Comic Book Publishers Miss Golden Opportunities

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The film "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, the magazine was covering the cinematic buzz coming out of the San Diego Comic-Con last month. The gathering served as a marketing vehicle for upcoming movies, including "Jonah Hex" and "Iron 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 started 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. 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' Wolverine title 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.

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 Batman series -- 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.

Entry Costs

The daunting task of diving into a story that is already underway is one reason moviegoers stay away. Unlike the authors of Harry Potter or Twilight books, comic publishers keep developing their franchises' story lines as they're shaped for the big screen. 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. Since the publishers have sunk 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.

But it's equally senseless to waste the opportunity to cultivate new readers. 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 back stories. And a neophyte comics reader is at the mercy of the shop employee for recommendations, because there are few clear entry points. Plus, there aren't many comics titles aimed squarely at new readers.

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 achieve 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. This is good news: That readership is still larger than that of any Iron Man title before the movie.

Plus 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 offer an opportunity for moviegoers to reassess the graphic novel medium. Perhaps inspired by the 58 percent profit netted by "Ghostworld," or the 78 percent seen by "Wanted," studio execs are now casting about for the next non-superhero comic property to spin into multiplex gold. For comics, cinematic precedent may open the door to more books that reshape the public's perception of a comic book. Hollywood producers will still get the benefit of field-tested plots -- but won't necessarily have to spend millions of dollars on special effects.

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 non-superhero comics have led to a string of box-office smashes -- "Hellboy," "Sin City," "300." More crucially, Dark Horse is showing that adaptation flows two ways: It holds the rights to spin off comic book adaptations of movies, including "Alien," "Star Wars" and "The Terminator," and it publishes the comics spun off from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Xena: Warrior Princess."

This isn't to say that the future of comics rests in someone writing a 60-panel adaptation of "The Bachelorette." Comics publishers will continue to produce original work because it's what they went into business to do. Plus, 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. And continuing a comic series allows a story line to acquire the depth and richness that informs good movie adaptations.

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 revenue this year -- and for that, you can thank the movies.

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