Last time we spoke (or, more accurately, I wrote and you read) about how comic books themselves — in spite of a resurgence in licensing and big-budget comic-themed events (ranging from blockbuster films, to Broadway plays, to theme parks) find themselves in an ever-aging, ever-dwindling audience.
As preposterous as this may sound, it is frighteningly true. So true in fact that today’s top-selling titles range in the 30-90,000 range, when it wasn’t that long ago that any comic selling less than 100,000 units was precipitously close to being canceled.
To find out why one needs look only as far as the comic companies’ business and marketing practices. According to Stan Lee himself when he first had control of the newly minted Marvel line, he looked at what DC was publishing, and then simply copied it. To be sure, he tossed in enough new stuff so that it turned out to be wicked-cool, but the problem with most of what followed, is that the writers that followed him did exactly the same thing.
Unfortunately, the problem with this is this is not only abundantly clear, but self-replicating. First of all, most of the folks who followed grew up reading (mostly) comics, and so brought nothing new to the table, and two, the suits that ran the company kept “stealing” their ideas from other comic book companies. The result is a smaller and smaller market appealing to an older and older audience.
Look at the titles that are currently available, Dead characters coming back to life “series-changing” stories where a major character dies (only to return just prior to the next movie), etc. Seriously, how many times can a new writer go back to riff on the “wicked-cool” storyline he read as a youth (Days of Future Past, The Korvac Saga, The Kree/Skrull War, Secret Wars, Infinity Crises, etc.). Nope, I’m sorry to say that either most of today’s writers have simply run out of ideas or their respective editorial staffs are afraid to do anything new.
Now look at the marketing practices. Most comics are (in spite of what anyone will tell you), marketed towards adult collectors? Here’s how I know. Variant covers featuring “Fan Fave” artists (the companies are banking on collectors buying multiple copies of the same comic book, hence artificially inflating their sales figures). The Direct Sales market is killing us, ensuring that only people who know that comics are published, and live close to a comic shop will know where to go to get them. Comics are no longer an impulse item, but a destination item.
Yes, there are some regular newsstand locations that do rack comics (Borders, Barns & Noble, some supermarkets), but the comics that they rack tend to be the very same comics that are found in comic shops. The problem with this is that most of these comics feature continuing storylines, which don’t so much encourage the random buyer to pick up the next issue, but deter them from purchasing this issue. Casual buyers are more likely to be kids than adults, and these newsstand locations rarely (if ever) carry comics targeted for kids. Plus, (and I go back to my main point of last time) comics simply are not advertized outside of comicbook magazines.
This last practice is simply stupid. People buying comics tend to already know about comics coming out. The purpose of advertising is to convince people not buying your product to buy it. Sure, comicbook movies, TV, videogames might help sell comics (perhaps giveaway comics and/or subscription coupons could be packed in with them as well as how to find comic shops would help), but from what I can gather, rarely do.
With the massive ad budgets of some of these comic-to-film projects one has to wonder why not include a line item for giveaway comics to be passed out on opening night. Sure, some films do it (Most notably The Punisher which issued a reprint of Amazing Spider-Man #129, and one of the Transformers movies). The only problem with these two examples is that neither comic directed you to a local comic shop, and the Transformer comic didn’t even cross-advertise other comics by the publisher (IDW).
No, kids, for whatever reason, none of the major comic book companies will advertise outside comics (sort of like no sports franchise advertising outside of Sports Illustrated and other sports mags). They will bring in name writers from outside their own fields, and adapt properties not native to comics, but never seem to go back to the original medium to place ads to bring those established audiences over to the comics.
It truly gives one pause.
In Part 3 of this essay, comicbook historian and self-proclaimed “Heroist” Robert J. Sodaro puts forth some ideas on how to bring in new blood to the comicbook readership, and (hopefully) save his preferred form of entertainment.