Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Commercialization of Comics: A Broad Historical Overview (1999) part 3 of 3

Click here for part 1.

Click here for part 2.

Merchandising types


            The amount and types of comics merchandising are literally innumerable.  Over the 100 year lifespan of comics,  books, sheet music, plays, rings, greeting cards, postcards, trading cards, keychains, banks, radio shows, television shows, movies, novels, Big Little Books, buttons, watches, jewelry, children's books, dishes, toothbrushes, record albums, plates, dartboards, coloring books, T-shirts, hats, food products, puzzles, toys, games, posters, dolls, action figures, statues, busts, models, books-on-tape, cups, mugs, video games... anything that one could imagine have been made.  A few major forms are worth examining.


            Reprint book collections were among the first merchandise, with one of the Yellow Kid by early 1897. These book collections, now frequently called "platinum age comic books16," were very popular and even sold through the Sears, Roebuck catalogue.  Major publishers such as Embee and Cupples & Leon reprinted books of most successful strips like Bringing up Father, Buster Brown, Mutt and Jeff, the Gumps, Happy Hooligan, the Katzenjammer Kids, Little Orphan Annie, and many others (Beerbohm, 1997).  The practice continues today with Andrews McMeel of Kansas City being the dominant publisher.  Other early forms of merchandise continue to be popular until today.



Figure 8 Postcards with holiday messages were popular in the early years of the comics as this 1904 Happy Hooligan Valentine Greetings shows.

Many types of merchandise might seem to be modern inventions, but  arose around the time of the comics.  Postcards and greeting cards, as common in 1900 as today, featured comics figures including Happy Hooligan, Maggie and Jiggs, Little Nemo and Buster Brown (Figure 8).  Dolls and action figures date back to the Yellow Kid as well.  Children in the 1940s played with a carved-wood Superman, while in the 1960s, Captain Action could be dressed as one's favorite DC or Marvel hero and in the 1970s, Mego sold poorly-dressed superheroes.  But the golden age of the action figure began in the 1980s.  No longer marketed as dolls, most of DC's characters were issued for their Superpowers line and Jack Kirby wrote and drew two comics miniseries promoting the toys.  Marvel followed suit with a Secret Wars toy line and  miniseries (DeFalco, 1992). The trend has continued in the 1990s with more than 200 different Batman figures created.  Trading cards, another popular item, also date to the Yellow Kid.  The first superhero card set, of Superman, was produced in 1940, two years after his creation (Wells, 1994: iv).


            Newly-created media use old cartoon standbys for inspiration.  When video games became popular in the 1980s, Atari produced a Spider-Man version, and linked with DC to have five Atari Force comic books (1982-1983) which were given away with the games.  The story began in the miniature comic book and continued in the game -- a new hybrid form of entertainment17.  Video games remain popular, although usually tied in with a movie such as Batman & Robin.  Acclaim has failed three times as a comic book publisher, but their Turok game was a hit while the comic was cancelled.  


            As with video games, a new sport or hobby brings new opportunities for licensing tie-ins.  Since NASCAR racing has grown in popularity, comics characters have been applied to race cars.  Batman, Joker, Alfred E. Neuman and four Superman cars are circling race tracks18 ("Nine", 1999). 

Figure 9 Superman did not actually appear at the Palisades Amusement Park, but one can find many comics characters in amusement parks now. From World's Finest #161, DC Comics, October, 1966.

Theme parks based on cartoon characters date at least to the establishment of Disneyland in 1955.  In the 1990s, these parks have proliferated (Figure 9).  Six Flags amusement parks have Batman and Superman rollercoasters.  Spider-Man and Popyeye rides opened in 1999 as did Camp Snoopy at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio.  The Ripley's Believe It or Not! strip spawned twenty-six "museums" in the U.S., Korea, Australia, Canada, China (Hong Kong), Thailand, Mexico, the Philippines, Denmark and England (Ripley's, 1999).  Metreon - "A Sony Entertainment Center" opening in San Francisco has a game area designed by Moebius based on his Airtight Garage (Metreon, 1999). 


            Comics' penetration of culture means that characters sometimes become more than just a licensing opportunity and become part of society, an example being composer Michael Daugherty's Metropolis Symphony (1996), based on the Superman mythos.  Charles Schulz recounted one of his experiences with people wishing to use his characters in a non-commercial way:


[NASA's] Al Chop came to me and they had just had that tragic fire where the astronauts were killed and so they wanted to start a new safety program and he had an idea to build the program around a cartoon character and he asked me if Snoopy could be the character and I said, "Sure, I'm very flattered." So they made posters and all sorts of things.  They made beautiful little metal things which were really nice pieces of jewelry and if a person on the assembly line has a good safety record, one of the astronauts would present him or her with the pin and of course, those pins were taken to the moon and the moon landing" (Marschall & Groth, 1992: 22). 


Superman was the subject of a Smithsonian Institution exhibit, Superman: Many Lives, Many Worlds, on his fiftieth anniversary in 1987 (Patton, 1987) and in 1999, he appeared on a postage stamp in the USPS's Celebrate the Century series as one of the 15 major highlights of the 1930s19. The United States was a latecomer in honoring cartoon characters on stamps, as Canada had an earlier Superman stamp and many other countries have pictured their native characters.  (Rhode, 1999).


            Jane Gaines (1991: 208-227) has theorized, especially in regard to Superman, that the high levels of popularity will eventually work against the ownership of popular characters as they will move into the public domain through their universality, as the term "aspirin" did.  Given the spirited defense of copyright and trademarks mounted by major companies, this seems doubtful, but may be possible. Copyright  is limited, although it now lasts longer partly due to lobbying by Disney which had feared Mickey Mouse cartoons would enter the public domain in 2003, although Mickey would still have had trademark protection.  Chairman Michael Eisner's appearance on Capitol Hill helped convince Congress to extend copyright's duration (McAllister, 1998).   Metropolitan Life's website includes the warning, "No part of the PEANUTS materials may be copied, reproduced, used or performed in any form (graphic, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or information storage and retrieval systems) for any purpose without the express written permission of United Feature Syndicate, Inc.," which would seem to ignore the fair use clause in copyright law.  In contrast, a trademark can last forever as long as it is actually being used.  Expansion of both copyright and trademark to protect intellectual property has benefited the owners of cartoon characters, creating a very different situation from what Outcault encountered.


            Some comics characters are undoubtedly created to be merchandised in a more lucrative medium.  Rom, Spaceknight hit the toy and comic book stores simultaneously, but the comic survived the toy by years.  Oddly enough, there is an example of a cartoonist being created and then merchandised - television's Caroline in the City.  Cartoonist Bonnie Timmons provided the artwork purportedly done by Caroline on the show, and a line of Caroline greeting cards soon followed.


            Commercialism of comics is certainly not unique to the United States.  Mauricio de Sousa in Brazil has built a multi-million dollar business based on his character Monica (Vergueiro, 1999: 178-181) and in Europe, Tintin and Asterix are icons in a manner perhaps surprising when one realizes how few graphic novels of each were published.  (There were only 23 Tintin graphic novels, the last new one in 1976).  Asterix, recently the star of a live-action movie, has had a theme park outside of Paris since 1989 (White, 1995; Tagliabue, 1995).  Merchandise based on the Tintin and Asterix is so prevalent that specialty stores have opened in the United States in San Francisco, New York and most recently, in Washington, D.C. 


            Japan has taken the commercialism trend to its highest level, as Schodt (1986: 147) noted:


In 1980, there were over 150 'animation' and 'comics' albums released in Japan.  Records linked with comics in Japan can be music or poems composed or performed by popular comic artists; dramatizations or musical interpretations of popular comic stories; or theme songs and background music from television animation, theatrical feature animation, and live action films based on comics.


Presumably the number has only increased since then, and Japan's experience has been repeated throughout Southeast Asia.  Lent (1998: 33) reporting on Korea, said, "Dai Won is the dominant part of a five-pronged corporation by the same name, which specializes in the production of animation, comics, video and 'fancy' (cartoon-related merchandise) ...Comics magazines appear first, which are spun off into comic books and animation, and later, video"  (Lent, 1998: 33).  Elsewhere Russia has recently seen the opening of a restaurant based on Andrei Bilzho's strip character Petrovich (Kaiser, 1999).  Frequently, European and Asian  companies try to export their characters to the U.S.; Peyo's Smurfs was one of the most successful in this regard, although its popularity in the 1980s was a result of an animated television show, and not the original comics albums.  Not all attempts by foreign companies to breach the American market are successful though; for example, the attempt by DIC Productions to bring Sailor Moon to the U.S. failed (Grigsby, 1998).  In the other direction, Disney recently was unsuccessful in marketing Franquin's comic strip Marsupilami in America and lost almost 10 million dollars in court decisions based on that failure (Deutsch, 1999; "Disney", 1999).


            It is worth noting that merchandising probably cannot sustain a company without new original material.  In 1982, Disney was widely believed to be moribund, while it moved to making three-fourths of its income on merchandising and theme parks instead of films and animation (Mills, 1982: 53).  With the revival of its animation tradition and the success of The Little Mermaid, the company grew prodigiously but recent experiences suggest that it might need to review its merchandising policies (Bates and Eller, 1999).


            Comics have been used for advertising and licensed and sold as merchandise since their creation in the last century.  An uncountable number and types of products linked to comics have been sold, and some adaptations have proved artistically fruitful.  The commercialization of comics has been historically extensive and probably will not lessen in the foreseeable future. 




            I would like to thank my wife, Cathy Hunter, both for letting me collect the materials that this paper is built on, and then editing it for me  Also, my colleagues Anne Clair Goodman, Charles Hatfield, Gene Kannenberg, Heather Lindsay and Robert Montgomery for suggesting ideas, providing technical assistance and editing the final draft.





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16.  In 1997, the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide began listing "platinum" age comic strip collections and is probably the best single bibliography for them.

18.  Of course, the NASCAR promotion leads to additional licensing including a comic book.  "To commemorate the drivers, their vehicles and the unique Superman-themed promotion, DC Comics created a custom comic book featuring all nine drivers as characters in an action adventure story with Superman. The limited-edition custom comic will be sold exclusively by Kmart in its mass retail stores. Action will design, market and distribute a variety of exclusively designed collectible die-cast replica cars, adult and children's apparel items and other merchandise to fans and collectors. Superman Racing memorabilia will be available trackside and through Action's established distribution channels. Related Hasbro Winner's Circle (R) products will be available through mass retail outlets" ("Nine", 1999).

19.  There was, of course, merchandise besides the postage stamp available from the U.S. Post Office.  It included a magnet ($5.99), magnetic greeting card ($2.99), puzzle postcard ($2.49), key chain ($4.99), pin ($4.99), memo pad ($3.99), shipping labels ($2.99), gift tag/magnet ($3.99), foil notecards ($6.99), color clings ($2.49), shipping envelope ($2.99), gift bag ($3.99) and a limited-edition reprint of Action Comics #1 with a first day cancellation.  The Post Office and DC Comics also issued ten comic books, one for each decade, featuring characters explaining the significance of the stamps.

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