The Current State And Future Of Comic Books, Part I

It was well known by fans that the comic book industry faced declining sales in the past few years. Then this pandemic struck. Now, comic book shops all over are closed down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Major comic book companies like Marvel and DC will not release comic books digitally, and this has resulted in the entire industry coming to a standstill. We have not had any released comic books for several weeks and this has cascaded to lost jobs, revenue and products. On top of that, the San Diego Comic-Con and other conventions have been cancelled.

This crisis will pass at some point. But will its damage be too much for the comic book industry? Even without this pandemic the industry had many challenges and was running on inertia and good will from other media, notably the films and TV shows based on their comic book characters. It was in a fragile place and it may only take an outside factor like the coronavirus to be the kill the industry.

So, what happened to the comic book industry and where does its future go? If it even has one.

Modern State

When the American comic book first came into existence back in the 1930s they were aimed at children and at first reprinted newspaper strips. This changed with Action Comics #1 in 1938 as it introduced Superman, the first genuine superhero. After a lull in the 1950s superheroes dominated the medium to this day. However, comic books continued to change as new styles and ideas were introduced, and readers’ tastes changed, as well.

Currently, we are in the Modern Age and just as in the 1990s it is defined by an overreliance on speculators and comic books geared to please them. There are differences between the two time periods. The speculators during the Copper Age in the 1990s were mostly outside investors who hoped to retire by buying comic books with gimmick incentives like hologram covers, inserted trading cards, and numerous guest appearances by popular characters like Wolverine or Venom. This period was infamous for the Great Comics Crash of 1996 as investors were unable to sell their comics and left. Sales dropped so hard that comic books’ continued existence was in doubt.

Exclusive Variants

While those investors are long gone, today many hardcore collectors are encouraged to seek out very expensive variant comics. These are issues of certain key titles with different covers that are given out to retailers as incentives by distributors like Diamond Comics and publishers to encourage retailers to buy large volumes of comics. The retailers in turn sell these exclusive variants at premium prices, but are stuck with too many comics that will not sell. That is one of the reasons why comic book stores have so many sales with comics selling for $1 or so.

A new type of variants are blank cover comics that can be used for signatures or sketches by artists. This means that these comic books become unique pieces of art and thus more valuable. On average an individual title will have roughly eight to ten variant covers released. It can be hard to discern which is the regular cover for a title for a collector not interested in the variants.

These days collectors submit their coveted titles for grading to the Certified Guaranty Company (CGC). This company uses experts who thoroughly examine comics and assigned a number grade before the comics are sealed in hard plastic cases. This has led to collectors with large wallets to chase after these high-value items. Lately, CGC is selling comic books that are exclusives with black and white sketch variant covers of regular issues.

While some can profit handsomely with these graded comics, one has to wonder about the future of this niche market. After all, the average collector cannot afford to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars for these CGC exclusives, let alone the fee to have their precious comics graded.

Higher & Higher Prices

The current prices of comic books is an important reason why sales are declining. Let’s put aside the CGC comics. Those are a niche market for collectors with deep pockets and the average collector is not missing anything if he or she is just trying to keep up with a collection.

Anyone buying and collecting comic books will confirm that they cost too much money. This complaint has existed ever since the Silver Age when prices increased from 10 cents up to 20 cents. As publishing, printing and distribution costs went up so did the prices. Now, the average comic book costs about $3.99.

Lately, publishers released special anniversary issues that cost anywhere from 8 to 12 dollars. These particular comics are meant to celebrate the anniversaries of long-running successful characters. These special issues which feature assorted stories by many writers and artists sold extremely well, and is why more are coming out. The latest celebrant is The Joker who will have his own special 80th anniversary comic book that will ship directly later this month. Unlike the CGC comics, the average collector will seek these out even though they are expensive.

Where does this end? Think about it, where once a comic book cost only 10 cents now on average is nearly five dollars. Then multiply that with all the individual comics a collector will buy on any given month and what is left is an expensive hobby. Surely, most comic books today are not oriented to young children and publishers have correctly figured that the average buyers are adults who can afford their product. With that said, where does it end? It is easy to see comic books in the future costing ten dollars, even twenty dollars for an average issue. Will the average collector be willing to pay that much on a monthly basis?

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Twilight Of DC Comics?

The latest rumors percolating around the internet is about DC Comics and how it will cease publication. The reason behind this is low sales and loss of confidence by DC Comics’ owners, AT&T. While the comic book company is challenged by declining sales, it is too early to start writing obituaries for the company.

It’s been reported that AT&T does not have any interest in comic book publications and considers DC Comics to be a financial drain to the point that they want to sell DC. More dire is that if the upcoming DC Comics 5G revamp does not succeed then DC will fold. That is ludicrous and an exaggeration. First of all, even though DC comic book sales are down, the characters are still popular. Just look at the amount of money made in merchandising and from other media. Namely, TV shows, films and video games. The video game Batman: Arkham Knight and Batman: Arkham are some of the most revered video games ever released.

Sure, the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is struggling right now, but the cinematic universe is rife with potential. Want proof? Look at the positive reaction generated by the clip introducing the new Batman in next year’s The Batman. It is too easy to pile on the DCEU because Shazam! underperformed last year and Birds of Prey was a box office failure. Too many are comparing the DCEU to the MCU, which is unfair since the MCU was a properly planned cinematic universe that is reaping the rewards now. But keep in mind, the MCU may not be the top dog going forward and this could coincide with the DCEU taking over as the top cinematic universe. Just greenlight a Man of Steel sequel and all should be fine. 😀

Then there is the high anticipation for new DC TV shows like Stargirl and Green Lantern. Also, many current TV shows are getting lots of attention like the ones streaming on the DC Universe app (Harley Quinn, Doom Patrol and Titans) or on The CW–the recent crossover event Crisis on Infinite Earths earned tons of positive publicity as several versions of live-action DC superheroes made appearances and teamed up.

Getting back to the comics, the low sales DC is grappling with is shared with all the other comic book companies. There are many reasons for declining sales such as rising costs, other competing media, and so on. What can be done to deal with the sales? That is the million-dollar question and it is clear the current comic book model and distribution no longer works. A solution as innovative as direct sales was back in the late 70s is needed to allow the medium to survive. Whether this means going completely digital, lowering prices, or changing the print format (going directly to graphic novels or trade paperbacks) remains to be seen.

Of course, AT&T could license off their comic books and have another company create their comics. But that could lead to headaches down the road. What if a new character is introduced in the hypothetical licensed comic, does that character belong to DC? The best example is Marvel back in the 90s. The company canceled several comics and hired Rob Liefeld and other Image creators to relaunch core titles like Captain America into their own reboots. At the same time, Marvel sold the film and TV rights to film companies to raise cash and climb out of bankruptcy. The result was that the Liefeld books were poorly received and eventually killed, while to this date, Marvel is struggling with trying to regain the rights to all their characters. Hence the mess over Spider-Man’s film and TV rights, ditto for the Hulk. DC Comics is in a state of flux right now. This was evident with the recent dismissal of DC co-publisher Dan DiDio; and how 5G will fare is unknown. The comic books as we know will most likely change, but its too fluid to guess how, so we’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, if any of you don’t want to see a twilight of DC comics then remember to keep buying them.

 

 

Requiem For A Dark Knight

ben-affleck-as-batman
The status of Ben Affleck’s role in the upcoming Batman film directed by Matt Reeves has been a source of both interest and mystery ever since Affleck left that film’s role as director two years ago. This mystery was finally solved a few days ago with the article on deadline.com that detailed a release date for the film titled The Batman, which will come to theaters on June 25th, 2021 with a new actor to be cast in the role. This was seemingly confirmed by Affleck himself, who retweeted the article on his Twitter account. This news has brought a reaction from fans that of sadness and regret since he will no longer be playing a role that he has owned since his debut in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The initial announcement of his casting as Batman was met with some skepticism at first, but after the first trailer for the movie, with the image of Bruce Wayne staring at his Batman outfit, consumed with rage, fans were convinced of his ability to play the dual role of playboy millionaire and costumed vigilante, obsessed with stopping what he saw as the ultimate threat in Superman. His excellent performance in the somewhat divisive film cemented his legacy as the definitive live-action Batman. His brief, but well received, cameo in Suicide Squad further excited fans. His last full time appearance as the Caped Crusader in Justice League in 2017 was met with mixed results since he seemed somewhat disinterested. Possibly this was due to reshoots by Joss Whedon and rewrites to the story that changed what the original director Zack Snyder had planned. But, overall, I thought his performance was still a great interpretation of a transformed Bruce Wayne who was trying to live up to Superman’s example and not let his sacrifice in Batman v Superman go in vain. 
I do wish that Ben Affleck was given another opportunity to play the role. However, due to the reaction to both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, as well as his own personal problems with alcoholism and a high profile divorce, this led to his wavering on whether or not to continue the role. Also complicating things was the fact that Matt Reeves wants to tell a story of a younger Batman that takes place maybe 10-15 years before the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. There were some rumors that Affleck might play the older version of Batman at the start and end of the movie, but this seems to have been rejected by Reeves.  His vision of a noir-driven detective film does sound interesting and unique, but it would have been great to see Affleck in this type of film as well, since his previous movies as Batman focused on his fighting abilities and strengths. As for who will replace him, there are, of course, lots of rumors on that as well. One is Armie Hammer, who would be a good replacement. Hammer has been rumored to be up for the part of Hal Jordan in the upcoming Green Lantern Corps film, but that movie is still several years away with Geoff Johns writing a new script for it. Another one rumored is Aaron Taylor-Johnson from 2014’s Godzilla and 2010’s Kick-Ass. Whoever is picked should not be so young as to look more like Robin than Batman. Even though Reeves is supposedly looking for an actor in the range of 25-30, this Batman should already be an experienced crime fighter. Christoper Nolan’s Batman Begins in 2005 already told the story of the Caped Crusader first starting out. Another origin story is not needed. Whoever is cast needs to have the same presence that Affleck had and be able to show that he will eventually become the force that dominated Gotham’s underworld in Batman v Superman.
If there is ever another Justice League movie or another DCEU film that takes place in present day, one hopes that Affleck will be called on to don the cape again, but that is unknown at this point. If he never plays the role again, his legacy is still cemented in comic movie lore as arguably the most accurate Bruce Wayne and Batman to show up on the big screen. Every role is eventually recast at some point. Look at how many actors have played the role of James Bond over the years. Batman is no exception. The character is over 75 years old and will go on no matter who plays him, so while it’s sad that Ben Affleck is leaving, any hysteria over this is not really necessary. I just hope that whoever takes the torch from him is able to live up to the standard he set and helps Matt Reeves make another great Batman movie.
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Aquaman Salvages The DCEU

It’s official, Aquaman is the biggest hit for the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) or the Worlds of DC. The newest superhero film released by Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment has proven so successful that it has joined the lucrative billion dollar club as of this weekend. Aquaman’s success could not have come at a better time for DC and Warner Bros. as the film studio desperately needed to have a genuine supehero hit film given all the headaches they’ve had with the DCEU lately.

The DCEU has always had an uneven existence with films that either polarized audiences or just left everyone unimpressed. For every Wonder Woman there was a Suicide Squad. The DCEU was supposed to be a viable competitor to the far more successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but that did not turn out to be. For the most part, Warner Bros. was to blame with the way they micromanaged the DCEU films and their directors and never gave the people running the film universe the chance to organically develop it. In their rush to compete with the MCU, many of the DCEU films felt like rushed trailers for subsequent films. This all came to a head with Justice League last year. What was supposed to be DC’s answer to The Avengers was poorly received and flopped in theaters.

Adding to the woes were all the behind-the-scenes headaches that have been covered before such as the inability to create a proper sequel to Man of Steel, the drama of whether or not Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill would reprise their roles of Batman and Superman. Films were announced and shelved. Directors and writers came aboard for films only to depart soon afterwards.

After the failure of Justice League, not many had hope for Aquaman. After all, he was not a popular superhero and was often derided by many for being so underwhelming. His appearances in previous DCEU movies redefined the character into more of a fun-loving surfer dude type, but this did not inspire confidence that he could carry a film. Thankfully, many of us were proven wrong.

An Underwater Spectacle

Aquaman turned out to be a fun, exciting and spectacular film that just went for broke. It is outrageous with its imagery and the film created a stunning underwater world that is so richly detailed and colorful that it evokes films like Avatar or the Star War films. As with the latter films, Aquaman is one exhaustive film that constantly moves in terms of plot and action. Some parts of it, especially the scenes in Italy, recall the brisk pace of the Indiana Jones films. Much of this credit goes to director James Wan who injected needed levity and adventure to the DCEU and people reacted positively to Aquaman.

Of course, the film can be silly and goofy but it is never dull. On top of that the natural charms of the leads Jason Mamoa and Amber Heard helped sell the film to wide audiences. What also helped was the timing of its release. Unlike previous Holiday seasons, there was no Star Wars film to compete with. Audiences who are weary from all the sour news of the world want escapism and fun in their films. And Aquaman delivered that to them.

Finally, it seemed as if Warner Bros. left Wan and the other filmmakers alone and didn’t try to inject the greater DCEU to Aquaman. Aside from two references, this film could stand apart from the DCEU, and it helped since this allowed the characters to have the spotlight to themselves and for the film’s story to develop naturally. Does this mean this formula will work for future DCEU films? It’s possible, just think about it, Aquaman followed the same path of the early MCU films in that they were largely standalone affairs with lesser known characters that won over audiences. By the time the MCU expanded into team up films, people were invested in the characters. This does not mean this standalone formula will work with every film. But for now a loose affiliation with the DCEU may be the key…for now.

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Man of Steel & The Five-Year Anniversary Of The DCEU

Man of Steel
This month marks the five-year anniversary of the beginning of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU( and the film that started it all, Man of Steel. This film brought the most iconic superhero, Superman, into the modern age with incredible visuals and a very interesting take on his origins. The film starts as expected on the doomed planet of Krypton and shows Superman’s father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and the beginning of the feud between the House of El and General Zod (Michael Shannon). The planet shown is very unique and has a wonderful sci-fi aesthetic that is a radical departure from the cold, crystalline Krypton shown in older Superman films.
After Jor-El’s infant son, Kal-El, is sent to Earth, the story shifts suddenly to present day where Kal-El, now called Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), is now a grown man unsure of who he is and where he came from. His life as a child on Earth is told in flashbacks and shows how difficult it was for a boy with superhuman powers to try to lead a normal life. Lessons from his adopted father Jonathan (Kevin Costner) include trying not to draw attention to himself until he was ready, even if it meant not saving those who were in danger. This harsh lesson would haunt Clark later in the film when tragedy strikes the Kent family.
Man of Steel presents a startling depiction of the title hero as it focuses on Superman’s uncertainty about himself when he learns of his alien origin and during his battles with Zod after he arrives on Earth. This is sharp contrast to previous depictions of Supes, where he is more accepting and confident of who he was. However, in the end, Superman is able to defeat Zod and start his journey as Earth’s greatest hero. The battles between Superman and Zod and his henchmen are thrilling to watch and culminate in Superman having to kill Zod in order to save civilians from being killed. This was a divisive thing as many fans balked at seeing the Man of Steel killing someone. The large-scale collateral damage across the city Metropolis caused by the epic battle was also controversial among fans. This different take on things carries on throughout the rest of the DCEU, where Batman is shown as a bitter and cynical crime fighter of 20 years, at the end of his rope, and Wonder Woman is in hiding after dealing with a century of war and heartbreak in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Superman kills Zod
 The new depiction of these characters has been controversial and the mixed reception to some of the DCEU films has led some people to want Warner Brothers to reboot the whole thing but this would be unwise. To date there are already five DCEU films released with three more filmed and in post production (Aquaman, Shazam and Wonder Woman 2). You don’t cancel a franchise eight films into it. What WB seems to be doing now is focusing on standalone films as opposed to team up epics like Justice League. This in part due to the disappointing  box office for Justice League. Going back to basics gives DC an opportunity to recapture what Man of Steel did so well, which was to have a streamlined film with great action and a focus solely on the heroic character without having to establish a number of other characters that WB was quickly trying to introduce. Now that those introductions are out of the way, they can now take their time to fully explore these heroes. Hopefully this will begin with Aquaman, which is coming out this December. Hopes are high with a well-regarded director in James Wan and rumors of epic underwater visuals and battles that this film will kickstart the next phase of DCEU films. Although I do hope that we will eventually see another Justice League film; the post-credit scene of of the film suggests the formation of the supervillain group, the Legion of Doom. It would be great to see them battling DC’s heroes in a big mash up.
 Another positive of this shared universe is that we are finally seeing films that have DC characters which were previously ignored in films. Earlier decades were dominated by Batman and that’s about it. This can hurt a brand if it’s focused too much on one character only. In fact that is what happened with the DC films which for the most part were devoted to Batman for a couple of decades.  Broadening the scope of DC films has led to the breakthrough of Wonder Woman, probably the most popular film of the DCEU, so far. All of this will let other characters have their day in the cinematic sun like the aforementioned Aquaman, as well as other fan favorites like Nightwing, Batgirl and the Flash. 
 But the one that started it all is also the one that started DC Comics way back in 1938. Appropriately, Superman is the beginning of the DC’s shared cinematic universe and his film Man of Steel is I think, the blueprint that should be followed by the next group of DCEU films. And hopefully we will see another Man of Steel movie, as well.  It’s maddening that Warner Bros. keeps announcing new films featuring lesser-known characters while there has been no indication that Man of Steel will have a proper sequel. There are persistent rumors that Supes will be appearing not only in Shazam, but also show up in other DCEU films and be the link the link between the different movies. If this is the case, then the future of the DCEU should end up brighter after its somewhat shaky start.
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