By Andrew A. Smith
If you ever hear a comics fan whine about “the good old days,” Comics Buyer’s Guide gives you permission to swat them with a copy of The Standard Catalog. Being a comics fan just keeps getting better and better, as evidenced by the big stories of 2012. Here are some stories that caught our eye:
THE MOUSE THAT ROARED
Not content with devouring The Muppets (2004), Pixar (2006, including the “Toy Story” franchise) and Marvel Entertainment (2009), The Walt Disney Co. bought Lucasfilm in 2012 – and immediately announced three more Star Wars movies.
Wall Street and other financial analysts hailed the move as brilliant. Disney has long been looking to expand beyond its lock on the princess market, and the Star Wars franchise – like Marvel before it – brings lots of young male eyes to the House of Mouse.
“For about the same purchase price [as Marvel], Disney is buying another big, young male skewing franchise to expand its diversification from young females,” Barton Crockett of Lazard Capital Markets told The Hollywood Reporter Oct. 31. “Lucasfilm's $215 million in licensed merchandise fees is comparable to pre-acquisition Marvel, but has more room for a Disney boost from insourcing and expanding international as Lucas’ mix is under 40 percent international versus Marvel's over 40 percent.”
What that gibberish means in layman’s terms is that Disney will suffer in the short term but looks to expand its market – and profits – ferociously over the long term. For example, the bad news is that the price tag was $4.05 billion, which adds to Disney’s debt, and to date the Star Wars movies have earned only $4.8 billion at the box office.
But the franchise overall has generated an estimated $30.5 billion in its 35-year history, according to Financierworldwide.com, and is creating new revenue streams all the time, from cartoons to Lego to action figures. Licensing generated $3 billion in 2011 alone, Financierworldwide.com said, which means it won’t take long for Disney to work off that debt. Plus, the deal includes Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound and LucasArts (which produces videogames and online content).
And, honestly, Disney is doing just fine. Thanks to the Avengers movie (see below), Disney has enjoyed the largest quarterly earnings in the company’s history. Earnings were up 31% over the same quarter last year, according to ICv2.com, which means a profit of $1.8 million for the last three months alone.
Lucasfilm also includes the Indiana Jones franchise, which Disney seems less interested in pursuing. The franchise skews older, for one thing, and age is a factor among all the principals (including 70-year-old Harrison Ford). A fifth Indiana Jones movie could still happen, but Indy fans may have to content themselves with comics and theme-park rides.
As to the new Star Wars film trilogy, Disney has scheduled the first to appear in 2015, followed by the two others in two-three year intervals. Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) has already been hired to write the screenplay for the so-far-unnamed Star Wars Episode VII, which will reportedly take place after Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Some time will have passed between films to accommodate the aging of Carrie Fisher, Ford, and Mark Hamill, whom the Nov. 23 Entertainment Weekly reports are all game for another go – this time, in all likelihood, as supporting characters.
Meanwhile, Hollywood Reporter announced Nov. 20 that Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Simon Kinberg (X-Men: The Last Stand) have been hired to write and produce the eighth and ninth installments, respectively.
One obvious question is the future of the Star Wars comic-book franchise, currently located at Dark Horse. Will Disney allow that situation to pertain, given that it owns Marvel Entertainment, the publisher that brought Star Wars to comics in 1977? Disney isn’t talking, and ICv2.com published this vague statement from Dark Horse CEO Mike Richardson: “Dark Horse and Lucasfilm have a strong partnership which spans over [sic] 20 years, and has produced multiple characters and storylines which are now part of the Star Wars lore. Star Wars will be with us for the near future. Obviously, this deal changes the landscape, so we'll all have to see what it means for the future.” Stay tuned.
A question that has already been answered is the fate of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. That animated show will move from Cartoon Network to Disney XD after this season, when the current contract conveniently expires.
And what of George Lucas, the Jedi Master of the Star Wars franchise? Businessinsider.com reports he will remain as a “creative consultant” on the films, whatever that means. And he will donate the $4.05 billion he will receive from Disney to a foundation focuses on education, according to Huffingtonpost.com. Ya gotta give George major props for that, even if he does think Greedo shot first.
COMICS CONQUER THE WORLD!
Well, maybe not the world, but the media at the very least. Comics publishers – or their corporate parents – made an unprecedented push into the wider media environment in 2012.
MOVIES: Obviously, the biggest movie story of the year – whether you’re a comics fan or not – is Marvel’s The Avengers. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly creator Joss Whedon smoothly delivered on the culmination of Marvel’s many superhero movies, a team-up with so many moving parts, conflicting storylines and diverse personalities that it could have easily gone south in a major way.
But it didn’t, as the stunning statistics demonstrate.
On its opening weekend domestically, Avengers scored the eighth-highest total for Thursday midnight screenings, followed by a second-best Friday total, followed by the best Saturday on record, followed by the best Sunday in history. All of that added up to more than $200 million, which sets the opening-weekend record (toppling The Dark Knight).
At the theater, Avengers earned $623 million domestically, and $888 million internationally, according to Box Office Mojo. That makes it the third highest-grossing movie in the U.S. , with a re-release over the Labor Day weekend bringing it perilously close to #2, Titanic.
Avengers even set records when released on Blu-ray and DVD in September. According to Home Media magazine, it sold 34 times the #2 title (also a comics-related film, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1). Avengers won on both the Blu-ray and DVD charts, with a record 72% of unit sales in Blu-ray. According to ICv2.com, Avengers dragged Captain America, Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 1, Iron Man 2, and Thor into the Top 25 on both the DVD and Blu-ray charts.
Whedon is returning as writer and director for Avengers 2, which is tentatively set for May 1, 2015. Yep, that’s “Free Comic Book Day” weekend. It will be preceded by a number of movies that may contribute to the storyline, including Captain America 2, Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man 3, Thor 2, and very possibly Ant-Man!
In fact, Disney is so thrilled with Whedon that they have hired him to shepherd all their Marvel properties. Twentieth Century Fox has done the same with Mark Millar, developments that demonstrates how important Marvel is to its cinematic partners. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. is wooing Bat-director and Super-producer Christopher Nolan to accept a similar job, especially with a Justice League movie slated for 2015.
If Avengers was going to have any competition, it was going to come from the third film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. Avengers held off the Bat-challenge to remain 2012’s top movie, but Nolan brought a lot to the table – and not even the actions of a deranged shooter in Aurora, Colo., could throw this monster hit off track.
TDKR earned $30.6 in its Thursday midnight shows July 19, the night of the tragedy. Despite the shooting, Box Office Mojo reports Dark Knight Rises managed more than $160 million for the premiere weekend (for third best opening ever), and more than $448 million overall.
Interestingly, where Dark Knight Rises seemed to show the most legs was in graphic novel sales. Five Bat-books landed in the Top 20 for July, with Batman: Earth One lodged at No. One. According to ICv2.com, Nielsen BookScan shows Bat-books in the top four slots in August (led by Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) and six in the top eight.
Mark Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man debuted July 3 with a solid $140 million weekend, while having already earned $341 million overseas. According to Box Office Mojo, Amazing eventually earned more than $262 million in theaters. ICv2.com reports that a quarter of the movie’s audience on its opening weekend was families, and mass merchants like Walmart, Target, and Toys “R” Us went all out for the family dollar, with Spider-Man appearing at floor displays and boutiques featuring Spider-material like action figures, T-shirts, videogames, comic-book packs, clothing, bedding, décor, DVDs, comic books, and party decorations.
And did you know a movie based on a graphic novel won five Academy Awards and “Best Director” at the Golden Globes? Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick.
Elsewhere in media:
TELEVISION: Nickelodeon’s computer-animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles debuted to an astonishing 12 million viewers. Meanwhile, The Big Two are no longer ashamed to brand their TV cartoons, proudly launching the “Marvel Universe” block on Disney XD (Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Ultimate Spider-Man) and “DC Nation” on Cartoon Network (Green Lantern, Young Justice). Yes, the next generation of Americans will know the difference between Marvel and DC even if they don’t read comics!
Meanwhile, DC pushed “Before Watchmen” and the first round of New 52 collections with TV ads, while Joe Quesada when on Jimmy Kimmel to tout Marvel NOW! And DC has produced 30-second and 15-second TV ads for its graphic-novel adaptation of Stieg Larrson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
But the second-biggest comics-in-TV news (after The Walking Dead, see below) is the new CW show based on DC’s Green Arrow. Arrow – the lead character is never referred to by his superhero name – has enjoyed terrific ratings. The premiere episode garnered 4.02 million viewers, better than any CW premiere outside of 2009’s The Vampire Diaries, and the second episode showed very little slippage, with 3.5 million tuned in.
Arrow is well cast, with a terrific premise and unexpected twists nearly every episode. But if you’re a comics fan, the Easter eggs really puts it over the top. For example, the first season features familiar DC names such as China White, Count Vertigo, Deathstroke, Firefly, Huntress, and the Royal Flush Gang. Oliver Queen’s little sister is the addiction-troubled Thea “Speedy” Queen, his computer-hacker pal is Felicity Smoak, and his former girlfriend is Dinah Laurel Lance. Sound familiar? Meanwhile, references abound to towns like Keystone City and eateries like Big Belly Burgers.
DC has been capitalizing on Arrow’s success with the launch of an eponymous ongoing comic book, “Arrow Day” at comic-book shops nationwide, a digital-only series by former Green Arrow writer/artist Mike Grell, and the cast’s appearance at New York Comic Con.
Meanwhile, the third-biggest comics-in-TV news – yes, there are three! – was the announcement of a S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot for a live-action series in 2013 by Marvel’s new uber-producer Whedon, who will likely write and direct. Announced stars include Clark Gregg (as the somehow resurrected Agent Phil Coulson), Elizabeth Henstridge (Agent Gemma Simmons), and Ming-Na (Agent Melinda May)
DEAD AGAIN: One comic-book property that has become a phenomenon on its own is Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. The Image comic book has become so successful that one runs out of superlatives.
AMC’s The Walking Dead is already the most-watched basic cable drama series in history, and set new records this year to prove it. The March 18 Season 2 finale drew 9 million viewers, almost doubling the numbers from the series debut on Oct. 31, 2010. The third season premiere topped even that (10.9 million), with 7.9 million in the 18-49 demographic. If you include the two repeats on the same day, the number goes up to 15.2 million! Needless to say, AMC has already renewed TWD for a fourth season.
The Walking Dead board game – of course there’s a board game – has been Cryptozoic’s best seller of the year, now in its fifth printing, having sold more than 100,000 so far. Meanwhile, a CGC-graded 9.9 copy of The Walking Dead #1 sold for more than $10,000 on eBay Nov. 14.
This year was also the one where The Walking Dead comic book hit issue #100, which resulted in more than 366,000 copies ordered from Diamond in July, with another 21,987 ordered in August. Whatever the final numbers are for The Walking Dead #100, which had 13 variant covers, it is the most-ordered book from Diamond in more than four years, according to John Jackson Miller’s Comichron.com, and will easily be the best-selling book of 2012.
RADIO: Listen for Marvel NOW! ads on shows like Jim Rome Show, Petros & Money, and Opie & Anthony.
PHILANTHROPY: DC launched the unprecedented “We Can Be Heroes” campaign, to relieve hunger in the Horn of Africa. Using the Justice League as figureheads across all Warner Bros. and Time Warner properties and platforms, wecanbeheroes.org is aiming to raise $2 million, in partnership with Save the Children, Mercy Corps, and the International Rescue Committee. Now, that’s heroism!
KICKSTARTER: 2012 may be the year comics fans take Kickstarter seriously, after its success with Womanthology, which gave voice to more than 140 female comics creators. Womanthology is just one of the many comics or videogame projects launching from Kickstarter, including Double Fine Adventure, The Order of the Stick, and Sullivan’s Sluggers.
MEMENTO MORI: The hullabaloo over successful comics-related films overshadows the failures – but they exist. The dismal opening weekends for Dredd 3D ($6 million, for sixth place), John Carter ($30 million, second place), and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance ($22 million, third place) are the film equivalent of the slave whispering in the emperor’s ear “Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal!”
One of the big stories of 2011 was how DC’s launch of “The New 52” had a salutary effect on the field as a whole, lifting not only their own sales, but everyone’s. In 2012, it was Marvel’s turn, first with Avengers vs. X-Men and then with Marvel NOW!
The story really begins in late August of 2011, when DC released the first New 52 title: Justice League #1, which immediately shot to the top of the charts. It became the best-selling title of 2011, with DC telling The Hollywood Reporter in January that after eight printings the book had sold more than 360,000 copies. In the meantime, the ongoing Justice League continued to take the top spot on the Diamond list every month, from October 2011 through February of 2012.
But in March, the League’s run ended. Marvel’s Avengers vs. X-Men #1 took the top spot with 203,181 (according to Miller’s Comics Chronology site), with Avengers vs. X-Men #0 coming in second with 134,509.
That month’s issue of Justice League wasn’t exactly a flop, coming in third with 131,697 – but its reign at the top was over. Every month through September (with the exception of July, when the mammoth Walking Dead #100 could not be denied) whatever issues of Avengers vs. X-Men came out that month took the top spots. The final issue in October didn’t come in first only because its successor, Uncanny Avengers #1, did so instead. These were welcome developments for Marvel, which failed to place a single title in Diamond’s Top 10 in January and February.
Which is not to say that Marvel suffered in those two months – just that DC did so much better. In fact, sales were up across the board. Sales of comics and graphic novels enjoyed a 27.5% increase over January of 2011, with three titles (Justice League #5, Batman #5, Action #5) crossing the 100,000 mark. Ditto for February, when sales were up 20.11% over February 2011.
Year-over-year sales took a small dip in March, but after that comic-book and graphic-novel sales have marched relentlessly upward all year. Sales on Avengers vs. X-Men actually increased, with subsequent issues outselling issues #0-2.
And it isn’t just Marvel or DC. According to figures released by Diamond in June, the first half of 2012 outpaced the first half of 2011 by 18%. By September, Miller reported that everybody was up, mostly due to DC – but it wasn’t DC that profited most.
“All major publishers improved,” Miller wrote on the Comics Chronology site. “We find that every major publisher – Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, IDW, and ‘everything else’ grouping – saw retailers order more material by dollars from September 2011 to August 2012 versus the year before.”
Miller cited the “rising tide lifts all boats” metaphor, but noted that not all publishers rose equally. He said DC was responsible for most of the improvement, with overall orders accounting for more than half of the increase. But while DC “improved by 33% in dollar terms over the preceding 12-month period,” Image improved by 36.3% in dollars, while IDW was up 29%!
By September, Miller had nothing left to say in his analyses but good news; he said September completed a quarter that was the best since the mid-1990s. In October, the last month for which numbers were available before presstime, graphic novels were up 53.9% year over year, while overall sales set yet another record in a record-setting year, beating by at least $2.5 million the previous record, set in May.
“After 10 months, the Direct Market stands at about $394 million in overall orders,” Miller said. “‘Gravy Day’ — when the comics market passes its sales for the previous year — will come before Turkey Day at this point. … The Comichron projection for the year is about $475 million, up more than $60 million from last year — and that isn't counting sales from other print markets, which will add at least $200 million, and digital, which is reportedly going to pass the $75 million mark.”
X-O MARKS THE SPOT
Valiant fans Jason Kothari and Dinesh Shamdasani acquired the rights to Valiant Comics in 2008, and announced a revival of the company in July 2011. But the rebirth of Valiant is definitely a 2012 story – and a success story at that.
Valiant revived five books in 2012 from the publisher’s ‘90s heyday, virtually all by A-list creators: X-O Manowar by Robert Venditti (The Surrogates) and Cary Nord (Conan) in May, Harbinger by Joshua Dysart (Unknown Soldier) and Khari Evans (Immortal Iron Fist) in June, Bloodshot by Duane Swierczynski (Birds of Prey) and Manuel Garcia (Black Widow) in July, Archer & Armstrong by Fred van Lente (Incredible Hercules) and Clayton Henry (Adventure Comics) in August, and Shadowman by Justin Jordan (The Strange Talent of Luther Strode) and Patrick Zircher (Thunderbolts) in November. Ninjak, a popular character co-created by Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada in 1993, was revived in X-O Manowar #5. Valiant is also reprinting some of the 1990s series in high-end hardcovers, while the regular books are all selling in the 14-16,000 range, according to Diamond – which is a strong showing for a small publisher.
Meanwhile, Valiant, Mummy producer Sean Daniel, and J. Michael Straczynski (Superman: Earth One) have teamed to bring Shadowman to the screen, while Bloodshot is being developed at Sony. And if that wasn’t enough, Valiant is sponsoring the U.S. Olympic luge team, whose uniforms will bear a strong resemblance to the X-O armor!
THE UNCANNY NONAGENARIAN
Stan “The Man” Lee turned 90 in 2012! Gee, I hope that was covered in magazines or something.
IT’S NOT 1954 ANY MORE
It’s not surprising that comics were the target of media drive-bys, unfair accusations, and pointed fingers in 2012. What’s surprising is that none of it got any traction.
In July, a gunman with orange hair (he said he was dressed as The Joker) opened fire in a movie theater showing The Dark Knight Rises. Comics fans feared that the Gotham Guardian would become inextricably linked to the gunman, cemented by “punny” headlines lifted from the 1966 Batman TV show. And yet, it didn’t happen: Journalists mostly ignored the Bat-connection as (justly) irrelevant. It’s like they realized, as we did, that it could have happened at any movie.
A brutal takedown of the comics industry in the May 25 Wall Street Journal’s book review section sank without a trace (except J. Michael Straczynski tweeting an unprintable response). A Washington D.C. Fox news affiliate trotted out some sex-and-violence complaints on Jan. 18 about DC’s New 52 that were straight out of the Fredric Wertham playbook – but instead of inspiring a hysterical witch hunt against DC Comics, the report was widely and gleefully ridiculed until the abashed news station took it off their website. And when a 53-year-old Twilight fan was struck and killed by a car in front of the convention center at Comic-Con International: San Diego July 11, no one suggested that Twilight, or the convention, or imaginative fiction was remotely at fault.
And one of the most amusing non-stories occurred in March when the laughably named “One Million Moms” – an adjunct of the ultra-conservative American Family Association – tried to mount a campaign against Toys “R” Us to remove Life with Archie #16 from its shelves, the issue where Kevin Keller marries his boyfriend. What happened was just amazing: Archie Comics stood up gay rights. Toys “R” Us stood up for the First Amendment. And the One Million Moms – who don’t number anywhere near a million, and probably aren’t Moms – slunk off quietly.
What does this mean? Could the media be growing up? Could America no longer need scapegoats? Naw. My theory is that Avengers made buckets of money, and as Stephen Colbert says, “the market has spoken.” Big business loves to kowtow to social conservatives, but they love to make money more.
But one group involved has changed, and that’s the comics industry itself. Ever since 1954, publishers have almost fetishized being non-controversial, keeping a low profile, and cravenly abasing itself before any group that complains about them. But in 2012, comic books were on the front lines of gay rights.
Whether you’re for or against those rights, it’s inarguable that the comics industry has taken a wide left turn on the subject. For example, the future Kevin Keller not only married his boyfriend in Life with Archie, but the teenage Keller has been awarded his own comic book by a publisher that at one time was single-handedly keeping the Comics Code alive. At DC, the revamped Alan Scott (created in 1940) is now openly gay, while the equally openly gay Batwoman headlines her own title. And at Marvel, of course, they made an event out of Northstar’s marriage to his boyfriend in Astonishing X-Men #51 (Aug 12).
Oh, but wait: We can still count on one media outlet to remain irresponsible: Rush Limbaugh. El Rushbo announced a cunning liberal scheme on his radio show that only he and The Washington Times dared to address: That The Dark Knight Rises was actually a ppolitical attack on Mitt Romney.
“Do you think,” Limbaugh heaved rhetorically, “that it is accidental that the name of the really vicious, fire-breathing, four-eyed, whatever-it-is villain in this movie is named Bane?”
Well, notwithstanding that Bain Capital, where Romney was CEO, is spelled differently. And that Bane was co-created in 1993 – a year before Romney ran for the Senate in Massachusetts – by Chuck Dixon, whose conservative views are well known. Or that the villain was publicly known to be the villain in TDKR as far back as January 2011, long before Romney was the Republican nominee for president.
But, hey, why let pesky facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory?
Comic-Con International: San Diego extended its contract with the city for one more year, through 2016. That won’t end overtures from Los Angeles and Anaheim to move the world’s biggest geek party, but it does put the debate off for another year.
Meanwhile, a sort of “San Diego effect” seems to be spreading to other conventions. New York Comic Con maxed out the Javits Center with 116,000 patrons. And Gen Con had a record attendance of 134,775 in Indianapolis. And Sirius/XM satellite radio now assigns a channel to major cons, with floor-walkers interviewing pros, attendees, and exhibitors.
As Maggie always says, “Anyone can sue anyone over anything.” And comics pros sue – or at least badmouth – each other as often as any other group.
So, as usual, Alan Moore had some rude things to say about DC (again), this time over “Before Watchmen.” There was another ruling in the interminable case between DC and Joe Shuster’s heirs. There was noise over Tony Moore suing Robert Kirkman over Walking Dead, and the wretched Stan Lee Media continued to sue (and lose to) everyone they can think of. There was a head-scratcher of a lawsuit involving Frank Miller, his girlfriend, and her executive assistant, and some kind of kerfuffle involving a trademarked briefcase that delayed the release of the Avengers Blu-ray set. And it looks like the lawsuit over the Spider-Man musical and the one between Neil Gaiman and Todd McFarlane are finally over.
I feel the need to mention the lawsuit between the co-publishers of Archie, for completeness’ sake. But the less said about that sleazy mess – some of which can’t be published in a family magazine – the better.
But one thing was a little different this year. For example, when the destitute Gary Friedrich lost his Ghost Rider lawsuit and was forced to make financial concessions to Marvel, fans stepped up to help him out. When Greg Rucka snarked about the Big Two, and Chris Roberson quit DC over their business practices, they got a sympathetic ear. So maybe fans are growing up a little, and may some day force the comics industry to treat creators at least as well as other creative media.
But until that day, we can enjoy such spectacular flame-outs as Rob Liefeld’s latest resignation from the Big Two, this time from DC. Liefeld walked off all three titles he was working on (penciling Deathstroke, plotting Savage Hawkman and Grifter) in a tweet storm on the social media site Twitter. Calling editor Brian Smith “incompetent” and tossing bombs in every direction (eventually ending up in a tweet war with Scott Snyder), Liefeld’s explosion may be the most entertaining “I quit!” of the year.
Comics” Smith has been writing professionally about comics since 1992, and for Comics Buyer’s Guide since 2000.