As graphic novels continue as source material for many media spin-offs, the way the originals are sold and marketed is changing. During the first year of The Great Recession, the industry term The Watchmen Effect had a different meaning than it does today. The trailer (not the movie) for the film adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel caused an uptick in sales from 45,000 copies in 2007 to 300,000 in 2008. At the time, it was strongly believed those readers would return to book and comics stores to buy more graphic novels. But two years later, graphic novel sales in the first half of 2010 declined 20% overall, with roughly half of that drop attributed to consumers no longer buying The Watchmen. There was however a bright spot in the sales figures for the second half of 2010 that shined, unsurprisingly, on another graphic novel with a media tie in. Sales of The Walking Dead trade collections, coupled with its smash hit first season on AMC TV drove a nearly 15% increase in total graphic novel sales to the same month in 2009.
Since hoped for diversified graphic novel sales have yet to materialize, The Watchmen Effect now refers solely to the sales surge comics properties enjoy when adapted for movies or TV. While The Walking Dead has been a ratings and critical juggernaut for AMC, other recent comics adaptations haven’t fared as well among film consumers. Last summer’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World did poorly at the box office, but a cool moviegoer reception did nothing to quash a Watchmen Effect on sales of Oni’s Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series, and The Watchmen movie itself also failed to perform as well as expected in theaters. Still, regardless of how well a film project fares on the large or small screen, at a time when the livelihood of both bookstore chains and boutique comics shops alike are under siege from various market forces, comics properties with media tie ins are considered the one sure thing in a down market.
And The Watchmen Effect seems to work in reverse as well. Comics based on movie and television source material often do well sales-wise. 2010’s October comics direct market sales show Dark Horse’s adaptation of the long off the air Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series as the top selling book by an independent comic book company that month and another comic based on a vampire TV show, IDW’s True Blood series, also charted well that month. While the success of those two particular books is likely due in no small part to the current popularity of vampire themed material, it’s also indicative of the film industry’s power as a promotion and distribution channel for comics and books. As readers spend less time and money in stores and more ordering from online sites like Amazon or downloading comics and books digitally, what’s on TV and at the multiplex increasingly serves to make consumers aware of what’s available to read.
Additionally, it points to the progressively more synergistic relationship the comics and film industries have, which recent strategic business decisions by Warner Brothers would seem to confirm. Warner Brother’s subsidiary Legendary Films is opening a graphic novel department headed by veteran IDW and DC Comics editor Bob Schreck and DC Entertainment (a Time Warner company) recently announced it’s moving its Online Publishing Division to Warner Brothers headquarters in Burbank later this year.
As comics become more entrenched in the filmmaking world, innovative uses of the comics medium have emerged in creative marketing efforts as well. Neil Blomkamp, director of the 2009 critical and box office success District 9, is rumored to be using a graphic novel as part of the pitch to find a distributor for his latest film, Elysium, while another interesting trend was apparent on the latest installment of the popular HBO Series, Bored to Death. Show creator Jonathan Ames based the character Ray Hueston (played by Zach Galifianakis) on his friend and frequent collaborator, comics creator Dean Haspiel and the recently wrapped second season of the show included a storyline that made clever use of Haspiel’s experience in both life and art. As Haspiel puts it, “A couple of years ago, I suffered an emotionally traumatic heartbreak. Jonathan was very sensitive to my situation… because my life was the initial basis for Ray, he decided to write a version of that heartbreak into the show.” The result was the fictional comic by Ray Hueston called The Origin of Super Ray which closely resembles Haspiel’s real life comic, Bring me the heart of Billy Dogmaand the IDW published media tie in comic (penned by Ames and drawn by Haspiel), The Birth of Super Ray.
The long-running NBC series, The Office, also recently featured a storyline with artistically inclined character Pam creating the comic The Adventures of Jim Halpern for her TV character husband of the same name. After the show aired, NBC posted the first three pages of it on the show website as a series extra for fans. That trend and others like it are only likely to continue as film creators, PR departments, and marketers become more deeply embedded into the comics business.