How does the comic book industry survive in a world where printed media is said to be shrinking?
Editor in Chief of Marvel Comics, C.B. Cebulski is confident, saying “we try to always be at the forefront of whatever the technology is”.
The Golden Age of Comics
1938-1955, known as The Golden Age of Comics, was followed by the evolution of television and film. As a result, the industry shrank to a small group of hardcore fans and collectors.
Cebulski recalled how, in the 90s, Marvel was in trouble because they had become detached from their stories. He believes they were creating a bubble with their marketing and sales, instead of focusing on a good strong story.
Following bankruptcy in 1996, there was a huge turnaround involving a strategy they named “project rebirth”. The focus was back on finding successful creators, as well as looking for good stories. Finally, they were able to turn things around.
Marvel and manga
Back in the early 2000s, they launched the Marvel Mangaverse, a reimagining of several Marvel characters into manga style.
It was this that led to Cebulski being hired by Marvel for the first time. His love of Japanese, as well as his fluency in the language, stemmed from his international upbringing.
“My background is Swedish,” he revealed. “I spent every summer here [in Sweden] growing up. My mother is from Örebro”. Cebulski laughed as he said, “that’s the secret I have”.
Cebulski went on to explain that he grew up reading Swedish comic books, as well as American ones. This opened him up to a world of comics outside of the American classics. He soon caught sight of Japanese manga and, even though he could not read it, he was fascinated by the artwork.
Advantages of film
His belief is that “Marvel and manga are more similar than people realise”. He went on to explain that the focus of them both is not the robots or the costumes, but the people underneath. This is more apparent with manga, which is why so many people love it. Yet with Marvel, the costumes and the superpowers have a tendency to get in the way.
“But that’s what the movies have done such a good job about, is breaking down that barrier and showing - these are the actors, these are the people underneath the big super-powered costumes,” Cebulski observed.
Joined by Disney
Disney came on the scene in 2009 when they bought Marvel for $4 billion. Prior to this, in 2008, Marvel had successfully released Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk as films. Disney saw an opportunity in the franchise, and particularly in the 8000+ characters in the Marvel universe.
With the help of Disney’s financial muscles, Marvel has been able to transform many of the much-loved stories and characters from the comic books of the 90s into the film heroes of today. Heroes such as Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, and X-Men have found their way to a new audience, one that does not read comics.
Meanwhile, the birth of the smartphone and the tablet have made it easier and more instantaneous for people to access comics. The rise of the digital comic has pulled in some new readers, whose first experience of Marvel comics is via their mobile device.
Although some readers will always prefer a paper copy, there are distinct advantages to a digital version.
“When our comics are coloured, the colours are optimising the colours for the screen, whereas in print it darkens a little because of the ink,” Cebulski explained. “But on the iPad, or any of the tablets, it’s just the exact way that the comic was to be presented when it was created.”
Despite advances made in technology, actual print technology has gotten worse, according to Cebulski. “It can’t keep up with the modernisation”…“print just isn’t getting that quality”.
Experimenting with technology
Cebulski recalled how Marvel was crazy about getting involved in the digitalisation of comics right from the start.
“We have a new media department and it's the fastest growing department at Marvel”, he said. He went on to say that they will continue to experiment with the technologies, finding new ways to tell stories.
Marvel tracks things on social media, noting what is successful, but also paying close attention to things that are not popular. They want to see what fans are really buzzing about, and use that information to inform their decisions.
Cebulski pointed out that Marvel has failed in the past when it comes to digitising comics. Yet, they will continue to put the comics out there, “because if you can find a way to put it online, someone’s going to find a way to read it.”
Will printing die out?
Although digital comics may have some clear advantages, there remains a high demand for the printed comics. At present, the balance is around 50-50 in terms of sales.
According to Cebulski, print continues to grow. He explained that, for Marvel fans, comics are not just for consuming. “It’s also about the collectivity. The fans are hardcore”…”They want every single issue in print”.
Digital comics also continue to grow. The tendency among fans is to read the comics digitally, but also buy the paper copies. They keep the paper comics sealed in plastic, as part of a perfect collection.
Even the digital versions have an element of collectivity, as enthusiasts compete to be the biggest fan, owning every version of a comic. If digital comics are ever combined with blockchain technology, this could enhance collectivity by creating a finite number of digital issues, with clear and unalterable records of ownership.
The new generation
Cebulski believes that digital technology is going to be of the utmost importance to the new generation. They are not collectors in the same way as the generations before them. Cebulski confirmed a trend in Marvel sales, that the majority of young readers favour the digital comic. He predicted that “in ten years from now, the balance will have shifted”.
One app that Marvel is experimenting with, Tap-Tap, has an interactive format where the user can create their own stories using the Marvel characters. Readers, particularly young ones, are keen to decide what their favourite characters should do.
Tap-Tap is an example of how Marvel is exploring the realms of possibility within a digital comic. Cebulski pointed out that “no-one knows what digital comics are just yet, or what form storytelling is going to take”. Meanwhile, Marvel is in the prime position to test new ideas, and figure out how to use technology to the best of their ability.
By putting their love of the art first, the efforts of Cebulski and his colleagues at Marvel are yielding positive results. Even though the involvement from Disney certainly gave a financial reward, Cebulski said that the secret is not to have dollar signs in front of your eyes.
He used the example of Kevin Feige, who produces the Marvel films, and described him as "a fan, first and foremost”. This appears to be the formula for everyone involved in making the film. ”They are making the movies as fans first”…”we don’t make them from a financial perspective”, remarked Cebulski.
“If they follow their hearts”…”people will see it, and enjoy it, and feel the exact same pleasure that they felt reading comics”.
Cebulski believes “without a doubt” that the Marvel films have brought more fans to start reading the comics, particularly outside of the United States. As technology continues to develop, there are many possibilities for Marvel in gaming, films and comic books.
For Cebulski, one thing is certain -
“No one knows what the future is going to be. But to me, and to Marvel, comics is about storytelling."
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