Summer is here and the weather is hot, the days are long, and comic book movies dominate the box office once again.
Comic shops too must be bustling as movie fans young and old leave the cineplex and flock to their friendly local comic shop, eager to read anything they can get their hands on. Right?
Well… Not so much.
Superheroes are kind of a big deal (on the screen)
Whether you start counting from the release of Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000 or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002, or Iron Man in 2008, comic book movies have dominated the motion picture landscape for a considerable amount of time. Each and every year the number of comic inspired films has grown, from the two or three big summer blockbusters in 2008 (Iron Man, Dark Knight, Incredible Hulk) to eight (!) in 2017 spread throughout the year.
Some are hits, some fizzle, but regardless of the level of success it’s undeniable that the movie industry heavily relies on comic inspired movies to put butts in seats.
Rather than focus on every comic movie, let’s narrow things down a bit and look at one of the runaway successes from this summer so far: Wonder Woman. Starring Gal Godot in a breakout performance that has garnered positive reviews and inspired a new generation of women to dress up as Wonder Woman, DC’s film has netted a seriously impressive domestic take of $389,033,279 so far (July 23rd, Source: Box Office Mojo) making it the highest grossing film of the summer.
That’s a lot of butts in seats.
How many butts? Assuming the average ticket price of $8.84 (Source: Hollwood Reporter), that’s just over 44 million butts if you want to get mathy about it.
44 million! Wow! So how many of those people ran out to grab the latest issue of Wonder Woman? If you count both available issues of Wonder Woman that hit the stands in June (#24 and #25) only 87,477 copies were sold in total. (Source: Comic Chron)
That’s not a rounding error. I didn’t leave off a set of digits, that’s the total. Wonder Woman #25 barely edged out #24 with 44,106 copies. (Quick aside: #25 ended a year long run on the comic. So while it isn’t the best jumping on point for new readers, it was still a notable release due to it being the final issue of writer Greg Rucka’s run on the title).
So even if you assume that each and every sale of Wonder Woman #25 was to an individual, just over 44,000 people purchased an issue of Wonder Woman. That’s only .1% of the number of people who paid for a movie ticket to go see Wonder Woman in theaters.
Less than a fraction of a percent of the people who spent ~$9 to see Diana Prince kick butt on the silver screen went into a comic shop and spent $3.99 on issue #25.
So what is to be made of this dismal conversion?
There are a lot of factors here, so I’ll try to break it down to some of the key points that I feel contribute to the non-existent transition from movie fan to comic fan.
Quick! How do you buy a comic?
If you said at Level Up Entertainment, then you’re clearly an enlightened individual that deserves a gold star and a pat on the back. Congrats!
Chances are though if you happened to be one of the less enlightened members of society, you’d probably respond with something like, “They still make comics?”
Which brings me to my first point:
Movies are Easy, Comics Less So
And I mean that as a viewer of movies and reader of comics.
This is a difficult point to source with hard data short of pointing to the previously mentioned sales data, so I’ll source myself for this one.
As an owner of a comic shop for a decade now, I can say with firm confidence that the number of people unaware of the existence of the comic book industry is significant. On a number of different occasions I’ve had interactions with people who have discovered my store and exclaim, “I didn’t know they still made comics!”
It happens a lot. It’s proven to be a challenge as a store owner to break through the noise and remind people that yes, comics exist, and they’re worth your time and money. No small task, to be honest.
Here we have our first barrier: a lack of awareness.
Logically you would expect the wild success of a film like Wonder Woman, or Avengers, or any number of films would lead people to become aware of and interested in comics, right? Yet as we’ve seen, that simply isn't happening. And this makes a degree of sense if you think about.
When was the last time one of these films informed the audience that it was based on a comic?
Sure, there are nods and winks about the source material now and again in a movie, or even with Marvel films where rapidly flipping comic pages become the Marvel logo (the comic motif has since been replaced with scenes from the films, so that’s not even a great example now).
There is rarely any kind of directed advertising that says, “Hey audience member! Like this movie? You’ll love comics! Go buy them!”
To compound the problem of awareness, we have another issue: Complexity.
Another question! Quick, what issue number is Amazing Spider-Man currently on?
Turns out it’s #30.
But wait, didn’t Amazing Spider-Man start in 1963?
Why yes it did, hypothetical enlightened reader. But the number has reset a number of times and the total number of issues will be #789 this fall when they return to the original numbering. (Source: Comic Book Resources).
Well, that’s confusing, isn’t it?
So let’s say you just got out of a screening of Spider-Man: Homecoming and it was so great that you desperately want more Spidey and you decide right then and there to get into the comics. You’re new to them, so you use your impeccable Google skills to find a friendly local comic shop. You walk in and take a look at the shelves where you see that Amazing Spider-Man is on issue #30.
Is that a good place to start? Where’s #1? And what about these other titles like Peter Parker: Spectacular Spider-Man and Spider-Man? Are they related?
If your local shop is up to snuff (and if it’s Level Up, you’re in good hands) you’ll get all the information you need from the staff. But if you don’t use a local shop and you hit up Amazon or another retailer you’re going to need to do more research. Or just blindly jump in.
That’s not very consumer friendly and it presents a major problem to new readers of comics (which is enough for a different blog post entirely).
We’ve now got two major factors for why your average Joe and/or Jane will flock to the cinema for Wonder Woman but be statistically unlikely to become a comic reader; complexity of getting into comics and lack of awareness. Those two alone would be sizeable barriers to entry for any medium, but they’re not the only problems facing the comic book industry.
Related to the complexity of comics, but different enough to warrant some individual attention, is the difficulty of reading a comic versus watching a film.
Reading a comic takes effort.
To explain: if you choose to watch a film, your biggest impediment to doing so is staying awake and keeping your attention on the screen. Regardless of how successful you are with those tasks, the movie moves on independently and at the end of 2+ hours, the film is over.
Contrast that with reading a comic and you’re looking at a much more engaged and demanding entertainment experience. Not to say that reading a comic is particularly difficult, because it’s not, but it does demand that you commit.
You’ve got to hold the comic, look at it, read it, turn the pages, finish it. It doesn’t progress unless you remain engaged. Sure, that’s not a huge deal, but again it does demand more from you than a movie, and when the average person only has so much time to dedicate to entertainment it’s no wonder people choose the path of least resistance.
If you just want to veg out in the evening, it’s a lot easier to put a movie on than grab a comic.
That last point is probably the most debatable and subjective, as it requires the hypothetical reader to overcome the other barriers before it even becomes an issue, but it may very well contribute to the drop off that comic sales experience over time (#1 issues always sell the most with each successive issue dropping off until reaching a baseline of sales).
Bridging the Gap
So what can be done to bridge the gulf? Can you convert moviegoers into comic readers?
To detail the potential solutions would require a blog post unto itself, but I have a few ideas on where we can start:
Comic Advocacy - If you read comics, advocate for them. Tell your friends you read them, share your comics with them, show them where you get your comics, heck, bring them to the shop! Encourage your friends to jump in wherever, explain they don’t need to worry so much about numbering or storylines, just pick a character and grab an issue. Or even better yet, recommend graphic novels (collections of issues in a single book, for the uninitiated). Graphic novels are far easier for the novice to digest and there are many self contained stories available that serve as excellent gateways for the burgeoning reader. (Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, for instance, never fails to convert a non reader into a reader in my experience.)
Marketing - This one is straight forward and unfortunately out of the hands of the small retailer and comic fans: increased marketing. The comic industry tends to be fairly self contained in that the bulk of their advertising efforts are typically restricted to ads in other comics. They’re quite often only advertising comics to people already reading comics. We need major marketing pushes on YouTube and cable television to get the word out. Some commercials before a movie wouldn’t hurt either. There’s a lot here that can be done that isn’t, and while the reasons are almost sure to be monetary, the potential is undeniable.
Accessibility - It might sound blasphemous for a comic shop owner to suggest this, but hear me out: comics need to be more available, meaning at other retail outlets. There is already a movement with large retailers like WalMart and Target to carry more comic books, a movement which needs to be embraced by more retailers and comic shop owners alike. The comic shop can be the specialty store that contains a depth of selection and expertise that no big box retailer could hope to match, but by having comics available in more locations you increase awareness. In the same vein, libraries have become a surprising source of comic readers in recent years as libraries increase their selection of graphic novels. We need more places where a person can stumble upon a comic and get sucked into this incredible world of limitless imagination.
For the foreseeable future, comic book movies will continue to be juggernauts at the box office and their source material deserves more recognition than it gets. The comic industry has yet to fully capitalize on the popularity of these films, but in the face of sagging sales it’s clear that something needs to change. In a related way, comic conventions, though more broadly geared towards pop culture at large, are big business as well, yet the comic industry has been unable to capitalize on them either.
It's abundantly clear that there’s an audience out there. The industry just needs to find a way to connect with them and turn even just a fraction of those 44 million butts in seats into new comic readers.
Sean Rothwell is the writer of this editorial and the opinions and views expressed are his alone and do not reflect the views of Level Up Entertainment