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Which Way Comics?

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Even the casual observer knows that things in the comic industry are changing radically. Just this week there were two important articles concerning reorganization and realignment in the industry. The Wall Street Journal carried this article (subscription required) about Marvel reorganizing to make more movies:

Marvel Enterprises Inc. completed a $525 million, seven-year debt facility to finance 10 films based on its comic-book characters, and will change its name to Marvel Entertainment Inc., reflecting the company’s expanding Hollywood presence.

Publishers Weekly carried this piece about new hires at DC:

Continuing its efforts to reorient its sales and marketing efforts towards the book trade, DC Comics has appointed two experienced book industry professionals to senior marketing positions. John Cunningham, former v-p and associate publisher at St. Martin’s Press, has been named v-p of marketing; and Nellie Kurtzman, former associate director of marketing at S&S children’s and its Spotlight Entertainment imprint, has been named director of marketing, reporting to Cunningham.

It is interesting that both the major comics houses are making moves in seemingly opposite directions, but centered on a central theme. It is also interesting that DC, owned by entertainment giant Time-Warner, is making moves in print, and Marvel is doing alternate-media deals. But the central theme is what is most fascinating, two themes actually. The first is the more-mainstream acceptance of the material, and the other is the move away from the traditional serial story form, into the story arcs of the mini-series (gathered and bound into book form), the graphic novel, and the movie script.

This has all been driven by the collectors’ glut that began in the late ’80s, and took off like a rocket with the publication of Frank Miller’s miniseries Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Prior to that event, comics were a niche market, but Miller tapped the pop vein. More important, the phenomenal sales of those four books drove collector’s prices through the roof, which drew in speculators instead of fans.

The industry responded by increasing mini-series publishing, wherein the perceived high-value #1’s could be churned out with great regularity. As the market expanded to those not steeped in the traditions and legends of the form, “continuity” became less of a concern. Characters could be reinvented, reimagined, and repackaged over and over, in an endless stream of mini-series.

This also meant the audience for this material grew up. The key market was no longer the 12-year-old male, but the 30-year-old with considerably more disposable income. But alas, publishers really did glut the market in response to the collector’s market, and as is inevitable in such a glut, prices and quality dwindled. Soon the speculators moved on and the bottom dropped out.

That was a problem, but two discoveries were made that have helped tremendously. One was the influx of Japanese material via the video game; manga is largely dominated by the graphic-novel form. The other was that a good quantity of fans had been created amongst the speculators, who were no longer willing to just haunt the specialty stores for the next issue, but were more than willing to pick up a book-bound copy of a whole miniseries when they were in the mall, and read it for sheer pleasure. They were also willing to shell out big to see their favorite characters on the big screen.

To a long-time fan of comics (my personal collection is somewhere near 8000 magazines dating back to the ’60s), these moves are both good and bad. The bad is that they break apart the clubby fan atmosphere and us-and-them mentality that many of us have enjoyed for years. They also take away the thrill of being able to recall references from something that happened in a title 20 years ago, getting the joke, and knowing most other readers had no idea.

The good news is that these moves preserve the medium when it might otherwise go the way of the dinosaur. As a result, some pretty good stuff has been done&#8212the best example I know of lately is Marvel’s 1602 by Neil Gaiman. The movies have been at least reasonably good, and it truly is convenient to pick up the a graphic novel at the bookstore, and not have rush to the specialty store every week to get this week’s shipment.

As these trends continue, the industry would do well to remember the lessons of the very silly Batman TV series of the ’60’s. It was so successful, and created such a demand for the comics, that publishers started to gear the comics for the TV audience. The result was disastrous and the Batman comics really did not regain form until Miller, nearly 20 years later.

The publishers need to remember that these are, at their essence, pulp-fiction, serialized characters. The ability to reinvent and recycle them into other media may provide the economic basis from which to continue the essential character development in the comics, but if they begin to cater to the new media forms, they run a severe risk of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
Edited: PC

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  • Rob

    Look at the list of movies they’re talking about making. “Cloak and Dagger” and “Dr. Strange” might work, and I’ve even got a weird idea that Ant-man could be made to work in an interesting way. The rest are probably losers. Power Pack? Come on!

    Look at the last Captain America movie. They wanted to make it in the worst way. Unfortunately, they succeeded.

    Then again, the TV live-action version of Spider-Man looked pretty hopeless, too. Maybe I’m being cynical.

    Then, I remember The Hulk and Daredevil. And I liked them!

  • The world is screaming for a Dr. Strange movie – so long as they keep Stan Lee’s ridiculous dialogue intact and get a hammy enough actor to say it. I’m voting Bily Zane.


  • Nice article.

    The way I see it both the stories that you draw attention to represent attempt to break comics out of the gutter. The distribution system is archaic and almost designed keep monthly comics ghettoised. The sooner the Diamond stranglehold on the is broken the better and I don’t just mean by getting graphic novels/trades into shops via normal book industry routes.

    Even though we are arguably at the best time possible for expanding the comics meme throughout the mainstream you only have to look at the graphic novel section in your local bookshop to see that they’re racked indiscrimiinately – no distinctions are made between much more novel-like groundbreaking books like Jimmy Corrigan or Sandman or The Invisibles and the glut of shitty thirdrate X-Men knock-offs.

    The sooner Sandman and 1602 are filed alongside American Gods, rather than Danger Girl, the better. After all, Gaiman *is* now a mainstream bestselling author (and of books too!).