THE COMICS CONUNDRUM
-Dan Didio, co-publisher of DC Comics
When I was young, I had two dreams for movies. The first was that my AD&D campaign could be made into a film, which probably would have been not very good material, but at least some fantasy stuff is being made these days and its doing well. In fact, if you look at the earnings (adjusted for inflation) of films over history, fantasy and sci fi rank very high.
The other dream was that good comic movies would be made. Unfortunately, other than Superman with Christopher Reeves, that wasn't happening. Even the cartoons were pretty awful. Superhero movies were attempted, such as The Punisher with Dolph Lundgren and a Captain America film but they were just terrible.
The theory went that if there were good comic book movies, that would drive people to read comics and they'd sell better. Win/win for the comic creator, which I planned on being, and it would mainstream a hobby of mine.
So now we have some of the most astounding things ever put on the silver screen, including some very well made films such as Batman Begins that are good moviemaking period. Comic book movies are huge business these days and very popular. Finally, technology and film making has caught up with the imaginations of men and women from the 30s.
But something funny happened on the way to the comic book rack. After the peak years in the past, comic book sales have been declining. When a given character's film comes out, there's a spike in sales, but that rapidly falls off. So for example when Batman Begins came out, there was a lot of interest in Batman comics... but then people stopped buying them after a few months.
Where you could see sales of a hundred thousand Spider-Man comics sell in the late 80s, you're lucky to see half that these days. People just aren't buying comic books as much any more. There are a lot of reasons but it appears that instead of driving people to read more comics, these films are actually contributing to people buying fewer comics.
Its as if people are willing to watch the movies when they come out (and on home theater systems) but not read comic books. Now I'll admit that seeing the Hulk punch Thor through a building on screen is more satisfying than seeing him do it on a page. And its true that a comic book is a few minutes of entertainment and Guardians of the Galaxy runs for two hours. And it appears that people consider that a better entertainment value than a 4 dollar comic once a month.
Computer Games are taking their bite out of comics too. Its fun to read Batman's latest adventure, but its even more fun to be Batman in an adventure, like in the Batman: Arkham games. And that interactivity and storytelling (which again is hours of gameplay) is much more compelling to many people today than a comic book.
So in the end, instead of increasing sales, these new media are actually hurting sales. And comic books are struggling enough as it is. I could write for hours on this subject, such as how the industry appears to have decided it doesn't need new fans and is going to ride the same group of readers as they age right into the grave, or how they've lost all sense of wonder and heroism for brutality and anger.
But this more than anything sums up the basic problem with comic books today:
See that red line slanting upward? That's the overall trend of the cost of comic books compared to the US federal minimum wage. In other words, comic books are costing more and more when compared to their audience's income levels.
Its one thing to buy a 10 cent comic when that's less than half your hourly minimum wage, but its another entirely to buy a $5 comic when you make $7.25 an hour. Is it really worth almost an hour's wages? Particularly when the comics have ads in them to begin with? And the price goes up regularly.
Now, digital comics seem to be slowly taking off, although they are a bit overpriced (3 bucks a comic for something I don't even really own?) and so new that people aren't used to the concept. That's an area that could do well, because its yet another thing you can do on your cell phone and get it delivered to you without leaving your couch.
I don't think print comics will necessarily vanish, but the days of Marvel and DC being giants making huge money off magazines are pretty much at an end. I suspect that if comics would focus on what people are interested in reading in that format instead of what has always worked in the past, they would do better.
Superhero comics have been the mainstay of the industry for most of its existence, although there was a time after WW2 and to around 1965 when romance, westerns, horror comics, and so on were bigger sellers. With the advent of the good comic book movie and computer games, I think superhero comics are going to wane again.
That means finding other outlets for the medium, and things like Westerns and Fantasy could pick up the slack. Even in Japan though, where Manga was king, the sales are dropping and they have always focused primarily on other stories than superheroes. So I don't really know.
All I know is, we were dead wrong when we all figured a great X-Men movie would sell more comics.