Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pop Culture Increasingly Shaping the Comic Book Industry

by Matthew Seeman)

As Robert Kirkman walked by a line of people who were waiting for his arrival, several fans stared in disbelief. Kirkman, creator of "The Walking Dead," served as the guest of honor at the Amazing Arizona Comic Convention on Sunday, and he signed copies of his best-selling comic book series for fans who waited in line for hours.

The enthusiastic response to Kirkman this weekend can also be attributed to the success of cable network AMC's adaptation of "The Walking Dead." The premier for the show's fourth season last October collected 16.1 million viewers and an 8.2 rating in the 18-49 demographic. It was the highest rating for any program that year, and the highest rating in the history of cable.

"Pop culture is absolutely shaped by comic books," said Jimmy Jay, organizer for the Amazing Comic Con circuit, in a phone interview.

The Amazing Comic Con first began in 2011 with a convention in Mesa, he said. The event grew so large that it moved to the Phoenix Convention Center last year, and Jay and his brother started two other conventions in Las Vegas and Houston.

More and more people are becoming familiar with comic book culture because of movies and television, Jay said. The Amazing Comic Cons have worked to capitalize on that familiarity by showcasing the comics that inspired these adaptations. Everyone who attended the Arizona convention received a free copy of "The Walking Dead's" first issue, for example.

"We're trying to put together these irresistible packages where [we say], 'You dig pop culture? Well, we'll take you back to the point where it all began'" Jay said.

Several local comic book stores set up shop in the convention, including Jesse James Comics in Glendale. Jesse James, the owner, said he focuses on expanding his store's social marketing at conventions, rather than selling comics.

"It gives people the opportunity, number one, to know we exist," James said in a phone interview, "and number two, to shake our hands."

Assessing pop culture's effect on comic book sales is a tricky subject, James said. Stores must make difficult decisions when it comes to stocking product because a culture must already be built into the property.

"We see a small influx of new customers" around the release of a comic book movie, he said. "It slowly dissipates, and it's up to the store owners to hold that interest."

Other store owners have seen positive effects from pop culture. Drew Sullivan, owner of Ash Avenue Comics in Tempe, said his store has seen a lot of business in recent years. People have more access to mainstream properties because of movies like "The Avengers" and "Man of Steel," which leads to interest in comics.

"People who didn't have a lot of experience beforehand will come across one of those properties and then will want to learn more about the characters," Sullivan said.

"We have so much business from 'The Walking Dead,'" he added. "There's so many people that watch the show, they love the show, and then they find out that it was a comic. They're like, 'I gotta read the comic.'"

"The Walking Dead" and other comics from independent publishers have grown into a much larger portion of the comic book market share. Image Comics may lack historic characters belonging to DC Comics and Marvel, but according to James, they have found a customer base interested in realistic themes. Now, one out of every three comics purchased is from an independent, he said.

"I think indy comic books are the reason comic books are still in business," James said, calling them a stronghold for his store as they outsell everything offered by DC Comics and Marvel.

Titles like "The Walking Dead" and "Saga," also published by Image, sell just as many issues as "Justice League," Sullivan said.

The rise of independent publishers, coupled with pop culture adapting more comic books for the big and small screen, has helped comic book business right now. Even though people can purchase and read comics through their computers and tablets, Sullivan said, sales over the last couple of years at his store have rivaled numbers from 20 years ago.

"After, like, a whole day at work of staring at a computer screen, you don't want to go read something on a computer screen," he said. "You want to turn that off. You want to read something that's tangible, in your hands."

Jimmy Jay does not see the comic business or the Amazing Comic Cons resting at all.

"Where we think the comic industry is going," Jay said, "each event will get bigger and more efficient and stronger than the last."