The State of the Industry

By | Tuesday, December 10, 2019 Leave a Comment
Yeah, most "State Of The" bits are given at the beginning of the year. But me? I'm going to do one at the end of the year while everybody else is doing their "Best Of" lists!

I'm actually feeding off a piece by Rob Salkowitz over on ICv2 in which he provides a sales-based overview of what the market looks like at the moment. The key takeaway is: "the biggest headline has to be the continuing dominance of the young reader, teen and young adult segments, embodied by the jaw-dropping multi-million copy first print runs of new works from Raina Telgemeier and Dav Pilkey." This is basically the drum a number of folks like myself have been beating for at least a few years now -- comics do not start and stop with superheroes and, in fact, that genre is increasingly a poor representation of the industry at large. I haven't checked the numbers lately, but recall that Telgemeier accounted for 5% of all new comic revenue in the US! For several years! By herself! And that's almost entirely outside the direct market where Marvel and DC sell strongest.

Comics Sales Chart from John Jackson Miller
I'll bring up again that Milton Griepp and John Jackson Miller did some number crunching back in October that apparently surprised a lot of ComicsPRO members. The entire direct market only accounts for about 46.5% of all comics sales in North America. In 2018, they brought in $510 million compared to $465 million from book stores, $100 million from digital downloads, and $20 million for other channels (publishers & creators selling directly to readers at conventions, etc.). That's $1,095 million in comic sales throughout last year, and the entire direct market accounted for less than half of that.

As Salkowitz points out, some comics publishers are on board with this trend and he calls out First Second Books, and BOOM! Studios among others. He also notes a good deal of "high-quality titles oriented toward LGBTQ and gender-fluid themes, and casts of characters who mirror America’s most diverse generation." I certainly haven't read all of them, but the ones I have read have been excellent. (For the record, my personal favorite in this "2019 released YA graphic novel with gender-fluid themes" category is Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen Crenshaw.)

Salkowitz also notes that with Saga on hiatus and The Walking Dead finishing up, sales in the superhero/superhero-adjacent category were noticeably impacted. Marvel and DC seem to be largely banking on media tie-in bumps from their various movies and TV shows, but historically, neither have really been able to deliver very well on that. In large part because they've been so exclusively focused on the direct market that potential new readers that aren't regular comic shop veterans don't even know where they can pick up appropriate books. A reader might've loved Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse but what do they find if they're just searching on Amazon? A zillion completely unrelated Spider-Man stories. Are they going to sort through all of them to find which ones features Miles Morales? Not likely. A few titles, like Watchmen and The Boys are limited enough in scope that those aren't too bad, but without the benefit of weekly trips to your LCS, try finding any good tie-in material for Superman, Batman, or Wolverine.

Look, I'm not going to say superheroes are dead or anything deliberately antagonist like that. But I do see the comic industry -- not the direct market's interpretation of the comic industry -- finally starting to self-correct to satisfy more than a single genre. We're seeing books from other countries (more than just Japan) finally start getting translated into English. (Moebius and Hergé are, of course, exceptions and have been in the US a while longer.) But while those markets by themselves aren't all-encompassing, combined with those YA books mentioned above and webcomics, we're getting some semblance of broad representation. Not just of race and gender and ethnicity and those other things people think of when they hear "diversity" but of storytelling writ large. We're seeing different schools of thought with regard to how to pace a story or how to depict a type of event or how to represent different aspects of life. We're finally starting to see comics, as an industry, address the self-imposed limitations it's used for the past several decades.

And it's about damn time!
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