March 13th, 2012


What Are The Box Office Bombs of Comics?

Okay, I'm gonna be thinking out loud here, which means, babbling idiot typing time. Feel free to click away now.

I was washing the dishes and zoning out and for a change my thoughts didn't start racing about how I was screwing up the latest project I'm currently working on. For some reason my head got wrapped around the gum-flapping over the John Carter movie that you can't seem to avoid the same way I know there's a thing called The Bachelor and that a guy made a poster of his face and taunted basketball players with it (does that guy have a movie deal yet?).

Anyway, everyone's an expert on the internet, but other than saying that, this isn't about everybody on the internet being an expert. And it isn't about why John Carter failed or didn't fail or why people should wait to declare a film a failure until it's actually failed -- because I don't care, and I don't know, and you don't know, and the folks reading that Rotten Tomatoes site only think they know, and even Hollywood probably doesn't really, truly know. If Hollywood was so god-damned genius about Hollywood then producers wouldn't hire forty-three people to work on a script about people shooting each other and every movie would be a hit and blah blah blah.

Anyway, that's a lot of typing for someone who doesn't care, but really, I don't, because I think about comics, for good or bad, happy or sad, far more than movies. I read comics and make comics and worry over comics, I don't make movies and haven't paid to see a movie in eight or nine years and am probably never going to get all Iron Eyes Cody over poor Hollywood's revenue problems. I mostly watch movies made by and starring dead people who fooled you into thinking smoking was cool, because it looked cool when they did it, not like when the putz on the phone outside Panara Bread lights up. I like comics and jibber-jabbing about comics but, really, folks, the John Carter flick really doesn't have a hell of a lot to do with comics, despite everyone discussing it on comic book sites. You want to argue that John Carter is related to comics because everyone's dusting off the old John Carter funnybooks and pushing them, and that there's some Disney lawsuit against Dynamite, well, okay, whatever. But when you get down to it that's like animation sites discussing Fruit Roll-Ups and baby diapers for a week because of the Spongebob cartoon licenses. It's a geek thing, sure, but it really isn't a comic book thing. Anyway, does it matter? No, not really, but I haven't gone off into Tangentsville here for a while and longtime readers, those that are left, know this is how it goes.

Anyway, to finally maybe get to the friggin' point, you always hear mention of Ishtar and Heaven's Gate and Pluto Nash or whatever when it comes to box-office bombs in the movies. You hear about Broadway fiascos (I'm pretty sure Carrie was a huge money-loser, I'm thinking maybe Starlight Express might have been a bomb, I know everyone mentions Moose Murders but I dunno if it lost a ton or was just a huge stinkjob before it eventually got the Ed Wood rub). Even though theatrical disasters tend to be discussed in terms of how badly a play was received you can find discussions and general allowance of what lost money like crazy (Which reminds me, is that Spider-Man thing still going?). I don't know much about the record industry but you hear about bands that get monster contracts and the albums flop or you hear about an album that goes into production hell and can't recoup the losses. But in comics...I kind of realized I have no idea what the industry's costliest bombs have been. I mean, there are failed initiatives like Impact and publishing efforts like Crossgen or Tundra, or shelved projects or pulped comics like the Elseworld's annual and whatever. They ain't bombs.

Where are the bombs? See, I can't rattle off a string of titles, of projects, that were just financial sinkholes the way Raise the Titanic or Battlefield Earth or Mars Needs Moms were. Relatively speaking, of course. But they have to be out there, failure is part and parcel of the entertainment industry, even our little wee bairn comics. But I'm scratching me wee bairn head over this one. Am I just not seeing the white elephants in the longbox? We're likely to be talking about stuff from the Big 2, or possibly the Big 2 and the Little Four or whatever it is at the front end of Previews right now. And some dead companies that did zany things with their money, whose fanboy or mercenary eyes were much bigger than the reader's stomachs. I'm not privy to the Big-2 scuttlebutt that goes on at convention bars or private chat rooms, I don't have friends in high places anymore in the business. I mean, sure, shit trickles down, you hear about a LEGENDARY CREATOR who never turned in the work and got away with it, money and rep-intact, because they're a LEGENDARY CREATOR (and no, I'm not talking about Big Numbers -- or any project you probably ever heard of -- because, ha ha, the creators never turned in the work, ha ha!).

So, here's the question -- what are the "holy shit, we spent a lot of money and published this comic book and no one bit" titles out there? We all know most comics make nothing, most comics fail or fail to return. Some do make money, some excellent money. But which ones lost buckets? None? That's crazy talk. This is comics, the entire industry should have a Kickstarter.

We all know many comics are critical bombs or receive a harsh reception from the fan base. That doesn't mean anything, really -- Batman: Odyssey, for all I know, made money. Ditto Rise of Arsenal. They might have made super good coin, even. Superhero comics are like B-Movies, there's a built-in audience and the publishers generally know what they're gonna get when they put something out. And by and large, they don't fork over a ton of dough to the creators or spend a wad on pre-production figuring out what they're doing. In the real grown-up world, a comic doesn't cost that much to make, even a Big-2 comic. Sure, I couldn't back one, but I'm not a member of the real, grown-up world, so there. Comics don't have the marketing budgets movies have, and while comic artists can make a relatively nice paycheck up front they don't take home multi-millions writing or penciling a comic or mini-series pre-release. I know, maybe you've heard talk about a Batman project with a scary-big payout, but it made money, didn't it?  Unless it didn't. I dunno! Unlike movie-stars, film directors, rock bands and divas, comic creator's paychecks and page rates are not publicly discussed or even really hinted at, at least not that I know of. Actual numbers? Costs? Overprinting? Screw-ups? Maybe there are websites where people guess and crunch the numbers, but I've never come across a list of the top 10 money-losers released in comics. 

I remember talk of Howard the Duck #1 and Shazam #1 being hyped and over-ordered back in the day. At that time, there would still have been newsstand returns. But I can't recall if a lot of those orders were to burgeoning direct market outlets or not, I'm 46, and that's a little before my time of becoming way-too-into this stuff. Some folks would certainly know the story on those titles better than me. Still, it makes me wonder if the bigger bombs would have to be found in ye olde days of returns from retail outlets. Like, someone must be able to recall what EC titles got hit hard during the meltdown. I know an issue of Panic was boycotted or something because of a Christmas strip Elder drew pissing some folks off. Did that make it a disaster? I dunno. They printed a lot more books back then. A modern flop, they print based on an initial order, and if the thing doesn't sell through, well, who cares, really? Worked in the short term, didn't cost millions to produce. People laugh about Liefeld's golden era and all the unsold copies of early Image and Image-era polybagged Marvel and DC books, but they moved a lot of them. They made the publishers money. When you think of comic book disasters you think of books that got ripped for being lousy and stunk up the dollar bins. But everyone bought them to find out if they were lousy. John Carter -- people just aren't buying.

So. This was my long-winded, ridiculous way of asking -- what are our bombs? Are there any? There must be, right? But even our worst critical disasters seem to sell, and costs aren't anything near major film and record releases. Did Crumb earn his reputed big advance for The Book of Genesis? I have no idea, I think it sold well, didn't it? Not that I know squat about actual book publishing. Maybe there are some fiascos in that arena, with the book publishers, who smelled Graphic Novel success and struck out a few times. Wouldn't be surprised, at that, there was a bit of a feeding frenzy and a few decent advances could have been frittered away on books that performed far less-than-Persepolis.

I'm not digging for dirt, don't want to hear speculation on page rates, I'm just wondering aloud. Are comics too "cheap" to fail that big? Publishers go down over a mess o' problems, I dunno of a decently-funded publisher that was brought down by one comic or series. Are there known comic book Cleopatras out there or are comics relatively cheap enough to make that no one title can be considered a huge disaster? I've been involved with disappointments, but no one at DC ever admitted that World's Funnest made the accountants smack their heads into walls over the losses. And there was some expensive talent on that. Do filmmakers and "real" writers get stupid money to join the comic book parade? Enough to sink anything? I dunno. 

Maybe the equivalent of a bomb in mainstream comics isn't a single issue or mini-series but a major series or event that peters out over time?


Feel free to chime in.