The Expanding Avengers Fan Base: Mass Marketing Superheroes

While visiting relatives over Memorial Day, I found myself in a hotel elevator with a couple in their 80s.

“How’d you enjoy the movie?” the husband asked.

“What movie?” I asked, puzzled.

He looked at me like I was asking the obvious and pointed to the Captain America t-shirt I had bought the previous summer. “The Avengers! Did you like it?”

“Oh, yes I did,” I said, smiling as his question dawned on me and I simultaneously deemed it more prudent and polite not to elaborate on the difference between the Captain America and Avengers movies.

“We did, too,” he said. “So we’re all part of the group that made it a success,” he added proudly.

“A financial success, too,” his wife nodded. “I think it beat out Harry Potter.”

“Yes it did,” I confirmed.

“Good!” she smiled as the elevator reached the lobby.

Evidently the Avengers’ fan base has expanded! I think it’s safe to say that superhero movies aren’t just for comic book readers anymore. What demographic implications does this have for the future of superhero movie marketing? And how will this affect the future of comic books?

My general sentiment is that movie marketing will increasingly drive the direction of the comic book industry, and it will become more difficult to finance a major comic book company that is not supported by movie franchising unless companies find alternate ways to reach their target market. Archie’s retail store distribution network enables it to reach its audience without movie marketing. But for other publishers, the direct marketing network of comic book specialty stores that emerged in the 1970s has become increasingly unprofitable, and is giving way to a less costly digital sales model that uses distribution channels like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Marvel and DC can still turn a profit in this environment because of movie-related publicity and revenue to offset low profit margins elsewhere, but smaller publishers without film franchises may find it cost-prohibitive to operate in this atmosphere.

But throwing a wild card into the mix, there is another possibility that may turn the industry on its head yet again in the near future, and it lies in developments in the e-commerce sphere. At one time most comic book sales came from kids walking to newsstands, drug stores, and candy stores to spend nickels, dimes, and quarters. These sales fell during the reign of the direct marketing sales model, both because young kids could less often travel to specialty stores without their parents driving them, and because inflation pushed comics out of reach of most kids. Today’s digital sales model adds another barrier for kids who can’t buy comic books online without their parents’ credit cards.

This could change as e-commerce developments make it easier for kids to spend money through the Internet and smartphones. Today credit card companies are focusing their marketing on younger age groups, and some companies are offering prepaid cards for children and teens that parents can use the same way parents of previous generations used allowances. Meanwhile, the integration of credit card processing with smartphones is accelerating. Together these developments may once again make it possible for kids to buy comic books.

If this happens, will this make it easier for smaller publishers to recapture the younger audience that comic books once commanded? Or will it merely provide another marketing arena for Marvel and DC to leverage their Hollywood dominance and drive the competition out of business?

Who knows what the future holds for superhero comics? Well, maybe the Watcher knows. But today, at least, a movie-enhanced fan base for superheroes is a reality for the industry.

2 thoughts on “The Expanding Avengers Fan Base: Mass Marketing Superheroes”

  1. Hi Roy,

    I suspect that movies have effectively relaced comic books on a large scale. In an email exchange I had with Stan Lee recently, he agreed with me completely. I don’t see how comic books can compete with what can now be replicated on the big screen. I also don’t think mainstream comic books appeal to kids in the way they did in decades past. Comics have been deteriorating in interest for decades with a young audience. Television, video games and movies have all taken precedence over a monthly adventure comic. Technology has made everything quicker, and kids attention span will not be sustained to read a comic book for 20-30 minutes.

    I love comics and would like to see them survive, but realistically, in out current age they don’t have a lot to offer. Most of the ideas and creativity has been recreated in the movies from the 1960s-1970s era of Lee, Kirby, Ditko, Romita, Heck, Thomas, Adams, Miller, Claremont, Byrne, to name a few. Mainstream comics today are produced for older fans, and when that fan base dies out it is likely that comic books as we know them will fade away as well.

    1. Hi, Nick! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and passing on Stan’s input! I agree movies and other media have taken center stage on a large scale. However I think/hope comic books have the capability to ride this trend rather than compete with it, if they can find new distribution channels to reach kids, as digital comics are attempting to do. I think the biggest problem is ditribution rather than kids’ attention spans: look how many kids read the Harry Potter books. One thing that franchise did successfully is integrate its book and film publicity with other media from the start. Avengers is succeeding on the screen partly because it did this, but the comic book arm of its publicity campaign is lagging behind its movie, TV, and toy outreach. Speaking of toys, I’ll add that for many kids the gateway to a comic book is a coloring book about the same characters. Go to a store today and while you may not see many comic books, you are almost guaranteed to find a lot of Marvel and DC coloring books.

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