Comic books -- they're so hot right now. Or, at least, comic book characters are.
Let me explain. The Avengers is currently the third-highest grossing movie of all time, but it serves as merely a high-water mark in a trend that has been brewing for the last 15 years. Not to say that superhero movies didn't exist before then; Tim Burton's Batman movies were cultural events (Never forget the Batdance), Richard Donner's Superman movies made us believe in the power of handsome white men, and Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman provided hours of uncomfortable-to-watch-with-your-Dad entertainment.
But the idea of comic book movies as a genre unto themselves, worthy of the attention of adults and children alike, is more recent. And that idea has expanded into unprecedented financial and critical success for all comic book movies. Ever since Blade performed well at the box office (while also being R-rated, for the badass record) in 1998, the door was opened for comic book movies to be whatever filmmakers wanted them to be.
And so they were. We've received noir crime films (Sin City), violent comedy movies (Kick-Ass) and even reboots of reboots (we've had three guys play The Incredible Hulk in a decade). The basic idea of a comic book movie has even lead to superhero movies not adapted from any comic books, like the fantastic Chronicle and the black comedy Super. In every conceivable genre and form, comic book movies are proving to be a vibrant and lucrative scene; a true geek success story!
But none of that success is doubling back to the comic book industry.
In any situation where a popular book becomes a motion picture, it's reasonable to expect an influx of people wanting to read the source material. That's why your favourite book suddenly has its original cover art replaced with smiling movie stars. And this is a good thing. Fans of Game of Thrones looking for something to do between waiting for new episodes and crying about the Red Wedding can comfort themselves with the books (Warning: The books are not comforting in any way whatsoever) in the meantime.
But there has been an almost complete inability from the comic book industry to turn eager filmgoers into fresh new comic book fans; 2011 saw dozens of high-profile comic book movies and events, but industry sales were surprisingly low. The reasons for this are as frustrating as they are stupid. You can see a shiny new copy of A Storm of Swords being eagerly read on any given subway car, but it's a much harder task to find someone reading the newest issue of Uncanny Avengers. This problem exists because of a handful of barriers in the way of the prospective comic book consumer.
Traditionally, comic books are published as single issues on a monthly basis. The price of a single issue can fluctuate from anywhere from under five dollars to closer to 10. After six to eight issues are released, which is often the length of a single comic book story line, they're often collected in a trade paperback book, also called a graphic novel by some. Then the process repeats, with more single issues being collected in more trade editions.
The first hurdle with this approach is that single issues are typically not sold in book stores, where the vast majority of impulse/casual book buys are made (drunken nights on Amazon not included). Single issues do not exist indefinitely; if you miss buying a new one the month it was released, good luck finding a back issue. It's not a newbie-friendly system, and that's fine as long as better alternatives exist. If you wanted to forego single issues entirely and start buying collected editions of Spider-Man, for example, where would you start?
Well, that depends. There are currently two Spider-Man books: Superior Spider-Man and Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, but neither of them technically star Peter Parker. If you wanted to start fresh with the (excellent) adventures of the new Spider-Man, biracial Miles Morales, then there are currently four volumes worth of collected Ultimate Comics Spider-Man editions for you to read, with more incoming. But the Ultimate Comics Spider-Man stories actually take place in an alternate Marvel universe, and that universe is being destroyed in an upcoming storyline, Ultimatum. Miles Morales will survive and continue as Spider-Man, but the name of his comic series will change.
If your eyes glazed over reading that last convoluted paragraph, welcome to the comic book industry: where everything is made up and organizational continuity doesn't matter! And that fragmented, hard-to-follow style of publishing doesn't only serve to intimidate new readers; it drastically drives down overall sales numbers of single issues. But the reason behind this is tied into the vary nature of superheroes, and how their stories are rarely allowed to end.
Comic book heroes have existed in various forms and interpretations for literal generations. Batman predates World War II, and Spider-Man debuted while JFK was in office. And while various storylines have changed or redefined the characters, their outlines remain the same. They're our Greek myths; stories that change in the telling, but focus on larger-than-life characters that still have strong ties to their original interpretations.
And we, as a society, respond to this. The average person knows what kind of animal bit Peter Parker to give him his amazing, absolutely-a-metaphor-for-puberty powers. The story of Superman is so well-established at this point that Grant Morrison managed to cover it in eight words for the award-winning All-Star Superman series.
This also means that there is no straight line when it comes to reading many superhero comics; there are dozens of legitimate storylines and past collections that could serve as a great intro to any given character. While that information may be inspiring, even liberating, to some, it can also be intimidating as hell to someone just wanting to see what the X-Men are like on the page.
To their credit, comics publishers have tried multiple times to address this issue. DC rebooted its universe as "The New 52" in order to start each series back at #1, and Marvel has its similar "Marvel Now!" label. But it has never really translated into comic sales that reflect the money being generated by comic book movie adaptations.
It seems that the best weapon a newcomer to the world of comics can have with them is knowledge (for instance: a weekly column about the geek world written by a charming man on the internet) about whatever series they want to get into. Once you have determined a place to start, the entire system becomes easier to understand. But if I had to make the choice between doing a non-trivial amount of research before buying an Iron Man comic, or simply buying whatever paperback novel is Heather's Pick that week, the latter has some serious appeal.
Luckily, comic books aren't exclusively the domain of decades-spanning superhero epics, as lovely as those are. If Batman and Spider-Man are the equivalent of Coronation Street (long-running stories that will absolutely outlive us all), focused stories like The Walking Dead and Y: The Last Man are closer to cable series like Breaking Bad and Sex And The City; they tell a single story, and then end, with no intention to run forever.
In fact, The Walking Dead is said to be the only confirmed case of a show or movie directly (and noticeably) increasing sales of the comic that inspired it.
Comics are a medium, not a genre, so there's plenty of room for all kinds of stories. Stories like Image Comics' Saga, about a mixed-race couple trying to raise a baby in the middle of a hostile intergalatic war, are so popular that they sell out frequently and consistently, and were the highest-selling graphic novels of 2013. Stories like Locke & Key, a six-part horror series about a family that is literally and figuratively haunted by their inherited mansion. Or Bone, the classic all-ages story that gradually turns from a slapstick comedy about three mismatched friends to an epic fantasy that's as beautiful as it is terrifying.
For any of these series, or the hundreds like them, getting into them is as simple as reading one book, and then the few that follow it. While superhero movies may continue to make it hard for new fans to jump immediately into their corresponding comic books, the art form as a whole is far from inaccessible to the curious reader, and there's a truly stunning amount of amazing stories to be read. When you're ready for them, they'll be there.
And in the meantime, the comic book industry will just have to comfort itself by counting the billions and billions of dollars it has earned to date through movies alone.
Somehow, I think they'll be fine.
It's All Geek To Me is a weekly column about geek culture, and how it's secretly all around you, influencing everything you do, forever.
Mike Sholars is a writer, editor, Twitter guy, and the world's strongest millionaire.