fans that occasionally create their own anthology collection.

The superhero genre seems to be the most lucrative of comics in general. The people reading them also tend to have the highest set of expectations. There has to be action, excitement, a good plot and characterization, good pacing in the story, a good balance with interesting supporting characters, and dynamic and fairly realistic art. This may seem pointless, but there also needs to be color. This kind of reader will more often than not ignore a comic that’s printed in black and white regardless of how good or highly recommended it may be. Superhero fans can be intensely loyal.

On a related note, there has been growing evidence or a desire if you like, being voiced by women who read superhero comics who want an intelligently written and drawn female superhero who isn’t designed to appeal, especially visually, to heterosexual guys that “live in their parents’ basement, and can’t get a date.”

I think there is a lot of opportunity in this area, but there have been a number of small, new publishers try to break in to this market and falter or fail if only because they couldn’t attract or afford to pay good money for quality talent. If you are to venture into this genre then I strongly suggest raiding some of the better talent in the industry to attract potential buyers.

The last area I see is the “slice of life” market that I’m going to loosely expand to include other kinds of stories outside of superhero comics and manga. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel is both slice of life and autobiographical. Tim Fish’s Cavalcade of Boys was about a circle of friends and lovers who sometimes became ex-friends and ex-lovers.

Slice of life comics are usually designed to have a beginning, middle, and ending whereas super hero comics are traditionally about keeping the property or franchise in print in order to make maximum money from the character. This kind of model usually inhibits character growth and change.

I think the most freedom for opportunity is in this area. The inherent danger with slice of life stories is that the characters are only self-indulgent, navel gazing whiners. Hiring intelligent, savvy, and clever writers would be really important with this kind of story.

I also think this genre, even when it isn’t as loosely defined as in this instance, has the most “crossover” appeal to both the potentially large demographic that doesn’t read comics, but enjoys the equivalent in movies, and the pool of superhero fans. Typically there can be some crossover between superheroes and slice of life. It also exists between slice of life and manga. It’s my estimation that there is less of this happening between all three of these genres, if only because of the difference in manga art styles and its standard black and white printing.

Fans sometimes perceive comics as expensive. For those people it can seem more comfortable to take a chance on a new standard 32-paged comic for $2.99, buying it for a few months to get a “test-drive” kind of feel, than it is to spend $14.95 for a graphic novel with 100 or so pages of story. On the other hand, there are people who buy only graphic novels or trade paperbacks. These terms are somewhat interchangeable though technically graphic novels contain only brand new material as opposed to trades that collect or repackage stories from standard comics.

One idea might be to experiment with an anthology style comic that depending on page count features two or more stories. The stories could either be serials or single, short stories. The anthology could be divided between superhero and slice of life stories. As outdated as this suggestion will seem in the age of the Internet, comics used to feature a letters page section. Readers would send comments by snail mail and editors or writers would reply. Including a letters page would acknowledge that tradition and also show a sense of willingness on the publisher’s end. Then again, I’d hate to see something like this be a deal breaker.

Do you know of a lot of unsigned comics talent and where might we find them if we were interested?

There are a lot of artists and writers in comes that are either doing work for hire or putting out their own work by self-publishing, sometimes doing both. A lot of the creative talent is not under exclusive contract to either of the “big two” publishers, DC and Marvel. Many of these people have web sites or blogs or participate in certain comics oriented forums, not necessarily mine for example. I’m most familiar with LGBT people in comics and I can put together a list. I can do the same for non-LGBT comics talent, too, though it would take more time.

What do you see as realistic sales figures?

Sales figures are not my strong point. The answer to the question might also be very dependent on factors. Instead I’ll try to give you a background on the market and distribution, as I understand it. I also need to point out that there is likely is very little in these sales figures that may apply to sales figures of new LGBT comics. At the end of this section I provide some links to articles that may give you better insight into sales and what might be realistic.

Comics are almost exclusively marketed and ordered through a company called Diamond Comics Distributor . There are a couple much smaller distributors that exclusively market small press/ independent/ self-published comics, but I think these companies will be mostly irrelevant to this discussion.

Diamond publishes a monthly catalog, called Previews, soliciting comics and graphic novels two months in advance of release dates. The comics section of the print catalog (including a separate comic sized one for Marvel) comes to around 400 pages and includes previews of comics, full page ads, along with enticing solicitation copy for individual comics and related merchandise.

Both comic shops and individuals can order from the Diamond catalog. Individuals have to put in their orders through a comic shop though. This is what is referred to in the comics industry as the “Direct Market.” For example, this month’s order deadline is January 28th. Diamond compiles the figures from all of the orders it receives and then informs the various companies how many copies of each title have been ordered this way. These companies then “go to press” and have the printer print that number plus x % more.

In comics there is also the “non-direct market” (my phrase). This includes grocery stores, gas stations, Wal-Mart and similar stores where comics at one time were predominately sold. These places typically carry a much smaller selection of only a few comics from DC, Marvel, and Archie.
Unfortunately, I don’t know of any sales figures for this market.

There is also the book store market. While I have seen monthly, single-issue comics (sometimes referred to as “pamphlets,” a term that carries some connotations) in my local Borders, bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble primarily order graphic novels and manga. Manga seems to far outstrip the amount of graphic novel material. Note that manga can also be ordered by comics shops through Diamond Previews.

Graphic novels can be composed of either new material or recently published work. Comics publishers like DC and Marvel will typically collect five to six single-issue (sometimes more) that comprise a story arc or “chapter” into a graphic novel. Examples might be a Batman or Spider-Man story or the critically acclaimed “Y the Last Man.” Some graphic novels contain all new material. One example that comes to mind is Pride of Baghdad, a story about a group of lions that escape from the Baghdad zoo in the aftermath of the assault on Baghdad in the current war.

Bookstore sales figures are separate from the first two categories. I don’t know how orders are calculated for bookstores and the non-direct market. However it’s done, these orders must be sent to the various publishers because companies like DC and Marvel.

There is also the German book publisher Bruno Gmunder that publishes books for the gay market here and in Europe whose sales figures might not be obtainable. I’ve also seen Bruno Gmunder books and a few others sold through TLA Video and Insightout Books, the LGBT book of the month club.

Small publishers like TopShelf, Fantagraphics, and Drawn & Quarterly also use the one or two remaining smaller distributors to get their books into comics shops. They also sell directly from their websites.

And then there’s the Amazon market. It seems the “Big Four” (DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, and Image) along with the mainstay independents and manga publishers are selling books to or through Amazon.

To my knowledge Diamond sales figures also do not account for sales in markets outside of North America such as Europe and South America. Diamond sales figures for manga won’t include numbers for companies like Tokyopop whose web site lets visitors order its manga through Amazon or other manga publishers that sell direct.

I think if your company was to decide to enter the comics market that it could generate more interest and sales by creating a unique to comics sales campaign in addition to using the traditional comics sales resources. For example, and assuming you’re interested in the niche market of LGBT-relevant comics, I think you might consider implementing polls or some kind of interactive forum. These could be placed on either your company’s various websites or also including if possible along with other gay and lesbian specific websites such as Advocate, Out or Instinct. Another idea is to print a sampler comic, say with 16 pages instead of 32, which can be included as a one-time insert to monthly magazine subscribers of target demographics.

Another non-traditional marketing idea is to have a TV special to air on either MTV or Logo. If you’re interested in the gay market, I might consider guests like gay comics artist Phil Jimenez who is currently under exclusive contract to draw Spider-Man for Marvel, cartoonist Tim Fish who has done very popular slice of life/ soap opera-like comics, and Paige Braddock who does the lesbian-centric “Jane’s World” comic, and Alison Bechdel who has done Dykes to Watch Out For and Fun Home (for book publisher Houghton Mifflin). The show could include a website link to an article with more info, a transcript, video excerpts, and a poll.

The article at this link discusses the difficulty of obtaining reliable and accurate sales figures for comics and the associated reasons. Please note that this article talks only about a handful of very specific comics from Vertigo, an imprint of DC.

This article has some sales figures that it puts into context. It also has some helpful suggestions on how to sell more comics.

ICV2.com has an overview and analysis of comic sales figures. Please note that these figures seem to be based solely on Diamond sales numbers from the direct market only.

Which comic companies do you respect?

There are companies that I respect for different reasons. I admire a large company like DC for a couple of reasons. One is that DC and its various subsidiary imprints have been in the past twenty-plus years what I think more consistent in including female and LGBT characters. There are also a good percentage of its staff who are either gay or lesbian. Over the past nearly 30 years DC has been headed by either Jeanette Kahn or most recently, Paul Levitz, who started with the company back in the 70s so the company has been fairly consistent in many ways all these years. Over the years DC has also tried to generate interest in other genres, first with off beat stories from Piranha Press, horror and fantasy from Vertigo, manga from CMX, and recently its Minx imprint that offers manga sized comics targeted at teenaged girls. I respect DC for publishing “Midnighter,” an ongoing comic whose title character is gay while at the same time I’m disappointed that there is so little gay content about the character that a first time reader probably wouldn’t have a clue about his homosexuality.

In the past few years DC has been more “fan friendly” by maintaining a large presence at various comic convention whereas Marvel decided to eliminate its presence until last year.

Marvel also a history of including LGBT characters but it’s a little more complicated. For a good part of the 1980s Jim Shooter was the Editor in Chief and he had an unwritten policy of “no gays at Marvel.” That changed once he left. Around December, 2002, news leaked that Marvel was going to print a gay version of the once popular but out of print Rawhide Kid. There was significant criticism from conservatives and evangelical Christians, and not long afterwards LGBT characters at Marvel became significantly less noticeable.

See the transcript of a CNN episode here for some indication of the reaction.

During this same period, LGBT characters at DC became more noticeable. I later learned that Marvel and its Board of Directors gave in to mounting pressure from those people and groups who were outraged at the idea of a gay comics character. It wasn’t a return to the “no gays at Marvel” policy but rather an attitude of not doing anything to attract attention from the same groups. Happily, Marvel dropped this attitude and has caught up with DC in this respect.

Then there is the boutique/ small press publisher Top Shelf that has consistently offered stories that are the creative brainchildren of artists and writers, and completely removed from the accepted mainstream of superhero comics. It will publish work, mostly graphic novels, that DC and Marvel won’t touch. Last year it published “Fox, Bunny, Funny,” the wordless coming out story of a fox who lives in a cartoon world where everyone is either a fox (heterosexual) or a bunny (every one who is less than straight). The year before that it took a huge gamble on publishing “Lost Girls” a three-book collection illustrating the adult adventures of three storybook characters, Alice (Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy (Wizard of Oz), and Wendy, I think that’s her name, from Peter Pan.

A handful of people is some that I admire the most. It’s this group of people who basically self-publish and market themselves. They don’t do this because they’re untalented – though arguably this does exist. These people do it all themselves mainly because they don’t want any kind of outside influence affecting their work.

December 28, 2018
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