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Comics Alliance asks: “Why aren’t Marvel and DC making webcomics?”

In the wake of a month were no print comic cracked the 100K mark and where graphic novel sales have fallen 6.2% over the previous year, Chris Sims poses a question on Comics Alliance: with sales falling across the board at Marvel and DC, why aren’t they making webcomics?

While the super-heroes of the printed page are suffering, there are millions of people in the world reading, loving and supporting comics on the web every day, while the #1 monthly superhero comic barely cracks 100,000 — if it’s lucky. So with that in mind, why aren’t DC and Marvel producing webcomics? And the more I think about it, the more it seems like it could be a pretty easy experiment to test out, with almost no risk and the potential for a huge payoff.

As for why it hasn’t happened before, I’m not sure, but I’ve got a pretty good guess. I think a lot of it has to do with people making comic books still regarding the Internet as a market that’s completely secondary to — and completely separate from — printed comics. That may very well have been true at one time, and even fairly recently [Editor’s note: yup] but it certainly isn’t anymore. Just look at the numbers.

According to ICV2’s sales charts, the top-selling comic for May (Fear Itself #1) sold just under 130,000 copies, which, for today’s monthly singles market, is an unqualified success. Meanwhile, Penny Arcade is getting two million hits per day.

Obviously, those are two hugely different comics. They’re in different formats and they appeal to different audiences, with Penny Arcade aimed at the video game market rather than the super-hero market (such as it is). But the most crucial difference is that Penny Arcade is free. You can click that link above and go peruse the entire thing from beginning to end and it won’t cost you a cent. But while it costs you nothing to read that comic, it’s turned out to be a pretty profitable enterprise for its creators, to the point where it’s allowed them to not only make it their full-time job, but create a sprawling media empire involving the creation of charities and huge conventions.

Of course, Penny Arcade is a complete and utter anomaly that’s a thousand times better than any best-case scenario for the premise of “two guys make jokes about how long load times are for PC games.” But for our purposes today, none of that really matters.

What matters is the number: two million people — almost 20 times the number of people who bought the highest-selling super-hero comic on the stands — and while it might just be a three-panel gag strip, they’re already reading comics. This is Point One.

In fact, if there’s any indication to be found in the number of times a Penny Arcade strip (or a Shortpacked strip, or a Dinosaur Comics strip) about mainstream super-heroes (okay, let’s be honest, about Batman) gets spread around, posted on forums or emailed to your friendly neighborhood Batmanologist, I think it’s also pretty safe to say that a large number of these readers are already aware of and like reading stories about mainstream super-heroes.

You can even take it a step further: There are entire comics out there, like our pals at Let’s Be Friends Again, that are doing quite well that are based on awareness and affection for those characters. Again, there’s an obvious difference between these strips and the “official” comics in that the web versions are parodies that often involve a quick punchline, but the fact remains that they only exist and succeed because there are people — most of whom are not reading mainstream super-hero books — that are reading comics with these characters. This is Point Two.

So why hasn’t there been an attempt to bring these two points together and lead that massive audience to super-hero comics?

… most importantly, so what if it doesn’t make any money? After all, the idea here isnt to make something new that’s going to be profitable, but to make the existing books more profitable by increasing readership, drawing them in with the webcomic to foster a love of and direct them to the main line titles. In essence, it’s all marketing for the other titles, with the potential of reaching millions of new readers. And if even ten thousand — a fraction of what comics like Dr. McNinja, Shortpacked and others get — follow from the web to the existing comics, that’s a pretty significant change.

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Posted on June 14, 2011, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. I’m starting to get annoyed whenever people talk about Penny Arcade as an example, and then dismiss it as an anomaly. There’s like a hundred other examples of successful webcartoonists out there that aren’t anomalies. That being said, I doubt DC and Marvel could monetize super hero comics without making some significant changes to their style. For example, when Warren Ellis made FreakAngels he didn’t pick an artist that makes superhero comics, he picked an artist that makes work that looks good on the web. Karl Kerschl is another example I can think of. He works in print, but he’s tailored his comics for ACC to look good on the web (single color, more emphasis on outlines than on inked shading). Besides the style thing, a big reason webcomics are so popular is because there’s so much creator-reader interaction. I don’t know if big corporations would be particularly down to do that. Anyway, just a thought. I think it’d be awesome to read some free Batman comics OL, to be honest. I just doubt it’ll ever happen (or that it might happen and then…fall to pieces, like Zuda).

    • That’s a good point about Penny Arcade. In fact, while I’m not a huge fan of the comic, I do have to give some props to The Oatmeal. It’s got a huge readership, the creator figured out how to make a lot of money from it, and — here’s the most impressive part — it’s managed to garner a very mainstream audience, rather than the niche crowds that a lot of webcomics cater to.

      I think, by the way, with Marvel getting absorbed by Disney and DC with their Time Warner ties that Mr. Sims proposal is more doable than before. In an ideal world, it would end up like Disney’s ESPN or Time Warner’s CNN sites. Both sites are free to the public, yet still garner a large readership and manage to pay all those correspondents they have on staff. Both sites also have ties to cable channels, true … but comic superheroes have been likewise integrated into other media, so the parallels still fit.

  2. This looks like a very classic case of disruption. There is no way Marvel or DC could run a decent (profitable) web-comic without a change in management because they are tied to an age old business model.

    Web-comic revenues tend to be very low and wouldn’t be worth the high production values that DC and Marvel demand.

  3. It seems to me that they’re failing to apply Occam’s Razor. If sales of superhero comics are dwindling, maybe people are tired of reading about superheroes. Or maybe people think quality has dropped since some point in the past. Maybe the genre is failing to innovate (after all, what has really changed since the 30’s?). But instead of fixing the problem at the source, they think they can latch on to a more popular medium and leech some of its readership.

    And really, there’s a big difference between laughing at the occasional Batman joke and becoming a loyal reader.

    I think what we’re seeing here is stagnation. And instead of moving on with the times, Marvel and DC cling ferociously to their traditions. And if these webcomics they’re going to create are similar to their print comics, they can expect as much success as those.

    • Correct on all points.

      I think 99% of the successful webcomics are complete shit. But I admit that they do cater to the modern, good-taste-lacking, audience. Superhero publishers cater to an audience they gained in 1986.

      By any objective measure, that makes them old, lame, and out of touch. Which would be fine if their old, lame and out of touch audience were sticking with them like the grannies that keep Garfield afloat.

      • You seriously think 99 percent of successful webcomics are shit? Haha you such a hater, WG.

        Anyway I’m not sure it’s just the sale of Superhero comics that are dwindling, but just… the whole industry in general. And if by ‘they think they can latch onto a more popular medium’, you mean /movies/, than they… actually can. And are. And are making a lot of money from that whole… thing…

        If that’s not what you meant then I have no idea what you’re talkin’ about haha.

        • Yes yes. In Fanland disliking something based on its own merits is impossible. Thanks for the reminder.

          • It’s my personal version of the Bechdel Test: If your comic can’t go five pages without referencing tv, movies, or games it’s unlikely I’ll find it worth reading.

            But that doesnt mean you’re not allowed to enjoy these comics. As the old saying goes, “They make chocolate and vanilla for a reason…”

        • I meant they’re latching onto webcomics and the internet in general.

          And I’m aware of the insane amount of superhero movies. But it’s false popularity. They might be making a lot of money, but that’s because you can put nearly anything colourful and filled with explosions in a movie theatre and it’ll run a profit. The fact that superhero movies are popular says more about the strength of the action movie genre than the state of superheroes. In fact, I’d say that with the movies, they’ve already succeeded at doing what they want to accomplish with these webcomics. And the results speak for themselves: I didn’t buy any Spiderman comics after seeing the movie (though I did so on TV; It’ll be a cold day in hell before I’ll pay to see a superhero movie), neither did anyone I know, and judging from their still-declining sales no-one else did, either.

          Oh, and my sister watched that awful Superman series. She didn’t buy any comics, either.

          So my proposition is simple: If they want more people to buy their comics, they need to make better comics.

    • Superhero comics really haven’t made any major innovations since the 70’s, and haven’t even made minor changes since the end of the 90’s Leifeld era, and that era only existed because people thought that the 4 million printed copies of Skullfucker #1 would be worth 5 million dollars apiece in 20 years.

      The real problem with the superhero comics industry is that the stories aren’t going anywhere, there’s no real resolution in sight to stuff like Batman or X-Men comics, so why would anyone care where things are going? Not to mention that the comics industry has pulled the reset button on so many things that nobody gives a shit what happens in the stories anymore.

      As sad as it is, those comics needed to end decades ago, and new comics needed to be created in their place, it’s what made Japanese comics so compelling before Kishimoto and Kubo decided to never end their boring as shit series.

      • There sort of are resolutions. Regarding the heroes, Dark Knight Returns wraps up the story of Batman, Kingdom Come wraps up the story of the DC heroes, Days of the Future Past wrapped up the story of the X-Men (once upon a time, anyway), etc. It can be argued that it’s not canon… but even linear comic stories stop being canon, say, five years down the line. I think most comic fans read Kingdom Come and accept that as canon for the moment of time in which they are reading it.

        After all, while TV series and movies do come to a conclusion, that’s, for a large part, because it’s a natural progression of the artists who age with them. Superhero comic characters, as a general rule of thumb, don’t age, and there’s an at least an attempt to keep them relevant to future generations of a young age group.

        Granted, I’m not saying that Marvel and DC don’t make a mess of things. But still, in my personal canon, the DC story ends with Superman married to Wonder Woman, and they’re have a nice coffee with Bruce Wayne, who’s got his neck in a brace.

        Also, regarding the Liefeld era: that’s the era that got me into comics. It’s villified these days, but it was crack for teenage readers like me. Liefeld, Lee, MacFarlane, Silvestri, and the rest were sticking it TO THE MAN by starting their own company, which was absolutely unheard of at the time. They were our role models: going into business for themselves and becoming supersuccessful to the point that Image Comics far outsold their other competitors. They got comics out of newsprint, pioneered new color techniques, and revolutionized the panel layouts. So while the older, crusty, money-grubbing collectors certainly took it the wrong way, us younger readers saw it as something new and exciting and breaking away from the tired old tradition-bound superhero comics … and we weren’t wrong.

  4. Sadly, the comic industry might just not be getting any better. Even if DC puts comics on the web, the lack of popularity for comics will mean a lack of quality artists, quality writers, and fresh ideas will be flowing in simply because they won’t feel drawn to making comics.

    It’s similar to the slow demise of the pro wrestling industry, only not quite as dramatic because comic writers aren’t dying in droves before they turn forty. Still, both industries lost major venues in which to help perfect the craft (comics lost newspapers, wrestling lost the territories), and without being a major player industry, the best of your field (be it wrestlers or writers and artists) don’t get drawn to your field, which leads to less new talents being developed, and less of the old guard and less of the new stars to study from, which in turn just leads to a further downward spiral for everyone involved. You can do temporary stuff to help ease the problems, but the overall trend at the moment is stagnation if you’re lucky, and downward as the most likely path.

    It’s not a happy thought to think about, but that’s just the way things are. In fact, the same thing will probably happen to the video game industry in 10 or 20 years, and I would’ve written about that, but judging by your El Santo and Blue Demon masks, I figured you’d find this more relateable.

    • You could argue that, with wrestling, the indies are around to help wrestlers hone their craft. Unfortunately, the big problem with those is that most don’t mesh well with the WWE’s in-house product. Indie darlings like CM Punk and Bryan Danielson tend to get lost in the mix.

      However, one reader on the Comics Alliance comment section did propose an interesting solution: that webcomics would be the venue to hone the craft and take place of newspapers, while the major titles are still for pay. That way, minor characters like, say, Moon Knight, Nova, and the JSA get their chance to shine. Fans of those characters still have their stories, the door is open for newer fans (since they didn’t have to pay to read), and new artists get to develop their skills before making the jump to the major titles. I thought it was crazy enough to work.

      • That actually sounds like a good option, plus it would give a level of quality control. When any Tim Buckley can buy a website and put up a webcomic, quality control goes out the window, but if there’s a place people specifically want to write on that takes effort to get involved in, that level of protection still exists.

  5. “Give it away for free? Are you kidding! We paid good money to produce this stuff and we want to achieve the maximum amount of return on this product.”

    Look at it from a stuffy old businessman’s standpoint. You pay X amount of dollars for writers, artists, and editors to produce a title. Then you give the work they produced away for free for the masses to consume. If you have a readership of 1,000 people, and only get 10 people buying, it’s a terrible return on your investment. The idea is to get all 1,000 people paying up front regardless of the quality of the product, because there’s a bottom line that needs to be met. THAT is where the hesitation by print-influenced publishers comes from. The excuse that people aren’t buying superhero books or superheroes are out of date or the writers aren’t good is only small part of the equation.

    There are a lot of bad webcomics (look at El Santo’s 1 & 2 star reviews and you’ll see) but they still manage to make a bunch of money by being delivered for free. The money comes from advertising and supplemental merchandise – not the actual product itself. I doubt Marvel or DC would try and jump on a system that is radically different from the model they built their business on, especially since the professionals hired to do the work expect to be paid for what they do.

    With webcomics, the artists, writers and editors are doing it for free in the hopes of getting a return. It works for the self-published individuals, but not for running a big business. The model breaks down once you have to get volunteers working. And no one wants to work for nothing.

  6. I think that the dwindling sales of the big two can’t be lumped together with the numbers we’re seeing in graphic novels and manga. They are two completely separate business models, with different forms of distribution and retail venues. I think trade paperback, graphic novels and manga are suffering from very similar issues, but Marvel and DC are suffering from a stagnation of content.

    There are lots of comic readers, webcomics readers in particular, who would never be caught 10 yards from a superhero comic, much less read them for free. If Marvel and DC are comic publishers first, they need to diversify their stories. Zuda was good for that, it had some really excellent content, almost worth navigating their terrible interface.

    The world is made up of an amazing breadth of storytelling. Movies, TV, novels, short stories, magazines, games, conceptual art, news, and so much more rely on narrative, and it’s just laziness that Marvel and DC have pidgeon holed themselves. It’s hard to diversify – it’s hard to market and it’s a risk. If readers are telling them that their laziness has forfeited their sales, then so be it.

    Webcomics are not going to solve the numbers problem, unfortunately.

  7. What is the numbers problem that you are referring to? Sales? Revenues?
    I think that the days of centralized control of comics creation and publication are going away. Through the internet, the good writers and artists should be capable of marketing themselves and operating independently, like Karl Kerschl and the Foglios have done. The overall revenues are probably lower, but the creators get a much higher percentage of them. All of that means comics are much cheaper and more interesting.

  8. Honestly, I’m an avid webcomic reader and a devoted follower of this digital medium and I’ve never read a comic in my life. I’m 18, and I read a few mangas in my youth but never a comic book. The internet and webcomics were the first time I was exposed to the sequential art we call ‘comic books’ and ‘graphic novels’. I’d never consider buying a comic book, but if I had the money, I’d probably donate to my favourite webcomics and purchase hard copies so I can read them away from the net.

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