Retailer warns that comics are dying again

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Uh oh, comics are dying again. We went a good while without being dying, but it’s official, they are dying. 

The diagnosis was delivered by retailer Phil Boyle in a piece at ICV2 entitled “COMIC STORES 2023: ‘IT’S NEARLY 2024 AND I’M MORE THAN CONCERNED.”

Boyle runs a Florida-based chain of shops, Coliseum of Comics, which is the largest comics and games retailer in the southeast. He’s a comics veteran, a smart businessman, and certainly someone who knows the industry. (His thoughts were originally published on a retailer message board and my DMs lit up immediately.) His message is grim:

Marvel and DC, you blew it.  Or maybe you just succeeded in your plan to kill off an American art form of which you’ve been the able stewards of for 80 years.  It’s baffling that something so prolific was ushered to the chopping block and executed.  Strong accusation?  No, just the unvarnished truth as new comic sales find new lows.

Worse, you’ve gutted an army of passionate retailers who’ve worked in this biz for decades for close to poverty wages in many cases.  To put such a system of advocates in every state and major city in America, and around much of the world, would cost a fortune.  But it happened organically to your benefit, and in gratitude, you’ve strip-mined what little profit there was in favor of short-term goals and chasing corporate bonuses.

We, the retailers, cultivated the fanbase the same way the under-appreciated creators created the precious IPs that have made their parent companies obscene amounts of money.  It was a biosystem of fans feeding off the Wednesday excitement, eager to spend money on not only the comics that drew them in, but the T-shirts, lunch boxes, and mousepads with Spider-Man or Batman on them.  Fan, retailers, and creators, have all suffered under the recent corporate mandates.

You’ll recognize some of the same warnings and anxieties expressed by Brian Hibbs in his Tilting at Windmills columns. Indeed, Hibbs took to Facebook for his own response – one that literally sent him to the ER when he began to feel ill while writing it. So first of all, feel better and take care of yourself, Brian. We need you!

What with our fractured discourse at the moment, lack of sales charts, and general weirdness in the world, it’s a little hard to discern the reality of where we’re at with all this. I sat in a room at the Javits Center for eight hours and heard all the smartest people in comics talking about the future of comics and nobody seemed to think the industry is dying, but I’m not going to deny that there is a lot of anxiety and (apparently) bad sales out there, and retailers are concerned. And their concerns are certainly valid. The recent closure of one iconic comics shop in New York City and announced closure of two more iconic shops in LA are not good news and add to the gloom and doom. 

Boyle’s concerns are the usual: too many variant covers, periodical prices are too high, prices undercut by online retailers, too many new characters (!), and poor quality stories. I can’t argue with any of those, honestly. They are realistic concerns. 

The most controversial part of Boyle’s warning was the part where he took up familiar C-gate complaints that comics are “proselytizing.” 

The characters are iconic for a reason.  The movies never got traction until they leaned into what made the characters decades-long successes.  Change is good for story but inevitably, you need to touch base with what brought them.  Gender swaps, sexual orientation changes, and outright changes to who’s in the suit are short-term headline grabbers but without long-term sales with very few exceptions.

Tell stories without proselytizing.  I’ve beat this drum for a decade and more but here we are, chasing away a large portion of our customer base with every new tale as they want entertainment, not a serialized sermon.

I’ll say what I always say when this argument is made: have you ever actually READ Silver and Bronze Age comics, a golden era that many pine for? The villains were Richard Nixon, giant capitalist corporations (Roxxon) and sinister government agencies. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby filled their stories with all kinds of messages about tolerance and diversity. Mainstream comics have always been created by people who were mostly liberal-leaning and contained mostly liberal politics, back in the days when they sold hundreds of thousands of copies on NEWSSTANDS, the era that retailers would most like to go back to. 

As for gender swapping…Christ Almighty, have you ever heard of the the MARVEL FAMILY? Of the SUPERMAN FAMILY? Or SUPERGIRL, who was introduced in 1958 by those noted woke mind activists Otto Binder and Al Plastino? Or BATGIRL? OR OG BATWOMAN? Or SHE-HULK? Comics have always cannibalized popular characters with new gender-swapped or aged-down spins. Or replaced old ones with new ones? Last I heard there were TWO FLASHES, guys! Maybe even MORE THAN two! My God can you imagine what Twitter would have been like in 1956, when Julius Schwartz introduced a NEW FLASH, Barry Allen? Oh the humanity. 

Boyle’s culture wars rhetoric has eclipsed his more sensible, reality-based concern. It got pushed back in another FB post by Jamal Igle. I commented with a shorter version of the above, and another commenter complained that the 5G characters were going to replace the better-known character in the original plan. But that didn’t happen. Mark Waid responded to that comment with this:

“New fangled gender swapping”–John, I just went through the solicits for the last few months and I cannot find one single instance of DC or Marvel currently publishing a book starring a “gender-swapped” character. Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Thor…every single one of those characters has the same exact alter-ego that they did twenty years ago. Where is all this “gender-swapping” happening?

As far as I can tell, the gender-swapping is actually happening in…..the MCU, still the most popular movie series of all time, and a product that comics retailers greatly wish Marvel and DC could capitalize on more. 

So let’s set that aside for a bit, and go back to Brian Hibbs. He wrote (Sorry if I’m scooping a future TAW Brian, but you need to get better first.)

Now, I fully and completely disavow the parts of this opinion that are the “culture war” stuff — sales have been dropping in lefty-ass San Francisco too, and I don’t perceive its because of LGBTQ+ characters or “gender-swapping” or any of the other bits that Phil undercut his own argument with.

But on the rest, I think Phil is pretty much right on the target:

Periodical saddle-stitched comics ARE on the verge of “pricing themselves out of the market”.

There ARE far far far too many line expansions for particular IP that are *causing* readers to drop off even the “parent book” of that same IP.

There ARE far too many SKUs being offered per title in the form of variant covers whose *sole* marketing is Fear-of-Missing-Out (FOMO) buying from consumers and retailers (seriously: when I sold the second store, I spent MONTHS working to educate the new shop runner about FOMO on variants; he immediately began order for 1:100s, and so on, and was left with massive amounts of overstock. He closed within a year)

There DOES appear (to my eyes) that the art of writing a satisfying done-in-one story in 22 pages, that also builds to a longer narrative is very much a lost art, and that corporate considerations make it look from the outside like there is much more concern about hitting quarterly revenue demands, rather than producing the best possible work each and every time.

There ARE “too many” new characters being introduced in Marvel & DC comics without sufficient workshopping, in my opinion. This is a function of a period a few quarters ago when all of the spec sites were pretty much all over “New Character alert!”, so M&D pumped up the volume, but that ship long long sailed. New characters are great — Batman can’t ONLY fight the Joker — but if your job was to read solicitation copy like retailer’s are, it sure feels like a lot of “trying to follow market trends” on the balance. Which never works for very long (See: the entire history of comics publishing!!)

I’ve written about the decline of periodical comics here endlessly for the last 20 years or so, but the title of this particular chapter might be “Why is manga eating US comics lunch?” I think I’ll have to circle back to that in another column, but a few observations on what everyone seems to agree is a decline in the popularity of Marvel and DC periodical comics. 

A lot of the subtext of Boyle and Hibbs complaints is that the direct market has been forsaken by Marvel and DC. In the case of DC, the sad fact is that their entire sales and marketing team was stripped to the bone over the last three years. And it wasn’t their choice, as far as I can make out. DC’s parent company, Warner Bros Discovery (né AT&T) has no interest in the direct market and its success. All this fist-shaking at DC Comics is somewhat pointless. Maybe they could do a few things better, but a massive investment in the DM for cash-strapped WBD doesn’t seem likely. 

I wrote about Marvel and their malaise a few months ago. I’m not sure who is in Marvel’s “direct sales” market besides the head honcho, David Gabriel, but Marvel is stuck on the capitalist hamster wheel of ever rising profits, and that means cutting page rates, keeping overhead low and not really investing in the DM.  

And as I’m fond of quoting, about ten years ago at a Diamond retailer summit, a retailer complained to Gabriel about all the variant covers and Gabriel responded “When you stop ordering them, we’ll stop making them.” You can’t get any clearer than that. 

What I’m getting at is that complaints about Marvel and DC putting more into the DM should be aimed at WBD and Disney and, sadly, won’t get too far. If sales are as dire as people are making out, maybe some action will be taken, but how we get there isn’t clear.

I’m sort of puzzled by both Boyle and Hibbs complaining about “new characters”. I guess I don’t follow the speculation trends that Hibbs mentioned closely enough, but…isn’t the main problem that we NEED new characters and new takes on old ones? More than 20 years ago when I worked at DC Comics, I fretted about the lack of popular new characters aside from Harley Quinn (created in animation) and Deadpool, who were then a little more than five years old. Looking at some recent Marvel solicitations, the new characters are mostly spin-offs – Spider Boy, Capwolf (species swapping!) – and a few made popular by the movies – Spider-Gwen and White Widow, which I thought is what would HELP sales. 

Anyway, some vibrant new characters that younger readers could embrace as their own, with exciting NEW adventures and myths would be the best possible thing for Marvel and DC! It may come as a shock to you, but in 1975 when Giant Size X-Men came out, it introduced a lot of NEW CHARACTERS! 

To me, a more germane question is…why does today’s comics market not allow new characters to catch on? Wein, Claremont, and Cockrum did a great job with the X-Men, but it was hardly the single burst of creativity in comics history. 

To answer that question, you might need to look at the entire editorial process at the Big Two, and the mindset of creators in that process. Hibbs used the term “workshopped” which I might call “development.” And again…I’m not even sure where to begin to analyze this. 

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But for that, we have…Mark Millar! While I was writing this in the middle of the night, Millar was just getting up to hit the links, apparently, and he’s been generous in giving his advice to the industry during this crisis. So I’ve been watching his Twitter thread roll out in real time. I think everything in this is kind of gonzo, but hell, let’s grease the wheels with some hot takes. He writes:

I don’t have any skin in this game as I’ve worked elsewhere for a long time, but I’ve got a lot of pals at Marvel and DC & hate to see them struggling like this. I offer this advice in good faith in a bid to help super-charge both freelance deals & the corporations themselves…

 It’s crass to talk money, but it’s also shocking that the people writing and drawing the top books are earning a FRACTION of what my peers and I earned on those titles 15 years ago. I made $1,000 a page plus royalties, but I’m hearing from guys on $90 a page and that’s criminal.

Now the comic market has collapsed in the past 5 years and these companies have less money to pay staff and freelancers, but what I’m proposing is really simple economics and could massively help them both get in the black again. Are you ready?

They don’t have the money at the moment to jack up their page rates, but it would cost them literally zero if they revolutionised their royalty deals. For example, right now both companies typically pay around 2% royalty on all sales over, broadly speaking, 50,000 sales.

Given that just a handful of Marvel and DC books sell over 50,000 copies a month this means almost no royalties are paid out. The number is almost abstract and as sales decline this seems to be a race to the bottom in terms of talent they can afford.

My suggestion is that if ONE of these companies swaps that 2% royalty for a FIFTY-FIFTY split with the creative team on all sales over, say, 60,000 copies they will send a bolt of electricity through the industry and bring in the most commercial freelancers in the biz again.

A creator can make decent money on even a modestly selling creator owned book, but it would be absolutely dwarfed by a 50% split on X-Men or Spider-Man with sales taken into the stratosphere. They could make literally millions per year again for both both company and talent.

The beauty of this is that it would cost the Big 2 nothing as it’s zero fiscal outlay upfront. The double-win is that they’re getting 50% of a potentially HUGE number instead of a spiral to the depths where they are right now.

Freelancers, of course, would be delighted as their earning potential would spike overnight and as the companies balance the books again they could start to invest in proper page rate and much-needed new talent.

 As is, I think the direct market is a couple of years away from complete collapse. American-made comics are 9% of the American market, which is insane. It needs radical surgery to fix it and this would cost nothing.

 All the indie companies are hurting because nobody’s coming in for Marvel or DC books anymore. Every day we hear about more stores closing. Whoever does this first will have a talent migration like the industry has never seen. Who will get there first, Marvel or DC?

 All they have to do is follow the plan. Great creators make great comics and deserve great pay. The result on great characters will be great sales.

  

Alessiodanesi responded: 

 Keep a good page rate is a must. You can’t do work for hire and be paid just with high royalties. Nobody knows the real profits of the books. I think this proposal can be good in short time but can transform the comics business in a “Olympus has fallen” situation quickly.

To which Millar responded:  52m

The opposite. It will bring back the commercial creators lost to Hollywood, get the companies back in the black and increase upfront rates for everyone. The alternative is the status quo, which is unacceptable.

Millar seems to be agitating for a return to glory by bringing big names back to comics but…well, I’m not sure they would bring back the younglings, either. 

Two more links and then I’ve got to hit the sack. If you want more gloom and doom, this interview with the owner of the soon-to-close Geoffrey’s Comics and Hi De Ho offers tons of it:

If you had to ballpark a number of people who used to come in each Wednesday compared to today…

Like a hundred people, if not more. And people would hang out and talk. And now it’s kind of like, I’m just going to come in, buy my stuff, and go home. It’s less than half, it’s sometimes less than a third, or even less than a quarter of what it used to be, in terms of just talking about Wednesday.

So what do you think is going on here? I mean, you talked about Amazon, but obviously people aren’t buying their new comics on Wednesday from Amazon. So what are you hearing from people?

I mean, the pull numbers are dropping in terms of how many books people buy. Even the pull customers that we retain have a smaller list than they used to. We used to have people who would come in and their pull list was every DC book or every Marvel book. And there’s nobody like that anymore.

So what do you think this means for the comic book industry? Does it feel like things are reaching a breaking point?

I really think they are. I don’t think it’s going to be just us. I think we’re going to be hearing about more and more stores contracting or closing altogether. It’s just not what it was. And I mean, the numbers reflect that. We can see the numbers of comic book sales that are increasing are not in American monthly comics: like, graphic novel sales are increasing, but monthly sales are decreasing. Manga sales are increasing, but American comic books are stagnant. There are a lot of numbers to look at, and the numbers aren’t necessarily looking very good.

The pool is getting larger and shallower, and you have to carry more titles and sell them less. And that leaves very little room for mistakes, right? Like when we were selling 100 copies of X-Men, having 10 extras – okay, we didn’t make as much as we could, but we still were profitable. Whereas now, if you have 10 copies left over, you lost money on that book. And just it seems to keep getting flatter and flatter. And that is just hard. Unless you are perfect – and without returnability, no one is perfect. The thought experiment that I often have been using with this is, if someone comes in with $5 and says, “Hey, I want to try out comics,” I don’t know– I don’t know what to sell them.

And here’s an eerie “Death of Speedy” type flashback to…Phil Boyle! On January 7, 2020, in another world, he wrote another column for ICv2, laying out the problems and solutions of the world that no longer exists. 

PROBLEM ONE Here’s where these elements tie together. As costs and the number of titles have risen and surpassed the minimum wage gap, it’s become exponentially more expensive to stock new comics. Remember that stat above about 49% or retailers living on very low or lower income? That group is the group with the least information about a book and the highest cost to put it on our shelves HOPING it will sell. And hoping we ordered the cover that each customer wants. And hoping the other 750 covers sell as well.  One copy of each book & cover for Nov. is $3327. Batman and X-Men sell many more than a single copy. Throw in 9 covers on Marvel title #74 or a recent 100+ covers for 7 titles(!?!) from Dynamite and it starts adding up quickly. Too quickly to stock every cover of every book. This is the drive-home point: retailers at large do not have the financial resources to stock the shelves with every option hoping we picked the right cover. I have some pretty savvy comic fans shopping at my stores who know what they like and let us know. I also have a lot of walk-in folks who are looking for something after FOC orders have gone in.

 

With that, the sun is about to rise, and I must rest up for another installment. The Comics Crisis of ‘24 is surely the hot topic of the day….and whether the Direct market is truly doomed, or just readjusting is something we’re going to find out together. 

 

 

 

Heidi MacDonald
Heidi MacDonaldhttps://www.comicsbeat.com/
Heidi MacDonald is the editor-in-chief of The Beat and an award winning author and editor. She is the co-author of The Secret Teachings of a Comic Book Master.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Surely the real story is not that the DC/Marvel dominated direct market is declining but that it has survived as long as it has. It’s a network of poorly run shops (with a handful of notable exceptions) selling an antiquated format that have survived as glorified clubhouses for socially inept, now ageing man-children for years.

    For God’s sake let it die!!

    Then the IP owners can get on with reproducing classics from the library in all sorts of formats; the talented cohort of modern creators can stop wasting everybody’s time applying their sensibilities to children’s characters from the 60s and get on with producing new ideas through mainstream publishers; and comics can grow and thrive outside the confines of ‘fandom’.

  2. I’m not a current retailer or creator. I did work in sales at Diamond at one time (my trainer was Filip Sablik, now a big deal with Boom!, which is still think is cool!) and I worked at a LCS for a couple years in the early 2000’s, but I’m not sure much of that experience is relevant now. So I can only speak to my own purchasing decisions as a consistent Marvel and DC reader since I’ve been reading comics for the last 30 years:

    I love comics. As a kid/teenager, I’m sure my Mom was dropping $100 a month on books and I was getting 50-60 books a month. I came in around the time of Death of Superman and I never stopped reading outside of a few month here or there of the years when I’d be out of work, and even then I’d still keep up with a few “essential” titles. Creatively, there were times when I was more engaged or less, but there have always been good books to buy.

    The thing that changed my LCS buying habits were simply rising prices. Once books started moving to 2.99 and higher on a consistent basis, I couldn’t afford the same amount of books. I then found DCBS and began ordering most of my books through them because the discounts available were 3 times as much as what my LCS offered. Sure, the shipping costs sucked, but being willing to wait for my books once a month saved me a ton.

    Also, as I got older, I had less time and was less inclined to hang around and talk shop, especially since I already felt guilty since I was buying less product there. Now, as life gets more expensive and I have more responsibilities, I have had to continue to trim my list. Again, patience helps because the unlimited subscription services DC and Marvel provide help me keep up the stuff I like but I don’t worry about being “spoiled”, whereas I still buy the books that I’m the most attached to or are the most timely in content.

    So, what would be the takeaways for sales? The biggest ways to get me to stop buying are line-wide crossovers. No one has the capital to keep up with them all, they typically don’t include the current writers on the books, and rarely impact the current storylines I’m following. I understand it completely from the publisher perspective since it gives the creators a break and time to catch up. As a retailer, they seem like a nightmare and I would probably barely order them outside of my subs.

    Ultimately, I think cost is the biggest factor. If books are going to be as expensive as they are, you need to put the best creative teams on and let them tell that story. Because, if your budget is $40.00, but the X-men are telling a line-wide story that costs $80 to follow completely, then you just aren’t going to read X-men until it’s collected or available on the subscription service. Cost also means that audiences will be less likely to try new things and/or get to know new creators, because the cost of not enjoying that title is so high. who wants to spend $24.00-30.00 on a six issue run for book where you didn’t like the team or, the worst, a story that served no lasting purpose other than to service a continuity move. And to Millar’s point, as those big named creators move away to new publishers and creator owned, the audience is less connected to your product.

    But, then you run into, how theses creators are getting paid, how you afford to publish, ect. Unfortunately, I don’t know that answer beyond maybe the customers need to become trained to see the monthly comic book habit as digital and the comic stores become more like book stores to sell the collections, while “floppies” can be ordered by the stores for subscribers. Comic book shops may have to diversify their product lines and become more “book” stores or, comics and records/toys/coffee/ect and make them warmer more inviting places to hang out an browse.

  3. Mark,
    I am guessing you were the “kid that was never invited to birthday parties by his classmates”

    Ebbs and Flows, are part of any retail business , especially businesses that in many cases have around 20 years plus.

    The elephant in the room , is how is your local economy? Our local economy hasn’t been this strong , since the mid 60s.

    Thus stores are thriving, 40 stores+ within a hour drive from my home.
    All but 2 are thriving. 5 have expanded their present locations.

    This is a huge country and so often retailers forget this. And believe their situation, is the way it is everywhere in the country.

  4. Heidi, why is Mark Millar’s proposed scheme for 50% royalties on comics sold “gonzo?” You just sort of let that hang there without elaboration.

    I think it’s a sensible proposal for attracting storytellers capable of selling comics, while incentivising the corpos to hire storytellers who actually sell comics. This way, the readers are happy (or else they wouldn’t spend their income on the stories), the creators are rewarded for merit, and the publishers aren’t forced to ration money that might not be made back on a bad book- they just have to sacrifice some short-term profit margins for long-term growth.

    As far as I understand it, the only victims in Millar’s scenario are the comic creator who fails to make comics people wish to purchase and the publisher who wishes to siphon 98% of the return on every single comic. Is there an angle I’m missing?

  5. Heidi, I was reading those 1960s comics in real time. My experience and life lesson takeaways received from the stories by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were apparently very different from yours. And my friends and I were more enthusiastic about the medium back then. Unfortunately, for a supposed mass medium, it’s appealing to less and less of the masses nowadays.
    I blame the Big 2 for that. When Batman premiered in 1/1966, the comic books at the newsstand reflected what was on the screen and visa-versa. There will never be an event, within ANY of our lifetimes, like the cultural cinema phenomenon of the past ten years, and they didn’t translate it into greater sales for the source material. Not only did all that NOT move the needle, sales and interest continue to wane.

  6. “As far as I can tell, the gender-swapping is actually happening in…..the MCU, still the most popular movie series of all time”

    They coughed up an entire series to set up a female Hawkeye that, as far as we know, will never be heard from again.

    They spent TWO years building up a female Loki that inspires as much passion in the fan-base as a mashed potato sandwich, and the chances of her ever making it to the big screen are scant at best.

    The female Black Panther movie made half what the first one did, and effectively killed the franchise.

    Female Thor gave us the most loathed MCU film of all time (until today, of course– Nov 10– “The Marvels” premiered).

    They spent all of Quantumania setting up his insufferable daughter as his successor, who is widely regarded as most cringe-worthy part of the film, even more than MODOK. That’s a truly stunning feat.

    The Iron Heart series was halfway done when somebody high up apparently called all the cast and crew together, and announced “Sorry guys, just go on home. And remember– mention this show to no one. Memory hole it. This never happened”.

    Now watch the entire infrastructure collapse, repeating beat-for-beat the exact same mistakes that imploded the comic industry.

    You’ll know the circle is irreversibly squared when they replace Kevin Feige with Heather Antos.

  7. Time was different then. When they brought out a wave of new books in 1968 they didn’t market them by jeering at the people who bought Fantastic Four 1 and were still reading.

  8. Forget “Wokeness”. Comic books are inaccessible and much too expensive.

    And why? Much of it stems from the massive insecurity of the industry itself; verbalized extensively by Joe Quesada early on in his run as creative head, the comics professionals and fans alike desperately and pathologically yearned for that elusive “mainstream acceptance”. So you started getting ‘Seasons’ and ‘Director’s Cuts’ of comics. It’s laughable- Alan Moore already told us comic books have an unlimited budget compared to television and film. But the comics industry needed to be seen JUST LIKE CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED TELEVISION SHOWS.

    So we get garish computer coloring that is drab and empty and we get glossy paper so that comic books can be seen as a sophisticated package. USA Today is all on newsprint and has more paper than a comic book and is still $2.00. Just saying.

    This is a self-inflicted wound. We do not owe comic stores anything; while they were screwed over by the Big 2 in some regards, they enabled the hype and event train for far too long. The chickens eventually come home to roost. This is evolution.

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