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A back-to-basics approach triggers a comic book rebound

Like one of the superhero-returns-from-the-dead special editions it's famous for releasing, the comic book industry has been showing signs of renewed life lately. Sales for the first half of this year totalled US$150 million, an increase of 20% over the same period last year, according to Jim Miller, editorial director at Iola, Wisconsin-based industry trade pub Comic Buyer's Guide. 'It's the biggest increase we've seen since the industry went into recession in '93,' says Miller.
September 1, 2002

Like one of the superhero-returns-from-the-dead special editions it’s famous for releasing, the comic book industry has been showing signs of renewed life lately. Sales for the first half of this year totalled US$150 million, an increase of 20% over the same period last year, according to Jim Miller, editorial director at Iola, Wisconsin-based industry trade pub Comic Buyer’s Guide. ‘It’s the biggest increase we’ve seen since the industry went into recession in ’93,’ says Miller.

A major reason for the turnaround has been the re-emergence of Marvel Comics. Aided by Spider-Man’s US$400-million box office take, the company’s comic book sales jumped 27% in Q1 and 36% in Q2 over 2001′s numbers. While it’s difficult to underplay the extent to which the film has goosed the company’s publishing business, it’s not the only reason for the rebound, says Marvel COO Bill Jemas. The biggest change has been Marvel’s return to focusing on content.

‘Basically, the comic book industry collapsed because the books sucked,’ says Jemas flatly. Beset by bankruptcy and ownership issues during much of the mid-’90s, Marvel found itself catering to a small group of die-hard 30- to 40-something readers to the detriment of attracting new fans. Until recently, every Marvel comic was part of a 20- to 40-year history (totaling hundreds of titles), which meant that if you wanted to read an X-Men book, you’d have to pore over dozens of previous issues in order to get the gist of the backstory.

To change that, two years ago, Marvel launched its Ultimates line of teen comics based on mainstay superhero characters. Set in the present, the books feature story arcs that last only six or eight issues, allowing new readers to pick them up and not get lost. Marvel also hired better artists and writers like Kevin Smith (Clerks) and J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) to improve editorial quality.

‘The books are good again,’ says retailer John Cook, owner of Lake Jackson, Texas-based store DNA Comics, who has seen his shop’s comic sales increase by 20% this year. ‘The focus used to be on art; now it’s on story, and people are coming back again,’

Another bright spot for Marvel is its trade paperback sales, which rocketed by 240% in Q1 and 197% in Q2. The format, which bundles all of the issues in a series and repackages them in book form, has enabled the company to broaden its distribution at mainstream retailers like Toys ‘R’ Us and Barnes & Noble, which had stopped carrying the single issues because they were easily damaged.

Like Marvel, Oldsmar, Florida-based CrossGen Comics (whose sales for the first half of 2002 have doubled) has also been successful placing its trade paperback titles and compendia collections. Apart from allowing it to re-purpose the same content numerous times, the TPs appeal especially to non-comic book readers who are able to buy all of a series’ issues in one go, says the company’s VP of product development Tony Panaccio.

CrossGen has also been aggressively marketing its comics on-line, offering Flash-enhanced versions to consumers for a fee through over 100 partner sites like Youtopia and Lycos, with whom it splits the revenues.

Ultimately though, Panaccio sees CrossGen’s content as the main reason for its success. Avoiding the ‘capes-and-tights’ fare altogether, CrossGen deliberately mapped its titles to mass entertainment genres–Science Fiction, Mystery and Fantasy.

‘You can’t keep marketing a product at an increasing price to the same 300,000 people and expect to have a future. You have to get new eyeballs,’ says Panaccio. Case in point is CrossGen’s best-selling series in the book trade channel, Meridian, a fantasy title about a 16-year-old girl fugitive who’s charged with saving her home, the floating city state of Meridian, from her evil uncle. The editorial tack clearly appears to be working for CrossGen, which launched just three years ago and is already the fifth-largest publisher in the U.S. CrossGen controls 3% of the market, behind Dark Horse Comics (5%), Image Comics (10%), DC Comics (25% to 30%) and Marvel Comics (40% to 45%), according to Comic Buyer’s Guide’s Miller.

Hollywood has taken notice, too. So far, with the help of Branded Entertainment’s resident comic book veteran Michael Uslan (executive producer of the Batman films), CG has optioned six of its titles–Meridian, which Cornerstone Animation is producing as an animated TV show and film; Way of the Rat (Castle Rock); Mystic (Craven/Maddelena), Sigil, (Threshold Entertainment), Route 666 (DreamWorks) and Scion (Russell Productions).

For Panaccio, Hollywood’s interest in CrossGen’s properties and the success of recent movies such as Road to Perdition and the popular Men in Black franchise (both of which are based on comic books) is proof that the genre is breaking free of its superhero tights. ‘Comics are like TV shows or movies–pick a genre or a taste, and there’s probably a comic book to match it. As publishers, we need to be more aggressive in marketing that message,’ says Panaccio.

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