Why comic books are big business

For what has for many years been the preserve of the young and the geeky, comic books and other pieces of "nerd culture" entered the mainstream this year with six of the top 10 grossing films in 2014 linked to a graphic novel.

"Guardians of the Galaxy", based on a Marvel Comics franchise, was the top grossing film in U.S. theaters, making over $332 million in the box office and $772 million globally.

"Transformers: Age of Extinction" – based on a children's toy and TV series of the 1980s and 1990s – made the most money globally this year by grossing over $1 billion, according to Box Office Mojo.

Fans peruse the vast 	array of comic books during the 2009 New York Comic Con, Feb. 7, 2009, in New York.
Getty Images
Fans peruse the vast array of comic books during the 2009 New York Comic Con, Feb. 7, 2009, in New York.

Other comic book contenders that made the global top 10 included: "X-MEN: Days of Future Past" at fourth, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" in fifth place and "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" behind it in sixth. Another geek sci-fi franchise, Planet of the Apes, scored big at seven with "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."

Of these six nerd-culture movies, four were adapted from the original comic book format, while the other two had popular comic books tie-ins created after they were first shown.

The comics franchise could attribute its success to the film industry, since "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight" set the ball running in 2008, as the top 2 grossed U.S. films, which set the mark for future films to thrive.

Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, an entertainment business research firm, told CNBC via email that Hollywood is "in love" with comic book movies as "superheroes are synonymous with merchandising -- the toys, the video games, the marketing tie-ins."

To ensure that moviegoers keep coming back for more; two giants of the comic book world made big announcements this year. Marvel unveiled their set-list until 2019, whilst Warner Brothers announced their DC Comic movies up until 2020, including Suicide Squad and the 'Justice League' movies.

Superheroes have an influential attraction towards audience members, Augie De Blieck Jr., columnist at Comic Book Resources told CNBC via email. "We want to be able to fly, to fight off the bad guys, and have the perfect body while doing it" yet these stories also "act as thinly veiled commentaries on topics such as racism, homophobia, and law & order."

How to invest in comic books
How to invest in comic books   

The movie industry's ripple effect

This year 2014's top six comic and tie-in movies grossed more than $4.7 billion worldwide; the industry's influence has generated interest elsewhere, from retail sales to fan conventions.

For physical comic book sales, there has been an increase year-on-year in the U.S. alone. The country's top distributor of comic books, Diamond Comic Distributors, has had a continual sales increase since 2011, with the distributor's estimated revenue reaching $517.6 million in 2013, up by around 9 percent since 2012, according to Comichron.com.

While the movie tie-in has its legions of fans, this does not necessarily translate into more comic book readers.

"The movie tie-in comics get a small boost that doesn't last long", despite companies trying, says De Blieck.

However, one area that has shown growth is mobile. Digital comic sales however have trebled in the U.S., since 2011 with 2013 selling $90 million worth of digital comics, excluding subscription services, in the U.S. according to ICv2's analysis.

Two factors have helped the digital comics marketplace thrive: the tablet and the type of readers; as the generation who adopted this technology early are also "the same generation who were comic book readers during the last comic sales boom in the early 90s" says De Blieck. Like the Amazon Kindle with digital books, the "iPad is a perfect comics reading device", that makes buying "digital comics so easy", he added.

Will the comic film franchise hold its favored spots in 2015, with the highly anticipated Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man hitting the screens? Or will installment films from other genres dominate, including the likes of Star Wars VII, Jurassic Park and Hunger Games Mockingjay Part II?

Will the comic book franchise continue to be successful? Bock seemed to think so, saying that in recent years "more than half of any given year's Top 10 films are comic book adaptations. Until that changes, studios will keep churning them out."

2014's top 15 grosses globally

  1. Transformers: Age of Extinction ($1,087,404,499) **
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy ($772,090,182) *
  3. Maleficent ($757,752,378)
  4. X-MEN: Days of Future Past ($746,045,700) *
  5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714,083,572) *
  6. The Amazing Spider-Man 2($708,982,323) *
  7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ($708,279,489) **
  8. Interstellar ($621,752,480)
  9. How to Train Your Dragon 2 ($618,909,935)
  10. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 ($610,884,991)
  11. Godzilla ($524,976,069) **
  12. Rio 2 ($498,781,117)
  13. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) ($477,204,754) *
  14. The LEGO Movie ($468,060,692)
  15. Lucy ($458,863,600)

* = Comic book based
** = Comic book tie-in/connection

Source: Box Office Mojo