Just because millions of people are flocking to theaters to see The Avengers movie doesn't mean they're interested in buying the comics on which they're based.
In fact, people who watch superhero movies rarely do.But fans of The Walking Dead TV show? They're rushing into comic book stores for collections of the comic by Robert Kirkman faster than a hoard of zombies toward a rumbling truckload of flesh.
"Name what you'd think would be one of our best selling paperbacks. Watchmen? Dark Knight Returns?" asked Adam Casey, manager of Ssalefish Comics in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Any volume of Walking Dead outsells our entire sales history of any other best-selling title, and usually does that each month."
"The Walking Dead TV show has brought me so many new customers on a steady basis since last Christmas that I have to say the trade paperback sales have been beyond anything I've seen in more than 25 years as a comics' retailer," said Charlie Harris, owner and operator of Charlie's Comic Books in Tucson, Ariz. "I get calls from people who say, 'I'm embarrassed to say that I've never read a comic before but..' and at this point I can interrupt and say 'but you've been watching The Walking Dead on TV.' They'll come by and usually only buy the first volume, though I'll tell them that it's very addictive. Then they'll be back in a day or two and either buy the next two volumes or the Volume One Compendium. And eventually they'll get caught up and have to wait a month to see what happens next."
Yet despite what's happened with The Walking Dead, retailers we surveyed said they don't expect to sell many comics because of the Avengers film success. Yes, their customers love it. And yes, it's already estimated to be the most successful comic-based movie of all time.
But that doesn't usually translate to comic book sales.
"There's this vague concept of 'crossover sales,' where people who haven't read comics come into comic book stores due to a movie or television version of original comic material," Casey said. "This was a myth until Walking Dead. And that's still the only one to actually drive first-time readers to us who continue reading."
Of course, it is still early, and the sales on Avengers comics could skyrocket any day now. As Mike Wellman, co-owner of The Comic Bug in Manhattan Beach, Calif., pointed out, "we're the only place you can learn more about Thanos!"
Retailers also saw a great response to Free Comic Book Day, so there's hope that the promotions they did will translate to more sustained sales. "This weekend was a typhoon of business and new faces due to The Avengers mixed with our very own national holiday, Free Comic Book Day," Wellman said."It was our highest traffic for Free Comic Book Day ever," said Carr D'Angelo, owner of Earth-2 Comics in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "People are interested in stories with the villain teased in the credit sequence. Some of the recent Hawkeye collections are selling because people want to know about the character. And Free Comic Book Day was a roaring success and a lot of that excitement was generated by people seeing the Avengers Thursday and Friday, loving it and then wanting to be in the heart of the pop culture comic book explosion on Saturday."
But retailers told us that in general, superhero movies in the past have rarely driven more than a few new readers into the store. And many of them are kids looking for just one cartoon-related comic, never to return.
"Except for a few minor exceptions, comic book films have never translated into sales for us," said J.C. Glindmyer, owner of Earthworld Comics in Albany, N.Y.
"In Free Comic Book Day this year... a lot of people mentioned that they had just seen Avengers, but we've not seen any increased demand for Avengers comics directly attributable to the film," said Brian Hibbs, owner of Comix Experience in San Francisco, Calif. "In fact, we didn't sell a single Avengers-related trade paperback this weekend! Avengers vs. X-Men is doing very well, indeed, but I don't see any evidence that this sales level has anything but coincidental timing to do with the film."
So why the disparity? Why does The Walking Dead TV show entice new readers so well when other, more familiar comic book properties don't?
We asked retailers, and most of them broke it down to very few reasons:
Contained, Related Story
Retailers said they saw an effect on sales when movies like Sin City, 300, Wanted and Scott Pilgrim were released. And most saw a lot of interest in Watchmen.
What do they have in common? "Singular story with a clear jumping-in point and a clear throughline of what-to-read," Hibbs said.
Most retailers emphasized that success of translating movie-goer to comic-reader comes from there being an easy collection to hand to the customer that mirrors the characters and concepts they saw in the movie."We sold more Watchmen trades in the year leading up to the Watchmen movie than we sold in our years prior to that," said Ralph DiBernardo, owner of Jetpack Comics LLC in Rochester, N.H. "It is much easier to sell the print version of a single story than it is to sell the print version of an ongoing character."
"Retailers are best able to turn interest in a movie or TV show into a sale when there is clear self-contained source material to recommend," D'Angelo said. "People get interested in the movie or TV show and want to either be prepared in advance or go back to the source material and dig deeper into the mythology."
"Walking Dead and Watchmen and Sin City and 300 are stories," DiBernardo said. "A story will sell its source material. Avengers, X-Men, Green Lantern and Ghost Rider are character-driven properties. A character driven property will not sell the same."
Retailers said it helps when they have a comic that closely matches the movie. For example, one storeowner said he sold some books of Batman: Year One after the Batman Begins movie.
But that's hard to find for most superhero movies, including The Avengers."A fan of the Avengers movie could not walk in and find a place that meshes comic and film," DiBernardo said. "Marvel movies, whether being Marvel produced or not, never have a comic book that closely matches the movie."
D'Angelo agreed, saying that he has struggled to stock the right collections to hand new readers who might come into the store after watching a superhero movie.
"Part of the problem is that there was not always a definitive graphic novel to point people to," D'Angelo of Earth-2 said. "When Iron Man came out, the definitive modern era Iron Man story was Extremis by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov, and that was surprisingly not available in a collection at the time. The Matt Fraction series was just starting and that got a boost, but you need collections to really make a sales impact.
"With Thor, we stocked up on the J. Michael Straczynski volumes and did well with those. But with Captain America, again there was not a definitive story to point to," D'Angelo said. "The Hulk movies were so disconnected from the comic book mythology that it was hard to generate a sale."
"Story is what sells the source material," DiBernardo said. "If you can't match the source to the adaptation it will not move as well!"
DiBernardo admitted that The Walking Dead comic doesn't sync up exactly with the TV show, but it's close enough that readers understand. "It's very similar," he said. "The general public has seen the differences between novel and movie or video game and movie, or TV show and movie enough times to get it."
But he said that doesn't happen with Avengers and other Marvel or DC superhero stories. "Trying to explain the difference between comic, Ultimate comic, novel, animated, video game, TV and movie is almost impossible, nor does it make sense. It barely makes sense to me and I live it."
Not Preaching to the Choir
A few retailers also said that, with children as the exception, those filmgoers who are interested in reading more about superheroes are those people who probably already read about superheroes.
"We seem to have come to a place where the DC and Marvel titles have their followers and, while they may be keeping the comic shops open, the market only expands when something outside of the superhero genre gets some press," Harris said. "I'm more likely to have a new customer ask about Axe Cop or Game of Thrones then the Fantastic Four or Iron Man. The superheroes have become the generic fast food of the comic industry while titles like Persepolis, Love & Rockets, and Criminal brings the literary gourmets into our shops."
"In general, movies based off comics might raise awareness with current comics readers," said Adam Casey, manager of Ssalefish Comics in Winston-Salem, N.C. "[It is] indicative of the business model of cutting a bigger slice of the pie, not making a bigger pie... Walking Dead being the exception."
Harris said he also thinks superheroes from Marvel and DC are firmly in the public consciousness as something for kids that has always been there and will never change. It's not something new. It's not something they want to read about, because they already know the basic story."Watchmen, Sin City and Wanted were not movies that reminded film attendees of their childhood comic memories," Harris said. "The book buying demographic comes to my shop for things like Blankets, Scott Pilgrim, Bone, Maus, Habibi or From Hell. They don't stop by for the X-Men or even Batman."
It's that regular book-reading audience that retailers are hoping The Walking Dead readers will eventually become.
"It really is bringing new readers into comics," D'Angelo said. "And once they realize that comics have stories they are interested in, we introduce them to other hinges they might like, such as Preacher or Y the Last Man. People coming in from Avengers are excited by the characters or reviving their love for characters they used to be interested in, so every one comes in with a different angle."
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