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.
July 27, 2014 - 7:00 am
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.
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).