Comics Books Dirty Little Secret: They Don’t Make (Much) Money

Everyone is interested in Comic Book movies these days. The Batman movie’s domestic box office of $480 million dollars and rising will do that. But what people don’t understand is the dirty little secret of Comics Books. They don’t make much money. And the success of the movies is based on work done in some cases, more than fifty years ago.

First, you can get a sense of the Comics industry by going to the SEC and using their EDGAR search engine to read the Marvel Entertainment reports. You can find the most recent 10-Q (Quarterly Report) here.

Marvel’s management states that their target market is 13-18, but concedes their readership can consist of men into their mid thirties. The probable readership is likely even older. If you look at their operating information for Publishing, their operating income is 12% to 16%, over the six month periods June 30, 2007, and June 30, 2008. Clearly, Comic Book publishing is not a big money maker, compared to the Licensing (Toys and Movies) and direct movie making lines.

This is because of the unique nature of the Comic Book business. Around 2001, there were 3,000 Comic Book shops. That number is believed to be less than 2,000 nationally, in 2008. This is a huge blow, because of how Comic Books get to readers. Most “monthly” Comic Books, which can now retail around $5 or so (more evidence they are not aimed at teenagers, when you consider many readers buy 6 or 7 comics at a time, totalling $36-$42 a week), are sold in Comic Book shops. They are mostly distributed by Diamond Distributing, which has a lock on most comic books distributed to Comic Book shops. If you want to know, why the heck can’t you find Comic Books in Drug Stores, Supermarkets, and Bookstores, this is why. It’s true even for DC Comics, which is owned by Time-Warner. You can buy Time Magazine almost anywhere, including your local Supermarket. You can’t buy “the Adventures of Superman” there.

Even if Comics appealed to younger readers (they don’t) they couldn’t buy them in places where it’s convenient.

“Trade Paperbacks” which are collected arcs of comics are available in Bookstores, like Barnes and Noble. But, they depend on the comics that originally were sold in Comic Book Shops. You see the problem here? The Trade Paperbacks are not original work.

There are even more problems for Comic Books. The number of younger readers potentially available, is declining year after year. Because of the birth dearth. The bulk of the population, is in their 30’s to 40’s.

Unfortunately for Comics, most writers don’t write for mass audience success. Instead they write for acclaim and admiration of their peers. For being “daring” and “edgy” and above all PC and Multicultural. Roughly half the voters in the 2000 and 2004 elections voted for George W. Bush. One would think it would not be good business sense to routinely insult the values and deeply held beliefs of half the potential customers, but Comics writers do this all the time. America is often the villain, Republicans and Christians the main villains, and Muslims put-upon innocents.

DC’s Editor in Chief, Dan Didio, has a habit of killing off beloved characters with generations of fans, to replace them with gay, or hispanic, or other multicultural variations of the character that worked for in some cases 40 years or more. This is just poor business, since there are not many gay, or hispanic readers. Mexican boys have their own comics, produced in Mexico, by Mexican writers and artists, about Mexican themes, in Spanish. They won’t be reading any DC comics.

What accounts for such poor business practices, the politicizing of Comic Books to the point where half the potential customers are alienated, the emphasis on PC and Multiculturalism to a slavish degree, the dependence on Comic Book shops and Diamond Distributing? When for DC Comics at least, the existing Time-Warner infrastructure can be used to get Superman comics out with Time Magazine?

Several factors. Both Marvel and DC Comics don’t really expect to make any money at all with Comic Book Publishing (and Marvel’s SEC filings confirm that). DC seems to publish a few titles like Wonder Woman just to keep the rights (which would otherwise revert back to the estate of the creator). Thus it’s a playground for PC and Multiculturalists, the same way “Independent” movies like “TransAmerica” (about transvestites) are a playground for the same thing. No one expects to make any money, just show how “cool” one is. It’s just status-displays among a hothouse of “creative” people playing with other people’s money. Like Independent Films, a situation not likely to last forever.

The real money is in films and licensing. Everything from major movies, to toys, to the series “Smallville” on first the WB and now CW network, and of course video games create streams of revenue, on work done decades ago. All bring in money with no real requirement to invent new characters and universes. DC is rolled up into the Time-Warner behemoth, but there is no reason not to think that their own internal balance sheet would not look like Marvel’s public one on the SEC EDGAR system. On a lesser scale, that would be replicated by independent and privately held smaller comics publishers, including Dark Horse, Top Cow, and London Knights.

My own thinking is that Demographics is playing a part in this. The following chart, from the US Census Bureau 2006 survey, shows the population breakdowns:

[Click on the image to see the full size.]

Much has been made by any number of commenters, from Steve Sailer, to John Derbyshire, to Spengler, to Mark Steyn, to in particular, Ed Driscoll, about the pathetic state of popular culture. Blogger Ed Driscoll in particular is fond of reminding us that in popular culture it’s always 1968. In many ways, at best, popular culture only made advances into the 1980’s. A time when innovation and new genres last appeared in rock music, movies, television, and in particular, Comic Books.

While many praise, justly, Christopher Nolan’s two Batman movies, and how they rebooted that moribund franchise after the campiness of Joel Schumacher’s versions, the two Nolan movies built on the work first done by Batman writer Dennis O’Neil in the late 1970’s, and the follow-up work done by Frank Miller in his immortal “The Dark Knight Returns” in the early 1980’s. The Frank Miller version of Marvel’s Daredevil also dates from this period, where the character was taken from light-hearted “joke” to the current, dark, brooding, Catholic-Irish sin and redemption character that he’s known as today.

Comic Books are probably a good a model as any to examine what happens … when you start running out of young people. Without a constant turnover of new, younger readers, demanding imagination, novelty, and above all, fun, in their entertainment, creative people end up all too often appealing to an ever more “selective” (in the Spinal Tap sense) audience. Who will be older, and will consume entertainment as a status symbol.

Yes, in short, Comic Books became too much like Jazz. Once the music for the young to dance and romance to, now … exemplified by the Riverside CA concerts featuring Branford Marsalis. Tickets available in the “cheap seats” for $100 a person. Not exactly a young man’s music. Certainly not a young man’s price.

When Comics were great, when as (one wag put it, Marvel got the characters right the first time) the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and other great characters were created, there was a whole new generation of comic book readers, young geeky boys in their early teens. Who wanted cheap, fast, and new entertainment. The virtues of this on creative people was obvious. There was no time to create uber-angsty characters and storylines designed to promote status within the creative community. Being cheap meant lots of risks could be taken, and rapid feedback from readers (who would write letters to the Comic Book companies explaining what characters they liked and hated, and why) helped creative people understand what worked and what did not for their readers.

Stan Lee and his counterparts at DC would have laughed at the idea that a multi-arc storyline would take all year, with frequent delays, and sometimes never finish at all, because artists and writers went on to other projects. Let alone replacing existing, popular characters with gay or latino versions. Lee and his compatriots knew their audience. They had enough letters from them. The writers and editors back then knew the innate conservatism (in some senses) of young, geeky boys. Boys who wanted to uphold the traditional values of heroism, monogamy, and the nuclear family. Because while they had no real ability to envision themselves as “players” they could see themselves as getting the girl through traditional heroism. If they just got bit by a radioactive spider. Or got a power ring from a dying Alien. Or got exposed to Gamma Radiation from a “Gamma Ray Bomb.” All variations of King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone (or Siegfried and the Branstock Oak) and playing to the deep cultural impulse in Western civilization to point boys to the “proper” way to get the girl. Which is be the brave and good hero. Stan Lee just updated him, and made him modernly weird. So he might crawl up walls like a spider. Or shout, “Flame On” and turn into living flame and fly about, hurling fireballs at bad guys. Or nerdily create a high-tech suit of armor.

Youth culture has it’s own energy (and among young men, innate conservatism in gender/sex matters). Among it’s principal benefits, is the ability to take these risks and still keep going. It’s not an accident that Comic Book’s greatest characters and the versions audiences in movies love, result from the flowering of that youth culture in the 1940’s, the 1960’s, and the last gasp in the 1980’s. Along with pop music, movies, television, and much else. Quite a bit of our cultural stagnation can be traced to the lack of … young people.

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8 Responses to Comics Books Dirty Little Secret: They Don’t Make (Much) Money

  1. Anonymous says:

    Putting the comic book debate aside for a moment, I need to correct you on the way you continue to misrepresent the demographic breakdown of the current U.S. population. At first glance, he demographic chart you include in this blog entry appears to show a larger population of adults between 25 and 54 than any other segment, but this is just not accurate. For some reason, the chart breaks down the population into segments spanning five years, EXCEPT for those middle bars, which each cover population segments spanning ten years! You are comparing apples to oranges. If you compare the population in equal five-year blocks, you will see that the population is actually quite evenly divided over all age sectors, even when compared to the baby boom generation. The idea that we have a shrinking youth population is just false. In fact, we are currently experiencing what some are calling a new baby boom.

  2. Whiskey says:

    Your point is well taken, I’m lazy and so take what the Census Bureau gives me.However, you can download the tables hereAnd choose to download the query set as an Excel File. A bit of slicing and dicing, and lo and behold: For Total Population (all races) you get Boomers (I know) as the peak — around 4.5 million or so born in 1955. For Whites Alone it’s still Boomers in 1955, at around 3.5 million.Births fell like crazy in the 1970’s, increased only about half a million (flat) in the 1980’s, and fell again in the 1990’s.

  3. Kyle Eliason says:

    Moonstone Books put out a few new Buckaroo Banzai comics recently, written by the original writer. I’d never purchased a comic book before, but dug the movie so I shelled out for the first of ’em.In one total throwaway exchange, the Professor asks Perfect Tommy how many cows he killed for his leather pants, to which Perfect Tommy replied that they were synthetic. The whole thing had nothing to do with the story line, developing characters, or anything else other than PC signaling. It was super lame.I do call BS on old men yelling at the kids to get off their lawn and complaining about the decline of popular culture.Lots of new technology and drugs that came about in the ’80s and ’90s forged new genres of electronic music. Video games are treated as movies once were, a neat technological gimmick for the kids but not real art. But talent follows money, and the video game industry is now grossing more than the movie industry. I’m sure boomers will slag this stuff, and I guess dismissing everything that’s come about since 1968 as crap does lead you to the belief that there hasn’t been any new pop culture of worth since 1968. But it ain’t the case.

  4. T. says:

    Nolan’s move, first of all, is really not good. It’s quite mediocre. I list all the reasons why here:, Nolan’s movie is not based heavily on Denny O’Neil’s work or Frank Miller’s. It’s mostly based, I’d say on the modern comics aimed at 30 year olds that came out after Killing Joke. O’Neil’s and Miller’s work was still willing to be larger than life, bombastic, and appeal primarily to teenagers. They were not very pretentious or ashamed to be over the top and silly in their premises. Nolan is more like Alan Moore’s killing joke…trying to hard to be adult, pretentious, bloated, slow, too long and boring.

  5. T. says:

    In other words, Nolan’s movie is not an example of looking past the horrible state of modern comics and going back to the glory days of 1968 to produce something that taps into the mainstream. It’s a case of Nolan adopting the exact same horrible pretentious and cottage industry mindset that you criticize about the modern comics industry, yet striking paydirt with it, even as modern comics fail using the same strategy. This is due to comic fans going online and embracing a viral propraganda marketing campaign, the morbid curiosity and buzz created by heath ledger’s death, the studio’s aggressive viral marketing, the people who just hopped on the bandwagon because everyone else was buzzing about it, and the critics who liked it simply because it was pretentious. The worse thing about all this is that the modern comics industry, after seeing Nolan’s movie succeed with the same self-hating and pretentious literary aspirations that they embrace, will only have their insular and self-defeating habits reinforced. But Nolan’s movie is no different than the mindset you criticize in modern comic books. It just got lucky due to big name actors, viral marketing campaigns, timely death and widespread buzz and accessibility.

  6. Anonymous says:

    While your overall point is well taken, I don't care for the political b.s. masquerading as an informed critique of the problem. So you don't care for gay or ethnic characters. In part, the reason for that sort of thing is to perhaps add readers who don't feel they are represented by the Caucasian dominated comics of the past. If you'll recall, black, Native American, and Asian superheroes started appearing in the 1970's, not the 1990's. Comics as a medium attempt to jump on any bandwagon that passes by, and if there's an increasing Hispanic population in the US, then they address it.Furthermore, you gloss over a point that I see as the real issue with the current situation in comics: you can't buy them in drug stores and they cost too much. Sure there aren't as many young readers; they aren't exposed to comics as often. When I was a kid, comics were everywhere and you picked them up and started reading out of curiosity, bought one or two, and this led to future purchases. Comics were printed on cheap newsprint and so were less expensive and affordable for a kid with a small allowance. Now, they print everything on fancy paper so the pages don't rot and collectors can have white pages in thirty years.Still another issue you don't raise is a direct negative result of the influence of Frank Miller and others on the genre. Comics now pride themselves on being dark and violent. Violence has a smaller audience than non-violent material, although you can't tell that by watching movies because they're all geared for 18 year olds with expendable income. In the past, you had funny animal comics for small kids, Archie for preteens, superheroes who didn't kill people for slightly older kids, etc.

  7. Pingback: Buffy Gets An Abortion: How Comics Aren’t For Kids (And Don’t Make Money) | whiskeysplace

  8. Quartermain says:

    The darkening of the comic book world began in the mid to late ’80’s starting with Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s the Dark Knight. Many in the industry confuse being depressing with being edgy.

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