2011's Hot Button Topics Part 1: REACHING NEW READERS

2011 Hot Button: REACHING NEW READERS

Comic book fans may be most anxious about whether Spider-Man and Batman survive their latest villain's attack, but the comic industry itself is dealing with life-and-death issues of its own.

As the comic book business enters 2011, several hot-button issues are at the forefront of the industry's news. Over the next week, Newsarama will be examining some of these topics by looking at how the industry is responding and adjusting to the changes it's facing.

First up, we examine the issue of attracting new readers to comics.

At a time when the comic book industry has been experiencing double-digit sales decreases, bringing new readers to comics -- or keeping the old ones -- has become an important issue, and publishers appear to be reacting.

Accessibility

For years, fans have worried and complained that continuity-heavy comics make it difficult for new readers -- or even returning fans -- to pick up and enjoy a comic book they previously didn't follow. With many Marvel and DC storylines stretching to six or more issues, and a recent trend toward crossovers and events, fans have wondered if new readers are still able to buy a comic that doesn't require a history lesson.

Some would argue the background stories of characters are the appeal of superhero comics. "Accessibility is a word that people throw around, and mostly it's from people who are well versed in this stuff. And they say, well, I liked it but I don't think it's very accessible," writer/executive Geoff Johns told Newsarama in 2009. "They judge a new comic reader wouldn't get it when they're not a new comic reader."

But there has also been some commentary recently about how the issue is less about continuity and more about the way superhero comics just aren't appealing to a mainstream audience because they "cater to the perverted needs of 45-year-old men" (to quote Darwyn Cooke's much-blogged-about 2010 interview with Comic Book Syndicate).

"I’m going to come right out and say it," said Kate Fitzsimmons of The Beat, reacting to Cooke's words, "when you don’t know if a heretofore demure superhero title is going to dissolve into an orgy of rape and disembowelment in the next issue, it makes it that much harder to recommend to a new reader."

But Marvel and DC do appear to be greatly interested in attracting new readers right now: Both companies just announced much-publicized initiatives that are specifically aimed toward new or returning readers.

Jumping-On Points

Invincible Iron Man #500.1

In October, Marvel Comics announced "Point One," a new reader initiative directing readers to special issues that serve as the "perfect jumping on points" for many of their most popular comics.

According to David Gabriel, Marvel's senior vice president of Sales & Circulation, the "Point One" initiative will market "single-issue, self-contained, beginning, middle and end" comics that tell "everything you need to know about the characters" featured in that comic.

Marvel will designate the "Point One" comics beginning in February by marking them with a ".1" after the issue number, and they will price all those stand-alone issues at $2.99. They will be followed by an issue in the regular series that can serve as jumping on points.

DC has answered by announcing a program that also markets "jumping on points," although the publisher's program labels the beginning of new storylines, rather than publishing stand-alone background issues. And as the company has been emphasizing to comic fans, DC has all of their ongoing comics priced at $2.99.

Pricing

In October, DC announced that it would be going back to the $2.99 price point on all ongoing comic book titles, while discontinuing its "co-feature" projects and cutting story page count down to 20 pages of story a month from the former 22 seen in standard 32 page comics. It was a welcome announcement, as the average price of comics had risen above $3.50.

"In a recessionary time, when things are more difficult, it is counter to any sane business practice to be raising prices at a point when people are cutting their budgets," DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio told Newsarama this past weekend, confirming the company would "hold the line at $2.99" through 2011. "We want to make sure comics stay affordable so that, as people look into how they budget how they spend their income for their entertainment, they know that their money being spent on comics stays consistent."

At the same time, Marvel announced it would be able to release more comics at $2.99 because of the success of digital comics. Soon after, the company also announced the "Point One" initiative, which promises all those jumping-on books will be $2.99.

Meanwhile, digital comics have provided opportunities for both publishers to offer free issues and reduced prices to entice readers to come back.

"Mainstream Audience" Comics

While sales of the high profile, superhero periodicals are sliding, there is a viable argument for the fact that non-superhero comics are doing better than ever.

The trend has been highlighted by Comichron's John Jackson Miller, who pointed out that while the sales of top comics are down, the sales volume for comics not appearing in the Top 300 appears to be increasing.

"Believe it or not, a record for high sales was actually set [for lower-tier comics] in September," Miller reported two months ago. "The 300th place comic book... sold more copies to retailers in September than in any month since November 1996."

 

Digital comics also appear to be pointing readers toward alternate genres in comics, particularly The Walking Dead, which is now released day-and-date after dominated best-selling digital comics lists last year. And a look at ComiXology's Top 25 list shows that non-superhero comics are well represented among the most downloaded digital comics on that platform.

"We reach a big mainstream audience that loves things like Wanted and Kick-Ass and those types of media properties," said David Steinberger, CEO at ComiXology, the leading digital comics distributor.

The bookstore market has also opened doors for self-publishers like Terry Moore, whose Echo comic was optioned for film. "As the graphic novel becomes more mainstream in American literature and as we take over bigger and bigger spaces in the bookstores like Barnes & Noble, I think there will be a growing awareness among the public about the graphic novelists and who the players are and who the talents are," Moore said.

Although he still markets to comic book stores, Moore had a wider audience in mind when he came up with the idea for Echo. "I'm not trying to reach comic book readers anymore," he told Newsarama. "I'm trying to reach the general public."

Alternate Audiences

While some readers of periodical comics look around comic shops and surmise that grown men are the only ones reading comics, the fact is that other audiences go elsewhere for their comics. Namely, to bookstores. And libraries. And schools.

"Wake up! I mean, kids are reading comics by the millions," said Jeff Smith, who speaks from experience because he has sold millions of copies of his book-sized versions of Bone through children's book publisher Scholastic. "Look at Bone. If you think kids aren't reading comics, you've got your head in the sand."

But can the comic industry as a whole tap into this market?

While the hugely successful Diary of a Wimpy Kid novels are only "part" comics, other popular titles like Babymouse and the books from Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly's Toon Books have opened the door for kids to read comics by just visiting their local book store.

Marvel has also seen some success with its Marvel Illustrated Classics stories that retell well-known novels like Pride and Prejudice and The Last of the Mohicans. Boom! Studios landed a Disney deal that has them publishing comics for licenses like Cars and The Muppet Show.

Last year also saw huge sales for the comic adaptation of Twilight, something that points toward female audiences being a possible target for comics at bookstores in the future.

But the real future in reaching alternate audiences may lie in the industry embracing different formats.

Book Format

TRAILER: Green Lantern
TRAILER: Green Lantern
Green lantern

Geoff Johns rattled off a sentence last month that may surprise some comic book fans, although his inside knowledge of the industry points toward its truth. When asked if DC would try to steer viewers of this year's Green Lantern movie toward comics, Johns said: "I suspect most new readers will be looking for trades rather than single copies of comics."

The growth of the "book" format in comics has been substantial in the last 20 years since independent publishers like Dave Sim and Jeff Smith first collected their comics -- to the alarm of then-comic collectors. Now, major publishers are not only constantly releasing book-sized collections of their comics, but are exploring new ways to reach audiences who prefer other formats.

For DC Comics, bookstores appeared to be the realm of mature books from Vertigo and the hugely successful collection of Watchmen. But this past fall, bookstores became a viable outlet for DC's superhero characters with the success of the original graphic novel, Superman: Earth One. It was a new format for the company, as it told a long-form, complete story within a hard book.

And DC intends to do more. "When you see something original like this break as big as it did, it encourages you to do more original projects in this fashion," DC Co-Publisher Dan DiDio told Newsarama.

While the content echoes Marvel's "Ultimate Universe" -- retelling character origins in a more modern way -- this new format points toward a renewed interest in the future of comics in the book market.

"What we see in the bookstore market is, you're seeing a success there with episodic stories being told even in novels, with continuing characters," DiDio said. "It's obvious with things similar to what's being done in the Twilight Saga, but also things like the Jack Reacher novels or repeating characters that you see from novel to novel. We're hoping that we're able to do that same thing with our primary characters."

And the book format may not be the only place comics will head in the future. Archie Comics last year launched a new magazine format comic titled Life with Archie that targets teen-and-older audiences.

"It was a new format, and a new type of story, for a little different audience," said Archie Comics CEO Jon Goldwater. "But also, by making Life with Archie a magazine, it allowed us to move into places that we’d never been before, like CVS and Walgreens and many, many traditional places where people could buy magazines."

Digital Comics

Perhaps the greatest industry change as 2011 begins is the digital comics market. With the introduction of the iPad and the launch of both a Marvel app and DC app by digital platform leader ComiXology, digital comics have taken a huge leap forward in both quality and availability.

But fans wonder what it all means to the future of their hobby. The thinking goes like this: Does it attract new readers? Or old ones? And if older readers switch to digital, will comic book shops survive? And if comic shops aren't around, will comics survive?

That line of thinking is still seen as extreme, but it's hard to ignore that the market for digital comics is clearly growing while print numbers decline. At a recent conference, Milton Griepp of ICv2 estimated that the comic industry sold nearly $6 million digitally in 2010, triple-digit growth from the year before, while sales of comics through Diamond Comic Distributors were down by 5.79 percent. But those figures may be misleading, because the print market still far exceeds digital, as we'll explore further tomorrow.

Check with Newsarama tomorrow for more on "hot-button topics" of 2011, as we examine how digital distribution is affecting the industry.

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