What New Media Must Learn From Comics

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The comic book industry teaches us many lessons about New Media and the new consumer.

Are you familiar with the comic book, Superman – Red Son? It was released in 2003 to critical acclaim and became a nomination for the 2004 Eisner Award for best limited series. This three-issue mini-series took Superman and shook the baseball and apple pie story up like a snow globe. The premise of this series was that instead of his rocket ship landing in the corn fields of Kansas and being raised by Ma and Pa Kent, the superhero – who would stand for truth, justice and the American Way – lands in a Ukranian farm and becomes a political tool for the Russians. Now, instead of his secret identity that was given to him by his adoptive parents, everything about him is a state secret. Instead of being a force for goodwill to all mankind, Superman – Red Son, is a weapon of both propaganda and power for the Soviet Union.

It’s how you imagine and re-imagine stories that will get your audiences inspired. The more creative, the better.

While the popularity of comic books has its ups and downs over time, it’s amazing to see how it changes and adapts as an industry. This past weekend, was Montreal Comiccon and it played host to tens of thousands of fans from all over the comic book and science fiction genres. In a world where books struggle with their own digitization and only a small few earn the right to have a book deal that can turn into a blockbuster movie, it seems like comic book culture grows, becomes that much healthy and still has a certain level of protectionism when it comes to the value of the actual physical paper.

"This dude is serious." 

While walking the floor at Montreal Comiccon with a serious comic book collector (I used to be one and now, it’s more of a hobby), he pointed to one booth of comics being sold and said that, "this dude was serious." It turns out that he was showcasing two different copies of the first comic to feature Spider-Man. He also had multiple copies of other comic books that had collectible status because of a first appearance of one of the more popular superheroes. The fact remains, that comics are still collectible because the truly rare ones (especially in good shape) are hard to find. While it’s nice to have an abundant amount of media out there, we all know that scarcity is what makes something truly attractive to an audience: that ability to see something (or have something) that other don’t have access to.

Scarcity isn’t impossible… and comic books teach us that. 

While few can actually own a copy of 1939’s Detective Comics #27 (the first appearance of Batman) because it goes for around $300,000 (if you can even find one), it’s not a hard comic to find if all you want to do is read the story. Along with countless reprints, one of the growing trends in comic books has become the trade paperback (and hardcover). The comic book publishers take classic comic books and bundle them together into a trade pub. For the most part, these version are non-collectible (meaning they rarely increase in value from the cover price), but they offer fans the ability to read and enjoy the story without the fear of ruining a comic book that should be handled as little as possible to maintain it’s mint condition value. Along with that, it has opened up an entirely new segment of both readers and distributors (it’s not uncommon to now see comic book trades in bookstores, magazine stores, toy stores, etc…).

The digitization continues.

The comic book industry has not been spared by the digitization of everything. iPad apps and the ability to now buy comics in their digital form continues to rise. The acceptance and desire to have digital copies of comic books validates another truth about New Media: it is not a zero sum game. Just because someone buys a copy of Superman in a digital format, they may be doing it because they just want the story and no longer want to collect comics, or they may be doing it to read the comic on the go without fear of ruining their physical copy. The digitization of comic books is also introducing many new readers to the genre (and something tells me that a fan of the digital format will inevitably buy some physical copies to build a collection of value).

Pushing out into the edges.

While walking the floor at Montreal Comiccon, you begin to realize that nearly every chain in the food chain is now being monetized in some way, shape or form. From people paying $50 for a Stan Lee autograph or $20 to take a picture with a replica of the original Batmobile, the lesson is clear: if you have content that people want… people will pay for that content. The edges blur even more when you see the alleys of comic book artists selling original work, being created on-demand and in the moment. Herb Trimpe (one of the first comic book artists to draw The Incredible Hulk and Wolverine) would draw one of your favorite characters (doing whatever you want them to be doing) for around $100. What better way to declare your love of something than to have an original piece of artwork done by one of the original artists to your spec? The popularity of the genre and events like this has pushed comic books to the big screen, television, magazines and even into paperback books (yes, you can buy Batman fiction).

My feet hurt. My brain hurts.

It’s not all bellyrubs and lollipops for the comic book industry. Like any other media there is fragmentation and consolidation colliding at the same time as digitization and a finicky audience, but Comiccon is a great catalyst for media professionals to explore and analyze. There is a business around collectibles and there is a business around making the content accessible for everybody. There is a business around the personalization of giving fans real access to everything and there is a business in being strategic about how to extend the brand.

The future of media may lie in everything else but the media, while the more traditional companies will continue to grapple with the value of content as their one trick pony. 

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post called, Media Hacker. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:


  1. Another thing new media can learn from comics? The complex nature of long-tail niche content. All the examples you’ve cited are mainstream superhero comics. But during the peak heyday of comics collecting, it was the niche, indie titles like Bone, The Crow, Sandman and others that had “serious” collectors attention–and dollars. They may have had shorter runs than Superman, but they had intense fanbases. You just had to be agile enough to be ready with the next entirely new idea a lot faster.
    Good stuff. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. There are probably even more lessons to be learned with DC’s new and controversial “rebooting” of their entire universe. Old characters taken in different directions that have ruffled some feathers of long-time fans who don’t like having continuity and tradition messed with. Gotta be a lesson or 10 for marketers in there. But I’ll leave it to you to actually make the connection, Mitch.

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