Word of The Walking Dead coming to an end started circulating last Monday, because of course it did. Despite regularly complaining about how big comic companies spoil big story plots on Sunday nights, word leaked the minute copies of issue 193 get into the hands of retailers and their various minions. Robert Kirkman penned a letter denoting the end of the long series after an oversized last hurrah. The future issues that were solicited were a smoke screen. The print comic series as we knew it, had come to an end.
As Kirkman explains in his letter after the story concludes, the whole idea of this ending was meant to be a surprise. He’s been working at content creation so long, he misses the days where he can feel the thrill of surprise, and he wants to provide that experience for the people who have been reading the series. A sudden stop, one that neatly fits into all of the various formats the story has been collected in without causing anyone to nab one last volume in a different format. It is the picture of perfection in the balance of art and commerce, a series that had generated millions upon millions of dollars for the industry, going out on its own terms, keeping an eye on formatting for future sales. What’s more: as a reward, the final installment still runs at the regular $3.99 price point, despite the extra content. The release thanks the readers who stuck things through this far and didn’t cut them on the way out, in any way, shape or form.
In my opinion, it was a perfect landing. Of course, few retailers seem to feel the same way I do.
The Retailer’s View // Revenge of the Walking Dead
By Brandon Schatz — with edits and contributions by Danica LeBlanc
The hand-wringing was immediate. As folks were frantically attempting to unpack their shipments to confirm the news with their own eyes, many were at their keyboards, demanding confirmation from Image Comics. The sudden news did need to be digested – especially for a series with The Walking Dead’s numbers – and the first step was getting a hold of something concrete. No one at Image was being forthcoming online, probably due to the fact that Kirkman was aiming to surprise, and when you run your own branch of Image, you can pretty much do what you want and the company will fall in line with your wishes.
Something important to note is this release comes hot on the heels of another big event for The Walking Dead, in the death of Rick Grimes in issue #192. Many retailers were given the “head’s up” about that particular happening, with one of the caveats being they don’t share that information with anyone – just use it to inform your orders.
That clearly didn’t happen.
The news of Mr. Grimes’ demise was spread well in advance of issue #192 arriving on the stands. Shops bumped up their orders and managed to get a nice cash infusion, but managed to fill that cash gun with a bullet and shoot themselves in the foot by blabbing to (gestures wildly) the internet. This is one of the reasons why I have absolutely no empathy for retailers who are upset that they weren’t given a similar “head’s up” about the series’ conclusion.
The reasons retailers are upset are varied, but fall along the lines of a few general complaints. The first comes from a sense of FOMO – or “Fear Of Missing Out” – that both retailers and readers have in regards the the ending. On the readers end, demand for the issue is quite high – and on the retailer’s end, the supply of the comic is quite low. After spending on issue #192, many (myself included) remembered the bevy of low selling aftermath issues that followed any seismic event, and cut our order back down to where they’d normally be, with a little extra sprinkled on top for good measure. This “little extra” was helped by the fact that Image was offering full returnability for issue #193 with no qualifications – meaning retailers were afforded the opportunity to order whatever they wanted with no consequence to capitalize on the post-Rick buzz.
Many of us lost out on a solid chunk of change by not placing a bet on something that historically seemed like a shaky bet. As a result, issues have been going for upwards to $30 online – something that probably wouldn’t have happened if Image had let retailers know. Unfortunately, when you’re aiming to surprise, you can’t trust the group of people who just shot themselves in the foot mere weeks before with sensitive info – and even though it sucks that everybody has to suffer for the sins of what might a small few, the simple fact of the matter is, as an industry, we’ve done nothing to police this kind of behaviour in any efficient and acceptable way, and often encourage the bad behaviour by supporting and sharing info with unscrupulous rumour sites. (Here’s a test – let’s see if the site-monger I’m referring to still shows up in the comment section or puts a post on his site to strop about like the vanity searching low-rent Beetlejuice he is when he’s not mentioned specifically.)
Running along the lines of FOMO, there’s more than a few retailers out there bemoaning the loss of the series for monetary reasons – some going so far as to state that they will be losing their customers who only buy The Walking Dead, and nothing else. Which… look, when a series like this is running for such a long period of time, the fact that there are people out there still only buying The Walking Dead seems like a problem that could have been solved at some point – if not by the proprietor themselves, then the industry itself. I am of the personal opinion that the industry itself has done a remarkable job of populating itself with content. In fact, many retailers and readers complain that there are too many comics on the shelves these days. This might be my opinion, but I can point to several series that can fill a reader’s dour zom-dram hole in their heart, depending on what areas of The Walking Dead appealed to them most. I’m relatively certain that readers of this site could do so as well, and I encourage the brave among you to do so in the comment section in and around those who will surely show up to tell me how we’ll be out of business within the year. (We get that claim regularly, and recently had a hugely successful sale built around the anniversary of one such claim. Say it again! That sales day was particularly awesome.)
Some of the weirder folks upset about the sudden stoppage of the series are taking umbrage with Image soliciting further issues of the series that they had no intention of publishing – which I find interesting for several reasons. One: they seem to be directing their ire to Image specific reps, while The Walking Dead is very much under the Skybound fiefdom – a small but important distinction as I’d wager the buck stops more with that company than Image as a whole, which allows folks decide whether or not they’ll publish single issues or not on their own volition – even going so far as to allow issues of money-losing titles to continue if the creators are willing to make up the difference. Two: there’s an idea floating around that folks shouldn’t be trusting Image at their word now, because of this. As though the circumstances weren’t wholly unique and – more to the point – that the series itself hadn’t been responsible for feeling a good chunk of the industry for the past decade plus.
The idea that Image should be punished in any way, shape or form by the conclusion of The Walking Dead is farcical. Even putting aside the fact that Kirkman can do what he damn well pleases – especially when he’s put so much money into this industry and gave retailers a whole print run’s worth of the first issue of Die! Die! Die! for zero dollars within the last year or so. Did you know there were also retailers complaining that the oversized issue was only $3.99, because they could have sold it for more money? That’s probably the part that baffles me the most. Here’s Kirkman, offering his loyal readers a treat and a surprise, and for an incredibly great prize. Then there’s this batch of people not only complaining about the whole ordeal, but riding on the idea that the readers could have been bilked for more money at the same time.
One of my biggest problems with this industry is the fact that many retailers and publishers (and the main distributor) are so focused on the “today” of it all, that they seem to discount “tomorrow”. Usually everyone is pretty good about remembering “yesterday” and often want to move the industry back in that direction despite the technological advances in getting content into eyeballs, but conveniently, folks are forgetting about all the good that Kirkman and The Walking Dead have done. I’ve heard on many occasions (though have yet to be able to confirm for myself) the idea that the sales of The Walking Dead trades saved Diamond Comics from bankruptcy at one point in time. While that might not be true, at the very least, it definitely paid for some renovations as Image doesn’t deal their books outside of Diamond’s distribution unlike many others. We’re going to dog pile on Kirkman because he wanted to do a cool thing, and give the folks a good deal while he did it? If you’re so unhappy that you’re “losing money”, go ahead an try and sell it for more. You know you can, you just want someone else to be the bad guy while your needs are served.
Congrats. You’re what’s wrong with this industry.
In conclusion, I know that even with the way The Walking Dead has dropped down the sales charts lately, it was still one of Image’s top books, and that many are still suffering the temporary loss of Saga. That said, these titles don’t last forever, and I will never understand retailers who refuse to hustle to get other titles into people’s hands. The loss of these books don’t sink a ship – the lack of foresight to build up other titles does. And while many point to publishers for not doing the work, that goes back to the point where you’re trying to get someone else to be the bad guy instead of taking the blame yourself. Yes, monster hits are helpful, but they are alchemy, and can’t be counted on. The real stability comes with building hits with your own hands – connecting people with stories that they’re going to enjoy. You do that by doing the legwork yourself and reading everything you possibly can, and getting to know your customers as personally as you can through their personalities and purchasing habits. This isn’t rocket science – it is basic retail. No one is going to do it for you.
Get to work.