The Times They Are A-Changing?

You should know that this is my second attempt at writing this. The first was far, far more hysterical and shrieking. Very reactionary. But I slept on it and had a lot of candy and saw a really pretty girl on the street dressed as Wonder Woman and now I generally feel better about life.

This week I really wanted to write something nice and uplifting. I wanted to focus on the good, the fun, the exciting in comics. You know, let us all join hands and collectively laugh and smile and revel in the pure awesomeness that is reading comic books. Then I read Augie de Blieck’s column which lead me to Marc-Oliver Frisch’s analysis of DC’s month-to-month sales estimates through September 2007.dccomics.jpg

While this version isn’t as relentlessly negative as the first go-round, there is an undercurrent of darkness. Are those shadows on the horizon? Mayhap.

I’m not going to go in-depth into the sales numbers with any kind of analysis because that would just be me pilfering Mr. Frisch’s work and I’m not that desperately up against my deadline. Besides, that’s what he does and he does it much better than I ever could. There are a few important things to note from his report, though. iFanboy has, at one time or another, praised the following books either here on the website or on either one of our weekly shows. Sometimes that praise has been lavished in heaping helpings. One, two, or all three of us really love these books and here’s how their most recent issue (according to the report) have estimated to have sold:

Y: The Last Man #58 – 25,539
Fables #65
– 25,311
Robin #166
– 24,877
The Walking Dead #42 – 23,107
The Spirit #10
– 19,962
Astro City: The Dark Age Book 2 #4
– 19,764
Checkmate #18
– 18,742
Jack of Fables #14
– 18,728
Ex Machina #30
– 17,163
Jonah Hex #23
– 15,157
Hellblazer #236
– 12,938
DMZ #23
– 11,858
The Exterminators #21
– 7,950
Faker #3
– 7,913
Scalped #9
– 7,678
Crossing Midnight #11 – 5,870

It can be pretty frightening looking at that list. More people work in my office building than buy most of the books on this list. That’s sad. But I think there are a few ways to look at those numbers.

(Keep in mind these are the thoughts and musings of an outside observer who is not privy to any information about the inner workings of any of these companies.)

One reaction to these numbers is the one Ron had when I showed them to him: “Wow, DC is in trouble.” It certainly appears that way and it’s not an unexpected reaction from someone so deeply entrenched in Marvel books. My problem with that reaction is that if these numbers are truly painting as bleak a picture as they appear to be, then the time for partisan politics has ended. DC Comics yo-yos in market share between the high 30s and the high 40s, for the most part. If for some reason DC had to massively scale back their comic book production, or — in the unlikely doomsday scenario, ceased publishing altogether — the market could not bear losing roughly 40% of its revenue. You might be a Marvel Zombie and you might laugh at DC’s numbers but I don’t think your local comic book emporium is going to stay open for very long without DC books to sell. The same goes for Marvel. If for some reason The House of Ideas closed up shop, comics as we know them would collapse. It’s a symbiotic relationship between the two companies — together they keep the status quo alive. Even a Marvel Zombie should look upon these numbers with a certain feeling of dread. If Batman books go away, X-Men books probably won’t be far behind.

Perhaps the more appropriate reaction is “Wow, comics as we know them are in trouble.” The optimist in me looks at these numbers and thinks that maybe this is an indicator that the trade paperback market is working. How else could Scalped — one of the very best books out there, seriously, why aren’t you buying it? — be surviving on around 7,000 sales? I can’t imagine they can cover their overhead with those numbers. It’s got to be that they expect and receive big enough sales numbers on the trade paperbacks of these books to make them profitable. They better. It’s not like the numbers are maintaining or increasing (except with the anomaly that is The Walking Dead which quietly increases its sales every month), every single book sees its sales decrease every single month. Sometimes a new creative team or a reboot will bump the numbers back up but with most of the books on the above list, the creators are the books. Brian Wood is DMZ and DMZ is Brian Wood. It’s not like you can replace him with Ed Brubaker to bump the numbers up.

If you think about it, comic book sales are kind of like playing with a balloon. You can try to keep knocking it back up into the air, but eventually it’s going to keep sinking to the ground. The realist in me thinks that the comic book industry as we know it right now probably doesn’t have that many years left in it. 10 years? 20? Who knows, but I can’t imagine the marketplace will look the same in 2027 as it does now. That’s not to say that comic books are going away, they’re not, but you’ve got to believe that something’s going to change sometime in the future. Maybe the digital revolution will save the single issue. Maybe the trade paperback will finally become the dominant form of storytelling. Maybe something we could never anticipate will change everything.

In the meantime, as bad as the numbers look I take heart in the fact that DC Comics is propped up by Time Warner and Marvel Comics appears to be rolling in licensing money and as long as comic book movies keeping dominating the box office we’ll still have Batman and X-Men comics. It’s the Jonah Hexs and Scalpeds I’m worried about.


  1. Jonah Hex and Scalped, two great westerns (well, Scalped is kind of like a modern western crossed with the Sopranos) I worry that the western may go away with those sluggish sales

  2. My constant frustration with these sales numbers: These numbers only represent sales of books to retailers, not sales of books to readers. Otherwise, I’m sure DC (or Marvel) can keep overhead down on the above titles by: assuming a strong, loyal core of readers, therefore keeping the print run small, but know sales will be guaranteed. That makes money, so keeps a book going.

    Something like World War Hulk or CW: The Return might get shipped in huge quantities to retailers who order them, but in the end they may cost a lot of money to return if there are tons of unsold copies. That loses big money.

    Actually, as Augie (and Jimski and I) have pointed out, delays in major titles (Mighty Avengers, CW, On More Day; also a number of DC titles) probably lose tons more money.

    I don’t see that factored in the numbers.

    I have learned over time to be a little distrustful of overally broad, very short term sales number surveys, as they tend to make bland, extremely mainstream and featureless things look successful (usually do to an extremely expensive marketing campaign). I don’t mean that the numbers have been “fixed;” I just think that determining the profitablity of a title that has a hardcore but niche fan base, or measuring the (lost) profitability of a title when it is not available to a reader who might otherwise buy it is a very difficult thing.

    Niche Marketing is a delicate art, but can be highly profitable. On the other hand, uncontrolled growth and overly optimistic giant print runs due to success of a short term marketing campaign can be a big financial disaster when it’s time for the end of the year company earnings report.

    In the iFanboy interview with Marvel’s PR Chief, he was quite definite that Marvel had an extensive sales research operation. I am sure DC does too, and they would not put out the lesser known titles (like Y or Ex Machina or Jack of Fables) if they were a total loss of money.

    So cheer up, Conor-Man, people have been predicting armageddon for a millenium or two, and it still hasn’t happened (knock on wood)…

  3. From the above list, I read Checkmate and The Walking Dead (just started) in single issues and DMZ and Scalped in trade. I have picked up The Spirit, irregularly. I dropped Faker after the second issue, but I have been thinking about checking out The Exterminators.

    Those are all books (except Faker) that I read immediately after I buy them. I don’t want any of them to go away, let alone the whole freaking industry. But what is a fanboy to do?

    What if…just maybe…and I know money is tight with many of us… if each of us picked one or two or three books from that list to buy a duplicate issue of for one month. Then give that extra copy to somebody, anybody, we suspect might enjoy them. Pick anyone you know who likes to read. At least for one month the sales for those books would boost. I think fan sites like this could coordinate something like that. And if this site was able to coordinate with similar sites and each site took a different month it could give an irregular boost to some of these titles. Then again, we would have to coordinate it with our retailers wouldn’t we? Those are the figures that get recorded, no?

    C’mon, everybody here declare at least one book from that list to buy an extra copy of. I am going to send an issue of Checkmate, Ex Machina, and DMZ to a friend who recently lent me the entire series of Rome on DVD. I think that is an appropriate “thank you.”

  4. I’ve been reading DMZ in trades (just finished the 3rd one) and love it so much that I’ve just ordered the latest issues (18-24)… but I’m curious about something; I don’t have a comic store near me and the closest one charges stupid amounts on postage (

  5. Robin, Walking Dead and DMZ surprise me, although I think the trade situation is really important to the second two.

  6. I’d like to see these sales numbers along side realted trade sales numbers-especially in the case of books like Scapled and DMZ-I don’t read either in isssue form, only trade. But I understand the paradox. No issue sales leads to cancellation which means no trades…sucks.

  7. There’s a list of titles there that could have been maintained under different circumstances (Wonder Woman, Flash), but I think the most concerning thing about those figures is the many titles that probably should be doing better — but aren’t.

    Looking at the name-books hovering around the thirties and twenties, you’ve even got to wonder where some of the die-hards went…

  8. Hmm, I read DMZ every month. I prefer monthlies over trades, but it still makes me wonder what the sales numbers are on trades for those titles. Brian Wood fuels my anti-government paranoia!

  9. It seems like Vertigo books always hover around these numbers. My collection is littered with great Vertigo titles that ran, if they were lucky, into the 20-issue area – Vaughn’s Swamp Thing, Outlaw Nation (really underestimated series), American Century, American Virgin being the latest casuality. It’s a shame that the highest selling titles in the line – Y and Fables – usually top out at the 25,000 copy mark while the latest flavor of the month will sell three or four times that much.

    Just goes to show that, in general, comic readers read superheroes, but not all superhero readers step outside that safety area. It’s like if it doesn’t have Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine or Superman in it, it doesn’t sell.

  10. This might sound really bad but i would really rather have comics move into a trade market rather than monthly issues. I think it is financially a lot easier, they look better on a bookshelf and they are easier to give to a friend to read as opposed to giving a person however many individual books.

    There are some major changes that will come out of this though.

    Inter book continuity will be a thing that goes out the window, because it will be a lot harder to remember what is going on in a certain point in time if there is a 4 month lag between one spider man trade and the next. There are of course ways that they could make it work, have an event book come out and then after have all the trades be in that new reality but that could be cumbersome for someone who simply reads Captain America every six months and doesn’t know a lot about events.

    Books like the Vertigo and Image line are going to do the best in that transformation and will probably get higher sales numbers for the simple reason of there being less continuity to deal with.

    The continuity of comic books is an amazing phenomenon and i bet that history will look back on it with wonder, but i don’t think that a huge continuity is a thing that is infinitely sustainable process and that eventually it’s going to go away and be replaced with something new.

    I just hope the big two are planning for that contingency. it would suck to see batman and spider-man just kinda end.

  11. I don’t know if non-big-two-publishers would do any better in an all trade industry. I know I am more likely to take a chance on the first issue of a series I don’t know anything about than I would be willing to buy a whole trade. Also I would think the smaller companies would need the monthly revenue to keep their bills paid.

    Also Batman and Spider-man will continue well beyond the time that comics crash. They not only sell movie tickets, video games, and actions figures but underooes, electric toothbrushes, bed sheets, candy etc. However there are no Scalped-theme hatchet shaped electric toothbrushes coming out by Oral-B.

  12. I think the Times are a-changin’, but I’m not sure that’s bad for us. It seems like we spend a lot of calories bitching about the Times.

    I’m not sure what sales figures are actually telling us. Every time I see them, someone says, “That doesn’t take bookstores/subscriptions/amazon/garage sales into account!”

    “Okay, fine,” I reply, “what are those numbers, then?” Silence, crickets, tumbleweeds, Steve Carell staring into the camera for far too long.

    The good news is, your recent interviewee tells us that Marvel has research that can predict within 5,000 copies how much a given book will sell, and I presume that Time Warner’s DC Comics has data at least that good. Given that, the important thing isn’t how many copies they sell all-things-being-equal, but rather whether sales meet expectations. 15,000 copies sucks, but not if they expected it to sell 10,000.

    All we’re really saying is that we wish more people read Y: the Last Man than Wolverine: Effing Origins. Times may a-change that as well; if the mainstream comics apocalypse we keep predicting actually happens, it’ll get rid of a lot of continuity nerds and licensed superheroes, but it won’t get rid of people who have a drive to create or the stories they’re passionate about telling. Hell, maybe thinning the herd wouldn’t be the worst thing ever.

  13. It’s been batted around before but I personally would have no problem switching some of these titles to trade-only format. I think that would be an interesting experiment that a company like Vertigo could actually pull off.

    I would be fine waiting 6 months for a DMZ trade for 15-20 bucks. Some creators might really be able to play with the storytelling if they were doing essentially a serialized graphic novel two times a year.

  14. The thing is, how does the publisher get strong enough to be able to experiment with an only traded series? I ask, because if it is not a success then they have lost income and I imagine most of the non-big-two-companies needs every penny they get.

    What if those series that are critically acclaimed, but have low sales number were collected in a quarterly magazine? Each issue would be a psudo trade what would be sold on magazine racks but at a cheaper cost. The magazine would be a collection of single issues from four to six comics that there are already trades for. In theory, the magazine would be a sampler that people could use to into the trades and to single issues from.

  15. There is a general rule of thumb in Hollywood: One big box office hit pays for 10 other films. If you look at the link to the month to month sales figures Conor posted at the top of this thread, there are plenty of books that sell over 100,000 copies, and these no doubt pay for the titles that don’t sell so well, that’s just the business.

    If Marvel and DC axed the books Conor listed, and more experimental titles, then they would lose something very important – breeding ground for the creators that will take the place of the current big names writing and drawing the best selling books. Do people remember how in the interview the PR guy gushed about Agents of Atlas and the guy who wrote that, and how many reading this read that title? My best guess is, they have marked him as “up and coming talent,” essential for keeping their titles fresh in the future when Bendis and Brubaker (god forbid) either get older (or more probably) get swiped by the competition, or go off and found their own company.

    Many of these titles can also be considered “prestige” titles – it would be embarrassing if one of the big two went several years without winning an Eisner. For branding purposes, you always want a little “prestige” in your inventory; something you can slap across an advert. So again, it’s worth taking the profit from the big sellers and “seeding” these other titles for the future.

    If there is any worry, it should be directed at titles that might be expected to attract a mainstream audience, but are not – Robin is on that list, maybe Checkmate. I suppose it then comes down to how committed the company is to that particular title. If they are, they can just keep the print run low, and not worry too much as some really crappy Superman or Batman book you didn’t buy probably made a ton of money and will pay for the books you do like.

    So, in that way Wolverine Effing Origins may not be paying for Y, but it is paying for some other stuff at Marvel you like selling at about the same numbers as Y. And Y will probably outsell Wolvie Effing Origins in Trade BIG time.

    But need to see the number on that as people have said….

  16. It would be interesting to see the trade sales number on those books. i can say that for myself, I read many of those books in trade paperback form only (DMZ, Fables, Crossing Midnight, Scalped). I read single issues of American Virgin, and that was hovering around 7K before getting the axe. I have to assume that Crossing Midnight (which sells less than AV) is on the block waiting to see how trade sales are. I bought the first trade and loved it. I just ordered the second trade.

    I suspect that a certain level of trade sales allows Vertigo to keep some series going with very few sales. And I’m OK with that as long as the trades are there. If Vertigo can manage to push from individual issues to trades only, I’m all for it. But they’ll have to find a way to build buzz without individual issues serving as a marketing tool. Cuz right now I use reviews and buzz on individual issues to gauge if I should buy the trade.

  17. Could it be the Halo 3 effect?

    Seriously though, I think this may be too much gloom-and-doom. If you compare a lot of the comic sales to those over the past several years, many of the numbers are up.

    One more thing about month-to-month sales declines: for the new or new-ish titles, this may also be the stores adjusting to what they are seeing they can sell. We’ve talked before about how these are not actual store sales figures, but publisher’s sales to stores. So if a store sees that it has too many JLAs or Avengers Initiative sitting around lately, they are going to nudge down their numbers.

  18. “We’ve talked before about how these are not actual store sales figures, but publisher’s sales to stores. So if a store sees that it has too many JLAs or Avengers Initiative sitting around lately, they are going to nudge down their numbers.”

    They may not be to-the-number accurate for buyer activity, but I think you’re actually pointing out the validity of the method. The figures react to retailers, retailers react to readers.
    Given the scale, it’s probably considerably more accurate than unit figures in the music industry.

  19. I posed this question to Augie and i await his reply, but i would love to hear iFanboy’s as well: how much do the companies rely on advertisement sales for comics? In most other print media (magazines and newspapers) ad revenue is where the money is…not actual subscriptions or counter sales. Is it that way in comics? With the healthy video game industry running ads galore every mainstream comic has ads galore…does that pay the bills and any sales, be it trade or otherwise pad the coffers? How much do the ads cost? Heck, i see ads for Midtown comics in indie books…how much is that costing them? With Big Brother Warner funneling plenty of ad revenue in the books, i really doubt low selling books really hurt DC badly, except perhaps some embarrassment….thoughts?

  20. These charts and numbers are constantly debated on The Beat. There is very hopeful information on that forum that seems to indicate these numbers aren’t that big a deal and they don’t tell the whole story. Also, the death knell for comics has been sounded numerous times; I remember my Dad brought home a Wall ST. Journal in 1983 0r ’84 that predicted no comic books would be published by ’89. Color separation costs, rising paper costs, Detective comics had gone bi monthly – things looked bleak. And every ten years or so, it looks like the industry will go blooey. But if fandom is any indication, we’re healthier as a community than ever.

  21. One more thing – entertainment media is increasingly moving toward ” long tail ” niche marketing. Many industry observers are predicting the end of the blockbuster era. Entertainmaent products will be judged on their own profitability, rather than on a competitive scale. So if Scalped sells enough to be profitable, it doesn’t really matter if New Avengers sells 10 times as much. The theory is, if 7,000 people buy it, Why Not keep publishing ? It’s easier to sell 7,000 copies of 10 books than identify and market a blockbuster that sells 100,000.

  22. yeah, like other people have said, those aren’t the total numbers. marvel adventures spiderman is the #1 subscription at marvel, and if the real numbers were released to us, that would be at the top of the sales charts. very weird. also, bendis is always quick to point out that books like scalped sell more their opening week than books like hilary clinton’s new book.

    also, vertigo especially is able to keep selling books with low numbers like that because they do SO WELL in trades.

  23. And we will probably NEVER know exactly how well they do. Taking that into acount, though, the monthly sales are gravy.