The death knell has been rung a number of times. A simple search of the interwebs reveals that the “end of the comic book industry” has been heralded over and over again by retailers and industry insiders who follow such things over the course of decades. Usually, this pessimism is tied directly to declining sales for both Marvel and DC and generally over exaggerated panic related to the ebb and flow that is common for any long standing product. However, rarely has either one of the “Big Two” had the impetus to declare that the industry is on the verge of collapse. Yet, that’s allegedly what happened this week at San Diego Comic Con. What’s worse, is that this current concern has manifested when interest in superheroes and all things comic related are at an all time high. How did this happen?
The decline began following something of a boom period in 2015. During that twelve month span, sales grew 7.17% over the previous year, comic book sales were up 8.99% and graphic novels were up 3.14%. Some of that increase could be attributed to “Gimmick Sales”, or comic book “Events” that provide a temporary boost in sales, but ultimately alienate readers. 2015 saw these “universe altering events” pushed by both DC and Marvel. Readers who were unhappy with being drawn in by these short term strategies turned to smaller publishers such as Image Comics, driving up their international and national sales figures, but eventually those numbers along with those of digital comic sales plateaued and overall sales began taking a downturn in 2016. That trend has only got worse in 2017. By April of 2017, overall sales of direct market comic books were down 13% representing the industry’s steepest decline in 5 years, a backlash to marketing techniques and a move toward other mediums to quench the thirst for a “hero fix”. Link
During a panel discussion at San Diego Comic Con held this week, DC Comics Superstar, Jim Lee had been quoted as stating; “We have to stop the collapse of the comic book industry.” (Lee later indicated on his Twitter account that he had been misquoted). In addition, both Lee and DC publisher, Dan Dido were uncharacteristically open about their fears during the panel as they discussed the current state of the industry and what they could do to help save it from disaster. “Comic books have become the Second or Third way to meet characters like Batman or Superman and we want to change that.” said Dido, acknowledging that TV and Movie depictions of classic comic characters have become much more accessible to a new generation of fans than those in comic books. Dido and Lee admitted that the focus on marketing and raising the profile of comics without having to rely on box office successes would be a key strategy. Link
In addition to simply increasing visibility, comic publishers have also recognized a need to appeal to nostalgia in order to recapture long time, but lapsed fans. Marvel comics has taken a very affirmative step in that regard with its “Marvel Legacy” launch. “The House that Stan Lee Built” now seeks to harness the energy of its classic heroes in answer to fans who became disillusioned by the publishers’ constant tinkering with beloved mainstays such as Captain America (who was turned into a Nazi last year) and Thor (who was supplanted by a female counterpart when he fell from grace). DC has also indicated that it will follow suit by pursuing “evergreen” story lines (i.e., classic tales that have longevity, such as its beloved, “Watchmen“). They are confident that this can be accomplished by challenging their writers to craft the “best” character tales as opposed to pieces of extended, complex, overlapping story arcs. In conjunction with this approach, both publishers will also likely begin to pull back on offering numerous variant covers for the same issues, including the much hyped lenticular covers which were almost impossible to find in some international markets earlier this year. Will all gimmicks disappear? Unlikely, but by using them more sparingly, both companies stand to win back readers who felt overwhelmed by previous strategies. Link
A back to basics approach may be just what the doctor ordered for this ailing patient and it seems that both DC and Marvel have recognized that an infusion of nostalgia and a reduction of over the top hijinks will cure what ails an industry in crisis. One can only hope that both publishers can commit to this plan as comics are the fuel that drives the current hero juggernaut in movies, television and all other mediums. Without the written word and stunning artwork that is churned out on a consistent basis and splashed across the pages that collectors hold in their eager hands each month, the whole hero craze may likely fade away. The simple reality is that no matter which publishing house you hold most dear to your heart, a fate such as that is a loss to everyone.