Within the last year or so a lot of food analogies have been used to describe what’s going on in the comic book world. Pizzas smashing together was the analogy used to explain Marvel’s 2015 summer event called Secret Wars. DC’s new direction for 2016 is being described as a meat and potatoes approach to storytelling. It seems like everyone wants to talk about food instead of what’s really going on. To help me navigate through the food analogies and prevent my appetite from distracting me, I enlisted the assistance of Colin McMahon owner/operator of Pittsburgh Comics. Colin has been operating Pittsburgh Comics for over nine (9) years now and has witnessed first-hand the recent trends going on in the industry. I couldn’t think of anyone better to ask about what went wrong for Marvel and DC in 2015, and how things can get better in 2016.
In 2015 we saw the big two (Marvel and DC) struggle with their core superheroes and it resulted in a noticeable slip in sales. Opinions have been expressed that the slip in sales is due to a combination of factors such as flooding the market with niche comics, unreasonable variant stipulations on retailers, frequent reboots, and other reasons. Personally, I believe the fall of the big two started when Superman began wearing his underwear on the inside, instead of on the outside.
I’m kidding but there is evidence to support that line wide reboots like DC’s New52 end up alienating long-time fans that do not want to see their favorite characters re-tooled for a new era. Before I get into the risks associated with line wide reboots, let’s focus on their appeal and why the big two resort to them during uncertain times.
In late 2011 DC rebooted its entire line of comics with the launch of the New52. Colin attested to the fact that the reboot was a huge success for him as a retailer, “It brought in a lot of new and lapsed readers. You could jump on without needing prior knowledge of the characters and their relationships.” It’s true – reboots are a great jumping on point because each character starts with a clean slate with a new #1 issue. Also appealing is the speculation that the #1 issues will be worth something over time like Action Comic #1 (1938) that sold for $3.2 million in 2014.
As you can see by the September 2011 sale chart (thanks to http://www.comichron.com) many of the DC titles part of the New52 were a success.
Colin was quite happy with the way the New52 initially sold and felt that it worked because, for the most part, it was handled well. Keep in mind that DC never did a line wide reboot prior to the New52 so it was a special situation for comic fans.
Fast-forward to September 2015 and the sales chart tells a totally different story. Other than Batman, Detective Comics, Justice League, Superman, Green Lantern, and Action Comics there are no other New52 titles in the Top 40 for the month.
Colin has noticed a decline in readership over the years regarding the New52, “Most of the sales gain has drifted away…for me, everything is down except for Batman.” Colin is hopeful that DC’s newest, possible reboot, called REBIRTH will breath life back into DC comics.
Colin is of the belief that since the New52 was released there have been a lot of mishandled reboots on the part of Marvel that have contributed to fan fatigue regarding #1s and reboots. Since 2011 Marvel has come out with three (3) incarnations of its books – Marvel NOW (2012), All New NOW (2013), and All New All Different (2015). These incarnations have resulted in the books being rebooted with a #1 or having a #1 put on them to indicate a good jumping on point. In contrast, DC has come out with two (2) incarnations of its books since 2011 – the New52 (2011) and the DCYOU (2015).
The reality is that #1s published by DC and Marvel are no longer as valuable as they once were because hundreds of thousands of them are being produced and sold – it’s no longer rare to get your hands on a #1 issue. Furthermore, the idea of #1s being something special is a declining notion because DC and Marvel are rebooting with more frequency and Marvel, more so than DC, has been very liberal with its use of #1s in recent memory.
Back in December 2013, Marvel slapped a big bold #1 on Avengers #24. The issue wasn’t a #1 but the way that it was produced made you think that it was. Avengers #24 was part of the All New NOW initiative and the #1 was to designate that it was a good jumping on point for new readers. I could be wrong, but I don’t believe that a #1 was ever used on a higher numbered issue to designate a good jumping on point. Take a look at the cover below – the #24 is in the lower right hand corner of the cover about ¼ the size of the big bold #1 in the top right hand corner.
Did the tactic of slapping a #1 on issue #24 work? You bet it did. It was the 2nd best selling comic in the month of December 2013 (see below).
Interestingly, when issue #25 came out the following month it sold about half of what issue #24 did (see below).
Where did 60,000 readers go after just one issue? Even more telling is that two issues later the issue dips another estimated 11,600 issues (see below).
I think this is a telling example of the selling power that comics with a #1 have. Of note is that there is a bigger story to be told here. At first glance, you’d think that by issue #27 readership reverted back to status quo sales; however, prior to issue #24 Avengers was selling at a consistent rate of 70,000+ per issue. Huh? How could you lose some of your core audience in just two issues? The answer may not have been as evident then as it is now, but reboots (or the appearance of a reboot) may be doing more harm than good when it comes to sales.
In 2015 both DC and Marvel released major events. DC’s event called Convergence was done to allow the company two (2) months to move the company across the country without the risk of delaying their ongoing titles. Marvel’s event called Secret Wars was meant to, kind of, maybe, reboot the Marvel Universe. Both of these events had their respective problems. Two (2) problems that they shared was that they bombarded the market with a slew of tie-in issues that all started with a #1 issue, and the events interrupted the stories of the regular ongoing titles. The result: a decline in readership for both companies.
I want to focus on Marvel here for moments because Secret Wars initiated a line wide reboot for Marvel called All New All Different – similar to the New52 reboot. In October of 2015, Marvel released Invincible Iron Man #1, Amazing Spider-Man #1 and others to start out their reboot. As you can see from the chart below, Iron Man and Spider-Man sold really, really well.
Again the power of a #1 is reflected in this chart because in October 2015 Amazing Spider-Man #1 and #2 shipped. Issue #1 out sold issue #2 by about 134,000 copies. Regardless, the reboot appeared to be a success because previously Amazing Spider-Man was selling slightly over 100,000 per issue (see January 2015 sales chart below).
Now here comes the smoking gun.
In December of 2015, two months after the reboot, Amazing Spider-Man is selling at approximately 82,100 issues per month (see below).
That’s roughly 20,000 issues less than what the series was selling before the reboot. Keep in mind, the 20,000 issue drop occurred within one year, not gradually over time. Based on interacting with customers and witnessing recent selling trends, Colin explained that the severe drop off in Marvel sales could be due to the following reasons:
1) The continued reboots in a short amount of time are alienating old and new readers. The reboots are becoming so commonplace that if a reader doesn’t like where a series is going he/she can drop it and wait for the series to get rebooted. This contrasts the “old days” when a series went on for decades and readers were more inclined to stick through a writer they weren’t fond of so as not to have a gap in their collection that was part of a long-standing history. Colin stated that it’s difficult to get those readers back that drop a title in anticipation of a reboot.
2) The continued reboots in a short amount of time are causing confusion amongst readers. Colin pointed out that Spider-Gwen (part of All New Now) ended at issue #5 and six months later came back with a #1 issue as part of All New All Different. Colin stated that novice customers were confused when given another #1 issue because they were looking for issue #6.
3) Several months before Secret Wars was to begin Marvel hyped its female characters such as Ms. Marvel, Spider-Gwen, Squirrel Girl, etc. These new titles took off bringing in a lot of new-to-comic female readers but then the titles were put on a six-month hold while Secret Wars occurred. During the six-month hold, the new readers fizzled out because their books were no longer on the shelves. By the time Secret Wars concluded and the titles were re-launched starting at #1 again the readers were no longer around. To make matters worse, when the titles were re-launched with at #1 some of the titles sort of picked up where they left off and were not true #1s making them less of a good jumping on point.
4) Too many niche titles flooded the market during Secret Wars that were neat, but didn’t have the customer base to support them. Additionally, the niche comics were not new-reader friendly making it difficult to pitch them for purchase.
Getting back to DC for a moment, Colin’s recent disappointment with the company is that the re-tooling that DC tried to do through the DCYOU initiative lasted too long. The classic characters felt too far removed from what makes them familiar to the fans. Colin believes that in order for DC (and Marvel) to regain readers it needs to get back to
bun and brisket (inside joke)…er…meat and potatoes type of stories.
If we look at the recent sales chart for January 2016 it’s obvious that the core superhero comics for both companies are not selling well when compared to prior years. Right now, Marvel is hitting it out of the park with Star Wars, but absent that property, the rest of its core line is underperforming. If we look at DC, Dark Knight III is selling really well, but if you take that hit out of the equation, most of DC’s core titles are underperforming. Just look at the sales chart below, the core superhero titles for both companies are underperforming.
Now you may think I’m being unfair because Batman came in 8th, Uncanny X-Men came in 10th, Amazing Spider-Man came in 11th, Mighty Thor came in 13th, etc., but look at the estimated issues they were selling a year ago.
Batman is down 9,000 issues from last year.
Uncanny X-Men is up 44,000 issues (keep in mind it’s a #1).
Amazing Spider-Man is down 29,000 issues from last year.
Thor is down 9,000 issues from last year.
Now maybe things even out because issues that were not being produced in 2015 like Spider-Man/Deadpool which sold 133,813 issues in 2016 make up for the losses on core titles. However, I would think the idea would be to keep your core titles up in sales while selling specialty titles like Spider-Man/Deadpool or in DC’s case Dark Knight III.
Colin shared that the success of many retailers, including his shop, is tied closely to how well DC and Marvel perform. I didn’t want this article to sound like Colin or I were bashing on DC or Marvel – we are just pointing out some trends that should be concerning to both companies. I thought it would be best to conclude this article with some thoughts Colin had regarding how DC and Marvel can revive readers, until next time true believers!
- Limit the number of niche comic titles that are not very new-reader friendly.
- Focus on core titles and team-ups that have stood the test of time.
- Spin-off titles for a character(s) should spin out of a successful series first, not start arbitrarily.
- Focus marketing efforts on titles that are to be released in the near future, not several months ahead.
- Acquire talents from indie writers and artists that could bring a refreshing take on characters.
- Self-contained events in a title and fewer crossovers that interrupt ongoing titles.
- More self-contained books of popular characters that are 6-12 issues that are not tied to continuity like when DC published Elseworlds stories.
- A reduction in the number of variant covers in order to make them something to be sought after.
Pittsburgh Comics is located at 113 E. McMurray Road, McMurray, PA., 724-941-5445