Comic books have never relied on advertising as a revenue stream the way other types of magazines have. In fact, independent publishers frequently have no paid advertising component to their comics. This will be changing soon as the Bonfire Agency targets October for the launch of their “ComicsUnited” advertising network.

The Bonfire Agency launched in January as a full service marketing and promotion firm for the pop culture sector. It’s founders are Steve Rotterdam, former senior v-p of marketing and sales at DC Comics, and Ed Catto, an advertising industry veteran who is also the “Retropreneur” at CA Enterprises, which hold the rights for the Captain Action and Zeroids properties. Bonfire recently implemented a program introducing the Bonomo Turkish Taffy brand to Direct Market comic stores, with a portion of sales being donated to the Hero Initiative not-for-profit corporation dedicated to helping comic creators in need.

“We’re trying to build a critical mass,” explains Catto as he lists the five initial publishers for this network: Aspen, Boom! Studios, Dynamite, IDW and Top Cow. Each comic in the network is expected to have at least six pages of advertising inventory, including covers. While not a comic book, Diamond Previews will also be part of the network.

The demographics for this group are mostly male, age 18-34 with an average household income of $54,000. Approximately 97% of the comics from these publishers are sold in the Direct Market. They expect to have a monthly circulation of one million issues per month after combining the publishers in the network. Bonfire’s Ed Catto describes this audience as “the type of person who spends money on things they like and tells people what they like.”

If the 18-34 age bracket sounds a little young for your average Direct Market customer, the lack of “legacy” fans may be the difference. The age skewed higher for DC readers, owing to “legacy fans over 40” years old according to Rotterdam. Companies like Top Cow have few fans in the higher age brackets, partially because fans who grew up reading Top Cow would be younger by nature. A good example would be Top Cow’s number one celebrity fan, Lance Briggs. The Chicago Bears linebacker is 30 years old and was 12 when Top Cow/Image Comics debuted in 1992.

Because of the dominance of direct market/comics shop sales channel, Bonfire will actually be using Diamond for circulation audits the first year, with the intention of moving to a more traditional circulation auditing firm like BPA in the second year of the program.

What does all this mean for a publisher? Bonfire describes its ad rates as “a little less than DC or Marvel,” so for the purposes of estimation, let’s call that a range of $10-$15 CPM and the minimum 6 pages per issue. This would an advertising income of roughly $300-$450 for a comic selling 5,000 copies or $600-$900 for a comic selling 10,000 copies.

Bonfire is looking to add more publishers in the near future, but cautions that they need publishers who can make a significant increase to their circulation base. When pressed on whether a 100,000 monthly circulation would be necessary, Rotterdam replied “plus or minus 20%,” but that the publisher’s brand also factored into the equation.

Print advertising is phase one in Bonfire’s plan. For the second phase, they intend to place advertising on the websites of their publishers. This is requiring some redesign work because, as Rotterdam puts it, “everybody’s website is, to put it politely, less than adequate” for the functionality advertisers expect. Publishers are currently working on redesigning their sites with these requirements in mind, with the work being done on the publisher’s side, not through Bonfire. Rotterdam suspects these digital ads may take the form of sponsorships, “rather than traditional interruptive ads.”

The third phase would be incorporating advertising into the publishers’ newsletter, both digital and print. It should be noted that ComicsUnited is for publisher-based media buys. Individual creators, properties and comics-related sites (like news sites) will not be part of it, though Bonfire may explore non-publisher sponsorships separately.

Rotterdam compares the state of comics to the indie film market of twenty-five years ago. Back then large brands would attach themselves to films and filmmakers and act as sponsors in the background, he says. Bonfire is seeking to position comics and individual creators in a similar fashion and this would be a separate venture from their publisher-based advertising network. In theory such sponsorships could be a boon for digital comics, particularly story-based webcomics where the revenue mix falls heavier on print collection and advertising-based income.