A HABITUAL LIFE SUPPORT SYSTEM:
THE ECONOMIC CONDITIONS OF THE
AMERICAN COMIC BOOK INDUSTRY
A THESIS SUBMITTED TO THE FACULTY OF
THE SEQUENTIAL ART DEPARTMENT
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR
THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF FINE ARTS FROM
THE SAVANNAH COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN
BENJAMIN JONES COHEN
Comic books are not born from artistic or literary initiative, but are the product of American economic enterprise. Ironically, the comic book remains indefinitely on life support due to economics. The frail economic condition of the comic book is directly a result of poor choices made by the American comics industry. These choices included focusing the comics market on one demographic group, failing to retain a satisfied talent pool, utilizing too few practical methods for product exposure.
COMIC BOOKS EQUAL KIDS' BOOKS
Internationally, especially in France, Belgium and Japan, comic books have grown from an imported medium for kids to a diversely consumed and admired medium for all ages. The content and craftsmanship of comic books have no boundaries in these cultures. However, in the American "collective consciousness" the comic book is primarily considered a childish medium. The American public has historically seen any divergence in comics from material appropriate for children as bad form. Obligingly responding to cultural pressures, the vast majority of comic books printed in the U.S. have been intended for kids under eighteen. The comic book industry thus has failed to compete for the American adults' arts and entertainment dollar.
In 1934, Eastern Color (later All-American) published Famous Funnies, the brainchild of publisher M. C. Gaines, bringing the first economic success to the comic book (Sabin 35). As its title suggests, it was a collection of already popular newspaper comic strips. The post-Victorian sentiment in America was reevaluating children and seeing them for the first time as other than little adults (Nyberg 6-7). Children were understood to have "developing psyches" that needed to be nurtured (Nyberg 47). Children were drawn to the comic strips in their father's newspapers, as was the entire family (Nyberg 47). Comic books born during the Great Depression were subject to the realities of the time. Their success was built on the affordability and availability of this escapist medium. Depression era sales figures for Famous Funnies showed a large market among children for the ten-cent comics magazines (Sabin 35). Comic book publishers began right off the bat to make material more focused on a youth market. By 1935 comic books were so successful that they inspired publisher, National Alliance, to hire freelance and in-house cartoonists who created original comics to compete with Gaines (Sabin 35). All-American and National Alliance joined to form National Periodicals (later DC) and Gaines quit to form Education Comics (EC) (von Bernewitz 10).
While humorous comic books were the mainstay of the early industry, two American Jews were to change that in 1938 (Sabin 57). Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created the new genre of superhero comics when National Periodical's Action Comics featured their alien/immigrant hero, "Superman." National's domination of the market continued with the 1939 publishing of Detective Comics No. 27 featuring the first "Batman" appearance and the 1940 first appearance of "Wonder Woman" in All Star Comics (Sabin 61-2, 86). National filed lawsuits based on accusations of plagiarism against comic book publishing houses Fawcett (1941), Timely (1941), Vital (1943) and Paget (1948) due to their publishing of superhero comic books (Sabin 62,66, 79). Despite National's semi-successful lawsuits, superhero comics soon permeated the industry (Sabin 62,66, 79). Comic books began to sell in greater numbers than they ever had or, in fact, would for the remainder of the millennium (57-62 Sabin). At Timely Periodicals (later Marvel) under publisher Martin Goodman, editor/writer Joe Simonson, illustrator Jack Kirby and eventually editor/writer Stan Lee produced superhero comic books that focused directly on the war effort with characters such as, "Captain America." Along with other superhero comic book companies, Timely sold well to military personnel through the entire World War II campaign. The children's market was the driving factor, but an adult market also began to take hold (Sabin 66).
The industry adapted products to maintain a post war adult audience. In 1947 Bill Gaines inherited EC from his father, M.C. Gaines. Too late to take advantage of the WWII market, but clearly interested in exploring the possibilities of a more adult product, a newly recruited EC staff began to present a very well-crafted, more mature story within typical comic genres (von Bernewitz 10). The industry had, from its beginning, a tendency to steal ideas pertaining to genre, plot lines and even illustrations. Despite this copycat game, no other company focused on the adult market as effectively as EC, in part due to the industry-wide belief that comics were a children's medium (Infantino 44-5).
After the war, the copycat tendency led the comic book industry into a variety of genres to which they would rapidly over-expose the childhood audience. The popularity of cowboy comics would fizzle and be replaced with crime comics. The comic books industry would soon burn out on everything from fuzzy animals to horror. There was also a strong effort to cater to young and adolescent girls, starting with Bob Montana & Joe Edwards's Archie (Robbins 9). National kept "Superman," "Batman" and "Wonder Woman" going, but in the post-war era the superhero genre was no longer the sales leader (Infantino 50). All the attempts at new genres by comic book publishers, other than those by EC, were marketed to children.
By 1954, America's growing focus on child development was further influenced by the obsession to counteract communism and the resulting desire to homogenize American public attitudes and orchestrate moral unity (qtd. in Nyberg 20). A widespread sentiment was that a child's free time was properly spent with activities that furthered a youth's mental and physical growth (Nyberg 11). Previously not a cultural issue, "teenage delinquency," was identified and perceived to be on the rise (Nyberg 18). Comic books were seen as a crude medium that undermined true literature and art, contributing to the rise in delinquency (Nyberg 1-5, 18-21). A concerned citizens censoring campaign that attacked the comics industry spread this view of comics (Harvey 47). The opponents of comics were threatened by the 125 new comic books available each month at 100,000 newsstands nationwide, and sold for a dime each (Nyberg 7). Small studies indicated that as much as 90% of children and teens were reading comic books (Nyberg 1). It was believed that 75% of the free time available to American children for mental and physical conditioning was being consumed by the comic book (Nyberg 7).
The entire anti-comic book movement came to a head when psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham, author of The Seduction of the Innocent, led a crusade to the U.S. Senate floor (Nyberg 85-103). Sen. Estes Kefauver, head of the Senate hearing committee, enthusiastically railroaded the entire comic book industry (von Bernewitz 21). The result was a regulation system, The Comics Code Authority, which rated the books simply on whether or not they were suitable for children. The Comics Code seal of approval did nothing to describe the content or even provide standard categories of the maturity level for the consumer. Comic books equaled kids' books, and any material unsuited for children was found to be unsuited for comic books.
Comics marketed to children and/or produced with adolescent themes subsequently became the identity of comic books in the "collective consciousness" of America. Following the guidelines set by the Comics Code Authority, National and Timely had recreated the economic power of the superhero by the 1960's. In a phoenix-like rebirth they changed their names to DC and Marvel, respectively. With artists like Carmine Infantino, DC began to produce pure superhero stories with illustrative influences from contemporary graphic design (Infantino 50). Marvel, led by writer, Lee and veteran comic book illustrators, like Kirby, produced superheroes with real human dilemmas. Marvel and DC would dominate and define the comic book market through the limits of superhero comics for the remainder of the American century and into the next.
Since 1954, cartoonists and small press publishers have made a variety of attempts to break free of the limited children's market. EC publisher, Gaines, took most of his cartoonists and revamped their comic MAD, converting to a magazine format and abandoning the comic book market. Prior to being bought out by DC's parent company Time Warner in 1982, MAD became the most financially successful satirical humor magazine for all ages America has ever produced (von Bernewitz 218). From 1963 to 1975 the small press Underground Comix movement published comic books specifically unsuited for children. Underground Comix, whenever discovered, were met with parental disgust. Underground cartoonists like R. Crumb have since grown from cult status to integration into the elitist society of contemporary high art (Stoo 116). For the first time female cartoonists like Trina Robbins had begun to have a limited voice in the comic book market through the Underground Comix movement and eventually mainstream comic books ("Crumb"). Comic book reading by girls has been in a slump since the 1950s' when Robbins was a girl. Female readership has recently grown slightly due to influence from Japanese comic books and contemporary Indy (Independent) and Alternative comic book movements, outgrowths of the Underground Comix movement. Also emerging from the underground comix movement, Gary Groth developed The Comics Journal in 1976 ("About The Comics Journal"). As the leading magazine that reports on and critiques the Comics Industry with intellectual rigor, the Comics Journal has been chronicling the development of a truly diverse small press comic book market.
In1978 Will Eisner, one of comics' earliest cartoonists, with his attempts to publish the long format comic book A Contract with Gods, invented the graphic novel, a bookstore-friendly format intended for mature audiences (Poniewozik 78). Marvel and DC's domination of the comic book industry had initially dominated the graphic novel market as well. Superhero comics' significant contribution to the quantity of graphic novels available led to an isolated graphic novel section, usually next to Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels, in most bookstore chains. In 1986 Marvel and DC took advantage of a growth in sales due to an aging superhero comic book fan base and comic book specialty collectors market. However, these groups with more disposable income represented an isolating and terminal marketing path. The longtime comic book consumers were responsible for high sales of finely made, mature intelligent superhero graphic novels, like DC's Watchmen by Allen Moore and Dave Gibbons, intended to help diversify the market. The success of graphic novels of Watchmen and A Contract with Gods caliber, however, led to watered down anti-intellectual comic books, which borrowed elements of violence and sex without the adult context of the graphic novel ("In My World"). These poor efforts provided products that catered only to male adolescents, isolating the superhero market even more. The majority of the comic book audience remains young kids, adolescent boys and a dwindling population of adolescent minds in adult bodies.
In1992 a Pulitzer Prize was given to Underground Comix cartoonist Art Spieglman for his 1986 graphic novel, Maus (McCloud 12). Spieglman along with literary cartoonists like Chris Ware, Dan Clowes and Los Hernandez Brothers begun to gain small reliable adult audiences. Their work has opened doors for relatively new cartoonists such as Joe Sacco and Dave Cooper. Asked if the comic book industry was at a point of change in the balance in terms of the medium appealing to an intellectual adult audience, cartoonist Art Spieglman recently responded, "Yeah, something's really afoot" ("The Superheroes"). He seems to finally see his work as other than just an anomaly. Perhaps, as recent reports have suggested, America's perceptions of the comic book and graphic novel are being rewritten, and the appropriate audience for comic books is evolving to include mature intelligent adults ("Comic Books"). However, the economic history of "comic books equals children's books" makes that conclusion seem premature.
An important limit of the comic book market is diversification of product; whether it is diversification of audience demographic, diversification of format and medium, diversification of distribution and sales venues or diversification of subject mater. Diversification of product is influenced by quality of art and ideas. Quality comes down to two sequential factors, acquiring talent and keeping the talent content. The invention of comic books in the midst of the Great Depression conditioned the industry to treat comic book cartoonists like employees in a sweatshop (Goulart 71, 81). In fact the initial ideal of the publishers was to have no accomplished cartoonists at all. Small groups of second-rate, aspiring strip artists and writers from a mostly Jewish immigrant population became the first comic book writers and illustrators. A comprehensive Bachelor or Masters of Fine Art education program for aspiring comic book cartoonists wasn't available until the 1990s'. It was only in the late 1970's that the occasional course or technical degree was offered for students interested in a career in comic books. Comic book artists and writers were the "hacks" of the illustration industry, which as a whole received little consideration as a pure art form. Comic book artist were not respected and were paid accordingly (Infantino 44).
From the 1930s' through the mid-1980s' efforts by publishers to increase economic support of cartoonists were rare. Comic book publishers had no interest in depicting their artists and writers as celebrities. Then, at Marvel in the late-1980s', comic book pencilers like Todd Macfarlane, Rob Liefield and Jim Lee stole the attention of comic fandom from their superhero characters. They were the first to directly tap into the growing anti-intellectualism and moral relativism displayed in the entertainment industry and news media ("Interview Daniel Clowes"). Their comic books were the descendents of the Watchmen era, but had neither the insight nor discipline nor the literary and artistic intellectual rigor required of their predecessors ("In My World"). The newly empowered six figure celebrity cartoonists were put off by the tradition of "work for hire" contracts, which resulted in zero creators' rights to their intellectual property ("Todd Macfarlane Interview"). Marvel's promotional department also began to frustrate them, Macfarlane in particular, who saw his comic books being promoted by a department that simply had no idea how to promote to a broader appropriate audience pool ("Todd Macfarlane Interview"). Macfarlane's frustration applied to industry-wide advertising tactics, which by his time were focused on a boom market in a shrinking audience pool. Marvel's top celebrity comic book artists were driven to form a new company in 1992, Image Comics. Through Image Comics, Macfarlane marketed his characters to the film and animation media, and started Macfarlane Toys, which became a huge success. Economic progress for cartoonists had been achieved, but at a pace too slow and a cost too high not to be considered a factor in the indefinite mediocre economic condition of the comic book industry.
TRICKLE DOWN EXPOSURE
In its heyday, comic books' single demographic orientation and assembly line business model produced a product that was well known by and easily available to consumers. As TV and Film became more dominant, and print media developed into a test market for moving pictures, comic books found it harder to retain a large share of the entertainment dollar. A new isolationist distribution and retail model adopted by the comic book industry in the late 1970s', in conjunction with the development of new entertainment media like videogames in the 1980s' and the internet in the 1990s', left the comic book with a fraction of its earlier market share. The comic book industry seemed to rely on T.V. and film to draw in a "trickle down" audience.
In 1967 DC became a subsidiary of the film and animation company Warner Brothers, providing a very fruitful economic avenue for the DC characters (Infantino 100-104). DC had already delved into the potential for licensing its characters with a "Superman" television program, and the potential for similar resurgence by other superheroes was not lost on Warner Brothers. For the next four-decades, DC's "Superman," "Batman" and other characters would become highly successful live-action television series, blockbuster films and animation series. During this period, Warner Brothers merged numerous times, eventually becoming today's AOL Time Warner. These mergers provided additional media in which DC could freely diversify its consumer base. Just as "Mickey Mouse" is the iconic representative for Disney, AOL Time Warner has three iconic representatives "Bugs Bunny," "Batman" and "Superman." "Batman" and "Superman's" notoriety is a testament to a consistent effort to produce projects based on DC superheroes in a variety of media. The funds from these film and television successes have not been reinvested into a commercial campaign for television designed to promote the ongoing comic book projects featuring DC's superhero characters. Print advertisement has been limited to comic books and the small market of comic book magazines, like Wizard. There has been little to support the assertion that placement of DC characters in other media has led to a consistent and significant rise in sales for DC comic books featuring the same characters. Warner Brothers' priorities have slowly undermined the necessity for quality in DC's comic book product. Comic books have become a means to produce and test market characters in order to showcase them in more profitable media.
Stan Lee, as Editor in Chief then Publisher then in subsequent roles at Marvel, had a growing fanatic desire to see Marvel characters appear in motion pictures, due to the success his rival DC had achieved (Lee 202-216). A road laid with the corpses of a number of unpopular animated and live action series based on Marvel characters has led to widely popular cartoon shows: Spiderman, Spiderman & His Amazing Friends and The X-Man, as well as, one successful live action show The Incredible Hulk. All three Marvel animated successes had over a decade between them and The Incredible Hulk remains an isolated anomaly (Lenburg 413, 436-8, 458, 474, 509, 517-8, 549). In 1989 billionaire Ronald Perelman bought Marvel (Raviv 5). His personal day-to-day concern over Marvel was minima (Raviv 25). Under Perelman's disinterested ownership, Marvel lost their top artists to the formation of Image comics. Perelman's primary use for Marvel was to funnel money into his personal assets through the use of Junk Bonds (Raviv 29.) He had friends in Hollywood who could have helped Lee's quest in the film industry, but Perelman specifically desired not to do business with Hollywood friends (Raviv 8-9).
Since the end of the millennium, post-Perelman Marvel owners Toy Biz have developed blockbuster trilogies such as X-Men and the record breaking success of Spiderman, which sold over half a billion dollars worth of tickets and DVDs ("The Superheroes").Having not learned from DCs' lack of comic book sale success, Marvel seems to be focused on product placement as the primary source for comic book publicity. Non-superhero comic book adaptations to film such as Ghost World, From Hell, and Road to Perdition have been, or in the case of League of Extraordinary Gentleman, are expected to be critical and financial successes that translate into a rise in exposure for the cartoonist who's work the film is based on. However, films about cartoonists and comics culture, such as Crumb, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and Chasing Amy, may only expose the general public to stereotypes many in the comics industry are trying to shed. Regardless, it should be of concern to the industry that for a comic book to reach its current potential it must first be embraced by the creators of another media.
Distribution to the comic book market has been the lynchpin to promotion and sales since the beginning. As long as the products were in newsstands, local markets, convenience stores and airports, comics would remain in the public view and thus sell. In recent years, Diamond Distribution, which has no true rival, dominates the market, distributing Marvel and DC books to most of the comic shops in North America. Diamond has caused small press graphic novel and comic book distributors like LPC to go out of business, often almost obliterating small press publishers like, Top Shelf Publications ("LPC's Chapter 11" 3-8). In the past it was unusual for distribution problems to arise; and when they did, friendly rivals would lend a hand. For example, in the early 1960's Marvel publisher Goodman lost his distributor, American News. DC's distributor and sister company Independent News stepped in to distribute Marvel's comic books until 1968 when Curtis Distribution took over (Infantino 58).
Around the same time Goodman sold Marvel to Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation (later Cadence Industries) (Lee 181). Marvel had dominated the comic book market from 1967 to 1973, due in part to a lack of opportunity for expansion into live action television and film (Infantino 99, 162-4). The domination led to the successful Spiderman animation series. But a lack of vision from Cadence Industries forced Marvel to slowly develop a more aggressive strategy in the comic book market.
In 1974 under now president Infantino, DC was able to fight Marvel for a fare share of the comic book market. In 1975 Marvel bluffed a comic book expansion scheme (Infantino 164). The bluff brought with it a prediction of a paper shortage (Infantino 164). Alarmed by the probable paper shortage Infantino had DC produce and print as many books as quickly as possible, saturating the market with a plethora of poor quality DC books (Infantino 164). By the year-end DC was faced with record low comic book sales (Infantino 164).
Marvel then took advantage of their dominant share of the market and offered a glorified subscription service called "direct distribution." The success of direct distribution was made possible by a growing popularity of Marvel characters. Lee's cultivated core fan base and the interwoven storylines of the "Marvel Universe" were what drove the comics book market. Marvels circumvention of the newsstand would cause DC to lose out on the large amounts of potential readers. Direct distribution, however, began isolating loyal Marvel readers, feeding the need for trade conventions and comic book shops, which provided a new community atmosphere. Comic book "fandom" transformed these trade conventions into comic book fan conventions, affectionately referred to as "Cons" (Lee 154). "Cons" and comic book shops would eventually pop up in most major cities in the US, England and Canada, crippling the remaining viability of the newsstand comic rack. At Cons and comic book shops, fans could view new comics, pick up back issues and subscribe to their favorites.
COLLECTORS' MARKETS BUBBLE BURST
A new consumer group emerged during this period, coinciding with increasing interest in buying back issues. Comics that had been discarded in heavy numbers thus became of high value, provided they had had initially high print runs. The rapidly growing collectors market eclipsed the shrinking children's market. By the early1980's comic books were predominantly sold in specialty shops and at conventions to a stagnant, isolated culture. Any new potential audiences were no longer being exposed to comic books, nor even enticed to try to become exposed.
As the collectors' market began to outgrow the shrinking children's market, the individual capital per consumer grew, as did the individual demand. Collectors presumed that work penciled by a celebrity would be the source of comic books' growth in value, much as the iconic character had been the element that produced increased value for comics published prior to the existence of a collectors' market. The Marvel promotional department's uninspired ideas led to such innovations as selling multiple styles of covers on comics with the same content to feed on the endless appetite of collectors. Marvel and DC began to raise the price of their comic books rapidly, due to the wealth of the collectors market, a rise in quality of production inspired by graphic novel sales and the constraints of an overall shrinking market. By 1989, a single 24-page comic book was over a dollar in price for the first time, a price that would triple in the following decade.
As the boom market dominated by Marvel approached its peek under Perelman, Marvel went public on the New York stock exchange in 1991 (Raviv 15). With help from the rising success of comic books driven by the collector market and the Macfarlane Marvel era talent pool, the stock grew (Raviv 41). Perelman had developed an arrangement with Toy Biz owners Ike Perlmutter and Avi Arid that provided Toy Biz an exclusive contract to manufacture Marvel toys and provided Perelman a 40% ownership of Toy Biz (Raviv 6). Marvel had become a licensing machine for comic book character intellectual property rights. Although Perelman was unconcerned, Perlmutter, who was an expert on trends in bankruptcy, began to suspect the Marvel stock was a disaster waiting to happen (Raviv 49). His predictions were based on the use of Junk Bonds and hundreds of millions in bank loans through Marvel received without question, due to the clout of Perelman's billions (Raviv 1-2). Perlmutter's prediction was not based on the state of the comics industry, which was far more fragile then either man cared to be aware of. But in the 1980's the collectors market bought the high print run comic books and preserved them too effectively to provide a substantial loss in the quality and number. The isolation of the comic book market had left little outside demand for the comic books preserved by collectors. Three years after Marvel lost the majority of its top artists in 1992 to Image, Perlmutter's concerns over Perelman's stock market tactics came to fruition (Raviv 53). Marvel's stock fell, the collectors' market bubble broke and comic shops closed ("State of the Comics" 6). Marvel found itself in bankruptcy court, crippling the entire industry (Raviv 95). A court battle ensued between the banks, the junk bond holders (led by the unscrupulous billionaire Carl Icahn) and Perelman over who would own Marvel and its subsidiaries (Raviv 97). Briefly, Icahn won (Raviv 182). Toy Biz, led by Perlmutter's frighteningly cool and calculating tactics, along with Arid's passion for Marvel characters, was able to out maneuver the billionaires (Raviv 248). Toy Biz's takeover of Marvel is what has led to recent Marvel film success, guided by Lee and Arid.
Marvel and the rest of the comic book market's pains have not led to a change in overall approach to promotion. Diversifying small press publishers have encouraged longer format comic books and graphic novels as well as sought out reliable book distributors to provide clout in the bookstore market. But even these publishers rely on licensing through film and television opportunities and lack the finances to produce television led commercial campaigns to promote the comic books themselves. Marvel, DC and the rest of the comic book industry have failed to resist the "carrot" of product placement in films and replace the comic book shop as the primary venue for sales.
The comic book industry has failed to act holistically with regards to the problems and solutions it has faced. The industry must not behave like lemmings. In order to reverse a century of conditioning, the comic book industry needs to change the structure of its business model. Comic books must resist the seduction of Hollywood, with its mercantile economics and creativity by popularity poll. True economic success does not lie in exposure of comic book stories and characters through a rival medium. Straightforward informative advertising campaigns in film, television, radio, the internet and print media, utilizing the cutting-edge communication techniques of its cartoonists will help and are helping a lot of cartoon images in all media influence the stature of comics universally. The industry must produce a majority of quality comics. Diversification of the stories must be a high priority. Promotional campaigns must be centered on attracting audiences that would be interested specifically in each particular story, while also providing the opportunity for these stories to be consumed by a public that was not part of the initial market demographic. These efforts will create a source of consistent economic growth for the industry.
Capitalist competition, informed by environmentally and socially conscious principles, needs to exist universally among the comic book publishers. Comic shops should consider merging with the struggling Indy music stores and bookstores to create community retail centers for pools of new trends and old knowledge. Competitive distribution would contribute to diversity of consumers in comic book shops. Large bookstore chains must be pressed to carry comics printed in graphic novel formats to be placed next to books on similar subjects in sections visited by adults. Films, videogames, TV programs, toys, accessories and web sights will still feature comic book product placement, but comic books should no longer rely on the success of these other media to provide the financial payoff through trickle-down economics. Eisner's father summed up his son's publishing business, "What you have there…is a wheelbarrow. Sure, it's a machine, but if you don't push it, it won't go" (Eisner 23). The Comic Book Industry must gather up the diversified yet unified courage to push in the correct direction up the mountain.
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