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The Art (and Commerce) of Licensed Comics

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
The Art (and Commerce) of Licensed Comics

License to Ill

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So, let’s talk a little about licensed comics?

I guess the first step might be to properly define our terms — just what is a “licensed” comic? From my point of view, a licensed comic is one featuring a character, or characters, that are not native to comics, that a publisher is (likely) paying a fee to a third party that holds the trademark or copyright on that property.

“Star Wars” is a licensed comic, because it was a movie first and foremost; while, from my point of view, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” isn’t, because it was originally a comic book before it was ever toys or a TV show or movies — despite Nickelodeon owning the actual property and IDW literally licensing the publishing rights. And it can get murkier: despite being a comics-first (-slash-only) presentation, I believe that “Fight Club 2” is a licensed comic, and while they are based on video games, I don’t really think of Either DC’s “Injustice” or Marvel’s “Contest of Champions” as being licensed books per se.

(These are, I agree, somewhat hypocritical positions, but it’s how I, at least, think of them!)

There’s one other thing that I think define licensed publishing: it is that the publisher (nor the creators, obviously) owns no underlying rights to the published work, so you’re not actually building any publishing equity. Licenses usually run for a specific contracted period, and once that period is up, a publisher can lose all rights to publish those works. The most glaring example in the early 21st Century is almost certainly “Star Wars” moving from Dark Horse to Marvel, where Marvel literally republished the material created under the auspices of Dark Horse, and Dark Horse doesn’t receive a penny in compensation from it (though it appears that Marvel is paying standard royalties even for material that didn’t originate with them — good on them!)

The thing about licensed books is that you’d think that there might be some level of publishing excitement because one of the hardest things to generate in any medium is brand awareness — and, in theory, these licensed properties have that in spades. Everyone knows, say, “Transformers” — the toys have sold hundreds of thousands of units, and the movies have apparently grossed something like $3.7 billion dollars. That doesn’t even count the television shows. You’d think that publishing a comic book based on the “Transformers” properties might be a way to make piles of money, right? Yeah, well, the comic sells somewhere between eight and ten thousand copies, and that’s about it. Book collections of the comics also only trickle out — on the 2015 BookScan charts, the best-selling “Transformers” solo paperback barely sold one thousand copies for the entire year, and looking at the Direct Market charts, it’s not looking much better — no “Transformers” comic shows up on either the Top 1000 lists for comics or books.

And yet there are months that the “Transformers” comics licensee, IDW, publishes four or more “Transformers” comics. What gives?

There are a number of publishers that publish a significant number of licensed comics. Just doing a super-quick count from the April ’16 order form, it appears that BOOM! Studios has 12 of their 21 periodical comics (57%) as being licensed comics; Dark Horse is seven out of 22 (32%); Dynamite is 16 out of 20 (80%); IDW is 38 out of 50 (76%); and Titan is 14 out of 19 (74%) — note that my definition of “licensed” might be different than any of those publishers, for sure!

But most licensed comics sell relatively poorly — while you sometimes get some crazy exceptions like “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” or the various “Star Wars” comics, otherwise licensed comics look like a pretty mediocre bet — only nine of the top 100 comics in March ’16 were licensed titles, despite being significantly better known brands/properties than, say, “Squadron Supreme” or “Huck” or “The Discipline.”

And the thing is that licensed comics natively cost more to produce than original material because the publisher is paying a licensing fee to the property owner on top of creative page rates. Now it may well be that heavy license-oriented publishers are paying generally lower page rates than other publishers, but I don’t think there’s really any public record one way or another. However, assuming that creative costs are the same, licensed comics have more overhead for the publisher, and run the risk of losing the license and the fruits of your efforts.

As a general rule, as a retailer I am ordering tighter and more conservatively on licensed books than I do of original material — and from the looks of the sales charts many of my brethren do the same. A lot of times we’re only ordering a single copy or two, often only for “The _______ Guy.”

You’d think with their generally higher market awareness, and “built in advertising” that licensed books would be a series of home runs, but usually they’re not even base hits. There are very few success stories in licensed comics, though sometimes you get a few. Usually, this is because of one of two reasons: 1) is speculation. I think that I would argue that virtually everything driving the recent success of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” was speculation, and I certainly expect the comic to be into single digit territory before the year is out. 2) The other is genuine star power doing passionately-motivated stories — I think the Marvel “Star Wars” program was a great example of that, but we could also point to examples like James Stokoe’s “Godzilla: Half Century War,” or Chuck Palahniuk himself doing “Fight Club 2,” or if I want to date myself, James Robinson & Matt Wagner’s “Terminator: One Shot” in the ’90s — these are books where the creative team is driving the interest as much as the underlying property.

The trouble is, it’s pretty rare to get an A-level talent to regularly work on movie or TV comics for very long, and, eventually on just about every license you run into the “Legends of the Dark Knight” problem, where the very nature of the rotating and/or the un-specialness of the nth creative teams reduce you down to only the diehards buying.

There’s one category that runs contrary to this, and that’s kids books. There’s a ton of value in known properties, but that’s because parents-buying-for-kids are generally low-information buyers, and as long as material looks reasonably “on model” they’re more likely to pick something familiar to themselves.

But with comics for adults, in the modern market passion drives sales far easier than property. I want to stress this because there’s been a dramatic change over the last decade in the way that people buy. I vividly remember a time when “Marvel Zombies” and “DC Diehards” (well, they were never called that last one, really) approached the entire lines of those companies with open arms and genuine excitement. But in the passing years, as corporate interests have taken over, we’re coming to places where there’s not any real difference between “Superman” and “Transformers,” where the mishandling of the creative direction is making our native-to-comics properties not especially any stronger than material coming from the outside.

And this is a serious problem for the superhero universes.

I want to stress again that there simply isn’t any lack of passion for comics, or even periodical serialization — I know my store is seeing some of the highest periodical numbers that we have in our 27 years in business… but it’s really not coming from traditional “bread and butter” books — it’s coming from material with the strongest creative vision and passion.

One can (and should) argue that this is a long-term healthier path for the comic book industry — but the problem is that so much of the infrastructure of comics is oriented around the traditional superhero universes being ascendant. Making the adjustment to a more firmly creator-driven model is going to be difficult for many participants.

The trick with any long-running character(s) is to keep true to the core of the characters, but I think I would argue that corporate interests generally can’t follow that core because they don’t understand what the core is, in the first place — what they mostly care about is exploiting their characters as aggressively as is possible rather than effectively as possible.


Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program..

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