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Comics & Games Retailer

The Comic-ification of Publishing

By Oliver Chin

As a sequel to my previous column on the American graphic novel industry, I'd like to profile some mainstream publishers who have recognized the marketability of heroes and hero-worship. By licensing here and mimicking there, they too have employed famous characters and marketing trends to boost their own businesses.

Of course, comics publishers are used to seeing the world from the other direction. Their mantra is "We need to break out of the friendly but finite comics retail neighborhood and reach the holy grail of the mass market." In a chicken and egg world, golden opportunity often seems the reward of success (i.e. from a retailer's seat: if you don't have anything "hot" to sell that I don't know about already, then don't bother me). But companies are pecking away at the pecking order…

Here is a case in point. As I was waiting to get a flat tire fixed at Costco the other day, I idly started browsing their aisle of books. To my surprise, in the stacks I found trade paperbacks from Dark Horse (Star Wars, Buffy), Cartoon Books, Image (Transformers), and even the neophyte The Astonish Factory (Hero Bear and the Kid). On the other side of the table were the oversize children's books for the Hulk from Dorling Kindersley, and an aisle over were the spanking brand new DVDs of the Daredevil movie.

First off, I thought, "Did someone forget their comics here and should I call lost and found?"

Then I thought, "Wow that is impressive that these guys got their graphic novels into Costo."

Then I thought, "I wonder what the deal terms were. They're not making much money off each unit."

Then I thought, "Too bad these copies are beat up, mixed up, and at the bottom of the pile."

Then I thought, "I wonder how successful Dorling Kindersley has been publishing their 'comics' books?"

Stuck on that question, I started to look at the playing field from the other end zone. What happens when the big and bigger boys of book publishing increasingly poach and encroach upon the comics terrain? Therein lies the recent and growing trend of how comicdom is helping grow sales as a whole but permitting other publishers to rack up sales on what once was its home turf.

Dorling Kindersley

Known for their colorfully photographed primers and cleanly illustrated travel guides, DK crossed the pond from the UK to set up an expansionist colony in the US. They have been quick to apply their design formula onto new consumer-orientated subjects, and comics is no exception as they even have promoted Disney and the Looney Toons.

Playing both sides of the table, DK has worked with both Marvel and DC to ride the popularity of their movie franchises. Over the years, they have pumped out titles on the Hulk (written by Tom Defalco), X-men, Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the JLA. Publishing everything from sticker books to handbooks on the animated series, they have developed a series called "DK readers" in two different flavors ($3.99, ages 8 to 12; $12.99, ages 8 to 10) and a line of "Ultimate Guides" ($19.99, ages 8 to 12) that are introductory encyclopedias to the cast of characters of each make believe world.

Pantheon

An imprint of the juggernaut Random House (owned by the German multinational Bertelsman), Pantheon made its reputation by publishing Art Spiegelman's Maus, which won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and came to define the term "graphic novel" in the eyes of a larger public who had long lost interest in comics. Soon came Maus, Vol. II and The Complete Maus, and now editor Chip Kidd has come on board to stake out the high ground.

A graphic designer, who won Eisner awards for his work on the breakthrough Batman Animated TV series, Kidd has parleyed that street cred, commercial track record, and industry connections into building his own stable of comics. On one end is Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons and Futurama, who has compilations of his syndicated comics strip Life is Hell featuring his hapless rabbit protagonists Binky and Bongo. Forthcoming in October 2003 is Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross, undoubtedly geared to be the comic coffee table book of the year.

But Pantheon is actively trying to corner the market on critical acclaim (and take a bite out of Fantagraphics' alternative pie), and have gradually amassed a talented roster. Here resides the newest work of Daniel Clowes (David Boring), Kim Dietch (The Boulevard of Broken Dreams), and Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan).

Chronicle Books

Known for appealing gift, lifestyle and cookbooks, this San Francisco publisher has a trained eye to spot fashion trends. Therefore it is no surprise that they have hired superheroes to capitalize on Generation X's indulgence in reliving its 70's childhood.

With a retro flair, Chronicle has plastered DC's The Man of Steel, Dark Knight, Amazonian Princess, and even Catwoman on a spectrum of papyrus: address books, memo pads, notecards, journals, stationary. But they have also aimed for snob appeal by outputting a comprehensive series from artists originally published by Drawn & Quarterly, original illustrated guides and storybooks from the local LucasFilm monopoly of Star Wars, and a classy collectible line called Complete History for DC's Batman, Wonder woman, and Superman (hardcover, $29.95)

Watson-Guptill

On the do-it-yourselfer end, Watson-Guptill has carved out a dependable niche catering to middle America's hobbyists, from quilting to amateur photography. Drawing, illustration, and animation definitely fall into this framework, so this company has adapted to the times accordingly. On one hand they continue to build out their line of sketchbooks from legendary artists (Hal Foster, Burne Hogarth, John Romita, Carmine Infantino, Kerry Gammill, Neal Adams, John Buscema). On the other, they have glommed on to the manga wave by spitting out a series of "how to draw" books.

But with sure aim, Watson-Guptill is targeting the heart of the comics market. The aptly named DC Comics: A Celebration of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes (written by Les Daniels, paperback, $29.95) is an accessible summation of DC's pop culture lineage. With the soon-to-be-released DC Comics Guide to Inking (by Klaus Janson and Frank Miller, $19.95) completes a trio of Pencilling (Klaus Janson), and Writing Comics (Dennis O'Neil) that one ups any insider how-to guide to date. Plus on board is an upcoming art book entitled Vertigo Visions.

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By working "down market" into comics, general publishers are recognizing that revenues are now more important to them than preserving vain reputations. By using their economies of scale (production, distribution, and pricing) and tradecraft (age-segmentation, package design, and marketing), they have reached ready made and receptive audiences that comics publishers have not been able to.

However, on both sides of publishing, mass market success is often not all that its cracked up to be. Like taking drugs, a surprise sales hit imparts a temporary, addicting high that results in the burdensome worry about if and when you can score a follow up (take it from my personal experience). But in the comforting realm of comics, readers will never stop believing that a hero or heroine can return tomorrow to save the day. Certainly that has now become a mainstream publishing belief as well.

Magazines

Comics Buyer's Guide is the USA's longest running magazine about comic books. Every month it features new comic reviews, nostalgic retroviews, interviews and a price guide. Oliver Chin reviews anime, manga, movies, videos, graphic novels, comics, and books.

Comics & Games Retailer provides news to comic and games retailers about practical how-to tips on selling comics and keeping up with industry and market trends. Monthly issues include Oliver Chin's column "Going Global" and other articles that give a national overview of the market.