If there’s one phrase that frosts my scuppers these days it’s variations on the “comics are a dying industry” or “failing medium” or some other rote expression of gloom. This attitude goes back to the historic low self-esteem which many comics industry creators and professionals hold. It’s one of those deeply held beliefs that people like to joke about even as it reveals a deeper insecurity.
But it’s just not true.
In his analysis of the May sales figures, John Jackson Miller drops this little bomb:
As noted on Friday, a greater variety of publishers than usual appears to have contributed to sales this month. There were also some new publishers in the Top 300 comics list for the first time in a while: Black Mask and Storm King.
It’s worth noting that this month’s $45.12 million in comics and graphic novel orders represents an increase of 90% over the $23.7 million ordered for the same month in 2003. I think we can all reasonably agree that inflation has not doubled over the course of ten years, so there has definitely been substantial growth in the market.
I plugged this into an inflation calculator and here’s the result;
What cost $23000000 in 2003 would cost $28566510.50 in 2012.
Also, if you were to buy exactly the same products in 2012 and 2003, they would cost you $23000000 and $18554533.38 respectively.
In very simple terms $45.12 million > $23.7 million.
2003 wasn’t even a shitty year for comics; manga was in the house, and Marvel was at the tail end of its Ultimates-charged renewal.
Now it IS true that comics prices have increased. From Miller’s average cost charts in May-03 the average comics price was $3.09 and the average weighted cost for top 300 comics was $2.77. From May ’12:
The average comic book in the Top 300 cost $3.59; the average comic book retailers ordered cost $3.64. The median and most common price for comics offered was $3.99.
Still, that $45.12 million figure doesn’t even factor in digital sales which are substantial and rising.
Comics are not dying. There are new publishers, new creators, new distribution channels, new social media—new everything.
Now, I understand where the “dying industry” trope comes from—part of it is The Beat’s own monthly sales charts with “standard attrition” and the appearance of declining sales every month. Periodical sales tend to go down every month. I think it’s safe to say that just about every publisher is dealing with this by creating new products and repackaging old ones every month as well. So even if the top books don’t include ten titles selling more than 250,000 every month, sales have been in good shape overall.
In a lot of ways, the “dying industry” is the more recent expression of “New Wertham” anxiety: a continuity-obsessed comics industry with a long memory feared making too many waves for years for fear of inciting a new anti-comics crusade. Without too many people still around who remembered the first Wertham crusade, the new bugaboo for self doubt is the end of newsstands sales and the black and white implosion.
In the 70s, when comics were sold on newsstands. even a title like WEREWOLF BY NIGHT sold about 50,000 copies a month. And in the 80s heyday of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, bizarro black and white comics sold the same amount…heck even artsy books from Fantagraphics sold 30-40,000 copies. So yeah, there was a sales surge that was undone by the distro wars of the 90s Chromium Age, and these events of 20-30 years ago are still recent enough that many a grandpappy will recount them to a young’un around the fire.
Well guess what, 20 years ago we made phone calls from our landlines to invite people over to play bridge and used a paper map to figure out how to get to grandpappy’s house. We stopped by Blockbuster to see what was new on VHS and went to HMV every Tuesday to pick up new CDs.
You can’t use the same metrics. I still hear people saying “If only we could get back in 7-11s and grocery stores we could save comics!” when people don’t even buy FOOD at grocery stores any more. Several publishers have flirted with getting comics back in 7-11s in recent years and nothing happened. Instead we have the internet, the grandpappy of all newsstands.
Along the same lines, ICv2’s monthly charts are out and things looked pretty good. Perhaps the most interesting element being the blockbuster status of the first SAGA collection:
Perhaps the most interesting number among the top graphic novels was 7,552, the number of Saga Vol. 1 that sold in its eighth month. That’s 65% more than April’s sales, and the most in any month since January. Saga Vol. 1, being priced at $9.99, has now sold over 53,000 copies to North American comic stores since release last October. Saga also moved up in the book market in May (see “May BookScan–Top 20 Graphic Novels”).
It’s really been an incredible run over the last year, and the first part of 2013 has been gangbusters. Here are the growth rates from May 2012 through May 2013:
1% May 2013
14% April 2013
22% March 2013
10% February 2013
27% January 2013
15% December 2012
(1%) November 2012
20% October 2012
(4%) September 2012
18% August 2012
20% July 2012
11% June 2012
43% May 2012
Dying my ass.
That said, the 1% in May 2013 does look puny. The most asked question I get from new cartoonists as “Is this going to last? Is it all a bubble? In five years will it all die again?”
I’m not going to be a fool and say this growth is rock solid and endless. Comics and graphic novels are hot right now, the way manga was a decade ago, and there will be more changes. The Big Two are still the two towers of the comics shop suspension bridge, and it is true that they are slyly slipping in more and more variants and double shipping and other stunts to boost sales. Variants do not represent rock solid growth. Inevitable market correction will take place. Will it be an “implosion?” I asked a few prominent retailers about this at C2E2 and while there were some serious expressions while contemplating the question, the basic answer was “We’re more prepared for it this time.”
Whether you find this reassuring or not depends on whether you think these guys and gals are fooling themselves, whether they’re mammals or dinosaurs. I see a lot more tree shrews than stegosauruses these days, so I hope we have a chance.
To put it another way: the comics industry is not dying at the moment, but rather enjoying marked and exciting growth behind a period of incredible creativity and increased public awareness. The growth will not last forever, because nothing ever does, and in 10 years we’ll all be playing snizzbots on our tiddlewhangers while we grocket with the house robots instead of reading books or downloading DVDs. However, if we all just stay cool and don’t do anything crazy, you’ll still be able to buy some kind of comics on your tiddlewhanger. That much I am certain of.
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.