Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Prophet of doom

Being some disjointed ranting on the state of mainstream comics...

According to The Beat's analysis of DC Comics monthly sales here, the best selling comic of December 2006 was Justice League of America #4 at over 130,000 copies. The top comic of the year was Justice League of America #1 which broke 200,000 copies.

The typical DC superhero book seems to be orbiting in the range of 20,000 to 40,000 in sales. In the early Seventies -- when I was a child and therefore everything about life was perfect -- Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" books (New Gods, Mister Miracle et al) sold in the neighborhood of 200,000 to 300,000 copies and were cancelled as failures.

It would have been typical for an issue of Superman to sell over 400,000 copies during the early Seventies. That would be an average regular issue, mind you, not a "first issue" or "special event" issue. More historical perspective on patterns in comics sales can be found here.

(Why were Kirby's books considered failures? This is a source of great contention among Kirby fans -- ah, but what isn't? -- but the general impression is that it was because his books were selling less than 50% of their print run. DC could simply have lowered the print run to match demand...but the real problem was that their expectations had been unrealistically high in the first place. If you're expecting the absolute biggest success in comics history and get merely a respectable success, it seems like a failure. But I digress.)

You may rightly point out all the other ways today isn't like 1971 -- comics cost more, they aren't sold at newsstands, I'm old enough to shave, and there's now such a thing as "waiting for the trade paperback" instead of buying mothly issues. Be that as it may: we still have an idea that the current "universe" of mainstream monthly comic book readers is going to be something considerably above 100,000 readers.

DC has a number of books that start above the average in sales and then lose one or two thousand readers per month. A lot of them seem to have had a surge from the "jumping on board" aspect of the "One Year Later" scheme...but failed to hold those readers, and didn't continue bringing in new readers to replace those defections.

Here's a really important clue for comics publishers: "Jumping on" issues don't work, and if you have to have one in the first place, you're already doing something wrong. People do not mind coming into the middle of a story, if it's a good story and being told well. You catch the tenth or twelfth episode of a TV series and say "Wow, this is really good, I gotta start watching this"? Or flip the channels and come across the middle of a movie that hooks you, and you realize you want to watch it from the beginning? These things happen all the time. I've opened up novels at random in the middle and gotten an impression of the writing that made me want to get the book. Not knowing who the characters are or what the situation may be offers no impediment to the newcomer provided you see some spark of entertainment that makes you want more. All your "jumping on" issue does is service the new reader who already knows this is a "jumping on" issue -- which assumes a higher level of familiarity with that title among people who aren't already reading it than one ought to assume -- or the few who happen upon it that particular month by chance. You expect every potential reader is that person? What manner of god are you, comics publisher, that you may control destiny thus?

Several of the lowest sellers are Cartoon Network tie-ins. Krypto the Superdog is selling under 10 thousand copies. Scooby Doo is under 5 thousand. Looney Tunes under 3 thousand. CN Block Party less than 2 thousand. These numbers are appalling. If I were a higher-up executive at Warner with no interest in comics, looking at DC's performance with these books that are essentially getting constant free advertising on television, I'd have to conclude DC was incapable of selling bowls on a day when it was raining soup.

Kids who watch the cartoons are not going into the comic shops and/or not finding those comics. I'm not saying the comics aren't there; I'm saying the kids aren't finding them. And you know what? If I were a parent, I wouldn't let my kid go into a comic shop alone. Assuming there was even one in our town, which (statistically speaking) there probably wouldn't be.

But every time I go to one of the supermarkets in my neighborhood or to the local K-Mart, my attention is always fixed by the rack of Disney and Archie comics digests in the impulse purchase racks at the checkout lines. They look appealing, they look affordable, and they look parent-friendly. Attention DC, another clue approaching: put your Cartoon Network tie-in titles into digests and do whatever it takes to get them onto those racks! I bet you'd sell more than 2000 freaking copies.

(Update: Kevin gently points out something I have overlooked about this in the comments section.)

There are two issues raised in the above: one is how small the total universe of current comic book readers has become relative to its size in the past, and how the mainstream publishers have failed to enlarge it...and the other is how well or poorly that shrinking universe has been served by the publishers. Price and availability are the keys to the first issue. Blaming video games as competition for reader dollars doesn't really cut it. There are always things competing for your prospective customers' wallets, and there always will be. Suck it up and accept that; don't use it as an excuse for failing to get your product in front of people. And if there's so much pricey competition, how does continually raising the price help? As to the second issue...

It's not an artistic or aesthetic value judgement to say that Marvel and DC are simply not giving the existing comics reading audience what they want. It's a statement of objective fact, demonstrated empirically by sales figures. This is axiomatic when you see two thousand more people each month saying "you're not giving me what I want in this comic" and an equal number aren't replacing them. Finding out what it is they want and giving it to them is the job of publishers and editors and their creative personnel. And it's a job the majority of them just aren't doing.


  1. Several of the lowest sellers are Cartoon Network tie-ins. Krypto the Superdog is selling under 10 thousand copies. Scooby Doo is under 5 thousand. Looney Tunes under 3 thousand. CN Block Party less than 2 thousand. These numbers are appalling.

    The bulk of the Johnny DC sales are outside the direct market, so those numbers aren't reflected in the Diamond charts.

    Marc-Oliver notes this in a disclaimer at the end of his analysis: "Titles released under the Johnny DC imprint and magazines, such as Mad, mostly sell through channels other than the direct market, so direct market sales don’t tell us much about their performance."

  2. What fails to occur to the clever marketing guys is that in order to have a jump on point issue, they have to make the preceeding one a great jump off point, where all the major ongoing plotline are nicely tied up, and anyone who was feeling meh about the comic can happily drop it without wondering how that dangling plot thread was going to resolve.

  3. Kevin: oops, you're right, and I didn't register that disclaimer. I'll add a note to that effect.

    In fairness to myself, I must explain that I did not learn how to read from comic books: I learned to read by looking out the window on long family drives staring at the highway signage, mainly signs for fast food restaurants. This taught me to read quickly and to think in terms of not going back to reread for any nuance or subtle point I may have missed.

    Still, I have to wonder...where are those Johnny DC monthly titles selling, if not through comic shops? What other venues still have the rack space to display comic books? And if there's still a distribution mechanism for getting comic books into places other than comic shops, why can't it be used for a broader range of titles? And is there somewhere we can see the actual sales figures for those Johnny DC books to get a better sense of their performance versus the direct market?

    Mari: Agreed. But I'm not sure if this is the fault of the marketing department so much as the editorial side, the former dealing with how the books are sold and the latter with what's actually in them. I don't see a lot of evidence that either side is doing its job with a clear, objective view of reality and there's plenty of blame to go around...

  4. DAMMIT, I had a (to my mind) wonderful, insightful, humorous post all worked up that got et by the ether because I had used my old Blogger sign-in.

    Anyway, the gist of it, as I can remember, was that judging by the size of the obnoxious manga shelves at the rural Books-A-Million in Brunswick GA (which is only the size of a supermarket), there is obviously one form of comic that's selling quite well in the U.S.

    It is true that they will likely be washed out of the culture by Hula Hoops 2010, but I can't help but think that there must be something they're doing right. I sincerely hope that thing is not their focus on sex-changing martial artists who shout the names of their Super Hyper Ultra Attacks when they defeat an opponent in a collectible card game.

  5. That raining soup line is pure gold!

    Totally agree about the Jumping On Issues - Jim Shooter once said that EVERY issue is somebody's first issue, so write them that way. In the 70's you could pick up any Marvel title at random and know you were going to be filled in on the story and the story you would read would be satisfying even it if was part 1 of a 3 part saga.

    I think that's a philosophy that's painfully absent from todays 6 part mini sagas that are really on 2 parts good with 4 parts of filler (except Beyond and Agents of Atlas which both ruled.)

    Anybody else out there miss the days when something like the Avengers' Korvac Saga actually was a BIG event?


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