It’s been a hell of a week for the comic book industry. Thor: Ragnarok is set to become the highest-grossing Thor movie of the three. Marvel just lost Brian Michael Bendis, one of its key creative voices, to the company’s biggest competitor, DC Comics. And Netflix is about to get into publishing comics with The Magic Order, the first comic book under a new deal with Millarworld, the imprint of controversial and popular comics scribe Mark Millar (Kick-Ass, The Kingsman). But amid all this is a lurking problem: Comic books, themselves, are sitting on the shelves even as tickets sell out and Netflix streams pile up.
It’s long been the toys and, increasingly, the movies and TV shows keeping comic book publishers afloat, but that fact has only become more pressing over what’s shaping up to be a rough year when it comes to selling actual comic books. As of early October, the third quarter of 2017 has seen the worst drop in sales since 2003, and DC and Marvel have been steadily trimming down the number of comic books they actually sell over the years. More people went to go see Thor in a weekend than likely have bought any sort of Thor comic in the last year. Or, for that matter, have even bought a comic book from DC or Marvel at all.
Comic book publishers, by and large, are locked into a model where the movies and TV shows are sold to a broad audience, but the comic books they’re based on sell to an audience that’s barely budged. For example, almost every comic book in a shop — where the major comics publishers sell most of their monthly titles — is sold by Diamond, the sole distributor of comic books to specialty stores. While the estimated overall market for comic books topped $1 billion in 2016, only $580 million of that came from Diamond, and in fact Diamond’s been losing more and more market share.
Where’s that $420 million, and growing, coming from? Some of it’s coming from collections from major publishers sold in bookstores. Some of it’s from comics and creators who never go near superheroes. For example, cartoonist Raina Telgemeier, who writes autobiographical works like Smile and Sisters, last year bulldozed everybody with seven of the top ten best-selling graphic novels of 2016. But her audience is primarily preteen girls and young women, and the audience for superhero comics is by and large their dads.
This has bitten both publishers over the last few years; most recently, Marvel found itself struggling to contain a disaster as an executive blamed “diversity” for the publisher’s sliding sales. Kelly Kanayama, over at Nerdist, responded by pointing out the problem wasn’t “diversity” but Marvel’s seeming inability to make its universe, or even its big crossovers, penetrable to anybody other than long-time readers:
It also doesn’t help that Marvel is unwilling to consider how other initiatives (namely big crossovers and continuity reboots) can do much more than the presence of a female and/or non-white hero to turn readers away. At the moment, Marvel is gearing up for Secret Empire, yet another major event that will presumably Change Everything Forever. But wasn’t it only yesterday that Tony and Carol Danvers were squaring off in Civil War II?… This is what readers are sick of: not diversity, but Marvel sticking to the same old formula and rejecting the very factors that could turn it around.
That tension, between what makes money and what makes these companies what they are in the first place, makes the departure of Brian Michael Bendis all the more interesting. Bendis spent more than a decade as one of Marvel’s star writers. He was part of the Marvel Creative Committee before it was disbanded, helping guide Marvel’s movie franchise through its early stages. And Marvel’s Netflix series owe a heavy debt to Bendis, who created Jessica Jones and reinvented Daredevil as a slow-burn noir that the Netflix series takes its cues from. Bendis can lay claim to at least a piece of Marvel’s creative success, and it’s clear DC, which calls his deal “multifaceted,” didn’t hire him because they liked his work on the Defenders comic. Bendis will likely write comic books for DC, but that’s unlikely to be his only job, or even his main job.
The whole business model, at least when it comes to superheroes, has become to use comics as a “loss leader.” The idea is that DC and Marvel have so many characters, and thus so many potential movie franchises and TV shows, that, essentially, the comics become a springboard to the stuff that’s actually profitable, like merchandise, movies, and TV shows.
But that narrow focus on past success is limiting the movies and TV shows as well. If you write primarily for guys in their thirties who’ve been reading these books for years, you ultimately get TV shows and movies that appeal, well, primarily for those guys, and no one else. DC breaking from this model, just the tiniest bit, with Wonder Woman yielded a box office result that nearly beat out the long-awaited meeting of Batman and Superman on movie screens and became the highest grossing superhero origin story on film. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is the breakout star of Thor: Ragnarok, and Maori filmmaker Taiki Waititi is poised to take Hollywood by storm. Marvel’s film division is putting out Black Panther even as Marvel cancels Black Panther-related books almost before they come out.
No entertainment medium can thrive, financially or artistically, by pretending it’s only got one audience. The movies DC and Marvel put out are what Hollywood executives call “four-sector” movies: They’re designed to appeal to, to thrill, everybody from the single guy in the back row with a beer to the entire family in the middle of the theater to the gaggle of teenagers at the front. If superheroes can pull that off in the movies, why can’t they pull it off on the page?