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Highwaymen continues to perplex


Sometimes it just takes an honest question to bring out honest answers. Writer Marc Bernadin’s frank questioning over the relative sales failure of his Wildstorm mini-series The Highwaymen has got a lot of people talking. perhaps because Bernadin is a seasoned writer in another field (he’s an editor at Entertainment Weekly) and writing comics isn’t his main gig, he’s coming right out and saying what other people are only thinking? At any rate, the responses both in our own comment section and elsewhere have raised more questions than they answer, perhaps.
Jason Michelitch suggests that the book’s failure is more relative than anything else.

Because as far as I can tell, Highwaymen did sell.

What’s that? How can I say that, when as Jim Lee just said, it hasn’t performed sales-wise, and is being cancelled?

Well, let’s take a look at the numbers*.

Highwaymen #1 (June 2007) 9,360
HIghwaymen #2 (July 2007) 6,108 (-35%)
Highwaymen #3 (August 2007) 5,718 (-06%)

Now, sure, if we’re comparing Highwaymen to Batman, the numbers don’t look too great. Like Bernardin said, opened near 10,000 and went over a steep drop from issue one to issue two. But let’s keep in mind: the steep drop-off between first and second issues is more or less an industry axiom. It’s a rare runaway hit that doesn’t suffer a similar drop. And the fact that orders for issue three only dropped a further 6% is, believe it or not, pretty good.

Michelitch compares THE HIGHWAYMEN numbers to other Image miniseries which are considered successes a lower sales levels, a not entirely apt comparison, to be sure, since IMage does have a much lower sales threshhold.

As usual, Valerie D’Orazio comes out and says what everyone is thinking:

What might have been the problem with “Wildstorm?”


What IS Wildstorm?

A wing of DC?

A publisher of “Old Imagey” type comics like “Gen 13,” etc?

The edgy publishers of “The Authority?”

Purveyors of fine Alan Moore products?

A prestige artist’s studio?

Vertigo II?

Publisher of licensed product like “World of Warcraft?”

What is Wildstorm?

What does the Wildstorm brand promise me so that I would run into “The Highwaymen” in the store and take a chance on it?

Johanna is similarly blunt.

There is no reason to buy a miniseries any more. If you’re going to do all that promotional work (and they did), then you should be pushing something that will keep selling. That’s true of series — if a reader signs on, there’s another one every month to buy — and books — as long as they’re kept in print, new customers can be found on an ongoing basis — but not of limited-run projects. What’s the point in pushing it when three or five months later, your hard work doesn’t have any more payback?

For his part, Bernadin takes it all in and remains philosophical:

Maybe, finally, the answer to the “why” is: The market just isn’t set up to support a book like this because, ultimately, the readers don’t want a book like this. If they did, there’d be more of them. There’d be more romance books, and more action books, and more war books, and more straight sci-fi books, and more police procedural books. I’d say it was as myopic as TV, but then you’d have to posit a TV landscape where there were only sitcoms set in a bar.

A lot of the answers take the Wildstorm brand itself to task. It’s worth noting that the imprint is in a bit of a state of flux now — Executive Editor Scott Dunbier was removed several months ago, a major personnel move covered only in a so-called “gossip column” and some now removed message board joking. We have several thoughts about this — the first being that Dunbier is a dear friend of ours, and we wish him all the best.

The second is just how wacky comics book “news” is. While the executive shuffle in Hollywood is covered on a minute-by-minute basis by the entertainment trades, no one seems to have even asked about Dunbier’s departure at a Wildstorm panels mere days after the news “got out”. Either comic books are too piddly to really bother with, or the comics press wouldn’t know a juicy story if it bit them on the ass. (I include myself in that, but my friendship with Dunbier more or less recused me from the story.)

At any rate, Ben Abernathy has been promoted to Senior Editor at Wildstorm, and things seem to have settled down a bit or at least be regrouping. Which still doesn’t answer the question of whether anyone wants to read miniseries about new characters. That question seems to go on and on.

  1. As I just clarified in the comments at my own blog, yes, there are of course different standards at different companies. The question I wished to prompt was “Why would DC not see what the market for this type of book is likely to produce in terms of sales, and plan accordingly?”

    Just because Image is inherently set up to handle smaller sales, doesn’t mean that DC could not intentionally craft the production of a series so that it, too, could handle the lower sales it is clearly likely to receive.

    Perhaps there are reasons why they couldn’t, but it seems to my (admittedly amateur) eye, that if they were going to bother to pay to print and publicize Highwaymen in the first place, then they could have done so with an eye on the reality of the market and the fact that if a book like Highwaymen is going to succeed, it’s going to be slowly, and that it would probably only really show its potential after a first trade collection is made available.

  2. Ben Abernathy is a great editor with enough vision and direction, I think, to make a difference and give Wildstorm the shot in the arm it needs to put the line back where it belongs, but it takes time.

    Highwaymen is an example of a book that once again gets good word of mouth and great reviews but doesnt get sales worthy of the work.

    GENRE books, for the most part, need to be one shots , graphic novels and so on to succeed and eventually make money by staying on the shelf longer. remember, these titles get crushed all the time by the civil wars ,countdowns and superhero books…they need to be treated differently than weekly comics to find any kind of success.

    let’s be honest, its rare when a genre book can remain monthly without a constant push or a name writer or artist selling it.

    Before you all list examples of ones that do, I already know them all since I buy them. the point is that for the most part, most of these type of books fail and for a reader like me, it makes me upset when they do.


  3. Who is responsible for branding?

    Not the editor, though Stan Lee was certainly a master of it, but he’s a special case.

    It’s the marketing department.

    Wildstorm has some great, great books, but if a tree falls in the wilderness….

  4. What is Wildstorm, indeed!

    Is it possible that this book would have sold more as a Vertigo title (with some exposed boobs or some non-!@#$ cursing, natch)? We’ll never know.

    As much as I hate to admit it, DC either needs to create some more imprints (no one has even mentioned the New Line horror books under the WS imprint), or get rid of all but DC, Johnny DC, and Vertigo, to delineate the “mainstream”, “kid-friendly”, and “mature” lines.

  5. Johanna’s mini-series perspective is intriguing, because, in the last 2 years that I have been approaching editors, that is what they want to see. They don’t want my 6 year series arc, they want 1 story told over 4 issues, which I’ve been retooling towards for the last 6 months with both my series. 4 issues isn’t a lot of time to run a story, or to build word of mouth, but if some action does happen on a title, like the .06 drop off on issue 3, does that preclude a second mini-series. Because eventually those mini-series sets turn into Hellboy.

    I’ll honestly be looking be looking for Highwaymen at the comic shop when I finally go again later this week, and I’ll take a look if I see a second series, mostly because of these threads.

  6. Ahem. Okay, even at the danger of getting yelled at by all the “cool” kids, I’m currently residing nowhere near a decent comic book store, where one might stroll in and look at stuff and flip through it. And I am way too tired and perhaps too old to flip through Previews in order to think: oh, this sounds like it could be fun. That just as an explanation, but here’s why Highwaymen fell under my radar.

    The title. Yes. The title. A spy story? Old farts coming back for one last good fight? Would have been right up my alley, but THE HIGHWAYMEN? Sorry, it sounded like the superhero version of a trucker book to me. ON THE LONG ROAD, JUSTICE WILL COME ON 16 WHEELS.

    I admit I if it had been a novel and in the general book section of my bookstore, I honestly wouldn’t have picked it up either. It’s a title that does not at all give an indication of what the story or concept is.

  7. Johanna’s quoted remark: “There is no reason to buy a miniseries any more … if a reader signs on [to a regular series], there’s another one every month to buy — and books — as long as they’re kept in print, new customers can be found on an ongoing basis — but not of limited-run projects. What’s the point in pushing it when three or five months later, your hard work doesn’t have any more payback?”

    This doesn’t make much sense, actually. A limited series can tell a great STORY. It can introduce new characters, and certainly new concepts. Look at the success of DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and then BATMAN: YEAR ONE. Ok, Batman was the star. So what? Who needed a limited series of a character appearing in two monthly titles. But those storylines (even thougb year one was part of the monthly book) forever changed the BATMAN franchise.

    As for other books, there’s a number of mini-series that have gone on to spawn monthly books. Despite how the bookshelves look, there are still single novels published … and stand-alone movies produced. Hollywood doesn’t seem to think that everything must be a series …

  8. Solutions:
    1. Slash the cost of production by offering the issues online instead of onpaper. This allows readers to post the URL to others, and allows the publisher to harvest emails, cookies, and websites; and to market the book and talent more effectively and efficiently.
    2. By guaging reader and critic reactions, the publisher can then publish a trade collection. The contract should allow the creators to publish the book elsewhere after first refusal, or after one year on completion of the series.
    3. Wildstorm has many imprints, although they do not have a lot of titles in any given month. Each imprint should have a distinct trade dress, so that a casual reader who isn’t familiar with an author will still recognize a similar story. In other words, the cover design is saying, “If you liked X, you’ll like this, because it is a similar style.”
    4. I see Vertigo as Comics Lit, and Wildstorm as genre fiction. Vertigo is a “mature readers” imprint, whereas Wildstorm is ’70s DC without limits.

  9. If DKR came out today, it would be savaged by waiting for the trade. But the point really is that the DM (the primary market for THE HIGHWAYMEN) is unkind to non-superhero minis. If THE HIGHWAYMEN were at Image, likely it wouldn’t be getting cancelled right about now, but Wildstorm clearly has different margins to work from than Image does (something about paying page rates upfront, I’d imagine, but I’m not really an expert).

    Editors want to see a mini-series because they simply cannot commit to a several-year-long miniseries or run on a flagship title. The mini-series length (because it’s not really a format) allows publishers to get the story out and done (whither ULTIMATE HULK AND WOLVERINE?) and collected for the real market for this length of work: bookstores and DM trade sales.

    Wildstorm branding is another, separate issue. I’d argue that WS is best known as being an “adult” superhero universe and the off-genre stuff being shoehorned into WS doesn’t help things at all. Now, if you were making an active line that was non-superhero genre and being husbanded effectively to make a name for itself, then that seems to me a far better fit for a book like HIGHWAYMEN than WS itself.

  10. To clarify one small thing: THE HIGHWAYMEN wasn’t cancelled, per se. We were always set to do a five-issue miniseries. That’s it. Of course, we had conversations about doing more, but they were always dependent on performance. There was no rug yanked out from under.

    But Wildstorm did everything they promised us they would: they paid us (well and on-time), they supported our creative decisions, and they promoted it both internally and externally.

  11. I am inherently prejudiced against buying limited series — or even the collection once it comes out.

    For me, the reason I buy comics is for the continuing story with reoccurring characters. If I want a one-shot I’ll read a novel or rent a movie. Comics are way too expensive to compete in that arena. The rise of the mini has been the fall of my interest in trying something new.

    It’s not that I’m “afraid to try something new” — the age-old, unfounded excuse applied to everything that doesn’t catch on. I want comics that do what comics do best, which is to give me an ongoing experience rather than a quick, one-time filler. If they won’t commit to me, why should I commit to them?

    If a limited series turns out to be another The Watchmen or Ghost World, I’ll hear about it. It it doesn’t, I don’t feel I’m missing anything.

  12. I will buy a limited series as a series of comic books, and have done that for some titles that others might turn up their brow at. Danger Girl Body Shots, and Sgt Rock by Joe Kubert are two of them, for example.

    My LCS does not stock many titles and only one or two issues of those limited titles. So I have to order from Previews.

    And I assume all the buying risk. It’s my disposable income, and I am investing my precious $30 into supporting someone’s mini series. Because of the time delay in ordering from first solicitation, I need to order two or three issues before I actually get to read the first printed issue.

    Whereas I can walk into a comic shop and purchase a TB in person after the miniseries is finished, and have it as a “done-in-one”.

    I don’t care about hype, or which creative teams are hot, or variant covers, so I am probably a retailer’s nightmare. I look for a good story, strong characters, and artwork that makes me interested and keeps me entertained.

  13. Maybe people (like myself) are hesitant to buy mini-series because previous experience has shown that most minis are collected into TPBs nowadays.

    I’ve stopped picking up the monthly copies of books I love like Hellboy and Astro City (or even the recent Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers “Batman: Dark Detective”) precisely because of this. The TPBs make nice packages. I have the issues all in one place and I don’t have to rely on my faulty memory to follow a story I read a month ago. Plus TPBs offer DVD-like extras like sketches and behind the scenes stuff now.

    I’ve also stopped buying regular copies of Shonen Jump because of this. Naruto can be a tough series to follow from one month to the next…

  14. “If they won’t commit to me, why should I commit to them?”

    Well, if they announce a six-issue mini-series and actually publish, they did committ.

    I like good stories and artwork. If it’s a mini-series, then that’s what I want. I can’t see buying a lousy comic series because it’s made up of 300 issues, and NOT buy a great story because it’s only six issues.

    If you want committment, get a puppy dog.

  15. But won’t the ultimate proof of the pudding in terms of readership come via tpb DM and bookstore chains? I realize that issue sales have canned a sequel series, but if the tpb sells in sufficient amounts, then surley WS would reconsider more stories?

    I’m facinated RE chain book distibution and sales figures for comix, but often whenever I find an article about them, it all seems rather vague. For instance, Vertogo books seem to sell poorly in relation to even low sales DC books. I was surprised to see how many floppies of HELLBLAZER sold monthly. Surely, the trades must sell well? They keep coming out regularly, anyway.

  16. Rich, “savaged” might have overstated the position (not that I’ve *ever* done that before ever, nuh-uh) but the meat of my statement stands. Though I’d offer that a non-superstar Batman miniseries has a particular built-in audience and isn’t likely to break much past that, whether or not Batman beats the stuffins out of Superman.

    But that’s sidestepping the larger issue of off-genre expectation inside of the DM and its reliance on the built-in audiences for franchise superheroics.

  17. i’m curious as to why you think the “news” in the comic biz should follow the Hollywood model and not, say, the book publishing model? Variety may cover the exec moves with gossipy glee, but PW—your corporate patron—does not do the same. is it really your desire to have every aspect of culture become Hilton-ized??

  18. I’m with the crowd that sees Wildstorm as not having an identity right now. Add to that the much discussed fact that Vertigo isn’t setting the world on fire and DC has had it’s share of problems (no matter what Dan Didio claims- sales aren’t what were expected and sometimes it’s more about expectations than actual numbers). I think you have to conclude that things are stretched too thin and Wildstorm is getting lost in the shuffle- hell, even Jim Lee can’t make the line a priority and it’s “his” imprint.

    The recent relaunch of Wildstorm started off good but it seems like somebody dropped the ball about 4 issues in. Much hyped creative teams left or went AWOL for months without putting out a book and you have a serious problem that has caused people to actually question the line’s existence. Frankly, it’s like when they start asking if or when a floundering presidential candidate will drop out- once they start asking the question it’s often only a matter of time since nobody wants to jump onto a sinking ship. I think Wildstorm’s a good line but I always saw it as DC’s home to slightly more mature superhero books outside the DCU (but now the DCU features rapist super villains so there goes that rationale) so why is Wildstorm publishing genre books which could have worked as well, if not better, at Vertigo?

  19. Okay, I’m the manager of a comic store located in the rear of a bookstore. So, I get the gamut of customers: superhero folk, indie kids, manga readers, etc. And I still had trouble selling “The Highwaymen.” It’s not the only Wildstorm book I’ve had trouble selling. Identity means something. I have plenty of customers who’d try a Vertigo #1 title just because of the branding. Wildstorm doesn’t have that cache with my customers. I could stuff free copies of “The Programme” in customer bags and find them returned the next day. I really think branding is a major problem here.

    As much as I wish everybody who comes into my store would listen to “comic book guy” (i.e., me) and buy the good stuff I like but doesn’t sell well nation-wide (“American Virgin,” “Welcome To Tranquility,” “Jonah Hex,” etc.), a lot of folks have very set tastes and don’t want to try something new. Especially when they have no idea that “The Highwaymen” really don’t meet “The Authority” in issue 5.

  20. Publishers are undercutting the monthly titles by always rushing the trade reprint out the month after the story is done.

    A reader can try the first and maybe second issue, then stop buying it and wait only 4 more months to but the trade.

    DC used to wait a few months, but market forces demanded they lower the time involved.

    Even if Wildstorm gave Highwaymen the best promotion of the year, Highwaymen is still only one of 80 titles published every month by DC.

  21. I can’t believe no one has mentioned how important name writers and artists are when it comes to taking a flyer on new comics. You can bet if Warren Ellis or Grant Morrison wrote “The Highwaymen,” more people would have tried it, but an unknown comics writer has to build his reputation among fans first (just like Grant and Warren did). Good work will be rewarded… eventually!

  22. Over the past couple of years, I’ve completely migrated away from buying monthly books. Now I only buy trades. (On rare occasions, I’ll buy a #1, and, if I like it, decide then and there to get the trade.) In the past month, I’ve probably bought 15 trades.

    I think there are increasingly two distinct groups of comic book consumers–those who buy the floppies (and maybe the trade) and those who buy only trades. If a comic doesn’t come out in trade, the sad truth is that I’ll never buy it.

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