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Comic Books: A Changing American Art Form

This year, the movie Wonder Woman which is based off of a DC comic book superhero, grossed $653 million worldwide. The two Avengers films have combined to gross nearly $3 billion and the movie Logan, based on the popular comic book character Wolverine, made $615 million.

Other comic book movies have also been wildly popular and profitable for movie studios. The trend will continue with the highly anticipated Justice League movie, DC’s answer to the Avengers.

Despite this success in movies, comic books themselves have declined in sales. Marvel Comic’s sales have declined since the conclusion of the “Secret Wars” storyline in the 1980’s. DC has not fared better nor have independent companies like Image. The sales of comic books declined by thirteen percent in April 2017.

What is behind this precipitous decline?

Possible Explanations

A Marvel executive blamed the introduction of diversity into comics as a possible culprit. This is unconvincing.

First, the decline began in the 1980’s and has steadily grown since then. In 1975 a new team of X-Men were introduced that included a Russian (during the height of the Cold War), a black woman and several other members of varied ethnic backgrounds including an Asian and an Apache. This line-up was so popular that it completely overshadowed the older, all-white version of the team. The first female superhero was introduced in 1940, Fantomah, mystery woman of the jungle. The first black superhero was Marvel’s Black Panther who was introduced in 1961. Comic books are a product of American culture and, as we are a diverse people, so are the characters in comic books.

If diversity isn’t killing the comic book, what is?

Some blame high prices during an economic downturn. The average price of a comic book has increased. In 1961 the average price of a comic book was ten cents. In 1975 that became twenty-five cents. It increased throughout the eighties, around the same time as the decline in sales, to around one dollar in 1988. The price of comic books continued to increase throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s. By 2016 the price of a comic book was 3.99.

Captain

Vintage Captain America

Spidey

Vintage Spiderman

The reason for this increase is simple. Comic books simply got better in terms of art and production. Therefore, they became more expensive to make. A cursory glance at a comic book from 1960 to a comic book from 2017 reveals the difference. Unfortunately, the price increase led to a corresponding decrease in sales.

Are Comic Books Really Dying?

A possible explanation is simply that comic books are a medium in transition, not a medium that’s dying. Comic book characters are very profitable on the big screen and remain a part of the American cultural landscape as they have for nearly a century.

While sales are in decline, the industry is not moribund. DC made 4.5 billion dollars off its merchandise in 2016. The old fashioned comic book has given way to the graphic novel in terms of popularity, with graphic novels making one-billion dollars annually.

DC and Marvel have both produced numerous graphic novels in the past decade. DC’s graphic novel, All Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder, sold three-hundred thousand copies in 2006. Marvel’s All New Wolverine and Spider-Gwen sold 29,000 copies alone in February of this year.

Comic books have been part of American culture for a long time and it’s unlikely that that will change. The industry will continue to grow and change. Periods of decline are a natural part of any industry, but the industry itself is as healthy as ever.

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