Bob Calhoun

Bob Calhoun
Pacifica, California, USA
June 18
Bob Calhoun is a regular contributor to Film Salon and observer of offbeat media. His 2008 punk-wrestling memoir "Beer, Blood and Cornmeal: Seven Years of Incredibly Strange Wrestling" (ECW Press) has spent one entire week on the San Francisco Chronicle's Bay Area bestseller list.

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JULY 6, 2011 1:47AM

They Need to Sell Comic Books at Movie Theaters

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Superman Serial Credits
The producers of the Superman serial in 1948 couldn't let a good marketing opportunity go to waste.

For Superman's live action cinema debut, the first image that flickered onto the screen wasn't a star's name or a movie studio's emblem. It was the cover of a ten cent comic book, or a "52 page magazine," as the cover line above the title boasted. Kirk Alyn, the first actor to don the red cape and tights, then bursts through the pages to let us know that this 1948 serial isn't a cartoon. After the cast listing is dispatched with a single title card (Noel Neill is Lois Lane; Carol Forman plays the Spider Lady), the next screen is there to inform us that this photoplay is "Based on the Superman adventure feature appearing in the magazines 'Superman' and 'Action Comics.'" We're also told that the serial is adapted from a radio program "broadcast on the Mutual Network."

When "The Adventures of Superman" TV show started up four years later, a voiceover during the end credits was used to announce the existence of "Superman magazines," just in case a good portion of the viewers weren't old enough to read. They really wanted you to know that you could find more of the Man of Steel in the funny pages back then.

Today, not so much. Millions of people saw "Thor" or "Green Lantern" without being burdened by the knowledge that there are also "Thor" and "Green Lantern" comic books. Sure there's that Marvel Entertainment logo that begins all of their releases, and it does have sifting panels of comic book art, but these are just design elements without much of a message. The DC Comics movie logo gives us only three pieces of comic book art, but at least they left the word "comics" in place instead of eschewing their original medium the way that Marvel does. The hucksters of old didn't leave so much to chance. They told you every medium where you could find more of Superman. The designers of today are more concerned with making you feel good about a product you might not even be aware of. They call this murketing. The producers of those Superman serials, TV shows, and yes, magazines, didn't come from fancy design schools—they were barely one step removed from the carnival fairway. They knew to reel you in once they'd hooked you.

With today's more round-about approach to letting moviegoers know about the rest of the product line, "Thor" has grossed $177 million in the USA alone, while comic book sales were down by 15.46% in May 2011 when compared with the previous year. "Thor" was released on May 6th, but the cinematic Thunder God and his uru hammer Mjolnir were able to little to keep May from sporting the second lowest comic book sales this year, behind January 2011, the month with the worst year-to-year sales drop in over a decade.

Since comics and candy have always gone together, the comic book publishing divisions of the major conglomerates that also release superhero movies should place those old-school spinning racks next to the movie theater concession counter so bratty kids can spur their parents into buying "Green Lantern" and "Captain America" "magazines." Yes, spinner racks crease the spines, but the back issue resale market ain't what it used to be with Marvel and DC rushing reprint collections to the surviving Barnes and Nobles just as soon as a storyline reaches its conclusion. And no book is going to retain its value once fingers slicked with butter flavored oil have smudged the covers almost beyond recognition.

As it stands, Marvel, DC and IDW (publishers of the Transformers comic books) don't even hype their offerings during that cavalcade of digitally projected commercials that precedes the movie trailers on every multiplex screen. During that soul-crushing block of advertising, I have learned about every terrible reality show that the History Channel can muster as well as digital downloads from a multitude of mop topped teen heartthrobs. You'd think that Disney (the owners of Marvel) or Time Warner (DC) could slip in a piece of "infotainment" with Geoff Johns talking about the most recent labors of the Green Lantern or Ed Brubaker cluing us into the latest Captain America saga. You'd think.

When Disney acquired Marvel and Time Warner merged with DC, they created potentially monstrous cross-marketing platforms that they now refuse to utilize. Or at least they won't use it to benefit the comic books themselves, where new ideas can be developed far more cheaply than making a $200 million franchise film that still hasn't made back three quarters of its estimated budget.

But still, multitudes of kids are going to see the movie versions Thor, Transformers and even Green Lantern. All the media companies have to do is tell them that the comic books are out there. All they have to do is reel them in.

Here is the title sequince from the 1948 Superman serial:

Here are the end credits from "The Adventures of Superman" 1950s TV show:

Bob Calhoun is the author of  the bestselling punk-wrestling memoir, Beer, Blood and Cornmeal: Seven Years of Incredibly Strange Wrestling, which is available through You can follow him on Twitter @bob_calhoun.

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Interesting thought, Bob. It's become well known though that comic book movies don't increase readership of comics books, despite marketing efforts on the part of the publishers and retailers. "Free Comic Book" day happens once a year, usually coinciding with the release of a major Marvel or DC movie. But maybe you're right - maybe the free comic should be given out at the movie?
@ChillerPop: Free Comic Book Day only reaches people who already know about and go to comic book stores. To reach the audience that you're not getting to (who still pay good money to see comic book characters), you have to get your message or product to that audience. Free Comic Book Day is too indirect. It assumes much--leaves a lot to chance. Many kids who might be inspired by the Thor or X-Men movies they've just seen, might not even be aware of the existence of the comic books unless their parents read them and take them to comic book stores. Comic books themselves have become an almost sequestered market, shuttered away in their little niche bookstores, almost like porn customers. Thanks for the comment.
dude, they market the @#%& out of those characters in toy stores, games etcetera and make bazillions off every single character/franchise. the movies are glutted with comic book characters at this point. the margins on comics are slim, paper costs are up, and kids just dont read any more. so I like comics, I was raised on em, but I dont think they're ever gonna resurge. except maybe on digital books....?
@vzn, Yes, of course, they make money off of licensing, the movies, toys, videogames etc., but the major media empires that own the two biggest comic book companies do almost nothing to assist the comic books themselves through this leviathan sized platform they've created. As far as kids not reading anymore, this didn't seem to crimp the sales of the "Twilight" or "Harry Potter" books--and those things didn't even have pictures. I think the whole "kids don't read anymore" trope is a bit overstated (although anyone would be foolish to ignore the competition that reading on any medium now faces from hand held devices etc.). Thanks for commenting.