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Guest Columns

Brian Popkin



Looking at Comic Books and Wrestling

It's people like us who took a mass medium and made it what it is today, a subculture. Comic Store Guy, The Simpsons

I'm going to take a look at the comic book industry and compare it with wrestling. Both industries are in a downward spiral. Back in the 1970's the Defenders was a marginal comic book always on the fringe of being cancelled. Each issue sold around 125,000 copies. A title that sells over 100,000 copies today would be a top 10 bestseller. I'll try to show lessons that the WWE can learn from the mistakes that comic companies have made. First, I'd like to take a look at some feedback from my Ricky Steamboat column.


Dredge writes:

WOW!!! Great read indeed. Did you write this yourself or did you get it from somewhere else?? The reason I ask is that you must REALLY be an insider...

I can promise you that I wrote this and all of my other columns by myself. One way you can tell is that I have a distinct non-linear style of profiling wrestlers. I focus on a few special years and skip back and forth in my writing.

I got all of my information from internet sources by reading a lot of articles and interviews on the net. I'm just a common wrestling fan, not an insider.

DaveyBoy writes:

Very good column. You have shown some real good versatility with the subject matter you have chosen this month.

I like to show some versatility in my choice of subject matter. It makes it much more enjoyable to write about whatever I want. I like writing about hot topics in wrestling, wrestler profiles, fan profiles, DVD reviews, ratings analysis, top ten lists, etc. You can look for more variety of columns in the weeks to come.

For today's topic, I'd like to share some of my childhood memories with my readers. This is how I used to spend my weekends when I was a kid. On Saturday morning, I'd wake up and watch Spiderman and his Amazing Friends and Superfriends. These were great cartoons featuring the best heroes from Marvel and DC. Then at around noon-time I'd watch WWF Superstars on Fox. In the afternoon, I'd walk a mile to the nearest newsstand and pick up some comic books. The comic books I liked to read were Spidey Super Stories, Marvel Tales featuring Spiderman and Avengers comic books. I'd try to get the issues that weren't all folded in half and ripped up. But if that was all they had, I'd get them anyway. At night, I'd set my alarm clock for 11:30 PM and sneak downstairs to watch Saturday Night's Main Event on NBC.

Maybe it is just a sense of nostalgia for the good old days, that were never as good as they seem, but I am sad that kids today can't have any of the wonderful experiences that I had growing up. Comic books are not for kids anymore and neither is wrestling. Comic books are trying to be dark and cutting edge. Today parents who go to a live wrestling show with a child under 12 would have to be completely irresponsible. Whenever anyone complains about the raunchiness of the WWE product, the WWE will enthusiastically state that their product is not marketed towards kids. My response to this is, "Why the hell not?" They are making a big mistake by writing off all their future customers.

We Don't Market to Kids

Marvel Comics' CEO Joe Quesada has stated that Marvel's target audience is 17 to 20 year olds. He says, "We've never really been a kids' medium." Who is he trying to fool? Somehow everyone remembers reading comic books as a kid, but he is insisting that the only people reading comics are college kids. When I saw the Spiderman movie, the theater was filled with little rugrats 12 and under. If you don't hook a comic reader by the time they turn 12, it is too late. Marvel is currently producing a new Spiderman cartoon. But, you won't find it on Saturday morning. It is going to be on MTV's "The 10-Spot" at 10 PM at night. Or even after the "fake" Real World. They say that this cartoon won't be aimed at kids either. Not the way to grow your audience.

Wrestling is also refusing to market to kids. Gene Mean says, "we are trying to zero in on adult males 18 to 34." But, I just can't see the point in ignoring your future customers. Now I'm not asking them to bring back the old Rock & Roll Wrestling cartoons. But, I think putting a wrestling show on between cartoons Saturday mornings so that kids can watch it would be a good step. What is the point of producing all of these toy wrestling figures if they aren't going to try to sell them to kids? Maybe they think their disclaimer gives them carte blanche to have as much sex and violence as they can get away with without worrying if kids are watching. But they could easily appeal to kids by producing a separate, tamer and toned down wrestling show for a younger audience. Like a cruiserwieght show featuring Rey Mysterio. This would be a huge hit. You could even put wrestling toys in happy meals for a cross-promotion. Again, everyone remembers watching wrestling as a kid. If they can't get a person to start watching by the time they hit 16, it is over. They need to hook the customer at a younger age or they will never connect with them.

System of Distribution

That corner newsstand I used to go to no longer sells comics. They sell newspapers from 20 different countries and 6 different wrestling magazines, but zero comic books. A few years ago, Marvel looked at their financial statements and realized that they made more money selling directly to the comic book specialty stores. So they discontinued all of their sales to newsstands. That is why today you are unlikely to see comics at your local 7-11, drugstore, newsstand, etc. Their attitude is that if the customer really wanted comics, they'd show up at their comic book store every week on Wednesday afternoon. They had absolutely no regard for the casual fan. The person who buys magazines as an impulse purchase on the mass market. If you wanted to buy a comic book, you would have to go out of your way to find it.

There is an interesting story where six years ago the Ultimate Warrior tried selling his own comic books. These books starred non other than a loquacious, spiritual, super-human Warrior much as he envisioned himself. To everyone's surprise, the first two issues of this comic book sold very well. People were buying them. But the Warrior was not satisfied. He thought that his distributers were taking too big a cut from his profits. The minimum fee for a distributer is 30% of the gross sales. So the Warrior dumped his distributers and decided to market his book himself by direct mail. He expected potential customers to bypass the newsstands and comic book stores, go directly to his website, order the next issue online, pay the shipping and handling, and wait 8-10 weeks for delivery. His plan was a total failure and nobody read any of his issues past #2. The point is that you shouldn't make people go out of their way to buy your product.

This applies to wrestling as well. They deserve to have a show on a major network to reach a mainstream audience. They were supposed to get an annual special on CBS as part of their deal with Viacom. This special has yet to be seen. UPN is a start, but it is seen as a "ghetto network". I miss Saturday Night's Main Event on NBC. I could say that we still have it. Only now it is on a Sunday and it cost $35 instead of being free. It is called Unforgiven. Next year they want to have twice as many meaningless pay per views. Good luck finding an audience.

I also happen to live under the jurisdiction of the shittiest cable company in the world, Cablevision. Cablevision has decided they are too cheap to pay for the Yankees games, so they don't show them. In its place they tell us they are giving us the Mets games, which we used to get anyway. They also plan on taking away our Nets games and "replacing" them with Knicks games. So now we get to see two teams of overpaid, drugged up losers instead of two division champions. And if I want to see the good sports teams, I have to go to the Wiz, the world's shittiest electronic store, to pay for a dish.

This applies to wrestling because last month, my buddies backtracked and refused to order Unforgiven thinking it would suck. I was under the delusion that RVD would win and it wouldn't suck, which shows how little I know. So, I wanted to order the PPV. But, I didn't have a cable box. The shitty Cablevision had been charging me $5 a month for the privilege of using their cable box, so I returned it. I didn't feel like driving an hour away to pick up another cable box that they'd charge me for, so I didn't order the PPV. The WWE should have a hotline available where I can call up and they would ship me a cable box for free. Cablevision should not charge people money for the privilege of paying them more money by ordering pay per views.

We Don't Need No Stinking Writers

The height of the comic book industry was in the early nineties when everyone was making tons of money. At that time seven of Marvel's best artists had decided that they wanted to leave Marvel and form their own company. Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Erik Larson, Rob Liefeld, Mark Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, and Jim Valentino started Image Comics. These seven artists thought that they were so great that they didn't need any writers or editors. For the first year business was so great that everyone made money. Marvel and Image had huge sales due to all the speculators hanging around the stores buying dozens of copies of first issues.

Now it is ten years later. Out of these seven people only two of their titles are still going. Spawn by Todd McFarlane and Savage Dragon by Erik Larson. Yet even though they are still going, they are not in the top 40 list of best-selling comic books. The reason is that all of the flashy artwork means nothing if you ignore the story. They thought they didn't need any writers, but you can only fool people for so long with pretty pictures. And everyone needs editors. If you really are that talented, you wouldn't mind having someone else edit your work. Personally I wouldn't mind CRZ editing out my junk, but I think he's got better things to do. Without an editor to kick them in the ass and hold them to deadlines, their comics came out on a "whenever I feel like it" schedule. There is only so long you can hold people's interest with a inconsistently late title. I'm not saying forming Image comics wasn't a good idea. I'm just saying it would've worked better if they had bothered to take some proven writers and editors with them.

The same condition of ignoring the importance of writers has plagued the WWE in the last few years. They didn't think that Russo was important enough to even sign him to a contract. They left him without a contract while he was getting Raw all-time high ratings. Then when they put him in charge of Smackdown as well, they doubled his work without giving him a pay increase. After he left, they put Stephanie McMahon in charge of writing and I doubt she has any real experience. You can have all the sex, violence, fireworks, racy dialogue, and video packages that you want, but without quality writing, you have nothing.

Well, this subject went a lot longer than I thought it would. So, I'll continue it in my next column where I show ways in which comic books and wrestling are similar. Until then remember, It's all about the story.

Brian Popkin

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