Anyone who had feared that Hollywood had lost interest in films based on comic books can rest easy. Marvel's The Avengers, an epic superhero team-up starring Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, has set records on the way to taking in more than $1.4 billion at the worldwide box office.
Enthusiasm for The Avengers is both a symptom of and a booster for enthusiasm about comics in all forms: movies, TV series, and, of course, books. Call it the Silver Age of comic book media -- it'll be on gilded display starting Thursday at San Diego's annual Comic-Con, which draws more than 125,000 fans each year. (Nearby and can't wait? Preview night starts at 6 p.m. Wednesday.)
Just as the comic book publishing business had its Golden Age with the introduction of Batman and Superman in the 1930s, followed by a Silver Age that saw the likes of the Spider-Man and X-Men books come to the fore, comic book movies are enjoying a run not seen since Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton brought Superman and Batman to the screen in the 1980s.
Skeptics might find that surprising, if only because -- until recently -- comic movies had been the source of just as many misses as hits. Avengers prequels Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and Iron Man 2 were the rare winners in the four years since Christopher Nolan's 2008 epic, The Dark Knight, turned out audiences in record numbers. Box-office losers Green Lantern and Cowboys & Aliens dominated last year's headlines.
Lifting the curtain... on a big pile of cash
But if 2011 was a bust at the box office, 2012 is turning out to be a bonanza:
Of course, this list doesn't include the final installment of Nolan's Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, which debuts nationally next week on July 20. Naturally, Time Warner (TWX) and the folks behind the film will use the San Diego convention to promote it to fans.
After all, this isn't the first time TV executives have fallen for edgy comics. Image also distributes the comic book The Walking Dead, now a popular cable series for AMC Networks (AMCX). Season three is due to kick off in October.
The Real World of Comic Books
Fandom and the business of comics are also getting more airtime. On YouTube, The Nerdist Channel, created from the popular podcast of the same name, broadcasts "Comic Book Club" for entertaining reviews of newly published comics and "Just Cos," a show about "cosplay" -- a fancy term for dress-up where the subject is usually some sort of known movie, TV, or comic book character.
AMC, meanwhile, has ordered a second season of the niche reality show Comic Book Men, starring writer and director Kevin Smith and friends who run a New Jersey area comic book store. National Geographic Channel has a competing series called Comic Store Heroes, which debuts on Friday.
Three Ways to Profit
All of which is to say that the business of comic books is huge and getting bigger by the day. That's an opportunity for investors who buy with an eye toward how comics will influence profits. Here are three potential winners:
- Walt Disney (DIS): Though Disney is already a winner because of The Avengers, investors may not realize that the House of Mouse also renegotiated a deal last year with Sony (SNE) that required the two companies share merchandising receipts from Spider-Man films. No longer. Disney gave up its rights to a share of the box-office haul from Sony's Spidey flicks in exchange for exclusive merchandising rights to one of Marvel's core characters. Smart.
- IMAX (IMAX): The inventor of the large-screen viewing experience should see a boost when The Dark Knight Rises debuts at the end of the month. Several scenes were shot in the IMAX format, and more than 100,000 tickets have been sold already. A good portion of the proceeds is likely to be for premium showings.
- Time Warner: Quite possibly comic book central when it comes to businesses benefiting from the shift. Not only is the company home to DC Entertainment, and therefore poised to profit from The Dark Knight Rises, but it's also owner of HBO and Warner Studios, which produces The Big Bang Theory, whose main characters regularly spend onscreen time at a comic book store.
Meanwhile, back at the Hall of Justice ...
What about investing in the comics themselves, you ask? Heritage Auctions is preparing a sale of rare high-grade comics from the 1960s that could fetch as much as $9 million -- several orders of magnitude more than what Joe or Jane Collector would have paid buying them off the newsstand years ago.
And that's awesome. Trouble is, there's no way to know precisely which comics are going to fetch millions in later years. Comic book values have more to do with desirability and rarity; stocks are priced according to their ability to generate cash flow.
So enjoy comics. Introduce your kids to them. Take in a comic book movie or two. Just don't bet your retirement on a comic book collection. Instead, bet on the companies that make reading and collecting comics possible in the first place.
Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a longtime comic book collector who owns more than 2,300 comics. He also owned shares of Walt Disney and Time Warner at the time of publication. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney and has sold shares of Sony short. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Walt Disney and IMAX.