I’ve been following the reactions to DC’s announcement of the MINX line with passing interest, despite the somewhat predictable tenor of the responses. (The inestimable Johanna Draper Carlson has the best round up of reactions I’ve come across.) For my own part, I’m not that curious about the imprint or the announced titles, but I’m not the target market. For that matter, if DC had announced that readers such as myself were part of the target demo, failure to reach the young female age group would be a foregone conclusion. My real interest in it is as a business/marketing exercise, additionally, by combining the details of the MINX deal with Marvel Publisher Dan Buckley's interview over at ICV2, I think you get real insight into the differences between the two companies.
I’ve written before that Marvel and DC were fully capable of attracting young, female readers and I still believe that. I think there are four basic keys to accomplishing this:
- Utilize established, well-regarded talent that understands the audience and has proven ability to reach it;
- Make a long-term commitment – years, not months;
- Create stand-alone stories; i.e. outside of and completely divorced from the mainstream superhero universe;
- Focus distribution through non-direct market channels.
DC seems to be marking all four of these, although the jury is certainly still out on one and two. The financial commitment would indicate an intention to stay with this effort for a while, but we’ve all seen companies throw wads of cash around on new products, divisions, etc., only to abandon them without explanation, so we really have to wake a wait and see approach. DC does have a proven track record of establishing an imprint and keeping it (relatively) clean of the DC universe and even the DC brand. And while MINX books will surely find their way to the comic shops, I doubt anyone believes that’s where they’ll do the most damage. All-in-all, if the stories are good and DC stays committed, I give this initiative pretty good odds for success, however you might define it.
Let’s contrast that with Marvel. You can read the Buckley interview in its four parts here, here, here and here. The second part is where he discusses Marvel’s approach to reaching this audience. (The cryptic nature of some of Buckley’s responses shows he’s got a bright future as a White House Press Secretary.) Marvel’s approach boils down to, “You want girly books? They’re in the back. You gotta go down that aisle of superhero books to get there. See the superhero books? Those right there, the Marvel ones, with the pretty colors and Spider-man stories. You ever read any of those? Why don’t you try one of those?” I’m making it sound worse than it is (I’m sure some would say I’m sugar-coating it) but the foundational difference is that while DC is actually a publishing company subsidiary to a much larger company, meaning by and large they have to act as such, Marvel's publishing division is really an intellectual property holding company with some branding and marketing responsibilities. Their biggest purpose is to make sure the IP is properly maintained for the big boys in the film and licensing divisions. Secondarily, there’s a focus on maintaining the “Marvel” brand. Nearly everything gets the Marvel imprint, and those that don’t, like the Max line, still utilize highly protected Marvel-owned characters like Punisher, Howard the Duck, Son of Satan and Squadron Supreme.
Judging by the nature of the deals done in the last few years it seems pretty clear Marvel publishing has little interest in anything that doesn’t explicitly promote the Marvel brand or intellectual property. (At one point in part three Buckley touches on the differences between the Max and Essential lines in terms of “branding issues” - the idea that either is an actual brand is either telling or funny, depending upon how you feel about Buckley.) That isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it does make reaching that much-desired young female audience – in truckloads, I mean - a bit of a reach as that group is likely to sidestep anything blatantly Marvel or sniffing of capes and tights. Further, the type of talent Marvel would need isn’t likely interested in working with the dusty old house IP, they’ll need creator-owned freedom which doesn’t exactly lend itself to a smooth, lawyer-free licensing trail. All of which helps makes sense of the latest goofball character Marvel rolls out in his own six-issue miniseries – it’s so hard core comic types like myself can wander into the comic lounge and say, “Hey baby, let me refresh that trademark for you.” After all, you never know when Nicholas Cage might want to make another movie.
Meanwhile, DC doesn’t even warrant a line-item in the Time Warner Annual Report. They’ve got to act more like a real publishing company and like all publishing companies these days they want a bigger piece of the graphic novel pie. They’re perhaps a little better situated than most to accomplish that.
It’s kind of cool and trendy to stand outside of all this and declare how Marvel just doesn’t get it. I think they get it just fine. They are simply not structured institutionally or philosophically to attract a mass of young female readers, not that these readers aren’t welcome, just don’t expect any special treatment. For DC, MINX is what they hope is a sound business decision. Time will tell even if Time Warner won't.