Imagine if you will, you're a fan of CBS' "Supergirl." You love Melissa Benoist, the dynamic is great, the stories are exciting... It's exactly what you've been looking for in a TV show (and the roughly seven million viewers who watched this week agree with you)! As a fan, you've already trolled the cast members' Instagrams daily, made your fan-art, and are ready to take it to the next level: you want to read the comics.
So you march into a comic book store, and ask to pick up the new "Supergirl" comic. Well, you can't: it was cancelled in May 2015 -- five months before the new show premiered on TV. And even then, that version of Supergirl had little to no resemblance to what is currently airing on TV... She was an angry, powerful alien who landed on Earth as a fully-costumed adult, battled Superman, and basically had no friends.
If that comic store owner is feeling generous, though, they might mention the currently running "Adventures of Supergirl" digital first comic by Sterling Gates and a rotating cast of artists, which runs every other Monday on comiXology and is set in the world of the show. Which is great (and it is: the comic is very, very good). But that title is only two issues in, having launched on January 25 -- three months after the show premiered on TV.
That's crazy. You could argue that DC's TV and comics divisions are two separate entities (they're not, exactly), so they had to wait and see how well the show did before launching a comic. You could also argue that most of the time the comics creators don't get to see the TV shows or movies, so have to wait to get a feel for the characters before writing/drawing them. But in this case, the "Supergirl" pilot leaked online in May, meaning it was done and available for viewing... the same month DC canceled their regular, ongoing "Supergirl" title.
Not only that, but with a 20-episode first season of the show guaranteed, there's no reason DC couldn't have planned a limited run of "Adventures of Supergirl" to launch at the end of October, so that fans of the show -- there were 17 million for the pilot episode -- could go right to a comic store (or digital store) to continue the adventure.
"Supergirl" isn't the only problem here, though... When it comes to Marvel and DC's superhero output, the problem is industry wide. There have been varying tacks taken, and different strategies, but ultimately there are two ways of addressing this issue that must be taken, or Big Two superhero comics will continue to die on the vine.
Option #1: Align Your Release Schedule With TV and Movies
Marvel has been doing a much better job at this than DC, but they both have vast room for improvement. On the Marvel side, they're often working ahead to make sure trade collections that tangentially (or directly) tie with their upcoming movies are available in book stores. They also do a solid job of releasing series that tee up an upcoming TV/movie event either in collected trade form, or an ongoing title launching at the same time.
For example: in May, we're getting "Captain America: Civil War" in theaters... so Marvel is launching a new event series called "Civil War II," as well as returning Steve Rogers to his regular age (don't ask) and status quo. They're also flooding the zone, as it were: in April, nearly every title will get a "Civil War" variant cover; and throughout the next few months, 2006's "Civil War" event series, and nearly every one of the related spinoff titles are getting re-collected and released in stores; as well as several major "Captain America" arcs. Which is great!
On the other end of the spectrum, in March Netflix debuts the highly anticipated second season of "Daredevil," pitting the Man Without Fear against a new screen iteration of The Punisher (Jon Bernthal). We'll also see the non-Jennifer Garner debut of Matt Murdock's love interest in the form of Elektra (Elodie Yung), and the currently running print comic run of "Daredevil" will have Elektra appearing at the same time. But most of the heat of the new season (so far) is on Punisher. And Marvel is releasing a "Daredevil/Punisher" digital crossover comic by the excellent team of Charles Soule and Reilly Brown"... but the print version won't reach stores until May.
Look: I'm going to read the crap out of that comic. But again, it's not like Daredevil fighting The Punisher in the show was a surprise... Jon Bernthal was announced as Frank Castle back in June. They've had time to line all this up. Oh, and Marvel is also launching a new "Punisher" ongoing series by Becky Cloonan and Steve Dillon in... wait for it... May.
Then there's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.", which has been running for two and a half seasons so far. On the very last day of 2014, over a year after the TV series first debuted, Marvel started publishing a book titled "S.H.I.E.L.D." by Mark Waid and a rotating cast of Marvel all-star artists. It was a master class in weaving the thin line between teasing TV audiences, and sticking with comic book continuity; but it only occasionally involved TV characters beyond Phil Coulson; and even the title and logo didn't exactly align with what TV audiences were used to.
This January, two and a half years after "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." debuted on ABC, Marvel finally launched a comic book called "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." It takes place in the comics universe, but includes most, if not all of the TV characters, as well as their comics iterations (Mockingbird and Deathlok, for example, have significant changes to their characters from television). It's a start. A very, very late start; but a start.
On the DC Comics end of things, I already mentioned the example of "Supergirl"; and there are also very good digital comics currently released tying in to "The Flash" and "Arrow." But the "main" continuity has almost remained obstinately different from the TV shows and movies. "Green Arrow" brought in TV characters Diggle and Felicity, but very late in the game. "The Flash" just ran an arc pitting Barry Allen against the Reverse Flash to clear Henry Allen's name, for the murder of Barry's mother -- a year after the TV show had done the same arc.
With "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" about to hit theaters in March, what's going on with Batman and Superman? In December, they released a collected volume titled "Batman vs. Superman: The Greatest Battles." DC has also a theme month of "Batman v Superman" variant covers, which is nice promo for the movie, though I'm not convinced it'll trickle down to comics sales. And in the comics, March welcomes the end of two, nearly year-long arcs that found Batman and Superman both out of their regular costumes: Bruce Wayne with his memory gone, and former Commissioner Gordon in a giant, robotic Batman suit; and Superman with nearly faded powers, his identity public and on the run from his enemies.
Don't get me wrong, these stories were fantastic, though it's nice to get things back to "normal" in time for the movie. But these aren't the beginnings of stories, easy jumping on points. They're the end of uber-complicated storylines that will be most rewarding if you've been reading them since the beginning. It's also nice that these returns aligned with each title's 50th issue, but wouldn't it have made more sense to end these arcs in February, and start a new story in March where Batman fights Superman, all manipulated by Lex Luthor? You know, for any moviegoers who might wander into a comic book shop?
Similarly, DC is publishing a Legends of Tomorrow anthology book, clearly bouncing off the show of the same name. Except the only character that will appear in both the show and the comic is Firestorm; and it's not the Firestorm the TV viewers currently know (that would be Jefferson "Jax" Jackson and Martin Stein), it's two different characters. If that wasn't enough, the book is hitting stores in March, after the TV show is nine episodes in, and four from wrapping up its first season. Though we don't have the finale date for "DC's Legends of Tomorrow" yet, it's entirely possible that the second issue of DC's "tie-in" comic won't hit stores until after the TV series is already finished with its first season.
The question is, why are we making this so hard for new readers to find the books? So to that end, let's make it even easier:
Option #2: Wipe It Clean, Make the Comics All About the TV and Movies
"I know people have been talking about, 'They're going to make the comics like the TV shows or the films!'" DC Comics Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns told CBR in reference to the company's upcoming "Rebirth" publishing initiative. "Why would we do that? These aren't licensed comics. That's boring. We already have TV and the films. And those are great. But comics are their own thing."
I get what he's saying, but here's the problem: one does not preclude the other. Writing off adapting movies or TV shows as "licensed comics" and "boring" short shrifts the immense amount of creativity being brought to the table right now. You don't need to look farther than BOOM! Studios' output to see how incredibly satisfying licensed properties can be. They're not slave to the TV shows, they can expand on them, tell other stories in those worlds; just like comics usually do.
At BOOM!, the "Adventure Time" line has added major pieces to the mythology of the show, without taking away from the reveals the show will most likely eventually do itself. Over at IDW, "Jem and the Holograms" is weaving a complicated, new reader friendly sci-fi soap opera with some incredibly human characters and gorgeous art. And don't forget about one of the top-selling comics currently being released, "Star Wars."
To narrow in even further, Marvel's "Star Wars" is the perfect example of how to handle this sort of thing the right way. It takes place between "A New Hope" and "Empire Strikes Back," so let's be honest: there shouldn't be any real tension about whether Luke, Han, Leia or even Darth Vader are going to survive. But Marvel has given the reins to top-tier writers and artists, and allowed them to tell epic stories in the Star Wars galaxy that feel as vital as the movies themselves. Heck, "Darth Vader" is the most grippingly tense comic currently on the market, and he shows up for at least another two movies after this, so I know he's going to be fine.
It comes down to the writing, the art, and the freedom to explore that make these licensed properties non-boring.
So what's preventing Marvel and DC from wiping the slate clean, and replacing their lines with new books that align perfectly with the TV shows and movies? The first is an aggressive need to keep the publishing schedule up... That's a monetary concern, of course, because if you don't publish more books, you can't afford to pay your staff; but publishing more books costs more money, so you have to publish more books, and the cycle continues.
The second is fear.
If there's one major factor that unifies both Marvel and DC, it's the fear of losing that customer base, those die-hard comic book readers who have been reading comics for decades, buy everything in the store, and know every in and out of every Crisis and Secret War. Comic sales, even as they've rebounded in the past few years, are dwindling, so to eliminate all of the continuity built up for decades in favor of a TV or movie continuity is risking losing all those fans for good.
F--k 'em. I've talked to enough comic book fans who have said, "If [blank] happens, I'm quitting that book forever." They never do. Or if they get pissed off enough about whatever character death, or major change in status quo, they move on to something else, another title. End of the day, the die-hards are going to be pissed off whatever you do; but as long as you pair good writers and artists to good stories, it doesn't matter. They'll come back.
There's another fear though, that often manifests itself as a bravado... And that's the fear the comics folks have of the TV and Movie studios. I'm not saying they're not friends, or the studios are bullying the comics publishers. Heck, the guy who is one of the chief architects of DC's TV and Movie slate is writing the book that's aimed at bringing DC back to prominence (that would be Geoff Johns on "DC Rebirth" #1, natch). And Marvel's TV division is run by ex-pats from the publishing side of the business, including Jeph Loeb and Steve Wacker.
But there's still a clear jockeying going on there. From the TV and movies side, they have more money and viewers. So they get to do what they want, when they want to do it. On the comics side, they're struggling for readers and trying to keep their business afloat. But they don't want to look like they're not getting the level of coordination necessary from the studios, so they try to play it cool and say, "we're doing our own thing," or "we're doing things in comics that could never be done on a movie or TV budget!"
Which is true, but also missing the point: the comic industry needs the movie and TV industry, far more than the movie and TV folks need them... And comics should be pushing every single angle possible to get even a fraction of that pie. The comics publishers should be getting down on their knees and begging the movie and TV folks to let them adapt storylines and characters.
Could you imagine a world where Marvel publishes an ongoing "Captain America" comic book that takes place between the first and second movie; then adapts "Winter Soldier;" then continues from there? That would feel as essential, as vital to purchase for a movie fan and comic book fan as anything else on the stands today. Sure, Marvel creates miniseries that "fill in the gaps" between the movies, but I'm talking about something that any movie fan could pick up at any time.
Or how about if "The Flash," instead of "just" being a digital series, was the springboard for a line of comics? I'd love to read the continuing adventures of Earth-2 as seen through the lens of the TV series; or even a miniseries that shows what happened when Ronnie Raymond (Robbie Amell) and Martin Stein (Victor Garber) went off on their little Firestorm training session trip last season.
There's opportunities to not just adapt the material, but to spin off from it in ways where publishers don't need to worry about being a slave to the continuity of the show -- particularly as the production schedules on comics and TV shows (and movies) often don't align. But those opportunities clearly aren't being taken.
Look, there's definitely an incorrect conclusion here that if we just made comics for the millions of people who watch superhero TV shows and movies, then comics would start selling millions of copies. You don't have to look further than "The Walking Dead" to see that's not true. The comic is still at the top of the charts, and the trades sell briskly. But the most recent issue, the landmark #150, sold approximately 156,000 copies. The TV show, meanwhile, returned to lower than usual numbers in the second half of its sixth season: 13.7 million viewers.
Clearly, all 13 million of those people aren't picking up "The Walking Dead" on a monthly basis, or even reading the trade collections. But there's an opportunity there. When you're selling in the thousands of copies ("Green Arrow" sold 22,000 copies in January), and you have a potential audience of millions (the latest episode of Arrow had approximately 2.44 million viewers), every single issue sale counts. And every time you make it harder for a new reader to get into your comic, you've lost that sale.
So make it easier! If the aging readers will pick up the comics regardless (and they will), why not wipe the slate clean, and launch an "Agent Carter" comic, and a "Supergirl" comic, and even a "Lucifer" comic that mirror those TV series? If the "Guardians of the Galaxy" animated series can (essentially) continue the adventures of the film crew, why not do the same thing in a comic, rather than changing Star-Lord's costume and not much else? You can still have your spinoffs, and your storylines, and tell creatively fulfilling stories; you just knock down that barrier that's keeping potential new readers out of the store.
You can even introduce characters that eventually make their way to the TV shows and movies, rather than vice versa. Take a look at The CW Seed's "Vixen," who made her way from animation to live-action on the last episode of "Arrow." That same sort of synergy can exist from comics to TV and movies, as it always has -- and it'll make the whole experience more rewarding all around.
Look, let's not be precious about it: telling a Spider-Man story that's based on comics continuity isn't that different from telling a Spider-Man story that embraces whatever Marvel is going to do with Tom Holland's upcoming portrayal of the character. You're still dealing with a pre-existing set of rules, and you're still expanding on someone else's ideas. It's about the creativity you (meaning writers, artists, editors and the publishers) bring to the title that will make it work. Or not.
It's a crap-shoot anyway, so why not load the dice? The comics industry needs every advantage it can take. Don't be afraid of change, particularly when it's change you already know works.
Option #3: Ignore Everything I Just Said
Well, not everything. I certainly meant all of it, so please don't ignore everything I just said. But there is a third option, one that the Big Two publishers are struggling with to varying success right now, and that's innovation.
The crucial bit of info that I neglected to mention (and sorta lied about) in the previous few thousand words is that superhero movies and TV need the comics. Big media is forging its own path, of course, but they're taking their inspiration from the comics to begin with. When the shows and movies are good, they pick the top 2% of ideas, adapt them in a way that makes sense, and use them on screen. But frankly, they're running through those ideas very quickly.
We're already seeing "Civil War," a story from about ten years ago, loosely adapted on screen. "Suicide Squad" takes more cues visually from the recent "Arkham Asylum" video games than the decades of continuity before it. "Jessica Jones" was based on a comic from 2001-2004. And "Deadpool" pulled from the character's entire history; but that history is only 25 years-old, a relative baby in comic book time.
We've seen the origin stories for the heroes, we've seen riffs on those origin stories, and now the studios are skipping ahead to pull all the other prize material. And we've seen this buying frenzy for ideas happen with Image Comics, BOOM!, IDW, Dark Horse and the rest; but somehow this urge to create new material has passed by "mainstream" superhero comics.
The studios need your material, but in order for them to use it, you have to create it.
So stop pouring resources into endless sequels and variations on movie and TV properties. That false bravado I mentioned above? Let it turn into a healthy swagger. Allow yourselves to experiment, to change, and grow. And not just with the creative, but with the publishing schedules, and how you engage fans and stores.
We've seen this happen with some success already. Take a look at the new "Ms. Marvel," which has sparked an immense interest not just with fans, but critically too... and Kamala Khan (star of the book) is popping up in more and more games and other media. It's only a matter of time before she ends up on screen; and given the sped-up schedule of how the studio is cherry-picking ideas, most likely sooner rather than later.
On the DC side, the recent arcs on "Batman" and "Superman" (as well as "Detective Comics" and "Action Comics") are a superb example of trying weird, out of the box ideas with great creators and artists. Comics fans snidely derided "Super-bro" and "Robo-Batman" when the books were announced... and then they were good. Did they sell well? Not particularly... other than "Batman," which just cracked the 100,000 mark in January, they didn't get any higher than 45,000 copies. But they created great, new exciting stories for the characters that hadn't been told before.
Those are stories that can be mined and adapted and used for TV shows and movies, which will then drive those sales to the collections for those books. See, it's the reverse of what I was suggesting about wiping away the lines in favor of TV and movies... those media properties become the comics, rather than vice versa, and drive the sales back to the comics. That's only if you follow the first rule, though: align your release schedule with the big media properties.
Look, there's no separation anymore. Comics can't exist in a vacuum, and don't. They're part of the TV shows, and the movies, and the games, and the collectibles... It's all related. But like any industry, superhero comics need to change with the times. They can't move backwards, or cater to a fanbase that's slowly dying off. They need to cultivate new fans, new ways of getting their product into the hands of a new generation.
The only way of doing that is by aligning with movies and TV: the operative word being, align. Don't submit, don't separate... However you do it, they must join. Or die.