In 2015, Marvel and DC made major creative moves to varying levels of financial success. The changes to their lineups were bombastic, and thus dominated the public discourse throughout the year. It would be easy to think that because of all the hubbub surrounding All-New All-Different Marvel and DC You that Image Comics, publisher of hit series such as Saga and The Walking Dead, simply stayed the course and drifted through 2015.
In truth though, while their initiatives have not been nearly as grandiose as a full-scale creative reboot, things have changed at Image Comics over the past year. Director of Sales Corey Murphy has spearheaded a number of changes to the way that series are marketed and sold to retailers. According to Diamond’s industry statistics, Image Comics’ direct market share rose slightly from a 2014 monthly average of ~9.2% to a 2015 monthly average of ~10%. Heavy hitters like Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, Mark Millar, and Sean Murphy launched new series to fantastic critical and financial reception.
Last week, Alex Jones weighed in on what Marvel needs to do to stay on top in 2016 while Kyle Pinion suggested some changes to DC that could help them right their tilted ship. While Image, from this writer’s standpoint, doesn’t need to do anything new to remain a creatively and commercially viable publisher in the current market, there is an argument to be made that to not push forward is equatable to waiting for death. There is a dream that one day Image might become equal to or greater than DC and Marvel, so here are some ideas that may help the company take steps towards realizing that dream in 2016.
A Little Less Space Goes a Long Way
In April, Image Comics shipped 84 titles, including monthly issues and trade collections. Of these titles, about 20, or a little under 25%, are safely classifiable as sci-fi titles (not even counting superhero stories), and about 10 of them are stories about astronauts. The pattern holds, with little variation, every month (26/86 of April’s titles were sci-fi stories). In theory, this isn’t a problem. Descender, a heartfelt adventure about childhood and lost innocence, doesn’t really share a target audience with God Hates Astronauts, an irreverent comedic comic. However, a large proportion of Image’s sci-fi stories are trying to fill the same two niches: sci-fi action stories and sci-fi horror stories. Compound this with the fact that several other major publishers also playing in this same sandbox, and you can quickly start to see that there is a creative glut in the present market. This glut has resulted in series like Southern Cross, which should have been a huge success given the weight of its creative team, falling from 30,000 issues sold to 7,000 issues sold over the course of one arc. Several other sci-fi stories launched this year by Image have landed with similarly dulled reception.
The appeal of genre stories to creators is easy to discern. Comics have always been a medium rife with genre stories about horrors from beyond and heroes in the sky. These are the stories today’s creators grew up loving, so it makes sense that they would produce more of what they loved. This doesn’t even go into how creatively appealing it is for a writer to craft a universe or an artist to dynamically render alien lifeforms and unexplored civilizations. They dominate the shelves every month, so it’s easy to forget that there are other genres.
One of my favorite sci-fi series, Image’s Alex + Ada, ended this year. A romantic story between a young man and his cyborg companion, the series occupied a unique niche in the industry while it was being published. I thought Vertigo’s New Romancer might become a spiritual successor to the series, but it turned out to be a horror book in disguise. While I’m not saying that we need someone to step up to Image and pitch a new Pride and Prejudice, I do think Image creators could consider expanding their horizons and looking towards less speculative fiction for creative inspiration. A comic like The Revenant, Room, or Spotlight? Hell yes, I’d read any of those.
Give Original Graphic Novels a Bigger Marketing Push
One of Image’s well kept secrets is that, in addition to releasing a truckload of single issues every week, they occasionally slip an original graphic novel onto the shelves as well. Last year, the publisher released Steve Orlando’s and JD Faith’s Virgil, which debuted to soft sales but a great deal of critical acclaim. Stjepan Šejić’s BDSM webcomic-turned-graphic-novel Sunstone pulls solid and consistent trade numbers on a regular basis despite minimal marketing. Graphic novels have a distinct appeal to the “binge generation” that consumes 13 hours of Jessica Jones in three days, but they’re rarely given a fair shake by comics publishers who are convinced that it’s okay to double dip, or bank on the notion that readers will buy a story in single issue and trade format. Frankly, that doesn’t sound like a logical idea to hold onto forever, but nothing can change until one of the major industry players gives the graphic novel format the earnest push it deserves.
Comics have always been printed on a schedule similar to the way that network TV shows are viewed. One story, one month/week at a time. However, the stories that comics tell have not remained constant. Where early Batman comics were episodic in nature, telling a complete story, nowadays a Batman arc like Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Zero Year can drag along for an entire year before concluding. Because of decompressed writing styles and more complex and nuanced plotting, it has become rarer and rarer to find any book, Image, DC, Marvel, or otherwise, that is completely satisfying as a monthly installment. With that in mind, Image could change the way the game is played so readers can consume comics in the style in which they were written to be consumed: in trade format.
This obviously is an incredibly controversial opinion, and the argument has been hashed out time and time again. However, the truth is that the content of most modern monthly comics directly clashes with the periodical form, and one or the other eventually needs to give. The practice of double dipping is a dangerous concept to bank on forever, so I think it would be great to see Image put a bigger spotlight on stories like Virgil that promise a complete reading experience without the need to worry about release dates or FOC.
Image doesn’t necessarily need to stop producing monthly books or even cut down on the number of single issue series shipping each month. They should simply diversify their portfolio and give graphic novels an honest marketing push in the bookstore sector and direct market to examine this potential avenue for growth.
Plutona artist and co-writer Emi Lenox announced an autobiographic graphic novel last year with Image. That could be a place to start, assuming it releases this year.
More Brand Saturation Outside of Comics
Image Comics is no worse than Marvel or DC at marketing to the world outside of the direct market, but I don’t know if I would say they’re much better at it, either. Much of the time, it seems like creators are left to their own devices when it comes to marketing their book to the masses. While that can lead to big successes such as the aforementioned Sunstone, which has a large in-built DeviantArt fanbase, or Paper Girls with it’s Brian K. Vaughan magic touch, it also means that a large number of Image’s smaller titles slip through the cracks.
The big two are no strangers to brand saturation. There are Batman lunchboxes, Iron Man Halloween costumes, Hulk toy fists, Superman t-shirts, Wolverine telephones…the list goes on. This doesn’t even take all the films and TV shows into account. Image as a company, or its individual property owners, could stand to emulate this practice, because it not only generates further avenues for profit, but also exposes the world outside of comics to the property and thus brings it into the cultural zeitgeist. While selling branded shirts at Comic-Con is nice, it’s miles away from seeing a Lying Cat shirt at Hot Topic. The creators behind The Wicked + The Divine are presently experimenting with branded products through the release of Wic+Div nail wraps. Here’s hoping it works out for them so other creators are encouraged to reach out and work with companies they may never have thought to partner with otherwise.
I mean really, I think it’d be pretty cool if I could get a Descender inspired roomba or see a Rat Queens costume at a Halloween store.