In case you haven’t noticed, people like watching television shows and movies based on comic books.
This fall has been particularly exceptional television adaptations: The Walking Dead season premiere pulled in more than 17 million viewers, while more than 8 million watched the first episode Gotham, making it Fox’s best fall drama debut in 14 years. More than 6 million raced to see The Flash pilot, giving The CW its highest ratings ever. About 5 million are regularly tuning in for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and nearly 3 million for the third season of Arrow.
It’s not limited to live-action series, either: 2 million people watch Teen Titans Go!, and more than 1 million tune in to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Nickelodeon.
On the big screen, all four feature films starring Marvel characters — X-Men: Days of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 — each grossed more than $700 million each worldwide. So far, comic book movies have generated more than $3.8 billion dollars this year. While it’s unknown how many of those dollars are from repeat viewings, that’s still a lot of people.
Every year it’s predicted that the superhero fad, and the comic book fad, in Hollywood is going to soon end. And yet, this year continues the upward trend of audiences not only responding to the material, but coming out in droves. Studios are packing their slates with adaptations; Warner Bros. is so convinced of demand that is’ locked in a slate of movies through 2020.
With so many eyes focused on these characters and stories, the comics industry has never been in a better position to turn viewers into new readers.
It’s happening somewhat, as sales are definitely improving, but the numbers of the comics industry are still a shadow of the productions they inspire. An entire month of comic books and graphic novels in North American specialty stores generated an estimated $50 million in September. Hundreds of comic book and graphic novel titles combined did somewhat better than the colossal flop that was Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, which grossed just $38 million worldwide. Nielsen BookScan recently announced that 5.6 million graphic novels have been sold this year, from January to mid-September. That’s roughly the equivalent of the audience for second episode of this season’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Yes, there are a lot of apples and oranges getting compared here, and comics don’t need to match or surpass every other entertainment industry’s numbers to be considered successful. It’s not that no one is coming over from the movies and shows, but those people probably would’ve found their way over to comics regardless. Conversely, there’s going to be some people who will never come migrate to comics. But there’s definitely a cross-section of people in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who would at least be open to picking up a comic now and again if they enjoy these movies and TV shows they spawn.
There’s still a lot of low-hanging fruit we’re leaving on the trees. So how to get those viewers?
There have been some really good programs that have packaged comics with DVDs, toys and video games. There are comics getting placed at wholesale retailers, and in schools and libraries, and other places frequented by the unconverted. These are great strategies, and they’re helping. But the biggest driver isn’t going to be clever product placement; it’s story.
Let me explain. The G.I. Joe commercials from the ’80s have often been cited as an example of what should be done to get people reading comics. They remain one of the few examples of a TV ad for a comic book. But the point isn’t that it was just a commercial. What made it irresistible for many kids was that it was a cartoon, like the then-airing G.I. Joe animated series, and each commercial ended with “the story continues in Marvel Comics,” accompanied by a picture of the cover to the issue out at the time. It was like a mini-episode with a cliffhanger ending, and you could only get the ending in the next issue of the G.I. Joe comic. The implication was that the cartoon was just part of the story. The comic book wasn’t an adaptation, or an unrelated narrative that “didn’t count”; it was a continuation of what you already loved.
Of course, the truth is that the G.I. Joe comic was completely separate from the TV show, but that wasn’t necessarily evident to kids right out the gate. It also didn’t really matter, because the comic was good. What mattered was that kids were being driven to the comic by the show they already liked (albeit cartoons in the commercials). It’s the difference between a stranger coming up to you to sell you something, and a trusted friend recommending you something.
A similar “the story continues here” strategy can work today. It requires the movie or TV show to provide the impetus and the incentive to go track down the comic either in a store or online. Marvel already produces comics set in its cinematic universe, but there probably aren’t many fans of Marvel’s movies who don’t read comics that actually know they exist. That’s because they’re not being told about them in the one environment we know they will experience: the movie itself. This may sound like a crazy idea. Why would Marvel put an ad for a comic book in their movies? If it is story-driven, it can work. Marvel has already experimented with crossovers between its TV and film divisions, when Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. were closely woven together. Why not extend that to the comics? The end-credits scene with our first look at Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver could have been the opening scene of a comic book. The scene could have ended with “To be continued in Avengers: The Age of Miracles comic book” (to use significant dialogue from that scene as a title for a made-up one-shot comic). Some people will go seek out the comic, others won’t. For those that don’t, there’s no real change in their experience. But you can bet such a comic would’ve gotten a lot more press and higher sales than any other Marvel cinematic comic tie-in. And if the comic was good, meaning it actually told a story and wasn’t just filler, then some of those people would go looking for more comics.
That’s just one example. The point is that the comics aren’t desperately waving their arms for attention. The medium that already won them over is pointing them to the comics. And most importantly, people are being driven to the comics because there’s more story to tell. Stories, or the promise of more stories, are what drive people to look and buy for more.
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