2015 was a great year for comics, but comics sales were generally up in single digits, which is not a bad thing, but less growth than before. There have been many “storm on the horizon” type analyses, with Todd Allen summing up many of the existing risk factors. Recently retailer Brian Hibbs served up a heaping helping of the usual suspects for slower growth ahead and added a fine sauce of nagging private retailer concerns. Among the usual suspects: DC’s dismal relaunch and Marvel’s frantic renumbering crusade, neither of which seems entirely built for the long haul.
Hibbs, who owns two shops on San Francisco, reports that his November sales were down for the first time in seven years. The drop was only 4% but still…the holidays should see steady sales not lowered sales. He’s also skeptical that Marvel’s youth move is really catching on:
How about the new and young readership? Marvel actually was starting to attract some of them at our stores — books like “Squirrel Girl,” “Ms. Marvel” and the Jane Foster “Thor” title were racking solid sales for us outside of the “traditional” Marvel customer. But that new/younger readership? They literally don’t understand why you would start a book over again at #1. It makes no sense to them! And that confusion appears to have shooed a number of them off. In an equivalent sales period, our sales of the first issues of all of those series are actually below (dramatically so in the case of “Thor!”) the final issues of the “old series” — which was only on issue #8 for two of the three! But readers appear to be treating the relaunches as simply “issue #9.” That’s not typical consumer behavior.
Hibbs is usually the most vocal proponent of retailing caution, but his worries seems to be shared by others:
And I hear similar things from many other retailers — the “word on the street” from a wide swath of stores is that a vast indifference has begun to creep in among the readers of superhero comics, and that this miasma is softening the 4th quarter enough to potentially threaten these stores. This is scary because an enormous amount of stores in the market don’t really have a fall-back position from “we sell superhero comics.” As the old saying goes “They carry both kinds of comics: Marvel and DC!” Which puts you in a bad position if both companies are underperforming at the same time.
What he’s hinting at is kind of the unthinkable doomsday scenario that we’ve been talking about for years: a world where the Big Two are just two more publishers. While proponents of comics diversity (including myself) may think this is a great thing, the reality is that the vast majority of comics shops rely on the weekly traffic of Big Two readers to stay in business, and if they were to vanish over night, that episode of The Leftovers would not be pretty. The closure of high profile alternative stores like Locust Moon and Bergen Street Comics doesn’t exactly bode well for those who have a different product mix.
However, the call to action is just that: shifting priorities.
I would also strongly urge every retailer to take a hard look at what and how you stock, and encourage you to diversify your stock — I think that the market is starting to say that the days of being a “superhero-only” store are beginning to be numbered. But that isn’t a switch that can be made on a dime — moving the direction of your store is a task that is better measured in seasons than weeks. You can’t start early enough.
Call this the “alternative energy” plan for comics. ICv2 just ran a retailer survey that was a bit more optimistic, but acknowledged the problems that Hibbs pinpointed. Retailers have the most confidence in readers and creators, but publishers rank third on confidence and #1 in problems:
Asked what part of their primary business causes the most concern about the future, nearly half of comic retailers chose publishers, the companies that curate, edit, package, market, and in some cases create the content that drives the business. But it was clear what retailers were thinking about the creative side, as not a single respondent chose creators.
There are several informative graphs in the article and much more drilling down, so I suggest you run over and read it.
The lack of faith in publishers is probably continuing unease over Marvel and DC’s shift to purely corporate cultures. It’s obvious to anyone that since the move west DC has become another arm in a huge and oft-times dysfunctional mega-media company. WB doesn’t have a very strong publishing program in place outside of DC, and it’s not even clear to me what the future plan for the company is. Not launching a Supergirl comic when the TV show debuted seems to be the kind of thing a leveraged company would do in a heartbeat; that this little detail escaped the vertical-obsessed bean counters is troubling.) They have a long way to go to catch up with Disney, whose roll-out of the Star Wars publishing plan resembled Hux’s speech to the stormtroopers for ranked organization.
Marvel fits better into Disney’s plans and has adapted better, but its silo-ing away from the film side could have many repercussions yet to be seen.
So yeah, retailers are correct to be worried about The Big Two. Making small comics shops owners happy is no longer a primary concern for them; and it shows. And Hibbs says the first quarter of 2016 looks even more unexceptional, with no big launches and a lack of excitement. Comics has a case of the blahs, it seems; how much damage they will so will be the big story for a few months at least. BUT the glass is far from half empty. See the NEXT next story!
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.