“If you build it, they will come.” That might work for baseball fields, but it definitely doesn't for comic books.
I've seen Marvel's The Avengers four times now, each time with a different group of people who were all seeing it for the first time (okay, I'll admit it, once by myself). Of my four viewings, two of them were opening weekend, one was in the film's second week, and the final time several weeks after. The one thing that was consistent was that each time the theater was jam packed. Each time the movie garnered laughs, cheers and applause, and all along the way I watched the box office numbers climb. It topped $200 million dollars on opening weekend. Then a billion dollars worldwide in less than 20 days. As a life long comic book fan and reader this had me thinking, how many of the people that loved The Avengers movie have actually read an Avengers comic?
So, I did a little digging, crunched a few numbers, and discovered that there is a vast chasm between the number of people who actually read comic books and the number of people who could be reading comic books.
First, given that I've seen the movie several times myself, I realize that a lot of those ticket sales went to repeat viewings. What I wanted to know was how many people who saw The Avengers were unique viewers. This is almost impossible to do with the resources I have available. So instead, I've done a little magic math-estimation. In 2011, the average movie ticket price in the United States rose a few pennies to about $8 (source). Taking increase prices for 3D into consideration, I'm going to use an average of $10/ticket in my calculation.
I will also only use the Avenger's domestic opening box office figure because, A) the US is the primary market for American comic books, and B) as the weeks go on the box office numbers will more than likely reflect a higher percentage of repeat viewers.
The Avengers domestic opening weekend total at the box office was $207,438,708.
So with a $207,438,708 box office haul, at $10 a ticket, that leaves approximately 20,743,870 tickets sold on opening weekend. Now, there were most definitely repeat viewers on opening weekend. To account for that, let's say only 50% of the opening weekend sales were the unique viewers that I'm looking for. That leaves us with a little over 10 million individuals who plopped down in the theater to watch a group of comic book superheroes unite to fight an alien invasion.
I'm also only concerned with people who are potential comic book readers, and let's face it, some people are predisposed to never pick up a comic book. So, maybe only five percent of those unique movie goers are the type of people that already read comics or are potential comic readers. That's 500,000 people who should be reading the comics. But the true numbers are far from that.
Now, let's look at comic book sales figures from April of 2012 (source). Because we're talking about an Avengers movie, I'll use Avengers v. X-Men #2 (AvX) as my example of a “top seller” comic. For April 2012, AvX #2 sold about 158,000 individual copies. If we assume that each and every one of those copies were purchased by a unique reader and not collectors purchasing multiple cover variants, that leaves 342,000 potential comic book readers that remain untapped for one reason or another. And this is a very conservative estimate given that AvX is a “big event” series that almost always garners increased sales when compared to the standard monthly titles. For example: The Avengers #25 sold 65,000 copies. That's less than half of what AvX sold. Another popular title, Uncanny X-men #11, sold approximately 69,000 copies.
Another interesting factor is that these numbers don't necessarily represent actual readers. If you're familiar with the direct sales market then you will understand why. If you aren't, let me explain. Comic book shop owners purchase all their books several months in advance based on the estimated demand of their customers. To more accurately predict this demand most comic shops will offer a subscription service or “pull list” for their customers. Essentially, a customer agrees to purchase the new issues of his her or favorite comics each month, and in doing so, the shop owner relies on the amount of pull customers to gauge how many copies of each issue to order. Comic shop owners will almost always over order books like Batman, Avengers, X-Men, Justice League, Spider-Man, etc, because these are “high profile” books that the shop owners know they will have a better chance of selling to the uninitiated walk-in customer.
But, I'm only concerned with actual readers. So, while comic shops might have ordered 65,000 copies of Avengers #25, only a percentage of that number walked out of the shop with the comic in hand. The surplus copies, however many that may be, are sitting on shelves in comic shops around the country waiting to be either purchased or, eventually, banished to the dark corners of the back issue long boxes.
See, there is that gaping chasm between people who like what comics are about, but don't actually read comics.
|Comics do this on a monthly basis.|
For the hundred or so thousand people who went to see Avengers and can't wait for the sequel, they can find twice as much action in the comics every month. One of the best thing about comic books is that there is no budget to adhere to. An editor at Marvel or DC is never going to tell their creative team that they can't have another space battle because of a funding issue. In comics, if it can be thought up, it can be drawn, and when comics are done well, there isn't a better form of entertainment out there for your money.
But, this is all considering just the “big two” books and the household names like Batman and The Avengers. What frustrates me even more are the independent books that suffer in sales while their counterparts in other storytelling mediums thrive. Take for example Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque's American Vampire, published through DC's Vertigo imprint. While Stephanie Meyer sells bazillions of copies of Twilight novels, and at least one Vampire movie a year fills up theaters, American Vampire is selling less than 15,000 copies a month – And it's better than any of those other vampire tales across the board. Consider that for every book like American Vampire, there are three or four books that are just as good but get canceled because of low sales. This is a tragedy of the highest order.
There is an audience. There is an audience that likes stories about costume heroics, or dark and lusty vampires, or military espionage, and many more. Unfortunately, this audience is flocking to novels and movies while completely over looking one of the best storytelling mediums out there.
There is no good reason for this. Comics are simply another valid medium for telling stories, and people love stories, they've been telling us that with their hard earn dollars for decades. The seemingly unanswerable question is how to get these people to the comics.
But there is an answer, it's just not an easy one. It's going to take a group effort, from publishers, comic shops and fans alike. Publishers are trying. The emergence of digital comics has reached into a small sliver of that untapped fan base. But that's not enough. Comic shop owners need to realize that the pull list customers they have had for 20+ years will not be there forever. Comic shop owners should have been standing in The Avengers line at the movie theaters handing out comics with their business cards attached to them. It's time to pull the posters off the comic shop windows and show people that you aren't really a front for a head shop. And us fans, it's time to turn “read comic in public day” (August 28th) into every day. We can show people that it's okay to read comics. We can show people that if you liked the Iron Man, Thor, Batman, Green Lantern, Hulk, Captain America or Avengers movie, you can experience that and much, much more every month in the comics. And if capes and spandex aren't their thing, then we can show them that there is so much more out there.
There is something for everyone in comic books. I don't think comics are dying, they will be around in one form or another for years to come. But if we, the publishers, the shops, the fans, want comics to flourish and push what they can be to the limits, then we can't sit back and think it will happen on its own.
We have to make it happen.
For the Love of Comics.