Speaking of milestones, both DC and Marvel Comics celebrated their 75th Anniversary during the past several years. DC Comics was officially founded in 1934 and Marvel Comics back in 1939. Despite all the promotions and industry events, anecdotally speaking, the 75th Anniversary of DC and Marvel seems to have been met with indifference among collectors, with very little recognition on the ground within my particular sphere of pop culture enthusiasts. However, I feel this specific anniversary is notable due to the average male lifespan, which is also considered to be about 75 to 80 years. What this means is that the kids who purchased the very first DC and Marvel comics directly off the newsstands will be passing on. It’s hard to say how many of these early books were collected and saved but I expect to see the frequency of large collections hitting the market to increase as time rolls on. In the meantime, I thought I’d take a look how DC and Marvel celebrated their anniversaries by examining their event based…
• and Overall Marketing Initiative
In the past, I mentioned similarities between the comic biz and office supplies in the sense that each product has its own brand within a larger brand like Staples or Office Depot. As well, we often make first contact with these brands as kids looking to buy school supplies or as a source of entertainment in the case of comics, leaving ample time for consumer loyalty to be established so that by the time we’re adults, familiarity can become a comforting factor when making a purchase decision. As such, the comic market is filled to the brim with logos! Not only are symbols a great way to grab attention, but a well designed logo communicates… while looking great on a t-shirt! While there appears to be one main logo to mark the event from Marvel, DC has taken a different approach, with character specific anniversary logos. Various comps of “DC75” can be found but none of these are used more prominently than the Superman 75, Batman 75 and Wonder Woman 75 signatures. I suspect that part of the explanation is that DC was in the midst of rebranding themselves with the “peel” logo and busy prepping for the New 52’s, which only lasted about 2 1/2 years. There wasn’t much point in promoting the DC75 mark when a relaunch was imminent. The other thing to note here is… all the logos look pretty good! Maybe it’s the prevalence of easy to use graphics software, the widespread sharing of information and sensibilities or simply the natural progression things. Whatever the reason, comic book based logos have never looked better.
Spearheading this celebration is a massive, 7-8 kg oversize book that makes the Omnibus’ and Absolutes’ pale by comparison. Produced by respected publisher Taschen, who are well-known for their quality art books, both the DC and Marvel compendiums feature highlights from their respective 75 year history. I first saw these books at the local art gallery (AGO) of all places, with a hefty sticker price of $300 CAD. Prices have come down since time of publication and you can find these books as low as $100 on eBay. Of note, the DC version was to be broken up into five smaller additional volumes and expanded based on the five main eras (gold, silver, bronze, dark and modern) but it appears that the final 2 books have been cancelled. Make of this what you will. DC also produced character specific books, variant covers, toys and other merchandise. DK books jumped into the fray with an Absolute sized Marvel Comics: 75 Years of Cover Art, while Marvel produced an Omnibus of their own and launched a series of Alex Ross variant covers among other things. The Alex Ross sketch variants in particular are commanding a hefty premium on eBay for 1:300 retailer incentives.
Clearly there was enthusiasm from both DC and Marvel for their 75th Anniversary, and rightfully so. Outlasting vinyl records, video tapes and the colour CRT television, what an incredible journey they’ve had… A turbulent 75 year boom punctuated by bankruptcies, a market crash, bail outs and buy outs. The success of the characters they created means they will live on in movies, toys and video games but the comic book itself may face its biggest challenge yet as first readers begin to pass on, compounded by a shifting focus away from print material. All this is still in motion so it remains to be seen how things will pan out for the traditional comic book form. However, I recently found this academic paper which suggests that print can co-exist with new media. I haven’t had a chance to read it in detail but I like the thinking behind it… especially when it’s backed up data, as opposed to enthusiasm. The situation is much more complicated than digital simply replacing print. Others have pointed to lifestyle, education and/or the abundance of information.
Marvel has taken a corporate approach with their marketing that pretty much began and ended in 2014. I like that their campaign was concise and somewhat consistent. DC has taken a different approach by celebrating their individual assets, which has allowed them to extend their promotional push to even today. The DC trinity has always been more widely recognized by the general public thanks to DC’s early adoption of popular media so perhaps this makes sense for them. There’s no right or wrong in either scenario, except in how the plan is formulated and executed. It’s hard to say how successful these initiatives were since there is no “anniversary” specific data that we can study, but for the most part, aside from a couple of cancelled books, the product roll out seems to have gone smoothly, partnering up with many other businesses to help push the concept of 75 years.
I found the books themselves to be very curious. I couldn’t figure out who they were targeted for. It was hard to imagine the general public buying these expensive books unless they had some sort of strong connection to DC or Marvel. Collectors do have this connection of course, but would they be interested in spending $100 to $300 on what are essentially reference books? Do collectors want or need these kinds of books? As well, many of the compendiums collected stories from the early Golden Age to the Modern Age… including the 1990’s. Would readers who like the older stories care much for the new material or vice versa? I was tempted to buy some of these books but I was turned off by the crude Golden Age content in some cases, or the terrible 1990’s crosshatching. In the ended, I decided I could find these stories in other books more geared toward my interests. I understand this defeats the purpose of a “sampler” compendium, but I think I’ve sampled enough over the years and I prefer more bang for my buck.
My only criticism is that the 75 Year Anniversary campaign was not very meaningful beyond its commercial push. In fact, the whole program felt like table stakes from both camps, as if they had to go through the motions from a PR perspective. The program did not communicate any deeper meaning, like their incredible contribution to pop culture or being able to provide a lifetime of entertainment or how comic book history reflects human history from an anthropological perspective. Where was the hope, aspiration or vision as both companies closes in on the century mark? For collectors, the smell of aging pulp and the colourful imagery are vivid memories, a basis for community, an investment in time and a source for escapism. As publishers, perhaps DC and Marvel simply see the comic book medium solely as a business, and their anniversary as just another opportunity to push out more material, while collectors are wanting to extrapolate meaning from their enjoyment of these books through their emotional attachment.
I suspect that 2017 will conclude the 75 year celebration from DC as we close out the year with the Justice League movie in November. Of note, Archie Comics also celebrated their 75th anniversary recently, as well as… Canadian comics.