Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Future of Comics: A Casual Readership

As reported by Heidi McDonald in The Beat, these Are the bestselling graphic novels in the last 6 months according to Amazon.

This list reinforces the fact that Marvel and DC (excluding Watchmen) are not the mainstream. Also, 3 of the creators on this list are women, despite the fact that comics are still a male dominated field, a fact skewed by the gender biased  hiring practices at Marvel and DC. While Marvel and DC  put out more titles than anybody else, they still only cater to a niche audience. Only one title (again, Watchmen, the exception to the rule) is a superhero title, and all but Watchmen (which should be) are creator owned. Two are humor, and only three are genre comics. According to McDonald, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, not on the list, was the bestselling book of the year and European import Asterix and Japanese import One-Piece also did record sales. 

The Fan Market

Despite attempts to attract new readership with recent revamps like Marvel Now! and The New 52, the two largest comics companies ,Marvel and DC,  have consistently catered to their long standing fans. These companies get most of their business through the direct sales comics market (comics shops) rather than bookstores. They target a rapidly dwindling fan base of aging adult readers. Instead of reaching out to new readers, their strategy has instead been to get these older readers to buy more comics. Because of this approach, they still manage to sell in relatively high numbers, but aside from a few spikes in sales a result of the speculators market, these numbers have been steadily decreasing. It is because of the fan market that Marvel and DC and some of the smaller direct sales only comics companies continue to reach the bestseller lists.

Japanese Manga, since they cater to a younger fan base outside the direct sales market, are one of the few exceptions to this rule, but still represent a niche market.

 Comics Speculation and the Death of the Collectible

While these sales spikes have benefited comics shops in the short term, the speculators market has largely hurt the comics industry, both due to a boom and bust cycle that mirrors the toy industry's similar trends with Cabbage Patch Kids and Beanie Babies, and the wider availability of what would have otherwise been hard to find comics by online retailers and E-Bay.

The practice of grading and  "slabbing", or sealing comics in Barex sleeves to preserve their condition by the CGC, (also known as Comics Guaranty LLC)  has recently become a popular way to artificially increase the value of comics to sustain the collectors market. Once slabbed, an arbitrarily over-inflated value is placed on the book. This practice essentially renders the comics unreadable unless the seal is broken (and breaking the seal is discouraged, since the value of the books are, according to the CGC, considerably lowered if the package is opened). For a number of reasons I won't go into here, this practice is highly controversial among collectors.

While very old and rare comics will continue to be collectible by varying degrees, comics that were printed after the early 80s are poor long term investments on the whole, since this is when the rise in the popularity of comics shops and the collectors market began. This, not coincidentally, is when Marvel and DC decide to go direct sales only and target fans exclusively.
 Since profit margins on periodicals are low, comics shops have long depended on this collectors market to survive. Unfortunately, because of this dependence and its dwindling audience, these shops are increasingly disappearing.

While manga themselves are not typically collectible, the toys and ancillary products based on manga are. The direct sales and general toy market have also tried to seize on toys as collectibles, with limited edition statuettes and other toys directed at adult fans, but again, these adult fans are becoming fewer and fewer.

A Casual Readership

So with the drop in speculation and the dwindling direct sales fan base, the long term survival of the comics market is dependent on casual readers, and the Amazon bestseller list is reflective of this. Like books, movies, and other media, for comics to continue to thrive, they need to appeal to a general audience. Again, as the Amazon bestseller list reflects, this is already happening.

Aside from perennials like Maus, Watchmen, Persepolis and Fun Home, and popular newspaper strips like Dilbert, the rest of the list is telling. Allie Brosh's Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened is based on a popular blog feature that's completely outside the radar of the comics fan base. Diary of a Wimpy Kid has no presence at all in the direct sales market, but has entered the popular consciousness like few books have.The Walking Dead is a hugely popular TV show based on the comic, rather than the other way around. The Walking Dead series of graphic novels is not merchandizing, but the source material.

TV and film based on books are always going to be more popular and successful than the books, but unlike franchise comics which are work-for-hire, comics creators who own the rights to their own books get a full slice of the pie.Artists who sign work-for-hire contracts get little if anything in the way of royalties, while artists who own their own creations get royalties from the publication, TV rights and related merchandise. While this practice is unremarkable in traditional publishing, comics have had a long history of publishers exploiting artists by forcing them to sign away all rights to their creations. 

But all of these books depend on a casual readership,on readers who aren't necessarily big fans of the medium but simply pick up a graphic novel from time to time. The future of the medium is going to be dependent on a broad-based casual readership rather than a small community of dedicated  fans, and fortunately, this already appears to be where we're headed.


  1. I was a kid in the 70s. When I got into comics - mostly Marvel - I wanted all the stories that had been published up to then. They just weren't accessible. I remember my brother & I wrote to Marvel asking how we could get them and got a form reply that said they only had copies for their own use. There were ads in the comics for back issue providers but I didn't have the money to mail order stuff. Eventually we discovered a comic store in a nearby town and had decent luck buying what we wanted, though, of course, you could only go back so far before the project exceeded any conceivable budget. (Plus Oz books!) I've been buying some of the Marvel reprint collections of comics there's no way I could have purchased as a kid. I prefer the color reproductions, but if I'm more casually interested the b&w versions at least are there.

    Several years ago, facing the boxes of comics I'd bought over the years, I looked into selling them - and was shocked to discover that the paradigm had changed completely. As you hint in your post, comics from the early 80s on have little resale value, often less than purchase price - even in perfect condition. Big loss if you were thinking of the stuff as investment - and who in my generation, having imbibed tales of mothers tossing out comics collections and the big price tags on what survived, could have expected a loss like that? I gave away some comics that I had little interest in rereading, bags of them, in fact. That was hard. But, of course, I still have several boxes of comics. I will have to do another cull soon, I suppose. Giveaways, probably. It's too bad, but I'm thankful I rarely bought as a speculator (okay, a couple times but I quickly disliked having to hold onto dupes), so what I have I did get enjoyment out of. My money's worth? Maybe even that!

  2. I sold a lot of my comics after college for not much money, and regretted it. But then I found I could get a lot of the ones I liked or wanted back pretty cheaply on e-bay, so I've only benefitted, in general, from the death of the speculators market. I always was pretty hard on the comics I had, and wasn't very careful with them, and always felt like I was compromising my investments with every crease. That's another thing I'm glad not to have to think about. I just loved them too much to keep them in the box all the time. Still do. Though I have my boxes.

    Michel Fiffe has a lot of his comics bound in collections by book binders, and I'm very tempted to go that route if I ever have a chance for better access.Comics are meant to be read, not hoarded.

  3. Hey, Jed:
    I disagree with most of this, but I still like you (as a friend. No dating.). This window is too teeny for me to get all blah, blah, but I will mention on detail:
    "these books are unreturnable due to the monopoly of Diamond Distributors"
    Comics in the direct market have been returnable since the dawn of the direct market. It's not a result of Diamond's monopoly.

    Keep on caring, my friend!

  4. Oops. I took that part out now, about not being returnable. Fixed!

    Otherwise I'd be anxious to hear why you disagree.

  5. I'm gonna email you some thoughts cuz this tiny window in the comments section is for suck!

  6. And you do realize I'm just a little disappointed. You'd think I'd at least get it HALF right.

  7. This post, and your Archie post, are super interesting. I feel like a casual readership is the perfect direction for comics to go in. Comics shouldn't be seen as, "do you read comics, or do you not read comics?" Because readers shouldn't have to be comic nerds, comics should just be read by everyone, like novels or movies. If the explosion of indie conventions and the lists of which comics are selling best and getting awards and acknowledgements are any indication, genre comics are on their way out as the medium is explored to its true potential.

  8. Thanks Josh!

    I don't think genre comics are on their way out--genre sustains every other medium, so it should sustain comics. Just like Cop shows on TV, Mystery novels, the most successful media is still genre driven. But one genre doesn't have to dominate the medium. I just see an interest in superhero comics as an almost separate thing. And at this point, I think what drives fans of superhero comics is less about the medium and more about superheroes the genre and the intricate continuity and nostalgia and everything else that makes the fan base primarily composed of 40 year olds. I suspect if they could get the same superhero fix out of some other medium, they wouldn't care about comics.

  9. "a rapidly dwindling fan base of aging adult readers"


    How are you reaching this conclusion? This does not comport with any reality I have ever observed either within my own stores over the last 25 years (where it is WILDLY incorrect, the average age of a customer for us is pretty much at it's lowest point in that quarter-century), or at conventions, etc.

    Let me interject a FACT for you to consider -- for the latest month of reporting (December 2013), the hundred-and-first best selling comic of the month (in other words: a Not At All Good Selling Comic) -- Marvel Knights Hulk #1 -- sold 22,169 copies. In a single month.

    Looking at BookScan FOR THE ENTIRETY OF 2013 -- and those sales figures INCLUDE Amazon -- only 38 graphic novels sold that many copies or more during an entire YEAR of sales.

    I love casual fans, I love selling non-superhero material (and we sell buckets of it!), but the actual and real facts on the ground do not seem to match your analysis, even a little.


  10. I'm glad your sales are strong, but I'm sticking with the aging fans buying more stuff. They've been unsuccessfully trying to bring in new blood for years. And by "rapidly" I mean in the last 30 years. The number of direct sales shops have reduced. I would be glad to see direct sales shops thrive and have nothing against them, but my hope is that this includes some casual traffic.

    And I'm curious if those sales include kid friendly titles like Diary of a Wimpy Kid?

    And bookscan isn't always so accurate. Here's a good article on that subject:

    Which means that these books you mention may be selling even more than you say. Or books totally off the radar may be doing better. It's hard to say.

  11. Just noticed your post in the comments. Let me take a look.

  12. It looks like you've covered this territory pretty thoroughly on the thread above. I don't know that I have much to add to that. I think Colleen Doran holds up her side of the argument pretty well.

  13. And here's some stats on average ages of readers:

    DC's "New 52 largely male, and over 18 in both surveys.:

    Here's a survey that shows a greater percentage of women, but men still win out, and most readers are still over 18. I consider that an aging fan base.

  14. And by "over 18" I mean a considerable number are in their late 20s and older.

  15. At any rate, that's about all I have to say about it. You spoke to this subject at length on that other thread, and I don't think you're going to get any further, or be more heard on my little blog than you were on The Beat.

  16. Yeah, I don't know that I'd consider "rapidly" = "over a 30 year horizon" or "aging" = "over 18", but if that's how you're defining terms, well that's where we're at, I guess!

    Heh, that CBR poll is like 100 people on the internet!

    I'm just telling you, as a guy who sells comics for a living, that the audience is currently increasing, and it is going younger, as well.


  17. Well, that's good. I'm glad more people are buying comics if that's the case. But my hope is that the audience will expand outside of the realm of fandom and for that to happen it's got to include walk-in traffic, not every wednesday regulars.