The Highest Common Denominator

It’s not wrong to want your story to appeal to as many people as possible. Hell, I’d say it’s what everyone who tells stories wants.

This is doubly true when it comes to corporate products — video games, movies, TV shows, anything published. Investors expect a return and there’s a case to be made that the corporation has a responsibility to get it to them with as little risk as possible. Enter: millions of dollars of research conducted by marketing departments staffed by people who, as a combined force, possess all the imagination of a calculator. They take these millions of dollars and they tell you what they have always told you: aim for the largest possible audience share.

Put another way: aim for the lowest common denominator.

Put another way: aim for the bottom.

It’s especially appealing to the suits in charge of corporate products because it’s easy. So easy, you can hardly blame them for giving you funny looks when you suggest not doing it. All you have to do is underestimate the taste and intellectual rigor of your potential audience and cram a bunch of sex and explosions into your story to appeal to as many bored 18 – 35 year old white guys as possible. Then sit back and reap the financial rewards when it works. Again.

And when it works, again, the model is proved once more and it encourages not merely the next guy to aim even lower, but it fuels the next generation of marketing guys who have nothing to add to the world but the same dead ideas.

Now, I’m not saying sex and violence are the entire spectrum of the lowest common denominator. There’s more to it than that, but y’know, it’s a bit like porno. Hard to define, easy to spot. Nor am I claiming it’s bad or selling out or whatever to have those things in any story. Our comic book is 80% explosions by weight. And when you include scenes leading up to and scenes following from those explosions, it’s pretty clear we consider paper and ink nothing more than explosion vectors. And my personal policy on sexy ladies is yes, please.*

When we were first putting together Atomic Robo, we came to the conclusion that the biggest problem facing any given comic book title was its impenetrability to new readers — whether they were buying comics already or not.

We wanted the largest possible audience share for our stories. But we didn’t want to aim for the bottom. We felt if you’re aiming for the lowest common denominator of comics readers, you’re doubling down on a losing strategy — sure, you’re attracting the largest audience share of comics readers, but that’s an incredibly thin slice of the pie. One that gets smaller, more insular, and more inbred every year.

What about, I don’t know, everyone else in the world?

In fact, this has always been my problem with the lowest common denominator, like, ever since I heard the term. Aiming for the bottom is a failure of imagination. It’s an attempt to grab the largest market share, okay cool good strategy to adopt, but aren’t you really only grabbing the largest market share that’s unthinkingly into Sex? Or Violence? Or Vampires That Are Safe? Or Whatever Is Trendy This Week? You’re aiming for a big slice, sure, but it’s still just a slice of a slice. A niche of a niche.

Why not aim for everyone? What is the one thing every single person alive is into?

Fun.

Well, that’s the stupid thing we’re trying anyway. Hope it works out!
 
 
 
*But, much like it makes sense to see explosions in our comic book stories because we need something to obstruct the incredibly strong and nearly impervious main character, it makes sense not to see ladies prancing around in bikinis while they Do Science and Shoot Monsters.

  • Brandon

    And Robo has achieved broad acclaim and popularity as a result.

    It’s funny that you should mention this, actually.  I, fool bastard that I am, recently hit my local store and grabbed a bunch of New 52 first issues.  I don’t read much Marvel/DC except for one-off trades and elseworld stuff, so when I heard they were relaunching the main series’ continuity, I figured, what the hell.

    And it’s bizarre…because I KNOW that these comics represent their sincerest attempt in years to appeal to people who don’t read comics…..but they’re fucking impenetrable.  Characters I don’t know doing things I don’t understand for no readily-apparent reason, with every other page an ad for some other comic.  I’m the ideal audience for this kind of thing, and it missed completely.  The only one that hit the nail on the head was the new Batman and Robin.

    First page: Here’s Batman, here’s Robin, by the way Robin is now Batman’s son, Damien.  Damien was raised by assassins and has problems with violence.   Batman struggles with fatherhood.  Got it?  Okay, now that you’re up to speed, let’s get started.

  • http://www.nuklearpower.com Brian!

    Yeah, there was a real conflict between the message, “These are for everyone!” and the execution which, with rare exception, was product clearly aimed at people who were already reading comics.

    It’s a missed opportunity.

  • Anonymous

    Having worked alongside a large marketing department at BigTech McMegaCorp, I can attest to the herd mentality. We spent a lot of time ruminating over how we could counter Feature X of the competition, or steal away Customer Y. So many expensive projects were started to emulate a particular competitive feature, often because it appeared often in press releases (which is a great way to not find actual money). I see this all the time in game development with WoW knock offs.

    The allure is that an existing market is easily quantifiable. Your competitors’ products are also easily quantifiable. But what people tend to ignore is that it’s super difficult to remove entrenched competition. A “me too” product rarely reaches parity with the original, because the first guys understood the market, and you really only understand *them* (and not well at that).

    Unique can be risky, but if you pull it off, it’s also very rewarding because there is no direct competing product in your new category.

    You guys nailed the Robo formula. It’s accessible, funny, smart, and I don’t feel nervous handing it to an 8 year-old.

  • Dylan

     Which ones did you get, dude? There are some real gems in the New 52. Wonder Woman, The Flash, Action Comics, Animal Man…

  • brandon

    I grabbed Batman and Robin, Justice League, and Justice League Dark.  They were the only #1′s left in stock that looked at all interesting to me.  I did put Aquaman on backorder; always had a soft spot (wet spot?) for Aquaman.  I’ll give Wonder Woman, Flash, and Action Comics a look.

  • brandon

    They ignore the obvious question of “WHY does THAT customer find THIS appealing”.  That mentality would look at Atomic Robo’s indie success, and instead of going, “Oh, a fun all-ages book with clever sci-fi twists!” would say, “A World War 2 book.  Robot.  Nikola Tesla.  Alright, let’s do this.”

  • Anonymous

    “Our studies show that Atomic Robo customers like snarky robots and super science. We could improve on their formula by making our own Robo a darker character. He’ll have some angst and anger over Tesla, and want revenge over Edison. The explosions will be bigger, grittier and more violent–you know, really show the human costs of super science wars so the robot can be haunted by that. We need to sex up the girls, too. They’re a little bland… maybe get Sparrow with a bare midriff and some bigger boobs? And bigger guns, those two pistols couldn’t have been more than .38 caliber. That won’t sell in today’s comics market.”

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  • http://twitter.com/Featherweight_ Devin Harrigan

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Justin-Harford/503706037 Justin Harford

    I’m sad because I lent some of my Atomic Robo books to a buddy, and he said it would be better for all of those reasons… but he also has some 80s comics and hellboy fetish…. that was a sad day in comics.

  • Anonymous

    :o

    How could you not like Atomic Robo the way that it is?  That’s like not liking Optimus Prime or Kaylee from Firefly!

  • Scott!

    We all have “that friend” I think. Not the “guy who doesn’t like Robo”. I’m totally biased on that and can’t really comment.

    But I think we’ve all had that experience where we give someone something we think is amazing and because it challenged them in some way they reject it. It can be demoralizing.

    People whose talent I admire and whose critical judgement I respect tell me we do good work. Which is nice, because I always feel like we could do better. These are the people I listen to and whose opinions matter to me.

    While I would love to “sell out” and make lots of money with Robo, the part of me that doesn’t have to eat and pay bills is quite alright with the notion that we are too smart and quirky for mass consumption.

    I mean, you guys get it. I haven’t met a Robo fan yet who didn’t challenge and obliterate my generally negative opinions about the “average” comic book reader. (Negative/unflattering assumptions that are verified and reinforced through direct observation at every convention I go to, btw.) So if we’re good enough for a crowd of above-average people to enjoy, then I’m satisfied. I’m also honored that you folks like what we do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Justin-Harford/503706037 Justin Harford

    I think it mostly came down to the fact that it wasn’t Hellboy and I wasn’t bitching about how things should be better much like he was in Hellboy… or that the Robo Universe wasn’t as big as Marvels. Can’t please everyone all the time. And only trained professionals should attempt to help the insane :P

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Justin-Harford/503706037 Justin Harford

    Well, it is your stuff, you guys could totally sell out if you wanted with bigger guns, bigger boobs, and about the same size of explosions. Even have the reboot every couple of years and randomly have a DC/Marvel crossover that doesn’t make any sense other than the quest for more money. I would be really sad if you did and I’m sure that some fans might freak out but like I said it is your stuff. But all kidding aside, don’t sell out, Robo is the one comic I’m still collecting since it is quality and re-readable.

  • Scott!

    Hellboy is one of my primary points of comparison when deciding if another comic is any good or not.

    On a scale of One-to-Mignola, I currently give Atomic Robo about 6.5 Fists of Doom, but I feel we do better every volume, so by 2015ish we should be around an 8.5 FoD on my scale.