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.