19 July 2009

the ecosystem of comics

We've been away this weekend. Even though I didn't have a lot to drink, I was knackered when we got back. I think it's something to do with having an eight-month-old baby to look after through trips out, dinner and all of that. Babies aren't necessarily that well equipped to cope with big changes to their routines. But anyway. So this evening I spent an hour chilling out doing one of my favourite ever things. Which is to start with a comic book superhero on Wikipedia and follow the links to see where they take me. I started with Scarlet Spider (an off-shoot character who becomes the second Spider-Man) and ended up at Cable (a telepathic and telekinetic mutant, basically, as you do). And it struck me that comics have a business model and a model of comms that loads of brands could do well to follow. I know I'm just talking about a very specific strain of (superhero) comics here. But they know their market and they understand how to keep it loyal. It's no mistake that the people within it don't index as consumers, but as readers, fans and obsessives. Check that out on the social gravity chart. And here's just a few reasons why I think that's the case. 1. They are immersive. I don't just mean that a comic is a work of fiction, or immersive in the sense that you might talk about Second Life. I mean how each and many characters have a richly complex and finely detailed personal history and a web of interdependent characters and ideas around them. You gain loads by bringing even a bit of prior knowledge to them. Look one up on Wikipedia, you'll see what I mean. 2. There's a rich seam of iterative, test-and-refine stories. Hard-coded into many different characters is the sense that this is always just one version of the story. There may be parallel stories, or, after a certain time - once a narrative arc has concluded, after a creative team has wound down, or simply when sales no longer make it viable - it becomes ripe for reinterpretation. DC even creates semi-regular cataclysmic events by which its entire universe hits a reset button, allowing its characters to re-experience old events in new ways, or to explore other narrative possibilities. 3. There are so many touchpoints, and they are all same but different. There are the comics themselves (and if it's a big character, there may be several titles running concurrently), merchandising from children's toys to collectors' models, console and arcade games, free Flash games online, fan fiction, and (again if it's a big character) cartoon animation and film. Each touchpoint plays to its own media's strengths and is self-contained, but at the same time gains in richness with the fan's intimacy with other references. And I thought, it'd be great if other products could steal some of this. So, yeah. (Pic courtesy of this person).



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