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The 10 Most Successful and Controversial Comic Book Publicity Stunts

A female Thor? Here are some of the wildest choices publishers made over the years to try to revive dying sales.

by
Pierre Comtois

Bio

July 27, 2014 - 7:00 am
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The early twentieth century was a time when the daily newspaper reigned as the number one source of public information; magazines such as Time, Look, and Newsweek were huge; pulp magazines were the prime source of affordable reading entertainment; movies were becoming a national pastime; and radio dominated the airwaves.

It was a time that saw the rise of a mass media that in turn created a rich environment for the entrepreneur, the advertiser, and the promoter to reach a national, even international audience. It wasn’t coincidence that a showman like Harry Houdini — who made it a practice to advertise escapes from straitjackets while hanging upside down from flagpoles or to challenge local law enforcement that he could escape from their jails, or survive being thrown into a river while locked in a trunk — became an international celebrity. Advertising stunts like that turned Houdini’s shows into SRO events and his success wasn’t lost on anyone. And so was born the advertising stunt, a contrived event designed to draw attention to a person or product.

But for the comics industry, advertising had always been something that publishers spent little money on. Considered mostly a children’s entertainment venue, money would have been considered wasted if spent on ads in Time or the local newspaper. Instead, publishers have traditionally concentrated their efforts on point of sale advertising such as store spinner racks with signs affixed to the top of them reading “Hey kids! Comics!” And if some comics characters like Superman or Batman made it onto radio or the movies, so much the better.

And so comics mostly flew under the radar except in rare instances when the larger media took notice. Those times, the spotlight was often unwelcome as it usually meant criticism of comics and questions about their suitability for children. Likely it was one of the reasons why publishers for the most part, avoided drawing too much attention to themselves.

All of the preceding then, makes the recent phenomenon of coverage of comics news by the mass media all the more surprising. But when looked at more closely, maybe it shouldn’t be. Since the 1960s, pop culture has risen to the point where today it dominates the culture and reporting on entertainment news (including whole television programs devoted to the subject) has become overheated, even hysterical at times. (Witness the mania surrounding the annual San Diego Comics Con). Add to that, the rise of social media, the proliferation of internet news sites, apps, tweets, and hits and you have an environment ripe for exploitation.

Enter savvy, young, and usually left leaning comics industry publishers, editors, and “creative consultants” who know how the world of internet news dissemination and just plain ole gossip can be spread hither and yon in a matter of hours or days. Add to that a real politik understanding of mob mentality and the inclination of human beings to follow the fad of the moment and you have a formula for the comics somewhat unique take on the marketing stunt.

Unique in that unlike other entertainment media, the comics industry thrives on continuing characters, many with long and storied histories going back decades into antediluvian times before the current wave of political correctness so to speak. Thus, events that see characters being killed off, changing genders, or embracing radical beliefs strike at the heart of readers’ comfort zones.

But such stunts, designed to catch readers’ attention and hopefully boost sales are nothing new in comics. Way back in 1983, Walter Simonson replaced Thor as the thunder god with an alien named Beta Ray Bill revitalizing the character’s title. In 1984, John Byrne replaced the Thing with the She-Hulk on the Fantastic Four. In 1974, Steve Englehart had Steve Rogers quit being Captain America to become a hero without a country called Nomad. And in 1988, DC held a poll in which fans could phone in and vote whether the Robin of the time should be killed off and replaced.

The difference with what is happening today is that in those instances, the stunt resonated only within the small pond of comics fans. The larger media had no interest in such small time shenanigans.

But today, all that has changed and the comics stunt often means a big boost in sales for an otherwise dying industry. The value of the properly handled stunt first became apparent to comics companies in 1992 when DC concocted the “death of Superman” event which grabbed the attention of the mainstream media and had gullible customers lining up outside comics specialty stores to get a copy of Superman #75 that they were sure would be a collectors item some day.

The sales and attention generated by the death of Superman was not lost on the industry and other such stunts were planned including DC’s next involving Batman having his back broken by super-villain Bane. As the years passed, marketing stunts became more frequent with the overall pace picking up substantially in recent years with new earth shaking announcements coming from Marvel and DC on an almost weekly basis. Each surely generates comment wherever the stories about them are posted but it’s questionable that they make much difference in sales anymore, the specialness of such stunts having worn off over the years.

Further dulling the edge of the latest stunts is the fact that the status quo ante is almost always restored at some point: a hero is brought back to life or never died in the first place, the event took place in a different dimension or different continuity, or the original character returns from retirement.

But all that hasn’t stopped the companies from coming up with new marketing ploys, most related to politically correct themes which perhaps explains some of the fervor with which these stunts keep coming. As with most of those harboring left leaning ideas, ideology trumps everything else even sales, the risk of public rejection, or damage to their iconic brands.

Note: The following list is ordered roughly in terms of least to the most successful stunt (in terms of marketing) with that of the position of the new female Thor admittedly an informed guess on the writer’s part.

Thor-001-regular

10) Thor becomes a woman

The latest news from the “house of ideas” is that long time male hero Thor (who’s been around like, since the Vikings sailed the seas around 1,000 AD) will become unworthy of wielding mjolnir (his uru hammer, natch) and a woman, as yet unidentified, will take his place. The stated reason for the change is to attract more female readers to Marvel (we’re told they comprise a significant part of its readership already… yeah, right) but aside from the bump in sales usual with these kinds of stunts (clueless consumers of mainstream news rushing to invest in the latest collectible), there’s no money to be made here. Look for sales of Thor to remain low until Don Blake returns in a couple years (with writers likely finding some way to keep his female counterpart around so as not to have to admit complete defeat).

Top Rated Comments   
So...are you guys trying to be Buzzfeed now?

Top Ten This, Top Ten That...and then all those stupid threads about sunrises and song requests that push anything (remotely) interesting way down to the bottom of the page.

Sorry to say this, but PJ Lifestyle is really starting to suck.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (22)
All Comments   (22)
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Why??? The first thing I think of when I hear Thor is upper body strength. Guess she will do better than Sponge Bob.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
The number 1 and number 6 stunts arguably destroyed the comic collectors markets. There were thousands of non-comic fin investors buying up issues that were "sure" to appreciate in value. The publishers just ran the presses and glutted the market. The Death of Superman in the sealed black bag is worth less than $50 today. Also the idiot investors assumed that Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne were done for so they shut down collecting those titles. The publishers crashed, DC went bankrupt and the bottom fell out of the collectors market and has never recovered.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
I stopped reading (and buying) comics about the time I turned 13, because I realized the publishers were pushing values I disagreed with, and I really resented having all their PC crap dumped on me, especially when I was paying for "entertainment, not indoctrination.

I figured that if they wanted to push anti-Americanism, they should be running their strips in the "Daily Worker". Haven't bought a comic, or gone to a movie based on a Superhero character, since about 1960.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have an idea for the female Thor. She could be Thor's girlfriend and we could call "Really Thor"!
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
So, it's like the "evil twin" gag that soap operas do, or the character that spends a month, or even a season, in the ICU.

It's almost as if there's a list of items they can check off. Race, homosexuality, gay marriage, sex change, death, and the ever popular, crap on Christians and America.

So, how's this for a plot: Superman gets a sex change, then has a homosexual, incestual marriage with his sister, develops AIDS, dies at the hand of Glenn Beck at an NRA rally, and is resurrected when she come out as a Muslim, fighting back at Imperial Israel.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
Comic stunts? I dunno, around the time SNL started up with "Ace and Gary" I stopped taking comics so seriously. I don't much even like the art anymore, I miss the grungy golden age styles. The Marvelverse has gone all over the f'ing place, judging by the summary Wikipedia entries, and the DCverse ... never has been that much, plus or minus Bizarro and Mr. Mxyzptlk and other Superman-only branches.

Comics have gone kind of low-tech since color tv and CGI movies, y'know.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
Maybe if marvel created a new heroine to attract women, or expanded a book for sif or Valkyrie instead of shitting all over their fans all the time with this pc garbage, I wouldn't be so pissed at them
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
Instead of redoing Thor as female Thor, why not just take an established character in that realm (Sif) and have her do 'normal' superhero stuff without the ever annoying feminist preachy crap about how much her life sucks 'because patriarchy'?
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
I wish I could hit the like button more than once.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
I knew that our world was irretrievably doomed when my brother pulled his kids out of school on the day Superman died. 30 years earlier, when my mother died, I missed a day of school. Sic transit.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
"9) Captain America changes skin color" Seen something similar before: In the late 80's, there was a pro wrestler character called John Walker who put on a costume and called himself Super-Patriot. Long story short: After a few clashes and plot complications, Walker takes over as Captain America and one of his old wrestling confederates, who was black, became his sidekick. He was called the new Bucky for a couple issues until someone pointed out to the New York writers that "Bucky" was a Southern racial epithet. (BTW: It's not like Steve Rogers never got replaced before, so that whole "Death of Captain America" wasn't much of a shocker, either. ;) )
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
In 2014 internet stunts work one of two ways. The first is to use diversity to alter old school institutions rather than simply create a new thing. What that does is invite the prospect of group defamation (racism, homophobia) all around and controversy. Make this black, this gay, this a women, etc.

The second is more a career builder: people simply defame soft targets for a living, and these people are by and large feminists. The soft targets are now the usual PC targets: men, whites, heterosexuals and the West. That of course invites pushback and then even more controversy that people are trying to silence them, they are receiving death and rape threats and please buy my book in the name of social justice.

Tearing down a thing requires no talent whatsoever. Rather than making Thor a woman, why not simply create a new woman superhero? That's cuz no one really wants what the PC are selling. They're like leeches: never far from the thing they hate and always at a great distance from what they purport to love. It's the only chance they have of elbowing their way into the mainstream, because left on their own talents, they're nobody from nowhere.

You'll see a phenomenon like a '60s separate PC version of Marvel Comics league of their own exactly never. Leeches can't suck their own blood and feminists and their "diversity" produce exactly nothing but complaint and excuses. Better to be a cowbird.
12 weeks ago
12 weeks ago Link To Comment
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