From the mid-Eighties through the early Nineties, Marvel published a comic based on Hasbro's Transformers property. The title was finally cancelled in 1991 when it dropped below 100,000 copies sold per month, the point at which Marvel considered a title unprofitable. According to Comics Buyer's Guide's sales charts, in any given month for the past few years no more than ten titles out of the top 100 have sold more than 100,000 copies. In typical months, only the top five or six titles break 100,000, and it is not atypical for no more than the top three to hit that mark.
Issue sales alone are not the main source of the Big Two's profits these days, if they ever were. Ad pages and the recent furor over product placement show what's keeping publishers in the black. Even that isn’t enough to generate the profits their executives and shareholders expect.
Hence, merchandising. The Big Two make their money by slapping their characters on toothbrushes, beach balls, kids’ bed sheets and anything else you can imagine. Throw in movie and television deals and you have the healthy pile of profits that justifies keeping the printing presses running. Lambast Catwoman all you like, but I’m willing to bet that between box office, DVDs and merchandise it made Warner Brothers more money than the entire run of Selina Kyle’s print adventures.
The comics themselves exist to keep trademarks fresh, to serve as a farm for exploitable intellectual property. That is the main drive behind the static nature of the Big Two’s comic characters. Superman isn’t simply a “timeless icon”; he’s a brand. Good brands are hard to come by; that’s why the Big Two refuse to retire old characters to make way for the new.
This is not to disparage the writers, artists and editors working at Marvel and DC. Despite working under the constraints of IP exploitation, most are trying to put out their best work every month. Artists exist within the industry, even if they accept that art is at best a secondary motivation for their publishers. I genuinely believe Joe Quesada and Dan Didio are trying to tell the best stories they can, and I think it unfair to criticize them for yielding to the limitations of IP exploitation. After all, those toothbrush sales are what keep comics going.
It’s no wonder why some of the best regarded stories are told with comparatively unknown characters. J. Michael Straczynski’s take on Spider-Man, often derided by Internet wags as “Mystic Totem Bullshit”, is really no different than Alan Moore re-imagining Swamp Thing as an elemental god. However, no one’s going to put Swamp Thing on a pillowcase. Without the need to keep the characters “pure” for branding, creators on lower-tier titles can figuratively get away with murder. Look at Grant Morrison’s Animal Man or James Robinson’s Starman. Both feature characters that few outside comic fandom have heard of, and few within care about, yet both runs have been critically praised for years. Such comics owe much of their existence to their more high profile counterparts’ branding; without the money from merchandising, such tales wouldn’t be profitable enough to tell.
Comics’ role as IP farm is a blessing and a curse, but one the industry will have to live with. While it may be stifling from an artistic standpoint, from a business view it’s a necessity. Unless the market grows substantially, there is unfortunately no sensible reason to move away from branding. As readers, we will have to be satisfied with those gems sifted through the corporate sand.