“I’m not always able to choose my battles… but effective immediately, I’m going to make an effort to choose the battles that matter.” – Captain America
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The other day, I took out a free month’s subscription to a popular digital comic archive, and got unlimited access to 20,000 digital titles from the last 50 years of Marvel.
(You may have heard of them – mainly thanks to this.)
It’s weird to think that just 10 years ago, Marvel were mainly known for their comics. Yes, there were standalone films, many of them dreadful (David Hasselhoff? Really?) but they made little or no impact. Marvel was for kids and for grown-up kids, because it published comics.
Aka. “Ah! You’re a nerd. Get a life. No offence intended! Bye.”
Then Marvel decided to make lots of films, and join them all together into one enormous, reasonably coherent story, and made a truly insane $16 billion dollars from it – almost enough to pay off the entire national debt of the United States.
If you’re not a fan of Marvel’s Extended Cinematic Universe, I sympathize. If you think the main storyline is built around a string of fairly predictable, occasionally tedious brawls, I’d ruefully agree. If you watched the recent Iron Fist on Netflix and concluded those people have no idea what they’re doing, well, yeah (except, go watch both seasons of Daredevil, it’s a lot better).
But Marvel have been in the universe-building business for a long time – and they have a lot to teach the rest of us makers, storytellers and aspiring creative empire founders.
Take what they did in 2006 – which is the sole reason I subscribed to Marvel Unlimited.
They called it Civil War – and yes, it’s exactly what has been playing out in the films recently.
The story is, the governments of the world have had enough of watching their cities reduced to rubble in one fight after another – so, entirely plausibly, they ask superheroes to register themselves as government agents, so they can be tracked, given orders, and ultimately held accountable for their actions, giving up their anonymity in the process.
Iron Man, aka. Tony Stark, being a pragmatist, a cynic and an entirely modern human being, agrees to this.
Captain America, aka. Steve Rogers, thinks it’s the death of liberty and freedom, and vows to fight it with his last breath.
You can see what happens next (above pic) – although a lot of it isn’t fighting it out, it’s both sides asking really awkward questions that nobody can answer comfortably, like “Who appointed you people to tell us what to do?” (which works on both sides of the equation), and “If innocent people keep getting killed around superheroes, when do we start blaming the superheroes for it?”
But the really special thing about 2006’s Civil War was how Marvel delivered it.
In an eerie foreshadowing of what they’d do at the box office, Marvel delivered this story across multiple titles – dragging the protagonists of each long-running series (and their huge, huge audiences) into this colossal overarching story.
If you wanted to follow Civil War, you had to jump from one comic series to another – which is a fantastic bit of cross-promotional marketing. If you were, say, a staunch Captain America fan, following Civil War gave you a taste of all the other titles running at the same time, set in the same universe – a universe unified by Civil War.
It was a massive commercial success, and undoubtedly paved the way for the Marvel Extended Cinematic Universe.
That’s what modern audiences want. They don’t want standalone. They want joined-up.
D.C Comics/Warner are doing it with their regrettably joyless Superman & Batman films right now (seriously, lighten up, people). On TV, the CW Network has built its own overlapping superhero universe with The Flash, Supergirl, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow and the like.
We’re at peak superhero, and nobody can keep up.
Like with Civil War, you’re being asked to pick a side.
Or you could just turn off the TV and do something more interesting, because it’s 2017 and we’re not getting any younger. That’s valid too. I hear you.
But even if you hate superheroes as much as HYDRA (that was a superhero joke, sorry) – there are lessons to be learned here.
(Above: Penguin’s Great Journeys series. Get one, and you have to get them all. No question.)
Take self-publishing books. One piece of advice you’ll hear from Joanna Penn and Mark Dawson and the Self-Publishing Podcast and everyone else waving the flag for indie publishing is: launch with multiple titles. Write your first book, by all means, but think carefully before you publish it on its own. Because of the way Amazon works, you’ll get far better engagement and sales if you have something else for your readers to buy after they devour your first piece of work.
They call this “building your funnel” – and it’s old news for internet marketers. It takes multiple interactions with your online work before anyone is ready to buy from you. Sometimes dozens. You need to get your stuff in front of your audience enough times for that trust to develop. Once doesn’t usually cut it – and unless you’re paying for a ton of marketing or have spent ages preparing your existing audience for it, one book probably won’t either.
(A nice example of funnel-building right now: my friend Candace, a sketching travel-writer, is successfully getting people sketching things all over the world – and she’s doing it every month this year. If you take her challenge for 12 months – and it’s fun, so I reckon many will – then at the end of it you’d want to follow her work anywhere. Since she’ll be formally teaching travel-sketching at a later date, it’s a great audience-building exercise.)
Whatever you’re creating, you’ll benefit from building an ecosystem of content. Good bloggers do this all the time – better known as “flagship content”, the stuff new readers are steered towards, each post finishing with a big, super-clickable link to the next important post, creating a kind of serialized storyline within the blog. It’s what About pages are for, and “Start Here” pages, and resource pages, and anywhere that new visitors land on first.
It’s also why you can’t prise yourself off social media – because there’s always a new thing to look at, part of the epic personalised story called “What Your Friends Are Doing Today”.
So – whatever you’re making, what’s your ‘extended universe’? How is everything you’re doing or planning to do going to join together successfully? How are you going to keep people in this “world”, until they become your 1,000 true fans?
I have no idea – but I do know that you don’t have to be a superhero to do it.
Images: Marvel (without permission, I know, but come on – I’m promoting you, guys); Mike Sowden.