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).
9) Captain America changes skin color
A frequent stunt comics publishers like to pull is creating colored versions of established heroes who have usually been white due to having been invented in an era when no one gave diversity or inclusion any thought at all. Creators simply created heroes that were like them. Since the 1960s however, creators have become more self-conscious and acquired guilt complexes and so have felt the need for affirmative action among the super-hero set. Thus black counterparts to existing white heroes were created such as John Stewart for the Hal Jordan Green Lantern or Jim Rhodes as War Machine to Tony Stark’s Iron Man or Bill Foster as Black Goliath to Hank Pym’s Goliath. These new characters never caused much of a ripple in the wider media but in today’s supercharged internet era, Marvel’s recent announcement that Steve Rogers would be replaced as Captain America by a black man (his long time ally the Falcon aka Sam Wilson) finally caught the public’s attention. Expect this development to last two years max.
8) Death of Captain America
Ever since DC’s marketing coup involving the death of its marquis character, comic companies have raced to do the same thing. Catching media notice in 2007, Marvel announced that Captain America would be killed as part of its “Civil War,” a storyline running across many of its titles at the time. Cap, aligned with those heroes resisting a government attempt to have all super-heroes registered, was shot by girlfriend and agent of SHIELD Sharon Carter. The captain has long since recovered.
7) Death of Archie
Not to be outdone by market behemoths DC and Marvel, struggling Archie Comics made a bit of a splash in 2014 when it announced that the star of its line of perennial teenagers would catch an assassin’s bullet for political candidate Kevin Keller in Life With Archie #36. Adding to the tragedy is the fact that Kevin is Archie’s official homosexual character who is apparently wed to Clay Walker, a decorated war veteran (!) when he wins election to the US Senate on a gun control platform. Does it get any better than this? Taking the edge off the stunt however, is the fact that it doesn’t concern the real Archie, only a possible adult version of the character (a caveat often associated with these kinds of marketing stunts that the media often fails to report.) Doing so, obviously, would reduce much if not all of the interest the non-comics reading public would have for such news.
6) Batman has his back broken
Promptly on the heels of the immensely successful demise of Superman, DC quickly launched a second event in 1993, this time centering on its second biggest icon. But putting a spin on the emerging formula, editors decided just to put Batman out of action for a while by having his back broken. This was done by bad guy Bane in Batman #497 and turned out to be as successful or almost as successful with media coverage and more importantly, sales (story continuity extended over a zillion issues of Batman starring comics… there were no flies on DC’s editorial team), as the Superman event had been. Never fear; Batman has been back on the job now for many years, none the worse for wear!
5) Peter Parker is replaced by Miles Morales
In another instance of “spreading the wealth around,” in 2011, Marvel grandiosely announced that Peter Parker would be replaced by a Miles Morales, a black/hispanic character, as Spider-Man. This news garnered much attention at the time before quickly fading. Likely it was because many news outlets failed to mention that this version of Spider-Man was not in the officially sanctioned Marvel continuity (whatever is left of that once hallowed institution) but part of its “ultimates” universe, an alternate continuity intended to allow a revamp of the company’s characters without offending long time readers.
4) Superman renounces his American citizenship
A different take on the usual form these kinds of stunts take but nevertheless still taking some people by surprise and for some, even shocking (to those still capable of being shocked by the excesses of political correctness). The change in the Man of Steel’s status took place in Action Comics #900. Having given up on “truth, justice, and the American way,” it’s no longer clear what Superman now stands for except maybe some UN sanctified global peace agenda. Wonder where he stands on the latest Israeli/Palestinian contre temps? Truth in advertising dept: this stunt may not even have been an “official” stunt, just a PC slip on the part of the writer and editorial team. Also, there is some talk that the back up story the renunciation took place in might not even “count” as part of DC’s regular continuity… whatever that is!
3) Kevin Keller joins the cast of Archie
Revealing itself as a sink of political correctness, Archie Comics announced in 2010 that heretofor, Riverdale High would host its very own homosexual student. Named Kevin Keller, the character immediately became an accepted member of the gang (Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica, Reggie, Big Ethel, et al) and was fast tracked into his own title in 2012. So far as anyone knows, sales for the company have not been effected at all at this latest turn of events. i.e. they’re still anemic.
2) Northstar gets married
Not to be outdone in the race to mainstream homosexuality (not to mention same sex marriage), Marvel let it be known in 1992 that Northstar, a member of Canadian super-team Alpha Flight, was a homosexual. It had long been rumored in fan circles that the speed powered Jean Paul Beaubier was likely homosexual but there had never been anything concrete in the comics themselves to prove it. Making his status official, Marvel finally got around to marrying Northstar off to another guy in 2012 trumpeting the occasion on the cover of Astonishing X-Men #51. Northstar has barely been heard from since.
1) Death of Superman
The grand daddy comics stunt of them all! The one that started the modern age of media manipulating events by the comics industry. To be sure, Supes’ death in 1992 was preceded some years before by those of Supergirl and the Flash in Crisis on Infinite Earths, but those had occurred in the age before comics news was deemed worthy of reportage by the mass media. But for the death of Superman (the real, honest to gosh end of the Man of Steel…he wasn’t coming back folks…or at least that’s what the mavens at DC central kept telling us at the time) was BIG! News media began reporting on the event as if they thought it was for real and when Superman vol 2 #75 finally arrived in comics specialty stores hermetically sealed in an all concealing black plastic wrapper, it had become a genuine cultural phenomenon with huge sales mostly to people who hadn’t bought a comic in decades. Copies of the original printing quickly sold out and many subsequent printings followed. Superman remained “dead” for over a year as stand ins for the Man of Steel took his place in Superman, Adventure, and Justice League. New titles sprung up starring replacements like Steel who was really John Henry Irons in a suit of armor. Eventually however, the frenzy cooled and when the publisher decided that this cow had been milked for all it was worth, Superman was returned to life. But the results of his super-marketing campaign lived on in the form of periodic “deaths” of his fellow super-heroes, a tradition that goes on even to this day.