Comic Book Publishers, Faced With Flagging Sales, Look to Streaming

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Comic book publishers are facing a growing crisis: Flagging interest from readers and competition from digital entertainment are dragging down sales.

Hoping to reverse the trend, publishers are creating their own digital platforms to directly connect with readers and encourage more engagement from fans.

The goal is to reach readers who may not live near a comic book shop but want to keep up with the Avengers and the Justice League. Experts say the direct-to-consumer model also helps compete with streaming services like Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video.

“They all look at Netflix and say, ‘Why do I need an intermediary?’” said Milton Griepp, the chief executive of ICv2, an online magazine that covers the industry. “That’s where this battle is being fought.”

One of the biggest direct-to-consumer efforts is DC Universe, a platform from DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Digital Studios that will offer streaming content, including original and classic TV series.

DC Universe is “a huge opportunity” that offers “ultimate creative control,” said Jim Lee, a co-publisher of DC Entertainment. “It allows you to look at wider adaptations of the source material.”

Taking advantage of that freedom, DC is planning six new series, starting with “Titans,” a dark tale about a band of young heroes. Also in the works are the horror-themed “Swamp Thing” and two animated shows, one featuring the character Harley Quinn, a fan favorite.

Several movies and TV series from the Warner Bros. library will be added to the lineup, including the four “Superman” movies starring Christopher Reeve, “Wonder Woman” with Lynda Carter and Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.”

“Within the app, there will be all different kinds of content aimed at all ages of fans,” Mr. Lee said.

DC announced the details on Thursday at Comic-Con International, the annual comic book convention in San Diego. Membership will be $8 a month, roughly in line with other stand-alone streaming services, and also includes access to digital comic books and exclusive merchandise.

The initiative comes at a challenging time for the comic book industry. The market declined 6.5 percent in 2017, according to estimates by ICv2 and Comichron, an industry analysis site. Total sales of comics and graphic novels in the United States and Canada were $1.015 billion in 2017, down $70 million from 2016.

Faced with sluggish sales, comic book publishers can use the direct-to-consumer efforts to create a stronger relationship with their readers, Mr. Griepp said.

“They present their brands and their content directly to these fans and expand their brand footprint,” he said.

Fans, in turn, can find a space to interact with each other and with the writers and artists of the comic books, said Mr. Lee of DC. “We want to build a gold standard,” he said.

Mr. Griepp said DC had tested the waters with DC Super Hero Girls, a franchise that included streaming animated shorts and an array of licensed merchandise like books, clothing and toys. He sees a similar move from Marvel Entertainment with Marvel Rising, a new property about the next generation of Marvel heroes including animated shorts, a TV movie and comic books.

The Walt Disney Company, which owns Marvel Entertainment, said last year that it would create a streaming platform that would include Marvel movies like “The Avengers” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Mr. Griepp said that could mean Marvel ends up with a platform of streaming content of smaller properties. Marvel declined to comment on its plans.

Smaller comic book publishers are testing their own direct-to-consumer platforms. Image Comics, the publisher of popular titles like The Walking Dead and Saga, started a direct-to-consumer platform in 2015 to sell comic book subscriptions and apparel.

“While there are many incredible brick-and-mortar stores, unfortunately not everyone is lucky enough to have one in their area,” Corey Hart, director of sales at Image Comics, said in a statement. “Image Direct was built in order to reach those exact readers.”

This month, Dark Horse Comics announced its service, Dark Horse Direct, which will focus on high-end products like statues.

“The goal is getting our products into as many hands a possible,” said Melissa Lomax, the director of e-commerce for Dark Horse, which promoted the service at Comic-Con. “We want to try to reach fans that may not necessarily have seen our product elsewhere.”

That access is important, Mr. Griepp said, because some comic book shops will not carry expensive merchandise.

“The strategy is just to make sure there is no unfilled demand in a rural area or small town,” he said.

Ms. Lomax said Dark Horse did not have immediate plans to add comic books or streaming content. But the company does have production deals for several of its properties, including Dark Matter, Hellboy and Tarzan. One of its titles, the Umbrella Academy, is being adapted into a series for Netflix in 2019.

Comic book publishers are quick to point out that their initiatives are intended to augment retail sales, not cannibalize them. In fact, DC recently announced a deal to reprint comic books and sell them in more than 3,000 Walmart stores nationwide.

Dan DiDio, the other co-publisher of DC Entertainment, said that if the program is successful, he hoped to broaden it to include other retailers.

“We want to find a way to put these in the hands of folks who don’t have a chance to read them other ways,” he said.

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