I think it’s safe to say that I have a lifelong love of superheroes. It was true when I was a kid, and it’s true now. I trace it back to the comic books my parents gave me when I was little, leading to my immediate fascination with Batman and Robin, who became a gateway to all the others.
I started collecting comic books in the 80s, which is only a shame because the ones I was given in the 70s would be worth a fortune now, but who knew such things then? Around the time I turned 12, I discovered a comic book store in the Old Port section of Portland, Maine, where I grew up, and was instantly introduced to a whole new world beyond Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and all the rest. Suddenly, there were independent titles and characters like Mage, Nexus, Grendel, The Rocketeer, Cerebus, Love and Rockets, The American, and, my personal favorite, Zot!, which began as a swashbuckling story about a kid from an alternate Earth who befriends a lonely girl on this one and takes her on adventures, and ended as a series of character-driven stories about the girl and her friends, which explored themes of identity, isolation, estrangement, sexuality, and all the other things with which teens struggle.
For me, it was mind blowing. These books and their stories solidified my love for the medium, a love that would suffer a bit in my twenties as I found other, less wholesome interests, but after three or four years away, I was drawn back in by a couple of titles, which became a couple more, which introduced me to writers and artists whose work I admired, which led to once again becoming somewhat immersed in the world of it, and I haven’t looked back.
I wasn’t alone, of course. In fact, there were enough of us that, in the first half of the 90s, the comic book industry started cranking out more and more titles with alternate covers and collectible this and limited edition that, pushing the envelope to burst, which is exactly what happened. The industry collapsed on itself and Marvel Comics, one of the Big Two along with DC Comics, declared bankruptcy. It was this event, in fact, which led to the selling off of the film rights for characters like Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, among others. The industry was in big trouble then, and only over time and with smarter management did it crawl back.
20th Century Fox
Remember, also, that two decades back, comic books were still somewhat in the shadows. By that, I mean that being a comic book fan/reader/collector wasn’t something to which one might readily admit on, say, a first date. There was still something attached to it. Not shame, necessarily, but more of a general wariness, not wanting to make it seem like you’re less of an adult because you like to read the picture books that have costumed crusaders in them.
Obviously, much has changed since then. Enough so, in fact, that not only can one admit to such an avocation, but actually brag about it without fear of folks thinking ill of such matters. This obviously stems from the fact that comic books and the characters spawned from them have not only gained mainstream acceptance, but also have done so to the point where popular culture is at least partially dependent on them.
Comic book movies and television shows — not just the ones involving superpowers and masked vigilantes, but the most watched show on television right now, The Walking Dead, as well — are responsible for billions of dollars in revenue for the companies that make them, and the comic book industry has gone along for the ride. While book retailers have suffered from the rise of online services like Amazon, comic book retailers still thrive to a great degree, because there is a comforting ritual about heading to your local comic shop every week to check out the new releases, and even though there are more and more digital comics available, there is likewise still nothing like holding the paper books and magazines in your hand.
It’s not difficult to point to the moment when everything changed. As influential as the Christopher Reeve Superman movies of the ‘70s and the Tim Burton-Michael Keaton Batman movies of 1989 and 1992 were, it wasn’t until Bryan Singer’s X-Men movie hit theaters in 2000 that things really changed. This, at last, was a movie grounded in a sort of reality, without any of the cartoonish winking that came along with previous attempts at superheroic storytelling. This was an adult movie about people who happened to have super powers, complete with a parable comparing the persecution of mutants to homophobia. It was followed two years later by the Sam Raimi-Tobey Maguire Spider-Man, then a sequel to each film over the next two years that are still, over a decade later, considered among the best the genre has ever had to offer.
Soon after, of course, came the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, as well as the Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man film that launched the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the rest is history. More movies, more television shows, more fan-made YouTube videos, more everything. Everywhere you look, it seems, there are more of them. With capes and without, with masks and without them, heroes, anti-heroes and villains alike, it’s almost hard to remember a time when it wasn’t like this.
Which is not to say that all is copacetic in this world. It’s not. The comic book industry has plenty of issues, not limited to an aging clientele, over-saturation, rising prices and stalled sales, repeated reboots that alienate readership, recycled “talent” whose work had led to the need for these reboots in the first place and then were hired to work on the new material, and so on. Issues abound, and there is, in some corners, a genuine fear about the future of the industry.
And that’s why we’re here. Over the next six weeks, we’ll take a look at many different facets of the comic book industry, from examining the Big Two, to the indie publishing world, to an in-depth look at how one of those indie publishers is surviving and, indeed, thriving in the current landscape, to a look at what the industry needs to do to stay current and relevant in an uncertain future.
Let’s start with some of the issues mentioned above. According to retailers, the average comic book reader is male and in his mid-to-late 30s. Not to say that women don’t read comic books. Obviously, they do, and in ever increasing numbers, as the online marketplace, Comixology, reports an increase of 30 percent last year in new female readers. Another research site, Graphic Policy, posits that women could consist of up to half of the current readership, but either way, the struggle to attract younger readers who will, in time, become older readers is real.
Interestingly, all the movies coming out help with that, as kids see the superheroes on screen and want to read more about them. The two sides of the culture end up feeding each other. The movie characters are known quantities and draw millions of viewers to see their exploits in live action, while introducing a whole new audience to the same characters and, ideally, getting them into the retailers.
The mainstreaming of comic books certainly helps. Graphic novels get reviewed in major publications and draw the attention of people who aren’t necessarily interested in reading about the exploits of the super powered. Comic shops are setting aside larger and larger sections of their retail space to books targeted to the non-mainstream audience, that tell stories about everyday occurrences and slices of life, and have brought to prominence such people as Allison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, Charles Burns, and Daniel Clowes, among many others. Somewhere between the superheroic and the esoteric is what gets the readers into the store. The key is keeping them coming back.
Over-saturation is another problem, with a quantity of titles hitting stores not seen since the crash of the ‘90s. Retailers will point to Marvel and DC as the biggest culprits of this, pushing more and more titles about the same characters into stores, but some indie publishers are guilty of it, as well, especially when it comes to licensed characters featured in books that are churned out multiple times per month. If the market is flat (and more about that in a moment), and more titles are released, it means less profit across the board, which means trouble for everyone.
Some publishers, like Boom! Studios and, recently, DC, have been cutting their output to combat this trend of too many books, but the simple reality is that everyone needs to do it if it’s going to turn around. There is only so much shelf space for books, which is one of the reasons why one of the more successful indie enterprises, Valiant Entertainment, publishes a select few titles each month, usually no more than six to eight of them, thereby ensuring that readers are aware of everything they’re doing.
One of the issues that sort of goes hand in hand with this is the price point of new books. When I started reading them, they were 75 cents or a dollar. Now, it’s rare to find a book with a cover price of less than $2.99, and most books go for $3.99 apiece (some books, with more pages and story, will go for even more). For established characters, that might be fine, but it’s trickier when characters or creators are unknown. There is an ongoing debate about what, exactly, is the right amount to ask consumers to spend for every issue they buy. The consensus seems to be somewhere in the middle, though it wouldn’t take too much thinking to come to the conclusion that the lower the price point, the better the sales are going to be.
One thing the major companies tend to do to try stimulating such sales is to push relaunches. This is something both Marvel and DC have done repeatedly over the last few years. We’ll spend the next two weeks taking a more detailed look at each of them, individually, but in this introduction, it’s worth noting that this is something of which any comic book fan, be it publisher, consumer, or retailer, is aware and about which has an opinion.
Relaunches do tend to increase sales, it’s true. However, the more often they happen, the more cynical the readership grows. How many times, after all, can something call itself new before people stop caring about it? Especially when, as noted above, the “new” stories are written and drawn by the same folks whose work led to the need for a reboot in the first place? The latter is a tricky issue, because finding new talent can be difficult, but the work being done in the indie publishing world should be enough to garner attention and lead to creators other than the same old standbys churning out more of the same.
These issues aren’t things that we can solve during this series, but rather are things to be pointed out and discussed as we examine the intricacies of a business that has been around longer than television, that has almost died more than once, and yet has survived to the point that it is now more relevant and integral to the zeitgeist than perhaps ever before.
With that in mind, it is imperative for those running the comic book industry to do everything they can to combat the issues plaguing them and continue the good run that has continued for most of this century. As we roll through this series, we’ll talk to industry professionals who will talk about that very thing: where it came from, where it is, and ultimately, what comes next.
Come back next week, and we’ll take that initial deep dive.