How do you determine the value of a comic?
This is a question that comic retailers wrestle with every day in one form or another, and all of us have different approaches in determining an answer. The best way I can describe my method is by telling you about a series called Blackacre.
Blackacre had the (mis)fortune of coming out in the wake of Saga. Buoyed by hordes of speculators attempting to nab the next big Image Comic, the first issue sold out immediate… to a tune of an estimated 10,000 copies. The series wrapped up prematurely at issue 11, and the last issue that was measured by the sales charts (#10) sold a little over 2,500 copies. What would you say the first issue of that is worth? My answer to that is complicated.
The first issue of Blackacre changed my life. In the opening pages, the creators show a character lecturing an audience about how the world “came to an end”. Spoiler alert: it didn’t happen all at once, but slowly over time. The lecturer pointed at various parts of history where warning signs were ignored in place of immediate comfort, and posited that late 20th/early 21st century humans loved zombie fiction and post bomb-drop narratives because it excused us from dealing with our contributions to decline.
This idea still lingers in my brain whenever I watch the news or crank on the air conditioning. It whispers in my ear in those weaker moments when I see a wrong I can confront and let it pass uncommented. We are the tools of our own destruction. But god damn, wouldn’t it be great if that plague killed us all? Then at least would could blame Brad and his stupid experiments with monkeys.
Anyway, there’s a good chance you’d be able to find a copy of Blackacre #1 for cheap. The story didn’t wrap up as… much like the lecturer warned, indifference led to that world’s demise. Some would say that comic isn’t worth much, but it’s one of the most important things I’ve read in my life. So, what’s the value?
by Brandon Schatz — with edits and contributions by Danica LeBlanc
This industry has a volatile relationship with the idea of “value”. On some days, value is strictly numeric and monetary. How much product is moving? What’s the profit margin? Are things trending up or down? On other days, that value is something different: what experiences are we providing? What connections are we forming? What stories are we telling? This push and pull informs most, if not all decisions that are made in this industry by publishers and retailers alike.
As individuals all look at the value of projects from different angles, a balance is always struck between the need to monetize, and the need to entertain… because without one, you can’t have the other. A soulless project can provide monetization in the short term, but without a long term connection, that money is going to dry up fast. Conversely, some of the most soulful projects on the stands can’t exist without being aware of certain aspects of monetization.
The true art behind the business of comics comes from balancing this push and pull. Trouble tends to arise when someone else’s balance is threatening to throw yours off. That trouble is compounded through what tends to be a complete lack of empathy for how someone else values comics. It’s a huge thing. To illustrate this, let’s take a look at some of the recent happenings at DC Comics, and how retailers have reacted to the news.
DC INK, DC ZOOM and BLACK LABEL
Over the past few months, DC has announced several new imprints – but these ones have been getting quite a bit of attention for discarding the current single issue serialization model. With the Ink and Zoom lines, the company is squarely targeting the young adult market using the format many of those readers are most comfortable with: the graphic novel. Both have a smaller trim size that your typical single issue of comics, and are devised to match existing high profile offerings in that realm, such as their own DC Super Hero Girls books (which will continue under the Zoom imprint) and all of Raina Telgemeier’s output. These books were announced quite far in advance, much like other such products in the book market are, making very clear where these books are being marketed.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Black Label line, which is said to be focusing on premium storytelling, in a prestige format that will be taller and wider than your typical comic release. These thicker, square bound comics will come out on a bi-monthly schedule with an emphasis on perennial storytelling and art that doesn’t need to meet the demands of a twice-monthly or monthly grind. As part of this line, DC is moving over titles such as New Frontier, Kingdom Come and All Star Superman over to the imprint for new editions. The intent is clear: putting effort and looser deadlines into attempting to build the next wave of perennial products that will sell forever in the direct market and beyond.
While many retailers were quite pleased with these announcements, several were not. In regards to the Zoom and Ink lines, many demanded that these stories be serialized so that more money could be made (with cries of “graphic novels never sell!” bouncing around in the echo chambers). With Black Label, the complaints came more from the formatting standpoint, with several stating “odd sized comics never sell”. In both instances, DC is looking at the current form of the market, and they find it lacking. Mounting evidence has shown them that the current single issue market is good for short term gain, with the odd product gaining traction for any solid length of time. Meanwhile, in the lucrative book market, you have folks like Dav Pilkey raking in cash and titles like Ms Marvel, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and the DC Superhero Girls selling extremely well in shops and book fairs alike. And you have titles like New Frontier, Kingdom Come and All Star Superman providing a constant bit of cash flow, instead of disappearing into obscurity. They look at these books, at these data points, and they compare them to the data coming in from the direct market, where numbers are continuing to disappoint as volume and variants keep the plates spinning. Why not try and build some new structures with more sound building materials, drawing from the worlds of popular YA and well regarded current creators? Both of these moves are extremely smart, and are more forward looking than another Batman ongoing whose stories will be forgotten with the next sweeping event.
And speaking of which…
A MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE
Last week, you probably heard the squall of disgruntled retailers when the ending of Batman #50 was spoiled by the New York Times. Heidi has a good run down of what happened over here, including a bit of business from DC rep John Cunningham that I won’t run here because… well, as she says in the article, his words were leaked from a private retailer forum designed to be a safe communication space between DC and direct market retailers. But I can tell you exactly what I thought when the news broke and retailers lost their minds:
Are you all new here?!
Seriously. Let’s tackle this in chunks. If you’re a retailer worth your salt, you should know this game by now. It’s been the same for years now – or at least dating back to when Captain America died. When something big is happening in comics, the media is going to pick it up – and thanks to unscrupulous retailers, the info always hits the internet early. Now, companies are just trying to get ahead of that and control the message – because there’s nothing worse than someone messing up the marketing for your carefully planned event.
Reps from both Marvel and DC have confirmed this is why the news cycle is the way it is: someone looking for a few cheap clicks, who nabbed their books early at their drop point, is going to release the info and ruin things for everyone anyway – might as well get some value out of that spoiler if it is going to happen.
Now, beyond the “spoiler” of it all, there’s the idea that retailers were banking on this wedding going through. When the news came out that the wedding wouldn’t go as planned… wow, were folks mad. I won’t get into what was said in the secret retailer forums because… well, what is stated there should really stay there. But if you look around the public parts of retailer communications, you’ll see a lot of angry messages from folks wondering how they’re supposed to sell this comic they ordered off the promise of a wedding. And really, I can’t believe this needs to be said to folks who have been through how many event cycles and bait-and-switches, but these things never work out. It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but at some point, a superhero wedding or status quo is going to be rendered moot. It will all go back to the status quo. People will know Matt Murdock is Daredevil, and then they won’t. Bruce Banner will be dead, and then he won’t be. We were promised a wedding and… well, there was a wedding, but there wasn’t a marriage. And we were never promised a marriage.
This seems to be the disconnect: retailers wanted a great monetary value for this book. DC saw the opportunity to get great monetary value, and did so. They also delivered on exactly what they promised. Assumptions were made. People got mad. Midnight release events were cancelled in huffs. And then something funny happened: the book. Still. Sold.
After all the bile and vitriol, most stores are reporting fantastic sell through rates for the book. Many are saying that large chunks of people who came to pick up the book never heard about the spoiler. And do you want to know why? Most people don’t go looking for this kind of information. They really don’t. Retailers do (or should) because that knowledge helps them sell comics. Some of you do because you feel you get value from that kind of information. Most people don’t.
In the end, I think DC made the right call during every step of Batman #50’s lead up and execution. They built up excitement in the story and in the end… the creative team delivered a package that not only acknowledged the build, but built the next act… and gave people a story hook to come back with. The retailers who are still upset? By and large, they’re the ones who were placing more of a monetary value on the book, rather than a narrative value. In my opinion, their balance was off. As Brian Hibbs is fond of saying, we sell stories, not lottery tickets.
DOOM RIDES A GIANT SIZED HORSE
And finally, there is the still-ongoing drama that is DC’s production of 100 Page comics for Wal-Mart. The aforementioned Mr. Hibbs wrote an article about this just last week, and it is safe to say we are looking at these books from wildly different perspectives. He’s coming at it from the mindset of someone who inarguably helped shape the direct market over a long tenure in the business. I’m looking at it as someone who came into comics retail at the tail end of Civil War in 2007 with the direct market fully formed.
I can’t see a downside to these comics existing. Through the dubious science of asking a lot of people and running a few online polls, I’ve discovered that a majority of people obtained their first comic from somewhere other than a comic shop. I personally bought my first comic from the comic stand at the pharmacy my mom worked at. Comics stopped appearing on newsstands for many reasons. Publishers don’t really care for that market because the product is returnable, and that eats into the profit margin. Newsstands didn’t like comics because they had a lower price point, and higher priced magazines with similar sell-through could be put into those slots and make more money.
What I see DC doing here seems pretty elegant. They know the history, so they know that they need something a bit more substantial than your single issue of comics, but they’re also looking for a high level of sell through – so they add 12 pages of new content that is appearing in these books first. Not only that, but they’re putting some big name creators on there like Brian Michael Bendis and Tom King… starting on the 3rd issues. Suddenly, this product is visible to an audience who would have – and has – ignored products like this in the past. So what happens? Wide scale reports of complete sell through. Were there low print runs? Almost definitely. Do you know how you get a place like Wal-Mart to order a bigger print run? Sell through, and sell through quick. Those algorithms are going to spit out bigger and bigger numbers, possibly getting into more and more locations and suddenly, you have a sustainable product tailor made for a casual audience. Are they using the existing audience of readers to do this? You’re damn right they are – and they should. They’re doing the exact same thing as they build out with lines like Zoom and Ink and Black Label. They’re using events like the wedding of Batman and Catwoman and the whole of the twice-monthly Rebirth line-up to monetize the future… and they would be stupid not to – because there is value to these projects. There is value to outreach. It might not make a direct market retailer money now, but it sure as hell will in the future.
THE END IS NEAR
I want to wrap things up by circling back to the idea of the swift apocalypse, and the reality of the slow decline. While the easiest thing to do is ply it to the larger world today, I sometimes think about it in terms of the comic book industry. When companies like DC make moves like this, you see a lot of retailers come out of the woodwork, claiming these moves are being done to cause some kind of deliberate harm. There’s a toxic idea that the direct market is owed something for it’s place in history and… I don’t know. Maybe there is. Maybe I’m too new that I can’t see it. I didn’t work in those trenches. But from where I stand, the direct market is owed nothing. As a retailer, I would laugh in the face of Marvel if they told me I owed it to the X-Men to place more orders for their books because they once helped float comic shops. All ideas have their time. All delivery methods do as well.
The future of comics is larger than the direct market. It always has been and it always will be. And these days? The market is letting us know that something needs to change. The direct market is shrinking… but the industry remains strong. What does that tell you? When you look at the numbers, what do you see? The writing has been on the wall for quite some time, and it is time to change. Because if we don’t, the direct market will disappear, and it won’t be a sudden apocalypse. There might be a sudden event that precipitates it, but the warnings have been here all along. They’re staring us in the face.
If you value the industry, you’ll do better. If you value the industry, you’ll change – and if you don’t, you’ll soon find that the industry will no longer find value in you.