Dark title, I know, but I can see no other reason behind the spectacular failure of every comic book movie ever made. No, I don’t mean the box office failure. Avengers alone should show that these movies are capable of being great and making serious money in theaters. What I am referring to is the failure of the comic book industry to capitalize on their success.
The holy grail in the last 20 years, assuming you believe what the industry says, is new readers. The desire to grow the market and increase the number of readers of the books has been the cry from publishers for better than 2 decades. The creation of the direct market saved the industry in the short-term, but has been one of the factors in limiting the growth of the audience. Comics are no longer something you see and casually pick up and read. You now have to go and look for them, usually to a specialty shop. Since comic shops have a social position to “outsiders” only slightly higher than bait shops, most people do not seek them out. Accidental discovery happens more often. In fact I cannot even count the times I have been standing in any one of the several comic shops I can be found in, and hear someone tell the guy behind the counter, “I didn’t even know you were here.” in reference to the shop’s very existence.
The industry tells us that the way to save comics is to grow the audience. So they push digital, or huge events. These do not actually grow the audience to any great degree, unfortunately. Digital may yet prove to be a source of new readers, but it is too early to tell, and events are only promoted outside the industry on slow news days. The fluke media storm that surrounded the death of Superman in the mid 90’s falsely convinced the publishers that everyone outside the industry cares. It really was a slow news day and the story took off. Every event since has had to have the media coverage forced. Press releases and junkets are what drive the coverage now, and it is never particularly big news. Events are boring and predictable inside the industry and now even outside it, the concept that death is only a temporary condition to drive sales is well-known. Even free comic book day only gets people in the stores once a year, and most of the people scoring free books on the first Saturday in May, are also in the shops every Wednesday. At best FCBD gets the existing audience interested in buying more titles, but since the average fans budget is a zero sum game, they drop an old book in favor of a new one. So why are these the only grow the audience measures employed when the most obvious one is ignored?
The success of Avengers is another example of comic publishers missing the boat. You like the Avengers? Well here, try this free sample comic with characters from the movie. Or, here is a free digital download with the purchase of your ticket to see Dark Knight Rises. You should be hearing that every time you walk into the theater. Put a free download code in the DVD and Blu-ray of these films. Batman Begins and Constantine put comics in the case with the DVD when they came out, so that was a viable possibility. Some comic shops get in on the act by placing ads on-screen before the shows in their local theaters, or have a presence at the first weekend’s worth of shows at the theater, promoting the comics and their shops. Usually this can boost traffic into the store and both options are a fraction of the cost of a print or TV ad. There are many possible options, and none seem to have been accepted by the industry as a whole though.
That is because the industry does not care. They want your money NOW. If that means that they don’t get your money tomorrow, so be it. The industry has always had an “eat its own children” mentality, and this is no different. Comics publishing companies are smaller arms of much larger corporations in the case of most of the larger ones. Marvel is Disney, DC is Time Warner, and even those that exist first as comics publishers such as Dark Horse or Dynamite, have whole sections devoted to movies and merchandising. Nothing wrong with any of that, but it means that comics are not the end result of the enterprise, just one part, usually a lower profit part than the movies or t-shirts or other merchandise. At Marvel especially, for a very long time, the comics were looked at as the farm. You had this under utilized seed that is Captain America, now how can we make REAL money with him? The concept of synergy within all areas of a company is great for the overall bottom line, but tends to sacrifice the potential of smaller divisions in the service of the whole. Unfortunately what then happens is, the core of the idea, the center of what makes you money from lunch boxes, movies and cartoon shows stagnates and will eventually die. Sooner of later, the character that you slap on a t-shirt only exists on the t-shirt and not as a character in its own right. Growing the number of readers costs a great deal of money if it is done correctly, and the return on investment is small. The publishers will publicly blame the audience for growing up and out of the genre, or say that video entertainment is pulling people away, but since they all try to be in the adult comics market and make digital media type entertainment, that just rings out as false.
Comic publishers do not care. The genre has been regarded as trash in the United States since it was created. It is only in other countries where it is considered a valid form of expression and entertainment. It is very like people with low self-esteem. “if I think it’s crap, and it isn’t very good, then no one will be mad at me for under selling” And in the same mold, when it is good and a success, the low self-esteem comic company will just downplay it to avoid any future embarrassment. We should not be surprised when fans of the movie do not jump into the comics. We have not given them a reason to, and we continually give them reasons NOT to.