It’s an undeniable fact – comics have never saturated culture more.
From the endless plethora of superhero blockbusters, to TV hits like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, to the slew of related videogames and cartoon series, it feels like the vast bulk of modern entertainment is either superhero-dominated, or at least superhero-inflected.
But within this boom, there is a surprising paradox: monthly comic-book sales – you know, the ones with all the superheroes in – are at pretty much their lowest ebb of all time.
For instance, according to these figures, the third highest-selling comic book of February 2016, in North America, was Batman, which shifted 102,689 copies. So what percentage of Americans bought this comic? Well, according to Google, the population of America is roughly 318.9 million.
So, if we do 102,689 ÷ 318,900,000 x 100, we should get the percentage we’re looking for. Which is… a paltry 0.03%.
To put that into context: in the 1940s, many individual comics sold over a million copies apiece. And even by the 1980s, a title on the verge of cancellation, like the pre-Alan Moore Swamp Thing, could still sell 20,000 copies per month, enough to almost be included in February 2016’s top 100-selling comics.
(For a far more detailed, accurate, and all-round better analysis of the trajectory of comic book sales over the past seventy years than I can provide, click here.)
So what’s going on? Why does there seem to be an inverse relationship between comics’ cultural profile, and their physical sales? Why aren’t individual titles selling anywhere near as well as, presumably, they should be?
Firstly, I don’t think it’s the fault of readers. You have to earn your readership. So instead, let’s consider the storytelling – and the mindset behind that storytelling – that they’re being offered.
Let’s talk revisionism
If one thing characterises modern, mainstream superhero comics, it’s revisionism. Continuities are constantly being rewritten. Titles relaunched, with a brand-spanking new ‘Issue 1’, and the promise that things will be radically different, more exciting, and better than ever.
The problem with these revisions is everything they wipe away. For all the readers that might be freshly drawn to the title, all of those who have loyally followed it for years are suddenly told: “Umm, you know all that stuff you’ve spent your time and money on? Well, none of that counts anymore. Enjoy!”
Such revisionism is applied, as you would expect, almost solely to titles with a lot of historical baggage – a.k.a the top-selling superhero books. It’s a narrative quirk, so far as I can think of, which is pretty much unique to comics. Here, a single series – such as Batman or Superman – can run continually for seventy years, with creators constantly needing to find new ways to keep readers hooked. No wonder they sometimes resort to drastic extremes.
But the moment you invalidate the history of a continuing series, you begin stripping the joy or meaning out of any long-term commitment to it; chipping away at your own edifice, and, frequently, sliding towards a regurgitation your own mythology. I mean, has any story ever justified the pressing of a reset button?
Do this, and your storytelling loses some of its integrity. The readers’ trust wanes. That’s basically inevitable.
The fact that this failing besets the very comics that once ruled the sales charts, may help explain why the top-selling comics now only sell tens of thousands of copies, as opposed to hundreds of thousands.
The problem with “big event” storylines
Alongside revisionism, mainstream superhero comics also suffer from, in my opinion, one other major deficiency: a feverish obsession with big-event storylines. Every summer, both Marvel (Spider-Man, Hulk, Avengers, etc.) and DC (Superman, Batman, Aquaman, etc.) deliver massive, cataclysmic storylines that embroil the vast bulk of their titles, and which basically declare, year after year after year, that Nothing Will Be The Same Again.
As you can imagine, it all gets a bit wearing and pointless. If the status quo is always being shaken up, is there really a status quo to shake up? (Welcome to Zen Comic Teachings 101.) Or is it an unavoidable case of diminishing returns, where each “ground-breaking” event means less and less than the one before?
Pointing this stuff out is nothing new. Countless comic readers, afflicted with “big-event fatigue”, complain about it all the time.
What’s worth mentioning is that the stories which have actually changed these comic characters, their universes, and the very medium itself, haven’t been crossovers or needed a ton of hype. Instead, when Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns got the wider world paying attention to, and enthusing over, comics, it was mainly through sheer critical acclaim and word-of-mouth buzz. Thirty years later, these stories are still selling phenomenally well.
These weren’t grand-event narratives screaming for your time and money. They were self-contained, experimental stories, told with passion and integrity. They weren’t built to change the medium; and yet, perhaps even to the surprise of their creators, they were the ones that did.
So forget the short-term sales spikes that big-event narratives can bring. Just focus on telling a dope story. Or, to put it another way: ply crisis upon crisis to your books, and your sales could soon be in one.
To be clear: this is not to say that no good or great work is done in mainstream comics. It’s simply highlighting a broad phenomenology that seems to be leading to their decline.
The issues we’ve looked at so far – revisionism and big-event storylines – are both matters regarding storytelling integrity. They are problems internal to the medium, and thus are (relatively easily) fixable.
What’s much trickier are the external factors.
The wider worldview
Comics, in their physical monthly format, seem to have been hit hard by almost every other medium. Want your superhero fix? Movies, TV and videogames can take care of that. Fancy reading this month’s latest comics? Don’t go down to the shops. Simply download them from Comixology (owned by Amazon) to your computer.
Even graphic novels – simply monthly comics collected into a book-like form – have eaten up some of comics’ old market share. For instance, while February 2016’s comic book sales were down 7% on February 2015’s, graphic novel sales were up 12% over the same period. This isn’t surprising. Graphic novels tend to be cheaper than the individual comics they collect; have no adverts; and can be binge read (Netflix-style).
Plus, unlike monthly comics (which you can read for years, only to have much of what you enjoyed eliminated from continuity) graphic novels essentially have a beginning, middle, and end. You’re not likely to have your story undermined partway through reading it. Therefore, there’s an integrity to their form, and this perhaps gives them an advantage over monthly comics.
All of this, I hope, helps to explain why, in the age of the superhero boom, the medium that birthed them is going through something of a superhero bust.
Nevertheless, within this flux that the industry is experiencing, there are fascinating shoots of green growth – growth wholly contingent upon 21st-century culture.
In fact, it’s been such a success that established comic companies are now also beginning to utilise these platforms. In February this year, for instance, comic company Avatar posted a campaign on Kickstarter to raise money for a new black-and-white anthology that would feature some of the best talent, scriptorial and artistic, in the business. In 14 days, it was ridiculously over-crowdfunded to the tune of 1,000%+ its initial target, drumming up a total of $110,333.
Clearly, there’s a lot of good will out there for backing new comics, both from obscure, amateur creators, as well as from the industry’s hoary heavyweights. None of this would have been possible even a decade ago.
Moreover, on a general level, spending is like voting. Whatever you spend your money on, you’ve voted for there to be more of that thing in the world, whether it’s vegetarian food in the supermarket, action films, or electric cars. And broadly speaking (although there are many caveats), in a capitalist society, you get the world you spend/vote for. So perhaps these crowdfunded comics signal the way things are going.
Personally, I’d hate to guess. Look at Marvel – they filed for bankruptcy in 1996. Flash-forward twenty years, and they’re a corporate juggernaut. Who would’ve predicted that?
But whatever happens, hopefully this article offers a snapshot of where comics are at today… where they might be heading… and spotlights a couple of key flaws that, to bring readers back into the fold, the monthly medium urgently needs to address.
(N.B. I’m not a comic retailer, and this article is largely based upon anecdotal evidence and online research. So if there are any false facts, glaring gaps of knowledge, or cack-handed misprisions on my part, then, as ever, corrections are welcome. Well, not welcome exactly – they’ll really undermine my authority – but I’ll be happy to post them below.)
About the author
Josh Spiller is a published writer of comics, short stories, and scripts, and is currently looking for representation for his first novel. He’s also interacted with the “real world” by reviewing restaurants and theatre pieces for Flux Magazine and The London Word, and is worried that this bio is too self-centred. You can judge his work here, joshspillercomics.tumblr.com; and his very soul here – @JoshSpiller.