Disney comic books used to sell in the millions; can they do so again?
Back when the comic book industry targeted their top books towards broad general audiences, they sold individual titles like Superman and Walt Disney Comics And Stories in the millions.
Now mainstream comics has largely evolved into a niche market, with a drastically reduced audience. And that's kinda sad. And ironic – what we think of as the "mainstream" is anything but. It is a niche serving some very specific demographics.
However, the rise of digital, the recession, and online comics piracy are helping push the industry back into their general audiences roots.
As cover prices rise and the recession continues, many "mainstream" comic book readers will either drop more titles and/or download illegal copies from the Internet.
Meanwhile the masses will continue to abandon pay-for-paper en masse for free online content. They largely abandoned the comic book industry a long time ago, choosing instead to occasionally watch movies & TV shows based on their characters.
These masses are hungry for more free online content. The comic book industry could provide that content – but in order to make it worth their while they need really good online ad sales. They get the good online ad sales by either having great demographics or great traffic; by continuing to focus on a niche "faux mainstream" audience, they are potentially jeopardizing the former and definitely killing the latter.
The funny thing is, if the industry made it a point to cater to the mass audience, and not just a niche, many of the niche readers would probably read the comics anyway. But in order for this all to happen, there needs to be management in place who not only have the balls to refocus on the wider audience, but actually knows how to get that wider audience.
Mainstream vs. Niche: General Audience Vs. Limited Audience
I give the target timeframe for the industry sea-change within 12 months. What will shake out are:
- Even more "niche" and exclusive pay-for-paper monthly content, for the hardcore. Don't look for the great strides in true "mainstreaming" in this department.
- Higher-priced pay-for-paper monthly content.
- A far stronger emphasis on trade collections and bookstore sales. Look for the collected editions to be far cheaper than the individual monthly titles. Everything will be done to make monthlies the purview of the committed, hardcore superhero niche collector – and to (de facto) discourage everyone else from buying them.
- Cheaper digests/collected editions of children's content, though the monthlies will still be pricey.
- A sudden and sharp turn to showcasing first-run "true mainstream" content online. There will be multimedia components to some of this content, as well as a focus on movie/TV/video-game spin-offs & synergy.
The comic book industry originally began to alienate females and discount them as a demographic because some of the guys who were brought up on the first two waves of comics (Golden and Silver) were nerdy and awkward around girls and thus resented them and didn't know what to do with them. Up to the Silver Age, many of the guys who worked in the comic book industry had more or less well-rounded educations and lives. By "well-rounded," I mean their whole lives didn't revolve over an obsessive fascination with childhood entertainment, and sometimes they talked to girls (or guys, if they swung that way).
A particular breed of awkward fanboy who came of age in the Silver Age is responsible for a large portion of the inward-facing exclusivist niche that took a once-healthy industry to a heart-beat away from death. They came of age in the Silver Age, got into power in the Bronze Age, and decided to just reproduce obsessively the entertainment of their childhood (instead of coming up with unique concepts). Then some awkward fanboys who came of age in the Bronze Age -- raised on this regurgitated Silver Age bullshit -- got a boner for that regurgitated Silver Age bullshit and decided to turn it into third- and fourth-generation regurgitated Silver Age bullshit.
This entire mentality will NOT survive the recession, the move from paper to digital, and the easy accessibility of illegal downloads. The people in charge who are still relentlessly pushing regurgitated Silver Age bullshit don't care about tomorrow at this point; they are planning their quick and comfortable retirements. Until then, they will do every stink-nose thing they can do to slow digital down, to keep their pay-for-paper faux-mainstream niche. They claim they are doing this to champion the cause of the comic book retailer. Whereas if they really cared about the retailer, they'd work more aggressively with them to stock trades and graphic novels, stock movie & TV tie-in comics and memorabilia, and to make their stores as accessible and truly mainstream as possible. Instead of selling them pipe dreams, which many of them aren't falling for anymore anyway.
As a person who knows all this is going to happen – and happen damn fast too – I'm sitting here asking myself the question: what will be the most vital comic news and material to focus on? Not just in the short-term, but in terms of the new comics economy.
The mix has to include:
- a focus on trades & graphic novels
- comics for children
- pop-culture related topics like movies/TV/video games/etc
1. You are a small company and the yield from niche is enough to support you.
2. You control and dominate many niches (like the blog networks that have like 23 niche topics under one advertising umbrella).
*Great analysis on the history of comic book sales here and here.