Why don’t big screen adaptations boost comic book sales?

This is an interesting article I ran across a little while ago that I thought I’d share.

Batman’s Comic Tragedy

By Lisa Schmeiser

Posted Wednesday, August 12, 2009 – 2:24pm

Iron Man 2 isn’t set to come out until next summer, but you would never have guessed that from a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly featuring Robert Downey Jr. summoning all the gravitas a man in red plastic can muster.

To be fair, EW was covering the cinematic buzz coming out of San Diego Comic-Con last month. The gathering served as a marketing vehicle for upcoming popcorn movies like Jonah Hex andIron Man 2. But when people weren’t gawking at Megan Fox (Jonah Hex) and Scarlett Johansson (Iron Man 2), they may have taken in a panel with comics writers. After all, Comic-Con did start as a way for comic fans to buy, sell, and discuss the objects of their passion.

But the celebrity dazzle obscured the strange reality: Movies based on comic books often turn into box-office hits, but their sources rarely see a related boost. Books regularly benefit from a bounce after their adaptation hits the big screen. But despite their ability to offer multiple post-movie stories to eager viewers, comics seldom pull in the same post-cinematic ardor. Why? And why aren’t comics publishers doing more to sell their material to moviegoers when their business has been dampened by the recession?

Take this year’s cinematic entry into the comics genre, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Despite middling reviews, the movie has grossed $365 million worldwide. When the movie came out in May, Marvel Comics title Wolverine nabbed the No. 3 and No. 5 spots on the monthly single-issue comics best-seller lists, according to Diamond Comics Distributors. It sold 170,399 issues. But by June, the title’s sales had dropped 62 percent, and there were fewer copies traded than the 86,000 sold in the month before the movie’s release. So any boost burned out fast.

Marvel’s not the only one to miss the movie moment. Rival industry titan DC Comics is home to Batman. In July 2008, The Dark Knight gave the Batman titles a boost, but it was only temporary: By the same time this year, the original series was on hiatus, thanks to DC Comics’ decision to kill off the title character. There’s a replacement series—Batman: Battle for the Cowl—but that’s a little like asking someone to embrace Rex the Wonder Dog after they’ve watched a Superman movie. The good one, with General Zod.

The daunting task of diving into a story that is already under way is one reason moviegoers stay away. Unlike the Harry Potter or Twilight books, comic publishers keep developing their franchises’ story lines as they’re shaped for the big screen. They have to—customers expect their monthly fix. Plus it’s hard—baked into their business model. Comics podcast host Brian Eison points out that Marvel’s and DC’s sales are pegged to series plotted for years at a time and often rely on readers having firsthand knowledge of the back story. Since the publishers have sunk development and marketing capital into these series, it makes no sense for them to alienate their core base by suspending or rewriting series to tie in to a movie about the same character.

However, it’s equally senseless to waste the opportunity to cultivate new users. If someone were to walk out of Wolverine and into a comic shop, they would have no idea what to read, given the character’s colorful and occasionally contradictory back stories. And a neophyte comics reader is at the mercy of the shop employee for recommendations because there are few clear entry points into decades of stories. Plus there aren’t many comics titles aimed squarely at new readers. As former DC Comics editor Valerie D’Orazio says, “I think that there should be more ‘starter’ comics for that audience; comics that don’t require a ton of back story or continuity to understand but which readers can follow and build upon in time.”

Introductory comic books might make a real difference in easing beginners into comics. When the first Iron Man movie came out in May 2008, Marvel launched a new title, Invincible Iron Man. The first issue sold 105,833 copies, something only a handful of comics titles achieves every month. The next month, sales had slid 35 percent, in a typical drop-off after the first issue. A year later, sales were holding steady in the low 50,000 range. Believe it or not, this is good news: The 50k readership is still larger than any Iron Man title before the movie. Relaunching a series in tandem with a movie brings in readers.

But there’s another obstacle to conversion: how those comics get sold. Everyone knows The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy—who was once left at the altar with the line “It’s like I’m DC Comics and you’re Marvel”—and his brand of arrested development wrapped in superciliousness. That perception clings to comic book shops and the people who work in them.

It’s unfair. As Eisen argues, many comic shop owners go out of their way to set up displays when related movies are about to come out. These small businesses don’t get a lot of tangible help from the publishers, so they can only reach as far as their small marketing budgets will allow.

Customers are as freighted by misperception as store owners. When your only exposure to “fanboys” is through depictions in popular culture like The Big Bang Theory or Saturday Night Live sketches, the idea of diving in might be intimidating. “You know how the milk people got the Dairy Council and ‘Got Milk?’ ads?” D’Orazio said. “I think the industry needs that—ads in mainstream media: ‘Got Comics?’ “

Not all American comics revolve around the exploits of people with tights, capes, and superpowers. These comics herald the next wave of comics-based movies and also offer an opportunity for moviegoers to reassess the graphic novel medium. Perhaps inspired byGhostworld‘s 58 percent profit, 30 Days of Night‘s 60 percent profit, Wanted‘s 78 percent profit,300‘s 87 percent profit, or Sin City‘s 75 percent return, studio execs are now casting about for the next nonsuperhero comic property to spin into Cineplex gold. During Comic-Con, Terry Moore’s series about photographer-cum-walking-nuke Echo garnered a six-figure deal fromHellboy and Watchmen producer Lloyd Levin. This is good news for both the comics and movie industries. For comics, cinematic precedent may open the door to more books that step outside the constraints of the tights-and-flights genre and reshape the public’s perception of a comic book. Hollywood producers, meanwhile, will still get the benefit of field-tested characters and plots—but won’t necessarily have to spend millions of dollars on special effects.

For the comics industry to take advantage of this opportunity, publishers and distributors would need to change. Publishers would have to start aggressively plotting tie-in merchandise released right before a movie’s opening weekend. Marvel’s already doing this: As Dollar Bin comic podcast co-host Adam Daughhetee noted, they released a brand-new monthly series whenIron Man came out, and reissued paperback collections of classic Iron Man comics for those readers who were suddenly in the grip of Tony Stark mania.

But Dark Horse Comics may be the model for the future. The No. 3 publisher behind DC and Marvel has quietly cultivated a three-year production deal with Universal. Its nonsuperhero comics have led to a string of box-office smashes—HellboySin City300. More crucially, Dark Horse is showing that adaptation flows two ways: It holds the rights to spin off comic book adaptations of movies, including AlienStar Wars, and The Terminator, and it publishes the comics spun off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess. By adapting fan-friendly movie and TV franchises in another visual medium, Dark Horse is treating fandom like a transferable property, not a complex culture replete with rites and Wednesday-afternoon rituals.

This isn’t to say that the future of comics rests in someone writing a 60-panel adaptation ofThe Bachelorette. Comics publishers will continue to produce original work for two reasons. First, because it’s what they went into business to do. And second, it’s a cheap way to launch a multimillion-dollar movie franchise. Paying a writer, a penciler, a letterer, and a colorist to launch a comic book is comparatively cheap. Continuing to publish the book doesn’t cost much more, and the bar for “best-selling” is relatively low: Move 25,000 copies a month and you’re in the top 100 best-sellers. And continuing a comic series allows a story line to acquire the depth and richness that informs good movie adaptations. Just ask Marvel: Although its comic sales are down, it recently raised the low end of its full-year earnings forecast. The company now expects to make at least $465 million in overall revenue this year—and for that, you can thank the movies.

The relationship between comic books and movies may ultimately work for comic publishers. But the profitability of the arrangement rests on two things: whether they can recognize that movies need simple entry points—and how they craft that obvious opening into their own properties. In the movie Iron Man, Tony Stark created his own superhero origin story when he was held captive; given the creative minds working in comics today, it should be considerably less tough to find a way to make those moviegoers beg for the real origin stories.

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