Action comic books and comic art work were once considered a fringe hobby of geeky boys. But the rise in superheroes in popular culture has thrust it into the mainstream. And Alistair Anderson found, SA has its own devotees to this art form.
The release of the new Superman film, Man of Steel, this month and the recent box-office successes of movies such as Iron Man 3,The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises have renewed an interest in comic books and comic-book art among a new generation of enthusiasts.
The resultant boost in worldwide sales of both comic books and merchandise is expected to set new records. In SA, a small but vibrant community of comic-book enthusiasts has maintained a lively interest in this art form, though only a few local artists may find global success. "SA's comic industry is more a community than an industry," says Greg Nell, an employee of Outer Limits in Melville, Johannesburg, the oldest comic-book shop in SA.
"There are maybe 100 people making comics in the country, so there is an interest. However, I think SA is like most other countries in that we buy American comics made by the big publishers, DC and Marvel," he says. Sales of DC and Marvel, established global powerhouses of comic-book publishing, remain the main revenue generator for most dealers like Outer Limits, which has been open for over two decades.
These companies mostly own the rights of stories about superheroes, published in comic book and graphic novel form. Graphic novels are collections of these comic stories. DC Comics is the publishing unit of DC Entertainment, a company of Warner Bros Entertainment, which itself is owned by US media giant Time Warner. Disney bought Marvel Entertainment for around US$4bn in 2009. These huge media companies bought the premiere comic brands knowing how potentially lucrative they were, especially after the movie boom. And since the movie X-Men, released in 2000, Hollywood has gone comic crazy.
According to Box Office Mojo, a website which tracks movie ticket sales, Marvel's Avengers, released in 2012, is the third-biggest earner ever (adjusted for inflation), behind the science fiction film Avatar and Titanic. The fifth-biggest earner is Iron Man 3, released this year. Avengers made $2,78bn at box offices worldwide, while Iron Man 3 made $1,2bn.
The films have generated more interest in comics as art and literature globally and more South Africans have become regular readers and collectors. John Jackson Miller, who tracks US industry sales figures and estimates through his comichron.com website, says sales of single-issue comic books were up nearly $60m to $474,6m in 2012, compared with $414m in 2011 and $310,6m in 2003.
And in SA, the increase in sales reveals a similar trend, though the figures are nowhere close to those globally. "I have been running my outlets for about 20 years," says Mahdi Abrahams, a founder of the Cape Town-based Readers Den graphic novel outlets. "Since we started getting comic books made into blockbusters, we have seen sales increase quite rapidly."
But he says each new film's effect on sales is usually temporary and often relates to the specific character of each movie. "When the Watchmen movie came out in 2009, people wanted to buy the source material for it. People had not asked for Watchmen for ages before that and after a while, sales dipped again," he says.
Nell says that in the seven years he has been at Outer Limits, he has learnt that it is difficult to box buyers' preferences into categories. While comics are the most bought product, people also buy action figures, board games and T-shirts associated with the branding and franchise.
The average customer will spend about R300/month at the store. "Some people buy only one title at R40/month and others spend R1000-odd on a weekend. Comics and merchandise are becoming more popular, but the weak rand makes them more expensive so people pay more to follow a series," Nell says.And on the sale of rare items , Nell says the most he has seen one issue go for in SA was R2000. However, it is likely that South Africans are doing private deals for much more.
On average, a comic book sold for around R15 in the 1990s, which suggests a respectable rate of return on the investment. The challenge, as with an art investment , is gauging which comics will attain value. Some comics from 10 years ago can be bought for as little as R5. A new comic series that is piquing interest is Velocity, put together by a group of SA and Australian enthusiasts, who plan to release the series at Comic Con in the US next month.
According to Comics Guaranty, a US-based outfit that grades comics, Action Comics Number One , published in 1938 and which features the first appearance of Superman, remains (as of 2011) the only single original-copy comic to have sold for more than $2m. As for locals achieving such value one day, Abrahams says publishers will not risk publishing SA comic artists.
But a few local graphic novels have come out this year. One is Rebirth by Daniel Browde and Josh Ryba.The self-published novel did well at initial book signings but since then it has mostly been sold by individual order and not bought in bulk, says Abrahams. He says local comic writers and illustrators have only really found success so far when they have been picked up by foreign publishers or done work for existing titles.
One example is Joe Daly, a UK-born South African, whose work is published overseas and has to be imported into this country. Another South African who stands out is Jason Masters, who lives in Johannesburg but does work for DC which has been published in a high-profile series, including Batman Inc. Technology allows publishers to work with writers, inkers and illustrators they may never have met, but communicate with through e-mail or Skype. Usually, comic artists do corporate work for advertisements and other media, says Nell, and then create fiction work on the side as passion projects.
But there is now a growing drive to get more people reading comic books in SA, though these tend not to be local books. Free comic book day now happens globally on May 4, when some comics are given away free. Even cellphone applications can now enable readers to get certain comics, often at special prices. There are also "digital first" editions which can go for less than a dollar but may also be shorter reads. Miller says digital sales of comics were worth around $75m in 2012 compared with about $25m the year before.