Opportunities Missed: Turning Franchise Viewers into Comic Readers
Brian M. Puaca writes for Bleeding Cool:
A recent article on Bleeding Cool by Joe Mulvey discussed the need of the comics industry to advertise. I, too, have been thinking about this issue recently and wondering why it is that comic books aren't more widely promoted. While its characters are typically known by young and old alike, the comics industry does a poor job of selling its original product — actual comic books — to an audience outside of those who are already reading them. Certainly part of the reason for this must be the fact that films, merchandising, and promotions are more lucrative than comic sales. Yet this also seems like a short-sighted strategy. Why not build on the interest of those who buy tickets to films, shirts, neckties, socks, kid's toys and other items by selling them another product?
I have the good fortune of teaching a course on the history of comic books and American society this semester, and so I decided to ask my students about their relationship to comics on the first day of class. I was rather surprised by the result of my informal poll. To begin, it is worth emphasizing, this is not a random sample. It is highly likely that the majority of these students enrolled in the class because of a prior interest in the subject matter. Thus, one could assume that the responses of a more random sampling on campus — or among the general population at large — would have had an even less favorable result for the comics industry.
One of my first questions for the students was why they decided to take this course. Most of them replied that they were interested in one character or another, and that many of them had been fans for many years. Whether it was Batman, Superman, Thor, or Captain America, almost all of them came to the class already familiar with the hottest properties in the industry. Naturally, I then asked how many of them had read comics as kids (that being not so long ago in this case, as we are talking about young people between the ages of 18 and 22). I was rather startled to see only about a half dozen hands go up. That would be about a quarter of the class.
Seeing that many of these students didn't read comics as children, I wondered if they had picked up comics as teenagers, perhaps in high school or even after arriving at the university. I asked how many students had read a comic book in the past year. I only saw a couple of hands. Sensing that I had a class full of students who were not terribly familiar with comic books in a class dedicated to the industry and its relationship to American society, I shifted my line of questioning. "How many of you have never read a comic book?" I asked. Sadly, this was the best response of the morning. About half of them raised their hands. Half! Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised, knowing what I know about the nature of the direct market and the insular nature of the comic book industry. Still, I couldn't believe that so many interested (by their own admission) students had never read a comic book.
Knowing that they were not comics readers, I now wanted to know how it was that they had come to know, follow, and, in some cases, become fascinated with certain characters from the world of comics. They quickly responded almost in unison: "Movies!" I expected this response, but I was still impressed that so many of them had seen so many of the comics-based films of the last twenty years. The X-Men films? Check. The Batman films? Absolutely! The Iron Man films? Yeah. A few even admitted to having seen Daredevil many years earlier. Most recently, they had seen — and loved — The Avengers movie. Had anybody, one of them wondered aloud, not seen it?
Certainly these films were huge moneymakers for Marvel. The Avengers film, released in 2012, brought in more than $600 million domestically and almost $900 million overseas. (Perhaps everybody really did see this film!) The Iron Man movies each brought in over $300 million in the United States, and even The Incredible Hulk cleared $100 million. Despite these astronomical figures, one wonders why Marvel doesn't pursue these audiences more aggressively as potential customers for its monthly publications. After all, who better to target as a potential customer than someone who has already shelled out $8 to see one of their characters on the screen?
While there is no doubt that the sale of comic books cannot compare to the ticket sales of these blockbusters, there is certainly money to be made from bringing new readers into the industry. For example, a fan who pays for a couple of movie tickets a year may spend $20 or $30. That same fan, however, could bring in almost $50 per year if he or she could be enticed into reading just one average priced monthly title. It is, of course, unlikely that most viewers will be brought into the world of reading comics, but even the successful conversion of a small minority would have a meaningful impact on the bottom line for publishers.
And then there is the long-term perspective in regard to bringing new readers into comics. It is, I would argue, much more likely that readers of comics — or those who read comics in the past — will have children who will do so. When I'm in my local comic shop, I often see parents my age with their young children. These kids are exposed to comics by moms and dads who loved — or still love — reading comics. My son, although he's only two, has become a regular. I thoroughly enjoy taking him along for our regular visit and look forward to buying him his own comics in a few years. It's a passion that I am excited to share with him.
But to return to my students for a moment: these young men and women will graduate in the years ahead and many will settle down and start their own families. How many of them will take their sons and daughters to comic shops? How many will be expose their kids to comics as youngsters? Or will their children only know these characters through films, t-shirts, and cartoons? If I am a little skeptical that my class will turn these students into committed fans, I find it even hard to imagine them raising young comics fans of their own in the years ahead.
And the need for a committed fanbase is all the more important in light of the fact that we are now in an age where young parents are less likely than ever before to have read comics as kids. We have already moved into a generation of parents with no memory of buying comics at the newsstand. These young moms and dads, younger than myself, having never bought comics at the newsstand, are even less likely to take their children into a comics shop. Remember that in 1980, the direct market accounted for only about 10 percent of comics sales. By the end of the decade, more than 75 percent of comic books were sold through the direct market. Someone born in, say 1987, may have had little exposure to comic books growing up in the 1990s. Certainly they had less exposure to comics than someone born in, say, 1977. Thus, it's highly probable that as I teach my course again in the years ahead, I'll have students who are even less familiar with reading comics.
I realize that some readers will respond to my fears by pointing out the promise of digital comics. Yes, Comixology is the modern newsstand. I understand that. But one could argue that it is almost as out of the way as a comics shop is for those who are not seeking to find it. Even among the technologically savvy students in my course — as well as many others who I have spoken with outside of class — there were few who had patronized Comixology before the semester began. My fear is that digital comics, just like print comics, will be read by those who seek them out actively. It is not necessarily a tool to bring new readers into comics; rather, it is a means to make comics more accessible to those who already read them. I'd like to think I'm wrong, and I hope that I am. My fear is that I'm not.
And so the need to advertise comics and recruit new readers is more pressing than ever before. It is not just the major publishers who have something at stake. The industry as a whole needs fresh blood to sustain it. Here's hoping there are intelligent folks out there who are solving these problems and making preparations for the future. I'd really like to be able to take my grandkids to the local comic shop thirty years from now. Let's hope their dad will want to come along, too.
Brian M. Puaca is an associate professor of history at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, where he teaches a course on the history of comic books and American society. He can be reached at email@example.com.