Monday, August 24, 2009...3:56 pm

Lessons from the superheroes: Marvel comics and mass media

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There’s quite a bit of activity in the comment threads again today, as we wrestle with issues such as why newspapers (and TV) are struggling in the internet age.

Martin Cloake makes some interesting points about the women’s mass market sector, which he says relies on cheap production, high sales and relatively few advertisements to make its money.

There’s an interesting near(ish) parallel with another publishing sector – American superhero comics.

I read these avidly as a pre-teenager – so avidly, in fact, that I would even devour the publishing details in the indicia, and the regular panel of distribution and sales information that would appear at the back detailing how many copies were printed, distributed, sold and returned. Yes, I had a sad, geeky childhood.

But these figures were, and are, very illuminating. I remember comics like the Fantastic Four printing some 450,000 copies in the late 1960s or early 1970s, with about half those being sold and the rest returned.

The comics themselves were garishly printed on cheap stock, and were filled with advertisements for the kind of products you could only buy  in the US – sea monkeys, x-ray glasses and money-printing machines. How my heart ached to buy them. What disappointment I avoided.

They were also cheap to buy – 5 shiny new pence at first, rising to about 12p as sterling fell steadily against the dollar in the early 1970s. And they were sold through newsagents and sweet shops – all bundled together in little piles or, if you were really lucky, in a spin rack of their own. Though not in my north London parish.

How things changed. Hammered by TV and suffering from quality issues, sales fell steadily. Crucially, as discussed by Chris Tolworthy, slim margins on comics meant they were sidelined by retail outlets, which could get a much better return from glossy magazines.

The result was the comics publishers were forced to distribute through specialist comic shops, catering to a niche collector audience. Sales figures went down generally, though this was masked for a while by a speculative boom, which saw collectible issues selling multiple copies to collectors.

The numbers are interesting. Chris Tolworthy says:

In 1979 a typical comic sold 100,000 copies, and much more ten years earlier. But today, 20,000 is common, and comics only survive because they make extra sales in trade paperback compilations.

I don’t have the specific numbers myself, but his sound reasonable from what I’ve heard. And a lot of small press and independent self-publishers have given up publishing regular monthly comics in place of graphic novels that have a much longer shelf life. (I don’t know about the margins, but I suspect they’d be higher, too.)

No – it’s not an exact parallel. But exchange newspapers for comic books and you have some indication of where they might be headed.

First – your mass market will erode to a niche market. With much less available advertising, newspapers will have to become much more expensive.

Second, like comics, you may see them less often, as they may well not be able to publish every day. That’s already happening in the US as papers give up some of their daily editions.

But most troubling, big publishers such as Marvel and DC Comics simply wouldn’t survive if they relied on revenue from comic sales. Marvel went bankrupt in the 1990s and is only thriving now because its characters are used in blockbuster movies such as Iron Man. In similar fashion, DC is now owned by entertainment giant Time Warner, which can also spin out comic characters into movies (Dark Knight, Watchmen) and merchandise.

The disadvantage of newspapers in all this? I’m not sure fanboys will be rushing to collect mint editions of the Independent‘s August 24 issue. Nor will film studios rush to option the media section of the Guardian for a summer blockbuster…

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