Green Lanterns of two worlds: The Silver Age Hal Jordan meets the Golden Age Alan Scott in Green Lantern #40 (Oct. 1965). Cover art by Gil Kane & Murphy Anderson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Blockbuster movies like ‘The Dark Knight’ rake in billions, but sales of the comic books on which they’re based have been stalled at $670 million annually for years. DC’s gay Green Lantern gimmick is part of an effort to freshen aging characters and boost flagging sales.
In New York’s scorching summer of 1940, Alan Scott toiled on the railway lines. His prospects were limited and his job, perilous. In mid-July, a tragic bridge collapse would have ended his story—were it not for the appearance of a magic space lamp. Alan Scott picked up the powerful lantern, and took its name for seven decades of green flaming and Justice League-ing.
Last week, DC Comics announced that it will reintroduce Alan—the first of at least six Green Lanterns, depending on how you count—as an openly gay man. Normally, when an octogenarian comes out of the closet, it’s fodder for an endearing Christopher Plummer performance. But DC’s PR move is a window into a changing industry. It’s a decision that may have less to do with diversity than it does with new dynamics in the comic-book business, which has seen about as many booms, busts, “zooms,” and “thwacks” as its characters. Switching up sexual orientation is a cunning way of compensating for flagging sales and aging characters. In the meantime, the industry is rebalancing: toward independent publishers, author ownership, and cross-platform digital tie-ins. As small studios sap talent from the giant conglomerates, comics are changing—and there’s a lot of money to be made in the process—just not in the comics themselves.
The business world of comic books is a curious place. The “big two,” DC and Marvel, own the rights to pretty much all the superheroes you know, but most of the artists and writers who actually created them—and those who now draw them—have no intellectual property. Although most artists would love to start at DC or Marvel, the comics’ classic heroes just aren’t selling as well as they used to. In the meantime, investors and creators are seeing major opportunities at independent studios, like Image, Dark Horse, IDW, and Man of Action. In the past year, these groups’ successes have inched up comic sales for the first time in several years, bringing other titles with them.
The heroes of yesteryear—Batman, Superman, Iron Man—still have tremendous value. But today, their worth has almost nothing to do with their printed personae. All the power is in the merchandise or on the silver screen. Marvel is owned by Disney, and DC, by TimeWarner. To the parent corporations and their mega movie studios, the core comic business is practically a rounding error. According to Tony Wible of Janney Capital Markets—who has covered Marvel, DC, and their parent companies—the comics are “too small to move the needle.”