Comic book sales fly on the capes of hit movies, TV shows
LOS ANGELES - In the movies, Batman is a loner with a dark demeanor, Iron Man is a wealthy industrialist and Captain America is a superhero stalwart, using his mighty shield to defend justice. In the comic books, Batman just proposed to Catwoman, Iron Man's armor is worn by a black teenage girl and Captain America's a traitor.
As the box office-busting success of Marvel and DC's screen franchises has brought unprecedented levels of awareness to even the most obscure superheroes, the market for the comics that inspired them has been rejuvenated. Rebounding after a long period of decline, the overall revenue for comics broke $1 billion in 2015 and in 2016 grew 5% to nearly $1.1 billion, according to the latest report from ICv2 and Comichron, two prominent observers of the comics industry. Though not as high as the industry's pre-crash peak in 1993 (inflation-adjusted to $1.4 billion, according to Comichron), those figures still represent a return to health.
One big contributing factor are those blockbuster film adventures, which serve as advertisements of sorts for their print forebears. But moviegoers inspired to make their first visit to a comic-book store might be surprised to discover that the monthly adventures of Bats, Cap and other cinema headliners don't look at all like what they've seen in the theaters. "It's not that we don't produce stories that directly tie into the movies," says Jim Lee, co-publisher of Time Warner's DC Comics. But the company focuses on "the stories that generally inspire elements of the movies that consumers and fans want to find and collect."
Other factors in the industry's resurgence: a demographic-widening shift since the early aughts spurred by the American popularity of Japanese manga, embraced by younger-skewing female readers, and the concomitant growth of graphic novels aimed at young-adult readers.
It all adds up to an increased appetite, in a broader range of people, for the four-color fare that has been Marvel's and DC's bread and butter for more than 75 years. Comic-book companies have worked to harness the publicity and attention of the movies to capture new fans with graphic novels, merchandise and other products that might turn a casual fan into a monthly reader.
"We don't march in lockstep with the studios, but whenever a movie comes out it has a halo effect on us," notes Axel Alonso, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. "Interest in that character will spike for two to three months, and we always try to take advantage of that and have something available for readers that approximates the flavor." As an example he cites the new monthly book "Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man," launched in June with a lighter, more humorous tone that aligns with the ebullient spirit of "Spider-Man: Homecoming," which opened in early July.
As the movies have become financial drivers of big media conglomerates like Walt Disney and Time Warner, Marvel and DC have shifted some of their business operations to capitalize on the multitude of TV and movie projects making headlines with their comic creations. Because screen adaptations generate attention for a cinema superhero's best-known comic-book stories, publishers have placed new emphasis on graphic novels collecting seminal storylines, sold at bookstores and other outlets beyond local comic-book stores.
"The closer the source material is to whatever the adaptation is, the better the source material sells," says Dan DiDio, DC's co-publisher.
At comics stores, a new movie or TV show will always bring in a tide of curious fans eager for advice on what to read.
"'Wonder Woman' was an outstanding trigger to bring in brand-new people, as well as lapsed readers," says Gerry Gladston, co-owner and marketing chairman of Manhattan's Midtown Comics. "A lot of women have come in, and they're looking for recommendations."
As readership expands beyond the aging white male quadrant that was the industry's target demo at its lowest ebb, publishers have aimed to grab more diverse readers with an increasingly inclusive lineup.
Marvel, for instance, has 16 titles with female leads and another half a dozen in development. Fewer than 10 years ago, there were none.
In another sign of the shifting demographics of its fan base, the publisher's buzziest heroes include not only Black Panther but newer successes like the Muslim-American Ms. Marvel. Over at DC, the Justice League includes a Muslim-American Green Lantern, and female characters Wonder Woman and Harley Quinn rival Batman and Superman in popularity.
The enhanced profile of marquee characters can prove a double-edged sword for publishers — as it was last year, when a comic-book twist revealed that reality-warping shenanigans with a Cosmic Cube had turned Captain America into a double agent for the evil organization Hydra. The fury the narrative provoked on social media, including death threats directed at the storyline's writer, could only have happened in the age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has turned the once relatively obscure Captain America into a pop culture icon.
But Alonso notes that even that PR setback meant that comics, long thought to be fading into irrelevance, have gone wide.
"Long term," he says, "that's a good thing, isn't it?"