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Friday, June 14, 2013 

Comics not riding big on the Man of Steel marketing

Tulsa Business wrote about some of the history of comics and the new Superman movie, and how, if there's anything that isn't being banked on for merchandise, it's - you guessed it - the comics themselves:
With the hotly-anticipated theatrical reboot of the Superman-franchise set to hit the big screen this weekend, it seems that “Man of Steel” actor Henry Cavill’s brightly-costumed image is everywhere right now. As reported in a recent article of Time Magazine, more than 100 advertisers have taken advantage of the “Man of Steel” buzz to sell everything from bacon cheeseburgers to National Guard enlistments.

Ironically, comic books themselves appear to be the only product that isn’t flying high on the “Man of Steel” marketing maelstrom.

Sales of “Superman” and related comics have actually been in a bit of a slump in the last six months, according to Mike McCormick, owner of Comics Empire of Tulsa.

The extended dip has something to do with a change of writers, he explained, which has a much greater impact on regular discerning comic readers than anything Hollywood happens to be doing at any given moment.

In the immediate sense, the latest summer superhero blockbuster—whether it features Superman, Batman, The Avengers, or any other spandex-clad pop-culture icon—barely registers on comic book retailers’ (and some readers’) radars.

In the long-term sense, however, the phenomenon itself—the yearly summer superhero blockbuster moviegoers have come to expect in the past decade—has had a transformative effect. That transformation, though, has been less from Hollywood’s influence on comic books than the other way around.

In the near term, McCormick and other local comic book purveyors expect a slight bump in “Superman” sales in the weeks or months to come—no more than a 10 percent increase, if that. Once this season of movie-motivated enthusiasm fizzles, though, they expect sales to level out.

Shawn Mears, owner of Mammoth Comics in Tulsa, concurred: generally, there isn’t a significant increase in monthly comics readership when a movie comes out, but there is typically an increase in the collectors’ market, he said, particularly with first appearances of a prominent character.
Ah, and that gives a telling clue where some of the collecting-without-reading frenzy might come from: moviegoers who've seen the movies yet inexplicably may not read the comics so much as they will collect them for assumed monetary value. Could this be a clue where some of the awkward obsession with collecting solely for profit comes from? Good question. Why would moviegoers who'd surely be interested in good storytelling on the silver screen not be so interested in finding the same in another showbiz medium?
An uptick in the collectors’ market doesn’t do much for their bottom line, though, since it doesn’t bring in regular readers. And, history has shown that it can actually be harmful.

In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that collectors’ zeal for Superman almost killed the comic book industry.

Or, at least, zeal for the death of Superman almost killed the industry.

It is a much-debated topic how much the comic book in view—Superman #75, and the marketing frenzy that surrounded it—should be blamed for the crash of the comic book industry, but Mears said it is “the obvious focal point” for an array of forces that combined to strike a near death blow to the medium itself. Marvel Comics declared bankruptcy and a slew of local comic book specialty retailers like himself went out of business in the late 1990s as a result, leading many to believe that comic books themselves would soon go the way of the silent movie or radio serial.
The real reason comics have ever been dealt a significant blow, besides the insular storytelling, was the publishers' refusal to adapt to different formats rather than pamphlets that come out on a monthly schedule (before the 90s, there were some series published on quarterly and bi-monthly schedules, but as the 90s came in, virtually every ongoing began to turn full-time monthly, which in itself was a problem, possibly caused by all the events and crossovers.

And when, in the years after the Comics Code had been relaxed and there came various new items that caught on, leading to wider mainstream coverage, this is what happened:
An influx of speculators and casual collectors entered the market because of the sudden mainstream attention on comic books, along with widespread anecdotes of rare and hidden high-priced artifacts discovered in attic boxes in the form of long-forgotten copies of comic books from the 1930s and ‘40s.

As Mears and McCormick explained, the two big comic book publishers capitalized on the superficial interest by creating and marketing multiple new series’, encouraging speculators to gather as many newly-released “No. 1” issues as they could on the expectation of an increase in value.

The bubble began inflating in the late 1980s, and it encouraged a massive influx of comic book retailers to set up shop to rake in the benefits.

McCormick and Mears explained that Marvel and DC took advantage and perpetuated the bubble by sacrificing quality for quantity, and it got so bad that Mears quit comic books altogether for a while.

He’s been in business since 2001, but he’s been a lifelong collector of comic books, except for a brief period when he gave it up.

“Back in 1994, I quit,” he said. “It just got mind-numbing. It became tedious. The stories weren’t as good. They figured they could put anybody on it, so they didn’t have to pay talent, so the quality went off the cliff.”

In particular, he singled out the 1991 release of X-Men #1 as a particularly egregious sample from the time.

“I hate that book,” he said. “There’s so many of them. There were over a couple million of them made, and there aren’t nearly that many collectors.”

In fact, there were 8 million preordered by retailers, but only about 3 million of them actually sold, which holds the Guinness Book of World Records distinction as the most copies of a single comic book ever sold. Those sales were greatly inflated by Marvel’s publication of five different cover versions to encourage collectors to buy multiple copies.

“X-Men” was a spinoff of the long-running “Uncanny X-Men” title, and was among a slew of spinoff titles created by Marvel to take advantage of the growing popularity of the franchise: “X-Force,” “New Mutants,” “X-Factor,” “X-Calibur,” among others.

Marvel’s competitor had a similar strategy with its multiple Batman and Superman titles, but won particular notoriety for one sales tactic in particular.

In 1992, DC announced that it would be killing off its flagship character, Superman.

It was an otherwise slow news week when they made the announcement, so newspapers and evening news broadcasts the world over ran “The Death of Superman” as a lead story in many instances.

Comic book writers and artists—who were relatively obscure to non-comic book readers—were suddenly being interviewed on TV before a national audience about the immanent demise of Earth’s Greatest Hero.

When the day of doom arrived in November 1992 and Superman #75 was distributed to comic book specialty stores, people stood in line for blocks to get their copy—many of whom had never read a comic book before in their life.

Many bought multiple copies, not realizing that the resurrection issue had already been written, drawn, and scheduled for distribution the following April, just in time for Easter.

It was a few years later, when they tried to cash-in on their investment and found that they couldn’t give copies of Superman #75 away that they realized their boxes full of No. 1 issues were also probably worthless, and the comic book bubble began to burst (the issue goes for about $20 today if it’s still sealed in the original plastic bag).

“I think so many people got burned in the 90s, and it’s not far enough removed for anybody to think they’re going to buy a new comic and then be able to put their kids through school,” said Mears. “There was so much stuff in the ‘90s that was just trash.”
Agreed, and I hope he realizes that, if it comes from the big two, they're still solidly stuck on that angle. Or does he? After they explain how Marvel's own distribution service collapsed, one of the guys is quoted saying:
Marvel came out of their bankruptcy and, as Mears sees it, learned their lesson and began to focus more on quality storytelling than massive print runs and marketing gimmicks.

They updated and reinterpreted many of their popular properties through their “Ultimates” line of books, which reintroduced classic characters to a younger generation of readers, and gave older readers a fresh look at familiar characters.
Oh, for heaven's sake. Even as they avoided crossovers at one point (which was less than 4 years), they didn't focus very well on quality storytelling, recalling J. Michael Stracynski's Spider-Man run and Grant Morrison's X-Men. Even if the latter's take wasn't so dreadful and alienating, a big problem other than that was how they editorially mandated the costumes be just like the movie's. And, Joe Quesada mandated that Mary Jane Watson be kept out of the Spider-Man comics for a time, and after she came back, it wasn't long before Sins Past hit the fan, and they were crashing into crossover town once again with Avengers: Disassembled. I'm really disappointed in any retailer who believes Marvel was trying to focus on quality storytelling. Especially since the Ultimate line, initially marketed as entry level, was anything but that, and the line has since collapsed. I wouldn't say it was a fresh look at the heroes so much as it was a very stale one.
Comic books, and superheroes in particular, appear to have come of age, commercially and culturally, according to comic book enthusiasts and business leaders alike.

“I think comics are much more accepted by the general public, because of the movies and shows like ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ It used to be, if you told people you collected comics and you’d get snickers. But today everybody’s like, ‘Oh, wow! That’s cool.’ So, it’s a much more accepted part of society now,” said McCormick.

“I think it’s great that it’s a legitimate art form and medium now—that stuff I grew up on is being enjoyed by the mainstream culture,” said Mears.
It certainly is legitimate, but with so little an audience for the comics themselves, I find it hard to believe many share the view the way we do. And are they really coming of age if their only idea for how to do it is to obsess with nasty, sensationalized violence and hostility to women? I don't think so. That's not coming of age so much as it is a cruder way of exercising juvenile ways of thinking.

The part about the superficial interest taken in comics years before is worth thinking about, though. So many people seemingly facinated by comics, but it turns out it was only for the money, not the entertainment inside. All these embarrassments could have been avoided if the companies went graphic novel format only, my idea for how to improve quality in many ways. But they don't want to do that, because it would ruin their get-rich-quick schemes along with their biased ideas for what makes a "good" story.

Update: the Philadelphia Daily News ran an interesting article that tells how Siegel and Shuster were worried about diminishing the Man of Steel's potential with merchandise when they'd first begun the comics in the Golden Age.

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The medium is the message, and if the medium is comics, the message is either, "This is for kids," or, "This is for geeks." So a lot of people will go see a Superman or Iron Man movie, but would not be caught dead with a comic book. And, afaik, the last time a movie or TV show affected comics sales was in 1966, during the Batman fad. And that was only for new issues, as there were no comic book specialty stores and no back issue market then.

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