The summer draws near, and comic publishers saturate fans with news and previews of upcoming films, conventions, and merchandise of all stripes. Compared to the Bronze Age and earlier, comic fandom has much more to offer. Back then, fans could buy a comparable handful of monthly titles with a limited selection of merchandise and adaptations. Licensed t-shirts, posters, video games, action figures, lunchboxes, movies, pinup books, and television shows have been available for years now. But, if one walks through the hundreds of displays at San Diego Comic Con, it’s almost possible to forget the comparably quaint sequential art where these characters began. Sometimes, it feels like that comics serve only as a developmental territory for intellectual property destined for licensed media and merchandise. One shouldn’t assume that this week’s Comicscape will launch into a tired purist’s diatribe about the death of actual comics. But, the effects of licensing merit an examination. “Licensed” should be read to include both audio-visual media and assorted merchandise, such as toys, video games, t-shirts, posters, and non-narrative art, like posters and pinup books.
Comic book fans love licensed stuff. Some collect toys, cards, and HeroClix with greater fervor than actual comics. Many people who wouldn’t even identify themselves as fans, geeks, and the like still play comic-adapted video games, watch the movies, and otherwise buy the merchandise. Ask a random guy wearing a Punisher t-shirt if he actually reads comic books. He likely does not, but still contributes to the same industry. It would be utterly naïve to assume that the massive entertainment machine that superhero comics have become could somehow “recommit” itself to comics. As a larger part of popular culture, superhero stuff isn’t going anywhere. And, perhaps it shouldn’t. For diehard fans of Superman, owning, watching, or playing another representation of the Man of Steel can only deepen their love of the character. More love usually means more comics. Creators of successful independent comics will invariable get requests for t-shirts, stickers, and other merchandise. When fans like something, they want to tell the world. That means more advertising for creators, which means more money and, hopefully, more comics.
Merchandise also gives fans a sense of community. Outside of a comic shop or convention, it’s incredibly difficult to spot another comic fan. Forgetting the—admittedly hilarious and occasionally true—stereotype about overweight, under-bathing geeks, one must remember that comic readers come from all walks of life. Upon seeing another fan with a Punisher skull on his chest, one knows that someone else in the Green Springs Mall food court supports psychotic vigilanteism—or at least likes to read about it. Like any reading material, comics are an internal experience. Readers can’t share comics in the same way that two people can watch a movie, television show, or band together. The fundamental experience lacks a communal quality, and fans want, above all, to reach out and enjoy the art-form with others. While reading alongside another person seems a bit impractical, wearing a Batman shirt and having a long talk at the comic shop never gets old.
But, merchandise and licensed media also set expectations for new readers. Most fans encounter superheroes through other media, and then find comics out of love for the characters. Those new readers mostly know the characters in those familiar incarnations depicted in other media. Consider Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man; Frank Miller’s Daredevil—and for that matter, his Batman; Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, and John Byrne’s X-Men; and others that set the popular understanding of these characters. That popular understanding appears most often in licensed stuff, with some exceptions. Action figures seem to stay pretty current with comic continuity, meaning that there are never less than 17 different Wolverine figures on the shelf at any given time. And, common sense dictates that any entertainment company with a comic publishing arm—an apt description of Marvel and DC’s circumstances—wants to attract new readers, not alienate them with unrecognizable incarnations and indecipherable continuity. That entertainment company wants comics that new readers will recognize as similar to their licensed counterparts. Within his in-continuity comics, consider Spider-Man’s organic webshooters, the reappearance of the black costume—coinciding with the release of Spider-Man 3—and the events of One More Day and Brand New Day. Recall also the new black leather costumes worn by the X-Men shortly after the release of the first film. Consider also Blade’s in-comic transformation from a human to a half-vampire Daywalker. The character began as a noble hunter immune to the vampire’s bite. But, thanks to a bite from Morbius, the Living Vampire, Blade became more like his cinematic counterpart, struggling between his humanity and his predatory nature.
Licensed material also provides a huge source of revenue for the corporate—and independent—owners of so many comic characters. Despite the occasionally cynical and snarky tone of Comicscape, we at Mania want Marvel, DC, Image, and Dark Horse to succeed, both artistically and financially. Fanboy ire often comes off as fundamentally destructive, and this column has espoused its fair share. But, any comic publisher that fails to consider its bottom line—even with the noblest artistic intentions—risks alienating investors and imperiling its future. That’s just business. Fans looking for unbridled creativity should focus more on independent comics—which often rely on merchandise to publicize their work. Publishers can’t release comics—good or bad—if they’re out of business. But, there’s always a limit. Witness some of the “bad girl” characters from a handful of medium size publishers in the 1990s, many of which appeared in more swimsuit specials, pinup books, t-shirts, and statues than comics. There may be a financial incentive to churn out such ancillary material, but at some point, your readers may wonder which they’re supporting—a comic book or a trademark.
Some purists might assert that any reader spending money on merchandise should consider putting his energy and finances into new comics. But, such arguments fail to consider the aforementioned revenue that merchandise generates, especially for independent creators that may only release a few comics a year. And, the quality of any publisher’s output hinges on the combined efforts of its creative teams and editors, and not on the amount of toys and cartoons it licenses. While it certainly annoys anyone with taste to see bad comics promoted with hoards of merchandise and adaptations, the two are not synonymous. As stated, it just becomes obnoxious when a character appears in almost every medium but the comics in which he or she premiered.
Merchandise and licensed adaptations can sometimes crowd the comic reading experience through additional coverage in media and at conventions. But ultimately, readers have to decide how to spend their money—on more comics or on stuff based on the comics they already read. And, while it seems like a convenient purists’ argument to complain about the glut of licensed stuff, it holds little water. Good comics are a product of writers, artists, and editors collaborating to create the best stories they can. Licensed depictions of characters may unduly influence those stories, but there’s no law that says they have to. It just sometimes works out that way, unfortunately. Merchandise can create additional revenue for publishers, which can be a saving grace for an independent company with an obscure comic and a clever t-shirt. A financially successful publisher can—or should—create more quality comics. But, some companies admittedly take it too far, and seem more focused on selling a trademark than promoting good stories. Readers must decide for themselves when that line has been crossed.
Wear that Spider-Man shirt. Sew that Punisher patch onto your leather jacket. Slap that Superman sticker on your car window. Just keep reading comics and remember from where those things came.
The Spinner Rack
By Ben Johnson and Kurt Amacker
DARK HORSE COMICS
Classic Comic Book Characters #9 Cutter $49.95
Ben: Right after Mark Trail on the list.
Kurt: Since when do we list statues that don’t have the word “bust” in their name?
Fear Agent #20 Hatchet Job (Pt 4 Of 5) $2.99
Grendel Behold The Devil #6 (Of 80) $3.50
Kurt: I do every time I look in the mirror.
Hellboy Library Ed HC Vol 01 Seed Of Destruction & Wake The $49.95
Kurt: Oh, can I get a “F—k yeah”?
Pigeons From Hell #1 $2.99
Ben: I knew it!
Kurt: Rats with wings. Good only for shooting and running over.
Rex Mundi DH Ed #11 $2.99
100 Bullets #90 (MR) $2.99
Ben: One of those series I always feel like I should read but never do.
Kurt: Well, it’s only got 10 issues left, so you won’t feel that way for much longer.
Bat Lash #5 (Of 6) $2.99
Kurt: Sounds like my Friday night. Damn I love the Goth scene.
Batman And The Outsiders #6 $2.99
Batman Strikes #44 $2.25
Brave And The Bold #12 $2.99
Catwoman #78 $2.99
Cipher Vol 11 $9.99
Countdown To Final Crisis 2 $2.99
Ben: Oh no no no.
Kurt: More like Countdown to Ben’s Guest Column! MUHAHAHAHAHA!
DC Wildstorm Dreamwar #1 (Of 6) $2.99
Ben: And then the entire army realizes they are naked.
Kurt: And they were standing at the door to Ben’s bedroom.
DMZ #30 (MR) $2.99
Faker TP (MR) $14.99
Flash #239 $2.99
Gotham Underground #7 (Of 9) $2.99
Kurt: Witness 22 pages of the blackest soil you’ve ever seen!
Green Arrow Year One HC $24.99
Hellblazer #243 (MR) $2.99
Legion Of Super Heroes In The 31st Century #13 $2.25
Mad Magazine #489 $4.99
Programme #10 (Of 12) $2.99
Robin #173 $2.99
Salvation Run #6 (Of 7) $2.99
Showcase Presents Legion Of Super Heroes TP Vol 02 $16.99
Suicide Squad Raise The Flag #8 (Of 8) $2.99
Superman #675 (Note Price) $3.99
Kurt: It’s raised. Note middle finger. It is, too.
Tangent Supermans Reign #2 (Of 12) $2.99
Un-Men TP Vol 01 Get Your Freak On (MR) $9.99
Variante Vol 03 (MR) $12.99
Wildstorm Armageddon TP $17.99
World Of Warcraft #6 $2.99
Ben: Doomed to fail when the entire intended audience spends 18 hours a day with their bleedings eyeballs pointed at a screen.
Kurt: If any WoW geeks actually stopped leering at the hot night elf for five minutes, they might actually get offended.
76 #3 (Of 8) (MR) $2.99
Amory Wars TP 01 Second Stage Turbine Blade (MR) $14.99
Bad Planet #5 (Of 12) (MR) $2.99
Darkness #3 Keown Cvr A (MR) $2.99
Darkness #3 Sejic Cvr B (MR) $2.99
Infinite Horizon #3 (Of 6) $2.99
Nixons Pals GN (MR) $12.99
Noble Causes #32 $3.50
Noble Causes Archives TP Vol 01 $19.99
Perhapanauts #1 $3.50
Kurt: This sounds like a line of action figures from 1979.
Scud The Disposable Assassin #21 2nd Ptg $3.50
Strange Girl TP Vol 04 Golden Lights (MR) $13.99
Stupid Comics Phoenix Ed GN (MR) $9.99
Kurt: What a selling point!
Sword #7 (MR) $2.99
Wonderlost #2 $5.99
Amazing Spider-Man #557 $2.99
Kurt: Tell me when he’s married again and I might look up from my tattered back issue of Heavy Metal.
Annihilation Conquest #6 (Of 6) $3.99
Ben: Good stuff. Love it so much.
Avengers Classic #11 $2.99
Avengers Initiative #11 $2.99
Captain America #37 $2.99
Kurt: I admit to being way behind on almost everything right now, but I’m still excited about this series.
Captain Marvel #5 (Of 5) SII $2.99
Ghost Rider #22 $2.99
Howard The Duck TP Media Duckling $11.99
Incredible Hercules #116 $2.99
Invincible Iron Man Omnibus HC Vol 01 $99.99
Invincible Iron Man Omnibus HC Vol 01 Granov Var $99.99
Invincible Iron Man Omnibus HC Vol 01 Movie Var $99.99
Kurt: Let the deluge begin.
Iron Man #28 $3.99
Iron Man Legacy Of Doom #1 (Of 4) $2.99
Marvel Adventures Avengers #23 $2.99
Kurt: Starring Iron Man!
Marvel Adventures Avengers TP Vol 05 Digest $7.99
Marvel Adventures Two-In-One #10 $4.99
Marvel Illustrated Iliad #5 (Of 8) $2.99
Kurt: With a special guest appearance by Iron Man, who travels through time to save Hector from Achilles!
MMW Captain Marvel HC Vol 03 $54.99
MMW Captain Marvel HC Vol 03 Var Ed 95 $54.99
Powers Annual 2008 (MR) $4.95
Punisher War Journal Prem HC Vol 03 Hunter Hunted $19.99
Spider-Man Iron Man Hulk Magazine $6.99
War Is Hell First Flight Phantom Eagle Max #2 (Of 5) (MR) $3.99
Kurt: Yer damn right. Notably, it lacks an appearance by Iron Man!
Wolverine Origins #24 $2.99
World War Hulk Aftersmash Warbound #5 (Of 5) $2.99
X-Factor #30 DWS $2.99
X-Men Divided We Stand #1 (Of 2) DWS $3.99
Kurt: Wow, this is really sweeping the corners for dust, isn’t it? Until next week, gang!
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