Killing Comics the Marvel and DC Way

Tim Marchman recently wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal essentially eviscerating Marvel and DC. The article was written under the guise of a review of Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics, a new book that profiles writers and artists in the industry throughout its history.

His main point of contention is that if a movie based on a comic book property can reap billions in revenue (The Avengers), then why doesn't the comic with the same name perform similarly? His argument is that the more popular comics today from publishers like Marvel and DC require a primer to get into. That the big publishers have abandoned mainstream audiences in lieu of cash.

And he's right. Sort of.

There are some taking offense to Marchman's comments, but that offense likely stems from misinterpreting them. He does lay into the state of the industry pretty harshly, essentially saying most mainstream audiences don't really care about series like Avengers vs. X-Men, despite the legacies of the two teams involved. He's also quick to blame industry stalwarts such as Brian Michael Bendis, Joe Quesada, Grant Morrison and Dan DiDio for the decline of the industry.

While it's nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly who's responsible for sales of even marquis comics being relatively low as a proportion of box office sales, Marchman does have a valid point. There are so many comics out there these days that it's intimidating for a new reader to walk into a store and pick up something new.

For instance, Scott Snyder is getting rave reviews on Batman with his "Night of the Owls" arc. It's a follow-up to Batman: Gate of Gotham and pits Batman against the Court of Owls in their attempt to takeover Gotham City. Sounds great right?

The problem is that to a casual reader, none of that makes any sense other than the words "Batman" and "Gotham City." Where's the Joker? Catwoman? Even Penguin or Two-Face? The story is phenomenal, but all the praise is coming from within the industry. Writers, artists and fans are lauding Snyder and Greg Capullo for their work, but outside of the industry no one really cares.

That's not to say every Batman story has to have one of those villains in it, but from a new reader perspective there's nothing comfortable for them to grab onto. That proves troublesome when trying to grab new readers. Maybe DC should just make a Batman series where he fights the same three villains the entire run. Sort of a "layman's" Batman if you will. I digress...

The only thing the mainstream media cares about when it comes to comics is the death of a character, a controversial wedding or revisiting iconic characters from the past.

Notice anything in common with all of those stories? They all feature flagship characters and teams from the Big Two publishers. None of the mainstream media outlets seem to care about the smaller titles. Marchman mentions Love and Rockets and Unlikely as also being featured in Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics, but neither of those have the same mass appeal as books focused on Spider-man or Superman.

What's to be done then? The biggest problem with comics is one of perception. There's still this notion of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, chained to his dungeon that is his comic book shop, refusing to take Amazing Fantasy #15 out of the bag for fear of the air oxidizing the pages. It's an image that is still a go-to gag, such as Steve Carell's character in the 40 Year Old Virgin.

The "ivory tower" comic shop owner scares people. Greatly. There's nothing less appealing then going into an unfamilar environment, searching for a book you've heard something good about and then being ridiculed for not knowing the intricate backstory between the characters that you would've picked up only through message boards and online forums. It's intimidating and it does nothing to welcome new readers.

Yes, there's tons of complexity in a lot of the stories, but that shouldn't be a deterrent to invite new readers. There's a fine line between crafting a story that pays respects to fans while--at the same time--remaining accessible to new readers. It shouldn't always be done either, as there are serial TV dramas that assume you've watched from the beginning and don't try to get you caught up to speed.

The main difference though is that usually with TV shows, you're not paying $2.99 for them (unless you go iTunes or calculate a cost per show through cable, Hulu Plus or Netflix). And they're less of an investment. Somehow it's easier to sit down and watch an hour long show (about 45 minutes without commercials) than it is to sit down and read a comic for ten minutes. Especially if you're not versed in how to read a comic.

The public thinks that you have to buy comics at a comic book store (mostly true) and that their only redeeming value is speculation worth, both of which are pretty far from the truth. There are more mainstream comics at stores like Barnes & Noble and digital is rapidly becoming a viable option for new readers. Comics have lost most of their speculative value as well, with the notion of buying a comic for $2.99 today and seeing its worth climb to $1,000 in twenty years is somewhat antiquated.

Content isn't the problem in's distribution. When one company (Diamond) has a strangehold on distribution, they control a large portion of the consumer channel. Local comic shops are subjugated to whatever prices and policies Diamond puts in place, leaving them little choice but to order whatever quantity is offered and deal with it. This leads to comic shops only opting for the "surefire" sellers, which are typically the Marvel and DC books that keep rehashing the same characters and storylines.

There are so many great comics out there that don't come from the Big Two that it's actually quite shameful that comics aren't doing any better. Sure, Robert Kirkman is killing it with The Walking Dead, but how many people knew of the property before the show? And how many have actually read the comic since the show? How many know it was actually based on a comic?

Comics in general need to do a better job getting the word out and it starts at the top. Marvel and DC need to take more risks, promoting edgier comics with more original material. Imagine if both publishers opened a creator owned arm, much like Image Comics. Such an idea would be a boon for comics in general, as more and more mainstream readers would learn there's more to comics than Batman and Superman.

Image is putting out some of the best stuff around right now, with Saga, America's Got Powers and Morning Glories, just to name a few. No one knows about those books though and, again, all the praise is coming from within the industry. These are books that deserve so much better than they're getting and it's on Marvel and DC to use their clout and get the attention.

There's the saying "a rising tide raises all boats" and it couldn't be truer than in the comic book industry. If Marvel and DC would parlay their film success into new comics and work on expanding readership, then other publishers would draw in new readers as well. Put Avengers vs. X-Men comics alongside The Avengers movie tie-in merchandise at Target. Get people hooked. Create new comics that move away from the cape and tights mantra and move toward other topics.

Comic book stores are communities that don't want to exclude, but there's an improper perception that they do (Comic Book Men did nothing to dispel this myth). Digital comics can make new books accessible to so many more new readers. And there are so many creators out their pouring the hearts and souls into new books that there's definitely not a dearth of content.

Comics are at an interesting place. They can continue with the status quo and see revenues drop like both the music and movie industries. Or Marvel and DC can dare to be different and challenge themselves, offering less than standard fare. The financial risk may be there, but the reward will be that much greater.

And if it doesn't work they can just go back and retcon it all anyway.


  1. I feel you did a good job bringing a counterpoint to Marchman's WSJ piece. So many people I know who are fans and creators are really put off by what he wrote. Just wanted to mention that both Marvel and DC do have creator owned imprints (Icon & to a lesser degree, Vertigo), they just don't sell as well as the "cape" books. I agree that Image is putting out the edgiest and genre defying content in the medium today, but they do so with the least risk. They do not pay page rates, so creators have to assume most of the risk financially. If the book doesn't catch on, a creator can find him/herself in such a hole that they will be unable to publish anything "creator owned" for a while.

  2. So much of what is being said is so true. with DCs new 52.

    I only have patience for the Batman story arc, even as a long time reader, the rest of the 52 reboot totally went over my head.

    And my biggest issue is, it just seems like no one makes comics for the people that matter anymore: the kids. If a child was to pick up a comic book title today, all they'd find are superheroes covered in blood, or heroes fighting heroes.

  3. I thought about mentioning Vertigo, but my understanding is that it's more or less a shell of its former self. And I didn't even remember Icon which should tell you everything you need to know about the relevance of that imprint. Good point on the Image model though. As a publisher they don't really share the same risks.

    The 52 reboot seemed more like a gimmick than anything else honestly. Batman is the most marketable character for DC right now, thanks to Christopher Nolan, which is interesting because you could argue that's a case where the movie actually has made the property more appealing. Still probably more sales of Batman: Arkham City the game than any comics featuring him though.

  4. The big problem with the Big Two (Marvel especially) is that they are owned by huge corporations. Disney and WB could care less about comic readership, as long as the fanboys keep buying movie tickets and action figures. They're not nimble enough to make the types of changes that need to be made.
    That's why the best comics these days are coming from the likes of Dark Horse, Image, Oni Press, etc. The people running these companies actually care about making good comics and not just about scoring the next major summer blockbuster to keep the shareholders fat and happy.
    I do give Marvel and DC credit for their Icon and Vertigo imprints. If they had any sense at all, they would make those the rule rather than the exception.

  5. Well, it's not like the harry potter books, where you just have to read 5 of them, and you're good. There are hundreds of arcs out there to read. DC and Marvel printed anthology series from the 50's for really cheap. It's not like you can't just go to Amazon and buy them for $5 used. You can also even get digital copies for multiple apps. It's easy for people to go watch an origin story, that's why the movies sell.

    The industry doesn't sell comics, because people don't like to read anymore. People don't buy Kindles to read books, they buy them to play Angry Birds. I think DC and Marvel do the best then can to save the industry. It's the fault of the public for being too lazy and cheap to read a few comic books.

    1. ...You can't possibly be serious.

  6. Yeah, Disney and WB have no incentive other than merchandising tied to their big name properties. You would think though that when The Avengers makes over $1 billion that Disney would give Marvel some leeway and let them really nurture Icon (likewise for WB and DC with Vertigo).

    Sadly, people don't like to read as much. What really sucks is that part of it is because attention is being spread so thing and you can read a comic in 5-10 minutes. Very little commitment. People would rather play Angry Birds for 30 minutes than read three comics in the same timeframe.


Post a Comment