Thanks to the recent wave of comic book movies like the upcoming Superman Returns and X-Men: The Last Stand, there's never been more interest in comic books. Unfortunately, comics have only gotten increasingly inaccessible. Plenty of movie-goers have trotted into their local comic book store to grab a companion to their favourite superhero movie, only to come out frustrated and confused. The reason is simple: Spider-Man's gone corporate, kids.
If you want to read all of Spider-Man's wacky adventures this month, put aside a lot of time and money. Marvel publishes seven monthly (and one annual), comics featuring the wall-crawler. That alone would set you back $35, if you wanted them all. With a notebook and a lot of luck, you'll understand what's going on. But odds are you'll need to find out the background for most of the characters--which may prove a bit troublesome, considering Marvel's been publishing at least one monthly Spider-Man comic since 1963.
What compels the publishers to crank out so many Spider-Man comics each month? Money. Amazing Spider-Man averages 80,000 unit sales per month. Astonishing X-Men, featuring the X-Men characters from the movies, sells 140,000 issues. New Avengers, featuring Spider-Man and Wolverine, manages to entice 125,000 nerds out of their money. If Spider-Man and Wolverine sell lots while appearing in one issue per month, there's no reason for the companies not to put them in more books. The two big comic book publishers, Marvel Comics and DC Comics, are both publicly traded companies that have a responsibility to maximize sales as much as they can, which easily explains the innumerable Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and X-Men stories.
While comic books have developed some mainstream appeal, the flaw with the industry's newfound corporate responsibility is increased inaccessibility. Long-time readers may have no trouble following their favourite characters after movies have doubled their monthly appearances, but it's daunting for a new reader to pick up Amazing Spider-Man #532 and try to catch up. Marvel attempted to amend this problem when they launched the Ultimate Marvel line in 2000, re-writing their most popular characters in a more contemporary setting. Despite being designed for accessibility, Ultimate Marvel has become a victim of its own success, with sales dictating the expansion of the line from one book in 2000 to an unwieldy six monthly comics recently. It's hard to write a cohesive universe and compelling continuity over six different titles--each with a different writer.
At the other end of the accessibility spectrum sits Archie Comics. While easily accessible, the stories are always the same and characters in stasis. Reggie never stops trying to steal Veronica away from Archie, who, in turn, will never be able to stop chasing two girls at once. The stories have no consequence, which can be just as frustrating to the reader as having to wade through decades of stories about clones, goblins and dead girlfriends. Appropriately, Archie's sales are much lower than those of the superheroic--at a ratio of around 30 to 1.
Comic books are neat. They're a great medium for visual story-telling, and the publishers have come upon a veritable gold-mine of potential new readership thanks to the movies. Unfortunately, the serialized nature of the medium and the corporate nature of the publishers have conspired to make comic books a joy only for the patient and the rich. In time, hopefully the publishers will find a balance between accessibility and consequence, and Little Billy will be able to walk into the comic store on the way home from the movies without being frightened and confused by what he finds inside.