There is change in the air in comicbookland. It may be more than in the air…it may be in the streams, lakes and landfills, too. Maybe it’s here already and we just don’t know it – or don’t want to admit it. Certainly, this week’s BookScan report was a different look…and, I think, a significant one.
Although retailer/icon Brian Hibbs does a good job giving us the lowdown on the yearly Bookscan numbers, I no longer have access to the weekly numbers as I once did…and even if I did, I’d be honor bound not to reveal them. However, this week’s chart was unusual enough that someone sent me a peek. And it’s quite an eye opener. I’ll just share the top five with you – as a reminder Bookscan charts are based on sales through about 70-80% of retail outlets that sell books, including Barnes & Nobles, other chains, indie bookstores and some mass market retailers. It’s not ALL book sales, but it’s a CONSISTENT chunk of book sales, so, as I like to say, it’s a metric.
Anyhoo, here are the top five books on the chart for last week:
1. BITCH PLANET, VOLUME 2: PRESIDENT BITCH
2. MY LESBIAN EXPERIENCE WITH LONELINESS
3. WONDER WOMAN VOL. 1: THE LIES
4. WONDER WOMAN VOL. 2: YEAR ONE
5. MARCH: BOOK ONE
First off – good job on Wonder Woman! While movies based on comics don’t always sell TONS of books, they sell SOME books, and the two volumes of Greg Rucka’s Wonder Woman Rebirth run are doing well. Interestingly, the two books aren’t charting on the regular Amazon graphic novel bestseller list, but they are atop DC’s publisher chart.
At #1, Bitch Planet, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro is a steady seller at Diamond but it isn’t the kind of book I’d necessarily expect to see topping BookScan…unless you took into account its huge social media following and the wide reach of its “non-complant” theme. In case you don’t read the book, it’s about a bunch of women who are sent to a prison planet for being non-complaint, which in most cases involves speaking their minds and not wanting to be treated like second class citizens. It’s a Handmaids Tale for the prison exploitation movie set.
It’s also a signature book for our time, or at least comics fandom’s times, with an openly feminist agenda and trans and queer characters treated with dignity and empathy. Howard Chaykin may think he’s being all edgy and bold with his Gran Torino lawn clearing, but its really just an embarrassing (literal) grandpa rant from the status quo. DeConnick’s agenda is an actual trumpet blast against the real power structure. So let’s get that straight.
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, the second book on the list is a manga, so “mainstream” comics folk (whatever that is) probably haven’t heard of it, but, believe me, it’s huge. In a story on manga’s comeback, Deb Aoki writes,
Seven Seas Entertainment has largely led the way in this genre, with translations of sweet, funny, and steamy erotic dramas such as Citrus and Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, with more on the way. Among them are My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata, a single-volume memoir of an anxiety-plagued young woman’s experience with a female sex worker.
Originally posted as a webcomic, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness has been lauded for Nagata’s painfully honest and raw exploration of her battles with anxiety and self-loathing. “Every time we mention that book, our social media feeds explode,” says Lianne Sentar, Seven Seas’ marketing coordinator.
My Lesbian Experience is indeed a painful book, as Nagata recalls her battles with eating disorders, cutting and social alienation. Accepting her sexuality (Japanese culture isn’t as pro-gay as all that hentai and yaoi might have you believe) and a paid-for sexual encounter begin to help her find her place. It’s both an irresistible memoir and a beacon for others who are struggling with similar issues. And once again, for young comics readers who are dealing with issues of identity and acceptance, its right in the wheelhouse.
Wonder Woman, we talked about. Woman warriors are hot right now; Wonder Woman has been an icon since she debuted, and despite the bafflement of male comics and movie execs, when presented with unselfconscious admiration, audiences respond to her.
March – well, I don’t need to tell you any more about that. It’s a cultural phenomenon.
While I don’t feel comfortable leaking the entire BookScan list, there are similar signs throughout. Comics retailers may not like diversity, but Marvel’s best selling graphic novel of the year thus far is (wait for it) Black Panther Vol. 2 by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze. The #3 seller is Black Panther Vol 3. (Old Man Logan is sandwiched between.)
While Wonder Woman isn’t on Amazon’s top 20, as I write this, Ms. Marvel Vol. 1, Captain Marvel Vol 1 and Jessica Jones Alias Vol. 1 are. (So are Winter Soldier and Hawkeye Vol. 1). Here’s a screenshot for the record:
It’s no coincidence that Aoki’s Manga is back story for Publishers Weekly and Abraham Riesman’s Forget Brooding Superheroes — the Big Money Is in Kids’ Comics for New York’s Vulture site came out in the same week. The old order doth change, and both genres are big on BookScan. Riesman’s well-sourced piece is another trumpet blast, an ode to the ascendance of kids comics in no uncertain terms. It’s a flag-planter.
As of today, the average superhero comic relies on the enthusiasm of people well into their adult years, ones who enjoy — or at least tolerate — ever-more-convoluted twists on characters with whom they’re already familiar. Though they make occasional stabs at drawing new readers, Marvel and DC’s business decisions have typically been based on the desires of a veteran core. Sales to those people are decent enough to keep those companies afloat for now, but there’s usually been precious little in the way of vision for how to radically expand the market.
But less than a decade ago, a tectonic shift began — and Marvel and DC had nothing to do with it. Traditional buyers like me had nothing to do with it, either. Indeed, the comics Establishment is only just now starting to play a desperate game of catch-up. That shift was the result of decisions made by librarians, teachers, kids’-book publishers, and people born after the year 2000. Abruptly, the most important sector in the world of sequential art has become graphic novels for young people. Call it the Youth-Comics Explosion. It’s redefining the future of an entire art form.
Let me spell it out for you: girls and women, black and white, cis and trans alike, are the driving force behind comics readership expansion. This has been happening for a while, but it’s a full on avalanche now. It’s also something I saw coming 25 years ago. (No one else is gonna pat me on the back so I gotta do it myself.) Seeing the devoted fandoms that female content-consumers developed for anything that interested them, ESPECIALLY genre material like paranormal romance, horror and fantasy – I had a hunch that once they turned their spotlight on comics, the full force of female fandom would bowl over the fragile shreds of male safe spaces like a Mack truck through a pile of empty Axe cartons.
What does this shift mean? Well, for one thing, it means that Marvel–and DC too! – had better start paying attention to new readers instead of pandering to the dwindling ranks of AARP-card carrying pap-pap Bronze Agers. I mean, I know it’s hard to move beyond your own viewpoint, but business is business.
It’s not necessary to fully rehash Marvel’s massive missteps yet again, but how they managed to play it so badly is the real lesson here. I know people like to point out how superficial Marvel’s “diversity hires” are but, guess what, this is a superficial industry. No one else was doing any better. With books like Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel, and even short runs like A-Force, Marvel had the upper hand in reaching out to new female readers. Keeping Moon Girl and Squirrel Girl going for the Scholastic Book Fair crowd was a smart move.
Yet Marvel couldn’t help blowing it with a bunker mentality, arrogance (always one of Marvel’s signature moves) and, more than anything, mediocre products. Most of the top writers went off to Image, lowered rates meant more generic art, and put it all together and you have a foundering line and no signs that Legacy will create a huge turnaround. The new, darker and female Marvel U was ultimately no more of a continuity buster than the Ultimates universe itself, but older white men who only like to read about other white men couldn’t stop squawking. And some of those doing the squaking were comics retailers and Marvel couldn’t help but prefer their squawks to Comics Twitter.
DC’s tone deaf new storyline by James Robinson for Wonder Woman shows they haven’t given up on the pap-paps either. DC’s slide into mediocre sales and content after Rebirth hasn’t come under as much scrutiny while Marvel was sucking all the air out of lungs that were yelling on Twitter all day, but that day is coming. Or it’s here.
Beyond all this is a shift that has only been spoken of in disbelieving whispers until now, something people in the industry are beginning to talk about openly for the first time.
Pamphlets are a pap pap thing.
The Wednesday crowd got a huge shot in the arm from the New 52 in 2011, but the number of people who like to go to the comics shop for their periodicals every week has not been growing significantly since then. It’s a giant warning sign that at a time when Marvel and DC’s characters are better known to the general populace than they have ever been, the Big Two’s periodical sales have stagnated.
Now, I didn’t say that the number of comics READERS have declined. On the contrary, readers are growing all the time. But they consume their comics in many formats and many platforms. Tie-in graphic novel sales go up every time there’s a successful comic book movie or TV show. Wonder Woman. Old Man Logan. Deadpool. The Walking Dead. I look at these charts all the time and it’s a consistent pattern.
While fashion shifts endlessly, there are still a few fundamental truths that stand the test of time, and one of those, I believe, is my Satisfying Chunk Theory: an ineffable ratio of price to entertainment value that keeps readers coming back.
Pamphlets/periodicals/floppies have been a costly UNsatisfying chunk for a while now. Blame deconstruction. Blame crossovers. Blame mediocre page rates and overworked editors. Blame it all: it’s a complex ratio.
In 2017 there is even more to deal with. People like their chunks bigger than ever. The preferred size for entertainment is binge-sized. In a world where everything is available all the time, people want more of it at once. Prime time viewership of conventional one episode a week TV was down across the board last year. Netflix is now the biggest studio in Hollywood. To compete with streaming a whole season of Orange is the New Black, a 20 page pamphlet must be very entertaining indeed.
While the graphic novel is the format of choice for newer readers, both Marvel and DC have shied away from stand alone graphic novels for a while. Marvel rarely does them, although the ones they do – like Rob Liefeld’s Deadpool book – do pretty well.
DC seems to have completely ditched its original graphic novel program. (I know they announced one a few weeks ago. One.) Why isn’t there a high profile Wonder Woman graphic novel to tie in with the movie? Morrison and Paquette’s Wonder Woman Earth One and Jill Thompson’s Wonder Woman: The True Amazon – a girlhood of Diana story that would be a natural to follow the film – both came out last year. Since they had both been in the works for the better part of a decade, DC couldn’t really have held off. But still..we’ve seen countless rejected pitches for Young Diana comics. Why NOTHING? (Except the ultra successful DC Super Hero Girls line, of course.)
I think there are two reasons for this and both raise uncomfortable questions. The first is that DC Comics just really doesn’t know what to do with Wonder Woman. From the time when she got kicked out of the “trinity” in favor of Green Lantern to The Saga of Wonder Woman’s Brother. Think of all the drama Greg Rucka had to go through – demanding a change in editors, objecting to Frank Cho’s sexualized variants – to get the book out his way.
The second reason is that I suspect Warner Bros. was taken a bit by surprise by Wonder Woman’s success. I have a sneaking suspicion that they didn’t have all that much faith in the character. Given all the missteps, and the awful female superhero movies that preceded it, I get it, but it’s 2017, people.
As you might guess all of this has been on my mind for a while, and there’s much more, including the change in the kind of stories that new readers want to consume. That will have to wait for part two.
I’ve been predicting the demise of the comics periodical for a long time now, and I’ve been wrong before. I’m not saying that traditional comic books/pamphlets are going to go away tomorrow. Or the next day. But think about how the comics business has changed in the last ten years; it’s a sure bet it will have changed just as much ten years from now. Graphic novels are not an ideal format for economic reasons. That applies to both publishers AND creators. Subsidizing the trade via serialization is a sound business model. But it’s problematic for the future of the Big Two to focus so much of their resources on. If they want to be prepared for the comics industry of 2027, they’d better start listening NOW.
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.