Pokemon, Spiderman and Enfranchisement

Curious yet? Then let’s dive right in.

Pokemon is a video game franchise with a lot of well earned criticism leveled at it. The graphics are kind of cutesy, the games themselves are very simple and kind of repetitive and all the tie-in media makes it very easy to view as a cash grab. But with all that said Pokemon has succeeded and done so in spades for one very simple, straight-forward reason. It’s easy to learn and get invested in.

This is both the glory and downfall of the franchise. People new to Pokemon find it very easy to pick up and understand. But longtime fans frequently complain that the game itself never changes or grows – not entirely true but it certainly hasn’t changed much since the early days. There’s a lot of nostalgia power in Pokemon but other franchises have since come along and done the formula’s story better and the game itself offers only fair amusement for far too much time investment.

What’s the lesson we can learn? Well, it’s about enfranchisement – or how involved people are with a thing. All entertainment faces the hurdle of getting the audience invested, or enfranchised and Pokemon follows the KISS method – keep it simple, stupid, providing simple yet fun scenarios to play around with. But the problem with that approach is it quickly gets boring and then a little insulting. Audiences familiar with the premise want to see more from it than they’re getting and they’re not finding it.

The problem is if you keep a long running franchise going after new things for too long you start to build up a ridiculously high barrier to entry and new audiences will have a hard time understanding what’s going on. The result is that your audience stops growing, or growth just slows to a crawl as people are scared away from your franchise. So how do you keep your enfranchised audience happy while still attracting new readers?

Well, that brings me to something I’d like to call the Spiderman solution.

Back in the very early days of Marvel, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were basically creating the brand from scratch they came out with this little character named Spiderman. Now Spiderman originated about a year after Marvel’s first big powerhouse title The Fantastic Four came out and it was particularly aimed at a young audience. Comic books were still “kids stuff” at the time but, after forty years or so, they were starting to find acceptance as mainstream entertainment and The Fantastic Four in particular may not have appealed to the young people of the 60s with its gritty (for the time) approach to superheroes. Thus, Spiderman was offered as an alternative for the wee folks.

Of course Marvel wanted Spiderman in its shared universe but, at the moment, the Fantastic Four were the keystone for that universe. How to show this without disenfranchising Spiderman fans who didn’t also read about the Fantastic Four?

Easy! Do it a little at a time. Things began with a stand-alone issue where Doctor Doom, the Fantastic Four’s greatest villain, showed up and caused trouble for Spiderman. The webslinger foiled Doom, of course, but this eventually led to his meeting the other heroes and learning what the score was. The problem of bringing the Spiderman audience into the greater Marvel fold was accomplished quickly and painlessly.

While neither major comic book publisher now uses the Spiderman approach to attract new readers – ie, create a new character in a new series and let new readers appreciate an existing world through their eyes – that’s mainly because the Big Two have refused to let any portion of their library fade to make room for new ideas. The methodology itself is sound and if you’re looking for a good way to bring new audience into existing work than by all means, avoid the Pokemon strategy and suit up with Spiderman. You’ll keep more audience in the long run.

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