Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Whither Marvel Comics?

Marvel is top-dog right now, right? I mean, the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies are terrific (and tremendously successful...) and the company seems to understand how popular properties can be transferred to screens both big and small faithfully, unlike a certain competitor (Catwoman anybody? Birds of Prey?) Last week on Wednesday, I wrote here about one of my most popular books, The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television (McFarland, 2004), and how it focuses on the movie/tv incarnations of superheroes, but could this very development (movie/tv spin-offs?) be a bad thing for comic-readers?

My friend, Fred, recently pointed out an article on that subject that gets out some telling facts and figures. "Will Licensing Doom Marvel?" by Nathan Alderman was posted on September 19, 2005, at Fool.com, and I wanted to feature it here because I think what it says is important, or at the very least, interesting. The point of this article (about investing...) is that Marvel Comics make a poor long-term investment because the company has focused on movies and toys instead of their publishing world. The article notes that the most famous characters in Marvel history were born in the early 1960s (1963, 1965) with Wolverine coming in 1974, and that without popular new characters as exciting as Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk, the publishing part of Marvel just won't survive.

Here's a clip:

In its most recent quarter, Marvel's publishing arm tallied $20.9 million in net sales, comparing respectably with its licensing ($43.9 million) and toy ($23.4 million) ventures. But remove that mask and look at the operating income: While licensing brought in $28.2 million and toys commanded $13.2 million, publishing brought in only $7.89 million -- down more than 12% year over year.

Though the comic book industry moves in boom and bust cycles, the average circulation for even the most popular comic books has gone nowhere but down over the past four decades. Comic book readers -- at least the ones in which superhero comics like Marvel's are concerned -- are a dying breed.

Can that be right? Are comic-book readers vanishing? Has interactivity (video games) and big screen excitement taken the fun out of adventures on the page? I don't know, but I wonder. It seems to me that experts have talking about the death of the comic-book as a viable format for years, if not decades. Weren't Internet comics supposed to replace old-fashioned comic-books in popularity at one point last decade? That didn't happen. And I actually wonder if the opposite won't be true. As our generation (X) gets older, won't we (hopefully...) have more leisure time to enjoy comics? As we get to retirement or near-retirement, won't we decide to pursue then our love of comics, which we can't do now because we're young parents, or because we're trying to make our place in the world at work? I wonder if those who have always loved comics will find time again in the years ahead. I know that my wife is fascinated by comics, and wants to find time to read them...that's hopefully something she'll get to one day.

IWhat do you think? Are we witnessing the end of an empire, a transition to video games and movies that will ultimately kill comics? I sure hope not...


  1. Anonymous9:20 AM

    I do whatever I can to promote comic book reading to kids but it isn't easy. I think the main issue hurting comics are price and availability. Compared to a lot of people, the number of titles I buy monthly is pretty small. I usually end up spending about $20 a month on comics for only a handful of titles. I don't know about you but when you're a kid, $20 may as well be $1000. The other problem is that kids have to find their way into comic book shops to buy most titles. The shop I go to is run buy one of the nicest guys in the world and he keeps a very kid friendly atmosphere. Richard's shop Heroes and Villains is the exception, not the rule. Most comic book shops are run by rude people and are the exact opposite of kid friendly. It's sad really because most of these guys don't seem interested in making sure they have a viable future base of customers. I have a lot of thoughts about this subject I'll address on my blog. But things need to change of comics will die with our generation.

    -Chris Johnson

  2. Hey Chris -

    I think you're 100% spot-on with that assessment. The character on the Simpsons - the comic-book shop owner - exists because it's a widespread joke about how utterly obnoxious many book shop owners are! Now, there are many, many exceptions to that stereotype (as you noted...) but I think you're right. I mean, it isn't exactly a welcome feeling to be in a shop run by a guy who wants to argue with your every selection or comment...Not exactly kid-friendly.

    I plan to introduce my (future!) child to comic-books though. But then again, I also plan to introduce my future child to Star Trek, Star Wars, Land of the Lost, and Space:1999...and colorforms, and Atari 2600, and photonovels, and action figures...:)

  3. I'll probably end up thinking a little more deeply about this later and write something more detailed on my blog, but here is my quick opinion...

    Comic book sales are suffering because comic book publishers have not really changed with the times. Comic book publishers should be publishing online (to help cut down on sale loss from BitTorrent and make it cheaper for fans to catch up with titles), experimenting with new formats (the typical monthly is not working anymore, in my opinion), get scheduling under control (nothing loses interest faster than waiting months for the next issue), trying harder to court the new generation of readers (the ‘Ultimate’ line is a cool idea – but not the most kid friendly), and do more to encourage creators to make new characters that can become the icons for new generations (sorry, but right now a good creator will shy away from "giving away" a character to Marvel or DC and I don't blame them).

  4. I have three kids, age 6, 13 and 14, and none of them read comics. There are two reasons why:

    - There are many more choices for entertainment than ever before. The internet, online games, digital cable, DVDs... all are media that give more feedback more immediately for kids.

    - None of their friends read comics and therefore there's nobody to share their passion with. When I was their age, I had several friends who also loved comics. They were ubiquitous and were something that people moved in and out of reading. Now, as cult objects, comics are just not something that most kids share anymore.

    To me, the other issues (harder to find, higher prices, less value for the dollar, etc) are less important than these two.


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