Do comic books — and comic book stores — have a future?Written by Jim Beard | | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s a funny world. Audiences happily buy tickets to see “Marvel’s The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises” and later shell out even more dough for the DVDs and Blu-rays and related video games. They thrill to the news of a “S.H.I.E.L.D.” TV series, a Wonder Woman film, and sequels to “Thor,” “Captain America” and even “Ant-Man.” License holders rake in profits in the billions of dollars worldwide — while at the same time the source material, the lowly comic book, continues on its downward spiral into obscurity and obsolescence.
Think about that. The three Christopher Nolan-Christian Bale Batman films have garnered billions of dollars in worldwide ticket sales, yet an issue of the Dark Knight’s signature title, Batman, sells a tiny fraction of those numbers. According to www.comichron.com, a website that tracks comic book sales, 2011’s Batman No. 1, a relaunch of the classic series, sold 218,000 copies, then dropped to 133,800 by issue No. 4. The dichotomy between the films and their “parent” is staggering, especially when one considers that without the latter, the former couldn’t exist. The reasons behind this are many and varied and much of it has to do with society’s ever-evolving use of technology.
Industry veteran and longtime writer/editor Mark Waid, who has written for Superman, Justice League, Spider-Man, Archie and many more, said that very same emerging technology may be the comic book’s savior.
“In the past, I’ve not found [the gap between the films and the books] unusual in the least because so few of the people who actually see these films have had easy access to one of the 1,800 or so places in the U.S. that comics are sold,” he said. “But with the digital revolution so firmly under way and digital comics sales doubling every few months, I have higher hopes for the future for audiences to visit the world of comics when all they have to do is open their Web browser or their mobile device.”
Ethan Van Sciver, one of the most popular modern comic book artists (Green Lantern, Superman/Batman, New X-Men and The Flash: Rebirth), said the superhero concept itself is a potential problem for comic books. He noted the “chastisement” the industry gave itself in the 1990s for producing almost nothing but books featuring costumed crimebusters. After that, a movement to make comics more diverse seemed to say that “your Average Joe just didn’t like super-heroes,” though that may have been proven false by the success in recent years of superhero films.
“As it turns out, the evidence shows that almost everyone loves superheroes,” Van Sciver said. “They just lack the gene that lets them connect with them through panel-by-panel visual storytelling. It takes a special kind of person to understand the language of comic books, and to immerse themselves into that world.
“I don’t think the time will come when the success of the movies will lead to a real boost in comic sales long-term, but what I do believe is that the movies will be the new catalyst for the next generation of comic book readers. I found comic books because the Christopher Reeve ‘Superman’ films had a big impression on me as a child, and I already loved to draw and to read. Comic book fans will always be a small minority, a fraction of the public at large. But they will always be there.”
The history of translating film success to comic book sales has been a roller coaster since Batman enjoyed a boost from his infamous 1966-68 TV series.
From 1965 to 1966, Batman sales nearly doubled, from 454,000 to 899,000. But by the end of the decade, his wings were once again clipped to a measly 355,000. Conversely, a decade later the Man of Steel saw little surge in his sales power after “Superman: The Movie” hit theaters. He was selling just 235,000 copies on average in 1977 – by 1979 Superman had creeped up to 246,000. Today, the Avengers comic sells around 67,000 units, despite its spinoff film becoming the third-highest grossing movie in history.
Again, why the disparity? Though comics still carry the stigma of being “kiddie” fare, in truth they haven’t really been for kids since the late 1960s and early 1970s. The average person on the street might be surprised by the barriers that have been struck down in the past four decades, allowing for themes, situations and language that would have been swiftly censored in the golden age of the 1940s and ’50s. Back then, a comic book was aimed at children and sold on the average of a million copies each issue — and had little competition for its entertainment value. Today, why bother with unmoving, static images on paper when you can see a film, watch a TV show or play the latest video game?
Toledo’s comic shop owners and managers tend to agree with the industry creators. Ed Katschke of Monarch Cards & Comics calls the medium a “niche market designed to appeal to a smaller demographic group,” not to a mass audience.
“Their true value lies in the strength of their core concepts,” he said. “Once these concepts have been shown to be appealing to their niche market, it is easy for creators in other mediums to see how they can be expanded to a larger audience. And while all of these different mediums often have elements in common, they are also different enough that their presentation brings out different strengths in assorted concepts. A comic book is not a movie which is not a TV show, but a strong idea like Superman can be adapted to work well in any of these mediums.
“Serialized fiction can be a hard sell for regular book vendors and it is even more difficult in regards to the monthly publishing schedule of most comics,” Katschke said. “Comics will always remain a niche market, albeit one that will always exist if for no other reason than to continue feeding other mediums with entertaining characters and concepts.”
“I find it sad that those films make that kind of money and the comics industry sees so little reward,” said Jim Collins, owner of JC’s Comic Stop. “There’s nothing to drive them to want to read the comics. Warner/DC tried with “Green Lantern” by inserting a plug for its books, but it was at the very end of the film. It was throwing us [comic retailers] a bone, so they could say ‘we tried.’ I have seen crossover sales from “The Walking Dead,” but I believe it’s because they push its graphic novel source. I’m glad for the sales, but it really ticks me off saying ‘graphic novel,’ because it came from a comic book. It’s like they’re afraid to use that name.”
The current comic industry’s output has perhaps never been more diverse but the strange lack of true advertising to a potentially wider audience only lends even more shame to the story of its growing impotence. It’s a well that filmmakers continue to plumb for ideas, though little of their success bounces back to the source.