Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) soars through the New York skyline in Avengers.
Since I’m writing about the visual effects on Avengers for an upcoming issue of Animation Magazine, I got to see the movie last week at the Disney lot and found the movie to be very, very entertaining. Avengers is a huge movie, with nearly every cent of its reported $220 million budget up there on the big screen, and the deft handling of the story will earn it a huge audience and huge box office to go with it.
Not only does Avengers successfully adapt the comic book series to the big screen, it actually improves on it. There’s no way that even the the best issue of Avengers ever published can really compete with the movie for the time and money of a modern audience. This poses a problem for those who make, publish, sell and read comics because it removes one of the few great selling points of the medium: That comics can tell stories on a scale and scope that movies cannot. And that is no longer true.
It’s also hard to argue with the math. According to data presented at the 2011 ICV2.com Graphic Novel Conference, the entire comic book industry posted combined sales of single issues and graphic novels in 2010 of $635 million. (This was the last year for which I could find info for — and that revenue was down from 2009. If anyone has more current info, send me the link.) By contrast, Avengers is now expected to cross the $500 million mark by the end of its first weekend playing here in the United States (it opened last week in a number of international markets to huge impact), and seems destined to easily become a billion-dollar grosser just at the box office. That doesn’t include ancillary revenues such as merchandise and licensing, and the long life the movie will have in home video formats from now until the copyright expires under current law in 2107.
Basically, this one movie will likely generate more than double what the entire comics industry did in 2010. Add in what The Dark Knight Rises is likely to make, as well as The Amazing Spider-Man, and these three movies will lap the comics biz many times over in a single year.
In the 1980s and 1990s, fans often said that good comic book movies would put the world on notice that the comics they were based on were good enough to check out, and the new readers — and respect — would just roll on in. With the former now reality, the latter looks less and less likely.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans) fight on in Avengers.
After Avengers, what’s left for superhero comics to do? Will anyone who likes this big, bold and fun superhero flick be at all impressed by the latest $4 an issue yak-fest from Brian Michael Bendis? Or want to dig through endless crossovers and convoluted back story? I doubt it.
Just as I also doubt that Marvel or Disney will in any way alter the way they go about publishing comics these days. It seems that, as long as publishing keeps making money and keeps viable Marvel’s many copyrights and trademarks in the marketplace, they’ll keep publishing comics.
I’m more concerned about the state of the former, though. I don’t see the market for print comics increasing in any significant way any time soon. The distribution is way too spotty, the cost of a comic too high, and the content of the superhero comics put out by Marvel and DC too narrowly focused on the niche that is the direct market.
Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) confer on the SHIELD Helicarrier in Avengers.
Digital distribution is the obvious future for pretty much any medium that has not already embraced it. I myself don’t care to read comics on my phone or computer, though I would like to try it on an iPad some day. And while publishers have done a much better job getting comics out there for sale digitally, I think the content is going to remain a big stumbling block for all the reasons I cited above. Just porting over the niche-oriented direct market content won’t attract a mainstream audience. The content must be tailored to the format and the medium, and it appears most comics companies are barely even acknowledging this question, let alone dealing with it.
The comics must be better, much better, than they are now, and tailored to the audience that a movie like Avengers appeals to in order to have the first chance of expanding readership.
The worst part about being away from this blog so long is the mental hurdle that has to be overcome in order to get back to it. Just for the record: I’m not dead. A combination of work, a spirited 40th birthday party for my aging fanboy self and a lengthy sojourn to France and Italy have kept my comics reading to a minimum. There are a number of posts that I’ve thought about in the past couple months that I’m going to try to get to in quick succession, just to get things rolling here again. But, first things first … Yes, that was the ground shifting beneath the comic book industry in a historic week that saw Disney buy Marvel for a whopping $4 billion and the restructuring of DC Comics as DC Entertainment that includes the departure of longtime exec Paul Levitz. Of the two, the DC news is more important for comic book readers because Levitz was by all accounts the stabilizing force at DC that kept both the company and to a large extent the industry on an even keel during the darkest days. Lots of folks who’ve worked with Levitz over the years have published their thoughts on his contributions and lauded him for keeping DC steady, while others have criticized his stewardship of DC as being excessively timid. What everyone agrees on is that Paul Levitz is a class act, and I can throw my two cents behind that wholeheartedly. A few years back, at one of the New York Comic-Cons, I attended one of the media dinners DC occasionally throws at such shows to let various press folks mingle with execs like Levitz and some of the talent. I was seated at a table between Levitz and Keith Giffen, and got to listen to them talk about the old days of working on the likes of Legion of Super-Heroes and Ambush Bug. It was very entertaining and I found Paul to be very amiable and easy to chat with. He’s also a very canny executive, which made the few opportunities I’ve had to interview him on the record a little frustrating as he was not the easiest person to get a quote out of, or sometimes even a clear answer to the question. It’s clear that Levitz has a real love for comics and that despite nominally being an executive in a Time-Warner company, he was really one of us — a guy who grew up on comics and loved them unconditionally the way they were. Others attest with detail to some of the things Levitz did to ensure DC continued to publish comics the way fans wanted them and found a way for DC to function relatively free from interference within the massive Time-Warner hierarchy. And that’s the real reason why his departure from the executive suite is such a big deal. That Warner Bros. would one day take a greater interest in DC was a given. Thankfully, it’s come at a time when comics are seen as popular and when a library such as DC’s is seen as extremely valuable and not worth messing with too much. So that leads to the arrival of Diane Nelson as president of the newly named DC Entertainment. The press releases and statements that heralded the announcement of her new position were full of typical corporate Hollywood jargon that made a lot about extending brands and maximizing synergy and other meaningless terms. What’s interesting to me is Nelson’s background is exclusively marketing and brand management. She’s got lots of experience selling movies to audiences around the world, and it’s no small thing to have shepherded the Harry Potter franchise — which WB has done an outstanding job with — through the filmmaking process. She’s obviously been put in this position to help the company make more money off the DC library rather than micromanage the ins and outs of comic book continuity. What she’s not is someone with creative experience. She’s not a producer, not a writer and not a development exec, so I think it would be very surprising if she did much meddling in the creative side of the comic books. The press releases make a point of saying the comics aren’t going anywhere and seems to indicate that some interesting plans are in place for DC’s 75th anniversary next year. With Levitz no longer publisher, though, that leaves a pretty big job open at DC, and whoever ends up sitting in that seat could have a huge impact on the content of the comic books. I expect someone from outside comics will come in to the job, much the way DC brought in Dan Didio — a former TV executive — to be editor in chief of the superhero comics a few years back. Whoever takes the job will instantly become the most criticized person in comics. There’s a few things that it would be nice to see such a person tackle — mostly shaking things up in the books and in the DC offices, which often exude a sense of being unpleasantly corporate and lacking in morale. The choice of new publisher also will reveal more about Warner Bros.’ intentions and goals for DC’s comic book publishing efforts. Will the increased expectations the studio is placing on the division lead it away from the current publishing model of periodical comics and the relatively small direct market for a more conventional magazine or book publishing arrangement? Will we finally see DC superheroes in digital comic form? Or will the small size of the publishing market be too little for Warner to even want to bother with? (I think the latter is highly unlikely — based on Marvel’s stock reports, DC surely makes a decent profit on its publishing and Warner Bros. is smart enough to know how foolish it would be throw that away.) All of which is a very different situation from the Marvel-Disney deal. I expect it will take years before the impact of this deal is noticeable in Marvel’s comic book line, but when it is felt I expect it will be major. But for now, I don’t see much to worry about. Disney paid a premium to buy Marvel because it likes what Marvel is doing and how much money it’s making. You don’t buy a company that is working as well as Marvel is to start micromanaging it or tinkering with it for the sake of tinkering with it. But over time, Marvel will change just by being part of Disney. It’ll happen as Marvel interacts with Disney, and especially as executives come and go. When Ike Perlmutter or David Maisel or Joe Quesada leave their respective positions, it will be Disney that decides who’s going to replace them. Barring any sudden departures, I think it’ll be years before enough changes are made that readers of the comic books will notice a significant difference. Will we look back at this moment five years from now and call it “the week comics went corporate?” In some ways, these kinds of shifts have been inevitable for some time given the way superheroes and comic book imagery have infiltrated the culture the past decade. But there’s always that old nagging issue that won’t go away — if the world loves comics so much, why don’t they sell better? And there’s fear with that — fear that the traditional comic book periodical and the industry that’s been built around could finally give up the ghost and go away for good, replaced by slick bookstore graphic novels, video games, DVDs, TV shows, whatever digital comics become, and, of course, movies. There’s hope here that greater investment from the likes of Warner Bros. and Disney could be great for comics, that their muscle could open up the lines of distribution and make comics more available, especially to kids. But it’s also just as plausible that the overall decline of print prompts those corporations to make a real bottom-line decision and ditch publishing altogether. I think as long as comics sales make money, Disney and Warner will see the value in keeping them around. But given what’s changed in the past 10 years, who knows where we’ll be 10 years from now? It’ll be interesting to watch, however it turns out.