Video games, television and movies are bursting with superheroes, but are those fans buying any comics?
Superheroes are all over E3 this week. Disney Entertainment is promoting Disney Infinity 2.0: Marvel Super Heroes, starring The Avengers, hoping the combination of superheroes and collectible figures will give them part of the Skylanders market. Sony brought out Brian Michael Bendis, acclaimed comics writer, to introduce the PlayStation TV exclusive adaptation of his police procedural in a world with superheroes, Powers. A new Batman: Arkham Knight gameplay trailer was a hit with fans, showing Batman gliding through Metropolis and (finally!) driving the Batmobile. And video games aren’t the only media drawing from the intellectual property seed bank at Marvel and DC. Television and movies are also bringing stories familiar to comic lovers to a much broader audience, and making piles of money doing it. It should be a recipe for a whole new batch of comic book lovers, right?
Well, maybe. For an industry that seemed on the verge of collapse in early 1990s, comics have had a slow and steady recovery. Comic book sales peaked in 1993, with sales hitting $850 million, or roughly $1.35 billion when adjusted for inflation to 2012 dollars. That peak was due to speculation on the market, with collectors buying several copies of issues expecting their value to rise dramatically, and fed by hype from the publishers about storylines like The Death of Superman. When that bubble burst, sales of comics plummeted. Today, the comics industry is growing, but it hasn’t come near to that peak. In 2012, the total sales of comic books and graphic novels in North America amounted to $715 million, coming from about 80 million comics sold and about 23 thousand graphic novels. If we assume, conservatively, that the average comic book lover buys one book a month, that’s about 6.6 million people buying comics. That’s likely a significant overestimate. Few sales figures for digital comic sales are made public, but The ComiChron estimates those sales at around 10% of the market, or $75 million, bumping our total to $790 million in sales. That seems like a lot of cash, but the entire sales take of the industry can be trumped by a single blockbuster movie hit.
Marvel’s The Avengers grossed over $1.5 billion dollars worldwide, from an estimated 76 million tickets sold. Even if an absurd half of those tickets were repeat viewers, the number of people watching that movie absolutely flattens the number of comic buyers. The Marvel Cinematic Universe films have beat out Star Wars, Peter Jackson’s six Middle-earth films, and the James Bond franchise to take second place for highest-grossing film series, only a mere $1.3 billion behind the Harry Potter films. With Guardians of the Galaxy due out this summer, Avengers: Age of Ultron slated for 2015, and at least three more films expected in Marvel’s Phase 3, superhero films are likely to topple the Boy Wizard from the top spot this decade.
DC hasn’t been slacking off, either. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was the top domestic box office draw in 2008, bringing in $591 million dollars. Adjusting for ticket price inflation, that’s $90 million more than the $501 million earned by Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. The Dark Knight toppled Marvel’s Iron Man, which grossed $318 million that year, as well as beating Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and earning more than twice the total domestic gross of teen vampire romance Twilight. DC is poised to expand its movies to include the Justice League, following the reboot of Superman in Man of Steel and its obviously named follow-up, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
On the small screen, DC has been busy. The CW’s Arrow, based on Green Arrow, drew 4.14 million viewers for its premiere in 2012. The CW will add a spin-off, The Flash, to its line-up in the fall. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ties into the Cinematic Universe and grabbed nearly 12 million viewers with its premiere. Marvel’s television efforts are also coming to Netflix, having teamed up to produce four exclusive mini-series based on Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage.
On the video game front, global sales of Batman: Arkham City were 5.4 million units, Batman: Arkham Asylum netted 4.2 million units sold, and Batman: Arkham Origins sold 2 million. Lego Marvel Super Heroes, which features about 150 Marvel characters, has sold just shy of 2 million copies. Publishers other than the big two are finding success in video games too. Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, based on the comic by Robert Kirkman and published by Image Comics, sold 8.5 million episodes.
With millions of proven fans of these stories, why aren’t we seeing a flock of new comic book fans marching to their local stores, setting up pull lists and eagerly awaiting the next issue of Amazing Spider-Man? I can speculate that new fans find the years of history behind an ongoing comic daunting, but that doesn’t explain the slow sales of graphic novels and trade paperbacks. A self-contained story like Watchmen may be easier for new fans to pick up, but that doesn’t lead to a monthly comic book habit. Image Comics’ The Walking Dead is one of the few comics that has seen a clear and consistent jump in sales with its success as a television series. The first volume of the trade paperback was the top selling graphic novel in 2010 and 2011.
With Marvel owned by Disney, and DC under the auspices of Time Warner, I would argue comics have become a loss leader for these studios. They keep churning out the comics and keep the collectors and the dedicated fans buying it, but the big cash payback comes from the movies and merchandising. It’s an inexorable truth of capitalism that companies will work to maximize profits, and if movies, television, and video games are where the money is, it’s only reasonable for Marvel, DC, and everyone else to capitalize on it. You can’t make a value judgement on it – it’s not a matter of morality or of what is best for the comics industry. It’s simply a matter of making money.
So here’s my cynical plea to the big two, and to anyone else wanting to market a movie based on a comic book or graphic novel: make the books part of your merchandising. Give me a QR code on my ticket stub for The Winter Soldier that gets me a digital download of Winter Soldier #1. Produce “deleted scenes” special comic issues for Arrow and advertise them before the credits of the show. Package an issue with a self-contained story in every single Avengers play set for Disney Infinity 2.0: Marvel Super Heroes. Set up every new comic book hero fan with a reason to walk into a comic book shop and ask for something that they know isn’t an inscrutable fraction of a story. The well of comic book stories is deep, and varied, but it needs new readers to keep it growing, to keep it revitalized, and to keep churning out the worlds and characters that will hopefully become the big blockbusters twenty years from now. More importantly, converting the moviegoers to readers will keep the comic industry healthy, so that when mainstream tastes move back away from superheroes, as it inevitably will, some will stick with the smaller, panel-bound versions of the characters that they learned to love on the big screen.