is perhaps best known for her acting in the hit series Who’s the Boss?, Charmed, and currently ABC’s Mistresses. But Milano has become a vocal advocate for social and political issues close to her heart, including animal rights, UNICEF, and the AIDS crisis in Africa. During last year’s debate over SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and online freedom, Milano lent her voice to those advocating against the controversial legislation. And now, with her upcoming comic book release Hacktivist through Archaia Entertainment and Boom! Studios, Milano tackles online activism and information-sharing as a means to political freedom. The graphic novel releases in January 2014. I sat down with Milano during Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo to discuss the themes of this book and the use of comics to help spread the message.
Are comics a good or relevant medium for reaching audiences with messaging? You might be surprised to know that comic sales are strong these days. In 1997, total North American sales (including subscriptions, specialty shop off-the-rack sales, and trade paperback/hardcover editions) totaled about $300 million, but by 2005 that number had climbed to about $500 million, and by 2012 sales totals for the year were north of $700 million. For the July-September 2012 quarter alone, comic sales orders through Diamond Comic Distributors totaled more than $123 million, an enormous sum.
And here’s the kicker, dear readers — those numbers don’t include newsstand sales, non-comic bookstore sales, or any overseas sales whatsoever. I’d be willing to be the actual worldwide total from all sources in 2012 was closer to $1 billion. If you think those figures just represent the “big two” publishers — Marvel Comics and DC Comics — guess again. There are dozens of successful comic book publishers, with a wide array of titles and topics selling each month, meaning the door is open for a relevant storyline like Hacktivist to find success in that marketplace.
Who’s buying these books? That’s a good question, and very relevant to Milano’s Hacktivist, as I’ll explain momentarily. In-store readership polling done by DC Comics to see who bought the publisher’s New 52 line in the initial weeks of that promotion’s launch found that 93% of readership was male, and 50% was between the ages of 13 and 34. However, online poll results showed female readership at 23% rather than the 7% found in the much more narrowly focused polling in the shops. As Heidi MacDonald notes in her analysis of those different sets of stats, Brett Schenker’s study of Facebook data pegged female comic book readership at closer to 39.6%.
Meanwhile, comic book retailers, when asked to estimate the number of women buying comics, put the number at around 30%. When we consider that Facebook skews slightly more female than male, then it seems that Schenker’s analysis and the shop owner estimates are pretty close to one another. Then we might look at DC’s online polling number and remember that their most recent marketing was heavily targeting male readers and so perhaps lost them some of the female demographic, meaning their 23% readership figure would perhaps make sense alongside the other numbers suggesting overall female readership in the 30-40% range.
With female readership hovering somewhere in the 30-40% range overall, plus women being more likely to consume digital content, and women as far more dominant on social media in general, it seems digital content for comics — and perhaps comics about such content, especially digital comics about digital content! — might do well to offer content with particular appeal to female comic book readers and women in general. To this, add the fact that — as I wrote about previously on this blog — minorities over-index on social media, and what you’ll see is that there’s a clear pathway for successfully reaching women and minorities through online and social media content that appeals to them.
If such content also happens to be about the use of social media and digital content by women and minorities in pursuit of equality and freedom, and addresses key political positions likely to align with the broad general sensibilities of those demographics, then the chances to connect with those audiences and get your content and message across obviously becomes even greater.
So, therein lies the relevance of all that consumer data with regard to Alyssa Milano’s Hacktivist, with its multi-ethnic cast including a prominent young female character, in a story about government attempts to silence anonymous voices advocating for transparency and civil liberties in an age of increasing technology abuses and intrusions into our private lives by governments. The graphic novel — created by Milano with writers Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly, artist Marcus To, colorist Ian Herring, and letterer Deron Bennett — tells its story in locations around the world, beginning with two young social media start-up founders who are secretly infamous hackers, and from there exploring the fight for political freedom in Tunisia via the story of a young woman and her friends.
We live in a society where a lot of people are increasingly starting to feel that certain of the anonymous hacktivist community are better examples of protecting the safety and integrity of our democracy than agencies like the NSA. And in that reality, Hacktivist is obviously quite relevant, indeed.
Milano said, “Comics is really the only medium that is so focused on being done for the sake of the story and the art, and that’s exactly what I wanted to do.” Indeed, this dynamic nature of comic book storytelling and the same-day digital release of each issue of the comic should help put the content into the hands of precisely the audience who might be most open to the messaging and most likely/capable of pursuing greater activism through social media.
These are the sorts of topics I discussed with Milano, and her insights were most interesting. Here is my interview with her during Comikaze in Los Angeles last weekend…
Issues around privacy and information and government overreach are unfortunately very common now. Is there very much room anymore between what-if thrillers imagining these scenarios, and the realities of modern abuses of power that seem to sadly exceed anything we see in fiction?
AM: If you can dream it, it’s probably happening somewhere. That’s really how I feel. And that’s exactly what this book and the experience of doing all the research was all about. I talked to our writers and we’d come up with ideas, and then two days later there would be something in the news about exactly what we were pitching as an idea.
What do you think of the interesting double-edged sword of technology on the one hand offering amazing access to information and assisting political movements for freedom, but on the other hand increasing the ease of abuses of power and invasions of privacy by powerful institutions such as governments and corporations?
AM: I think that those things will always go hand-in-hand. I think that if you look at media in general, there’s freedom of speech, but major corporations are still running the newspapers and the television programing. So I think whether it be in print or on TV, whether it be through technology, those things are married to each other. It’s unfortunate, but it’s just the way of the world, I guess.
There was some viral marketing for Hacktivist that involved the perception your Twitter account was hacked, to spread code that unlocked a secret page for the Hacktivist promotion. Was that marketing inspired by earlier innovations that used the Internet in then-unexpected ways, such as the fake online sites set up for the release of The Blair Witch Project suggesting the college students were really missing and the footage was legitimate, and the more recent fictional TED Talks videos created for the Prometheus marketing campaign?
AM: It seems like a lost opportunity if we don’t do viral marketing when we’re dealing with a story that has to do with technology — and we still might do more of this. So it’s really going to be about finding the right viral marketing, to try to continue raising some sort of awareness and interest in what we’re doing.
Is there some commentary in Hacktivist that encourages average people in our modernized, comfortable Western cultures to take inspiration from people around the world who use social media and technology for more important purposes, for challenging power structures, rather than merely sharing meme posters and funny videos with our friends and families? That we have some moral obligation to do more with it?
AM: I have always looked at my Twitter feed as a community. Running that feed, I need to be responsible to that community. I think like-attracts-like, and the people who follow me are the information sharers, not the information sponges. And I feel very fortunate that we found each other in any capacity, let alone on Twitter, and how instrumental they have been in the sharing of information — because really the power in Twitter is the sharing of information. If anyone reads Hacktivist and gets inspiration or motivation to use social media as a tool to create change, then I think that’s awesome.
The Internet has obviously made it easier for independent content producers to market their comics content, as it has for any content creators really, so has there been an issue of having to overcome signal-to-noise ratio that can exist at times, and what have you done to overcome that?
AM: I think people can see through noise. When I say “noise,” I think everyone should be allowed to put forth their vision and creativity in a way that masses can be exposed to it and that’s accessible to everyone. So, by “noise” I mean the people that try to take advantage, and I’m using it in the negative sense. But I think as long as you work hard and are doing something you believe in that has integrity, then you will always find an audience.
With so many superhero comic book film movies being made these days, and since you have such a large fanbase within the comics fan community, is there any chance we’ll see you in one of these films any time soon?
AM: I’d love that! But I’m as much of a fangirl for those superhero stories as anyone you see walking around here at Comikaze.
What do you think dear readers? Will you be picking up Hacktivist? Does it sound like a successful comic and marketing strategy to you? Sound off in the comments below!