Contexts 2 – Comics to sell toys by...
A discussion of toy-related comics.
This is the second post in a series looking at Zoids, a Marvel UK strip which included Grant Morrison’s earliest work on a continuing series for Marvel Comics. In my first post I gave one fan’s-eye-view of what Marvel UK’s publishing efforts looked like in the years up to 1986, when Zoids began to see print. In short I had stopped buying Marvel Comics a few years before as I was annoyed at Marvel Uk’s short-sighted policy of cancelling titles I was collecting and starting over with new first issues. The increasing prevalence of comics based on toy lines also turned me off as I began to leave my own toys behind. It seemed very apparent to me that blatant marketing, rather than good comics per se, was what the industry was becoming all about.
Smart as I thought I was as a 12 year old, I have to revise my youthful scorn against comics based on toy lines. I’ve recently picked up partial runs of Rom and Micronauts comics, both written by Bill Mantlo, that do raise the bar for such comics. Rom, in particular, takes a very simple toy concept and elevates it into a mythic and tragic hero quest, where a Spaceknight in shining armour grapples with the cost of becoming an instrument of vengeance and cold justice. Under Mantlo’s pen, Rom has the heart of a hero, and his suffering has pathos. Not bad for a lump of plastic. That he was licensed to Marvel for a finite time also means that his story has the dignity of an ending denied to most of the other heroes he met on his travels through Earth 616.
Micronauts too, from the few issues I've read, was a fun space opera, and allowed Mantlo to smuggle in a kind of storytelling that pushed what could be done with a narrative set in a superhero universe. In fact Mantlo used the Micronauts concept to bring back a “lite” version of Kirby’s aborted New Gods project.
One of my Rom issues happens to have an editorial by Jim Shooter in which he declares that Marvel were flooded with licensing offers, presumably from toy and movie producers mainly. He avers that Marvel only picked the ones that had a strong potential for great stories. Judging by what I’ve read of Rom and Micronauts, I’d have to give credence to this statement of artistic integrity. As far as I know, (ie, not much!), neither Rom nor the Micronaut toys were exactly top-drawer mass-market breakthroughs, with the comics probably making more of an impact on pop culture than the toys themselves. Again this gives credence to Shooter’s statement.
The later licensed properties, such as GI Joe and Transformers, however, were emphatically HUGE mass-market, corporately advertised presences, where the comics line was but one facet of a hydra-headed marketing machine that included multi-million dollar TV advertising campaigns and cartoons as well as comics. Transformers would seem to have been the most successful of these, establishing such a presence in the minds of a generation that a potential audience for the recent movies was guaranteed before they’d even shot a frame of film. The popularity of Transformers, being the story of opposing teams of robotic fighting machines, no doubt led indirectly to Marvel UK licensing and producing their later Zoids strip.
The Transformers comic was hugely successful in its own right, initially featuring the robots mixing it with the mainstream Marvel heroes, as Rom and the Micronauts had done before them. As the marketing cycle turned, Transformers toys peaked in popularity and the comic produced by Marvel Comics eventually ceased. Interestingly, Marvel UK perceived that their audience still had a huge appetite for the Robots in Disguise and continued to produce their own UK-produced strips which developed cult popularity and are fondly remembered by some to this day.
GI Joe and Gemworld were two other toy licenses that Marvel took on. I’m unfamiliar with them, but know that they are highly regarded in certain quarters. I’d be interested in hearing what any fans of theirs might have to say.
I would contend that the licensing of toys into comics has become a much slicker operation in the 21st Century than ever before. As far as the popular superheroes go, the comics are now a subsidiary of the ‘brand’. The superhero comics for children are just another facet of the marketing of candy, merchandising, cartoons, DVDs etc. Superheroes and marketing are now inextricably linked, with kids being familiar with heroes while hardly ever being exposed to the comics. Luckily, the selling of the toys, duvets and assorted flim-flam doesn’t interfere with the kinds of storytelling that goes on in modern comics. Indeed, mainstream superhero comics have never been so ‘adult’ in their content.
Regarding toys that become comics, rather than the other way round, the scene presently looks very bleak. If there are Ben 10 comics I’m sure that they are watered down versions of the cartoon rather than excellent comics in their own right, like Rom, Micronauts and Transformers were.
Perhaps there are examples I’m missing, but I think there is a certain trend to be seen in a survey of the last few decades. Where the writers were allowed to use the toys as a springboard to telling their own saga, satisfying comics seemed to follow, whereas comics that stick too closely to the continuity of films or cartoons obviously don’t allow the creators any scope to tell meaningful or memorable stories.
So where does Zoids fit on this spectrum? As we will see in a later post, the creators of the comic were free to establish their own mythos for the Zoids and greatly expand on the scant notes that came with the toys. Indeed, their take on the mecahnical monsters and their world is very different to that established in later Japanese cartoons and toys. To be honest, I'm not even sure if the Zoids toys were marketed in the US at all in the mid-eighties. I'd be interested to find out if any of the comics cavers were exposed to them then.
In any case, the freedom enjoyed by the creators allowed them to produce an enjoyable comic, which had an ever-evolving storyline with a large cast and a huge amount of incident for only 50 short chapters. The original storyline had some derivitive elements as the creators pinched a few scenarios from then-popular movies, but Grant Morrison's sections expand on the history, mythology and perhaps 'deeper meaning' of the Zoids and their world. He provides the story with what turned out to be its apocalyptic climax, as it was discontinued just after that storyline.
One little drawback to toy-related comics that I’ve mentioned a few times is that licensed properties are notoriously difficult to collect and reprint after the original license expires. I’m not sure why that should be so. I’d have thought that Mattel or Hasbro or whoever wouldn’t object to a little more income from a property of theirs that peaked in popularity long ago. I’d hazard a guess that the companies involved normally deal in huge sums of money and by the time they’d paid their copyright lawyers to iron out a deal with a comics company, they’d have blown any likely income from the reprint project before they’d even begun. The toy companies are just too big compared to modern comics companies, which, let’s be honest, only service a niche market.
The UK Zoids strip itself was a victim of this circumstance and only a devoted fans website allowed me to study it at all, as it has never been collected or reprinted.
There is a final little point to make, much more relevant to today’s cross-platform marketing model, of which comics are a tiny part, and cartoons and toys are a huge part. There is a chance that advertising to children may be the asbestos or tobacco scandal of our generation. Early studies have shown that the more TV children watch, the more likely they are to suffer from depression as they get older. Further, the likelihood increases the more TV with advertisements they watch. Child experts the world over are very concerned about many aspects of the colonisation of young minds as a route to their parents’ wallets. Like the asbestos and tobacco companies before them, it’s a fair bet that the companies involved in marketing to children know better than anyone the effects of their relentless campaigns on young minds. Already some countries have moved to ban all advertisements aimed at children from the TV schedules.
This issue will probably be a hot topic within the next 5 to 10 years. Don’t expect to find out about it first from TV companies that make profits from advertising toys and junk-food to children and which feature cartoons tied to junk food and toy marketing. It’s relevant to our present topic of toy-related comics insofar as modern marketing campaigns are cross-platform, inter-related programmes, with the toy, comic, t-shirt, cartoon and happy meal all seen as both the end-sale and the means to further project brand familiarity onto their young market.
The point I’m making is that there might come a time when the very idea of (ab)using a child’s leisure time, loyalty to what they like and sense of wonder in order to cynically create a young market for unsatisfying junk will seem like a destructive and unhealthy pursuit, much like how building houses with asbestos and getting people hooked on cigarettes is viewed now. Personally, I agree with the argument, but it’s hard to know where to draw the line. A line of comics based on toys with the chief aim of increasing sales of the toys isn’t too far removed from a TV advertising campaign after all. Still, the world would be a much poorer place without the comic adventures of exiled space-travellers Rom and the Micronauts, and the awesome battling machines like the Transformers and Zoids.
In my next post, I'll be looking at last at the Zoids strip itself.