Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Wrestling and Comic Books Part 2 - Marketing and Merchandising

Cena's stagnant BECAUSE his merch designs are so dynamic
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Marketing and merchandising are essential parts of both comic books and wrestling. They are two of the largest, if not the largest, drivers of merchandise in popular culture. Want a t-shirt with your favorite character? We have those. A toy or action figure? Got that too. Want something more substantial, like a figurine or replica championship belt? Also available. This part of the culture is celebrated, and there is a certain pride in having the toy or wearing the shirt of your favorite character. However, the impact of dollars spent and sales made on merchandise has the most transparent effect in both comic books and wrestling, usually negatively, causing clumsy storytelling and stagnant storylines.

The clearest example on the effect of merchandise sales on storytelling in professional wrestling is John Cena. Cena's popularity, especially with children, can be seen in his merchandise sales, as he outsells all other wrestlers, by fourfold if some reports can be believed. He is a cash cow, simply put, one the WWE does not want to put out to pasture. There has been an ongoing debate about whether to turn Cena heel, with people arguing with his mixed crowd responses and behavior that he already is one. Whether he is a face or heel is immaterial, because what matters most is that he doesn't change. He sells shirts and wristbands, and will continue to do so. He's a great performer and one of the hardest working people in wrestling, but his character will forever remain in stasis as long as he continues to make money. There are numerous stories that could be told with Cena, especially with someone who's been so successful and wrestled for so long, but the only one that is continually told is "the hero triumphs". Almost all storylines involving Cena are completely transparent and predictable because his success selling merchandise has made him a static character.

The effect of this phenomenon on comics is closely related to the slew of film and television tie ins. One of the most obvious cases is the example of Nick Fury Jr. in the main Marvel comics universe. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Nick Fury is played by Samuel L. Jackson. This was taking the lead of the instance of Nick Fury in the Ultimate universe, a spin-off Marvel property that had Nick Fury as a black character, instead of the white WWII vet and super spy that was present in the original Marvel Universe. As the character was clearly modeled after Jackson, using that version of the character in the films was a no-brainer, especially considering that Jackson is a comics fan. However, it creates a problem when movie fans pick up comics and see a white Nick Fury, who was still a rather active player in the main universe when the first wave of Marvel films were arriving. Marvel's solution to this was a storyline called Battle Scars, in which the white Nick Fury learns of the existence of an illegitimate child of his, who happens to be black. His child, now fully grown, gets pulled into the world of SHIELD and espionage and ends up being a spy. He also, conveniently, is tortured, leading to his eye being put out, so that he matches the version of the character in the movie. He also takes the name of Nick Fury, ignoring the name he's been using for his life up to this point, with his father effectively retiring, making him *the* Nick Fury of the main Marvel continuity. It was contrived and done only to strengthen the link between the majority of Marvel comics, which are still a niche hobby, with the Marvel films, which gross hundreds of millions of dollars.

All popular arts must make money to be successful, with wrestling and comics being no exception, but so rarely in other industries are the decisions so transparent. However, this is not the only problem that this focus on financial success brings. It also infects the fanbase with a preoccupation with this success, and creates a link between the two in their eyes. In wrestling, there is a subsection of analysis that strictly looks at television ratings and pay-per-view buys in relation to wrestlers. A wrestler is then deemed good or bad not on his actual skill, or anyone's enjoyment, but on whether this fuzzy math determines them to be so. So to in comics, with fans taking sadistic joy in which comics sell most that month, with low selling books put on the chopping block. In both comics and wrestling, this obsession with financial success rather than artistic success is as big a problem as any that plague either form of entertainment. Surely films and television face this problem as well, but neither have as an enthusiastic fanbase who breaks down rating segments by the quarter hour, or looks at vast spreadsheets of Diamond Distributor pre-order sheets to analyze success. It is born out of wanting to predict storylines and see the direction of the stories, but it removes all the joy of an organic story unfolding.

The trouble with this culture is that, despite these problems, also builds a lot of camaraderie and joy. We buy this merchandise because we love these characters, and love what they represent. Design is a very important part of both wrestling and comics, and the look and feel of shirts, toys, and memorabilia feeds into that aspect. It's fun. Walking up to a movie theater wearing a Daniel Bryan shirt and getting a chorus of “Yes! Yes! Yes!” from the ticket sellers makes me feel a part of something bigger than myself, which is the best part of any fandom. Without that shirt, there is no connection. We feel like members of an exclusive club, and it allows us to demonstrate our loyalty to a “team” whether that be Daniel Bryan or Hawkeye. I don't want to condemn shirts or toys, because I'm as big a consumer as any. I only want a good story.

When marketability is the leading factor in deciding the direction of stories, it causes a multitude of problems, with telegraphed storytelling and a toxic fan environment both destructive. The most dangerous is always reverting to the creative choice that is safest. This aversion to risk may lead to the most money in the short term, but can lead to loss in the long. A good story is always a good business decision.