U.S. cinema and comic books are two distinct mass media that have occasionally intersected between the years 1906 and 1977. This relationship became more desirable, marketable, and technically possible due to the rising age in comic book readership, the merging of traditional B-movie cinema with epic blockbuster releases, and computer-based movie production innovations. This combination of factors resulted in two film production bubbles that spurted out between the years 1978-1982 and 1989-1992 with Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman representing the era’s critical/commercial apex respectively. The third wave that birthed the current continued popularity of comic book-based entertainment properties began with Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) and is unique due to the interactive context via Internet between studios and fan communities. This context – and the thesis of this research – allows corporate owners Time-Warner and The Walt Disney Co. to utilize the existing comic book market and associated online fan communities as a profitable form of market research in order to strengthen the positions of their major release comic book-based tent pole films.
An important distinction needs to be made upfront. From an audience studies perspective ‘comic book fan’ includes “comic reader” yet not every reader considers themselves a fan (Burke, 2012). This point complicates our theory; it cannot simply be that Time-Warner or Disney preps and prods audiences via their established comic book releases for their cinematic releases collecting important audience data via Internet posts and online dialogue. There is not a one to one ratio between comic book reader and movie ticket purchaser. However, corporations prepping major releases upon which to estimate quarterly earnings do harvest the fans’ immaterial labor via these pseudo yet still voluntary online forms of focus groups. These fans do feel their online activity can influence a particular production (Burke, 2012). At the same time, even if the reader audience is different from the mass cinema audience, these books nonetheless appear as “successful, market-tested characters with a myriad of plot/story ideas to choose from” (Gregov, 2005). These active online fans can influence the dialogue that mainstream movie-goers can read and potentially be influenced by. Yet, companies must also know – as Burke (2012) points out – that when mainstream audiences have a positive reaction to a comic-book adaptation, most will seek out the character/brand in other audio-visual media rather than in “comic books.”
So, large media corporations who own multiple long-running character licenses understand a few points regarding their comic book-based portion of their brand portfolios. First, the demographic for their readership is aging along with their characters (though more recent reboots and shift to digital formats may change the trend). Second, relative to most industries, the comic book business can still ring up large numbers for sales. Estimated Diamond Comic Distributor 2012 sales range from $475 million for direct sales all the way up to $700 million if newsstands and bookstores are included (Miller, 2013). If we look at the slate of films released by Marvel Studios during the past three years, we easily see the greater returns offered by film releases however. In 2011, both Thor and Captain America were released; together they accounted for more than $817 million in worldwide box office receipts. The Avengers (2012) alone generated more than $1.5 billion in worldwide ticket sales, and so far in 2013 Iron Man 3 has already almost reached $1 billion with Thor 2 on the way soon (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/). So while the initial investments are obviously much larger, so are the profit margins – even before including all the tie-in products and their hefty licensing fee. The third reason is Burke’s (2012) finding regarding mainstream comic book-based movie audience lower probability of seeking out the comic book after watching the film. To film executives this is most likely perceived as a one way street. Though, if it has to be one-way, this is their preferred directional relationship; keep them for the film but lose them for the book. The emotional connection with the characters established via the ritual of reading the book as children for the previous generation has been replaced with the act of watching (and re-watching) the film.
Large-scale multimedia corporations who own a vast catalog of media properties prefer both efficiencies of scale and the re-purposing of already paid-for content or intellectual ideas across a vast array of media (and thus eyeballs) as possible. We’ve seen this begin in the 1980s with large cross-over comic book events that require readers to purchase all issues in order to finish the storyline, multiple reprint issues, and licensing of characters across various cartoons, films, and products. More recently, we’ve seen examples where long-standing comic book norms have changed in order to synergize with feature film strategies. These include Marvel’s choice to combine characters from the teams The Avengers and X-Men in order to preemptively combat Warner’s eventual release of a JLA feature film; releasing a title called Wolverine and the X-Men, rather than just X-Men; and the cancellation by Disney of the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon – one of the most faithful to the comic books – so that it can be replaced by Avengers Assemble, a cartoon that more closely mirrors the successful film.
So, harnessing the already established medium of comic books with its passionate readership as a free focus group is efficient for corporations. Some readers are also active online and through the discourse they create can act as opinion-makers for both readers and non-readers alike. While the medium of comic books themselves are not nearly as profitable as feature films, this works to their advantage as a relatively low-cost (yet still profitable) testing stage for possible new plots and character combinations. The fertility of the medium as a testing site is strengthened due to relatively recent editorial policy shifts to essentially reboot most product lines on an almost annual basis. While switching of creative teams on books is nothing new – most story arcs and teams tended to last only 3-4 issues during certain periods – it was nonetheless assumed by both audience and publisher that continuity of character was to be upheld. These rules no longer apply as reinvention of both character and medium itself – paper-based to digital download – is underway.
So where does all this lead us? It potentially leads us towards a near future of content featuring recognizable branded characters appearing across various media platforms in order to prep the audience for the most profitable platform (Jenkins, 2003). If distinctions and purposes between various media are made by the audience, then the form of comic books should remain relatively stable as it continues to be drawn upon for feature films. This is similar to how the novel has not disappeared even though films are constantly based upon them. However, if future audiences think mostly in terms of “content” that is delivered within rectangular screens, then comic books as a U.S. commercial art form may be simply seen as literally cruder storyboards for this year’s summer blockbuster cinematic spectacle.
Box Office Mojo. (2013). Accessed May 15, 2013. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/
Burke, L. (2012). “Superman in green”: An audience study of comic book film adaptations thor and green lantern. Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, 9(2), 97–119.
Gregov, J. (2005). The impact of well-established source material on the financial success of comic book movies. Seton Hall University.
Jenkins, H. (2003, January 15). Transmedia Storytelling. MIT Technology Review. Retrieved November 12, 2012, from http://www.technologyreview.com/news/401760/transmedia-storytelling/
Miller, J. J. (2013, May 6). April 2013 comics sales big, even without blockbusters. The ComicChron. Retrieved from http://blog.comichron.com/2013/05/april-2013-comics-sales-big-even.html