In comic book publishing, the decision to kill off a long-running and beloved character may seem, at first glance, like a terribly unwise business move. But when Marvel Comics released its latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man—#700, which ends with Peter Parker, the webbed crusader’s alter ego, getting murdered—the issue began flying off the shelves.
“The sales are phenomenal,” says Axel Alonso, the editor in chief at Marvel Comics, “Amazing Spider-Man #700 has sold nearly 250,000 copies in print alone; final digital orders aren’t in yet. This is the best-selling comic book at this price-point of the last decade, at least.”
Marvel isn’t the first comics company to lift sales by employing a shocking new creative direction. In fact, it’s actually a common practice, which gained attention in the 1970s but reached new heights in the early 1990s, when DC Comics destroyed its most famous character, Superman, in a publishing event that fueled sales across the world.
Here are four of the most surefire, lucrative, and reliably controversial methods that comic book creators use to gain readership and boost the bottom line.
I. Embrace alternative lifestyles
Gay characters are nothing new—an X-Men superhero called Northstar came out of the closet in 1992—but the subject is still controversial enough to cause a public outcry. The comic Life With Archie No. 16, which featured the first same-sex wedding in the series’ otherwise conservative history, hit newsstands in early 2012 and quickly became a target for One Million Moms, a conservative group that called for Toys R Us to stop selling the comic or be boycotted. The threat didn’t work. “[The Million Moms] really propelled the book,” says Archie Comics Chief Executive Jon Goldwater. “It was selling well anyway, but they made it a collector’s item. Last I heard it was selling on eBay for $50.” Dan Parent, a writer and illustrator who has worked for Archie for 20 years and penned the gay wedding issue, says he’d “love to send the Million Moms a big box of chocolates and flowers, to thank them for helping the Life With Archie book to sell out. It was a marketing dream.”
II. Court ethnicity
Marvel Comics unleashed an entirely new Spider-Man in August 2011. The costume was the same, but under it was a half-African American, half-Latino teenage boy named Miles Morales. Glenn Beck discussed the new biracial Spider-Man on his radio show. “The new Spider-Man looks just like president Obama,” he said. “I think a lot of this stuff is being done intentionally.” Stan Lee, the legendary comic book writer who co-created Spider-Man, dismisses the conspiracy theories. In fact, he says bringing a little ethnicity to comics is nothing new for his company. “Years ago at Marvel, in the 60s, we had a war book called Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos,” he says. “We introduced a black soldier, an Italian soldier, a Jewish soldier. We had every ethnic group represented in this platoon. And I was told, ‘Oh this book will never sell in the South.’ Or ‘it will never sell in the West.’ Or the North, or the East, or wherever the marketing department was worried somebody would be offended. But it was one of our best-selling books ever!”
III. Sex it up
Superheroes have always been synonymous with sex—their costumes aren’t skintight by accident—but in recent years, the characters have gotten far more steamy and intense. Several new titles released as part of DC Comics “New 52″ relaunch in 2011 included intimate scenes with over-the-top NSFW drawings. Catwoman #1, published in September 2011, gained attention for the eponymous character’s violent sex scene with Batman.
But sex in comics can come bearing consequences—as an issue of Dark Horse’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer series proved in February. Buffy, after discovering she’s pregnant, decides to get an abortion. “We wanted to court controversy,” admits Scott Allie, the editor in chief at Dark Horse Comics. “We were fed up with America’s glamorization of teenage pregnancy and wanted to do a story that explored the reasonable choice of terminating a pregnancy.” He says they anticipated the media headlines and even worked with their marketing department to encourage them, but “I don’t know that they really impact sales. Since it is a genuinely controversial issue, it probably costs us as many sales as it gets us.” In the end, Allie says, the issue sold well, but not in record numbers. “I think in order to do controversy in a way that would really boost sales, we’d have to try a little harder,” he says. “And that’s not a great reason to do it.”
IV. Kill your icons
Comic books have been killing off popular characters since the early 1970s, when Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy was murdered by the Green Goblin, which, at the time, was akin to superhero heresy. Since then, seemingly immortal characters like Superman, Robin the Boy Wonder, and Captain America have all been killed off at one time or another, usually followed by a tsunami-size media response and a comic-buying frenzy. “As far as what kind of controversy equates to biggest sales, it’s always been and always will be the death of a major character,” says Brandon Zuern, the store manager of Austin Books & Comics in Austin, Tex. “I think death in comics is way overused, but people keep buying them.” The best part of killing an iconic character is that the fans do most of the work for you. “The story kind of markets itself,” says Marvel Comics Editor in Chief Alonso. “You just get the word out, and people want to know more. ‘Peter Parker Death’ has been the No. 1 trending topic on Yahoo for the last two days, which speaks volumes about their love for Peter Parker.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on the Bloomberg BusinessWeek website.)