The orig­i­nal show­case for char­ac­ters lags be­hind movies and TV Comics aren’t so su­per

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Ge­off Boucher

There is no hot­ter com­mod­ity in pop cul­ture than Marvel Comics su­per­heroes. They’re the pow­er­house be­hind four hit films this year (in­clud­ing the top two in global box of­fice, Dis­ney’s $3.6-bil­lion tan­dem of “Black Pan­ther” and “Avengers: In­fin­ity War”), and on TV, they’re fea­tured in 10 live-ac­tion series spread across ABC, Fox, Net­flix, FX, Hulu and Freeform as well as five more an­i­mated fran­chises.

Don’t ex­pect a break dur­ing the com­mer­cials, ei­ther, where Marvel cre­ations are the cos­tumed pitch­men for Ford, Ge­ico, In­finiti and Rocket Mort­gage.

There is one sec­tor, how­ever, where Marvel he­roes are not soar­ing to new heights, one in which they strug­gle to find new fans — and in a wry twist, it’s in their orig­i­nal medium, in the pages of Marvel Comics.

Marvel comic books, which in­tro­duced the world to such char­ac­ters as the Avengers, Spi­der-Man, the X-Men, Dead­pool and Venom, is still the brand to beat in its sec­tor — over the past decade, Marvel has locked down the No. 1 spot in its an­nual mar­ket share com­pe­ti­tion with ri­vals in­clud­ing DC Comics, Im­age and Dark Horse.

But the picture is less rosy when Marvel com­petes with its own past. To­day’s comics sell one-tenth the num­bers Marvel ex­pected in the 1960s and 1970s glory days when comic books were cheaper than candy bars and just as easy to find at the na­tion’s news­stands, cor­ner mar­kets and drug­stores.

Now, a new comic costs $4 to $6, and the only shelves they reach are at the 2,500 comic book spe­cialty shops do­ing busi­ness in the U.S. and Canada — and even that num­ber is in de­cline as stores (among them Melt­down Comics, the Sun­set Boule­vard land­mark of 25 years) lose their leases or down­size to on­line mer­chants.

There’s an even steeper challenge: For young con­sumers, could any comic book ever stack up against video games, smart­phones and Pixar films?

All monthly comics by Marvel, DC and other lead­ing pub­lish­ers reach read­ers through Mary­land-based Di­a­mond Comics Dis­trib­u­tors, which re­ported that in 2017 sin­gle-is­sue sales were down more than 10%, while graphic nov­els (which re­print the most pop­u­lar mul­ti­ple-is­sue story lines into the “trade pa­per­back” for­mat sold at book­stores) were down more than 9%.

Next week, the New York-based Marvel Comics will bring its top cre­ative tal­ent to Comic-Con In­ter­na­tional in San Diego, the largest pop cul­ture con­ven­tion in the world. Fans will hear about ma­jor new pub­lish­ing di­rec­tions for Cap­tain Amer­ica and the Fan­tas­tic Four as well as plans for the com­pany’s 80th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion in 2019.

Marvel will be thrilled by any cel­e­bra­tion af­ter a bumpy 2017 in which it en­dured a mi­nor re­tailer re­volt (due to or­der­ing poli­cies on high­de­mand re­leases) and then sparked a cul­tural de­bate (when an ex­ec­u­tive blamed di­ver­sity

ef­forts for sales set­backs).

The year ended on a hap­pier note with re­spected in­dus­try vet­eran C.B. Ce­bul­ski tak­ing the reins as ed­i­tor in chief, a move hailed widely as a good step to­ward en­er­giz­ing a brand that, in re­cent years, has been vague in its edi­to­rial vi­sion amid no­table tal­ent de­fec­tions.

True Believ­ers

The panel pre­sen­ta­tions will put Marvel edi­tors face to face with im­pas­sioned long­time fans (many of them dressed in tights) who, like “Star Wars” fol­low­ers, veer be­tween fawn­ing or fu­ri­ous but are never ap­a­thetic.

The diehard Marvel read­er­ship was nick­named “True Believ­ers” back in the 1960s when the publisher pro­moted it­self as “the House of Ideas” and boasted a leg­endary staff bullpen (led by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and John Buscema). They in­tro­duced a level of melo­drama, hu­mor and trippy cos­mic mythol­ogy that in­stantly rein­vented the staid su­per­hero tem­plate that had been set in the FDR era by Su­per­man, Bat­man and Won­der Woman over at archri­val DC Comics.

Like to­day’s Marvel films, the en­ergy of those 1960s comics is­sues won over a wider and older au­di­ence than pre­vi­ous su­per­hero fare; in a 1965 poll of col­lege cam­puses by Esquire, both Spi­der-Man and the Hulk joined Che Gue­vara and Bob Dy­lan in a rank­ing of fa­vorite coun­ter­cul­ture icons. Marvel in the 1960s en­er­gized the en­tire comics in­dus­try by win­ning over an au­di­ence that was more grown-up, but now, with a fan base of col­lec­tors in their 30s, the publisher’s read­er­ship is ag­ing.

The monthly comics are writ­ten to ap­peal to long­time fans, which means they of­ten have very lit­tle in com­mon with the cur­rent story lines of films such as Dis­ney’s just-re­leased “An­tMan and the Wasp” or tele­vi­sion shows such as “Le­gion,” “Dare­devil,” “Pu­n­isher” or “Jes­sica Jones.”

Cu­ri­ous fans of the screen he­roes that man­age to find a comic book store might not rec­og­nize the he­roes they find in their name­sake comics. (In the case of Net­flix’s “Luke Cage,” the same char­ac­ter that mer­its his own tele­vi­sion series wasn’t pop­u­lar enough to hold to his own monthly comic book.) At Comic-Con, the Marvel tele­vi­sion shows will be pack­ing fans in to panel pre­sen­ta­tions with stars, but they will be sep­a­rate and un­con­nected to the pan­els for comics read­ers. (The cin­e­matic Marvel stars and film­mak­ers will not at­tend this year’s expo in San Diego at all, a tes­ta­ment to their se­cured spot as a com­mer­cial dy­namo that no longer needs the pro­mo­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties of Comic-Con.)

It adds up to a frus­trat­ing dis­con­nect, ac­cord­ing to Heidi Mac­Don­ald, ed­i­tor in chief of the Beat, a comics in­dus­try blog.

“With Marvel Comics, they’re def­i­nitely down from where they were five years ago even as the movies have got­ten huge,” Mac­Don­ald said. “But over that time, they have also been No. 1 in the di­rect mar­ket for some­thing like 99% of the time. So their point of view is, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

“The movies and, to a lesser ex­tent, the tele­vi­sion shows have made Marvel a house­hold brand name and when you have a film that is tied closely to a spe­cific sto­ry­line — like [the Fox film] ‘Lo­gan,’ which was based on the graphic novel ‘Old Man Lo­gan’ — there is def­i­nitely in­ter­est in that ti­tle. But when you see the brand power out­side of comics, the ques­tion peo­ple ask is ‘Are they do­ing as much as they could with that?’ ”

Few peo­ple in Hol­ly­wood have more history with comic books adap­ta­tions than Michael Us­lan, who be­gan writ­ing comic books in the 1970s and used that ex­per­tise as an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on Tim Bur­ton’s “Bat­man,” the 1989 hit that launched a new gen­er­a­tion of su­per­hero movies. Us­lan re­called re­cently that top Marvel Comics ex­ec­u­tives treated him to a lav­ish Man­hat­tan meal af­ter the movie stirred fan in­ter­est in all comics and gave Marvel a hefty spike in sales.

Don’t write them off

“That was the case for years, big su­per­hero movies brought new fans to comics, but it’s not the case now,” Us­lan said. “The big­gest comic book movies now have lit­tle or zero im­pact on the comics sales. The movies aren’t res­cu­ing the comics; they’re re­plac­ing them. So now I re­ally worry about comics. Any en­ter­tain­ment medium that can’t con­nect with new gen­er­a­tions, doesn’t it have one foot in the grave?”

Us­lan and most long­time ob­servers agree that on paper, at least, the fu­ture of Marvel ap­pears far smaller than its past, but that’s not a world view shared by Dan Buck­ley, the pres­i­dent of pub­lish­ing for Marvel En­ter­tain­ment and an in­dus­try vet­eran who re­sponds to the cho­rus of doom­say­ers with a sur­vivor’s chuckle.

“I’ve been man­ag­ing over the demise of the print comic book busi­ness since 1991,” Buck­ley said. “That’s all any­one has talked about — how this is go­ing to end. I find it fascinating that there’s a cer­tain cyn­i­cism built into the beast. I’ve been fight­ing against it for a re­ally long time.”

The truth, he says, is that, “it’s a pretty fab­u­lous busi­ness to be in.”

Buck­ley cites history and ex­pe­ri­ence to back up that opin­ion. Marvel is a com­pany that has en­dured bank­ruptcy, a dis­as­trous de­but ef­fort in Hol­ly­wood (re­mem­ber “Howard the Duck” in the 1980s?) and cer­tain death back in the Rea­gan era when “funny books” lost their best chance to reach young­sters across Amer­ica.

When glossy mag­a­zines and re­tailer pri­or­i­ties pushed comics out of main­stream stores in the 1980s, the in­dus­try was saved by de­vot­ing it­self to the “hobby mar­ket,” as Buck­ley calls it, adding that “the hobby busi­ness is a won­der­ful busi­ness to be in too, one we’re thank­ful for.”

The su­per­hero comic book is (like jazz, base­ball and hip-hop) a uniquely Amer­i­can cre­ation, but it’s a for­eign ob­ject to most young­sters to­day.

There are few places where kids might even bump into one by ac­ci­dent — Marvel’s monthly is­sues aren’t sold at Target, Barnes & No­ble or even 7-Eleven, where, in re­cent weeks, you could have found Marvel’s fan-fa­vorite char­ac­ter Dead­pool on ev­ery Slurpee ma­chine in Amer­ica but nowhere on the magazine rack. At movie the­aters, Fox’s “Dead­pool 2” is the big­gest R-rated film of 2018 — but would his comics sell like pop­corn if they were avail­able in the lobby?

Pri­vately, some creators say they view them­selves as the R&D de­part­ments for Dis­ney (which bought Marvel for $9 bil­lion in 2009) and Warner Bros. (which owns DC Comics) and judge their con­tent’s value as in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, not as a pub­lish­ing ven­ture.

DC Comics is chal­leng­ing the sta­tus quo with a jus­tan­nounced Wal-Mart part­ner­ship. The re­tail gi­ant will sell four dif­fer­ent 100-page monthly an­tholo­gies of comics sto­ries (mix­ing re­prints with some new and ex­clu­sive con­tent) that will not be sold to comics shop. The move was met with com­plaints from the comics shop com­mu­nity and cu­ri­ous in­ter­est by ri­val pub­lish­ers, mak­ing it a topic of high in­ter­est next week in San Diego.

Tech­nol­ogy has helped some­what in the form of dig­i­tal comics, but af­ter a decade, the screen ver­sions of comics have been a mid­dling suc­cess at best and even there, again, the in-de­mand prod­uct is pri­mar­ily tai­lored to the sen­si­bil­i­ties of long­time col­lec­tors, not new­bies.

When Marvel got into the dig­i­tal game back in 2007, a Times reporter asked Buck­ley about the key challenge fac­ing his com­pany.

“We don’t have a nat­u­ral lifestyle in­ter­ac­tion point for kids any­more,“he said.

Re­minded of the quote by the same reporter, Buck­ley ac­knowl­edged that lit­tle has changed over the past decade. “I was right when I said that and, you know, I’d be right if I said it again.”

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

KIDS such as Ser­afin Nas­tier, 10, are less likely to read comics be­cause, in part, they have be­come more ex­pen­sive and harder to find.

Marvel

PER­HAPS this new “Cap­tain Amer­ica” by Ta-Ne­hisi Coates will at­tract read­ers.

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

BUSI­NESS IS DOWN at the 2,500 bricks-and-mor­tar comic book stores across the U.S. and Canada as they lose their leases and sales shift to­ward on­line re­tail­ers.

Marvel

t “I’VE been man­ag­ing over the demise of the print comic book busi­ness since 1991,” says Marvel’s Dan Buck­ley.

Chuck Zlot­nick Marvel Stu­dios

SU­PER­HERO films such as “Black Pan­ther” have sur­passed their comic pre­de­ces­sors in terms of pop­u­lar­ity.

Marvel

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