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Thought Bubble #2: Why Don’t Hit Superhero Movies Lead to More Comics Sales?

The comics medium attempts to answer a lot of big questions: Can vigilantism be warranted? What are the limits of science? Hey, is that thing in the sky a bird, or maybe some kind of plane? In that spirit, ComicsAlliance’s Matt Wilson is asking comics creators, retailers and commentators some big questions of his own.

In this installment, Fred van Lente, retailer and blogger Mike Sterling, ComiXology CEO David Steinberger, and podcasters John Siuntres and Bryan Carr answer the question: If superhero movies are so successful, why aren’t people buying more comics?For context, here are some statistics: Since 2002, the year the first Spider-Man movie was released, at least one superhero movie has been in the top 10 highest-grossing films of the year each year except 2009, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. In many of those years, multiple superhero movies cracked the top 10. In three — 2002, 2007 and 2008 — a superhero film was the top-grossing movie of the year. 2012′s looking to be no different. The only competitor to the Avengers juggernaut could be The Dark Knight Rises.

In other words, superhero movies are part of our cultural DNA now. Anyone still harboring the notion that they’re a fad destined to go away should consider that this capes-and-tights kick is more than a decade strong. And yet, comics sales over that period have basically remained flat. In May 2002, five of the comics published that month sold more than 100,000 copies — a fraction of the millions the top comics sold in the heyday of the early 1990s. In May 2012, five titles reached above 100,000 yet again.

Here’s what our panel had to say about why moviegoers aren’t clamoring for comic books with the characters they clearly love.

Fred Van Lente (Writer, The Incredible Hercules, The Comic Book History of Comics, Cowboys vs. Aliens):

A lot of it is you can’t make a one-to-one comparison between comics and movies. For one thing, one of them involves reading for pleasure, which has been on the decline for a couple generations now.

As important, though, is genre saturation. Moviegoers see a variety of different kind of movies in a year; there are just three new superhero movies, at least about major franchises, out in 2012. Comics, on the other hand, publish over one hundred new superhero titles a month. People just aren’t as into the genre in general as a regular thing as regular comics buyers are. They’re happy to go to the multiplex a couple times a year to see the adventure of a person or persons in Spandex, but they’re sated until the next big blockbuster rolls around.

Mike Sterling, blogger and retailer at Ralph’s Comic Corner in Ventura, California:

My general belief about why superhero movies do so well, and why most comic books have a readership that’s about the same as my grocery list, is that for most people in the world, one — oh, let’s say Spider-Man movie — about every three years or so is really all the Spider-Man adventure they need. Or a new episode every week, for superhero television shows. Being asked to make a special trip to a specialty store that their town may or may not have, every single week, to follow one of the possibly half-dozen or more different titles featuring that one character or team they liked in that one movie once? That doesn’t seem like a jump the casual film fan is going to make. Enjoying a Spider-Man movie is just part of a regular movie going experience. Becoming a fan of the Spider-Man comic books is practically a lifestyle choice, requiring some serious damn commitment.

Digital distribution may be a slight counter to this, but to get comics to experience a consistent sales level similar to that of film attendance, rather than a temporary movie-generated bump, that requires your average person to binge on something that’s essentially a completely different sort of entertainment experience from what they had enjoyed.

David Steinberger, co-founder and CEO of ComiXology:

This is a simple one: easy access and a great consumer experience. Think about it. The biggest recent growth period — before digital — in comics was in the early 2000′s, because the trade paperback became widely available through the mass market book stores. Digital is the next step in great distribution, but this time for single issue comics and collected editions. ComiXology is a revolution in wide distribution and great consumer experience. This is at the heart of why ComiXology exists, to bring comics to everyone. Before ComiXology, if you got excited by seeing a comic-book-based movie and wanted to read the related comics, you’d have to find and make a trip to a specialty shop. As much as I love my local comic shop, not everyone is going to do that, or can’t do that because they don’t have a local shop! ComiXology is a perfect solution for those people.

From where I’m sitting, all I can see is growth and I believe we’ll see more and more impact from comic book-based mass entertainment vehicles like movies on actual comic book sales because of this wide, easy distribution.

John Siuntres, host of the Word Balloon podcast:

I’m not sure if comics will ever go back to the early ’90s level of sales success. That was a heady luddite era when the comic book was still the main consumer source of learning about a character, and getting fresh stories. Technology in video special effects and animation has made enjoying superhero stories much more of an intense experience for fans.

There are plenty of free media entry points to many comic book properties via animated and live action TV programs. Video games are pricey, but provide hours of entertainment and immerse users in a way that comic books can’t.

The comics companies must find a satisfying single digital issue format that is A) priced cheaply, and B) makes a newbie want to come back for another issue. By cheaply, I think the 99-cent model is best, but we can all understand the resistance by publishers to go after pennies, when the printed comic still makes more dollars in the direct market.

The $2.99 to $3.99 price point for single issues, whether paper or digital, is something Wednesday regulars have slowly come to accept , but I don’t believe it’s a good economic deal for newcomers. When it still costs between 99 cents and $2.00 for a song on iTunes, does a newbie think 20 pages, or one chapter of a multi-part story is a good deal? What about waiting a week or a month for the next chapter? Compare that to buying music from iTunes. The current comics model is like buying the first verse to a popular song, and telling the buyer to come back next week to here the song’s chorus. That doesn’t make sense to outsiders.

I think the current DC digital titles, Batman: Legends Of The Dark Knight and Ami-Comi Girls are steps in the right direction, but I also think there needs to be more product available at an inviting price.

Bryan Carr, host of the Geekspeak! podcast:

I don’t think it’s possible to get sales back to the heights of the early ’90s, in large part because the business is more sensible now. We may have some variant issues or other gimmicks here and there but we aren’t being beaten down by lenticular hologram foil sticker covers that can double as a life preserver, either. The early ’90s were a time of speculation, where everything was being relaunched as a No. 1 and investors thought they could turn around a copy of The Death of Superman for a million dollars and retire at the age of 30. The bottom fell out of that market, so I would argue that even though comics may have been selling better at the time it is very possible that the market was an artificial one in the first place.

The other issue is that we don’t currently know how well digital comics are selling. It is very possible that digital comics are selling like gangbusters, especially as popular as tablet readers have become. Until we start getting hard and fast numbers from digital comics distributors and the publishers themselves, we’re only getting part of the picture.

We are seeing some overall improvement in the industry, so while it may not necessarily be on the level of the popularity of the film adaptations of the characters there is at least some correlation if not actual causation between the two. I would be hard pressed to suggest that the movies are not having at least some effect. I know at my local shop, they place all the comics that are relevant to the big summer films in conspicuous and easy to find places for curious shoppers, and it seems to be working for them.

That said, there is certainly a gap between the success of the films and the success of the comics. And I’m not sure there’s just one reason why superhero comics aren’t selling on a level equivalent to the films they have inspired. So let me offer a few possible answers.

First, price. Comics are not cheap. While there are good business reasons to sell a single issue for $3.99 and both Marvel and DC have attempted to at least add extra value in the form of bundled digital copies and back-up stories, when most of your books cost more than a gallon of gas, it gets difficult to justify buying very many. Personally, I’ve had to cut back on a lot of the books I follow to save money. It seems like it would be an unattractive prospect to many potential readers.

Two, the nature of film. Film is a communal medium, and something that can be easily shared by people at the same time. Movies are something we go to as a social event, it is an experience that is pretty much universal. It’s very easy to take a significant other or a family to a movie, it is tougher to share the experience of a comic. Part of the reason that superhero movies have done so well is that they have done a good job reaching out to non-traditional audiences. For example, Thor felt like a romantic comedy at times, a move which was to its benefit. It’s a lot easier to convince non-comics fans to watch a movie than it is to get them to walk into a comics shop and peruse the selection.

Third, the problems of continuity. Superhero comics are a confusing place. Unless you have been keeping up with them, it’s hard to know what fits where. So imagine the confusion a new reader, fresh from seeing Avengers, has coming into the shop and being faced with Avengers, New Avengers, Avengers Assemble, Avengers Academy, Ultimate Comics Avengers, etc. And that’s one of the easy franchises. DC and Marvel both have books on the market for new readers yet when you’re new to the scene it’s hard to know which those are.

Fourth, there’s the problem of gender. This site has done a great job covering gender issues in comics, so I won’t spend a lot of time discussing it here. Suffice to say that comics are not always the most welcoming place for women. From personal experience, my girlfriend’s sisters really enjoy the various superhero films yet none of them would step into a shop of their own volition because they wouldn’t feel welcome there. My girlfriend doesn’t care, though. She’d just roll in and be like, “What?”

The question now is how best to rectify these problems, and they’re the solutions you’ve probably already arrived at: Create welcoming environments, encourage digital distribution, lower prices, and perhaps make it immediately obvious where a new reader should begin when entering a store. A “new readers” rack would not go astray.

At the corporate level, Disney and Warner Bros. [parent companies of Marvel and DC Comics, respectively] should ideally attempt to leverage their publishing arms by placing comics in their own stores or tying them in with compatible media. Putting new comics in big department stores like Wal-Mart and Target next to the superhero toys and DVDs would also make sense and allow the companies some flexibility in their marketing and promotion. This would also require that the publishers attempt to make comics without gut-splattering violence and awkward sexual content but that might be an answer to a different question.

Overall, as you put it, there is a significant desire and arguably a need for these characters in contemporary society; it seems a shame that as they become more popular the media from which they originated is not being lifted by the same tide. At the very least, though, I am optimistic that the characters we know and love will continue to exist in at least some form. Hopefully, the younger people enjoying these movies now will continue to appreciate the characters as they get older and start reading comics in their due time as well.

Thanks to everyone for their thoughtful contributions. And now we put the same question to ComicsAlliance readers. Why do you there’s such a disparity between superhero films’ popularity and the readership of superhero comics?

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