Comic Book Audience Relevance

In conversations with comic book fans over the past few months I’ve noticed a distinct disconnect between their perception of their importance to comic book publishers and movies.  Namely, they seem to believe that they–the loyal comic readers–are in any way relevant to movies’ success and that the comic book industry itself is of importance.  Both of these views are mistaken.

The “Big 2” comic book publishers–DC and Marvel–are in a unique positions, commercially speaking. Each is a small part of much larger companies in the entertainment industry: Warner Brothers and Disney, respectively.  As such, neither has reason to worry about their prospective as a going concern. Disney really doesn’t care about the profits that can be generated from the relatively meager Marvel Comics audience.  When it comes down to it, monthlies sell pathetically.  The best selling comic of the past decade was The Amazing Spider-man #583, which featured then President-Elect Barack Obama on the cover, at just over 530,000 copies.  With a $3 cover price that’s only about $1.75 million in revenue, less the related production costs (writer, artists, printing, distribution, marketing) there probably wasn’t a significant profit to be found from this issue, which is, remember: the best selling issue in the past decade.  As with magazines the majority of the money is made not off the sales of the comics but from the fees collected from advertisers to print their ads in the comics.  Even then, with an audience of at most half a million readers the advertising fees couldn’t have been exorbitant; TV shows with audiences that low find themselves swiftly cancelled.  This bears out with a review of Marvel’s last quarterly financials before being acquired by Disney:

  1. The year-to-date net sales totaled $418.9 million, of which publishing (as opposed to movies and licensing) only contributed 21.4%.
  2. Publishing’s contribution to operating profit was even worse, at only 17.3% of the total 162.8 million.  

When it came down to it, comic books and their audiences weren’t a significant part of Marvel’s business.  The real money came from licensing (a.k.a. merchandising) and other media (primarily movies and television.)  Either of these sources have customers and audiences much larger than the comics publishing business sees.  The recently released Iron Man 3 has made $1 billion worldwide, of which $302 million came from ticket sales in the United States.  It’s possible–but highly unlikely–that these sales were generated by the almost 44,000 Iron Man fans who bought his comic series in April 2013.

So when I have a conversation with a comic book geek who insists that we (as in comic geeks) are the target audience for comic book based movies (as I recently did) and then see the runaway success of Iron Man 3–despite it pissing off comic book fans with its portrayal of the villain Mandarin–you can only be shocked by how delusional some comic book fans may be.  Sure, Green Lantern also strayed from the comics canon and suffered, but one has to also consider whether it was also just a lousy movie. Really, no comic book movie can be claimed to have gone out of its way to strictly adhere to its comic book origins and please the fans, meaning that success or failure occurs with no regard to a movie’s accuracy to the comics and thus its ability to please (or not) the comic book fans.

Next time, I’ll discuss whether comic books themselves even matter.


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