Monday, August 22, 2011

The Changing Super Hero Money Machine

Our fine entertainment conglomerates have scooped up super heroes wherever and whenever the well-muscled enforcers are available. Time-Warner owns D.C., and Disney, of course, gobbled up Marvel a year ago. So this has got to be alarming:

... Comic-book stores have become increasingly barren, with sales dropping consistently over the last three years and down an additional 7% so far in 2011. ... “The walk-in, casual fans have gotten away from us.” ... “We are down to just the die-hard buyers.”

Some blame convoluted story lines, while others point to cynical publicity stunts like killing key characters only to bring them back a few months later. But the main culprit more likely lies beyond the page: Today’s youth is far more interested in spending its leisure hours in the digital worlds of YouTube, Xbox and Twitter. ...

Comic books, like everything else, are not immune to technological change. Movies, books, and music, have been chewed up by the digital juggernaut. What makes four-color graphic novels so special? Rights holders can cling to old formats with grips strong enough to turn coal to diamonds, but they can't make fifteen-year-olds purchase slick covers and paper when the teenagers can easily goggle at the color layouts and dialogue balloons on iPads and Androids.

One of the problems is that comics/graphic novels are the drivers for movies, animated features and tv series, for video games and action figures and licensed pictures on cereal boxes.

Big business. Large cash flows.

So it's kind of important that the comic books, where most of the action starts, get embraced by the core fans who talk the product up and leverage the excitement and (dare we say it?) sales. D.C. has made the decision to shift to digital formats, believing they're the logical and inevitable next step.

... "The truth is people are leaving anyway, they’re just doing it quietly, and we have been papering it over with increased prices. ... We didn’t want to wake up one day and find we had a bunch of $20 books that 10,000 people are buying.”

Like music and movies, the Super Hero business is looking for salvation. Maybe digital will help them find it.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

I just read about Atomic Comics closing. That's pretty depressing. Seems to be a trend, and that's rough, especially for independent comic artists. While I believe that comics, as an art form, will survive, I think they will probably exist mostly online, and in that event, creators will have a tougher time selling their work. There are an awful lot of free webcomics out there, and some of them aren't half bad. And the logistics for actually charging money for viewing comics online haven't really been worked out yet.

As for superhero movies, they're an iffy business. Disney buying Marvel may not be such a smart move, since it won't have access to the more popular Marvel characters, like Spiderman, for some years. And the two entities are a bad fit in any case.

Anonymous said...

The bloodletting of the comic book store began after the speculator market burned out in the 90's on variant covers and as mentioned faux character deaths etc.

Then pulling ads for "artistic" integrity drove prices up and then there was a glut of new titles and expansion of established heroes - I think Batman had five titles at one time. Fans became exhausted trying to keep up and speculators only bough the first issue until they weren't a novelty any longer. And the art and writing kept getting worse.

Finally graphic novels were getting into bookstores as well as trade paperbacks, so fans would stop single issue buying and wait for the collection that they could snag for major discounts on Amazon.

There is basically one single distributor to comic chains and they don't credit returns on non selling issues like they do supermarkets and bookstores.

Trading card games became the salvation for many comic book stores and some have gone more the book and gift store model like Meltdown.

There is no solution to the pure comic store, many have to expand or change their inventory and find their niche such as carrying manga or hard to find independent books etc.

What sucks is that the hero movies increase merchandising sells except for the comics where they originated.

Geoff B said...

The author Michael Chabon makes a pretty good case in "Maps and Legends" that part of the problem is, in a quest to be taken more "seriously," the comics industry has stopped making comics for kids. Back in the day, most comics sales were driven by young kids (and priced to fit most kids' allowances). It seems that part of the story is one of abandoning a stable consumer base for a potentially greener demographic that didn't pan out.

Christopher M. Sobieniak said...

Much of what is discussed here is what I already became aware of and what some of my friends had already known for quite a long time now.

Back in the day, most comics sales were driven by young kids (and priced to fit most kids' allowances). It seems that part of the story is one of abandoning a stable consumer base for a potentially greener demographic that didn't pan out.

This is how I feel about the whole thing. They've ruined their industry when they decided to go after the crowd who was deeply immersed in those comic universes besides the core public that didn't mind spending some change on an issue for pleasure. A friend of mine documented much of this already for years over how the industry kinda shot itself in the food when it got to that point in time. Nobody makes the fun superhero comics that don't require you to have a doctorate in the DC universe for example. Lord knows I'm turned off simply due to their more edgier approach and unfamiliarity these days.

Steve Hulett said...

My younger son has been a comics fan for years. These days he reads most of the comics in which he's interested on-line.

Anonymous said...

Lord knows I'm turned off simply due to their more edgier approach and unfamiliarity these days.

Same here. I often prefer purchasing reprints over new material. I also switched to digital comics so that I can cut down on the space taken up by physical comics in my cramped apartment.

The new material can be pricy to get into, too. I've heard great things from many people about Geoff John's writing, for example, but one Geoff Johns story arc (ex: Green Lantern: Rebirth or Green Lantern: No Fear) will cost me $12 on ComiXology. Meanwhile, I can pick up a complete Green Lantern/Green Arrow story from the 70's by Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams for $2. Or, I can buy Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' "For the Man Who Has Everything..." for $2.

I've heard amazing things about The Walking Dead, but at $2/issue it'll cost me $174 to catch up on ComiXology, so I'm waiting for a half-off sale. Meanwhile, a standalone issue of Sandman costs $2.

I still plan to read Geoff Johns' work and The Walking Dead eventually, and I look forwards to it. However, it takes more time and $$$ for me to jump into story arcs than it does for single-issue reprints.

Anonymous said...

I agree about the lack of kids comics, or just comics focused on lighter fare. Whatever happened to funny animals? Sure, there are a few Disney comics out there, but they're sparse and mostly harken back to past glory (Uncle Scrooge, that ugly Muppets title and Darkwing Duck and so on). Only Tales of the Wasteland (which was digital) was new (and very good) but Disney seems to have abandoned it. And it didn't even get a paper version.

TotalD said...

So many titles, so many variations. I'm still reading comics, old comic, comics I grew up on. Watch each one of them Superman Batman , Hulk Xmen , Captain America on and on get turned into movies. Overexposure ? Except for new age hits like Hellboy, Sin City , the Manga invasion there seems to be nothing I''m interested in.

Comicon was sold out in 7 hours so the average fan isn't even participating. The chance of exposure to new things darken as stores close. Who wants to see another Batman variation, this time Robin gets killed, so what. We stay with the safe, there are no more Jack Kirby's. Digital wont make it better though it may save a few trees in the short term, it's the content. Like all the entertainment industry the audience has lost faith in producers who tell no truth. Ahhh for the day when EC comics were considered a corrupting force, ruining the fragile minds of children.

Alex Dudley said...

With all the news about poor comic sales, there's not a day that goes by that makes me regret majoring in sequential art at Savannah College of Art and Design.

oh well! said...

I grew up. Now I have more pressing things to worry about, like a mortgage and retirement.

Sorry!

Christopher M. Sobieniak said...

My younger son has been a comics fan for years. These days he reads most of the comics in which he's interested on-line.

Reading something on a screen still gives me headaches sadly and I don't really see much potential in me getting a job that way unless someone was willing to give me a shot.

I agree about the lack of kids comics, or just comics focused on lighter fare. Whatever happened to funny animals? Sure, there are a few Disney comics out there, but they're sparse and mostly harken back to past glory (Uncle Scrooge, that ugly Muppets title and Darkwing Duck and so on). Only Tales of the Wasteland (which was digital) was new (and very good) but Disney seems to have abandoned it. And it didn't even get a paper version

I remember going to the comic shop last year and noticing those titles on the wall thinking, it use to be so different the way I remember it as a kid and all that. I'd love to see more lighter fare stuff getting printed (let alone selling at a 'normal' store near me).

Ahhh for the day when EC comics were considered a corrupting force, ruining the fragile minds of children

I want that back too!

Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to funny animals?

They're still there. Keep an eye out for Owly, Mouse Guard and Usagi Yojimbo.

Anonymous said...

Actually DC and Marvel (to a lesser degree) have tried to create a younger line of comics that feature many of their usual characters. They're well aware of the "losing the kids" problem, but it's tough to get the kids in to buy the comics even when there are some that are suited to them

Anonymous said...

Since the DC characters are more wholesome than Marvel's, I wonder if Warner Bros. would be interested in swapping DC for Marvel?

Anonymous said...

The problem with comics is:

1. They moved them out of the supermarkets and drug stores in the '90's.
-The local comic shops are great, but this goes hand in hand with not making as many comic series aimed at kids. No more spin racks near grocery store checkouts killed their ability to hook in children who would have grown up to buy more comics.

2. No coherent digital strategy.
-It's the record labels all over again, but without iTunes to give them a wake-up call.

Eventually, comics will have to adopt a Netflix-style model. The complete older catalogue has to be readable online for a reasonable monthly rate (newer issues could still be sold a la carte). Think of how great it would be to click through a chronological queue of a character's appearances!

Marvel Digital Unlimited is a step forward, but the selection is way too spotty, and inexplicably this service isn't available on tablets like iPad.

It will be a lot of work upfront putting the library online and indexing it, but once the work is done it would pay off over time. Unfortunately this probably won't happen until the publishers see print sales dwindle to nothing and don't have any other options.

Anonymous said...

Since the DC characters are more wholesome than Marvel's...

I dunno. Peter Parker and the Fantastic Four seem more "wholesome" than Batman, Lobo, Swamp Thing, John Constantine and Rorschach.

Christopher M. Sobieniak said...

-The local comic shops are great, but this goes hand in hand with not making as many comic series aimed at kids. No more spin racks near grocery store checkouts killed their ability to hook in children who would have grown up to buy more comics.

That's how it was. Once that went away I knew it was over.

It will be a lot of work upfront putting the library online and indexing it, but once the work is done it would pay off over time. Unfortunately this probably won't happen until the publishers see print sales dwindle to nothing and don't have any other options

Just like everything else these days.

Anonymous said...

As a former comic shop manager I can tell you that kids don't want "kids" comics. They want what they think teenagers are reading. Little kids go for things like Tiny Titans, but mommy doesn't want her 4-6 year old in a comic shop running around to those pervs who buy adult comics along with Betty and Veronica.

Christopher M. Sobieniak said...

That's certainly the case there, let alone the usual comic shops that mostly deal in RPG gear and tournaments who don't have time to answer your comic-related questions. I know of one place like that.

Certainly hard to believe this was what we had 50 years ago however.
http://www.misterkitty.org/extras/stupidcovers/stupidcomics65.html

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