Comics weren’t always this famous. The late 1970s were a bad time for comics – declining sales and new forms of media were coming into the limelight, and the comic publishers were suffering.
Dark Times For Comic Industry
During those days when the idea of a comic book stores wasn’t that popular, Comics were usually available at Newsstands. Here’s a thing though, those Newsstands could return the comics to the publishers and ask for refunds if they didn’t sell. Which lead to pile of debt for the publishers in the late 70’s.
It was a time when Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel’s best-selling title at the time, was only selling 280,000 copies of 590,000 printed. There was even talk of shuttering the company if conditions didn’t improve.
“Marvel was a mess throughout the mid-1970’s and during my two years as “associate editor,” from the beginning of 1976 through the end of 1977. Almost every book was late. There were unscheduled reprints and fill-ins, and we still just plain missed issues here and there. Many books, despite my best efforts to shore up the bottom were unreadable. Not merely bad. Unreadable. Almost all were less than they ought to be. […] Upstairs, the cheesy non-comics magazine department was losing millions. It seemed like the company as a whole was in a death spiral.” – Jim Shooter, former Editor-in-Chief of Marvel.
How Star Wars Saved Marvel
Back then before the first Star Wars movie came out, LucasFilms pitched Stan Lee their idea to make a comic series with the original characters from the film. Stan Lee rejected the offer because nobody knew that a movie like this with unknown actors will make wonders. It was just seen as a risky investment.
After an unsuccessful pitch to Stan Lee, Charlie Lippincott and Ed Summer pitched Star Wars to Roy Thomas. Thomas was a long-time Marvel writer and former Editor-in-Chief. He was known for Conan the Barbarian, sold nearly as many copies of Amazing Spider-Man at the time. He saw Star Wars as his chance to return to fantasy genre.
“The Star Wars people didn’t ask for any money for the adaptation […] I went with it because it was free. They might have asked for money for the rights when they first approached Marvel and were turned down. By the time they came to me, money wasn’t a big factor – they either wanted the book done (on our terms) or they were not going to get the book done.” – As Roy Thomas told io9
The first two issues of the original six issue adaptation came out in advance of the movie. The sales weren’t that bad but as the movie was released, Sales made the jump to hyperspace. Rest is history.
Fun Fact: Star Wars #1, after an initial print run, went on to sell over a million copies through reprints.
Paving Way For Licensed Comics
It wasn’t just Marvel but the entire industry saw this as a way to generate more revenue. Marvel followed up on the success of Star Wars by adding more licensed properties like Battlestar Galactica, G.I. Joe, Indiana Jones, and Transformers. Even DC followed the Marvel footsteps by producing a variety of licensed comics with Atari.