By Brian Hibbs
So, those of you with longer memories may remember that I first discussed DC’s “Rebirth” way back in March, when they announced details at the annual ComicsPRO meeting. At that juncture, I was pretty deeply concerned about their publishing schedule, where a significant number of DC’s titles were announced as going bi-weekly. I listed seven core and structural problems with how the market (and DC) functions to why I doubted this would work out well in the medium- or long-term.
We’re still very much in the short-term phase as I write this as the fifth issues of the initial “Rebirth” series just come out, and we’re still at least a quarter, perhaps two, to see how the greater market ends up reacting over-all – but I can look at my own data and draw out a few initial suppositions.
First and foremost is that the launch of “Rebirth” was clearly a success – all nine of the initial “Rebirth” specials went to a second printing (three went to third prints), and that was with full no-hoop returnability on them. They also did second prints all of the first issues of their initial series, and have sold out at distribution of multiple issues of most of their series – making a list of those is more work than I want to do, but among others, the first three issues of Batman and Flash are sold out, as well as the first four issues of Action, Detective, and Wonder Woman. Honestly, those books should have been as common as water, so that they went back to press speaks a lot of positives here. However, they chose not to keep going back to press on these comics (ie, no 2nd print of Batman #2 or 3rd print of #1), which would historically indicate that DC doesn’t feel like there’s enough reorder velocity to do so (as they like making a profit!), but I don’t know if we can present that of actual evidence of anything.
Likewise, until we start getting orders from month 6 or 7 (so, issue #11 or #12 on those initial series), it’s going to be very hard to even begin to judge what the overall market’s reaction is, so all I can offer you is personal anecdote from an individual pair of stores – and as just two datapoints in a sea of 2500+ accounts, this isn’t going to be anything you can rationally extrapolate from.
Especially because my results were extraordinarily different between the two stores.
First off, let me remind you that sales of DC comics have, in general, and also in my stores in specific, have sunken to dramatic lows – this is, I think it is safe to say, precisely why DC launched “Rebirth”: Sales were shitty.
A really disturbingly high percentage of DC’s comics had dropped at-or-near to “subs only” or “subs +1 or 2” levels where we were racking many titles because of philosophical questions like “how can you run a comic book store and not carry Flash?” much more than “Look how much money we’re making from Flash!”
So the initial results were astonishingly good at both stores – on a title like The Flash, there was about a 11-fold increase in sales between Flash #52 to Flash Rebirth #1. That’s really exceptional!
Now, as you may know, our two stores are very different from one another: the main store, on Divisadero St. in San Francisco is very much a book store – nearly 2/3 of sales are from book-format comics, and our best-selling periodical comics tend to be creator-owned titles rather than whatever the popular superhero comic of the week may be. Our smaller store (they do about 2/3 of the sales of the main one) on Ocean Avenue is a traditional “neighborhood comic book store” where nearly 70% of sales come from saddle-stitched comics, and where they do a robust business in back issues. Moreover, Ocean is a Marvel-loyalists kind of store, where Marvel comics are well more than half of all sales. Divisadero St. had historically been a DC-centric store until after “New 52” started to fail.
So, looking at the third issues of the initial bi-weekly “Rebirth” titles (Action, Aquaman, Batman, Detective, Flash, Green Arrow, Green Lanterns, Superman, and Wonder Woman) – the notion is that by issue #3 you’re much closer to what the mid-term audience for a book is going to be – at Divisadero St. overall DC sales are about 150% of what they were prior to “Rebirth”. There are a few that are significantly better (Flash and Wonder Woman in particular have doubled), and a few that are effectively the same (Batman, which I count as a major win, since the comparable is Snyder and Capullo’s sales-breaking run, and Green Lanterns, which looks like our big loser of the “Rebirth” try), but the overall numbers are about one-and-a-half-times. If books settle into “Standard Attrition” (about 1% a month), then things will be OK for some time to come, but I have to say that early (Premature!) returns on issues #4 & 5s make me fear we might have a freefall fight for at least some of these titles.
The biggest direct threat to bi-weekly comics is retailers are always one issue behind on Final Order Cutoff, so that if we get jagged declines it is the retailers left holding the bag. Retailer’s native conservatism may also cause them to pull back too hard and too fast on orders, so there’s at least a reasonable chance that #6s and 7s will be in relative shortage in the marketplace.
Overall, at Divisadero St., I’d call “Rebirth” a win, if a mild one – raising up the average DC midlist book is a really good thing, but 150% of what was a historically low number for line average doesn’t actually put that all the way to “great numbers!”. Further, that’s not keeping enough of the eleven-fold exposure some of those “Rebirth” specials had! Realistically, I think that a lot of the problem was most of the “Rebirth” specials were not exactly good first issues. Most of them read, to me at least, like they were tacked on after several issues had already been written – and it’s a shame because the general level of quality in editorial content for the DC line dramatically increased with the restart, and some customers at Divis might not have given DC enough rope to learn that. We’re also impacted by the price lowering to $3 from $4, because, of course you have to sell a third more books just to stay in the same place.
However, at Ocean Ave. the story is very different – there “Rebirth” is an astonishing success! The average DC book has nearly tripled sales, with formerly near-dead titles like Superman now outselling most Marvel comics. It’s kind of crazy, really. I only bought Outpost about three years ago, so I sadly don’t have enough historical data to see what peaks the store was able to hit over its twenty-something years in existence – I don’t know how this compares to “New 52” for example – but “Rebirth” is doing significantly better than I actually expected was possible given the data I possess.
Especially for a “Marvel store”.
The bad news is actually for Marvel at Ocean, because there’s been about a 20% decline across the line for them – “Civil War II” is just not working for the Marvel readers at Ocean, and it feels like every Marvel comic published lately is branded as a crossover to that storyline, so that’s not a great match.
This also means that while sales are up over all for Ocean, they’re not reaping as much from the tripling of sales on many DC books as lots is offset by the Marvel losses. It’s likely to be a wild ride as Marvel does “Marvel Now!” for the next quarter, and how the audience will react is unsure.
Still, the attrition curve at Ocean is a lot milder than the one at Divis, and I am cautiously optimistic that this represents a bold new audience for DC Comics at Ocean that can be sustained over a healthy horizon. Yay!
I also think that this is likely to bear fruit for the “Young Animal” launch, and that’s where Divisadero might make up the DC ground game (Divis being a prototypical “Vertigo Store”, and whose periodical sales are mostly driven by Image comics) – I just wish that the returnability on those books had been decided early enough to have made it in to the monthly order forms, and not announced after the fact. Heck, I nearly missed the Young Animal returns announcement myself. And it seems obvious that lots of retailers missed (or misunderstood) the “Rebirth” ones – for example, it was never made clear at any point that I can find until about August 2016 that the variant covers for the “Rebirth” books were also returnable.
Retailer’s lives are busy enough that it is absolutely imperative that all promotional programs and sales incentives are fully announced upfront, and are in print in the physical order forms that every retailer is given. Releasing information piecemeal means that percentages (perhaps very high percentages at that) of your customer base will never see them or be able to utilize them.
Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing. You may also find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here, a list of columns from the CBR years here (New link as of 8/2016!), and also the archives here at the Beat. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.