Comic Book Sales – 10 Years of Stagnation

The worst-selling best-selling comic of all time? Click to read ICv2's analysis of comics sales for February

Sales numbers for the comic book direct market in the month of February have been released and they’re getting the monthly armchair analysis (notably, at ICv2 and ComiChron). The direct market, if you don’t know, is essentially the comic book stores, specialty shops and book stores serviced by Diamond Comics Distributors.

The big eye-catching headline is that the highest selling comic book for February is the weakest top-seller in 10 years, possibly ever. DC ComicsGreen Lantern #62 by Geoff Johns and Doug Mahnke shipped only an estimated 71,500 copies. For a bit of context, February 2006‘s top seller moved over 140,000 copies. As ComiChron points out, Green Lantern in the 1960s was selling over 200,000 copies a month. Comics have also sold in the millions per month.

So is the end nigh? After January’s poor showing, and now this, there’s certainly plenty of hand-wringing and window jumping. It’s easy to draw that conclusion, but as both sites point out, the entire month’s sales are actually just barely up. That’s due to a modestly better sales through the mid-list and lower selling comics, or the long tail. Without those sales, the industry would indeed be hurting due to a lack of breakout hits and lackluster ordering of the top 100 comics. A dive was also averted due to high priced graphic novels sold in February, such as the Batman: Return of Bruce Wayne deluxe hardcover by Grant Morrison and various artists, with a suggested price of $29.99.

There are lots of factors at play here. DC Comics has rolled back their cover prices to $2.99. The first quarter is traditionally weaker. Diamond started shipping comics on Tuesday for a Wednesday on-sale date, and the transition threw off some orders.

While it seems like comics sale are constantly falling and that this is an all-new low, I think the notable observation made is that comics sales are largely where they were 10 years ago. In this economy, that’s a victory. But then you consider that 10 years ago, comic stores had nowhere near as many resources. These newer resources should theoretically be pulling in customers. Graphic novels and manga in book stores and libraries were just ramping up ten years ago. The first X-Men movie had arrived with much enthusiasm but the huge success of Spider-Man, Iron Man, Batman Begins and a slew of other comic book adaptations were just around the corner. During the decade, web comics would continue to expand and diversify, becoming a (more) accepted form of syndication and distribution. And digital comics on iPhones, iPads, Playstation PSPs, Androids, on the web and elsewhere were beyond most people’s imagination and are now a quickly growing infant. Educators at libraries and schools have embraced comics as literacy tools and are helping their reach increase. This decade has started with a mass awareness and enthusiasm of comics that has never been higher.

And yet for comics stores, it’s like none of the progress from the last 10-15 years has even happened. All of these elements should serve as feeders to comic book stores. A percentage of readers from each of these places would theoretically be curious to more fully dive in to this world, and the comic book store is the best place to go. Or it’s supposed to be. Maybe it isn’t the best place. Or maybe it isn’t the most welcoming place for people coming from those other places. Or maybe we’re losing too many readers from old age or dissatisfaction and the new readers are causing us to break even. If that’s the case, I guess we get credit for stopping the hemorrhaging.

Diamond is trying to tie in the digital element but it’s criticized as inconvenient and counter-intuitive to the instant gratification of the digital world. Why would someone drive to a comic book store to buy a code that they use to download something to their device of choice when they can just do the same thing without driving anywhere either illegally or by waiting a month? Good question. But at least they’re trying. That same experimentation (or, preferably, better experimentation) should be applied to book stores, schools, libraries, movie theaters, TV, and anywhere else someone might discover that comics can be as good a way to be entertained as any other form of entertainment.

Diamond and its network of independent comic stores have a chance to turn the halted hemorrhaging into real growth. While there are a few stores out there that are doing what they can on their own, a series of coordinated efforts is what is needed. And if they don’t do it, one of those feeders will do it instead and become the dominant space in the industry. Comics aren’t going anywhere. It’s how you get them and how they get to you that is changing.

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