A film like The Avengers can gross over $1.5 billion worldwide, yet the main Avengers comic book title only sold a shade over 50,000 units in September 2014 (with other ancillary titles finishing well below that value). Is this paradox unique to comics, or is it common to all films adapted from written work? Does it seem slightly off that the film industry thrives in adapting comic story lines such as Civil War and the Infinity Gauntlet when the medium creating these stories is in such financial disarray? Why do comics suffer when every form of media that borrows ideas, stories, and characters from them succeed?
To begin answering these questions, let’s figure out if this paradox is inherent only to comics, or present among all written work. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is another film which grossed over $1 billion at the worldwide box office, and its source material became the fastest selling novel in history. So, it seems that books adapted into films don’t usually struggle to sell. Comics have received a financial boost from film and television adaptations in the past. For example, the campy 1960s Batman supposedly saved the comic from cancellation. This phenomenon might rise from the cross-marketability and nostalgic fame of superheroes such as Superman and Batman. Surely, these characters are well known beyond comics fandom. However, name recognition fails to explain the success of superhero films with rather unknown characters, such as this summer’s wildly profitable film, Guardians of the Galaxy. Or consider another example: The Walking Dead is one of TV’s highest-viewed shows, with its October season premiere attracting a staggering 22.4 million viewers, by far a record for cable television drama. However, the comic inspiring the series sold just under 70,000 units in September. So perhaps the trend is not unique to superhero comics alone, which further complicates the root of the paradox.
Another reason for comics’ commercial failure may be the perceived dense continuity of comic characters. Characters that have been continuously published since the 1960s contain a lot of baggage. Take Jean Grey, the famous female X-Man, for example. Since her inception in X-Men #1 in 1963, she has died twice, destroyed millions of aliens on a genocidal rampage, been the love interest of at least four different X-Men, and has currently time-traveled to the present in the ongoing series All-New X-Men. Casual readers do not want to delve into such complex and at times contradictory mythologies. And, writers are hard-pressed to create more stories when just about everything exciting (if you don’t believe me, take a glance at Jean Grey’s Wikipedia page) that can be done with characters has been done. However, similar character baggage has not prevented fantasy series like A Song of Ice and Fire from being commercially successful. When DC Comics rebooted the continuity of all of their ongoing titles in 2011, the move failed to result in any lasting increase in readership after a brief boost in sales. Furthermore, critically acclaimed comics are frequently produced by independent publishers and creator-owned labels like Image, which provide quality stories without bringing in too much back-story, while sales stagnate behind DC and Marvel titles.
There might also be a social stigma attached to reading comics. Different columnists on the industry have speculated that comics’ focus on fantasy and masculine violence are seen as juvenile, and purely for the realm of young, heterosexual males. This criticism of comics was surely true in the 1960s, when practically every comic was superhero-based and Wonder Woman was essentially the only female to headline her own book, but that’s changed. Comics now run the gamut of genres, ranging from humorous comics like Sex Criminals (a popular new title from Image that approaches sexuality in an honest, thoughtful way), to Saga (an epic sci-fi romance which has drawn comparisons with Game of Thrones and Romeo and Juliet ). Anything that bridges the gap between those two works is worthy of reading, in my opinion. We should also consider graphic novels such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Charles Burns’s Black Hole to see intelligent and vital social commentary in comics. However, trying to change social perceptions is about as effective as willing a glacier to move. Despite box office-matriculated attention and new character depth, the social stigma of comics might persist as a good enough reason for their subordination in favor of other forms of media.