Don’t Cheat Comic Readers: Dissecting the Superhero Trope





In this fourth post, I will tie off the distribution discussion by addressing two points that arose in discussion with commenters on Brian Niemeier’s blog and with some folks on other forums. The first point was an question about the range of impacts of the Thor Power decision. The second is somewhat related to the first and is in regard to minimum orders of comic book titles.


The first point came from this question:


  • Did the Thor power tool decision also have a negative impact [for] comic book distribution?


If distributors or publishers were saving those books to move into the hands of third-party marketers, then yes, it would have.


Another feature of the 60s and early 70s was the comic book 4-pack (or later when prices were rising, the 3-pack). Four titles from Marvel in one of two sets were sold as a unit. One set would have say Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man, and Sub-Mariner, while the other set was Spider-Man, X-Men, Captain America, Hulk, or some such. I believe that DC did the same for a while. These were bundled and marketed to grocery store spinners and magazine racks.



I don’t know that the publisher made much if anything on the books, but they got more comics into readers’ hands, so from a marketing perspective it was a win for them. They were usually titles from a month or more prior to the current issues, so no doubt came from a warehouse to a re-bundler.


Thor Power would have impacted any inventory similar to Big Pub’s book warehouses, so once 1979 (retroactive) and 1980 hit, the warehouses became larger liabilities than they were before.


Thor Power was decided in 1980, but was retroactive to 1979. That meant that whether by planning or by accident, the Direct Market established in 1976-1978 would benefit both publishers and distributors by removing large static inventories from their ownership. Those would now be the province of the dealers.


It also meant that there would be no more inventories for the multi-packs of comics being re-marketed by third parties (or for other uses), as the inventories the publishers/distributors typically had due to returns would eventually be eliminated between the mid-60s and when Thor Power came into effect in 1979/1980.



Think ‘no returns’ from Direct Marketing as a means to move excess inventory away from the publisher and distributor into the hands of the local comic store. Thus, there was a tax incentive for using Direct Marketing for the comic companies and the distributors.


Somewhat related to the first question, another commenter asked if the statement in my first post in this series meant that a dealer could be required to buy minimum numbers or denied a popular title unless they purchased a less popular, or even unpopular, title.


Yes, and it’s been done for many decades, under both distribution models. Neither the Newsstand Model nor the Direct Market Model was in any way perfect, but the customer theoretically might have more control over what product he would get under Newsstand, if the Models were used in an ethical manner. Inventories of older comic book issues were shifted from the publisher/distributor (Newsstand Model) to the dealer/retailer (Direct Market Model). The Direct Model moves the needle of choice closer to the publisher/distributor side vice the retailer side, and if abused, the Direct Model could exert direct monopoly control over the retailer. Two examples of required buys for titles are given below:


Is it wrong to ask for minimum orders and to sell in bundles? No, I don’t believe it is. And as Chris Tolworthy points out in this article on “The Great American Novel”, Marvel was doing that in the early- to mid-60s under the Newsstand Model as well. The retailer could order one or more of several standard bundled packages (usually by theme or genre) of comic titles for display. See the heading ‘Distribution in 1963: interesting trivia’ for details, but the entire article is worth a read. Chris also links to a Sean Kleefeld article that expands on this history.


I don’t know enough about individual title sales across the distribution space other than some personal conversations with dealers. Ordering specific titles was possible for them when I had these talks. Distributors (when there was more than one) would typically recommend or push titles rather than demand minimums and ‘must-buys’, though caps on some issues would be imposed due to shortages of specific issues received from the publishers. Whether these shortages in print runs might be accidental or intentional was usually unclear. Trade magazines would occasionally speculate or find data on these instances, but finger pointing didn’t really change anything in the comics business that I could see.


What you should draw from this is that “popularity by sales” of any individual title should be viewed with some degree of skepticism unless you know the conditions under which the titles were made available to dealers. This means that aggregate sales numbers will probably be more reliable indicators than individual title numbers for all years of comic books sales, but more so for the Direct Market, where actual numbers are not provided (or available historically) in most instances. They must be inferred from top sellers and percentage sale numbers. See Comichron’s website for more details on this methodology used to tease out Direct Market sales figures.



Commercial Arts Training: Where did it go, and why do we care?

Reviewing the 1960s Marvel superhero lineup: Don Heck was great with the right superheroes, and Stan Lee fortuitously put him on all the right books for 1960s Marvel: Iron ManAnt-Man/Giant-Man, and Avengers. Kirby was High/Weird-Science Ultra-Tech, which was on point for the Fantastic Four and Thor. Heck was High-Industrial, as was Gene Colon who took over on Iron Man and John Buscema on the Avengers. Heck gave the titles an anchor to the real world without losing the Superhero flair. My view: Heck was best Iron Man artist (followed ever so closely by Colon), and best Avengers artist (w/ Wally Wood inks) followed by John Buscema. Why is this important?


Because a lot of history gets lost in transitions, and comic books from 1956 to 1976 lost a lot of their own history, mentorship, and training. Again, Jim Shooter is mandatory reading. He helped new writers and artists understand comic books in the mid-to-late 70s and through the 80s. These short pages are worth your time to read: The Jim Shooter Storytelling Lecture.


Don Heck, John Buscema, and Gene Colon artwork had the hallmarks of Commercial Art training. Architecture, fashion design, ad work, lettering, logo design, and other artistic design areas were all commercial art training elements that Heck, Buscema, and Colon exhibit, where Kirby’s art is much less indicative of formal commercial arts training. Review of past works show more of Kirby’s imagination used to fill out his art, where the others draw as though they were leaning on technical and academic training.



Commercial art was art training for the average Joe and Jane, giving them marketable skills that were in demand, as well as a basic understanding of art itself. Computer design packages and advances in photography took away much of catalog and ad work in the 80s/90s. The other side of the coin was Fine Arts pushed ‘art of self-actualization’. That left a void for illustration work training. Fine Arts left ‘no art for money, unless it’s a gallery showing’ as a turd in the art punch bowl. With this situation, where no one is really teaching the fundamentals of art, where does the average person go for art training? Most universities and colleges offer ‘commercial art’ only as a facade for Photoshop/Illustrator & photography training, not how to draw.


My personal experience with drawing courses in college entailed a total of three weeks of training that included pencil sketching, some charcoal work, a week of inks. The rest was ‘design’. It was all studio time (before computers were as prevalent), but all about self-actualization, not how to make art for someone else. I learned more from Burne Hogarth and Andrew Loomis books with a single reading than those courses. Today, a person could conceivably put together a commercial art program from Internet videos and art instruction books, but without guidance, that journey can be a long and difficult one.


A return to a formal commercial art curriculum that left aside computer and photography based tools, until after the fundamentals were taught and mastered to a reasonable degree, would benefit the student who wanted to learn basic proficiency in art and would enhance the culture at large. And it would immensely benefit the average comic book artist.



What about continuity and the main character?

DC had by-in-large frozen character development on properties such as Superman by the 1950s, making the character and supporting cast immune to aging, presenting compact compartmentalized stories, and presenting tales that were often not connected to one another over time. Edmond Hamilton and Gardner Fox slowly began to change that in the 50s and 60s with the Superman Family history and Fox’s re-imagined Golden Age characters and JLA for the Silver Age, but 60s Marvel took character development and continuity to another level with Stan’s approach to writing and editing.


Occasionally derided as ‘soap opera’ for comics, 60s Marvel captivated the attention of the comic book audience in the realm of the Superhero, as seen by their sales domination over DC in this period. One of the DC staples in this period was the ‘Imaginary Story’. This was an out-of-continuity tale involving the character and supporting cast in a story that ‘might have happened’. The story had no effect on the character’s timeline or story progression. It was rather an interlude, typically prompted by a previous story and its resolution or by reader request.


If continuity is a key element in the Superhero comic book, then how do we deal with these offshoot stories such as Marvel’s “What If…?”, the ‘dream sequence’, ‘other dimensional counterparts’, ‘Earth-90210’, and the like? An example of this story would be Marvel’s ‘Ultimates’ lines that appeared in the early 2000s. These series had a significant impact on the Marvel movies, but the ‘Ultimates’ books were stated to not be connected with the mainline character stories that had been ongoing for decades. They were essentially ‘Imaginary Stories’. With their ‘Ultimates’, “What If..?”, and alternate timeline stories, Marvel has been doing early 1960s DC storytelling since the late-70s or 80s through today.



Managed properly, these alternate reality path stories can be entertaining, and within their own established continuity can provide an additional venue for story development. These are stories that can be enjoyable, even to the point of being award worthy, but they have zero impact on the main series character. Badly managed and these types of stories create the very same encapsulated vignette story telling that placed DC on a downhill slope in the 1950s. They don’t matter to the main story. At their worst, they are a cheat and a dodge–the magician feinting with one hand while he hides the coin with the other.


Why a cheat and dodge? If you came to read the story of the character in Timeline 1, it is a cheat and a dodge to let story continuity from Timeline 2 seep into Timeline 1, or to switch to Timeline 2 and have no plan to return to Timeline 1. That is not organic story development. Your reader who is invested in the original book is now being cheated–a bait and switch has been attempted by drawing him in for Timeline 1, then substituting Timeline 2. This is the also known as “the reboot”.


Do these disruptions to continuity pay off, either artistically or financially? Reboots typically don’t work, much like “Death of…” stories don’t work, much like stopping a series then restarting it with a new volume number and “Issue #1” doesn’t work. The positive sales bump for these changes in direction is often as little as one issue. Based on the past forty years or more of attempting reboots, the long-term failures far outweigh the short-term successes. Why?



My opinion is that the reader didn’t sign up for derailing the character and starting over from square one. The disruption in continuity is off-putting. Well-known characters and supporting cast are ‘remade’ in hopes of re-igniting interest in a fading book or updating the character to ‘modern day’–whatever that might mean. Also, many comic book characters are no longer wholly artistic creations–they are economic ones as well, and more and more, the economic needs dominate the artistic ones–and owner demands override even editorial control. This means that more reboots, more artists/writers doing “their take” on vintage IPs, and more disconnected story lines are in the future of mainstream comic book characters.


In my view, this moves farther and farther away from what was the 1960s ‘Marvel Magic’.


What is the composition of the Superhero Trope?

Literary genres in the present day are exceptionally detailed and often ridiculously refined and compartmentalized, as anyone familiar with Amazon and Kindle are aware. The original genre in literature is Romance. This is not the typical gray-goo bodice ripper book that you find listed or tagged as ‘romance’ on the aforementioned platform. [I refer to the bodice rippers as Emotion-based Porn, rather than Romance.]



This ‘Romance’ is rather the genre of literature that formed the bedrock of Western Civilization. This includes most literary works which appeared prior to the 15th Century. The Romantic Poets appeared in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. From these poems and writings, emerged the subset genre of the Gothic form, from which the genre of Horror stems. Both Romance and Gothic literature stem from Christian principles, as their roots are within literature such as the Matter of Britain, the Matter of France, and the Matter of Rome, which are themselves linked intrinsically to Christian works. The larger Romance form is often composed of a protagonist on a journey of discovery to complete a task or quest, for his or others’ benefit, often at the direction of God or a representative of the Deity. The Gothic genre in its basic form is a morality play wrapped in an entertaining story. Horror flows from this genre and is also a morality play, this time wrapped in story that features suspense and fear/shock inducing elements.


Other than using Romance and Gothic in the original definitions of the terms, the remaining genres referenced are relatively modern and I will use their general definitions from here on in the discussion. Now that we have some general idea of terms, what makes for a compelling and entertaining story?


During the development of his book investigating Appendix N from Advanced Dungeons & DragonsJeffro Johnson was asked what is the content of the cover of a book or magazine that might tell a reader that the stories inside will be good to read. He offered that the cover contained a man, either fighting another man or a monster, and featuring a woman whose fate is directly influenced by the outcome of the conflict. Let’s take a look at Jeffro’s Appendix N cover, because he laid it out there. 




Protagonist (usually a man) + Antagonist (another man or a monster) + Goal (typically a woman) = Entertaining Story (often a morality play)


This composition should translate to the story content as well if the cover is predictive.


My argument is that the Superhero Trope in its basic form is a combination of three typical genres:


Romance (classic literary definition) + {Adventure + Seasoning or “Flavor” (Mythic or Futuristic Adventure*, Horror, Mystery, Gothic, War, Western, etc)}


*See JD Cowan’s third set of posts here for definitions on Mythic Adventure and Futuristic Adventure.


A Classical Romance tale is built in a manner similar to what Jeffro laid out as the cover that grabs you by the collar, shakes you, and demands that you pick up and read this book, ’cause it’s gonna be good! A protagonist in competition against another individual or entity to achieve a needed goal, which is his raison d’etre–the purpose behind what he is doing. We could dice up some story elements for Classical Romance as below:


Man Man Partner (wife, husband, friend)
Woman Monster Family and Fortune
Group MacGuffin Quest Community
Child Redemption Challenge Nation and Honor
Humanity Hidden Wisdom World and Hope


What is the Superhero other than a Classical Romance story blended with an Adventure story, with flavor elements that provide a compelling world in which to adventure? That means we can design a control panel that should govern the generic Superhero story. The Classical Romance is the overarching theme, or the strategic view, of the story–the main character’s reason for being and doing what he does. The Adventure component is the plot arc of one or more issues in which a chapter of the larger story is told, and is a more tactical view of the larger story of the characters and supporting cast. The Flavor is the environment and interactions–the milieu–in which the characters are placed for the story to unfold. The flavor can be one or more of these ‘spice’ elements–futuristic, mythic, war/combat, etc–added as desired for the story being told.



Dial ‘H’ for ‘Hero’, Robby! What do you want to make?


What is the problem with modern comics? That question is for the next post.



Originally published here.

Man of the Atom

Man of the Atom is a scientist, RPG gamer, and comic book reader. He is interested in the cultural effects of comics, as well as the effects that culture has on comics and other entertainments. He can be found periodically blogging about culture-related topics on Postcards from the Age of Reason