Comic-Con: From Publishing Geek to Hollywood Superhero
by Liz Colville
Comic-Con might once have appeared to be a playground for comic book geeks dressed in costume, clamoring for new releases and a chance to meet with creators. But the event is now a nexus of film producers and publishers as well as fans, where lucrative deals forge the future of comics and comic-based blockbuster movies.
San Diego’s Comic-Con, which began yesterday on July 24, is the comic book mecca for both fans and professionals. Its immense popularity—125,000 people will attend this year—highlights the recent substantial growth of the comic book and graphic novel industry, thanks in no small part to the success of blockbuster movies based on comic books. Just before New York’s more modestly sized Comic-Con, Publishers Weekly reported that U.S. and Canadian sales of graphic novels grew to $375 million in 2007, “a 12% rise from 2006 and quintuple the sales number from 2001.”
Why did comic books and graphic novels suddenly get so popular? For one thing, the storylines have gotten more mature. Adam Rogers, who heads London’s largest comic book retailer, Forbidden Planet, recently explained to the Independent: “Mainstream comics were targeted at children for a long time. But as time has gone on, the people who were reading comics began writing them, and now they’re producing stories for themselves and people in their own age groups.”
In recent years, graphic novels have taken flight, commanding the attention of critics who used to ignore the genre altogether. The stories are sophisticated, of many types and appealing to readers whose interests may not lie in superhero sagas. Many of them, including Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor,” Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” and Dan Clowes’s “Ghost World,” have been made into successful independent films. Illustrator Karen Luk, blogger for But Can She Spin?, attended a panel at 2007’s San Diego Comic-Con on the rise of the graphic novel. She reported that Calvin Reed of Publishers Weekly said that the growth can be attributed to four things: “the incredible, varied creative work available; going to where the readers read; support of libraries; and movies based on graphic novels and/or comics drawing in the mainstream audience.” Many of the industry insiders on the panel agreed that graphic novels must be brought to an even wider audience.
Another factor in comic book industry growth is the popularity of manga, Japanese comics translated into English. Many manga are specifically targeted to tween and teen girls. According to a 2004 USA Today article, manga “broadens the spectrum” of the comic book genre “to include tales of romance, fashion, fantasy and high school life.” As a result, the comic book audience has expanded substantially beyond its traditional, predominately male confines. Manga now brings in about $200 million annually in the United States. While manga sales are down in Japan and American manga publisher Tokyopop has suffered some recent setbacks manga titles continue to captivate U.S. audiences.
What better place to observe the trajectory of comic books than Comic-Con? Martha Thomases, who previously worked at one of the “Big Two” and has since joined the “little upstart” ComicMix, observes that Comic-Con is a kind of summer camp for comic industry grown-ups, where she sees “all the people I have a crush on, people I see only once a year.” But as the industry as a whole has been transformed, Comic-Con has also changed dramatically in the years Thomases has attended it. It’s “no longer a comic book convention but a multi-media orgy, and instead of comic book stars, there are movie and television stars.”
As Wired’s blog Underwire recently put it, film producers are now “stampeding toward comic books and graphic novels to find bigger-than-life stories for the silver screen.” This summer’s collection of blockbusters showcases the fruits of that stampede: “Hellboy II,” “Iron Man,” “The Dark Knight,” “Wanted” and “The Incredible Hulk” all sprang from comic creators’ minds, and together have raked in over $1.5 billion—and that only includes the record-setting opening weekend of “The Dark Knight.” Underwire includes reviews of several of the upcoming comic-book flicks of 2009 and 2010.