We’ve been keeping an eye on threats of eroding comics sales that may spell trouble ahead for the comics industry, and it isn’t just Brian Hibbs any more. Big Bang Comics in Dublin, Ireland went on a tweet-storm yesterday criticizing not only DC’s anemic relaunch but Marvel’s increasingly tepid flood of titles no one is very interested in. David Harper Storyfied the main point, but if you check Big Bang twitter you’ll find plenty more and lots of responses as well.
Harper has been all over the sales story of late, and has been digging into retailer ups and downs. Here’s a piece on 2015 sales at San Diego’s Rising Sun Comics; normally I shouldn’t quote the summary that is the climax of a piece, so go look at the whole thing as it has many comments on books that sell and don’t, but because it’s so germane to the discussion at hand, here’s the wrap-up:
Comics +18.6%: This figure is rather misleading. Most of that increase was before the ongoing collapse of DC and Marvel’s rather mundane relaunch. Marvel is selling pretty much the same quantities as before the ANAD gimmick. Thank God for Star Wars or else Marvel would be looking only slightly better than DC. Creator owned books are slowly increasing but not fast enough to offset the management made disasters from DC and Marvel.
Graphic Novels +38.1%: Graphic Novels have exploded. I believe it is due to the treasure trove of creator owned properties being produced by the smaller publishers with Image leading the way. That coupled with the unprecedented amount of new readers of all types and genders makes 2016 look really exciting! Most of these new readers are not that interested in single issues. They want trades!
Manga +3.2%: Manga continues with a nice slow and steady comeback. That is what happens when publishers go for quality instead of quantity. Pay attention DC and Marvel. Fixing your companies really isn’t rocket science!
It really does seem that Star Wars is keeping Marvel at a high level when the core of the line-up maybe doesn’t warrant as much enthusiasm. Titles such as Fantastic Four seem to be at the whim of external forces and internal forces we can only speculate on drive many decisions.
I’d also draw your attention to The Beat staff’s own thoughtful analysis of the Big Three, Marvel by Alexander Jones, DC by Kyle Pinion and Image by Alexander Lu as an overview of what’s happening, along with some ideas for the future. While Image is chugging along at a good clip, they’ve had their own title glut, and the problems all seem to be a mixed message; too many titles, not enough talent, to relaunch or not to relaunch.
David Harper has his own in depth analysis of DC’s problems–which are pretty obvious and alarming to all–complete with all kinds of graphs and charts. Unfortunately the charts aren’t always indexed clearly but the one above, showing 2013 vs 2015 sales should give you some idea of what people think about when they go into a DC marketing strategy meeting. DC has been upping its game a bit lately, with more PR, more preview comics, and in general more outreach and that’s a very basic start but it’s only a start.
The real issue—one that many people in the industry may have trouble dealing with—is that the comics audience has changed. They didn’t get into comics during the first run of the Ultimate universe. They didn’t come in with the original 52 mini series or Final Crisis. They probably didn’t even start with the New 52. The methods and product mixes that were formulated to deal with a readership that grew up when comics were a niche product for nerds have to be reevaluated when new readers are coming in from the top properties in every form of entertainment, from graphic novels that they were taught in school, from webcomics, from creators with strong social media, from every which way. There is no well marked four lane highway to comics any more, just a delightful variety of roads, interstates and worn down dirt paths. Panels.net posts a monthly sales chart from Fantom Comics in Washington, DC and their top 10 most subscribed to books in December are a clear indicator of what this audience likes:
01. Saga #32 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (Image)
02. Ms. Marvel #2 by G. Willow Wilson and Takeshi Miyazawa (Marvel)
03. The Wicked + the Divine #17 by Kieron Gillen and Brandon Graham (Image)
04. Paper Girls #3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang (Image)
05. Island #5 by Matt Sheean, Malachi Ward, Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, Amy Clare, Patrick Crotty, Addison Duke, Brandon Graham, and Emma Ríos (Image)
06. Star Wars #13 by Jason Aaron and Mike Deodato (Marvel)
07. Secret Wars #8 by Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribić (Marvel)
08. Darth Vader #14 by Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca (Marvel)
09. We Stand on Guard #6 by Brian K. Vaughan and Steve Skroce (Image)
10. The Mighty Thor #2 by Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman (Marvel)
Fantom Comics is one of the flagship “modern” comics shops, run by people who do understand the new audience for comics, and their top 10 reflects that. As staffer Jake Shapiro, who compiled the list points out, these are “only subscription numbers, not total sales, so it represents our regular customers rather than casual walk-ins.” While not every shop is a BKV/Brandon Graham store, Fantom has clearly done a great job of reaching the people who do like these comics in their potential customer base.
I’d like to draw your attention once more to Rising Sun’s comment on the small but significant manga comeback that we’ve seen over the last couple of years. Manga the genre was as dormant as could be, with a mature audience and tired franchises, but along came an influx of great new titles like Attack on Titan and One Punch Man. Viz, Kodansha and Yen stayed the course with smart picks on material and this year there are several titles that people are excited about from the indie side (Inio Asano) to megastars like Takashi Obata (Death Note.) Quality material published with confidence spells success.
Marvel and DC have quality material as well. I feel in same ways that we’re back in the 70s: the top titles and characters bear the burden while quirky books, most of them written by Tom King, get a cult audience and good reviews with cancellation level sales. Marvel has pushed the heck out of Ms. Marvel and Lady Thor, so they have certainly been promoting books that would have been considered “offbeat” in the olden days. DC is throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, from double shipping to spinning off their most popular characters over and over, however, the era of the “editor driven comic” is over for now. Readers respond to fun stories about characters they like, just as they always have, and that’s a technique that giant corporations have a hard time handling.
To answer the question I posed in the clickbait article title, the Big Two will stay big as long as they have the Avengers, Star Wars, Batman and Harley Quinn. They aren’t going away any time in the near future. But I think it’s very likely that their market shares (setting aside Star Wars) will continue to be smaller than they were in the past. The new audience is here, and like most MIllennials, they want their own thing, and not warmed over Baby Boomer nostalgia.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.