One Fan's Trials: Alex Ross & The Independents' Reu$e of Nostalgia Properties

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Following on my previous One Fan’s Trials columns on Dan DiDio & DC’s Familiarity Cur$e and Joe Quesada & Marvel’s Concentrated $ameness, I thought it would be important to turn my sights on the mid-sized players of the comics industry and their Public Domain and Licensing crutch that translates into their overall Reuse, Revamping and Recycling of Nostalgia Properties business plan.

The champion of this in many cases has been Alex Ross who has put his considerable clout into working on such projects in a hands-on creative role (Project Superpowers for Dynamite) or lending his art to covers of nostalgia properties (Green Hornet for Dynamite, Battle of the Planets for Top Cow years ago, and many other examples). Check out his cool website for some of that art. It is hard to dispute that he is the greatest contributor to popularizing and legitimizing the nostalgia trend. In doing so, many companies have taken to nostalgia properties as well and have done well with them even without his involvement.


Public Domain and Licensing

Conventional wisdom in the Bronze Age and earlier comic book ages was that licensing was not as profitable as it could be due to royalties needing to be paid to the actual license holders. So, we saw more home grown concepts and characters from many companies with only a smattering of licensed properties out there.

That said, with “familiarity” selling nowadays, we’ve seen a shift in the industry mindset to companies like IDW acquiring licenses such as Transformers and cross promotion with license owners such as the Hasbro toy company.

We have also seen a move to use more of the lost souls of the Public Domain that are familiar to many of us, such as Sherlock Holmes and the Black Terror, where all the profit goes to the company producing the book. The only challenge is that any company can use the same characters as evidenced in both Dynamite Entertainment and Image Comics using the Golden Age (Dare) Devil in Project Superpowers and the Savage Dragon.

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Public Domain characters can be loosely explained as:

In terms of print media, the Public Domain consists of works that existed before Copyright law (Don Quixote or the Illiad), those that are too old to be protected any more (Frankenstein and Dracula), and those whose Copyrights have run out and weren’t renewed… Finally, real-life historical figures are, by definition, in public domain.

So, licensing and using Public Domain characters seems to be part of many companies’ plans for profit that may allow them to finance other more home grown concepts. This is certainly a 180 degree turn from what the industry was doing in previous comics ages.


$elling Familiarity

With this strategy, companies like Dark Horse, IDW, and Dynamite are doing AMAZING. I wonder what their royalities look like to the actual license owners. That said, even with royalties being paid, they must be making a decent profit. I don’t include Image Comics in that list per se as their business model, per the below, seems to reap a similar ratio to Marvel (and they aren’t license heavy the way DH, IDW, Dynamite, and Boom are).

APRIL 2010: Unit and Dollar share

The ratio is decent for DC compared to Marvel, but Dark Horse’s ratio is AMAZING. The best bang (or more appropriately “bank”) for your buck. Wow. I can see now why DH and the publishers below are able to put more product out each year. They have more bank for their buck (more dollar share than unit share for the market – with Dynamite being the sight exception).

PUBLISHER — UNIT SHARE — DOLLAR SHARE

MARVEL COMICS — 45.02% — 39.35%
DC COMICS — 32.69% 30.39%
IMAGE COMICS — 4.26% — 3.96%

DARK HORSE COMICS — 3.82% — 4.88%
IDW PUBLISHING — 3.41% — 3.92%
DYNAMITE ENTERTAINMENT — 2.38% — 2.33%

Source: Newsarama


Mid-Sized Companies, Big Players in Familiarity

IDW Publishing has a fair bit of licensed properties that are doing quite well and generate multiple books. Those properties include:

Transformers
Star Trek
G.I. Joe
Doctor Who
Angel (of Buffy fame)

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Dynamite Entertainment is also torso deep in licensed properties and public domain characters such as:

Zorro
Stargate
Sherlock Holmes
RoboCop
Red Sonja
The (Last) Phantom
Lone Ranger
Green Hornet
Highlander
Buck Rogers
Project Superpowers (umbrella for several Golden Age public domain heroes such as Black Terror, (Dare) Devil, etc.)

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Dark Horse was the company that mastered the use of licensing, and advanced this business model, before the other mid-sized players were a concept in anyone’s minds. A large part of their success was based on properties that include:

Terminator
Star Wars
Serenity
Predator(s)
Conan
Buffy
Aliens

Plus, Dark Horse recently acquired several of the old Gold Key super-hero properties that had been published by Valiant Comics in the 1990s including Magnus: The Robot Fighter and Doctor Solar: Man of the Atom.


Smaller Players’ Familiarity Envy

And, there’s also a new company called Valiant Entertainment that plans to publish the other old 1990s Valiant published properties with hard cover reprints of Harbinger and X-O Manowar. I’m looking forward to offerings of Eternal Warrior(s) and Bloodshot.

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In addition Moonstone, who used to have The Phantom license, and still produces books on Wyatt Earp and Sherlock Holmes, is also going whole hog on public domain Golden Age pulp heroes with their Return of The Originals line. This seems like the non-powered equivalent Dynamite Comics’ Project Superpowers plus they share characters like the Captain Future and the Green Lama.

Moonstone has announced the following regarding their Golden Age pulp heroes line:

There will be 5 on-going titles that each feature two characters in ALL NEW comic stories!

BLACK BAT — is written by Mike Bullock with art by Michael Metcalf…
PHANTOM DETECTIVE — is written by Aaron Shaps with art by Danillo Guida.
SECRET AGENT X — is written by Mel Odom with art by Robert Geronimo.
The SPIDER — is written by Martin Powell with art by Pablo Marcos…
ROCKETMAN — will be written by James Kuhoric with art by Hannibal King.

The following is a list of other characters that will rotate through some of the titles, as well as appear in other Moonstone publications:

CAPTAIN SATAN — by Dan Brereton.
GREEN LAMA — written by Mike W. Barr.
G8 — will be written by Chuck Dixon and Shannon Denton.
GREEN GHOST — written by Win Scott Eckert and Eric Fein with art by David Niehaus.
MOON MAN — will be written by Elizabeth Massie with art by Cortney Skinner.
KI-GOR — will be written by Martin Powell with art by Tom Floyd.
I.V. FROST — will be written by Ron Fortier with art by Jake Minor.
SECRET 6 — will be written by Will Murray.
CAPTAIN FUTURE — will be written by Mike Bullock with art by Norm Landing.
SKULL KILLER — will be written by Jai Nitz with art by Christopher Jones.
GOLDEN AMAZON — will be written by Howard Hopkins.
GLADIATOR — will be written by Mike Bullock and Josh Aitken.
CAPTAIN ZERO
DECIMATOR SMITH — will be written by Gary Phillips.


Why this, why now?

While the Big Two are known for their super-hero icons, in modern times when other companies have tried super-hero lines, they have failed. Most of the recent attempts and failures occurred in the 1990s. In that timeframe, Dark Horse had Comics Greatest World that lasted 5 years in the early 1990s, Valiant Comics and later Acclaim Comics use of old Gold Key properties and other super-hero characters spanned that decade only, and Malibu Comics created the Ultraverse which lasted about 5 years with the whole company gobbled up by Marvel Comics…. never to be heard from again.

However, Image Comics is probably the company with the most successful super-hero line outside of the Big Two and it kicked off the trend in the 1990s. That said, this success can be largely attributed to the cult like following of Image’s initial creators rather than their super-heroes themselves. With the Big Two, the scale tips to icons over creators’ cache, but at Image it swings the other way. Both elements are integral to the success of a franchise, but readers tend to go to Image for the creative strength of their artists (and to a lesser degree writers if at all) and secondarily their characters whereas with DC and Marvel it works the other way around.

Having said that, beyond those 3 companies, readers seem to have little interest in super-heroes with few exceptions. Why read a Superman-light book or a Spider-man-light book when you can read the originals? Also, with an aging fandom, it is more difficult to attract them to non-Big Two super-hero properties. But, what veteran fans do know, particularly those who have an interest in the broader medium, is lineage and history. For the “familiarity comfort” that brings older fans to Marvel and DC, there are nostalgia properties out there like The Phantom who had been published in North America by several publishers including Harvey Comics, King Comics, Charlton Comics, DC, then Moonstone, and now Dynamite Entertainment.

As such, bringing these “familiar” nostalgia characters back into print whether through licensing agreements or just by nabbing them from the Public Domain allows other comic book companies to cash in on the familiarity and sameness success that Marvel and DC have built their profits on. Add licenses of old 1980s TV cartoons to the mix, and you have a nostalgia factor that guarantees some interest. However, sustained interest would be determined by how devoted the fans are to the property and/or how solid the creative team on the title is.

The reality is, the familiarity craze in comics today has more to do with companies pandering to its aging demographic than trying to expand the fan base to new younger readers. If younger fans sample the nostalgia properties and like them, that’s great. If not, the eventual movie tie-in may win them over later.

Comics properties are not only about the between-the-covers concepts anymore, but more about the brand and promoting them across platforms in TV, movies, gaming, etc. Perhaps the way to get younger readers into comics is to accept that the industry needs to get their attention in the other mediums they frequent and hope that they come visit the source material in printed form? I don’t know though. That seems about as strategic as “hoping” for success.

I remember in the 1980s DC Comics trying to get older readers to sample their works. They had a label on most of their books that read “DC Comics Aren’t Just for Kids!” Perhaps their strategy worked, but what the industry needs today is a campaign that screams “Comics Aren’t Just for Adults!” The added challenge to the comics industry is all the other forms of more “immediate” entertainment available to youth nowadays particularly those available on the internet.

How will the industry attract younger readers? If I had the definitive answer – beyond my mild musings so far – I’d have sold it already and made my first million or two by now. Until the industry cracks that code, and their probably isn’t just one answer, we’ll have more familiarity from DC, more sameness from Marvel, and more nostalgia from many other comics companies as they have proven profitable.


A Concluding Déjà Vu…Again

Thank you modern fandom! Since you are a bit *ahem* older than the youth demographic, we’re getting more of The Phantom and Green Lama with Transformers and G.I. Joe thrown in. Can these Golden Age Public Domain concepts with more 1980s TV cartoon revamps appeal to veteran readers and a dwindling youth demographic? Well, the key mid-sized players and some small ones are betting that nostalgia will sell. And, even DC is poaching nostalgia properties, as evidenced in their First Wave Pulp Line, as a way to take their existing super-hero “familiarity” $trategy even further.

As such, I have to tweak my formula again so that it accurately represents the Big Two and other key independent publishers. So, here it is: (Nostalgia = Familiarity < Sameness) = Sales, and that Originality = (Cancellation < Don't Even Try) . Ok, no more math after this column. 🙂

Cheers and thanks for reading.

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