Friday, April 21, 2006

Comic Books --- The Wall Street Journal Gets It

Cinerati has often discussed, and lamented, the state of the comic book industry. Comics just don't sell at the rate they used to in prior "ages." Combine this with the fact that the target audience has shifted from the developing fan to the committed fan, a combination partly responsible for the decline in sales (not entirely, don't get me started on Jim Shooter and speculators in the early 90s).

Though Marvel and DC have done little to expand their audience to the emerging fan in recent years, if you think they have done a lot we ought to meet for coffee some time, one thing is certain, both Marvel and Time Warner (DC Comics) understand the need to increase revenue from the comic book marketplace. Even as a loss leader the production costs are becoming extremely high. When you combine huge printing costs, due to higher quality paper/printing techniques and smaller print runs, with increased pay to artists/writers you have to find ways to increase revenue flow without increasing prices. After all, the marketplace is too small for much of an uptick in cover price. In the link above, I discussed Marvel's plan to release digital back issues both online and in DVD-Rom is one way to address this. If you don't own 40 years of the X-men, 44 Years of the Fantastic Four, or the upcoming 40 Years of the Avengers, you are missing a great opportunity to read quality comics at a cheap price.

Now Marvel and DC are looking to a new avenue for revenue, actually an old avenue in a new medium. Comics have long had advertisements which often interupt the flow of the narrative/panel design. Now, according to the Wall Street Journal both companies are looking to product placement within the panels to increase revenue. (I would link the article, but you have to be a subscriber.) According to Brian Steinberg, "Las week, DaimlerChrysler AG's Dodge finalized an ad pact that will include product placements in Marvel comics." Combine this Daimler buy with Time Warner's recent contract with General Motors Corp, and the creation of "Rush City," and you have high priced ads which might become fluid parts of the narrative. The idea is similar to what Gaijin Studios did with "The Ride" two years back, with the addition that the cars are modern, rather than classic.

The ad buys are an direct example that comic books are finally admitting who their audience is, "one of Madison Avenue's most elusive audiences: guys in their 20s." As the Steinberg article points out, and we have said many times, "Lately, readers of comic books have gotten older. On Madison Avenue, 'there is a large misunderstanding of who is reading these titles and what they are paying attention to...' fans who kept buying the books have grown older, now reaching into their 20s and 30s." I actually think that even this estimate projects the comic audience too young. I would state that the audience is more in the late 20s to the early 40s, but that still constitutes real buying power. DC Advertising VP David McKillips "hopes to bring in other advertisers seeking an older male. 'You're going to see this year a lot more health and beauty care, shaving cream, razors, alongside the automotive."

Comics are finally realizing who their audience is, too bad that doesn't mean they want to expand the audience from its current niche place in the market. On the plus side, this does mean I will see fewer house ads in the issues I buy. If you saw, "In Good Company" with Dennis Quaid and its conversations about global corporation "synergy," and the film's argument that this is not a desireable revenue source, then you can appreciate my joy at reading that there would be more shaving cream ads and thus possibly fewer ads for movies/video games based on the IP of the company whose comics I am buying.

I hope that the companies will do more to expand the audience. Until that time comes, it is good to see that they are finally trying to bring in revenue from the advertisers who have products that might appeal to the comic reading audience. In television, the equation works from a revenue standpoing. TV studios ask, "Hey, what show will sell X to demographic Y." Comics have been denying who their demographic is for sometime. Comics grew up, but the revenue sources didn't. I wish that comics had been able to grow up while keeping some titles filled with the youthful joy that made me buy comics in the first place.

If you want to read the whole article, and are a WSJ subscriber, you can read the article here.

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