This week marked the release of a new ongoing Superman title, one that merits the attention of fans of the medium, not just fans of the super-hero genre. Penned by Darwyn (DC: The New Frontier) Cooke and illustrated by Tim Sale, Superman Confidential is the result of a collaboration between two of the most respected talents in the industry today. That, combined with the fact that the book features the most recognized icon of comic books in history, should add up to a sales success for DC Comics.
Of course, by “sales success,” I mean the book should fare well in comparison to other comics. No doubt, it’ll land in the top 20 on the Diamond Comic Distributors sales list for November (which we won’t see until December). I’m betting it’ll sell in the neighborhood of 70,000 to 80,000 copies — respectable in the 21st century comics market. But I think the numbers could have been oh-so-much better had DC not missed out on a real marketing opportunity that could have reached a mainstream pop-culture audience.
The key to greater success and a wider audience for Superman Confidential is Tim Sale, but it’s not his reputation in the industry that could have boosted sales. Sure, his work on Batman: The Long Halloween, Dark Victory and Marvel’s various “color” books (Daredevil: Yellow, Spider-Man: Blue and Hulk: Gray) stands out as edgy and unique, but at the moment, his artwork is the industry’s ambassador to the masses who don’t read comics.
As most comics readers know, Tim Sale’s art is featured prominently on the popular new TV drama Heroes.
The direct-market comic-book audience is made up of a few hundred thousand readers, at best. In the medium’s Golden Age, there were millions of us, but things have changed and not necessarily for the worse. But the industry today — publishers, distributors, retailers, creators and even readers — is always hungry for new readers, for a wider audience.
Heroes is the No. 3 television show in North America. Almost 15 million Americans are tuning in every week to learn about people with amazing powers. They’re watching a super-hero story with a darker edge, something more representative of comics storytelling today as opposed to how many remember it from their youth or how they simply perceive the medium and genre to be.
Tim Sale’s artwork has been incorporated as a key plot component in the series. In the series, painter/junkie Isaac Mendez (played by Santiago Cabrera) predicts the future by painting the images in his mind’s eye while high. Those paintings are actually the result of Sale’s efforts. Fans of his work can pick out his style immediately. I’m pleased the show’s producers (who include frequent Sale collaborator Jeph Loeb) went with a more stylized look for those paintings rather than something more photorealistic or representative of conventional super-hero comic art.
Sale’s style shines through so strongly in those paintings that I think some Heroes viewers might be interested in sampling more of his work. And given that the paintings in the show form panels in some grand, prophetic comic book, perhaps some might even be interested in learning more about the craft of comics storytelling.
Granted, we’re talking about a small group of viewers, a tiny fragment of denizens of TV Town. But in that miniscule percentile lies potential, great potential for comics. Imagine if one tenth of a per cent of the Heroes audience opted to seek out more of Sale’s artwork. Not one per cent, but just one tenth of a per cent. That’s about 15,000 people who could be converted into new comics readers. In today’s comics market, that’s a big boost.
It’s too bad DC didn’t make it easier for those potential readers to find what they’re looking for. Imagine a blurb reading “By the artist from NBC’s Heroes!” plastered across the bottom of the cover. That Heroes logo alone should be enough to turn a few heads in a comic shop, and if promoted properly in the entertainment press, it could also get non-comics readers to seek out a comic book.
DC did a solid promotional job getting the word out about movie director Richard Donner’s involvement in a Superman comic-book story (see Action Comics #844). But the notion of a director co-writing a comic script doesn’t have the resonance of recognizable visuals. The masses are more taken with visual entertainment these days rather than conceptual, and there’s a more immediate connection made.
It seems as though Heroes will remain a hit, and as such, DC has only missed out on the first of many opportunities. Imagine Amazon.com packaging the first season of the TV show next summer with the first trade paperback collection of Superman Confidential.
Retailers can step in and create new opportunities where others missed them. Perhaps an enterprising comics retailer could put together a window display. Picture a banner that reads “Discover the artistic hero of NBC’s Heroes” hanging above a rack of Sale’s new title and past successes.
Hell, one needn’t even rely on the Tim Sale connection to the show. The pop-culture resonance of the TV show, its celebration of the super-hero genre and direct acknowledgement of comics in its plotting could easily spark an interest in the medium in the show’s audience.
The Heroes tagline is “Save the Cheerleader. Save the World.” It’s not about to Save the Comics Industry, but it could help to quietly legitimize and bolster it.