Lately, I’ve become a freak. That is to say, a fan of the Freakanomics Podcast. Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt like to take a topic and ask the questions no one is asking. They also like to start from the opposing side of the common problem in order to find potential solutions. As such, I figured I would let their methodology bleed into my brainpan. I want to tackle a question I’ve had lately and approach it from a different perspective than I’m used to. The problem is simple: With all the more lucrative business ventures that exist for the largest publishers of marketing licenses (that’s DC and Marvel, kiddos), why produce comic books?
Because I’m not an economist and I don’t have the will power to sift through sales data, I’m going to opt to go out on a limb instead. I believe that it’s safe to say that the revenue that comes in for a blockbuster comic book movie – and all the associated merchandising and licensing revenue associated directly to said movie – outweighs the revenue generated from the parent comic book in levels of magnitude that’d astound even Lex Luthor. That in turn would make the common man scoff. Why would Marvel and DC, peddlers of the most recognizably licensable properties, waste any money chasing the paltry profits that stem from their publishing arms, and not just opt to make movies and television? It’s time to freak out.
If I were Mr. Dubner, I’d likely start with the history first. Obviously DC and Marvel have dabbled in non-comic book ventures nearly as long as they have been printing funny books. Look to the Superman serials, radio shows, TV series, et al. And Marvel, too, had their run of crappy movies, TV shows, and odd proto-motion-comic ventures to boot. In their time, perhaps these alternative media led new eyes to the products. More likely though, those models in the past never doled out the bankroll like todays modern day media. At the heart of all those aforementioned side projects though, one would argue that the real crux of content being produced was driven by the rags on the racks. And therein lies the answer to the original question.
Beyond the likely-break-even nature of comic book publishing, the actual process of producing the product establishes worth beyond simple dollars and cents. Because a great comic book story may give birth to an amazing storyline, a new character, or an inventive design. Where might Jon Favreau’s Iron Man franchise be if not for Adi Granov’s ubiquitous model? Would the pockets of the Warner Bros be as full without the library of reproducible stock art for any number of merchandising ventures? Would the House of Mouse’s motion picture business be as entrenched in the zeitgeist today if not for the decades of source material being produced on a weekly basis? And if we’re thinking to a brighter future… How much credit is owed to ComicMix’s John Ostrander if Amanda Waller ends up becoming the Phil Coulson of the new DC movie franchises? Suffice to say on all counts… the sunk costs of producing sequential fiction is a pithy particle when compared to the opportunity cost you’ll gain for making it.
Even if a comic doesn’t sell well – or even is a loss – the final product exists for eternity thereafter. If I as a fan pick up that long forgotten issue of Slingers and pitch it to Marvel in a new and fantastic light, and my relaunch of the title captures the attention of the niche masses of comic book fans, then the thru-line exists that the new book may lead to a new licensable property – like a new character on a cartoon, a subplot to be used in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or its own Netflix spin-off. The simple math says the loss having to pay for even six issues worth of ink-and-paper (including the per-page costs of the creative team, the salaried cost of editors/administrators, as well as the actual material and distribution costs) may eventually balance out through the usage of the intellectual property that then sits in the archives of the parent publisher. A bad batch of Coke II will never mint Coca-Cola a fortune. And in a few weeks, D-List book will likely net Marvel hundreds of millions of dollars in repeating revenue.
When you think of it that way: why would you ever notproduce a comic book?