Home Comics Big Two Comics Must read: David Harper analyzes the changing state of the industry

Must read: David Harper analyzes the changing state of the industry

9

Out with the old, in with the new? As we’ve been reporting, October comics sales were pretty damn massive. It’s the culmination of a year that started a little rocky but has blossomed as new trends blew into town behind a strong trade wind. Multiversity’s David Harper has the much needed big think piece on what’s happening complete with CHARTS. First he points out that The Big Two are still the big two:

Before we get into the bad, let’s look at the good. Marvel and DC continue to be the backbone of the industry. In October, the pair combined to account for over 67% of units shipped by Diamond, and they are and will continue to be the 800-pound gorillas that comics are mostly known for. Some often wish they would just go away, but they aren’t just necessary, they’re the absolute foundation of the livelihood of comics. With them gone, it would likely be difficult to impossible for the books you love to succeed or even exist.

What do I mean by that? Well, it’s pretty simple. In an industry that’s worth $50 million on average, DC and Marvel account for two thirds of that revenue. Without them, comic shops would have a hard time making enough money to survive. Without Marvel and DC, print comics would likely die just like the doomsayers are always saying they’re about to. In that way, Marvel and DC’s success is tantamount to the health of the industry, and we’ve seen them reach enormous heights in recent years.

BUT events, the backbone of the last 10 years of Big Two sales, are definitely losing their punch. Harper has charts that will show it all but here’s one stat on first issue sales:

House of M #: 233, 721 (2005)

Axis #1: 138,966 (2014)

At DC, events and weeklies are showing similar sales erosion.

But they sure do love their weeklies (or bi-weeklies, in the case of “Brightest Day”), and with three running right now, DC is seeing lower and lower sales on their debuts with each passing launch. The latest, “Earth 2: World’s End”, opened at a mediocre #57 with about 55% lower sales than “Batman Eternal” started with earlier this year. Anecdotal evidence from retailers have indicated that these books have sold less and less as their runs have went along, and it’s quite likely that DC’s huge bet on weeklies isn’t hitting the levels they were aiming for.

It has taken all my self control not to post those charts (PLEASE GO TO LINK) but I can’t resist this one, which I’ve meant to do when I had a spare moment myself: a chart showing Image’s market share growth from 4% in 2009 to its current 12%:


That is some chart. Harper writes:

The chart you see above is Image’s growth in both unit share and in dollar share of the marketplace over the past five years. Between January 2009 and October 2014, Image’s unit share in the marketplace has more than quadrupled. And that’s not even an apples to apples comparison, as industry revenues have skyrocketed during that time, moving from $31.31 million in January 2009 to $56.09 million this month. That means Image is taking a bigger slice of a much bigger pie.

Now, this month their 12.28% number is a bit inorganically boosted – as I said before, “The Walking Dead” #132 was featured in October’s Loot Crate, and issue #133 (also in October) sold nearly 80% less without the Loot Crate bump – but that’s still a very impressive number that speaks to how effectively they’ve grown. It’s not even how big they’ve gotten that impresses me the most, though. It’s their Terminator like relentlessness in growing their market share. This wasn’t an overnight thing, but a steady progression.

But what else are those trade winds blowing in? Marvel and DC are betting their 2015 on Secret Wars and Convergence (although the latter is, to be fair, a stop gap.) Meanwhile, the usual poster children—Ms. Marvel, Hawkeye, Harley Quinn and not Batgirl and Gotham Academy—are finding a strong audience. And others have trimmed their sails (while boosting sales) as well:

Meanwhile, other publishers are embracing change more than ever. Boom! and Dynamite are putting together effective impersonations of Image’s creator-owned direction. Dark Horse is launching a bevy of awesome looking new titles from creators like Jeff Lemire, Matt Kindt, Mike Mignola, and more. Archie has, against all odds, become a bastion of innovative and forward thinking storytelling. Valiant is attempting to bridge the gap between Marvel and DC’s universe building and Image’s creator friendly nature.

Harper leaves his analysis with a comparison to Motorola: a once dominant player that fell off the charts when they stuck with their tried and true business plan—small communication devices—while the world tacked to smart phones. About 14 years ago I gave a speech about the same thing at an industry gathering, but the telex machine was my metaphor: even pre internet, the telex machine had been done in by the fax machine, and tried to adapt by allowing you to send faxes from a telex. It didn’t work. The comics industry was in grave danger of sticking with a dying model back in 2000 when I delivered this speech.

Now, I don’t think Marvel and Dc are going to go way of the telex machine, or even Motorola—which is still around but in diminished capacity. Not with those 40 movies on the schedule. But…things have finally changed: I will allow myself one more theft as I construct my unified sales theory: Here’s the top 30 books from October, via ICv2:

TOP 300 COMICS – October 2014
Rank Index Title Price Pub Est.Qty
1 274.55 WALKING DEAD #132 (MR) $2.99 IMA  326,334
2 139.31 DEATH OF WOLVERINE #4 $4.99 MAR  165,582
3 126.92 THOR #1 $3.99 MAR  150,862
4 119.10 DEATH OF WOLVERINE #3 $4.99 MAR  141,567
5 116.92 AVENGERS AND X-MEN AXIS #1 $4.99 MAR  138,966
6 100.00 BATMAN #35 $4.99 DC  118,860
7 97.64 AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #7 $3.99 MAR  116,051
8 83.75 AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #8 $3.99 MAR    99,549
9 81.87 HARLEY QUINN ANNUAL #1 $5.99 DC    97,312
10 74.01 AVENGERS AND X-MEN AXIS #2 $3.99 MAR    87,964
11 71.27 AVENGERS AND X-MEN AXIS #3 $3.99 MAR    84,708
12 63.44 JUSTICE LEAGUE #35 $3.99 DC    75,400
13 63.32 JUSTICE LEAGUE #34 $3.99 DC    75,264
14 62.41 CAPTAIN AMERICA #25 $4.99 MAR    74,183
15 60.18 DEATH OF WOLVERINE LOGAN LEGACY #1 $3.99 MAR    71,532
16 58.52 WALKING DEAD #133 (MR) $2.99 IMA    69,561
17 57.68 HARLEY QUINN #11 $2.99 DC    68,557
18 57.21 WYTCHES #1 (MR) [*] $2.99 IMA    67,996
19 52.70 BATGIRL #35 $2.99 DC    62,644
20 51.38 GUARDIANS OF GALAXY #20 $3.99 MAR    61,072
21 50.51 ALL NEW X-MEN #33 $3.99 MAR    60,032
22 49.28 GUARDIANS 3000 #1 $3.99 MAR    58,574
23 48.72 UNCANNY X-MEN #27 $3.99 MAR    57,908
24 48.65 ROCKET RACCOON #4 $3.99 MAR    57,830
25 48.28 DETECTIVE COMICS #35 $3.99 DC    57,385
26 47.76 AVENGERS #36 $3.99 MAR    56,771
27 46.72 SAGA #24 (MR) $2.99 IMA    55,534
28 45.95 BATMAN AND ROBIN #35 $2.99 DC    54,616
29 45.60 BATMAN ETERNAL #26 $2.99 DC    54,199
30 45.48 DEATHSTROKE #1 $2.99 DC    54,059

Setting aside the freakish Loot Crate numbers of The Walking Dead, this is not the chart you ever expected to see in the biggest sales month ever, with the Harley Quinn annual selling ealy 100,000 copies, Scott Snyder and Jock’s Wytches debuting at #18, and the new, Doc Marten’d Batgirl at #19. More teling to me—Skottie Young’s Rocket Raccoon is still selling 57,000 copies at issues #4. That is not a flash in the pan (Although I will wait for Jason’s monthly analysis for any variable I don’t know of.) The graphic novel chart for October shows a similar lemony fresh scent: the top five are two Batman Books, Ms. Marvel, Hawkeye and Jonathan Hickman’s East of West. Even Paul Pope’s Aurora West made the top 20.

This is the new thing. I doubt that Marvel and DC’s reliance on events will go away, and I similarly doubt that they will cause the Big Two’s fleet to founder in shallow waters. It’s all ADDITIVE. While events are hard to order and offer diminishing returns, they still create a foundation for hundreds of stores.

The point is we finally have something of a healthy diversity in comics. The last time this happened was, ironically, in the switch over from the newsstand to the comics shops. Mainstream comics were experimenting with all kinds of wacky stuff in the late 70s, from Howard the Duck (a big hit in its day) to Jim Starlin. As he “direct sales market” arose, even Fantagraphics titles would sell 50,000 copies a month. Love and Rocket once sold what Rocket Raccoon does now. It only took us 30 years. And where we go from here?

Where we’re going there are no charts. But it looks like clear sailing for days and months to come.

9 COMMENTS

  1. “Before we get into the bad, let’s look at the good. Marvel and DC continue to be the backbone of the industry.”

    OK, I get what he was trying to say (that Disney’s and Warner’s comics divisions are still keeping the primary distribution-and-sales channels commercially viable, and it would pretty much suck if they didn’t) but the fact that it does rely on those two publishers is kind of the opposite of “good”.

  2. “In an industry that’s worth $50 million on average, DC and Marvel account for two thirds of that revenue. ”

    https://www.comicsbeat.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/2014-10-08-13.08.47.jpg
    Comic books @ comics shops: $340 Million
    GNs @ comics shops: $170 Million
    GNs @ book trade: $245 Million
    Digital: $90 Million
    Newsstand: $25 Million

    My concern for DC: they have Vertigo 2.0 (with the new contract, which seems to have helped Image) and superheroes. Can a business survive with little experimentation or innovation?
    My concern for Marvel: they have forgotten how to do licensed comics for kids. Where are the beginning reader comics for K-4? Where are the Disney XD comics? There should have been a Star Wars Rebels comic shipping the same month that Disney premiered the series. Where’s Phineas and Ferb (who HAVE co-starred with the Avengers on TV)? Gravity Falls? The Muppets? Frozen?

    What happens if Marvel and DC suddenly stopped printing monthly comics? (Let’s say they go completely digital…)
    Yeah, a lot of stores would be hurting. But I think some readers would be willing to try something else. I did that when my pull list exceeded my budget; I dropped almost all Marvel titles.
    Would the industry collapse? No. Go look at what mainstream book publishers are printing every month. Go look at the titles showing up on the New York Times bestseller list.

  3. @ Torsten,
    If Marvel and DC suddenly stopped printing monthly comics? Yes, the industry would collapse because comic shops would collapse. There would be no more hobby market. The only outlet for those sales would be conventions and a few toys on a side aisle at Target. And Disney already looks like they’re experimenting with this in the form of Big Hero 6. They are doing their best to distance themselves from the original comic for a lot of reasons but one of the lessons they will learn is that they don’t need a printed comic to make a successful superhero film.

  4. @Jason – I agree. It’s definitely the opposite of good. I interviewed Eric Stephenson a while back, and he had a line in the interview that perfectly encapsulates my thoughts on it, and I’m sure your thoughts.

    “If I expanded on it there it’d have been a bit clearer, but having a Big Two is not a sign of a healthy industry. Any industry that is dominated by like two businesses – whether you’re talking about comics or anything – that means if one of those businesses goes down, you’re fucked.”

    The rest of the piece I walked through how other publishers are raising the sales floor and making the whole current level more sustainable, and hopefully they bring it to the point where there’s more balance across publishers. That will take a while though.

    @PRM – Thanks for answering Torsten in a far better fashion than I likely would!

  5. @Chris – I actually intentionally didn’t include it. I decided to make the charts everything within the 2005-2014 10 year block. Arbitrary, sure, but I couldn’t include EVERY event, so that seemed like a reasonable cutoff point.

  6. The events are losing sales because, where they used to happen once a year, they now happen back-to-back and will likely soon start to overlap. They are essentially a line-wide team-up book whose title and numbering change every 6-12 months and the buyers are starting to understand that.

    I also doubt regular comic publishing will disappear anytime soon for major characters like Spider-man, Batman, Superman, the Avengers, etc. The reason I say this is because comic writers and artists fall outside the guild/union standards and rules for the film industry, and so the Big Two get big ideas cheaply from the comics every month without having to shell out a dumptruck full of money to a Hollywood ideaman, scriptwriter, or storyboard artist.

  7. “[T]his is not the chart you ever expected to see in the biggest sales month ever, with the Harley Quinn annual selling ealy 100,000 copies, Scott Snyder and Jock’s Wytches debuting at #18, and the new, Doc Marten’d Batgirl at #19. More teling to me—Skottie Young’s Rocket Raccoon is still selling 57,000 copies at issues #4”

    Okay, some of that is definitely new. But Image titles of hot Big Two creators have sold as good or better before. Remember titles like The Darkness or BattleChasers: when hot Big Two creators do non-superhero stuff at Image, they have sold before, and to be honest I was expecting Wytches to hit higher than #18. And Batgirl at #19? Look no further than a couple of years ago, when Gail Simone made the title a top 20 hit month after month during the first year or so of the New 52.

    Image has had a higher marketshare than this before, also. Again, look to the ’90s. I definitely agree that the company is putting out better comics than ever before, with a more diverse lineup as well. But sometimes I think people forget just how big Image (and Valiant, for that matter) were in the ’90s. This is hardly the first time another company has made significant inroads on Big Two territory. There were months in the ’90s when Image had a better marketshare than DC!

    That’s not to shortchange the take-away messages of this article. There absolutely is something new going on, more than there has been in years. Yes. But not all of this stuff is so unprecedented.

    Also, why you continue to ignore Deadpool is beyond me. His sales are spread over more titles, but he is obviously Marvel’s version of Harley Quinn and sells more merchandise than pretty much any other character created in the last 49 years.

  8. >>>>Okay, some of that is definitely new. But Image titles of hot Big Two creators have sold as good or better before. Remember titles like The Darkness or BattleChasers: when hot Big Two creators do non-superhero stuff at Image, they have sold before, and to be honest I was expecting Wytches to hit higher than #18. And Batgirl at #19? Look no further than a couple of years ago, when Gail Simone made the title a top 20 hit month after month during the first year or so of the New 52.

    Are YOU ACTUALLY trying to say that the comics market is the same now as it was in 1996 when The Darkness launched and 1998 when Battlechasers launched?

    Look I wish it was the 80s again too so I could watch SNL when it was good too, but that doesn’t change the fact that times change.

Comments are closed.

Exit mobile version