Thursday, July 21, 2005

"You Stay Classy San Diego!" Impressions from the San Diego Comic Con: The first in a series of articles.

Every summer over a hundred thousand geeks make their annual pilgrimage to the San Diego Convention center for the world's largest gathering of comic book fans. There weren't always so many pilgrims, in fact the entire convention was once held at the El Cortez hotel, but since its humble beginnings the "Comic Con" has grown into a massive event where comic book companies "reveal" to hardcore fans the storylines an major changes the companies will bring about over the coming year. The Comic Con has also traditionally become a place where the collector can fill the holes in his/her collection at one of the many "$1 comic" retailers on the exhibition level.

San Diego in the Summer is a natural location to host a comic book convention. The city is beautiful, the convention center is huge, and there are is a newly constructed baseball stadium within walking distance of the convention.

As the convention has grown, so has the attention it has received from non-comic book entertainment providers. Particular attention has come from Hollywood and the Video Game and Toy industries. But as Brian Lowry pointed out in yesterday's Variety such attention doesn't come without a cost, "The negative aspect for Comic-Con loyalists basking in this relatively newfound attention is that the medium of comics has become secondary at its nominal gathering..." As the event has expanded and the popularity of Superheroes has increased, the number of comic book readers has decreased at an alarming rate. When I started reading comic books in the early 70s the print run for Action Comics (Superman's masthead title) was somewhere in the realm of 1 million issues a month, a TV guide sized figure if you will, during WWII it was well over 2 million. This May the title sold 44,009 copies and Superman (the highest selling Superman title due to artist Jim Lee's popularity) sold 65,321 and 70,205 copies of the two issues released in May. (Comic sales information based on Comic Book Actual Sales data reported by ICV2). At Comic Con itself, 6500 individuals crowded into a room to see a sneak presentation of Bryan Singer's eagerly awaited film. If Superman Returns has an opening weekend of approximately $100 million (that would be about 10 million tickets sold) more people would have watched the movie in one weekend than issues of the comic sold this year. So while the influence of Comics and Superheroes have grown, a fact that is undeniable just look at film/video game/toy releases, the actual medium of origin has become more a niche market.

An example of this phenomenon can be found in a conversation Brian Lowry overheard at this year's con, "I overheard a guy complain about Fantastic Four departing from the original quartet's origins." The complaintant's statement is true, as far as it goes, but it shows a lack of familiarity with recent comic events. Marvel's Ultimate line released an Ultimate Fantastic Four title 21 months ago where the origin had been updated and is surprisingly close to the film version. The Ultimate line of comics was created by Marvel EIC Joe Quesada as a "lead in" point for Marvel's non-comic ventures. Thus if you had just seen the Spider Man movie and wanted a good follow up, you could buy Ultimate Spider Man and not lose a beat or have to worry about tangled 45 year old continuity. This was a brilliant marketing move by Quesada as Ultimate titles are consistent performers with runs close to the 100k mark.

To see how little of the con is devoted to Comics specifically, take a look at the following picture. What do you see?

Do you think you are looking at a "Marvel Booth"? You would be wrong. The booth in the picture is the Activision booth who are advertising their new Marvel themed games. In this picture the game being advertised is Ultimate Spider Man and on the other side of the booth is their new Fantastic Four game. In fact the secondary marketing has become so important that Marvel set up their autograph table at the Activision booth, Marvel itself has no official booth at Comic Con (this is likely to change next year as Marvel now has a movie division). As I see it, Comic Books have become a "loss leader" for other products, highly profitable products. Even that is too fatalistic a statement though because comic books are actually still profitable, the profit is just small compared to other media with the same "product".

The decline of comic sales I see as a two way problem. First, we grognards of comic collecting have made the purchasing of comics expensive and specialized. The books are now printed on extraordinarily high quality paper with fewer ads than before and are primarily sold at specialty stores. In addition, collectors won't buy "reading" copies of books, we want them in pristine condition so the newsstand market has dwindled. We have made comics too expensive for new audiences.

Second, we also don't share the history of comics with the new generation of collectors. At this year's con I saw Jerry Robinson the creator of both the Joker and Robin the Boy Wonder, my two favorite Comic characters (actually I like Nightwing, but he is the original Robin grown up and he grew up with me). My wife was too intimidated by him, in that modest fan way, to approach and talk to him and I am sure she is not the only one, but even counting the timid fans there is no reason there shouldn't have been a huge line waiting to meet with this Founding Father of Comics. Alas, there wasn't. There were huge lines for a number of modern artists, all of whom deserve the lines, but no one really knew who Jerry Robinson was. That is the fault of fans my age and older, who buy our "Silver Age" books and don't notice the origin of the FF has changed, because as I said above we don't share the history of comics with young collectors. Otherwise, there would have been more than 20 people at the Forrest Ackerman panel. Though John Landis was one of the 20 people in the audience, so I was able to take this cool picture (more on the 4e panel later).

Marvel, more than any company, has attacked both these problems. In addition to pushing their titles forward with films/cartoons/video games/toys all with corresponding Ultimates releases, they have also begun releasing the "Essential" line of graphic novels which present the original stories (sadly in black and white) in large and extremely affordable compilations. You can read the first 100+ issues of the X-Men for somewhere around $50! The same goes for Spider Man. All these strategies appear to be working for Marvel, their book sales are up, their "Trade Paperback" sales are huge, and interest in their public identity is very high.

I am a hopeful fan. I hope that young people start reading these wonderful things called comics and I hope that the anti-comics trend started by Wertham (a schlock Frankfurt school hack) will be reversed. I am sick of seeing parents turn their children away from comics saying "why don't you get something to read?!" The underlying assumption being, as Wertham argued, that Comics stunt the learning process. While Cathy Seipp's comment about me, "Just imagine how smart you would be if you didn't spend so much time on comics etc.," is probably true. It is also true that my love of reading started with Werewolf by Night and that I am to this day a voracious reader enrolled in a Ph. D. program at Claremont Graduate University.

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