Not too long ago John Jackson Miller, statistical vizier of Comichron, tweeted his findings on a study of 20 years of comic book sales:
Strong counterpoint to those who promote "death of the floppy" narratives: periodical sales over time have been remarkably stable. April sales for the Top 300 comics this year — and 1, 5, 10, 15, and 20 years ago — are all in a narrow million-copy range. https://t.co/7RSwSMFJqw pic.twitter.com/NZHroNKtPc
— Comichron.com (@comichron) May 7, 2018
Which shows that either
• Periodical sales have been remarkably stable for 20 years!
• Periodical sales are flat despite 20 years of exploding interest in all things comics.
Both things are sort of true. It is indeed remarkable that in a time when magazines and newspapers have died, the format of a 32 page stapled pamphlet containing a variable amount of story remains viable and desirable.
Sktchd’s David Harper, who also likes to fiddle with charts, took it upon himself to do a deep dive into periodical sales and came up with rolling weighted averages and sales above average, but also noted the durability of the format:
Think about it like this: typically in forms of entertainment, you see older formats decrease in viability as new ones are introduced. After all, we’re not living in an era where people watch movies via streaming, blu rays, laser discs and Betamax. And in recent years, the book market for comics has exploded, while the digital marketplace has matured. We don’t just have ComiXology, but other vendors like Marvel Unlimited, Hoopla, ComicBlitz and beyond. Webcomics have increased in viability as well, especially when you factor in the ability to combine them with crowd-funding services like Kickstarter or Patreon, which give creators the option of actually making money off them (fancy that!). Comics are everywhere, and there are more ways than ever to buy and read them.
Yet, with all that expansion, the total orders in Diamond’s Top 300 has stayed relatively static over the past 20 years.
On the surface, that’s an enormously important thing. It runs contrary to how every other medium has behaved, and shows comics as an ecosystem that seemingly can support a wide array of formats at the same time. If the core element is flat while everything else grows, that’s astonishing and atypical, and a very healthy thing indeed.
Harper has devised many charts to explore this, but I’ll only steal one – which shows the performance above average for each month. 100 represents the average periodical sales per month over a 20 year period, and anything over that is good. As you can see, we hit peak periodical (in the modern times) in late 2016 due to variants and Rebirth. I don’t know what else this shows except peaks and valleys of interest.
Oh okay I will show one more chart because this is the best one:
This one shows the rolling averaged sales of the #300 comic on Diamond’s charts each month. As JJM has noted many times, it’s been going up up up for some time and shows the long tail at work.
All that said, it’s still a relatively low number. In April 2018 it was 3,854 for IDW’s Demi-God, a book about a man with very muscular thighs which I…never heard of. It’s from Ominous Press, which is Bart Sears’ little mini universe, which IDW is publishing after a Kickstarter.
Most periodical comics sales fall into the “long tail” sludge as detailed in Todd Allen’s “sales distribution” charts, which show most periodicals sell in the 10K band. As we’ve detailed many times, if you’re selling that at Image you can buy a quality brand of all-natural, organic gruel, but it’s still a very small audience for a product that retails for $4.
John Jackson Miller is definitely a pamphlet-friendly pundit, and I’m not anti pamphlet, but I do think the comics industry is way better off having a variety of formats, and the explosion of graphic novel sales shows that.
Still, even I have to admit that the periodical has shown a resilience I never thought it would have, especially for a world in the throes of digital disruption.
To what do we owe that resilience? Well, part of it is that Marvel and DC are just super super super dedicated to keeping the format alive. Part of this is because the “scam” of selling periodicals on a non-returnable basis is utterly irresistible! Other industries have returns all the time, but not comic books! I suspect that there is some psychological effect at play with comics retailers, as well, who are honor bound to sell these things since they can’t get rid of them. Over the 40 years that the Direct Market has existed, it’s developed into a super cozy eco-system of co-dependency.
But we increasingly see DC, at least, breaking away from that a bit, with their new standalone catalog, and three new graphic novel lines. This is a little surprising since Dan DiDio is also a confirmed pamphlet man, but eventually you gotta read the handwriting on the wall: the industry supports multiple formats now and you’d be foolish not to sell in all of them.
Still, the stagnancy of periodical sales remains troubling. Is there NO WAY to get the crowds streaming out of movie theaters to pick up a comic book and say “I want to keep reading this?” Maybe it’s naive in this time to think that any spin-off product will satisfy customers of the cineplex, still the most spectacular media experience available to the average person. But only The Walking Dead seems to have capitalized on the TV crossover potential, mostly by having the same guy make both products. (Will the MIllarverse do the same?) Marvel and DC have both shunned direct tie-ins – remember how DC had to be shamed into putting out a Supergirl comic when the TV show debuted? — a policy no doubt earned from crappy sales over the years.
But why are the comics so much less compelling than other media? Perhaps it’s that….they are just not that compelling. No names, but I have a hard time reading most “mainstream” comics, even as someone trained in the vernacular.
The other thing is something that kept coming up at TCAF. How does a medium that has traditionally been aimed at youth culture adapt when it’s mostly written by middle aged white guys? I know Marvel is trying to promote a youth (or “Young Gun”) movement, but Bendis is bringing his veteran brigade with him to DC, not all of them MAWG, but it’s about as kid friendly as a bright red sports car purchased to relive bygone eras, only with panels.
Anyway, the comics pamphlet is probably here to stay, even if it is mostly a nostalgia item. But to say that it has real growth potential…that is not as clear and I just don’t know why.
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.