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.

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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.

You didn’t think you were getting out of this without a gif, did you?

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.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Every time I see that cover for Mera: Tidebreaker I look up when it’s coming out (because I forget things) and then get bummed for a second when I see 2019.

    Also I agree with the words up there. I like these Canadians.

  2. Even within the Direct Market, the single issue is being marginalised. You know the collection containing the floppie you are holding in your hand will be coming out within about half a year or so, usually at a lower price compared to the single issues combined. If you want to follow multiple series, this difference does add up.

    I have to say I am doubtfull about the Black Label size, and changing the size of older collections. I do not think readers really object to a larger size, but I do know that most Direct Market stores to depend on the current size for reasons of efficiency. Oversized books can be difficult to display or stock in such an environment. If a larger size will also increase price, that might be also a disadvantage. (Though I keep on being surprised by people buying Killing Joke for $17,99 HC when it was available in a prestige format for years for, what, about $4,95?) In my opinion, Kingdom Come is selling Okay as is. I do not see how changing the format will increase sales, but there might be an effect in general bookstores that I do not know of.
    DC is way better than Marvel at selling and promoting their collections than Marvel, so I am assuming that they kind of know what they are aiming for.

    It may indeed be time for Direct Market stores to change their game, though this isn’t easy. If DC is heading towards a more general bookstores kind of market, it could be a tough task for stores to follow. The key point might indeed be what you value most as a retailer, and what your customers value most. Don’t expect the past to come back.

  3. Great article. I still say, buy what you like and at the level/format/quantity you yourself have determined, as most important things. Using Brandon and Danica’s formulation of value, there is value in buying some books from an LCS.

  4. I like buying single issues from an LCS, but I don’t blame publishers expanding their product reach through other channels. Direct market retailers as a whole have shown they cannot expand the readership. They are understandably content to serve the periodical comic reading audience (such as me). But the only thing DM retailers seem to be capable of doing to increase single issue sales is buying into variant cover incentive programs. Every time retailers increase their order to get that 1 in 500 cover, they’re giving publishers a data point that says “variant covers sell more comic books.” If the retailer marks up the variant and scraps the unsold stock because they can’t find new readers, the publishers don’t care. They’ve guaranteed a higher sell-in quantity. The retailer is left with the burden of finding buyers for all the extra issues. So when DC or Marvel see diminishing numbers of readers, they are not going to sit back and let the DM be their only revenue stream. They are going to try and find another market to expand into.

  5. As a comic buyer/reader/fan who grew up buying comics and a small grocery store in a small town…I don’t have a problem with DC and Walmart doing this. What I have a problem with is you can’t find any of them at any of the Walmart stores. I’m not the only who cannot find them. Or if they do exist at a Walmart, scalpers are buying them up and selling them for 5 times the cover price online at amazon and ebay.

  6. I went to all the Walmarts in my town over the weekend, and couldn’t find them. Maybe they’re only being distributed in certain markets, as an experiment?

  7. I didn’t set foot in a comic shop until I was 17, in 1977. (That’s when the Great Escape opened in Nashville.) Until then it was grocery stores, drug stores, convenience stores like 7-11. And anywhere else I could find comics — flea markets, yard sales, used book stores, etc.

    I can’t argue with DC’s move. A lot of towns don’t have a well-equipped comic shop — there are still a lot of tiny hole-in-the-wall stores — but Walmarts are everywhere. But judging from the number of people who can’t find these 100-page giants at their local Walmart(s), distribution seems to be spotty.

  8. If the direct market is gone who is carrying on? The convenience stores won’t carry them again and the surviving book stores sell trades only.

    I was at Walmart yesterday going through the self-check out line and the aisle with the cards on it was next to it. I looked all over and NO DC comics were there. No display box either. Makes no never mind to me as I wouldn’t buy them but they must be in certain markets only to test drive it.

    PS- the card aisle in the Walmart looked like a tornado hit it in general. It’s like the aisle they just throw stuff.

  9. @keyser – I agree, the cards aisle in Walmart does tend to look like a tornado hit it. I drove (in my Prius) to the nearest Walmart (over 25 kilometers away) from me to try and find these comics and had the same experience. I asked an employee why it looked so chaotic. They said that two of their customers had just come through there, after having huffed gasoline, and started tearing apart the section because they heard that an old woman had accidentally dropped some Vicodin in the section. I asked if the two customers were okay, and the employee explained that they had both died of their injuries. This seemed unbelievable to me, but then I remembered that all Walmart shoppers always have cheezedoodle dust on their hands and that they had obviously dug into each other with those cheezedoodle-y fingers and each gotten raging infections, resulting in both later dying of shock.

  10. Francis misses his local comic shop, where 22-year-old clerks are too busy gaming in the back room (and harassing women of color on Twitter) to pay attention to customers.

  11. DC/Marvel and the Direct Market are like a couple in a relationship where one partner is continually looking for something better and the other knows that what they’ve got is as good as they’ll ever get. Partner A would toss Partner B under a bus if the opportunity of their dreams came along, which it never does; Partner B has no real way of asserting themselves, and can only air petty grievances and rake up the past they’ve had together. And meanwhile everyone’s getting older. It could make a great sitcom.

  12. @Bill – I would never set foot in a comic store. I buy all my comics at Whole Foods, which I drive to in my Prius. The day I went to Walmart to look for those comics, I was looking for a charging station for my Prius (I drive a Prius) and while I was searching the parking lot for one, I saw a Walmart customer attempting to get out of his car but got stuck in the door frame. His nephew, who I would estimate was approximately 9 years old and 180 lbs, tried to use Crisco to lube up the door frame so he could exit, but the stuck man kept licking the Crisco. Ultimately the local fire department came and used the jaws of life to extract the man. However, they had to hand the man a bill for their services, because the Republican mayor of the town had cut taxes and privatized emergency services. The 180lbs 9 year old asked me for some of my money to help pay for it because he said his parents spent all their money on Mountain Dew Code Red and muscle relaxants.

  13. Francis, this is the funniest thing I have read all day. Kaleb, I do follow the model of buying what I like when I like it regardless. I figure comic books will always be there. Or they won’t

  14. Francis has been hitting the chardonnay and NPR again.

    I’m surprised Marvel and DC haven’t come up with a viable Plan B (what to do if the direct market collapses). Nor do the comic shops have a Plan B (what to do if the Big Two stop printing superhero pamphlets). They’re so mutually dependent it’s pathetic. I guess they’ll all go down together, leaving the fanboys with more time for attacking female movie critics and Asian-American actresses.

    “The 180lbs 9 year old …”

    Francis, have you been in a comic shop lately? Lots of 280-pound 25-year-olds. Instead of Crisco and Mountain Dew, they subsist on cheap pizza and cheaper beer.

  15. George – as I said, I buy all my comics at Whole Foods, which I drive to in my Prius (I am saving the planet). I cannot comment on the physicality of those who spend time in comic shops. What I can comment on is the physicality of the Walmart I drove to in my Prius (I drive a Prius). Once I got inside, I saw a 400lbs woman with empty cans of Monster Energy Drink falling out of her cargo shorts. I asked her to pick them up and she shouted “I CAN’T HEAR YOU I LOST MY HEARING IN A FIREWORKS ACCIDENT I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE COOL TO PUT ROMAN CANDLES IN BOTH MY EARS AND BE A DOUBLE UNICORN AND NOW I DON’T HEAR SO FINE AND DO YOU HAVE ANY PERCOCET?” I immediately turned around and left, got in my Prius (environmentally friendly), put on some Chopin and drove back to my chateau.

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