Comics aren’t just SMASH, WHAM, KAPOW! One of the oldest mediums is also one of the most powerful — and one of the most overlooked in content marketing. Yet some brands are working with top comics creators and publishers such as Marvel Comics.
OK, maybe writing this article as a comic script isn’t such a great idea, even if prose is at a disadvantage when discussing such a visual medium. Buddy, you can come back now.
“The thing about comics is that it’s a different medium and has different sticking power,” he says.
Darren Sanchez, editor and project manager for Marvel Custom Solutions, agrees. “Comics are great because you can tell any kind of story to deliver a message or theme, and I believe content is best absorbed through story. In comics, you’re limited only by your imagination. An effects-heavy space opera costs the same to produce as a comic based on two people talking in a life raft. You can tell the story of a kid bitten by a radioactive spider or educate the public on what it’s like to have inflammatory bowel disorder. The uses are endless and we enjoy the challenge of coming up with new ideas.”
Yet the medium has become almost inextricably associated with a tiny handful of genres, perpetuating the idea that comics are merely escapist entertainment and definitely not something to be taken seriously, never mind professionally.
“Letting go of this idea that comics are the genre of superheroes is really important. Comics are a medium independent of the genre,” Buddy says. “It’s the people who are not familiar with comics who try to push them into a corner and say, ‘Well, that’s for kids,’ or ‘That’s only superheroes.’ But they’re missing the point, which is: There is a richness to this type of visual storytelling that transcends cultures and time and can really get that call to action that you’re looking for.”
While these genres can help brands and marketers reach specific audiences or convey certain messages (read about pharmaceutical company Takeda’s partnership with Marvel Custom down below), comics are far more powerful and flexible than many people suspect.
But just because someone can write or draw reasonably well doesn’t necessarily mean they can create a comic. “You don’t want to leave a project like this to a person in the art department who has never produced a comic,” Buddy says. “Why risk the reputation of your brand with poor quality work for some marginal savings? You wouldn’t do that with any of your other content.”
As Darren says, “Most of our clients encounter a learning curve of how comics are made. We work with them to get them up to speed pretty quickly.
“That being said, it is possible for smaller publishers to approach storytelling for a client in this way. It’s a fantastic method to reach new consumers that wouldn’t otherwise be susceptible to your message – if you can hit all the right beats!”
Comics can work for all audiences
In one of the few books to analyze comics as a medium and not as a genre, comics legend Will Eisner defined it as “sequential art.” As Scott McCloud writes in his book Understanding Comics, probably the only other major work on the medium, single panel cartoons are “no more comics than (a) still of Humphrey Bogart is a film.”
Comics aren’t defined by a particular art style either, cartoony or otherwise. There are many examples of comics that use photographs, fully painted artwork, digital imaging or even collage. It’s the sequence that matters – how one image follows the other to form a narrative in the mind of the reader.
Even text is optional, meaning comics can transcend language as well as literacy levels – which is why IKEA assembly instructions can guide anyone, anywhere through the process of putting together a bedside cabinet. “We are visual learners,” Buddy says. “A picture can help somebody to understand what you want them to do, whereas prose requires an abstract to concrete translation that not everybody’s going to be able to do. A prose novel will sometimes go on for pages and pages on setup that would take us a single splash page.”
Instead of dismissing comics as not worthy or challenging enough for an adult readership, we marketers should embrace their ease and speed of comprehension as a strength. When we’re tasked with getting our information, our message, our stories into someone else’s imagination, surely the easiest route shouldn’t be overlooked?
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Brands use comics for diverse purposes
The Google Chrome Comic (2008)
Rather than publicize the launch of Chrome with a traditional press release, Google opted to send a printed comic book to journalists and bloggers. Written and illustrated by Scott McCloud, based on interviews conducted with 20 Google engineers, the comic demystified the browser by explaining the technological concepts and features in a more digestible and engaging format.
(Because of its limited print run, the comic immediately became highly collectable and still commands high prices. In April 2018, a copy sold on eBay for $1,100.)
In 1923, U.K. soap and toothpaste manufacturer D & W Gibbs Ltd. set up The Ivory Castle League to “encourage children from the earliest possible age to take an interest in their teeth and mouths.” Between 1963 and 1966, Gibbs Ivory Castle – with its advertising agency, Lintas – published 11 issues of Arrow, a high-quality, eight-page photogravure comic book of adventure and comedy strips, articles, and competitions – with some subtle oral hygiene messaging thrown in. Available free from dentists across the U.K., the comic was a hit among children, becoming an incentive to attend regular checkups to grab the latest issue.
TAM Airlines – Social Baggage (2014-16)
Until its merger with Chilean LAN Airlines in 2016, Brazil’s TAM Airlines published an in-flight magazine – TAM Nas Nuvens (In the Clouds). In 2014, TAM wanted to highlight some of the ways it gave back to the community with a regular feature. Content agency New Content decided big blocks of text about the brand could look boring or preachy in an otherwise highly visual magazine, so instead it used comics to tell the stories in a more engaging format. The two-page comic Bagagem Social (Social Baggage) ran in 21 issues of TAM Nas Nuvens, with tales such as how the airline once transported a heart to save a life or carried an athlete to the Paralympics. In 2015, the comic won the CMI Content Marketing Award for best regular feature column or section.
Takeda Pharmaceuticals – The Unbeatables
A superhero comic on the topic of inflammatory bowel disorder or IBD might seem an odd pairing, but The Unbeatables graphic novel and comic book series sprang naturally from in-depth interviews and focus groups with people living with and caring for those with IBD. “In these conversations, we noticed patterns emerging,” explains Elissa Johnsen, head of global product and pipeline communications for Takeda Pharmaceuticals International Inc.
“Patients saw the disease as a villain but didn’t consider themselves victims. They admitted to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability but often didn’t know where to turn. They wanted to connect with others going through similar experiences but didn’t know them. They wanted an escape that could make them invincible.”
Takeda partnered with Marvel Custom Solutions to create a graphic novel that reimagined the experiences of people living with IBD as a tale of heroism and empowerment. “The literature around this topic is not very interesting and the subject is difficult to talk about,” says Marvel’s Darren. “We created a superhero team for them, all of whom either have the disease or are a part of the IBD community in some way. We featured characters that faced the same problems that real-life patients face every day and did it in a way that made them feel normalized and empowered.”
Buddy, who scripted the first graphic novel, says, “They really wanted a character who was early 20s and just starting a career because, for a lot of people, this is when the flareups really become particularly noticeable.”
Of course, The Unbeatables had to do more than simply entertain the right audience. “What (Takeda) wanted to do is communicate a few key messages,” Buddy says. “Stay on treatment, communicate with your health care professional, participate in a community. Because, like a lot of health conditions, if you don’t treat IBD, it will get progressively worse. People take drug holidays all the time.”
Elissa agrees. “Using superheroes and the world of graphic illustration allowed Takeda to help empower people living with IBD to overcome the unpredictability, anxiety and stigma around the disease and, in the process, raise disease awareness within the large audience interested in comics.
“We want to help patients believe that they can accomplish what they set their mind to – related to their care and in their daily lives – through differentiated, creative content and conversation.”
The comics attracted a hugely positive response from people living with IBD as well as significant attention from broadcast, consumer and medical media. Elissa realized the campaign was reaching the right audience and having the desired effect when she saw a tweet from a patient: “Finally my mutation makes me an acknowledged superhero. I love this.”
As Elissa says, “We realized that our goal of touching those living with IBD – a debilitating, painful, scary disease – with engaging content and motivational messages, had hit its mark.”
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute