Do Comics Publishers Need Readers Anymore? Part One

It’s easy to forget now, but when Marvel Studios launched in 2008, the move was met with a fair amount of then-understandable skepticism — after all, not only had the publisher sold away the film and TV rights to most of its “A-list” characters in a series of bad deals largely brokered by Smilin’ Stan Lee himself, they’d also sold off a fair number of “B-listers” as well : Spider-Man was unavailable for them to use, as were the X-Men, but so were also-rans such as Daredevil and The Punisher. The cupboard wasn’t bare, by any means, but properties such as Iron Man and Captain America — while they certainly had their fans — were nothing the major studio players were all that interested in. It’s fair to say, in fact, that at the time of the MCU’s genesis, the most bankable character under the company’s control was The Hulk, the rights to whom had reverted back to Marvel after Universal declined to produce a follow-up to Ang Lee’s 2003 box office disaster featuring the big green guy.

My, how times change. Nearly 15 years on, not only are Iron Man, Captain America, Daredevil, and The Punisher more popular with movie-going audiences than Batman and Superman, people are forking over hefty monthly subscription fees to Disney Plus to watch shows featuring such formerly-bottom-tier characters as Moon Knight, The Vision, Winter Soldier, and Loki.  Hell, even joke properties like Ant-Man have become box office gold. Odds are pretty good that, at this point, Marvel would even turn a hefty profit off the likes of Alpha Flight or Damage Control, so insatiable is the public’s appetite for their product.

All of which, believe it or not, is my long-winded way of getting back to the title of this short series and assuring you, dear reader, that the question I’m asking is NOT a rhetorical one — at least not in all cases. Admittedly, there are comics publishers that clearly and obviously DO need readers — in fact, we’ve spilled a generous amount of digital ink on this very site examining how the burgeoning YA market has forever altered the publishing strategy of one company, in particular, as they appear to be abandoning their artistic principles wholesale in an attempt to chase down a readership that may not even be there for the taking at this point and trust me when I say that what’s true for Drawn+Quarterly is just as true for Top Shelf, although the scale is vastly different given the latter puts out five or six books per year while the former puts out 30-40. So, yeah, SOME publishers still rely on people BUYING, READING, and maybe even LIKING their books — but what about everyone else?

Certainly, Marvel’s success in the “wider world” hasn’t translated into any sort of appreciable sales bump for their printed product — the comics market as a whole is slightly up compared to where it was a few years ago, and up a bit more than that if we cast our sights back a decade or so, but the idea that a comic like Thor only moves a thousand or two more copies a month than it did BEFORE three multi-million-dollar blockbusters were extrapolated from it has to be considered something of a disappointment no matter how one chooses to look at it. Ditto for Spider-Man. And The X-Men. And Doctor Strange. And — well, all of ’em. Clearly, then, some sort of fundamental disconnect exists between the “comics crowd” and the “movie crowd,” even when it comes to the EXACT SAME characters and content.

In fact, the two markets are so completely divorced from one another at this point that Marvel and DC aren’t even really bothering with one of the oldest tricks in the book anymore : launching a new series to coincide with the release of a big-budget film. When DC did this back in 1989, releasing the new Batman series Legends Of The Dark Knight at roughly the same time as Tim Burton’s Batman film, the results were spectacular, with LOTDK #1 becoming the biggest-selling comic of the year and the biggest-selling first issue of ANY comic in almost 50 YEARS. By the time 2012 rolled around and Marvel released a new Avengers #1 within weeks of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers movie, though, no one gave a shit and the series fizzled out within a few short years — only to be replaced by ANOTHER new Avengers #1 just in time for the Avengers : Age Of Ultron flick. That title was even shorter-lived, however, and by the time the third and fourth Avengers films rolled around, Marvel had thrown in the towel on the whole concept of cashing in quick with new comics to accompany new movies.

Obviously, then, REALLY popular films don’t translate into comic book sales, but the reverse is also true : REALLY popular comics don’t necessarily lead to box office fortunes. DC has learned this the hard way more than Marvel has, of course, with top-selling titles like Watchmen and top-selling storylines like the death of Superman failing to catch fire with theater-goers (although the widely-held view that Batman V. Superman‘s $900 million box office take represented a “disappointment” may have more to do with a successful “whisper campaign” directed against both the film and its fortunes than it does with financial realities — I mean, come on, I know we live in absurd times, but the idea that a movie that rakes in just under a BILLION DOLLARS is a “flop” is just plain nuts), but in its own way this is just further proof of the argument that I’m laying out, is it not? Comic book CHARACTERS are more popular than ever, but comic books THEMSELVES are almost becoming surplus to requirements, while comic book SALES offer nothing by way of a “leading indicator” as to what will or won’t be popular with the broader, entertainment-starved public.

From a purely logical point of view, nothing about this makes any real sense, of course, but logic also dictates that the super-hero movie craze probably should have died out years ago, yet here we are. As is the case with the multinational banks, then, it appears as though we’ve entered a period of history where at least Marvel, and maybe even DC, are quite simply “too big to fail,” and we’re going to be stuck with them for the rest of our fucking lives — but how long will they even BOTHER sticking with an archaic “delivery system” for their stories? 

Already Marvel Unlimited, the company’s digital comics platform, is more or less DARING readers to stick with printed periodicals, given they offer almost everything in the publisher’s vast back catalogue for something like six or seven bucks a month and have gone from having a one-year lag between print and digital availability to a mere a six months, and now just THREE months, while DC is doing their level best to chase off what readers they have left by slowly rolling out an absurdly high $4.99 cover price on more and more of their books. Factor in the inherently limited reach of so-called “direct market” distribution, and you honestly have to wonder if either of these companies even CARES about selling comics anymore, because it sure doesn’t look like it. Sure, they need stories to make movies out of, but more and more often what we see on the big screen bears little to no resemblance to any printed-page antecedent — original screenplays are taking the place of adapted ones, origins of characters are radically altered, entire modern-day mythologies are scrapped in favor of new, POST-modern ones. Hell, if you look at the comic book version of Aquaman and the cinematic version, about all they have in common is a name.

Admittedly, the demise of the monthly “floppy” has been predicted for years now and it has yet to come to pass, but I’m not really here to echo that death knell — Marvel and DC will continue to publish comics for as long as they FEEL like publishing comics. They simply don’t seem concerned about SELLING too many of them at this point, and aren’t going to invest any real capital into boosting their circulation figures. They need SOME readers, sure — but evidently not a whole lot of ’em. What they DON’T need is the publicity black eye they’d get from shutting down their publishing operations, so as long as they can run things on the cheap (and we all know they do), and make a few bucks’ profit at the end of the day, their parent companies will keep tolerating their continued existence as a necessary hassle.

So — do Marvel and DC need readers? I guess so. At least a few — and at least for now. What’s perhaps MORE surprising, though, is that there is a veritable gaggle of middle-rung publishers who don’t seem to  need ANY readers AT ALL to stay afloat — but we’ll get into that next time.

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This essay originally appeared on my Patreon site, and is presented here as part of a craven week-long event to gin up interest in getting YOU, dear reader, to subscribe to said site.

And, really, why not? You get three new posts on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics every week, and subscribing costs as little as a buck a month. Check it out over here : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

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