It’s been unofficial for a while, but as of this week I’d say that as of this week the comic book biz is no longer about actually publishing comic books, but in fact about making films that star comic book characters. The take over of Marvel Entertainment by Disney and the reorganization of DC Comics into DC Entertainment is part of a larger picture which includes the death of print as a viable commercial medium. Although to be fair this story has been a long time in the making: In fact the first chapter in this story can be traced to Disney.
Disney started life as a film studio, but what set them apart was their ability to merchandise their characters. Eons before anyone knew about the phrase multimedia Disney was in fact a multimedium company. In fact it may be fair to say that the talent of Walt (and his older brother Roy) was the ability take to take animated film characters and put them everywhere from toys to them parks. And an important but overlooked part of this story is that in fact Disney was into print comics going back to the 40s (the amazing work of Carl Banks).
Although it wasn’t until the 60s that DC Comics started to have success outside of comic books — so in a sense you can blame the 1966 TV series Batman for kick starting the trend. Ironically the Batman TV show increased comic book sales, but the tail started to wag the dog when in 1969 Warner Brothers/7 Arts merged with DC Comics. At first the real fruits of this evolution were seen on Saturday morning TV shows like the Superfriends, but by the 80s this trend really accelerated thanks to the first Superman movie in 1978. And part of what made that first film work was the fact that it was produced in the post-Star Wars era when special effects had become improved over what had been seen just a few years before. This marriage served DC Comics well through the 90s as the first Batman film did so well thanks to the talents of Tim Burton in 1989.
Ironically as DC was doing so well Marvel as an indie company was tanking by the 90s. It’s funny to think that during this era fanboys would often mock Marvel for the infamous inability to get their characters into the silver screen. And off screen things were just as bad as they went for cheap gimmicks like alternate covers to boost sales with an ever shrinking market, and thanks to junk bonds the company actually went into bankruptcy in 1996. Although in a sense that represented a rebirth of the company as they started to take the idea of doing high quality films seriously. The first sign of this rebirth was the 1998 film Blade which allowed them to be take seriously.
And what’s funny is that as Marvel has kicked ass this last decade with X-Men and Spider-Man it’s been DC Comics that became a joke with fanboys. In fact I had one friend who reviewed a late era batman film as “that was the worst film I’ve ever seen” — his review even made avoid the film when it runs for free on TV even till this day for me. But sadly while Marvel has done well the venues for people to actually buy comics books are vanishing. Back in the day most kids would buy their comic books from their local newsstand, and frankly as a business stores and kiosks have gone from owning the world in the 50s to being a small stand that you see at an airport or train station. Even comic book stores which sort of had a golden age in the 80s have become fewer and fewer over the years.
Above: Megan Fox at Comic Con 2009 (this is not what comic book conventions looked like twenty years ago).
So the real action for these characters has been off the page and on to the silver screen. Do kids still read comics in 2009? Of course they do! But those kids are girls reading manga, not boys reading superhero titles. In fact if you look at how Comic Con has turned into a Hollywood event you see the proof of this. Comic Con isn’t about comics, it’s about comic book characters and how they’ll be seen in the next big film that comes out. So frankly to me it’s been a surprise that Marvel was never owned by a major media until this year, one might have though that the likes of a Disney would have purchased Marvel back in the 90s at a discount price. So the Disney deal has been a long time coming.
So imagine if you are an executive at TimeWaner watching the Disney/Marvel deal go down: You’re sitting there thinking “we use to own the idea of comic book themed films, what the hell is going on?” At that point even though DC Comics is part of the empire you see that it’s lacking that magic word “synergy” which has come to stand for the failure of the TimeWarner/AOL merger from the dot.com era. Well synergy looks great on paper, but the reality is that a film studio must feel attached to their intellectual property. And at that point it became obvious to the powers that be that something needed to be fixed, and thus we now have DC Entertainment.
Do I think that there will be printed comics books a year from now? Hell yeah, but I wouldn’t make that same bet for five or ten years in the future. Sadly sometime during the 1950s Americans stopped reading more and more each year. Well maybe “reading” is the wrong phrase, perhaps the correct phrase is “reading printed publications”. With television the moving image started to conquer our living rooms, and by the 80s that became cable TV and by the 90s that became the internet. In our world comic books are no different than newspapers, except that the characters in those comics can have a life in another medium. My guess is that we’ll still continue to read comics, but not comic books. And this is why both Marvel and now DC have the second name “entertainment” for we’ve entered a post-print era for good.