Bradley Schauer – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 DC Comics’ Halfhearted Appeal to an Alternate Readership Fri, 18 Sep 2015 16:41:55 +0000 gotham by midnight panel

A panel from Gotham By Midnight.

Post by Bradley Schauer, University of Arizona

In recent years DC Comics has come under criticism for its monolithic publishing line – grim, violent books aimed at twenty- to fortysomething white men, drawn in a house style that hasn’t left the 1990s. While not every DC book fit this profile, it was clear that the publisher had little response to the more inclusive, nontraditional comics of independent competitor Image Comics (or even of archival Marvel, which has recently found success with books like Ms. Marvel and Hawkeye). In March, DC’s dollar share of the market was only 26 percent, mainly due to the extraordinary success of Marvel’s Star Wars comics, but also DC’s struggle to sell any comics that aren’t related to Batman. That month, only three of the top twenty bestselling books were published by DC.

In May, DC announced its new “DC YOU” initiative, described by the publisher as a “bold, new direction” with “a story for every kind of fan.” DC YOU seemed to be a direct response to the company’s critics: 17 new titles premiered in June, featuring a wide variety of storylines and art styles. New writers and artists from diverse backgrounds were enlisted, such as David F. Walker, Annie Wu, and Gene Luen Yang. These creators would be allowed to tell their stories without excessive editorial interference or continuity constraints; they were also reportedly guaranteed at least twelve issues before threat of cancellation.

With DC YOU underway, DC’s line is currently stronger than it has been in years. Standout titles include Prez, a sharp, funny satire of contemporary politics, supernatural police procedural Gotham by Midnight, smart and subtle space opera The Omega Men, and writer Genevieve Valentine’s re-envisioning of Catwoman as an intricate crime saga. However, initial DC YOU sales were lower than expected, and at the end of August it was rumored that DC would be largely returning to its “meat and potatoes” house style. DC denied these reports and asserted its commitment to diversity, but this week it confirmed the cancellation of six titles, including all the books just mentioned (except Catwoman, which remains, sans Valentine). Several more soft-selling new books are likely on the chopping block.

DC’s quick cancellation trigger and willingness to abruptly shift creative direction from month to month points not only to the publisher’s uncertainty about today’s comics market, but to larger problems in its business model. Specifically, DC’s emphasis on single-issue sales obstructs its plans to draw a wider, more diverse readership. DC may want to capture some of the audience for Image Comics, but it is not currently structured to effectively target those readers, or to successfully publish comics that diverge sharply from its traditional formula.

To be fair, sales for the canceled books were indeed low and dropping precipitously: Omega Men #3 received only 13,000 orders from retailers, for instance. At the same time, the canceled books were in the same sales vicinity as Image hits like Lazarus, Velvet, and The Manhattan Projects. Writer Kieron Gillen, who has worked for Marvel and Image, states that an indie book selling 10-12,000 copies “is a cause for celebration and joy.” But at DC and Marvel where sales targets are much higher, in part due to greater overhead costs, the same book would be canceled.

Panels from Omega Men.

Panels from The Omega Men.

While DC is known to cancel books before their first trade paperbacks are released, Image waits and fosters the sale of trades, which their readers tend to prefer. For instance, Sex Criminals #11 was the 119th bestselling single issue of July, but in February its second trade volume was the second bestselling graphic novel of the month. This preference for trades suggests that Image’s readership is different from the “Wednesday warriors” of Marvel and DC fans who buy a stack of floppies each week from their local shop.

Unlike the Big Two, Image is able to patiently wait for trade sales and word-of-mouth to build because in their publishing model, the creators bear most of the financial risk. While DC and Marvel pay a page rate, Image creators aren’t paid until Image has subtracted printing and distribution costs, and taken its cut. This can mean huge profits for the creators of Image bestsellers like Saga or The Walking Dead, but creators of lighter-selling books often must wait until trade publication (and sometimes not even then) to earn anything. By paying creators upfront, DC and Marvel are much less likely to nurture low-selling books.

Of course, it’s not feasible for DC and Marvel to scrap their current business model entirely. For one thing, many creators prefer the steady paychecks of the Big Two as opposed to the risk of the indie world. And parent corporations Time Warner and Disney would never allow creators to own the media rights to their work, as Image does. That said, if DC is serious about attempting to broaden its audience, it needs to allow its more offbeat, distinctive books time to build a readership, especially when readers who might enjoy those books prefer trade paperbacks and may be reluctant to purchase DC comics in the first place. Something like Omega Men would have probably sold better as an Image title, as it will read better as a trade, and Image’s core readership is better primed for its formal experimentation. But given a full twelve issues and time to build word-of-mouth from trade sales, the book might have found some measure of success at DC. Even if it didn’t, its very existence would have helped rebrand DC as a welcome home for innovative, nontraditional comics.

Perhaps small losses on a few unique books could be considered acceptable in the long run, if it makes the publisher more attractive to wider, different demographics. Instead DC seems shortsighted and fickle, too concerned with month-to-month fluctuations in sales and market shares. Quickly canceling low-selling books that were designed to run twelve issues leads to a vicious cycle in which readers are reluctant to sample new books, for fear of wasting their time and money. Co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee appear to be on a short leash; this may have to change if DC is going to effectively compete in a new marketplace where it is losing ground.


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David Letterman: So Long to Our TV Pal Wed, 20 May 2015 13:46:40 +0000 letterman_dave_young_gPost by Bradley Schauer, University of Arizona

Much of the press coverage of David Letterman’s retirement has framed it as the end of an era. According to this account, the traditional late night talk show – pioneered by Steve Allen in the ’50s, brought to its classical peak by Johnny Carson, and reaching its creative apex with Letterman’s baroque, ironic approach beginning in 1982 – has been rendered obsolete by a new emphasis on social media and viral videos. Even Letterman himself recently admitted that his show’s failure to embrace YouTube and Twitter was a problem: “What I’m doing is not what you want at 11:30 anymore… I hear about things going viral, and I think, ‘How do you do that?’”

Letterman in a suit of velcro, 1984.

Letterman in a suit of velcro, 1984.

On one hand, the differences between Letterman’s show and those of his youthful competitors are overstated. Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and the rest still adhere closely to the traditional late night formula: monologue, desk piece, two guests and a musical act. And Letterman, particularly in the first 2/3 of his career, specialized in short remote videos (Dave works the Burger King drive-thru) and spectacle (Dave wears a Velcro suit) that would have lent themselves to online distribution. Much of Letterman’s declining ratings with young viewers can be simply attributed to his age: a 68-year-old who makes jokes about the Andrews Sisters and Lorne Greene is never going to win the 18-49 demo.

On the other hand, Fallon’s YouTube clips do receive exponentially greater hits than Letterman’s, and it is due to more than Fallon’s aw-shucks charm. Letterman’s inability to go viral is a byproduct of his unique approach to the talk show format, one rooted in traditional modes of viewership. Whereas the newer shows’ short, self-contained segments are constructed for easy accessibility and viral distribution, Letterman rewarded the dedicated viewer. It was not only funnier if you watched the entire program, it was funnier if you watched every night. Strange jokes that were barely funny on their own became hilarious as they were repeated, out of context, across an episode and for weeks afterwards. In this way, Letterman’s show was truly cult television, creating an insular community of viewers that prided themselves on their separation from the mainstream. It was no surprise (except apparently to Letterman) when the more accessible Jay Leno began beating him in the ratings after the honeymoon period of the mid-‘90s.

floatAlong the same lines, Letterman’s funniest moments were rarely as funny when decontextualized from the show’s offbeat comic sensibility. More than anti-comedy, Letterman’s humor is typically a blend of two contradictory impulses: irony and sincere pleasure in the mundane. The purest example is “Will It Float?”, the recurring segment in which Letterman and Paul Shaffer would earnestly debate whether or not an item would float before two models threw it into a tank of water. The audience enjoys the overblown, ironic trappings associated with the skit (including a theme song and a hula-hoop dancer), but is also encouraged to take genuine pleasure in the question of whether or not the item will, in fact, float. Letterman satirizes the entertainment industry by valorizing the trivial. But the mundane does not make for effective YouTube clips – Stupid Pet Tricks can’t possibly compete when put up against the entire internet.

The newer shows’ heightened emphasis on celebrity guests is another important distinction. The usual observations about Fallon’s obsequiousness vs. Letterman’s disdain for modern Hollywood celebrity culture seem roughly accurate. The key difference, though, was that Letterman was the undisputed star of his show, his personality and sense of humor dominating and permeating every aspect. Fallon and the rest follow Leno’s example, acting as genial emcees who each night willingly take a backseat to their guests. And while Letterman was rarely as severe to guests as his reputation would indicate, it was usually clear whether or not he was interested in what they had to say. If he was, the interview had the potential to become a genuine conversation that revealed more of the guest than the faux-spontaneity of Fallon’s parlor games or James Corden’s skits.

On the set of NBC's "Late Night with David Letterman," 1982.

On the set of NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman,” 1982.

Letterman’s show at its best had a loose, improvisational quality that hearkened back to Steve Allen more than to Carson. Especially during the low production values of the NBC years, it was as though Letterman were hosting the funniest public access show of all time. He was unafraid to use a sense of duration as comic fodder: for instance, cold-calling a CBS executive and then waiting over a minute in awkward silence for the secretary to see if he was available. As the years went by, and Letterman stopped attending rehearsal, the spontaneity only increased, with the host showcasing his gift for language in rambling shaggy dog stories told at his desk. (In his excellent show, Craig Ferguson would take these qualities to their extreme, ensuring that he would never be considered for the 11:30 slot.) Again, this type of humor does not work when reduced to internet clips where viewers demand instant gratification.

The outlook for late night talk shows is grim, with ratings only about half of what they were 15 years ago. I remember my students in 2010 vehemently supporting “Team Coco” during Conan O’Brien’s ouster from The Tonight Show, only to admit that none of them actually watched the show, but knew O’Brien entirely from YouTube clips and Twitter. Networks seem to value YouTube hits, but it has never been clear exactly how they are monetized in any substantial way. Taking into account the fragmentation of the post-network era, and the relative interchangeability of this new generation of late night hosts, it seems as though David Letterman’s legacy will be as the last real star of late night television, and, in all likelihood, as one of the last great American broadcasters. If there is a new David Letterman out there, his or her type of comedy will not find a welcome home on network television.


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The Guardians of Good Taste: Critics and the “Fanboy” Menace Tue, 05 Aug 2014 17:00:12 +0000 Guardians of the Galaxy?]]> grootThe Los Angeles Times’ Steven Zeitchik, writing about Guardians of the Galaxy, revives a critical argument that refuses to go away – the idea that narrative is largely irrelevant to the contemporary blockbuster. For Zeitchik, Guardians exemplifies “post-plot cinema” that “was built to be consumed and enjoyed without any holistic understanding of what’s happening or why.” Scholars like Warren Buckland and Geoff King have already carefully rebutted the notion that “post-classical” blockbusters lack carefully developed, coherent storylines. Zeitchik makes a slightly different argument: “I don’t mean to suggest there aren’t discernable narrative developments in the film…But it’s not easy to explain, crisply and without descending into some kind of obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo…More important, I’m not sure we’re supposed to be able to explain it.”

Now, perhaps Zeitchik is right and audiences are simply enjoying the film’s special effects, humor, and endearing camaraderie without having much of a sense of the macroplot. But can we truly separate these things, as Zeitchik implies? He writes, “Why people are literally doing what they’re doing, or what the plausible psychological explanations are for what they’re doing – seem beside the point.” Yet the audience cannot fundamentally make sense of the narrative without understanding each character’s specific motivation. Why does a drunken Drax call Ronan, for instance? Or is the audience simply so dull it does not ask these questions, but rather sits back and waits for the fighting to begin? Considering the relative simplicity of the plot and the film’s concerted efforts toward classical narrative redundancy, Zeitchik paints the audience (and himself) in a rather poor light.

I could continue breaking down Zeitchik’s article, but my primary intention here is not simply to beat up on a piece of pop criticism that strikes me as wrongheaded. Instead it’s to point out a trend in contemporary film criticism in which critics strive to separate themselves from a strawman “fanboy” audience that is completely uncritical of comic book films, and possesses the arcane knowledge necessary to comprehend them. Rather than accurately representing how these films are constructed, and the way audiences engage with them, I believe this critical attitude serves mainly to reinforce traditional taste hierarchies.

Years ago in another defense of the contemporary franchise blockbuster, I suggested that these films were clearly constructed to appeal to both fan and general audiences. I’d argue that Guardians succeeds especially well in this regard, and is quite accessible to viewers who have neither read any Marvel comics, nor seen any Marvel films. Yet many critics continue to propagate the idea that only a fan audience (something that is never concretely defined) can fully understand a film of this kind. Zeitchik writes that “Hard-core Marvel enthusiasts, versed in the 1960s comic where it all began, may disagree” with his confusion. Likewise, The New York Times’ A.O. Scott praises Men in Black 3 because “You don’t need to study up on the previous installments or master a body of bogus fanboy lore to enjoy this movie.”

The New York Times critics have been particularly guilty of defensive posturing while reviewing superhero films. In 2012 Scott griped, “A critic who voices skepticism about a comic book movie…is likely to be called out for snobbery or priggishness…and trying to spoil everyone else’s fun. What the defensive fans fail or refuse to grasp is that they have won the argument.” Manohla Dargis complains that “oppositional voices” like hers and Scott’s “can be difficult to hear in the contemporary media context.” (Reminder: Dargis and Scott are film critics for the newspaper with the second-highest circulation in the country.) Scott continues, with an utter lack of self-awareness, to criticize “comic book fans’ need to feel perpetually beleaguered and disenfranchised.” This is presumably quite unlike Scott and Dargis’s efforts to position themselves as the last bastion of good taste against the onslaught of the fanboy hordes.

Rather than being embarrassed for their alleged lack of ability to follow a science fiction action film, critics take pride in their confusion, using it to carefully separate themselves from fans, considered to be dupes of the Hollywood marketing machine who revel in sexist, racist, and infantile power fantasies. I’ve spent a good deal of time reading film reviews for my manuscript on the economic and cultural transformation of American science fiction film, and it’s been fascinating to trace the shifting tone of critics from condescending dismissal to the nearly hysterical defensiveness and hostility seen today. Film critics may be soured on fandom due to the appalling, unrepresentative behavior of internet trolls. But at a time when comic book adaptations are some of the most culturally prominent films worldwide, critics might consider making an honest effort to appreciate why they strike a chord with the hoi polloi.


Letterman’s “Stooge of the Night” and Late Night Politics Sat, 11 May 2013 13:00:17 +0000 LateShow-stooge-2013-04-23On April 22, Late Show host David Letterman introduced a new segment called “Stooge of the Night,” targeting the 46 senators who voted “no” on the Manchin-Toomey gun control amendment. Each night Letterman identifies and attempts to shame a different senator, contrasting their vote with the percentage of constituents who support it (“Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson voted ‘no’ on gun reform legislation despite the fact that 91% of the voters in his state want background checks”) or highlighting campaign donations to the senator made by pro-gun entities (“Remember, ladies and gentleman, there is no background check if you plan to buy a senator.”)

“Stooge of the Night” may be pretty feeble stuff when compared to the biting progressive satire of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. However, when considered within the context of network late night television, the segment is startlingly bold. Unlike Stewart and Colbert, who preach to the choir, network host Letterman’s audience is a demographic mix that skews much older and more conservative than Comedy Central viewers. Late night talk shows tend to avoid overt commentary on political policy, particularly in such a direct, cringe-inducing manner. For “Stooge of the Night,” the senator’s official head shot and Twitter feed fills the screen for at least a full minute, an agonizingly long interval during which Letterman offers a few tame riffs (“[Iowa senator Chuck Grassley] enjoys ceramics, big band music, and his ‘A’ rating from the NRA”), but is also content to let the audience sit in awkward silence. (“Let’s just leave that up there a little longer,” Letterman says of the photo of Sen. Jim Inhofe’s rictus, as the audience titters nervously.)

In a sense, Letterman’s decision to enter this particular debate should be uncontroversial, as an estimated 90% of Americans support background checks on gun buyers. However, recent polls also suggest that only 65% of Americans believe the Senate should have passed the Manchin-Toomey amendment. And indeed, “Stooge of the Night” has drawn the ire of the conservative blogosphere. However, Letterman has already been targeted by conservatives for his alleged liberal bias, a charge that dates back to a 2009 monologue joke about Bristol Palin and Alex Rodriguez, which Sarah Palin (most likely willfully) misinterpreted to be a “sexually perverted” joke about the “rape” of 14-year-old Willow Palin. After that exchange led to Letterman’s vilification by the conservative media, the host has continued to aggressively confront right-wing pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump, while fawning over Rachel Maddow. (Having said that, Letterman has also not shied away from criticizing Democrats, for instance recently challenging Al Gore on the hypocrisy of selling Current TV to Al-Jazeera.)

With “Stooge of the Night” Letterman operates from a position of power, not only as arguably the most iconic late night host in television history behind Johnny Carson, but more importantly, as a man with job security. Unlike NBC, which forced Jay Leno to retire (again) to make room for Jimmy Fallon, CBS is allegedly content to allow Letterman to choose his own retirement date. Leno’s impending departure offers Letterman the chance to top the ratings for the first time since Conan O’Brien took over The Tonight Show in 2009; Letterman could benefit from “the Jimmy wars,” snatching up Leno’s older viewership while the two younger hosts cannibalize each other’s ratings.

Letterman’s more confrontational political approach runs the risk of alienating conservative viewers, but it also offers a point of departure from the Jimmys, whose interactions with politicians are more obsequious and inoffensive (e.g., Fallon’s “Mom Dancing” skit with the First Lady). Fallon’s “nice guy” demeanor, similar to Leno’s, may ultimately prove a better fit for the wide general audience sought by the networks – “Mom Dancing” has over 15 million hits on YouTube – but Letterman, even the checked-out Letterman of recent years, will continue to produce television that is frequently sharper and more thoughtful than his network competitors. Letterman’s prickly personality and disdain for the celebrities he interviews has been his trademark from the beginning; applying this cantankerous attitude to politics adds an additional layer to the generally innocuous late night talk format, aligning it more closely with the popular Daily Show and Colbert Report.

Critic Ken Tucker argues that Letterman alone offers “a core of seriousness that has enabled [him] to surge ahead of his genre colleagues in moments of national drama, whether it’s presidential politics or the entertainment industry’s vexed reassertion into post-9/11 American culture.” Bill Carter quotes an anonymous executive who wonders “how the younger hosts will handle being in the heat of a presidential election where they have to be accountable and ask tough questions.” With his contract up in 2014, it’s unclear if David Letterman will be around for another presidential election. But as one of Letterman’s key comic strategies is excessive repetition (both of comedy bits and key phrases, extracted from their context) it seems likely that “Stooge of the Night,” at least, will appear in all its awkward glory for at least another month.


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The Comics Arms Race and the Failure of Diversity Mon, 18 Mar 2013 13:00:23 +0000 Justice_League_of_America_Vol_3_1_WINearly two years after I detailed DC Comics’ “New 52” relaunch for Antenna, I thought I’d take another look at the state of American comics publishing. Despite competition from Image and IDW, American comics remain largely a two-publisher game, with DC and Marvel accounting for approximately 70% of all comics sales. Overall, monthly comic sales in February 2013 were up nearly 15% from a year ago, and up 35% from two years ago. This spike is due primarily to the relaunches of the two major publishers–the “New 52” and “Marvel Now.” The shuffling of creative teams, renumbering of books, and in DC’s case, the “rebooting” of the narrative universe, have generated considerable reader interest. At the same time, both publishers employ a number of strategies to mitigate the inevitable attrition that occurs with monthly comics.

Retailer incentives like variant covers are nothing new, but are being emphasized strongly in today’s market. Variant covers are provided to retailers based on the number of issues ordered. For instance, a retailer ordering 50 copies of Fantastic Four #1 received one issue with an alternate cover by Dave Johnson; while 100 copies gets you a Joe Quesada cover, etc. To receive these rare variants, a retailer often must order more books than he or she can reasonably sell. The retailer still comes out ahead by selling each variant at an inflated price that exceeds the cost of the books that don’t sell. Publishers also encourage excessive ordering by offering extra volume-based discounts for less popular books. DC gave retailers an extra 15% discount if their orders of Katana (a relatively obscure character) were 75% of their orders for Justice League of America (a bestseller).

The effect of these incentives is the artificial inflation of comic sales beyond the number of people who are actually interested in reading the books. On a much larger scale, this kind of speculation led to the near-collapse of the industry in the mid-nineties. Today, it’s possible that some readers may be turned off by the shamelessness of the variant gimmick, and recently, retailer Brian Hibbs attacked variant covers as an unethical manipulation of the market by the Big Two. Yet the practice remains lucrative; February saw the numbers of Justice League of America #1 boosted by as much as 300% by the offering of one variant cover for each state of the U.S.A. (see picture)

In terms of content, DC has pursued more of a “long tail” approach than Marvel. As I discussed in my previous post, one of the features of the New 52 was its variety–in terms of genre, and also the gender and ethnicity of its superheroes. This diversity helps to attract readers beyond the traditional white male superhero fan, and could also serve as R&D for film and television adaptations. (Marvel’s upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film foregrounds the potential value of obscure characters.)

Marvel, in comparison, tends to stick to its most popular properties, yoking most books to a franchise such as the Avengers or X-Men. While lesser-known characters are often given their own title at DC, they are typically subsumed into an Avengers team book at Marvel, where they are afforded the support of the Avengers brand. Last month, 22 of the top 100 bestselling books had “Avengers” or “X” in the title. Also, Marvel “double-ships” its core titles, publishing books like Avengers and Spider-Man between 18-24 times a year rather than monthly. In May, Marvel solicited 48 ongoing titles to DC’s 52, but fourteen of Marvel’s titles ship twice that month, bringing its total number of ongoing issues in May to 62. Marvel also prices most of its books at $3.99 each, while nearly all of DC’s books are a dollar less.

While the diversity of DC’s offerings might be admirable from a creative and cultural standpoint, from a sales perspective it has led to a considerably weaker publishing slate than Marvel’s. The more offbeat genres and characters that make up DC’s long tail have almost without exception sold poorly, and most have already been canceled (some after only seven or eight issues). Of DC’s ongoing titles, 23 sold fewer than 20,000 copies last month; Marvel had only eight titles that sold that poorly. Marvel also currently holds fourteen of the top 25 sales slots, to DC’s nine. Marvel’s double-shipping and $3.99 price point allow it to surpass DC in both unit and dollar shares, despite the sales boost provided by DC’s relaunch.

DC has traditionally trailed Marvel on the sales charts, but it has remained highly competitive based on the success of short-term promotions (renumbering, “zero month”) and high-profile limited series like Before Watchmen and the upcoming Before Sandman. Yet already their gimmicks have become more desperate–every issue in April will contain a gatefold cover that unfolds to reveal a surprise plot point, a promotion DC has labeled “WTF month”, to the derision of online fans. To better compete with Marvel, I suspect DC will continue to pare back its long tail, increase the number of $3.99 books it releases, focus on its core franchises, and perhaps also begin to double-ship certain popular books. This will surely lead to increased homogeneity on comics stands; however, this in turn might encourage readers to check out the more diverse offerings of independent publishers.


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DC Comics Goes All In Sat, 18 Jun 2011 13:00:48 +0000 DC Comics’ plan to “relaunch” its comic line in September with fifty-two #1 issues is a bold move predicated in part on the assumption that there is a large untapped audience for monthly comics.  Each component of DC’s new publishing strategy attempts to broaden the company’s readership while simultaneously avoiding the alienation of its loyal readers.

First, DC will try to attract younger readers by expanding its digital distribution system.  Each new comic will be released at the same time as its print counterpart, and after a month the digital versions will drop to $1.99 (vs. $2.99 for the print comic).  However, it remains to be seen whether static, non-interactive, “old media” like superhero comics will suddenly become attractive to the youth of America simply by virtue of their digitization.  Additionally, most contemporary comic art still translates poorly to the iPad’s relatively small screen – splash pages, for instance, are practically illegible and need to be zoomed and scanned, which undercuts their impact.

DC is also trying to appeal beyond the conventional white male demo by introducing titles starring black characters like Batwing (“Batman of Africa”) and Mr. Terrific (“the world’s third-smartest man”).  And the publisher hopes to hopes to shed the air of juvenile sexism often associated with superhero comics by dressing its female heroes in less-revealing costumes.  (However, only three of the 160 creators associated with the relaunch are women.)

The “new DCU” might appear to be born of desperation; indeed, because sales of the top monthly comics have shrunk from approximately 150,000 copies each in 2008 to about 100,000 copies today, it may seem as though the comic industry is in freefall.  In fact, due to price increases and the industry’s long tail publishing strategies, overall sales have shrunk only modestly — sales in the direct market (i.e. specialty comic stores) were down 3% in 2010, and 2% in 2009.  The poor economy is a more likely culprit for these declines than a mass exodus by comics readers.

While DC surely looks to reverse these negative trends by attracting non-comics readers, a more immediate and realistic goal is likely the recovery of market share from Marvel.  Since 2007 DC has been dominated by its rival in terms of sales, with only about 30% of the market to Marvel’s 40%.  By positioning September’s titles as ideal “jumping-on points”, DC courts Marvel readers as well as comics neophytes.  In the words of Executive Editor Eddie Berganza, “Everything is meant to be enjoyed and read without footnotes or looking up back issues.”

However, by jettisoning the past DC eliminates one of its defining characteristics as a comic publisher.  More than Marvel, DC emphasizes the narrative continuity and history of its shared universe.  The very inaccessibility of the DC Universe that discourages potential new customers is a source of pleasure for die-hard DC fans, who accumulate subcultural capital through their mastery of obscure trivia or their ability to identify references to decades-old storylines.  These readers might consider September’s “jumping-on point” as a perfect excuse to jump off.  To address this danger, DC has taken pains to explain that the relaunch will be a “soft reboot” that will retain select stories from the past (the less popular the character, the greater the changes, it seems)  — but it remains to be seen whether this will pacify longtime readers.

Finally, although some retailers are concerned that DC is flooding the market in September, the relaunch of so many titles should help DC in a key weakness – the midlist of the sales charts, where Marvel utterly dominates.  Marvel has fostered a number of successful publishing franchises, including the Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man, the Hulk, Deadpool, and Captain America, all of which have multiple monthly titles in the top 100.  (Nineteen of the top 100 titles in May 2011 were X-Men related.)  DC’s Batman and Green Lantern franchises are strong, but none of its other characters sell particularly well.  By revamping two underachieving properties (Justice League and Superman) and making them part of a line-wide relaunch, DC might be able to generate interest in C-list characters like Blue Beetle or Firestorm, both building the publisher’s market share and creating new valuable multimedia properties.  If the poorly-reviewed Green Lantern film flops, DC will need those second and third-tier characters if it hopes to compete with the Marvel Studios juggernaut.


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Charlie Chan and Contemporary B-Movie Fandom Sat, 15 Jan 2011 15:00:34 +0000 Professor Yunte Huang’s recent book Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History (W.W. Norton and Co, 2010) attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of a character that has for decades been considered a degrading racist stereotype.  Huang’s efforts are particularly timely in light of the Chinese-American sleuth’s revival on DVD; the numerous boxed sets have sold very well, even in a depressed market for classic films on video.  However, the fact that today’s Charlie Chan fans tend to be middle-aged (or older) white males does nothing to banish the specter of racism that surrounds the character.  On internet fan forums dedicated to Chan, accusations of racism are usually quickly dismissed as hyper-sensitivity or failure to take into account historical context.  As a Chan fan who is also a Chinese immigrant and scholar specializing in the historical intersections between Asian and American literature, Huang is in a unique position to defend the “honorable detective.”

First, Huang argues that Chan’s critics present a reductive, caricatured view of the character, who is in fact “a multilayered Chinese box” that “encapsulates both the racial tensions and creative energies of a multicultural nation” (xvii, 280).  Huang acknowledges Chan’s stereotypical qualities but asserts that the stereotype is a positive one when compared to contemporaneous representations like Fu Manchu.  Where critics like playwright Frank Chin see Chan as a reprehensible symbol of subservient acculturation, Huang understands Chan’s “cultural miscegenation” as “epitomiz[ing] the creative genius of American culture” (282-283).  Referring to Huck Finn, hip-hop, and George Carlin, Huang argues that racism has a role to play in art.  He positions Chan as an example of “a peculiar American brand of trickster prevalent in ethnic literature” that flourishes “in spite of as well as because of racism.” (287).

Huang’s arguments, erudite as they are, resemble the typical response of the Chan fan in their call to recognize but “look past” the racism.  Yet for all the time Huang spends on his personal relationship with Chan (including details of his research trips for the book), he never fully explains why the character appeals to him.  And for all of Huang’s references to “creative genius”, he never discusses the aesthetic merits of the books and films (xx).  Isn’t Chan’s lingering popularity due in part to the fact that the films are lively, enjoyable mysteries?  Does Huang especially enjoy the books because he identifies with Chan in a way that a white American-born fan cannot?  He doesn’t say.

In any event, it’s unlikely that Huang’s assortment of arguments will do much to convince Charlie Chan’s most vocal critics.  (Listen to Frank Chin’s highly critical response here, and note the listener comment that refers to Huang as a “Chinese Uncle Tom.”)  But if Huang’s defense of Chan is not entirely satisfying, it remains perhaps the only reasonable defense, as it does not ignore the way in which the character embodies the racism of its era, while also arguing that one’s enjoyment of Charlie Chan need not be grounded in a racist condescension.  But the questions remain: is it possible to enjoy a racist media text in good conscience?  Can (and should) a text’s problematic racial representations be divorced from its other qualities, such as its generic appeals?

Despite what this review might imply, Huang’s book spends relatively little time defending Chan.  Rather, it is a breezy pop history that tells the Chan story (including the fascinating life of Chang Apana, the Honolulu police officer that inspired the character) while also using Chan as a structuring device for the book, a highly digressive work that deals with the history of institutionalized racism against the Chinese in America and pre-statehood Hawaii.  Huang deals with a tremendous variety of topics (albeit in fairly shallow fashion), including the history of Chinese immigration, Chinese representation in the American media, the notorious Massie Case, and Huang’s own personal history.  Huang’s original research seems to have centered around Apana and Chan creator Earl Derr Biggers; the research in the film section is quite thin.  Here Huang relies on old Chan fan histories and internet sources, making the book a fun, interesting read for the general reader, but not particularly valuable for the film scholar.


Conan and the Warm Embrace of Narrowcasting Wed, 10 Nov 2010 02:50:43 +0000

By naming Conan O’Brien the heir to Jay Leno’s throne, NBC replaced a comedian known for his broad appeal with one in the mode of Leno’s old friend/nemesis, David Letterman.  Like his idol Letterman, O’Brien was innovative, unpredictable, and polarizing — the antithesis of Leno’s genial, if bland, humor.  While NBC wanted to keep O’Brien from leaving for ABC or Fox, and thereby further fragmenting the late night landscape, they also retained their commitment to The Tonight Show as one of the remaining bastions of “broadcasting” (as opposed to narrowcasting).  O’Brien was thus expected to adapt his quirky humor to the tastes of an older mass audience.  According to Bill Carter’s new book The War for Late Night, NBC executives (particularly Dick Ebersol) became annoyed with O’Brien for what they understood as his refusal to adjust to the earlier time slot during his brief run as Tonight‘s host.

In reality, O’Brien’s Tonight Show was considerably watered down from its 12:30 predecessor — the bawdy, sophomoric edge of Late Night (against which O’Brien would hilariously play an aghast straight man) was buried in favor of another side of O’Brien’s persona — the pleasant, inoffensive goofball.  O’Brien’s Tonight Show had tried to appeal to a wider audience, and ended up satisfying few.

Despite NBC and Leno’s assertions that O’Brien’s low ratings played a key role in the late night shake-up, Carter’s book makes clear that the disastrous performance of the prime time Jay Leno Show was almost solely responsible — that and the unusual “pay-and-play” stipulation in Leno’s contract that guaranteed him a spot on the NBC schedule.  The 12:05 slot on NBC would have been an excellent fit for O’Brien, but his relationship with NBC had grown toxic due largely to undiplomatic behavior on the part of NBC execs like Ebersol and CEO Jeff Zucker.  Carter depicts the execs as unable to empathize with the sensitive artiste O’Brien, and as understanding late night purely in terms of numbers (in the same way, Leno is portrayed as obsessed with minute-by-minute ratings fluctuations, while the other late night hosts take a more holistic, organic approach to their craft.)

The NBC debacle served to catalyze O’Brien’s young fan base; people who avoided watching broadcast TV but knew O’Brien through the internet became ardent members of “Team Coco.”  O’Brien’s post-Tonight theater tour solidified his cult, folk-hero status.  Unlike O’Brien’s Tonight Show, which tried to win over skeptical Leno fans, Conan is aimed squarely at Team Coco.  It presumes an audience that already finds Conan charming — how else could O’Brien get away with singing (and taking a guitar solo) on a duet of “Twenty Flight Rock” with Jack White at the show’s conclusion?

O’Brien’s return to narrowcasting was never more evident than in his choice of first guest.  Even Seth Rogen himself wondered what he was doing there: “I’m so glad everyone more famous was busy right now.”  Rogen and his stories about medical marijuana and his fiancee’s “titties” targeted the 18-34 demo, with no regard for older audiences.

Overall, the TBS premiere was refreshing in its ordinariness, its willingness to be unremarkable.  There was little of the sense of “event TV” that characterized Conan’s Tonight premiere – which, for me, was a good thing.  The elephantine first episode of O’Brien’s Tonight, front-loaded with overlong, not-especially-funny remote segments, seemed like it was trying too hard.  Conan was enjoyably brisk in comparison — with each guest on for about six minutes, even O’Brien remarked at how quickly the show flew by.

The Conan premiere’s lack of showy excess is partly a function of the program’s industrial status — it’s hard to celebrate a move to basic cable, after all.  Yet working for TBS should be an artistic boon for O’Brien – the channel’s lowered expectations will allow him to further build his niche appeal and foster the underdog status that suits his self-deprecating style.


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The Lingering Power of the Domestic Box Office Fri, 11 Jun 2010 05:04:33 +0000 It’s well known by film industry professionals and scholars that domestic box office numbers are over-emphasized by the news media. Although the winners and losers of the previous weekend’s horserace are widely reported by websites, newspapers, and evening newscasts, domestic box office numbers represent only a fraction of the total revenue generated by a film. The promise of money from foreign markets, home video, and television sales has no doubt comforted many producers and executives who have seen their films underperform in American theaters.

At the same time, at least one recent release reminds us not to underestimate the importance of the North American box office. Two weeks ago, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time opened below industry predictions, its box office numbers recalling Sahara or Hidalgo rather than The Mummy, Indiana Jones, or Pirates of the Caribbean. However, Prince has performed quite well internationally, with $97.7 million in its first two weeks overseas (and $156 million overall) vs. $59 million from its first two weeks in North America.

Based on a popular video game series, Prince of Persia was clearly intended to kick-start a new action franchise. Yet it will likely end up as another franchise film that fails to inspire sequels despite comparatively strong international numbers, joining films like Van Helsing, Eragon, Constantine, and most notoriously, The Golden Compass. (As well as, most likely, Jumper, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, and Terminator: Salvation.) Meanwhile, films like The Blind Side, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, and Julie & Julia are considered hits despite little interest from international audiences.

So, do Hollywood executives have a cultural bias toward domestic audiences? This might be true of the American news media – after reporting the disappointing domestic box office of films like Troy, The Matrix Revolutions, and The Last Samurai, does your local TV news follow up weeks later with news of their extraordinary success internationally? But with the film industry, the explanation, as usual, is financial. The cost of producing, marketing, and distributing a franchise blockbuster is so tremendous that a film must perform well both domestically and internationally in order to be considered a hit. Even if audiences across the globe would eagerly welcome a sequel to The Golden Compass, the indifference of North American audiences to the original film sealed the franchise’s fate. And, of course, poor theatrical performance translates into poor ancillary sales: box office bombs are worth less to television (if they are not presold), and only rarely is a theatrical disappointment resurrected as a video hit.

The international box office does not break a film’s fortunes the way the domestic box office can because films that perform poorly overseas are usually comedian comedies (shockingly, the entire world is not as enchanted with Will Farrell and Eddie Murphy as American audiences) or other films with limited international appeal (films aimed at African-Americans tend to perform poorly abroad, for instance – Lionsgate does not even bother releasing Tyler Perry’s films internationally.) Studios recognize that these films appeal primarily to Americans, and keep their budgets suitably low (another reason why the costly comedies Land of the Lost and Little Nicky were such egregious missteps.) They also limit their distribution abroad; whereas Clash of the Titans plays on 10,000 foreign screens, The Bounty Hunter shows on only 2,700 in roughly the same number of territories. In this way studios can still generate some foreign revenue from comedies without springing for the promotional and distribution barrage associated with blockbusters.

The recent domestic box office slump has led some alarmist journalists to claim that audiences are sick of sequels and franchise films. This seems hasty, but it does underscore the crucial role of the domestic box office to the industry, even in the age of ancillaries and “global Hollywood.”


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Auteurism vs. Superhero Synergy Wed, 14 Apr 2010 19:00:46 +0000 Last month the L.A. Times announced that Christopher Nolan would produce yet another reboot of the Superman series, as well as direct a third Batman film.  By hitching their wagon to Nolan, Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment extend their association with one of the most acclaimed and successful filmmakers in mainstream cinema.  But there is a trade-off, as Nolan’s involvement with both Superman and Batman places important restrictions on those franchises.

First, Nolan declares that the third Batman film will “finish the story.”  A strong sense of narrative closure would preclude the possibility of additional sequels – a dangerous thought for a series that has already grossed $1.37 billion in theaters alone.  Of course, Warners could simply reboot (Batman Begins Again?) after Nolan leaves; Marvel is currently taking this route with their Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil franchises, after having already rebooted the Hulk and the Punisher.  But will this practice of rebooting whenever a film underperforms (or, in the case of Spider-Man, when cast and crew salaries become prohibitively high) begin to wear on audiences?

Another issue unique to Nolan is his approach to superheroes – specifically, his efforts to situate them within a “realistic” dramatic environment.  To this end, Batman is the only superhero in his narrative world, and Nolan says he will take the same approach with Superman.  This inhibits Warners from pursuing projects that involve both characters (i.e. “World’s Finest” or “Justice League of America”).  Although DC (as All-American Publications) may have created the concept of the shared superhero universe in 1940 with All-Star Comics, seventy years later they have chosen the auteur over the potential for franchise synergy.  Marvel Studios, in contrast, is aggressively situating each of their upcoming superhero films in “the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”  This strategy will culminate in 2012’s The Avengers, which will feature Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Nick Fury, and Captain America.  Likewise, while Nolan’s Superman film and Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern will likely be quite different stylistically, Marvel seems to be utilizing a generic cinematic “house style”, based on Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), to provide continuity.

Of course, Warner Bros. and DC might get the last laugh.  It is still unclear that the synergy among Marvel’s superhero films actually leads to additional revenue.  Did more people see The Incredible Hulk (2008) because it contained a cameo from Robert Downey, Jr.?  Will the “all-star” roster of The Avengers still have value if Thor (2011) is a box office disappointment?  Do people really care if Edward Norton plays Bruce Banner in The Avengers?  And most importantly, will an Avengers film really make more money than plain old Iron Man 3 would have?  In order to keep Avengers reasonably affordable Marvel has kept cast salaries low, either by casting unknowns or low-wattage stars, or according to Variety (4/4/10), apparently by simply finding stars who are willing to take a pay cut for the career benefit of starring in a summer tentpole (or, more likely, for back-end money).  But we will have to wait another two years to see whether or not “more is more.”


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