In search of comic relief

While comic book companies have emerged as multimedia entertainment powerhouses, comics themselves have been relegated to incubator status as the industry struggles to up kid awareness. KidScreen does reconnaissance on some efforts to deliver marketing kapow that connects kids with comics....
July 1, 2001

While comic book companies have emerged as multimedia entertainment powerhouses, comics themselves have been relegated to incubator status as the industry struggles to up kid awareness. KidScreen does reconnaissance on some efforts to deliver marketing kapow that connects kids with comics. Plus: indie creators, including Todd McFarlane and newcomer Joss Whedon, are busier than ever with a host of kid projects in the works.

In light of waning direct market sales, mass market placement is crucial if a comic series is to attain the 25,000 sales per title that currently marks a successful run. ‘There are two places where comic books are sold: Comic book shops and everywhere else,’ says Bill Jemas, president of publishing and new media at New York-based Marvel Enterprises. ‘Everywhere else’ is the combination of toy stores, music and video stores, newsstands and bookstores that moves comics beyond the niche audience of the comic book shop and into the reach of impulse buyers and new readers.

Marvel has had success this year with its revamped main line (classic story line) titles and the recently launched kid-targeted Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men titles-but only after a trial-and-error period of mass market placement with other titles. ‘We’d put books in [mass] and get decent sales for a week or so, but the customers wouldn’t really come back. Most of the books produced were written for adult consumers by adult comic book fans, so while we were very good at mass market placement, the product itself didn’t deliver on the mass market promise,’ explains Jemas, referring to Marvel’s initial attempts to address a younger demo.

A reassessment was necessary. ‘Basically we re-thought our overall publishing plan. We thought that we had dated and aged our heroes to the point where they were losing relevance to a younger audience,’ says Joe Quesada, editor-in-chief at Marvel and creator of the most popular Ultimate book covers. The solution lay in bringing the reader in at the beginning of the character’s story, with some 21st century modifications-now a genetically-enhanced spider, not a radioactive one, bites the high school-aged Peter Parker in Ultimate Spider-Man. Marvel launched the series in September 2000, followed by the December launch of Ultimate X-Men.

More than the story line underwent a renaissance. Russ Brown, senior VP of consumer products, promotions and media sales, explains: ‘A lot of what you see today is really dated. Kids today are, first and foremost, doing interactive stuff’ on the web and playing video games. ‘Ultimate upgrades the look of the characters into a more contemporary form, one that is more consistent with what kids see in other media.’ So far, so good. A warm reception from licensees and audiences alike convinced Marvel to migrate the new look into its main line Spider-Man and X-Men comics earlier this year.

A teenaged Spidey plays a key part in licensees’ ready adoption of the Ultimate look. ‘We thought that the licensees who were targeting kids and teens would rather take to these graphics. It’s no accident that this stuff has the look of the inside of a computer game-that is, very very highly rendered graphics,’ says Jemas.

A new underwear line by Fruit of the Loom incorporates the Ultimate Spider-Man look. Brown Shoes has developed Spidey-like slippers, sneakers and sandals. A million copies of Ultimate Spider-Man will be bundled with the shoes as a gift with purchase at Payless ShoeSource stores. Close to an additional million free copies will be given away in deals that are being developed with other licensees, including Pyramid backpacks, Thermos lunchboxes and Wormser pajamas. Free X-Men titles will be distributed at the Monster Truck tour to coincide with the X-Men and Spider-Man branded Monster Trucks.

This initiative is a natural promotion for the Marvel titles and part of a bigger plan to incorporate the Ultimate characters into mainstream consciousness. ‘If you look at the demographics of Monster Trucks and wrestling, they’re very consistent with the Marvel target audience,’ says Brown. ‘Our fans do a whole lot more and are a whole lot more than just comic book geeks.’ And if all this seems a bit too testosterone-driven, Brown says the blueprint does include girls: ‘Recognizing that female empowerment is a topic en vogue these days, we’re using Elektra as the lead character in a push’ aimed at that gender. Plans include the possibility of adding a female-operated Elektra truck to the Monster Truck circuit in 2002, followed by a feature film slated for release in late `02 or early ’03.

And yet the mass market alone won’t ensure success. Dark Horse Comics-publisher of Star Wars and Buffy comics-published a Digimon series targeting the six to 12 set last year. The 12 issues were sold at Toy `R’ Us, Target and Rite Aid Drug Stores as four-pack bundles, and individual titles were distributed via Scholastic’s subscription-based monthly comics package-kids pay US$1.95 a month for four unspecified comics and a toy. In total, Dark Horse sold roughly 600,000 copies of the individual comics over a five-month period, but chose not to continue with Digimon this year. ‘We had very strong mass market distribution but little direct market. Getting kids to go into a comic shop where there isn’t a lot of material available for them is a tough sell,’ says Shawna Ervin-Gore, media representative for Dark Horse.

Direct market retailers are doing their best to encourage sales. New York-based comic book shop Cosmic Comics sells comic books at half-price on Sundays to kids under 16. Owner Mark Friedman estimates overall sales of 100 assorted kid titles each Sunday and says that kid sales have increased from virtually none to about one-third of the outlet’s entire Sunday business in the five years since Cosmic Comics implemented the program.

Toronto-based Silver Snail Comics supplies kids with free DC Comics titles through a local library reading program, with an average of 30 kids participating in any given week.

But both attempts to win a new generation over to the comic’s 32-page charms are battling major rivalry. ‘Comics have way more competition than they ever had before. Kids would rather spend US$50 on a video game that will occupy them for a couple of months than spend US$3 on a comic book that will occupy them for 15 minutes,’ suggests George Zotti, Silver Snail manager.

The consolidation of the newsstand industry, once a primary source of comic book sales, adds to the point-of-sale woes. ‘There are basically only two or three newsstand distributors in the U.S., whereas there used to be dozens of regional ones,’ explains Dark Horse’s Ervin-Gore. ‘So if a big player like Anderson News doesn’t want to bother carrying comics, it gets harder and harder for titles to get out there. The only things we can sell on the newsstand seem to be licensed titles like Star Wars and Buffy that are readily recognizable with photo, not art, covers.’

With changing markets and different demands from booksellers, comic publishers will continue to look at alternative format options. Says Ervin-Gore: ‘The 32-page comic book format was created in the early part of the last century, as an economic necessity at the time. It was cheap, easy to publish, and it was something that people got attached to. And I honestly believe that is the only reason we are still publishing 32-page pamphlets as comics.’

New trends include new configurations. ‘We’re selling Ultimate Marvel magazine on the newsstand because that’s the format those distributors want-they don’t want to deal with the wire racks and the price point’ of the comic format, says Bill Rosemann, senior on-line editor for Marvel.

Graphic novels and trade paperbacks have also emerged as viable ways to get comics into mainstream outlets. Indeed, Rosemann claims that the comic company that does not print in magazine or trade paperback format is like a music company that will only produce eight-track tapes. ‘Comics are much more sellable in books-perhaps it’s perceived value,’ says Ervin-Gore. ‘It’s not this delicate thing that’s perceived as a collectible. It’s something [consumers] can put on a bookshelf and read again and again.’

On-line media has also opened up new avenues. L.A.-based Stan Lee Media’s launch of web series Backstreet Project in the spring of 2000 was supported by concerts and a limited-edition run of comic books. Priced at a premium US$10 per, available at concert venues and through the e-commerce site Artists Direct, the books sold an initial run of 50,000 almost immediately.

But the relative success of the books is not about to change Stan Lee Media into Stan Lee Comic Books. ‘The [comic book] works well as a companion piece,’ opines Ken Williams, president and CEO of Stan Lee Media. ‘But the fan base is not large enough to target as a stand-alone project.’

On-line presence has also contributed to the success of Marvel’s Ultimate titles. With an estimated million free downloads per month per Ultimate title, Marvel plans to make more titles available. Asked whether free downloads would take away from potential paying customers, Marvel’s Jemas claims: ‘There’s always a paranoia that if you’re giving it away for free, why would they buy it? But I’ve never seen a product that was heavily sampled or distributed for free take a hit at retail. It’s no coincidence that the Ultimate titles, the only books that are distributed on-line, are also the only books that grow in off-line readership each month. The content is something that people get exposed to on-line and they move immediately to the print version.’

Monster Trucks and digital downloads. Graphic novels and interactive designs. Kid-targeted comic books are changing form and content to bring a whole new generation around to their superhero ways. Whether graphic novel, 32-page pamphlet or a future PDA download, the medium will continue to span the nebulous region between childhood and adulthood. Suggests Jemas: ‘Basically, a 12-year-old human is probably as smart as he or she will ever be in terms of sheer candle power, then their brains get filled with job skills and gunk. So you have to have that rare property that’s able to speak to an adult and a kid at the same time.’

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