It’s easy to think of comics and video games as having adjacent fandoms. Gaming events like PAX draw many of the same demographics as New York Comic Con and at Anime Expo—men and women ages 21–35—though comics fans tend to be a bit older and more anime fans are women. The online engagement of both kinds of fans is huge, and so is their appetite for content that feeds their obsessions. Marketers targeting either gamers or comics fans rarely miss hitting the other because there’s so much overlap.
It’s no coincidence. Both media offer a range of subject matter for different audiences, but action-oriented content is considered mainstream. Both rely heavily on recognizable character and story franchises, deep worldbuilding, and literary influences from popular genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and horror to create immersive experiences for their fans. And both are primarily visual media, telling their stories through spectacular imagery.
There’s one small difference, though. Sales of comics and graphic novels—periodical, trade, and digital—added up to about $1 billion in North America in 2017, according to industry estimates. Video games—including mobile, PC, console, downloadable content, interactive media, and e-sports—had sales closer to $108.4 billion according to SuperData Research, which analyzes the gaming market.
Comics-oriented publishers look at those numbers and wonder how to get into gamers’ wallets, since they are right next door in terms of market affinity. Even a sliver of what gamers spend on their hobby would represent a major increase for the comics and graphic novel market. Meanwhile, video game developers have to feed their fans’ unending appetite for new content, which can cost millions to produce. Comics give game developers a fast, easy, and cheap way to get rich visual stories featuring their IP in front of the same fans through a different channel.
“Comics have been a major part of Activision’s and Blizzard’s publishing programs,” says Byron Parnell, director of global licensing and publishing at Blizzard Entertainment, one of the largest video game companies, which owns, among other megafranchises, Call of Duty, Destiny, Overwatch, and World of Warcraft. “They enhance and help build out the game worlds. They also give players a way to stay connected and dig deeper into the characters, stories, and settings that they might already be fans of, in addition to introducing comics fans and a more general pop culture audience to these worlds.”
The relationship between comics and video games goes back nearly to the birth of video games. Atari scored one of its first big hits with Superman in 1978, although fans had to use their imaginations to see the Man of Steel in the pile of red and blue pixels. Video games were also part of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ stampede through popular culture in the ’80s; TMNT was one of the first independently published cross-platform franchises that originated in comics. In the ’90s, players plunked down quarters to pit Capcom’s Street Fighter characters against Marvel superheroes.
Comics started to draw from video game IP in the late ’70s, as a natural extension of a licensing strategy that had previously adapted material based on toys and kids’ animated programming. Characters such as Lara Croft, Mario and Luigi, and Sonic the Hedgehog all had successful comics runs from Dark Horse, Valiant, and Archie, respectively, in the 1990s, when comics offered much richer potential for developing characters and story worlds than the still-emerging technology of video games.
By the early 2000s, gaming systems had evolved to the point that games could provide more realistic imagery, explosive action, and complex narratives. Ambitious game series such as the Elder Scrolls, Grand Theft Auto, and Mass Effect spun vast story worlds full of characters and locales while also maintaining engaging gameplay. Massive multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft made real-time remote collaboration essential, overlaying a social dimension to the previously solitary experience of gaming. As displays went to flat-screen HD and audio went to surround-sound, the sensory experience became overwhelming. The arrival of mainstream consumer virtual-reality hardware promises to make it all-encompassing, while mobile devices make it ubiquitous.
Producing this level of video game entertainment is complicated and is sometimes as costly as creating big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. With the stakes so high, game makers need to keep their fans engaged and keep their IP top of mind between major releases. Thus, they’re producing more downloadable content, interstitial videos, e-sports, and tournament play—and licensed books and comics.
The Big Two: Marvel and DC
The biggest players in the comics industry, DC Entertainment and Marvel Entertainment, are both subsidiaries of multiplatform entertainment conglomerates (DC’s parent company is Warner Bros., which is owned by AT&T, and Marvel’s parent is the Walt Disney Co.), which gives them crossover options galore.
DC has parleyed its pantheon of superheroes into several big hits. The Batman: Arkham series of games, developed by Rocksteady Studios and WB Games for PC, Playstation, and Xbox, beginning with Batman: Arkham Asylum in 2010, turned players loose in Batman’s dark world. The engaging story line, stunning graphics, puzzles, and explosive gameplay made Arkham Asylum and its sequels into a blockbuster franchise. DC also published comics tying directly into the game series’ version of Batman as direct-to-digital editions.
The company followed up with the extremely successful multiplayer game line Injustice, including Injustice: Gods Among Us (2013) and Injustice 2 (2017). The series features a timeline in which an evil Superman has become a fascist dictator, ruling the world in cahoots with several fellow superbeings. An insurgent group led by Batman brings good versions of the heroes over from an alternate universe, setting up the player-vs.-player gameplay. All the backstory was laid out in a direct-to-digital comics series, eventually issued in print and then in a trade collection. Because the characters were native to comics, it was natural to use the format to fill in story gaps and provide new content to keep fans interested in the world.
Marvel Entertainment has a separate Marvel Games division that develops big multiplayer and platform games as well as casual and mobile games using Marvel characters and scenarios. The games are designed to appeal to different types of players and capitalize on whichever Marvel properties are in the public eye at the moment. Typically, Marvel avoids creating close story connections between its games and its comics properties. Instead, it relies on the power of its brand and familiar characters to bring fans in to whichever platform most appeals to them.
Indie Comics and Gaming
Oregon-based indie publisher Dark Horse Comics was one of the first licensors of video game content in the comics industry and still has a major stake in game-licensed titles from companies including Bethesda, Bioware, Blizzard, and Nintendo using the game-based comics to bring in new readers.
“We’re trying to get fans of video games into the comic shops,” says Spencer Cushing, a Dark Horse editor who has worked on titles including Halo: Collateral Damage and The Art of God of War. “Comic readers who are fans of the games will be looking for this kind of content. Gamers may not cross over, but we want to get fans of the games to say, ‘Hey, there’s more story content.’ We want to add to their experience.”
Dark Horse has done good business in game-licensed periodical comics over the years, but it really hit the jackpot with a trade book based on the long-running gaming franchise the Legend of Zelda. The 9 x 12 format art books have sold millions of copies at a $40 list price. The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia alone sold 900,000 copies, according to the company. That’s led Dark Horse to dramatically expand its footprint in this category, with nearly 75 such titles currently in print.
“The revenue is substantial,” says editor Patrick Thorpe. “We’re a comic book company, but art books are a pillar of our publishing.”
That seems like an understatement. With those kind of numbers and explosive growth in the segment over the past five years, Dark Horse is looking more like a video game book press with a sideline in comics.
Other publishers and licensors have taken note of this trend as well. “We pour a lot of passion—and art—into the art books, and they’ve been very popular with our audience for a long time, so we’re planning to continue producing them for the foreseeable future,” says Blizzard’s Byron Parnell. “We have two main series: our Art Of series, which features a range of game art, and our Cinematic Art Of series, which showcases the high-resolution, pre-rendered cinematic art that we produce as the centerpieces for our games.”
Tabletop gaming publisher Paizo has teamed with comics publisher Dynamite Entertainment to produce comics based on its wildly popular Pathfinder fantasy role-playing game. The partnership has produced about six 200-page hardcover Pathfinder comics collections—among them City of Secrets, Dark Waters Rising, and Worldscape—as well as single-issue series and trade paperback collections.
IDW Publishing, a division of IDW Entertainment, publishes comics tied to licensed gaming properties as well as its own line of board and tabletop games, but so far it has not done comics about any of its original gaming properties. IDW’s big hits on the video game side include Gears of War, the megapopular sci-fi battle game series developed by Epic Games for Microsoft Studios, and a perennial favorite, Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog. It also publishes licensed comics for the venerable role-playing game series Dungeons & Dragons (published by Wizards of the Coast).
IDW publisher Greg Goldstein sees the comics as a way to enrich the story component of the games and attract some gamers who aren’t comics fans into the comics shop. “There’s a pretty strong overlap between comic readers and gamers,” he says. “If you’re a gamer into the story, it will amplify your experience. Maybe they’re not comic fans, but they’ll read these.”
Like other publishers, Goldstein says game-based IP poses an interesting storytelling challenge. “Lots of games are very derivative,” he notes. “Often the games came from comics or movies to begin with, so adapting them back into comics gets back to basics. If we do good comics, it will bring in fans of the property and also general readers.”
Looking East For Inspiration
Comics, video games, animation, and merchandise tend to be much more tightly integrated in Japan, with companies pursuing multiplatform strategies from the get-go. Viz Media, one of the largest distributors and master licensors of manga and anime content in North America, features several of Japan’s most popular transmedia properties in its line of graphic novels, including iterations of Dragonball, Naruto, Pokémon, Zelda, and the kid-oriented Yo-Kai Watch.
“If you count Pokémon and Zelda, it’s a huge part of our list,” says Viz senior director of publishing sales Kevin Hamric. “We publish 300 books a year roughly, and just over 5% of our sales are video game tie-ins in terms of quantity and dollars.”
Like other publishers, Viz sees opportunities in uniting the two related audiences by offering content that has something for everyone. One big enticement for gamers to check out the books is that they may contain clues to help them with the related games.
“There’s so much background and worldbuilding that goes into a game that doesn’t come out in the game,” says Chris Butcher, a senior advisor to Viz on licensing issues. “Sometimes it comes out in art books or strategy guides. In some of our books, the creators have authorized the comics to be part of [the official story line]. When it’s a beloved series, fans will take anything that brings them closer to what they love.”
Europe and Beyond
U.K.-based Titan comics is another major publisher of game-licensed comics, graphic novels, and trade books. The company has had success with Assassin’s Creed, one of the most story-rich of all the video game franchises, and recently announced a deal with Blizzard to extend the world of popular gaming property Diablo.
According to Titan publishing director Chris Teather, there’s a high degree of engagement and enthusiasm among licensors to bring the titles to a new medium: “Almost every developer we’ve worked with over the last few years has been staffed by people who are as in love with comics as they are games, and that palpable excitement and knowledge ends up transferring onto the page—whether it’s in the creative teams that are picked, or the story areas that are made available to us.”
Like other publishers, Titan and its licensors use comics to extend the story world of the game, satisfying fans’ desire for new content that enriches the gameplay experience. “We’ll always look to produce a canonical story that matters in the world of the game—whether that’s a prequel introducing new characters to the game’s universe, a sequel carrying on the adventures in between or after games, or a story with an all-new cast set elsewhere within the world,” Teather says.
Teather echoes some of the other publishers in observing that video game–based comics have a few built-in advantages in terms of reach and distribution. “The collected volumes or graphic novels do okay in the specialist trade but can perform far better in bricks-and-mortar stores and online,” he says
Teather emphasizes the importance of the digital channel. “Gaming titles are among the rare comics for which digital sales can be as significant as print sales,” he says. “The accepted wisdom is that digital sales are around 10% of print, but for many gaming titles, it can be significantly higher.”
New Audiences, New Distribution Options
Because not all gamers are traditional comics fans who go to comics shops regularly—or to bookstores often, for that matter—publishers are experimenting with new ways to reach them. Titan’s observations about the popularity of game-licensed comics on digital platforms is one part of that. Gamers live and breathe digital content; it may be easier to target them on platforms such as Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks, as well as through gamer-specific channels such as Playstation Network, Steam, and the Xbox Store.
Digital publisher Madefire, which distributes comics, has had success with its original motion books (comics incorporating sound, limited motion, and other screen effects) based on popular gaming characters. The Overwatch series of motion books, licensed from Blizzard, is the most popular title on its platform, with millions of downloads since the series launched in 2016.
“The Overwatch books are the top downloaded books on Madefire, both app and web—both because of the amazing fan base and because they are all free,” says cofounder and CTO Eugene Walden. “We have seen good results in increased activity for non-Overwatch books when the Overwatch books are featured, so we believe that comics based on game franchises bring a new audience to the rest of the comics catalogue.”
Madefire’s digital distribution includes mobile devices, tablets, and web as well as Apple TV, the music-streaming service Spotify, virtual reality versions through Oculus Gear and Go, and a partnership with augmented reality platform Magic Leap. Considering that gamers are likely to be early adopters of AR and VR technologies, offering them comics-style versions of properties they already love seems like a promising publishing strategy.
IDW has done some games-with-comics packaging and other initiatives to encourage crossover, including an exclusive code in its Gears of War comics series offering in-game bonus items. Dark Horse has offered digital exclusives including a 12-page God of War comic packaged with the deluxe edition of the game.
Publishers are also trying out new ways to bring tabletop and hobby gamers into the fold. St. Louis-based Lion Forge just announced a new gaming imprint, Quillion, to create tabletop and board games that move forward the company’s mission of diverse and inclusive content. According to editor Christina Stewart, the company’s initial publication, Rolled & Told, a series that will be a “natural gateway between gaming and comics” and “combines the thrill of tabletop role-playing with the storytelling of comics in a monthly comic book format.”
With the comics market shrinking and becoming more competitive, game-licensed comics offer a bridge to a lucrative new readership that’s “the same but different” from traditional comics readers and that is primed for the kind of storytelling comics can deliver. Given the breadth of game-licensed comics activity and the eye-popping sales of the art books and trade publications, one thing is clear: the industry isn’t just playing around.
Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is an author, educator and consultant on the business of pop culture.