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The state of the comics industry

By Adam Ebert
On February 20, 2013

  • GSU's 2013 Lincoln Laureate Ricca Louissaint. Photo courtesy of Ricca Louissaint
  • GSU's 2013 Lincoln Laureate Ricca Louissaint. Photo courtesy of Ricca Louissaint

Let's check the receipts. Marvel's The Avengers (2012) had an overall box office take of1.5 Billion Dollars; DC Comics' film entry The Dark Knight Rises (2012) has tickets totaling around1.08 Billion Dollars. With their intellectual properties thriving in the cinema and other media venues, comics, originally an industry found solely in print, has found its footing in the ever-changing world of mass media and technology.

In yesteryear, children would grab the latest adventures of the favorite heroes off a spinner rack at the local drugstore. Soon came the development of the direct market and the creation of the beloved comic book store. As the direct market comic shops began to thrive, the drugstore spinner slowly faded into obscurity. More and more fans were flocking to the comic shop every week to pick up the chronicles of beloved characters. Comic publishing companies began to work hand-in-hand with distributing these books and looked to innovate the relationship between producer, seller, and consumer. Soon, the intellectual properties of Marvel, DC, and other companies branched out into other forms of media. Television shows and video games were perhaps the first and most effective types of expansion and heroes such as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and the Hulk proved very successful in media through the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. But, in the late 90s, an explosion of comic book-related movies began to flood the film industry. Not only did these films find box office success, many of them found affection from film critics and fans alike. The characters of these companies soon found incredible success in every form of media; therefore, the assumption would be the comics industry itself was booming? The answer: Yes and No.

Adopted in 2002, comic companies and shops alike adopted Free Comic Book Day. An event annually on the first Saturday of May, Free Comic Book Day looked to entice current readers and attract old and new readers with just that, free comics. The added incentive was for most of its existence, Free Comic Book Day has synced up with the release of cinematic comic book adaptation such as Iron Man, The Avengers, andSpider-Man 2. Comic shops jumped at the opportunity to bring in new readers who fell in love with the cinematic versions of the characters. However, while many Free Comic Book Days have been successful on a whole, it did not attract readers in the ways many wanted. Patrick Hughes, co-owner and operator of Stand-Up Comics in Lansing, IL, spoke on the correlation of superhero films and new comic sales on a whole. "There was and there wasn't...the comic book market did [very little to improve] when new movies came out. [However], the graphic novel market did do very well." Graphic novels offered the "DVD box set" alternative to single issue comic books. Many new readers were afraid to start with the single serials of a story when you could buy the bound and collected versions of 6 or so issues in such a succinct way. Thus, graphic novels have boomed in the 21st Century, many dominating the New York Times Best Seller Lists and many outside readers have gravitated to the format. Media has followed, adapting popular graphic novels like Watchmen and The Walking Dead.

Another turn in the development of the comics market is the digital front. With the constant digital integration of our society and the invention of such products as the iPad, iPhone and the Kindle, comics are no longer restricted to merely the page. They have jumped onto our screens. With apps like Comixology and the respective applications from comic companies themselves, the books have been made readily available at the touch of a finger. This increases convenience and access to readers who made have to travel very far to find a comic shop and can now simply download them straight to a tablet or other device. Digital distribution also offers the freedom from the costs of physical distribution and now comprises about 30% of the total comics market. Companies like Marvel have also begun placing codes for free digital copies at the back of the physical single issues customers may buy. This offers collectors to have physical copies to keep and collect, but also digital versions to enjoy on e-readers. In an effort for this digital innovation to coexist with comic shop owners, retailers receive incentives and kickbacks when customers redeem their digital copies. While technology has made many media formats extinct, it appears the digital and physical distribution of comics have found a fair medium of working hand-in-hand.

So, what lies ahead? While many comic shops have closed in recent years, the ones still around and thriving, have provided fans with a place of shared community, nostalgia, and commerce. The digital age has also made comics more easily accessible to readers and newcomers alike and provides a foot in the door as the digital age takes over more and more. As for single-issue comics, there is still a sense of nostalgia, not unlike that of record stores today. Flipping through back issues, bagged and boarded, is still a unique experience many collectors flock to in comic shops all across the country. The comics industry, like many others still around, has made changes to assimilate with the changing culture and market. So long as the focus is always on innovation, quality of product, and raised market awareness, it can be believed the century-old comics market will be around for centuries to come.

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