Thor is the god of thunder. Superman’s alter ego is Clark Kent. The Joker is Batman’s greatest villain. This is trivia regular movie-goers can easily rattle off from the top of their brains. But if someone were to ask who was Hank Pym was, the same people would be scratching their heads in confusion. Ant-Man is an easily memorable Marvel hero, but more people will remember Scott Lang instead of Hank Pym, the original creator of the shrinking and embiggening suit. Scott Lang is, after all, the ones who appears in the movies. So why don’t more people know about Hank Pym? Why don’t they become curious enough about characters’ histories to move on past the movies and start reading the comic books? 15 years ago, comic book sales were up 60% of what they were in 2018. Around the time the first Marvel Studios film was released, sales declined an incredible 40%. In June 2018, top comic books shipped year to date had a 10% drop in sales overall (Trent). It seems that as more superhero films are released, there is a trend of readers referring back to the comics less each year. It’s a one-way route from comic book fans to movie enthusiasts; superhero movie fans don’t translate to comic book readers. The comic book industry has led to a blooming and intricate cinematic experience for fans of comic books and movies alike. However, if the success of the films is overlooked, it is clear that the roots they grew from are slowly and surely withering away. The physical publication and distribution of books has been on the decline for several years and it’s only a matter of time before the business disappears for good (Lubin).
Some might argue that the industry isn’t dying at all. In fact, it’s doing better than ever. Comic cons are whole events dedicated to bringing together comic book lovers from all over the country. According to a 2015 survey by Eventbrite, comic and genre-based fans are the most likely out of all comic con attendees to buy art prints, autographs from celebrity guests, clothing, and accessories. However, pitted against each other, there is a disproportionate ratio of males to females, with males primarily making up the comic and genre-based attendees (Salkowitz). This isn’t news though. Comic book readers have always been predominantly male and comic books fans have always been the highest spending at large events. Comic cons are not a good indication or representation of the current state of the industry as a whole. Yes, comic cons are growing larger every year, and no, it is not because more people are discovering their love for Captain America and the Hulk. Comic cons have expanded beyond pure superheroes, and now include spaces for web comics, anime, toys, and video games. In reality, the number of comic books fans stay the same while more factions are added to increase attendance at these cons. Everyone has a piece of the pie, but diehard comic book fans’ portion is decreasing and being outshined by other groups who gather at the events. And even those “true” comic book fans are more admirers of the characters’ design, and attend to show off their expensive cosplays (Brown).
In my life time, I’ve seen a total of maybe three comic books shops. That’s three continents and only three stores dedicated to selling monthly comics made by Marvel, DC, Darkhorse, Valiant, and the likes of them. Comic book stores have been more difficult to find than ever, due to the struggle to keep readers interested, declining sales, and the punishing task of keeping the shops open. “Neither Marvel nor DC have been putting out comics that are capturing the public imagination for the past couple of years,” states Forbes’ Rob Salkowitz. To further explain, the typical teenager would have to pay bus fare for a ride to the store (because it isn’t near enough to walk), pay increasing prices for the monthly comics, then pay a bus far back home. That’s a lot of money spent for comics that don’t even interest them. More often than not, people will think it’s not worth the trouble and stop visiting stores altogether. “As a result, sales of superhero graphic novels are plummeting,” Salkowitz said. In addition, it’s become a very challenging task for stores to predict what titles to buy, when to buy, the quantity needed and their eventual popularity. For a small independently-owned comic store, “even small miscalculations can be the difference between a good month and catastrophe.” To add insult to injury, one extremely successful comic distributor, Kickstart, doesn’t distribute to comic book stores at all. Sales through Kickstart have jumped an impressive 25% year to year, with a 70% success rate in funding creators (Salkowitz—,). Those types of numbers would be highly enviable to other publishers in that niche. But independent comic creators have discovered the hard way that getting their content previewed in giant comic book catalogues rarely gets them anywhere and often opt out of selling at shops at all. This leaves comic book stores dead in the water. Combining declining sales, lack of interest, along with the general struggles of paying rent and labor costs, it’s a wonder that the few comic book stores that still exist today are surviving.
Popular actors and actresses like Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, and Scarlett Johanssen are the face of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU is, to date, the most successful series of connected films in movie history. Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Black Widow have become commonplace characters that everyone can easily discuss. However, many who only watch movies are easily influenced by popular opinion from those equally uneducated about what really goes on in the comic book industry, and are consequently led to believe unsubstantiated reports and unintentionally restrict their support. 90% of people who claim to know everything there is to know about Marvel only watch the movies. They’re the ones who automatically assume that what happens in the movies is precisely what happens in the comics. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Marvel movies have never been completely devoted to their source material. For example, 2018’s Infinity Wars told the story of the alien Thanos going on a journey to gather all 6 infinity stones in his quest to balance the universe. That’s very similar to what happens in the comics, but according to the Russo brothers, co-directors of the movie, if people want that particular story, they can just read the comics. In fact, during Infinity War promotional interviews, Joe Russo clearly stated “We’re inspired by the books, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not the Marvel comic book universe. They’re different.” (Scott). They use the comics as base source material, but actively diverge from the storylines to tell a different interpretation of events. Yet, many MCU fans are led by mob opinion that just because the MCU is doing incredibly well, the comics are proportionally successful. The fact is that the movies and comic books are separate entities unto themselves. Yes, Robert Downey Jr.’s face may now be the face of Iron Man in the comics, but few fans are willing to buy a copy of an issue to see it when they can see his face on a giant movie screen instead. Even fewer know that, spoiler alert, in the Infinity War Arc, Iron Man doesn’t actually die.
Since they are separate, the ratio of comic book readers to moviegoers is greatly imbalanced. Comic book shop owners hope to fix this balance through Free Comic Book Day. Free Comic Book Day is an annual event where distributors give away single issues of popular comics to invigorate interest in series and attract new customers. Despite FCBD being a popular happening, the investment distributors place in ordering these comics to give away is not being paid off. Instead of discovering a new passion for comics, FCBD is simply seen as a day to get a freebie and wait until next year. Again, even though characters portrayed in the movies are popular, very rarely do fans of the characters purchase their comics to learn more (Johnston). As the number of comic book readers dwindle, the number of people who watch the movies because of the books decrease as well, and the gap between readers and moviegoers increases. Comic book writers lose their audience and stop production, even if the characters continue to live on the big screen. This system is unsustainable, even for the most resilient comic book stores.
The disconnect between people who love reading comics and people who love seeing heroes brought to life is only emphasized as the movie industry breaks away from the comics entirely to make their own franchises, leaving the books as source material only. Just as people wouldn’t read the in-depth transcript of a movie, superhero movie fans don’t refer back to the comics. People are ultimately satisfied with the classic characters they already know and are unwilling or not motivated enough to further explore those characters’ origins and the world they came from. Consequently, those who make a living distributing comics are forced to give up their passion because they just aren’t receiving enough steady revenue to live off on. And Thor may be the god of thunder, but even he couldn’t summon up a storm large enough to strike life back into the comic book industry.
Hope you enjoyed this critical essay I wrote for one of my classes!