The Sweatpants Paradigm in the World of Geekdom

A Paradoxical Shift in Digital Distribution Allowed Girls to Let Out Their Inner Geek

By Ryan Carroll, Editor-at-Large

February, 2018.

I have addressed this issue in a previous article Cultural Diversity in Comics — Though Successful Has Not Been Organic. Marvel (Comics) is running an unsustainable business, of quantity over quality. In their attempts to keep sales figures up, in order to present “growing numbers” to their share holders.

The only way to grow new readership, is to seek new audiences, new demographics, i.e. diversify your viewer reach.

Digital and trade sales show one-thing, diversity works, female readership is now 50% of the comic industry market, but all figures point to the fact that they do not go to comic book stores.

Here in lies; The Sweatpants Paradigm.

The Sweatpants Paradigm has been largely unnoticed by the major publishers, let’s just focus on Marvel & DC from here on, under the catchall “publishers”. As the linked article above points to the fact that trades, comic storylines compiled into booklet format, and digital sales (including subscription digital services such as Comixology) are excluded from their “sales figures” and omitted in their reasonings to cancel titles.

Mass comic book title cancellations are primarily based on “poor selling” single issue. Typically issues #1, rather than waiting for the title to run its course to see if it gains traction with audiences or particular demographics that publishers are after.

Stemming from the publishers desires and needs to keep their investors and share holders pleased, through the presentation of monumental sales figures of relaunched issue #1 of popular characters; Batman, Wolverine, remember he died but now he’s back!, a dozen different issues per month of Spider-Man — that don’t even connect story-wise to one-another, etc. etc. etc.

Through the “bump” in sales by releasing, fresh #1 issues of popular IP, along with other strategies such as, “Event” storylines; Marvel’s Civil War or DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earth. Publishers can keep their bottom line figures up, for either a single Quarter or for the end of the year Q1-Q4 results.

But, when this business model begins to become unstable, as it does ever 5–10 years for one publisher or another, a relaunch of its entire line is in order. As seen twice in the last decade by DC with their New 52 that was shortly followed by Rebirth.

Neither of these are organic or long-term solutions to sustainable growth within the industry, specifically the comic book industry and not the shared cinematic or extended universes we are seeing today from Warner Bros and Marvel Studios.

Though one publisher, Valiant Comics — the third shared comic universe — has been largely ignoring these trend of these business practices to great success.

By focusing on their Geekdom / Fandom base, the major publishers are at risk of loosing out to The Sweatpants Paradigm. A phantasm that has plagued cultural society from strip clubs to comic book stores, providing an unwelcoming environment to the comic book and gaming industry’s largest growing demographic, females.

It is no coincidence that we have seen an uptick in comic book sales since the inception of the digital age, as before female demographics were sidelined to reading their favorite comics in trade format only. Having to put in requests at their local Barnes&Noble just to get their desired storylines.

This all changed with the advent of digital publication of the major comic book titles.

Comic Book Digital Sales were $1MMUSD in 2007, by 2014 they had reached $100MM.

An increase of 9,900%

Comic Book Print Sales from 2009–2014 went from $650MM to $835MM.

An increase of just 22%

The age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe highlights that there is an increase on both fronts. Though print sales have stagnated since 2014, while digital still continues to rise. The reason for this is hailed by one factor and one factor alone, diversity is key.

Specifically, female diversity.

Across the board females make up 50% of all genre film audiences, gamers, and comic book readers. While on top of that, 62% of female comic book readers prefer to read a comic book about a female superhero character, than a male.

In the gaming population, across all platforms and consoles, 60% of female gamers prefer to play a character of their own gender, compared to just 39% of males. Who appear to be more fluid in their choice of sexes — the male gaze perhaps?

While also in the gaming community, females will chose a strong female IP over a “standard male” lead 75% of the time.

Highlighting the notion that 50% of your audience across the board, and the audience that is providing the most growth for your industry, is susceptible to diversification; specifically diversity that represents themselves. Female characters for a female audience.

Some might argue that the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is why we have seen an increase in female participation in the industry, or that the acceptance of cosplaying at comic cons nationwide have brought out girl’s inner-geek.

But, both of these are wrong. It’s The Sweatpants Paradigm.

Through digital distribution, and to a extent trade publications availability in the past, females have become more comfortable in purchasing comics. As they do not have to enter a physical comic book store, and have to worry about standing next to a guy wearing sweatpants; while reading some hentai….

OK. Maybe not hentai, but you get the point!

The analogy is like witnessing a guy at a strip club (yes, I was once 18!) who is visiting the establishment while wearing sweatpants. A paradox that is uncomfortable to be in said person’s vicinity. The same goes for female comic book fans or gamers, who encounter a similar position at a comic book establishment.

Digital distribution & awareness has brought about female centric comic book sites, like The Mary Sue or Girls Like Comics, and has even created a niche comic book store market that is ran by girls for girls.

Leading us to the fact that, there has always been a market for the the female demographic within comic book branded IP, but it has yet to be fully exploited.

Shall we not forget the domestic success of Wonder Woman, the only DCEU movie that has not upset fans or audiences — I’m talking to you Suicide Squad, you piece of hot garbage!

Not only was WW the highest grossing film with a female superhero lead, and the highest grossing movie, yet, from a female director, but it also had the second lowest 2nd weekend drop in superhero box-office history; at just 45%.

WW was not only well received here States-side, but it received a rare 4 week extension in its theatrical run in China. A highly regulated cinema industry by the Beijing Central Government, that has a standard 30 day limit to film releases at the local box-office. Especially, enforce on international / Hollywood releases.

With only a few exceptions made, most notably by family friendly animation such as; Zootopia and recently Pixar’s Coco, both which hold the box-office records in China for being the leggiest movies in its history, and two movie genres that are very different from the likes of WW.

In the end, China accounted for 24.5% of the total international box-office for WW. A superhero film that did gangbusters in North America, but lagged in other parts of the world besides China. Arguably do to a lack of marketing on the side of Warner Bros. instead of it being a female-led superhero flick.

The Sweatpants Paradigm is not new to the culture of Geekdom, but is something that has been endemic to the physical comic book stores since their heyday in the 90s. With stories of minority Geeks (females) given the sense of un-comfortableness, whether intentional or not, when they have entered these male dominated venues.

This is now beginning to change, except through the eyes of the major publisher view.

As their view of if a comic is an instant hit or not, is primarily through single issue sales. Sales that are the bread and butter of brick-n-mortar comic stores, who purchases single issues through speculation from comic book distributors; mainly Diamond Publishing.

If these issues do not sell inside of the stores themselves, it does not effect the bottom line figures of the publishers. When they go back to their shareholders, to show the health of the company. Largely ignoring long-term numbers that are primarily accounted for via trade publications, from bookstores — online & physical — to digital distribution sales.

These bottom line stats are cushioned by single issue sales, due to the fact that the majority of single issue sales goes to the lifetime fans and collectors. Who are purchasing physical print copies for their collections.

The Sweatpants Paradigm can be overcome, not just by the major publishers, but those who are looking to expand their Branded IP to new avenues; especially those that are digital. Think Madefire’s Motion Books. A digital venue that I am watching.

Or, by just publishing directly to trade format, after digitally releasing your IP product. As 2016 saw a 12% year-on-year increase in trade sales. Skipping the single issue printed releases, cutting out the bottom line figure for the share holders all together.

This article originally appears on LinkedIn Publishing

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About the Author
Born and raised in the Missouri-Ozarks Ryan studied Film Production, and East Asian Culture, at the University of Kansas where he was a UGRA recipient that led him on a seven-year long, Journey From the West, to China. Where he worked with Warner Brothers, the China Film Group Corp. and the National Bureau of Statistics of China. Before returning to the States, where he specializes in Chinese Anime & Comics, China’s Box-Office, and Chinese entertainment-tech industries. He has a dog in China, Abigail, and a dog in the Arkansas-Ozarks, King Blue, who help ease his anxiety of suffering from the “Two-Dimensional Complex” that is trying to understand the Culture Industry landscapes of the Middle Kingdom.