Thursday, July 30, 2009

Comic-Book Hucksters: Not What They Used to Be

I recently watched The Men Without Fear: Creating Daredevil. It’s a fairly entertaining documentary that’s included in the two-disc edition of the Daredevil DVD from 2003. In it, Daredevil co-creator and original Marvel guru Stan Lee talks about his “hucksterism” back in the early 1960s, among other things; how he tried to make Marvel fans feel like they were on to something special, part of a new movement, in on the joke, or whatever you want to call it.

Later on in the film, current Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada comments on Lee’s presence. All Lee needs to do, Quesada says, is to talk to you and put his hand on your shoulder, and it seems like you known him your whole life.

Now, I’ve never had the fortune of meeting Stan Lee, and I’m sure there’s probably a degree of mythologizing involved in statements like Quesada’s, which, after all, seems reminiscent of everything anyone who’s ever met Lee tends to say about him.

But, all that aside, I’m confident in saying one thing: Lee may have been a huckster, and quite a bold one at that, but in all the things I’ve ever seen or heard him say, or that I’ve seen written by him or about him, I don’t think he’s ever seemed obnoxious or annoying to me.

Passionate about promoting his work, of course. And not afraid of using superlatives to do it, sure. But amid all that, there’s always been that self-conscious, charming wink. A wink that said, “Hey, look, I know. But why not have some fun with this?” A wink that reminded you that this wasn’t some used-car salesman who just wanted your money and nothing else, but the guy who’d created many of these stories and characters.

Lee didn’t just want you to buy one of his comics. He wanted you to buy the next one, too. And not just because he needed to sell those comics to make a living, but because he was having the time of his life creating them, and he very much wanted to continue doing it. As the legend has it, Lee was disillusioned at the kind of stagnant, generic material he kept producing and quite ready to quit Marvel when publisher Martin Goodman asked him to come up with a superhero-team book in 1961. Which, of course, ended up being Fantastic Four, the trigger to the creative explosion that catapulted Marvel to the top over the subsequent five years.

Of course, I’m not even close to being in the generation that grew up on the work Lee is most famous for. But he’s still managed to leave that impression on me, to communicate to me that enthusiasm he obviously had for the work he’d been doing, in terms that I understood and that worked even in the second- or third-hand fashion (later Marvel comics, reprints, translations) in which most of it has found me.

So, that would be Stan Lee for you.

And then I read Tom Spurgeon’s San Diego Comic-Con report, in which Spurgeon makes an observation on Tyrese Gibson, musician, actor and the creator of an upcoming comic-book series published by Image Comics:

I don't want to be a hater, but watching Tyrese Gibson in action for a few minutes on I think Thursday made me uncomfortable, mostly because it felt like he was operating as the most effective male booth babe ever seen rather than as a proud creator with a comic of import and impact. I'm uncomfortable with a lot of the hard selling that goes on at the show, so maybe I'm just old, though.

When he says he doesn’t “want to be a hater,” Spurgeon refers to retailer Brian Hibbs’ recent run-in with Gibson, which, I think, was the sort of thing that people have come to call “a kerfuffle.” The Hibbs piece is lengthy, but it’s worth a read; it’s an intriguing case study on Twitter marketing, B-list celebrities and the comic books that they make—and, in this case, that they want to promote.

Now, marketing, even aggressive marketing, is good and well. It’s a necessity, and as much a part of publishing as anything. But there is a point where it becomes obnoxious and pushy and annoying, and I think Spurgeon hits the nail on the head when he says that Gibson doesn’t really come across as “a proud creator with a comic of import and impact.”

Don’t get me wrong: First up, I don’t know Gibson, I didn’t go to San Diego and I’m largely basing this on Brian Hibbs’ account. Second, I don’t mind people making a lot of noise about stuff they created. I don’t even mind other people jumping on the bandwagon and helping them to a degree that borders on activism. But personally, if I wanted to spread positive word of mouth on something, I think it’d have to be something that means something to me, or something I’m convinced is very good, at least, and the reasons for that would be what I’d be trying to communicate.

And that isn’t the impression I get from Gibson or his followers at all. The sense I get from Gibson’s fans is that they’re posting monosyllabic comments and calling Hibbs on the phone not because they’re actually convinced it’s going to be a particularly good or noteworthy comic, but because Celebrity Tyrese Gibson told them to. And the sense I get from Gibson is that he thinks his comic should be doing well not because it’s a particularly good or noteworthy comic, either, but because his name is on it and people should support it on the basis that his name is on it, and it’s going to be out there.

Simply put, there’s no point in the proceedings at which it seems like Gibson’s efforts were actually about his comic or anything that’s going to be in it. It’s all about Gibson, and about Gibson wanting Gibson’s comic to do well, and about how many Gibson fans Gibson can mobilize to tell people that they want Gibson’s comic to do well, too, because: Well, it’s Gibson’s comic, and Gibson rocks, so Gibson’s comic will rock, too, and you better believe it.

As I said, I wasn’t at San Diego, and I don’t know much about Gibson or his comic. But if Gibson’s recent campaign, to the extent it impacted and was covered by Hibbs and Heidi MacDonald, was meant to get me interested in the comic, then it’s failed quite spectacularly. I can’t even remember the title without looking it up (which I won’t), let alone what it was going to be about. And if I had to guess without taking a look, I’d say it’s probably one of those celebrity-driven comics that are written and drawn by people other than the celebrity. But please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on that.

However, what I do get a very good idea of, instead of the comic, is how Gibson presents himself to the people he thinks ought to be helping him sell his comic. And even presuming there had been any interest in his comic to begin with, that would likely have killed it.

Now, to say that Tyrese Gibson is no Stan Lee when it comes to promoting comics wouldn’t be much of an insight, certainly; nor much of an indictment of Gibson, for that matter, because the same could probably be said about everybody else trying to promote comics right now, including, sometimes, Stan Lee.

But if there’s a moral in comparing the two gentlemen’s approaches, I think it may be that Lee, back in the day, was more the kind of person who was promoting himself so he could sell more of his comics. Gibson, on the other hand, seems to be more the kind of person who’s promoting a comic so he can sell more of himself.

I’m not sure there’s anything particularly “right” or “wrong” with either approach*, but I think it might be saying something about the current relationship between the U.S. comics industry and Hollywood.

* Something other than me finding the latter approach to be annoying and obnoxious, I mean. But then, I’m generally more interested in comics than in celebrities, so maybe I’m not the target audience.


Gorillamydreamz said...

Ty Templeton has that joyous hucksterism down. His brief editorship of Mr. Comic's short-lived line had that in spades and the most gregarious man any convention he attends. He's sketching and telling stories the whole time.

Anonymous said...

I went to comic con and talked to gibson. he seemed like an ahole. When I asked him why he wanted to do this whole comic book thing, he looked annoyed and gave me a cheap cheesy line about comic con being so energetic. The guy was an ass towards people. I read the comic book, and its not even that good. in fact it sucks. Its a crappy ripoff of the punisher but with some backstory i could care less about. Gibson showed me how some celebrities are just greedy and self absorbed. (If you wanted to see a nice celebrity who wanted to support his new comic and actually enjoyed the whole experience you should have went to Thomas Janes booth. Guy was awesome. Really enjoyed his comic.)