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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. VaughanCliff ChiangMark 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.

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from Alex + Ada #3
from Alex + Ada #3

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 RevenantRoom, or Spotlight?  Hell yes, I’d read any of those.

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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.

Virgil-1Comics 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.

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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.

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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.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. Very well through out analysis. I loved Alex and Ada as well! Image comics did a fantastic job with most of their catalog this year, and in my opinion, there content was about 100x better than Marvel or DC. They don’t have all the cross merchandising options that the “big two have”. Maybe thats due to creator contracts as they assume all the upfront cost risk on merchandising etc?

    Either way, I hope to see them grow in marketshare and it would be great to see more cross channel pollination.

  2. As a retailer, I’d have to say that irregular publishing schedules and what seems like a concentrated effort to write for cross pollination (ergo tv and movies), have left other genres not as commercial (or appear to be) behind.

    I would also state that the $9.99 trades, while certainly competitive with the big two, have given readers the leeway to skip the issues. Can’t say I blame them, but if I took this track with other retailers, not many of these books would even make it to the trade format. Millar’s Chrononauts is a good example, with the $10 collection right behind the final issue that retailed for $6. This stuff hurts long term.

    Nontheless, I wish them the best, as the big two’s books seem all but readable as of late. At least Image’s books are new and exciting, and with a stronger focus from better editors, could easily put them in a very competitive position.

  3. The suggestion for more attention given OGNs is an interesting one. For all intents and purposes I’m an OGN reader but the price point and page count on a trade is what keeps me coming back.

    I would think those initial single sales subsidize, in a way, the cheaper cost of releasing material in collected edition. I feel like I kind of need people to keep buying singles so those trades stay cost effective.

    I think if something came out first pass as the equivalent of 3 issues worth of standard size comics and had a price point larger than $9-12, I’d be out.

  4. Alex, you’re not just wrong about OGNs, you’re epicly, tragically, overwhelmingly wrong about such for the overwhelming majority of concepts and creators.

    It isn’t merely that serialization amortizes the costs of creation, reducing the final cost-per-page to-consumer, conservatively, by 20%. (though that, alone, should be the end conversation)

    Nor is it just that consumers are far far (FAR!!!!!) more likely to sample a work at a low periodical price buy-in than an OGN-style price.

    It is also that serialization keeps a creator/property ON THE MARKET while it is being serialized. It’s totally awesome that (say) Dan Clowes can make a living coming out with something once every 2-ish years….but that in no way describes the overwhelming majority of creators — THE MARKET FORGETS ABOUT YOU IF YOU’RE NOT ON THE MARKET.

    Look: all markets have a “bandwidth” of promotion and exposure and interest — serialized works can sustain (kind of!) HUNDREDS of projects. Single volumes? Maybe a half-dozen a month? If that?

    It is demonstrable that serialized-SANDMAN-plus-collected-SANDMAN sold WAY better than OGN-SANDMAN. The same is absolutely true for (more recently) FABLES.

    You’re expressing “double dip” as a negative, when it is probably, in balance, a positive — it is the sometimes the move from “fan” to “SUPER-FAN”, and other times the realization that there are MULTIPLE REVENUES STREAMS that fund creators. And that, sir, is HOW things and creators make money in a world of ETEWAF (http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=30428)

    Do some pubs exploit it in the wrong way? YES! But arguing against “double dip” is saying “I don’t care if the creators I love make money” — I’m not actually sure if you can name a single creator (in any field) who makes money who isn’t double- or triple- or quadruple-dipping in one fashion or another? (OR has a “sugar daddy” style revenue stream)

    -B

  5. Maybe Image needs to look more at digital-to-trade?
    Private Eye: pay-as-you-like digital, then a premium hardcover.
    Sunstone: free first-draft digital, then revised trades.

    Image has too many books below 10k in sales. Moving a few of those over to a digital platform, and (waves magic wand) driving traffic to that platform, could generate enough interest to make the collections profitable. I don’t think their current digital store would be enough for this, though. It seems more designed for people who already know what books they want to download.

    Is the Comixology-to-(mostly)-IDW model working? I’m convinced something along these lines must be able to provide a home for the books the direct market doesn’t want (enough of).

  6. I like what I see from Image, but agree that it is sci-fi heavy. They could expand into other genres, but that’s up to them, their plan for branding and market expansion.

  7. Hibbs: “It is demonstrable that serialized-SANDMAN-plus-collected-SANDMAN sold WAY better than OGN-SANDMAN. The same is absolutely true for (more recently) FABLES.”

    It might be demonstrable in the direct market, I don’t think it’s demonstrable in all channels. And I don’t think it’s as wide a gulf as you think.

    FABLES pretty consistently sold about 13.5k in the direct market for the last year it was serialized. The collection of that last set of serialized issues has sold 10.8k in nine months of availability. So the serialized/collected has given you 24.3k (some number of which are sitting unsold in back issue bins and backroom inventories). The “OGN” finale has sold 21.2k in six months of availability. So yes, less, but not massively so, and probably largely paid for in reduced production costs (and costing a bit in advertising revenue, but I doubt the marginal increase in advertising rates DC gets from one 13.5k book a month is huge). I’ll bet you when the Bookscan numbers come in they’ll erase at least half that gap, and when the 2016 year-end numbers come in the “OGN” finale will be on top.

    SANDMAN is an odd case, because the ENDLESS NIGHTS “OGN” (which sold very well on initial release, and now sells roughly on-par with the last volumes of the series) always seemed like an afterthought, an unnumbered addition to a numbered series of 1-10, I’m not sure what a new reader is going to make of it. For another media comparison, I’ll bet the STAR WARS “anthology” movies will have significantly lower box office numbers than the “Episode ##” labelled movies. And far fewer people read the short stories George Martin writes for various anthologies set in the same universe as “Book ## of A Song Of Ice And Fire”. We’ll see how OVERTURE does in the long run. If DC markets it right it might become the de facto first book of the series, and consistently the best selling, although the numbering always makes that clunky (calling it SANDMAN VOL. 0 looks terrible). I’m sure they wish there was a way they could repackage the books with OVERTURE as Vol. 1, PRELUDES as Vol. 2, give ENDLESS NIGHTS and DREAM HUNTERS proper numbers, maybe somewhere in the middle, integrate the various short stories in appropriate places and end with THE WAKE as Vol. 13 or whatever.

  8. BobH: FABLES has two OGNs: “1001 Nights of Snowfall” and “Werewolves of the Heartland”. They are the two worst selling books in the FABLES series in bookstores, according to BookScan. Here is 2014 (2015 hasn’t been released yet… but it won’t be any different)

    10,887 FABLES V01 LEGENDS IN EXILE
    6,824 FABLES V02 ANIMAL FARM
    4,873 FABLES V03 STORYBOOK LOVE
    3,780 FABLES V04 MARCH OF THE WOODEN
    3,056 FABLES V05 THE MEAN SEASONS
    2,581 FABLES V06 HOMELANDS
    2,200 FABLES V07 ARABIAN NIGHTS & DAY
    2,012 FABLES V08 WOLVES
    1,725 FABLES V09 SONS OF EMPIRE
    1,672 FABLES V10 THE GOOD PRINC
    1,556 FABLES V11 WAR & PIECES
    1,454 FABLES V12 THE DARK AGES
    1,256 FABLES V13 THE GRT FABLES CROS
    1,426 FABLES V14 WITCHES
    1,506 FABLES V15 ROSE RED
    1,532 FABLES V16 SUPER TEAM
    1,665 FABLES V17 INHERIT THE WIND
    2,062 FABLES V18 CUBS IN TOYLAND
    6,360 FABLES V19 SNOW WHITE
    6,416 FABLES V20 CAMELOT
    819 FABLES 1001 NIGHTS OF SNOWFAL L
    1,121 FABLES WEREWOLVES OF THE HEART

    The same exact thing is true with Sandman (also 2014):

    16,435 SANDMAN VOL 01 PRELUDES & NOCTU
    8,302 SANDMAN VOL 02 THE DOLLS HOUSE
    6,077 SANDMAN VOL 03 DREAM COUNTRY NE
    4,777 SANDMAN VOL 04 SEASON OF MISTS
    3,788 SANDMAN VOL 05 A GAME OF YOU
    3,568 SANDMAN VOL 06 FABLES & REFLECT
    2,954 SANDMAN VOL 07 NEW E
    2,865 SANDMAN VOL 08 WORLDS END
    2,599 SANDMAN VOL 10 THE WAKE NEW E
    766 SANDMAN DREAM HUNTERS
    1,892 SANDMAN ENDLESS NIGHTS NEW EDI

    Previously serialized work from the same author in the same property *consistently* sells worse than OGN material in the book market, and it pretty much has for all eleven years of BookScan data that I have.

    “the ENDLESS NIGHTS “OGN” (which sold very well on initial release”

    Well, ENDLESS NIGHTS *did* do well upon release (“100,000 initial print run”) (http://icv2.com/articles/comics/view/3511/ny-times-looks-vertigo), but as far as I can tell (which is not very since Diamond didn’t release actual numbers in the 90s!) that’s right around what the serialization of the comic was selling at the end…. and that’s just around what the serialization of OVERTURE #1 sold it’s first month.

    -B

  9. So DREAM HUNTERS, which was serialized, sells far less than ENDLESS NIGHTS, which wasn’t. And the gap between WEREWOLVES OF THE HEARTLAND and the lowest selling numbered FABLES book is less than the gap between that lowest book and the next lowest. I don’t think we’re looking at serialized vs. non-serialized as the reason for these sales patterns as we’re looking at the perception of importance to the complete reading experience. A shelf without FABLES v10 is obviously missing something in a way a shelf without WEREWOLVES OF THE HEARTLAND isn’t . Same with a shelf without the JACK OF FABLES, CINDERELLA and FAIREST books. Those are a more valid comparison for the FABLES “OGNs” (especially the FAIREST stuff WIllingham wrote solo), How do those sell in comparison to the FABLES books? Not sure if there’s a valid analogue in SANDMAN, maybe MIDNIGHT DAYS (with the SANDMAN MIDNIGHT THEATRE one-shot) or the CHILDREN”S CRUSADE book after it comes out in paperback and has been available for a few years.

    And, of course, the last issue of OVERTURE only sold 56k to the direct market, so it has a way to go. Unfortunately, even the incomplete picture we have now gets even fuzzier going back in time. However, we do have Diamond sales rankings for the last year of SANDMAN, if not the numbers those translate to, like SANDMAN #72 on this list (http://www.comichron.com/monthlycomicssales/1995/1995-09Diamond.html). Some quick math, if you assume a historically stable book like HELLBLAZER didn’t change too much in sales between that and the next year when Miller began translating the order index to estimated sales (http://www.comichron.com/monthlycomicssales/1996/1996-09.html) and you have SANDMAN selling around 68k. If you want to assume HELLBLAZER fell a bit in that year, maybe add 10% or so to go up to 75k (SANDMAN #75 jumped up quite a bit, DC’s best selling book of that month (http://www.comichron.com/monthlycomicssales/1996/1996-01Diamond.html), so it was probably in the 100k range).

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