An Independent Artist Just Kicked the Mainstream Comics Industry’s Ass

(c) Ngozi Ukazu, who can be found on tumblr.

Big-name comic book publishers Marvel & DC have been visibly struggling to pull in and retain new readers. That’s why webcomic creator Ngozi Ukazu’s killer success with her kickstarter campaign is such a big deal.

Ngozi set a goal of just over $30k to put her webcomic, “Check, Please!” into print. In about a week, she’s broken $250k. 

That is an incredible feat for a number of reasons:

  1. $220k above your goal is huge enough already, but on top of that, she still has over 20 days left in the campaign. Her funds are rising steadily.
  2. The entire comic is available to read online for free. Everyone who contributed is donating money to a story that they already have full access to.
  3. “Check, Please!” is not a comic with mass market appeal. It’s very niche — a sports story with m/m romance as the main plotline.
  4. Ngozi didn’t have to pour financial or marketing resources into this comic to make it a hit. It gained its huge fan following almost entirely by word of mouth.

It’s downright inspiring to see a solo artist achieve this kind of success. It proves you don’t need a big corporation or publisher backing you, and that consumers really will pay money for media they care about.

On another note: if independent artists can attract hordes of new readers and inspire such loyalty from them, why are Marvel and DC having so much trouble doing the same? They have money, teams of professional writers and artists, and beloved, well-established characters at their disposal. It must be easier to sell a Batman comic than it is to sell a gay hockey romance… right?

Not exactly.

So what are they doing wrong?

Comic books are expensive, and you’re expected to buy them blind, which is a deal-breaker for some prospective readers. But we’ve seen time and time again that people will pay money for stories they like; “Check, Please!” is just one in a long line of examples.

Then there’s the fact that having multiple writers can mean inconsistent characters, plot holes, and continuity issues — but most life-long readers are used to the up-and-down quality of comic books and are willing to press through the nonsense until the good stuff makes a comeback. It’s also easy to read selectively, sticking with some books and dropping others.

Last, while comic book continuity can be confusing, there are plenty of online resources to help new readers navigate the labyrinth of back issues.

No — the real problem with the comic book industry is that they want to attract new demographics but make only halfhearted attempts to tell new stories. 


Diversity fail!

I’ll give credit where it’s due: Marvel & DC have made efforts to cater to new readers who want to see meaningful stories with diverse characters. At the same time, though, they fear alienating their old readership, who want nothing to change ever. The problem is that old readership is the same white, straight, 18- to 34-year-old male demographic that they’ve always had, and which is never going away no matter what. If they want to expand with new readers and new demographics, then the industry needs to change. They need to embrace fresh stories and voices. (They need to hire those voices, too.)

The article linked above outlines the results of DC’s “New 52” relaunch, which was intended to be a completely fresh start, ideal for bringing in new readers. What they found is that the people who bought New 52 titles are the same people who have always been reading comics. In fact, new readers made up just 5% of buyers.

“Check, Please!” has an audience comprised almost entirely of women and LGBT people because it speaks to what they want to see in a story. Readers of mainstream comics are lucky if they get to see LGBT characters as anything other than supporting characters with barely any panel time.

the actual cover of Spider-Woman #1 — from: io9

Even when they do include meaningful representation, these companies keep finding ways to shoot themselves in the foot.

  • Marvel & DC still struggle with the concept of not objectifying female superheroes and drawing women with realistic breast & waist sizes.
  • They put out books led by women and PoC, sometimes, but completely fail to market them to people who aren’t already deeply entrenched in the comic book world.
  • They cling to an outdated business model that over-emphasizes pre-order sales (something that new readers are just not going to give them) rather than putting more weight on digital sales and fan response.

And then? Industry professionals wonder why they can’t pull in new readers. You’d think “Detective Comics” would be able to solve this particular mystery.

***Disclaimer: I hope it’s obvious, but the title of this post is not meant to be taken literally. Ngozi’s still one person selling one book, and even the $250k she’s pulled in doesn’t compare to Marvel or DC’s numbers. I’m aware of that. But her success speaks to the ability of independent artists to connect with their audiences in ways that industry pros haven’t quite seemed to master. 


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