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After years of seeing Hollywood translate its ideas into mainstream movies, the comics industry has taken a lesson from the film business.
Marvel and DC Comics, the two biggest publishers in comics, have both built the 2005 schedule around widely promoted special projects, mirroring the "tent pole" model used by the big studios.
"House of M" from Marvel Entertainment and "Infinite Crisis" from DC Comics were marketed as epic events, featuring top-name creators and huge casts of characters. The core story for "House of M," for example, was told in an eight-part mini-series, but related characters and crossover stories popped up throughout the entire Marvel line.
'"House of M' is probably the biggest event that Marvel has done in five years it was the anchor for our summer," said John Dokes, the director of marketing and business development for Marvel.
For both publishers, the risks of pursuing blockbuster projects lay with the good will of their fans. By tying many of their monthly stories together and involving franchise names like Superman or the X-Men, they ran the risk that fans would not be interested enough to invest in a long multipart story.
While Marvel does not release figures for their runs, estimated sales of the first issue of "House of M," based on retailer orders through Diamond Comic Distributors, were well over 200,000 copies for the debut in June. The first installment of DC's "Infinite Crisis," in October, also cleared 200,000 copies. Both figures exceeded average estimated sales for the top sellers in those same months last year by over 40,000 copies.
Adan Jimenez, manager of Midtown Comics in New York, said that while comic books related to "House of M" and "Infinite Crisis" were selling very well, "DC seems to be outmaneuvering Marvel." DC is a subsidiary of Time Warner.
"Their main event has been going on since January, and things that happen in one book reverberate in all their other books," he said, noting that the long lead time and extended plot connections in the DC books were creating a greater sense of cohesiveness.
The comic-book industry as a whole has had a healthy year. Industry analysts from the Comic Buyer's Guide reported new comics sales of more than $149 million for the first half of 2005, up 6 percent from the period a year earlier.
Marvel Entertainment, a publicly traded company that filed for bankruptcy protection in December 1996 and reorganized in July 1998, has recovered strongly in recent years, largely on the strength of its success with movies based on X-Men and Spider-Man.
The company's third-quarter financial statement, released this month, reported a 29 percent decline in overall profit compared with the period last year, when revenue from the licensing and toy divisions was stronger because of the movie "Spider-Man 2." The publishing division, however, posted a 14 percent rise in revenue.
After joining with studios like Sony for the Spider-Man movies, Marvel is now getting into movie production itself. The company changed its name from Marvel Enterprises in September.
At the same time, the company decided to reinvigorate its publishing line with a big event. It front-loaded the main story in "House of M" with marquee characters like Wolverine, Spider-Man and a revamped New Avengers.
For the "Incredible Hulk" line, "we saw the numbers increase, say, 20 to 30 percent for issues that were tied in to 'House of M,'" Dokes said. A spinoff of X-Men, "New X-Men: Academy X," also rose in sales after being tied in to the "House of M" series. The book's first tie-in issue sold an estimated 44,800 copies, up from 34,000 a month before.
In the last five years or so, Marvel has avoided large-scale crossovers and big events, instead focusing on developing characters and franchises in relatively self-contained stories and series. DC, on the other hand, has been drawing plot elements in its various superhero lines closer and closer together.
Executives at DC likewise emphasized the more organic nature of developing a comic-book blockbuster. Paul Levitz, the company's president and publisher, said: "When I think of the summer blockbuster in the movie business, it's usually a stand-alone creative event. In our world, what separates out a project like 'Infinite Crisis' is it's the rare moment where we mix together the different strengths and enthusiasms" of the company's creators and characters.
"Infinite Crisis," written by Geoff Johns with art by Phil Jimenez, came together under the guidance of Dan DiDio, a vice president at DC. The story built on elements from five mini-series introduced during the summer to lead in to the event, and drew on plot points seeded throughout the entire DC superhero line.
"Because comics are done collaboratively, a lot of the best stuff is 'can you top this?'" Levitz said. "You've got three or four top practitioners of the art sitting around saying, 'Wouldn't it be cool if?' That's how the best of this stuff builds."
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