By Brian Hibbs
I have been selling comics for a really long time now (for at least parts of four different decades!), and I have watched the market dramatically shift and change with culture along the way. When I opened the store in 1989 people used to walk past the doors, and I could hear them talk to one another. “Huh. A comic book store?” “Do they still make those?” and then they’d walk away chuckling to one another.
In 2016 it is a little different: “Look! A comic book store!” “Oh! Let’s check it out!”
I like 2016 much better.
I understand that lots of folks might not understand how it used to be, but it was a really really short time ago that the entire message of culture was “Comics are idiotic, juvenile things fit only for the consumption of children and the brain-damaged”. When I was growing up the single-fastest way to communicate that a character was mentally-deficient was to show them with a comic book rolled up in their back pocket. And, though I didn’t really know it myself personally (for I was but a tot), comics very much were on the brink of being a dying medium when I was a little kid in the 1970s.
So it kind of kills me in my heart a little when I read pieces like Jude Terror’s bits here and here, which precisely misunderstand the way that all of culture rejected comics-driven content and just what the commercial prospects were for comics at their nadir. Comics never walked away — the newsstand delivery method of comics was quickly becoming untenable as it was loaded with corruption (much of it was mobbed-up) and inefficiency on one side, and by a mass die-off of the primary newsstand market: mom-and-pop general store / pharmacies as they quickly were overrun by chain stores and mass-market retailers, on the other side.
Chain, mass-market businesses like that are extremely bottom-line detailed: they’re trying to maximize sales per square foot. And if they can make more profit from a rack of sunglasses than they can from a rack of comic books…. Well, where do you think the rack of comic books went? Do you think people willingly and deliberately stopped sales that were profitable enough by their standards?
A lot of the cultural baggage comics carried stemmed from the legacy of the Senate Hearings, the creation of the self-censorship of the Comics Code, and the radical dumbing down of the content that was then inevitable. The bulk of comics production at that point had narrowed down to a handful of “kiddie” titles and what was left of the superhero brands (which wasn’t so great: you know about The DC Implosion, right?) — DC and Marvel had some modest hits in the 70s like the Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk, or Wonder Woman television shows, and the ‘78 Superman movie was pretty huge, but there was not anything in culture at large that would allow that comics were really a reputable thing for adults to be involved in.
This slowly began to change in the 80s, Maus, Watchmen, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns made big ripples in culture, but “graphic novels” were still a really new thing, let alone the notion that they might stay in print and become perennial. I opened Comix Experience in 1989, and back then if you had a mind you could probably stock every single intentionally in-print “graphic novel” on a single book shelf. So we had this cultural moment when people started thinking comics maybe, possibly, could be suitable for actual humans… but we didn’t have nearly enough available material to keep people’s interest for very long, and it all lapped back. We’d surge forward, maybe driven by a Maus, maybe pushed by the X-Men cartoon or the Tim Burton Batman movie, but then we’d recede right back because we just didn’t have the bench to sustain interest for any length of time.
It’s taken a long time, but we’re finally at a moment in history where we’ve matched stock breadth and depth with cultural relevance and acceptance. The Geek Has Inherited The Earth and it seems to me that much of culture is being driven by comics or comics sensibilities. If a customer comes in because of property X, I now have hundreds of other amazing choices for them to read as well.
So I get why people who grew up with much of the success already in place, who see the cultural victory, and look at the shape of the Direct Market, and decide that it is an impediment to the future — I really do! The DM has a bunch of stupid quirks and flaws, and the rapacious nature of corporate control (the drive for Profit as one of, if not THE primary goal will always coexist uneasily with the creation of Art) that has evolved over the last few years with Marvel and DC primarily being IP-generators and concept-generators for media where they can make some real money has radically deformed the market.
But that’s kind of the heart of our conundrum — comics are not really massive profit generators. The ROI (Return-On-Investment) is fine, but it’s hardly something that’s going to buy you mansions and yachts in most case.
Here is where I think Mr. Terror and his contemporaries go off the rails: they posit that if only we threw off the shackles of the Direct Market, got back into the Mass Market, maybe sold major advertisers on comics, and dropped prices radically (maybe by printing on newsprint again!), circulations would soar! But this ignores the fact that Mass Market stores don’t especially want comics (without slotting fees, of course) – selling a t-shirt with a picture of Batman on it is safer, more profitable, and less finicky to rack than selling a comic book with Batman in it; print advertisers are a vanishing breed, and the makeup of the audience isn’t especially attractive to major advertisers outside of the geek market; and switching to newsprint won’t appreciably lower costs, and anyway because you’ll have to allow for returns, the math of the newsstands actually argues for higher cover prices on the same goods as the DM.
Every comic sold in the Direct Market is actually sold. You can be a whiner and go “To retailers!”, which is of course literally true, but here’s the thing: Direct Market retailers that don’t sell enough copies to remain profitable and pay their expenses very very quickly become ex-retailers! Comics do not have such an amazing profit margin that you can keep buying things that you can not sell and continue to stay in business. It is my firm belief that if you’re not selling ~80% of your purchases on the average Direct Market retailer’s margins, then you’re probably not doing better than breaking even. And it’s a short time that you can stay in business and pay your rent and your taxes and your employee costs and not at least break even.
This is why there are not “100,000” readers of comics, like the pundits will declare – a typical month of periodical comics sells like 6.5 million pieces. Most of that is getting to end consumers, and I can assure you the average customer isn’t buying 65 comics a month! Maybe a tenth of that, at most – most stores have many customers who only buy 1-2 comics a month. And that doesn’t even include whatever digital is (about 8-10% we’re led to believe). No, it’s highly unlikely that there are less than, oh, one and a half or two million people who read serialized comics in America today.
As I said, I’ve been in comics a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of players come and go, and I’ve seen several publishers entirely crash their house of cards by entering the mass marketplace and getting just annihilated by returns.
It’s easy – and I mean, it’s so easy that a baby can do it – to blame the Usual Suspects about the “State of Comics”. Man, I’ve been writing scathing comics commentary about Ethics in the Comics Industry for a national audience since 1991, kiddo, and, yeah, Marvel and DC and Diamond do a ton of stupid fucking shit that makes comics less awesome that it could platonically be… but I don’t think you actually understand what the barriers are to making comics what your Ideal and Perfect Version are.
Do you have even the slightest idea just how nearly impossible the landscape is for all media in 2016? Whether you’re talking about fiction or not, the overwhelming majority of paths forward in media don’t make enough money in sales to justify their creation cost. This is not just comics – this is prose, and film, and television, and music and dance and theatre and man, you name it. People only sort of give a shit about Art and paying for it in our Brave New World.
And this is why I (and yes, I am a very biased observer!) think that the Direct Market is actually a pretty crazy good situation when it comes to the production of art and value-to-society – a paying-for-itself network of specialty stores that is entirely what-you-see-is-what-you-get? If you look at, man I don’t know, Poets maybe, they’d almost certainly murder people for the opportunity to have a well-defined and muscular market entirely dedicated to them! No, seriously, think about it. There are no (few) “Poetry stores”… and we’ve got almost certainly at total minimum 2000 stores that are dedicated to selling comics (though maybe more like 500 that are dedicated to the medium itself)
We should praise that network, despite its many flaws. If it didn’t exist, we’d be dreaming about it.
At the end of the day, the generalist, the newsstand, the corporate, the un-frickin-committed aren’t going to move the medium forward in the way that you want them to…. because they ultimately don’t give a crap about the medium. All they care about is money and how much of it they can make from comics. And when they find out the answer, in the real actual life that actual real human beings live is “generally not very much”, they move on to figuring out how they can exploit the IP to make the money they’re looking to make.
So, to the flashpoint of Mr. Terror’s rant: the very notion that if the comics industry were somehow focused primarily on the more general audience, that a comic like Nighthawk would inherently sell… well, you’re higher than I am, man, and I live in San Francisco and have access to superb legal marijuana.
Let me tell you something about “Nighthawk”, and this has nothing to do with David Walker or Ramon Villalobos (who I find to generally be strong creators who are beginning to build their identifiable audiences) but “Nighthawk” is a D-list character that has almost literally no native and definable audience of its own, and is indisputably a rip off of Batman. The title was launched with no promotion, as the second spin-off of “Squadron Supreme”, a title that in and of itself is also a D-List property that hadn’t been given a chance for the new incarnation (which I like a lot!) to find its place in a market before being flooded by Marvel with two different spin-off books! No, actually, the real news story would have been “Nighthawk makes it to issue #13!” Then you’d have a real analysis of “How did that happen? What can we replicate?!?!?”
I don’t think you’d find a single comic book specialty retailer that was even slightly shocked by the cancellation of Nighthawk, and if you say “Well, that’s the problem right there!”, then I have to tell you the interest among the non-DM stores is almost certainly less than ours. All one has to do is to look at “off brand” super hero properties in the BookScan charts to see that almost all of them sell extremely poorly without name value – like “double or triple digits” poorly. The overwhelming majority of graphic novels simply don’t sell well to the mass market, by the way – read the annual BookScan reports! – about half of all GN sales in the Mass are from the top 750 titles. They sell about what the other twenty-two thousand sell, combined.
And book #750 sold less than thirty-five hundred copies in 2015!
In my Direct Market comic book stores, we stocked Nighthawk – and, guess what? It didn’t sell all that great. In my main store, we’ve managed to move all of eight copies of the first issue in about ten weeks on sale so far. That’s not the kind of number that screams “there’s a wide audience looking for this!” (comparatively, we’ve sold more than three hundred copies of the first issue of Black Panther in the same time frame), so it isn’t simply a matter of the market letting a work down – sometimes the market just doesn’t want what you have to offer.
Given all of comics history I feel pretty confident in saying that the Mass Market is no kind of savior for quirky non-mainstream projects. Quite the opposite, actually: creation primarily with the mass market in mind relies primarily upon well-known properties or things aimed at the great center – just look at every other medium to see this in action. Reaching the mass almost always means spending more to do so (be that through rack allowances or advertising or whatever), so as the risks increase, the desire for safe and sure-fire increases.
Further, merely stocking comics in a mass market outlet is no guarantee of any kind of success. Here’s an example: me and my 12 year old recently went to Disneyland. The stores in Disneyland are now carrying regular Marvel comics on their racks – both superhero stuff, as well as the Star Wars comics. I think we spotted them in a dozen different venues. In at least three of those stores I asked how they were doing, and I was given mild to negative responses by the staff on duty. It’s not a huge surprise to me, really – there’s very little reading material of any kind on display in the stores, and for the comics in particular it appear to me that the store was being racked by someone who didn’t give a lot of thought to what a civilian audience might be interested in. In one of the stores in California Adventure that had a giant selection of Marvel stuff (T-shirts, Legos, etc) the comics on display included insider-baseball stuff like Gwenpool and not, say, Spider-Man – it wasn’t an especially appealing or curated selection of material. I think you could successfully sell comics in a Disney park, but I think to do so you’d need to be focused on general audience familiar material, and stuff that skews towards younger kids (and, probably, in digest formats – regulation-size comics don’t seem like the kind of thing you want to carry around the park all day long?)
None of this in any way excuses the failures of the Direct Market to not match its platonic ideal, but I think it is safe to say that if it were that easy to reach beyond the DM, the DM-driven publishers would have successfully done so by now. They’re all trying hard to find new markets all of the time, I can assure you. Witness the news that Marvel’s largest purchaser of the new first issue of Champions is Scholastic books – how else is this anything other than trying to aggressively find new markets?
Comics (both the business and the Medium) are clearly in a better place in 2016 than they have been at any previous time in my career as a retailer – we’re a billion dollar business – but that doesn’t even begin to mean that every creative idea is going to be a commercial success. Despite our wishing for better, the market wants what the market wants, and trying to blame the market (or even worse, the mechanism that allows the market to purchase work in the first place) for that is pretty cutting-your-nose-off-to-spite-your-face level stuff. Nighthawk wasn’t a success. That doesn’t mean the market is “broken”; that just means enough people didn’t want Nighthawk the way Marvel published it, that’s all.
Here’s the thing that the armchair philosophers and the Monday morning quarterbacks should probably understand: there are a lot of different motivations for publishers to publish a comic. Sometimes it’s because it’s a great pitch, sure, but sometimes comics are published to retain copyright; sometimes they’re published as a way to keep talent happy while they negotiate for something significantly more commercial; sometimes they’re published as a favor, or as a way to woo talent, or to stroke them; sometimes they’re published because they read the market wrong and they need to burn inventory to recover a cash outlay; sometimes they’re hoping that despite a failure in serialization, the collection will be strong; or digital; or library sales; sometimes they’re even published on just hopes and prayers that maybe it might catch on, despite every piece of evidence to the contrary – certainly, stranger things have happened. It’s easy to proclaim that “Well, they shouldn’t publish Nighthawk unless they have an actionable plan to make it a success!”, but I can name you fifty comics that looked like hits on the outside, and died-on-arrival when they met the market. It’s a market where consumers get to make free choices about what they buy and they don’t, and when the taste of the overall market doesn’t agree with yours you probably shouldn’t advocate for burning the market down.
I’ve been selling comics a long time. I value creators over IP; expression over expansion and I run and rack my stores with that vision in mind. I’m pretty confident that for the last four decades I’m probably in the top 10% of retailers in the world who are trying to Push Comics Forward in a way that the civilian audience would most appreciate, and that most benefits the comics creators themselves, so I’d like you to take it pretty seriously when I assure you that the market does what the market wants and that “quality” has far less than you think to do with what’s “commercial”. Good comics will fail sometimes – because of the choice of a single image, or bad IP, or just the mood of the market and whim. That doesn’t make the market broken – it makes it a market.
The DM can get better – no doubt about that at all – but let’s not blame the failure of Nighthawk on some overarching failure of specialist stores. Because in a world without the Direct Market, a world focused solely on Mass – Nighthawk simply would never have been published in the first place.
Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing. You may also find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here, a list of columns from the CBR years here (New link as of 9/2016!), and also the archives here at the Beat. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.