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B&N Week 173: Critical or Commercial Acclaim–Which Do You Prefer?

| April 15, 2014

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It’s another Tuesday! Summer’s coming, and with it, the summer movies. While technically not a summer movie, we’ve already had the Captain America sequel [which I consider to be the opening salvo to the summer tentpoles], and on the horizon are the Spider-Man and X-Men sequels, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles remake, and then there’s the Sin City sequel. And that’s just the comic book movies. There’s another Transformers on the horizon as well, as well as the Godzilla remake.

Those are the notable summer highlights for us comic book folks. Some of those are going to make a ton of money and be panned by the critics, and others will be heralded by critics but make a little bit of money. [It is the rare movie that gets lauded by critics and makes a ton of money.]

The same runs true for comics. So this week’s question is simple: critical or commercial acclaim—which do you want?

Take a look at the oeuvre of Marvel/DC. Most of it is decent enough to sell, although “decent enough to sell” also means that most of it is forgettable. While each story adds to the overall tapestry of their respective universes, and while each character is someone’s favorite, each title is on a short rotation of creators and cycles of cancellation and rebooting. DC has rebooted their entire universe at least thrice, with this latest one being the most drastic.

However, while the titles are selling [and being cancelled and rebooted and recycled and with creators being shuffled either by editorial or on their own because of the dictates of editorial], how many of those titles are critically acclaimed? How many of those titles will be in the running for and actually win awards? Extremely few.

While Marvel/DC dominate comics in collective sales, you don’t hear many of those individual titles selling exceptionally well. You don’t hear about exceptional sales until you step out of the industry mainstream and start to head out to the fringes [no matter how close those fringes, such as Image, are to being mainstream].

Here is the awful truth: generally, stories that appeal to critics do not appeal to the general public, and vice versa. Again, this is a generality. There will always be titles that will break this mold.

What do you get with critical acclaim? A warm, fuzzy feeling that you made a “good” book. A book that probably didn’t sell well, and your story probably didn’t get finished due to low sales.

With commercial acclaim? Your book may not win awards, it may not be “good,” but it’s good enough to sell in numbers sufficient to keep it going to the end of the arc, if not further. It may sell well enough to provide a decent income.

Can you aim for both? Sure. You should always aim for both. However, understand that the overwhelming bulk of the stories you want to tell will not be getting either critical or commercial acclaim. The reason for this is simple: most of the stories you want to tell aren’t salable, for whatever reason [and the reasons are myriad].

Don’t take these words to be a condemnation on either being commercial or being more artsy [and looking for critical acclaim]. Each have their time and place, and both are to be lauded. Just keep your eyes open when you go looking for pats on the back.

Do some research. See what the top 300 books are, and see in what numbers they’re selling. Go back a few months to a year. Track the number of sales. Then, go take a look at the winners of Eisner’s and Harvey’s. See if any of those titles are in the top 300 for sales. Hell, see if those publishers are in the top 300.  That’s the least bit of ammunition you’d need in order to make an informed decision as to what to shoot for, and which is more probable.

And that’s all I have for this week. See you in seven. 

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

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