Sean Taylor, a writer whose work I thoroughly enjoy, posted a couple of questions aimed at comic book and “pulp” writers…I’m guessing he means “new pulp” writers, but I’m not going THERE again! His questions caught my interest because, as a bit of an arrogant bastard, the answers seemed to be pretty obvious to me. They also seemed to mirror what is going on in the comic book industry in terms of shrinking marketplace and trying to expand audience, but that’s another post.
Let’s take a look at what Sean posted over on Facebook (you can see Sean’s post yourself over at his FB profile):
1. Considering the similarities between pulp characters and mainstream comic book characters, you’d think comics featuring pulp heroes would perform better in the marketplace. What do you think is holding them back?
2. What could be done to improve the showing of pulp heroes in the mainstream comic book world, to win over both the retailers and the fans who don’t know much (or anything) about The Spider or Doc Savage and their compatriots?
The blatantly obvious answer here is, of course, “Fix your branding.” Right now, the impression that “pulp” gives is a retro one, and not “cool” retro. When I think of pulp as it is currently portrayed, I think of the 1930s, I think of old-fashioned artwork and I think of a market full of “homages.” I was going to say “knock-offs,” but that has negative connotations I didn’t want.
Those are my thoughts as a consumer of the material – as a creative-type, I’d add in the term “formulaic” to the mix. If we’re talking comics, I might also add un-innovative (is that even a word?).
Are all of those impressions completely fair or accurately reflective of what is actually going on with pulp these days? Probably not. But they seem to be generally accepted by those on the outside looking in. We see cover art that looks like it came right out of the 40s, we see air pirates, warriors fighting on Mars and we see a hundred different variations on the Shadow, Green Hornet or Doc Savage, and not much more.
We’re seeing stuff that looks the same as it did for our parents or grandparents, and it wasn’t even new or cutting edge to them, either!
The problem the questions are missing, though, is an even bigger obstacle to expansion of the niche market that is “pulp.”
The biggest obstacle to the expansion and wider acceptance of “pulp” work is, of course, the people within that little corner of genre fiction. They’ve taken what used to be a market that appealed to the widest possible audience and brought it down into something that is now only opened to the smallest sliver of readers. Unfortunately – and I say “unfortunately” only in regards to the questions of “why isn’t pulp more widely accepted” and “how can it be fixed” – this is completely by choice – the choice of those who currently make and publish the material.
The current “makers of pulp” not only don’t want a wider audience, but they are pretty active in making sure anyone from the mainstream that accidentally wanders in is aware they aren’t welcome. If you think I’m wrong, try joining a discussion on one of the pulp forums. They are some of the most unwelcoming places I’ve seen outside of Bleeding Cool! If you’re not over the age of 40, haven’t read pulp for at least 3 decades and don’t have an impressive mustache, then don’t bother trying to join in on the conversations there!
Now, this isn’t to say that the pulp makers don’t want more sales – they do. They want more sales, but they really only want sales from people like them. If you’re not one of the “chosen few” or the “right kind of people,” then you’re better off reading something else.
When you add this unwelcoming, sometimes even hostile, core fanbase to material improperly branded for more mainstream acceptance, what you wind up with is a very small, very hardcore niche product.
If you want to increase your audience, you have to deliver product that appeals to them – you can’t just continue along the same rapidly vanishing path and just hope buyers are going to change.
Here are my suggestions:
Update your cover design. People really do judge books by their covers. If you want to get a modern audience’s attention, you have to give them something that looks modern. You may think having a cover that feels like a “real pulp” magazine is cool, or you might really want to an homage to a famous comic book cover, but that won’t sell your book beyond the audience you already have. The fastest way to cause the mainstream audience to “switch the channel” is to show them something that reminds them of their youth or, even worse, of something they think their parents would have liked.
Yes, there is still a market for “old stuff,” as current pulp makers fully realize, it’s just not a wide audience and it isn’t one likely to grow from where it is right now.
And that’s what we’re talking about here – growing the current market for pulp.
Take a look at the current marketplace (even more important, take a look at what the marketplace is going to be like when your next product is due out) and see what is bringing the mainstream audience in. Package your product (comic, novel, audio drama, whatever) in a way that will appeal to those people in a similar fashion – action/adventure pulps could take aim at fans of John Woo films or the latest “Mission Impossible” movie or the next James Bond. Spy thrillers can latch on to what is being done on shows like “Burn Notice.” Take a look at upcoming big-budget video game releases in your space.
Package your product in a way that will appeal to those audiences. Your interior prose content can remain exactly the same as it is now, you just want to brand your material so that it grabs the attention of someone whose interest is already piqued by another product. This is called “sniping,” and every company trying to sell a product does it. There are groups of consumers out there with a specific interest who are actively looking to spend money, and you need to do whatever it takes to get their attention.
Unfortunately, the current branding and packaging techniques being utilized by the pulp makers will not do that. I’m not saying that is necessarily a bad thing – if you enjoy your the size of your current market and are not looking to expand, then you’re golden. No changes required. However, if you want to grow your sales and your audience base, then changes need to be made, and that change has very little to do with the content found between the covers.
The product isn’t the issue – the creators themselves are doing a great job. The issue is how it’s being presented and how it is being “sold” to the public.
Fix that and fix your attitude when it comes to new people wanting to join your fandom. Do those two things and you’ll have a product, and a readership, that is much more likely to enjoy more mainstream success.
-Mat Nastos, Super Genius
PS. In terms of pulp comics, I’d also try to get some more modern, more dynamic artists. To my eyes, pulp comics look the same as they did in the 80s when AC Comics was going strong, and they look the same as stuff being done in the 60s. There has been no real innovation in the comics in decades…but, I’ll save that rant for another day. 🙂