On Strips: Selling the King Adventurers

By | Friday, February 06, 2015 Leave a Comment
The Phantom
King Features holds the licenses for several of the classic adventure comic strips that are still being produced and syndicated today: Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, and Mark Trail. They each have their own websites that all follow the same format, even if the graphic looks are a bit different from one another. Nothing wrong with that, but that similarity highlights some limitations of how the properties are handled.

Each of the sites has a title banner across the top with four primary links, one of which always being "Home." (This struck me as a design style/feature from at least a decade ago, but in doing some digging, I think these sites were all last redesigned in 2013!) In some cases, two of the links seem pretty redundant ("About" versus "History" both seem to have much the same information) and only two of them provide any links to contact someone there, and one of those leads to a disasterously broken form.

Underneath the links is the latest strip with the obligatory first/forward/calendar/next/last links with a Buy a Print option tagged on the end. ("First" seems pretty arbitary, though. None of them have complete archives, and the oldest ones are just over a decade old. But all different ages for all four strips.) Underneath the primary strip is a blog that talks about anything related to the specific titles: sometimes they promote the characters' appearance in other media, sometimes it's creator insights, sometimes it's a social cause... There's an RSS feed buried in the code if you know what to look for, but only for the blog and not for the comics themselves. And, of course, across the bottom there are links to King's other syndicated strips, but they're all treated differently than their adventure ones.

What I find interesting here is that, while they've clearly put some effort into maintaining these as different and unique properties (try finding something similar for the Amazing Spider-Man strip which, though syndicated by King, is not owned by them) but there seems to be little evidence for concern in expanding these properties. The references to comic books on the respective blogs seems to come from the strip creators themselves, not anyone from the syndicate. The syndicate's support seems to be little more than getting the sites set up (with little thought into their functionality) and generally letting the creators do whatever blogging strikes their fancy, but nothing else.

I mean, I've known that King hasn't shown much interest in their comics beyond the actual syndication, but the ways these four strips in particular are being treated -- especially in light of Dynamite Comics producing essentially the exact same material but in book form, and that the creators on the strips themselves are left to try to play off any marketing and promotions done by Dynamite -- seems to really highlight how much they don't care at an institutional level.

Some would argue that the adventure strip is effectively dead, as newspapers have shrunk the size of strips to metaphoric postage stamps, and that there's no way to salvage the genre just because of limitations being imposed by the medium. But they have more skin in the game here than with the other strips they distribute since they own these characters. I mean, sure, they could theoretically switch over to being just a licensing agency, but even Marvel (who officially switched from comic book publisher to character licensor a decade and half back, and was earning the majority of their revenue from license contracts) still understands that they need to keep publishing the characters to keep interest alive and active. If King decides to stop publishing Mark Trail, do they think interest will rise up to the point where someone will come knocking on their door to make a multi-million dollar movie? Certainly not in today's environment! Executives are strip-mining IPs that people know and recognize at some level, whether that's a ride at Disney World or a board game or a line of action figures. Without any backing to even the barest ongoing presence currently held by their characters, they've almost no hope of seeing a revival happen any time soon.
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