Stan “The Man” Lee, the Godfather of the Modern Comics, produced some of the most memorable comic characters and changed the face of the comics industry. But did you know that, he was never into comics as a child? He preferred plays, novels, short stories and classics such as Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle and much more.
His lucky break into the world of comics happened when he was asked to work as an assistant at Timely Publications. Over the years, Stan Lee got bored of the dominant DC’s formula of creating characters with extraordinary superpowers, that routinely had the same kind of adventures.
He decided to write a story with relatable characters who were mature and a lot more human with their own share of follies and foibles, and a shade of gray. They had real problems and emotions and “most important of all — inside their colorful, costumed booties, they’d still have feet of clay”.
In November 1961, he told his story to his friend and colleague, Jack Kirby, who pencilled the art. Thus was born, The Fantastic Four. FF was gained FF’s explosive popularity. Yes, even the (then) 13-year old George R. R. Martin fell short of words to describe how amazing the book was, and shared his observations of the story’s finer details.
And that’s how Stan Lee helped Marvel turn on its head to become a revolution in the world of comic magazines!
Since the dawn of the 20th century, comics and superheroes have come a long way. A really long way.
Over the years, comic books have grown from mere newspaper strips to award winning novels and now, movies and series! Their evolution reflects our complex and contentious society. And it hasn’t stopped! In fact, comics have redefined how we consume content over the last century.
We had a fun chat with Jeff Moss, Director of Communications, and Will Attar, IT Manager at Comic Bento about the comic book industry, subscription businesses for graphic novels, and Ben Affleck’s disastrous date with his spandex in Daredevil.
Sharing the love of Comics
Did you know that Superman was actually friends with Lex Luthor when they were young teenagers? It took just one lab accident and some chemicals that made Lex bald, when Superman tried saving his life. Enraged at the loss of the antidote that would cure Superman’s weakness to Kryptonite, and his hair, Luthor vowed vengeance against Superboy in Adventure Comics #271.
Or did you know that Joker was once granted diplomatic immunity against legal justice for all his crimes, after being appointed as the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations? This was after he killed Robin and is brought out in Batman #429.
Makes you want to know more about these characters, right? We could surely do with some valuable and genuine recommendations on where to start. And if possible, get our hands on those books!
And that’s what Comic Bento does.
Comic Bento is first and foremost about one thing – sharing the love for comic books.
The good folks at Comic Bento bring to you, the world of comics with unadulterated passion. They have created a blind box subscription for comics and they take pride in their careful curation of 4 – 5 graphic novels that delight their readers with an interesting mixture of some famous and other not-so-famous comic collections.
Will likes to rephrase this – “It’s like having your own personal, curated comic book library by a bunch of people who have been reading and making comics for pretty much all their adult lives at this point.”
Oh, but don’t go around reading every superhero’s backstory! For starters, Will read all the 730 odd issues of The Amazing Spider-man, despite Moss’s warnings and he found it terrible. Or as Will says, Spider-man saw 5-6 years of ‘What is happening….’, especially around 80’s and 90’s when all comics were getting dark and weird”.
In short, Comic Bento makes for an excellent go-to expert for recommending good stories and comics!
A Classic Case of Intrapreneurship
Comic Bento comes from its parent company, Blind Ferret Entertainment which was founded in 2005. Blind Ferret has two wings – Blind Ferret Entertainment which deals with creation marketing, publishing and Blind Ferret Media which is into web & mobile advertising.
Blind Ferret owns, produces, merchandises, and operates two of the top five web comics on the Internet – Looking for Group (LFG) and Least I Could Do (LICD). Blind Ferret naturally evolved into a retail store with a new spin on your typical comic book store, very much selling single issue graphic novels and trade paperbacks
Will quips in, “Also just the design-wise, we wanted to look like the Apple store of comic shops that looks very inviting instead of a creepy store…”
But subscription box for graphic novels struck as a unique business idea and here, they found opportunities and challenges as this was something that was never attempted before.
This is a classic case of Intrapreneurship!
Comic Bento looked at new and innovative ways of comics retailing just in general and zeroed in on comic box subscriptions as a fun business model.
“There was a lot to learn in terms of how to adequately buy, pack, ship these comics, right down to using the right kind of packing material in these boxes, and more importantly, how to choose the titles in terms of broadest appeal”, says Moss.
We asked if Comic Bento belongs to any particular accelerator that teaches them the tricks of their business and they are quick to respond in their trademark comic style – “The only accelerator that I know of and we’ve been a part of is, we keep the Flash chained to the cosmic treadmill in the back. And he accelerates time fast enough that it actually bends around itself and we can go back in time and fix any of the problems that we need to”, jokes Moss, with a deadpan expression.
Thinking Inside the Box
Moss worked in a comic store as the store manager. He would encounter a lot of people who would come in and ask, “What’s good? What should I read? What do I do? Where do I start?”. These frequently asked questions triggered the idea of the blind box service.
Moss said, “This is the easiest way in the world to answer this question: you pay me $20 a month and we will send you four five graphic novels that we know you’re going to like, that we’ve read, that we’ve enjoyed”.
Anything outside the box, that you wouldn’t normally go for, would be inside the box. Most times, people go into comic shops and pick a familiar book, something that they have already read and liked.
And it continues till date. People are hooked on to the idea of a comic box subscription. They welcome all the new genres that are introduced to them. How do we know that? Check out their unboxing videos, especially the ones with Anthony Misiano for the October and December boxes, and you will know what we are talking about.
Building an Audience
Scott Adams of Dilbert, XKCD’s creator Randall Munroe, and Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal comic succeeded in building a strong audience over time, online. We thought it would be interesting to know how are we merging the world of online comics and print comics.
Turns out, that’s what Blind Ferret has been doing for over 10 years – merging the print and online model of the graphic novels business. LFG and LICD have several million readers a month online and they print out specials & trade paperbacks every year.
What differentiates Comic Bento from any regular subscription box is, they do their homework to stay relevant. “We also, sort of, time stuff and try to do a lot of cross promotion. This summer we had Ant-Man coming out, so we made sure we had the Ant-Man book that month. After the Avengers : Age of Ultron, we had a Black Widow book”, says Moss.
“How TV shows and movies help is that they make things more recognisable. Nobody cared about Daredevil until the Netflix movie came out. So we made sure we had a Daredevil book very shortly after that series was released. Not at all like that Ben Affleck movie… So taking little things like that and trying to connect them with what’s going on in pop culture is actually one of the more fun aspects of what we do”, he adds.
Rising above the din – Selling Comic Content Aggressively & Staying Relevant
Since the 1938 and 1939, when comics first became ‘popular’ with the birth of Superman and Batman and the archetypes, it’s grown from throwaway entertainment for kids into multi-million dollar collector businesses into near-bankruptcy and back from that into an entertainment field.
The comic book industry isn’t just the comic book industry anymore. It’s supplemented by the movie industry, the games industry, the merchandise industry, the licensing industry, and so on. It’s a little tough sometimes to exist within that frame, with people having these characters thrown at them across different media and get them to ignore everything and just read the comic.
Moss notes, “But being able to embrace the blind box service which is fresh and new and something that is really really popular but untried has helped us evolve a little bit more into this next retail échelon”.
Frustum in the Comic Book Industry
Seth Godin, the marketing maven and Ruckus-maker, recently wrote about frustum in this blog. If you take a pyramid and chop off the top, what’s left is a frustum. That’s the state of many industries, where you don’t have people at the top!
We ask Comic Bento how this is being navigated in the graphical comic book landscape, and they are quick to agree that the situation prevails even for the graphic novel industry. Marvel and DC control 80% of the total market share.
“What is difficult is, and I think this applies to music, to books and comics, to any kind of art really, is simply getting yourself noticed above the din of all the other ones. Because, with the Internet and with the ease of digital publication, anyone can write a book, anyone can do a comic. So it’s about how do you get yourself noticed above the white noise”, says Moss.
“To me, the cream always rises to the top”, he adds.
But with the industry giants giving a platform for fresh voices to showcase their talent, some amazing art is being produced now.
G Willow Wilson, an American comic writer from New Jersey, created Kamala Khan, a teenage American-Muslim from New Jersey with shapeshifting abilities. She discovers that she has Inhuman genes in the aftermath of the “Inhumanity” storyline and takes the mantle from her idol, the previous Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers.
Wilson is a great example of how the industry, including the giants, DC and Marvel, is embracing new voices that give makeovers to existing characters, bringing in all the new elements to a stale portion of the industry, and Comic Bento includes these voices in their boxes to give them a wider reach.
Closure – The Magical Language in Comics
Scott McCloud, in his seminal work, Understanding Comics (The Invisible Art), carefully dissects the artform of comics. In the book, he says that “virtually every other form of media has received critical examination in and of themselves”. He goes on to add, “For comic, this attention has been rare”.
Through the work, he analyses at length about comics as a medium. McCloud observes that ‘Closure’ is the rule that governs the use of the comic language. The real catch for closure is in the “gutter”, i.e., the space between the two panels, each of which represent only a part of the bigger story. So, when you read a comic book you tend to connect the two panels.
From Batman chasing Joker in one panel to Joker laughing maniacally at Batman in the next, you would have mentally imagined Joker being captured, although the artist told a different story. It is closure that merges two sequential images into one idea. Closure makes comics magical.
Comic Bento works towards delivering this magic at your doorstep and that is why, they have a team that understands the world of comics so well. Everyone in the team – from the top to bottom – are ardent readers of comics and bring in the same kind of passion in their box – so you get hooked on to these graphic panels in their collections.
You could treat yourself to some great graphic novels and comics blind box here.