Like a typical doctoral student, David Palmer (PhD ’97) devoted most of his time at Purdue’s Krannert School to research and teaching. If you couldn’t find him in his office or the classroom, however, the next best place to look would likely have been Von’s Comics on Chauncey Hill.
A collector for more than 50 years, Palmer has amassed some 20,000 comic books tucked away in 72 cardboard storage baskets with title characters ranging from Captain America and Thor to the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man.
“Comic books are fun and full of fantasy,” Palmer says. “Until just recently, comic books were the only place a man could fly. Now with special effects, you can do anything. Comic books had a corner of that market.”
Now a management professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK), Palmer never imagined that his love for reading comic books would evolve into a passion for examining the industry from a business perspective.
Unsure of what he wanted to study, Palmer dropped out of college to work in the food service industry, which eventually led him back to school. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be,” he says. “My experience in restaurant management solidified my desire to study business.”
After earning a BS in management science from State University of New York University Center at Binghamton, and later a MBA from Bowling Green State University, Palmer moved to Iowa to manage dietary departments for hospitals and retirement centers for Marriott. He also began teaching at a community college and discovered his second passion — teaching.
Palmer joined the faculty of UNK in 1997 after completing his PhD in organizational behavior and human resource management at Purdue. Although he has published papers on numerous topics, Palmer’s interest in comic books never waned. His primary research focus is on how the industry has changed over time.
It began in the 1930s, when immigrants and other marginalized individuals who couldn’t get jobs in publishing due to discrimination became the first to create comic books, Palmer says. With the introduction of Superman in 1938, the business was soon booming.
“Comic books were selling by the millions, maybe upwards of billions,” Palmer says. “It was a huge industry, and it just grew through the 1940s when they were mass-marketed through newsstands and locally owned mom and pop shops.”
The comic book industry began to decline in the 1950s when the television became a fixture in Americans’ living rooms. A nationwide anti-comics movement also arose at this time, with parents’ concerns about the graphic depiction of violence and sex in comic books eventually leading to censorship.
As sales continued to decline throughout the decades and the mass distribution and sales at newsstands continued to diminish, a new player emerged in the industry — the comic book store.
“The distribution theory is very different,” Palmer says. “In the past, comic book publishers distributed to newsstands and what wasn’t sold was returned to the publisher. Today, the comic book stores buy the comic books through the distributors and they own them.”
Another change has been the stigma that comic books are only for children. “There are a lot of comic books produced for adults and older readers,” he says.
Palmer’s interest in researching comic books began when he became a regular commentator in the Comic Buyer’s Guide, a monthly magazine dedicated to the industry. His specialty was writing about smaller publishers.
“That intrigued me from the business point of view,” he says. “People were essentially publishing comic books out of their garage and either going on to become big companies or just publishing one comic book.”
In addition to publishing an academic paper on “The Importance of Superheroes to the American Comic Book Industry” in the Journal of Business & Leadership, Palmer has brought his love for the genre into the classroom through a capstone course at UNK based on his research.
“Entertainment and popular culture are certainly not going to disappear, so understanding that there are also business, economic and market forces underneath that is important,” he says.
Palmer says superheroes are a prime example. Although the comic book industry has declined in popularity, superhero movies have earned billions of dollars in global revenue. “The impact of comic books is well beyond its industry,” he says.
Palmer also explores the innovation of creating a shared universe between characters from different comic books to increase comic book sales.
“Iron Man interacts with Captain America, who interacts with the Hulk who interacts with the Fantastic Four, who interacts with Spider-Man,” he says. “It becomes one huge story across multiple comic books each month, which is a big investment of readers’ time and money. From a business standpoint, stores are selling 10 or 15 books instead of one. There aren’t too many parallels like that today.”
In his course, Palmer shares lessons from the comic book industry and shows how they apply to other industries.
“Some of the students know a lot about comics, and others have never read one,” he says. “But all of them learn something and have a good time with it.”
Story and photos courtesy of University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK) News and Communications