Are we seeing the twilight of the “Big Two”?


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.

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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. 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.


  1. Steve says

    Well, I think the market wants fewer $4 comics. But, yeah, I’d be very curious to see Marvel’s market share broken out when you take all the Star Wars books out of the equation…

  2. says

    There’s talent at Marvel and DC, that’s never an issue. People’s tastes are just diverging right now. Ebbs and flows. Spider-Man and Batman respectively will always be popular to some degree. The Big Two will be fine.

  3. says

    I’m a Boomer, in my early 60s. I read more Image comics than from any other company. Saga, Lazarus, Velvet, Black Magick, Descender, Shutter, and Copperhead are amazing comics and they don’t force me to read crossovers with titles I don’t have any interest in. From Marvel, I read Ms. Marvel and am looking forward to the return of Captain Marvel and Black Widow. From DC, I read Red Hood Arsenal (but only because Roy Harper is my favorite character; the book kinda sucks right now), Harley Quinn, and Black Canary. Astro City continues to amaze and delight.

    I like diversity and variety. I grew up a DC reader, getting 30-40 titles a month, but I got tired of reboots and being made to feel like I don’t matter. I got tired of endless crossovers and the unrelenting lack of fun in most DC books. It was the New 52 reboot that drove me to find new comics to read and inspired me to sample Image titles.

    I can’t help buy wonder if DC and Marvel even know who their readers are or what readers they want to encourage. It seems that every time I get to like a character or comic, they’re rebooted or canceled. It’s too frustrating for me.

  4. jacob goddard says

    Marvel and DC have done amazingly well for two companies that, to most normal people, sell the same product, and have been repackaging that same product for 60 years.
    I doubt any of the major film studios or prose publishing house would have survived this long on that model.

  5. says

    I think you missed the nut graf in the Rising Son piece!

    “If publishers could keep trades available at Distributors, trades like Bee & Puppycat, Lumberjanes Vol One, Rick & Morty, Steven Universe, Lady Mechanika, Afterlife With Archie Vol One, Amazing Gumball and Bob’s Burgers would be selling like Saga. I don’t understand why they let these books go out of stock ever for any reason ever. Get it together guys!”

    This is a significant problem, not only because it disappoints customers, but ALSO because it dramatically, drastically and completely undercuts the efforts that RETAILERS have put into promoting these titles. We only have so much “promotional bandwidth”, and “flaky indies” is why a lot of stores evolved into Marvel/DC dominance.

    What kills even worse is these are not artistic problems (which I think some of use would sympathize with), but basic organizational ones of not predicting supply in the face of what I would argue is pretty clear evidence.

  6. says

    And I also hear very very similar to Shelly’s above comments in the store ALL the time from 40+ customers, so it is definitely not just the “new customer”.


  7. jacob goddard says

    I was also under the impression that Marvel and DC don’t need to be profitable publishers, since they operate as r&d for Disney and Warner Bros.

    Not that that’s any comfort for the retailers.

  8. says

    David: yes the context makes them easier to understand but not to gank for another article! I’m amazed at all the work you’ve put into this! Great job. I can only steal from you and add my own slogans.

  9. Christian says

    DC is making products for people who don’t read DC Comics because someone on Tumblr told them to.

    Meanwhile the New 52 was the best “jumping off point” a reader could ask for. The post 52 resurgence was based on taking badic tennants of casual fan knowledge and telling New stories that took into account 75 years of storytelling. Lose the history; lose the fan interest.

    Now DC is this weird mess of overly decompressed 90s extreme storytelling and borderline pandering “quirky” books that at $4 a pop aren’t econical to experiment with even if you had entertained the thought of checking out a millenial reboot of “Prez”

  10. Torsten Adair says

    Will Marvel and DC go the way of Disney comics in the United States?
    Dell/Gold Key/Western once sold millions of copies of Disney comics.
    Then Carl Barks retired, the quality suffered, and now it’s an afterthought in the U.S., with most of the sales and stories coming from Europe and South America.

    Or will they switch to the Japanese model, of publishing 500-page anthology magazines each week, then collecting those chapters into trades? (This also exists in a slightly different model in Europe, where Panini will publish thick monthly magazines of specific characters.)

    Marvel seems to be segregating series from the rest of the Marvel Universe. Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel might have the occasional guest star, but you don’t need to buy issues from other series to know what’s going on.

    I think this is a direct result of graphic novel sales. Readers want something self-contained, so Marvel has to keep it simple.

    DC… DC is ignoring their corporate DNA: the imaginary story.
    Look at the backlist for DC superheroes, and you’ll see it is dominated by alternate storylines, universes, What Ifs and What The’s.
    (The ones that don’t fit that model: self-contained stories like Killing Joke and Rock of Ages.)
    Split everything into contained universes, let creators go wild with the characters, and maybe you’ll get another Sandman. Or Animal Man. Or JLI.
    They are trying self-contained series via the DC You initiative. All of those trades have the ability to sell well IF marketed well.

    If they can figure that out, and make the single issues more accessible, then Marvel and DC will survive. They need to revert back to the newsstand mode of the 60s and 70s… the casual reader who might get hooked from reading a random issue, and decide to read more.

  11. Aaron Browne says

    ‘It’s like a dying hobby’, the store owner says from the other Comics Beat article about a shop in NYC that is closing.. How the heck can you have any type of long term expectations for pamphlet sized stories priced over $2, w/ads, and based on stories that could not leave the realm of homo-erotic power fantasy fulfillment, christian/conservative-extremist ‘red scare’ censoring via the CCA, and speculator bubbles based mainly on brands, trends, and nothing to do with quality sequential story telling? Disney, Time/Warner, and other foreign entities need people to go online, since the data mining, and predictive analytics tracing our online activity is more valuable than having anything to do with sequential; the market is more about ‘comic books’ and merchandising, than it is about sequential art/writing, characterization, respect for continuity, or keeping readers. The marketing structure needs to be rebooted if you really want to gain new readers, instead of just making Captain America ‘black’, or having Wolverine be a ‘woman’, or go on the radio like Axel Alonso did when he was promoting his ‘hip hop’ covers, and said that people with read hair are gay, so that is why he made Rawhide Kid homosexual -do you think then that all those outcast red headed comic book fans at your comic conventions like it when they are called homophobic slurs just because they read ‘comic books’? Yaaay, Alonso has pride in making the Hulk Korean, since he is ‘part Korean’, as he his wife is from Korea. Is’nt that great, guys? Minorities are just like regular white folks in this fake country, as everyone gets off obsessing how they are ‘different’, and how to charge something that is over priced and full of advertisements.
    At 01:55 :

    People are pretentious, especially traffic ridden ‘Americans’ who have no clue how to be around people different from themselves. We are consumers first, ‘aMERICANS’ last, so we will buy a larger sized magazine, but no one is going to increase the market share of comics by selling these cheesy small pamphlets, but people will still spend money and go into shops, they just will not in the current medium. At the end of the day though, quality sequential, is like everything else in the ‘USA’, as it is crap, will always be crap, and large sales of plastic, and regurgitated crappy stories for branding, and advertisements, and quick profits are the only things that matter any more, that and bigotry. Early 21st Century former-USA in effect.

  12. Kyle says

    I think there’s a fundamental problem in how we even talk about these things. Market share is regularly used as some kind of definition of success, when the Big Two’s attempt at winning that battle is why we have this problem. Even the individual articles about the top three companies does breakdowns of market share, as if that’s an indicator of how the companies are performing.

  13. Aaron Browne says

    Yes, there is ‘ a fundamental problem in how we even talk about these things. ‘

    Yaaay, Jane Foster has cancer, ‘cuz like y’know, we all have to incorporate having cancer as just now a part of life, since it is more profitable than curing it, so let’s have people be accustomed to this type of thinking by just making some obscure character big, but attach the having cancer to the brand -a female Thor everyone, look! Instead or rebooting our marketing methods, strategy or do anything to improve the quality of the story, or medium, let’s just make Thor a woman, and make sure to give Jane Foster cancer -like at the beginning of the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, we gotta get people used to having getting cancer be a part of life, instead of protesting, and going after foreign entities like multinational corporations -the first appearance of Superman had him going after a congressman who was making a deal with a multinational arms manufacturer to perpetuate war, and here we are with Thor perpetuating dealing with cancer, instead of going after the pharmaceutical companies. Live like a consumer, get ‘treated’ like a consumer. Tiny pamphlets that are over priced, filled with advertisements, and are mainly pushing plastic predictable crap -for over $4! And the tracking of online activity, along with Diamond’s monopoly and barriers for new innovative great sequential publishing are all more important that quality story telling.

  14. Jake Shapiro says

    Fantastic article, Heidi, and thanks so much for the kind words about Fantom Comics–I’ll be looking to write a lot more retailer-perspective analysis for Panels in the coming months. 2016 will be an interesting year.

  15. Kentucky Fried Horse says

    To me, the notion that millenials “want their own thing” is bunk. There’s a reason Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk et al are so popular to this day: they’re enduring characters that have a timeless appeal. Really, what character has Marvel cranked out in the last 30 years that has had much breakout/staying power that will rival these characters? I can think of two: Deadpool and Venom. Jessica Jones might catch on as more of a cult favorite. Maybe one of the reasons that a lot of these lower selling titles don’t move is because there just isn’t a huge interest in their content. I say this as someone who read a lot of the lower selling Secret Wars tie-ins (1872 and Where Monsters Dwell) and enjoyed them.

  16. says

    As a millenial, I’d say I do want my own thing. That doesn’t mean we need to sweep the slate of characters, but we do need creators and characters with new things to say. How many times has DC told the neverending Batman v. Joker story or the lame Iron Man faces a world ending threat plotline? In comics, you have an entire industry based around “the illusion of change,” and that illusion is just bunk in the modern world. What creator or fan could even quantify what Bruce Wayne IS as a person given how muddled his persona has become?

    Stories should say something. The “property first, creator second” mantra is the opposite of what we should have. People want to hear about people, and getting creators with interesting things to say about themselves, society, or life in general will have an immediate positive impact on stories.

    One of (basically the only) upcoming book I’m looking forward to from DC/Marvel is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ and Brian Stelfreeze’s take on Black Panther. I don’t have any ties to Black Panther, but Between the World and Me was fresh and had something poignant to say, so I believe that Ta-Nehisi’s comic work will as well.

  17. Dave Elliott says

    The Comics Industry is a complete f###ing mess and a disgrace.

    I’m reminded of the great Stranglers track, “No More Heroes Anymore”. No heroes in or around the comics anymore.

  18. Aaron Browne says

    *The “property first, creator second” mantra is the opposite of what we should have.*

    Since the only important things to enable and perpetuate are things like merchandising, branding gimmicks, speculation, and having people use online comics in order to gather online activity data for predicting online retail and marketing, in addition to engineering peoples tastes, and limit online brand options, then why would anyone really pay attention to what you have to say, Lu?

    Lu, you are right -I agree w/everything you say, man, but then what do you really mean, what are some modern examples in ‘comics’/sequential that makes you say ” In comics, you have an entire industry based around “the illusion of change,” and that illusion is just bunk in the modern world.”?



  19. Martin says

    Jacob: Disney and Warner Brothers are businesses in it to make money. If the comics don’t sell they will close that division down and focus their time and money on things that do.

    They have the rights to the characters they don’t need to publish new comics to make movies based on old comic book characters

  20. Oliver_C says

    Red Wolf gets his own comic before Razorback? Talk about political correctness gone mad… ;-)

  21. chris says

    Boy, a lot of commenters here really bring their own agendas here and try to jam whatever is the topic at hand into it.

  22. Gremlin Jones says

    ObAmA to blame for these dismal sales he trying to push muslim comics at the exepnse of REAL AMERICAN COMIC!!!!1!!!!

  23. Jeff Osgood says

    Hollywood has ruined both Marvel and DC. IMO, the New 52 and the recent Secret Wars BS were launched just so both companies could be more in sync with their Hollywood corporate owners. I started reading both Marvel & DC in the late 1960’s when I was a kid growing up and I stopped buying their product a few years ago because both the ” New 52 ” and Marvel’s constant relaunching of their characters just made me sick to my stomach and smacked of corporate greed ! Now Marvel is politically correct with a Korean Hulk, Hispanic Spider-Man, Black Cap, etc. I wish they would quit kissing Disney’s ass and go back to producing comics that are fun.

  24. ThatSkepticGuy says

    Aaron Browne, every time you come close to having a point, you ruin it with your totalitarian Marxist idiocy, the dumbest example of which by far is you whining about comics using cancer as a plot device instead of more Regressive agitprop blaming Corporate Boogeymen and paying lip service to your oppressive dogma.

  25. Aaron Browne says

    A. Lu, where are the answers to my questions, well, I hope I hear back from ya, man…

    ThatSkepticGuy is obviously from the USA -you are awesome the love you share, with words like ‘idiocy’, how you build upon others insights with questions, and provide examples -wow, you, ThatSkepticGuy says, are extremely experienced in comic book culture, and lore, and everything that has to do with being ‘American’, and ‘constructive’ -do you work for Marvel or DC, ThatSkepticGuy says? Do you like to have conversations about when it is legal to pull your gun on people, and then you obsess on who is ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ in the work place, and how to be a bigot to others different? No you dont, you are too constructive, and anti-totalitarian Marxist for that…

    ThatSkepticGuy says, would you say that as an ‘American’, living in a fake country that loves things like fracking, and calling people silly names like ‘totalitarian Marxist’, that life is more a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’, as far as getting cancer is concerned? -This is not like ‘Americans’ are going to do anything, especially when they can post comments on a this site, instead of organize a protest, meet their congressmen and city council members, and meet with journalists??? We are consumers that pretend to be ‘American’. Hey look, Alonso made the Hulk Korean, and he has prostate cancer too, wow, how does that happen to the Hulk!?! Wait, it is cancer, so if the Hulk has it, then there is no way to get a cure… The Hulk should have prostate cancer then -that is the ‘American’ way, we have to have ourselves convinced that cancer is acceptable, and not curable, as that is where the profits lead, and look, instead of improving little pamphlet sized advertisements/comic books, we are going to just also make Thor a woman, and call people with red hair gay. Yaay for Alonso, everybody! That will be $4.00 + dollars, please,…

  26. Ivan M says

    The average cost of a Marvel comic book is $3.99 for 20 pages that can be read in 5-10 minutes or less and generally don’t even have a story.

    I just bought Uncanny X-Men #2, It took me less than 10 minutes to read the book and basically nothing happened. I paid $3.99 for it. I won’t pay $3.99 for the next one.

    That was the only new comic book I bought today.

    I started reading comic books more than 20 years ago. I’m already a Marvel and DC fan, they don’t have to convince me about how cool their characters are, but I won’t pay $4 for an empty comic book. Give me a story in 20 pages (beginning > middle > end). I don’t care if it’s part of a bigger storyline, give something to care about in those 20 pages and I will keep buying it.

    I buy stories.

  27. Ivan M says

    @Alexander Lu

    So the problem is that the new reader is not interested in the characters? They just follow the writer/artist?

    This is a honest question. Because if that’s the case, yes, Marvel and DC are really f***ed.

    But I don’t think that’s the problem. I think the reason why some people buy comic books have been always different. Some like you follow the creators, some like me follow the characters (calling them “properties” is like calling a creator “work-for-hire”).

  28. Carma says

    I think the market has changed from guys suscribed to 40+ series a month out of habit to guys that buy new series every month trying to find something good. The problem is that the risk of having unsold copies is greater since you have a shift on your consumer’s taste every month and is up to the retailer to take it. If Marvel take the monetary risk of every relaunch they probably wouldn’t put one every year. It’s not even a matter of quality since they have a healty stack of great comics every month, but there’s no market for 8 Avengers books plus the rest.

  29. Stunned says

    Wait, you actually expected Red Wolf to sell? That’s on you if you’re eating a lot of copies.

  30. Oliver_C says

    But, but, Red Wolf is “The Jason Bourne of the West”! I don’t want to say, “Oh, how I LOL’d,” but…

  31. Yonatan says

    Back when i got into comics on a full time basis (Kevin Smith Green Arrow) through….around the end of Blackest Night, I was picking up dozens of titles a month. It dropped off for a while, pick back up in the new 52, but then is probably at it’s lowest point ever. I haven’t purchased a Marvel comic in years because they are all $4 and i can never be sure how long the title will stand on it’s own before it is swallowed up in yet another crossover. Plus, who knows how long the announced creative team will be on the book. Maybe it is 6 issues, but generally 2, sometimes even 1. At least DC has made it so that it is very rare that a title gets caught up in a crossover, and even then it’s probably going to be very short and will give the creative team more time to get ahead on the main title.

  32. says

    I actually think most Millennials want to see the Baby Boomer nostalgia come back but with a contemporary millennial approach. At the moment there’s too much of all this gritty graphic adultified 80’s Generation X nostalgia. That’s cool too, but variety is important.

  33. Forge says

    I don’t buy Marvel anymore. I was reading Journey into Mystery’s Lady Sif, they cancelled it, even though the art and story were fantastic. I was reading the new Captain Marvel, comic got tangled in maxi-saga. I was reading Peter David’s Spider-Man 2099, that one too got caught in maxi-saga. I flipped the table! No more Marvel for me.
    Like someone said, DC doesn’t get you bogged down in maxi-sagas. And since the New 52 launched, all the titles that I was reading that got cancelled were justified.
    Besides, DC is still “fantasy” for me – takes me away from my reality into an ideal superhero universe. Marvel is too grounded, too close to America’s political correctness, terrorism and militarism, imo.
    At the end of the day, I’m buying mostly Image and indie stuff. Rachel Rising, Wicked & Divine, Invincible, Rat Queens… That’s where creativity and quality are.

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