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September 2, 2006

Comics and Convergence Part Three

This is the third of a series of out-takes from Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide that originally appeared on my blog which centers on convergence within the comics industry. This segment explores the ways that online communities are altering the ways that comics readers and publishers interact. A small portion of this content found its way into the book's conclusion in a significantly altered form, but the rest of it is appearing here for the first time.

Shortly before Ang Lee's feature film version of The Incredible Hulk was released, USA Today ran a front page story about the expanded power of internet fans in shaping the production and promotion of cult movies. Avi Arad, the head of Marvel's film production unit, explained, "I used to hate the Internet. I thought it was just a place where people stole our products. But I see how influential these fans can be when they build a consensus, which is what we seek. I now consider them filmmaking partners." USA Today recounted the emergence of so-called "superfans" - opinion-makers within the fan community who are actively courted by movie producers. Production companies will pay to fly these "superfans" out to the set to talk with stars and directors about a forthcoming release and in some cases, consult with them to insure fidelity to the original source material. Avad acknowledged that he sought casting advice from these fan communities: "These are people who grew up with their heroes in mind. You won't ever get everyone to agree on one actor, but they can tell you if you're going in the right direction." The most influential sites receive more than 5 million visitors per month. In some earlier cases, the studios have gone head to head with these sites, sticking by unpopular decisions, only to sustain box office damage. Now, the article suggested, fans were having more influence than ever before.

Kurt Busiek, the writer of Marvels and Astro City, argues that these online discussion groups represent an extension of traditional forms of publicity and criticism within the comics fan community: "It used to be that the two areas of communications among comic fans were the fan press and word of mouth. Somewhere in the community around every comic book store would be the guys in the know. They'd talk about comics in the store and whatever they thought was cool would filter into the rest of the audience... The internet has taken the mechanisms of fandom, word of mouth, and commercial reactions, intensified it, increased the speed of it, and made it much, much more efficient.... Instead of having to wait for a couple of months to read something like the Comics Reader to cover some comic news, it hits the internet news sites as it happens. The Friday Mark Waid was fired from Fantastic Four, there was a news article on the web and being discussed by Sunday and by Monday morning, the people at Marvel Comics came to work and they had to react to it." When fan reaction emerges this quickly and spreads so far, it commands much greater attention within the industry. Increasingly, internet response is shaping publisher's decision making.

The Sequential Tart has emerged as a central site for women in comics fandom, serving as an advocacy group for female consumers frustrated by their historic neglect or patronizing treatment by the comics industry. Started in 1997, by a group of female fans of Garth Ennis ( Preacher), the group expanded its focus, seeking to provide a female-written alternative to what they saw as the locker-room humor and ogling images found in most of the publications aimed at predominantly male comics fans. Marcia Allas, the current editor of Sequential Tart, explained , "Essentially our goals were to provide a magazine that would have content to appeal across as broad a spectrum of new or established comics readers as possible, regardless of age, gender, sexuality, or individual taste...In the early days we also wanted to change the apparent perception of the female reader of comics. It seemed that there were a lot of misapprehensions about this audience, such as that female comics readers either didn't really exist, or that they only followed one or two titles. Where they were acknowledged to exist, there were some bewildering stereotypes of what they would read, what they would dislike, and so forth. We wanted to show what we already knew - that the female audience for comics, while probably smaller than the male audience, is both diverse and has a collectively large disposable income."

In her study of Sequential Tart, Kimberly M. De Vries argues that the group self-consciously rejects both the negative stereotypes about female comics readers constructed by men in and around the comics industry but also the well-meaning but equally constraining stereotypes constructed by the first generation of feminist critics of comics. The Sequential Tart is, in that sense, a Third Wave feminist cultural intervention, defending the pleasures women take in comics even as it critiques some of the negative representations of women through the medium. De Vries sees this as asserting a politics of consumption as much or more than a politics of production.

The webzine combines interviews with comics creators, retailers, and industry leaders, reviews of current publications, and critical essays about gender and comics. They sought to showcase industry practices which attracted or repelled women, to spotlight the work of smaller presses which often fell through the cracks, to skewer sexist writing or images, and to help readers find books which were better geared to their own tastes and interests. The Sequential Tart are increasingly courted by publishers or individual artists who feel they have content that would be of interest to female readers and have helped to make the mainstream publishers more attentive to this often underserved market. The Sequential Tart, in turn, have provided a model for a range of other comics fans webzines and discussion boards who have been inspired by what a small team of writers had been able to accomplish.

Allas contends that they would never have been able to have this same degree of impact if they had relied on print rather than digital media. She cites, for example, the geographic dispersion of the core group of editors and writers, not only across the United States, but globally. The web provided a platform for them to share what they knew and to form a community which was grassroots without being geographically local. She also notes that they were able to launch the webzine with almost no financial commitment, reflecting the lowered costs of production and distribution in the digital environment. These savings allowed them to operate independently of any corporate interests. It also allowed them to get their ideas out quickly and widely and to publish on a more regular basis. All of that made it possible for The Sequential Tart to become, almost upon launch, a force to be reckoned with in comics fandom and in the comics industry more generally.

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