When the book is closed on 2010, most followers of the comics industry will see this as a year of change. Formats, publishers and sales outlets have seen sales drop on print comics, sales rise in digital, jobs lost and gained, directions changed for some of the biggest industry players and a wealth of smaller related actions in between.
To send off the year with as clear an eye on the issues facing the industry moving forward, CBR News compiled this Top Ten list of the biggest news stories impacting comics publishing in 2010. From Alan Moore's public declarations about "Watchmen" sequels and what it means for creators moving forward to Comic-Con International's dramatic process of picking a future home to the outbreak of a true digital marketplace, it's all there.
Read on below for our take on what happened and why it mattered, and then sound off with your own thoughts on the CBR Message Boards...at least until your New Years party starts, that is.
We're not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point 2010 became the busiest year of Mark Waid's career.
By any estimate, the man who stared his year as Editor-in-Chief of BOOM! Studios would have had a packed year if he only completed work he had on hand at the start of the year, namely announcing and launching a line of comics co-created by Stan Lee, continuing to expand his own "Irredeemable" universe of comics and spin a number of high profile comics projects including work on "Amazing Spider-Man" and "Captain America: Man Out Of Time." But before too long, Waid's name was popping up all over for other reasons. The scribe stepped onto the board of comics charity The Hero Initiative. He set off a frenzy of discussion and made himself the focal point of the digital comics debate with his Harvey Awards keynote speech. He stepped into a Chief Creative Officer role at BOOM! only to step down a few months later to return to freelance work such as resurrecting his former CrossGen series "Ruse."
But it wasn't just that Waid made a splash here or there on the business side of the community that caught our eye. More so, the moves made by the writer this year crystalized how his journey from freelancer to E-i-C and back again is indicative of a new mold of comics maker: the creator executive. The next decade of comics will be marked by writers and artists who take not just a role in the creation of their books but the management of properties across media platforms. It's already begun: Geoff Johns and Joe Quesada now both carry the title and responsibilities of Chief Creative Officer for major units of mega-media companies. Jeph Loeb has the choice Hollywood gig of being Marvel's head of television. Robert Kirkman executive produces and helps write his own blockbuster cable drama. And doubtlessly, more comics talent will follow them into the wiles of corporate office with the hopes of controlling their creative destinies on a broader scale.
Perhaps the strangest story to hit in 2010, this year's Comic-Con International brought with it some unpublishing news as legendary writer Alan Moore declared in an interview with "Wired" magazine that DC Comics had offered him back the rights to he and Dave Gibbons "Watchmen" on the condition that they be allowed to produce sequels – an offer he declined. Once the story had hit the web, DC Co-Publisher Dan Didio judiciously responded without directly confirming whether Moore's take on the matter synched up with the company's outlook on the property or whether more "Watchmen" material would be produced. Later, Moore fired back even more choice words in an interview with Rich Johnston's Bleeding Cool where he asked DC's creators to "to come up with an idea of their own."
So what does this all mean? Well, for one it means that the comics community loves gossipy drama just as much as the average "US Weekly" reader, but more importantly, the entire exchange showed once again how vital talent management and creators rights remain in an era where comics and big media go hand-in-hand. It should be no surprise that DC and Marvel both are trying to keep their biggest creators happy with their publishing deals in an era where the Siegel and Shuster families press on for a return of rights to Superman at the same time as Jack Kirby's heirs press a claim towards the entire Marvel Universe. Old conflicts like these won't go away in the coming years, but there's a chance that the public debate will create a climate where fewer battle spring to life.
As for Moore and DC, it's doubtful fans will ever know everything that happened behind the scenes on the way towards any "Watchmen" sequels, but seeing the sparks fly over such ideas may remain a spectator sport of choice as Grant Morrison prepares his own twist on the Charlton Comics heroes in "Multiversity."
Once the crown jewel in the explosion of the graphic novel into new markets over the last decade, the manga business suffered several setbacks in 2010 while still expanding its goals and reach in other ways. After a precipitous drop in sales and the quiet closing of some smaller publishers, the big news of the year was a string of layoffs at industry leader Viz Media that saw 60 employees (almost 40% of the company's workforce) lose their jobs. Meanwhile, a coalition of publishers on both sides of the Pacific teamed up to fight bootlegging "Scanlation" sites leading to some early successes followed by proof that the battle would be hard fought for a while to come. In the meantime, publishers rushed to build legitimate digital strategies as Yen Press announced plans to move their marquee anthology "Yen Plus" to the web while industry anchor Tokyopop went digital first with new hit "Hetalia: Axis Powers." And don't forget that one of the major Western manga reprinting players in Del Rey saw its arrangement with Eastern giant Kodansha turned on its head.
Ultimately, while manga may not be the market drive it was five years ago, the category still holds a lot of strength and sway with an entire generation of comics readers. How the industry responds to the challenge of the digital marketplace while finding new titles at home and abroad will have a huge impact on where comics in general go from here.
When it was announced that IDW had reached Premier Publisher status with Diamond Comics Distributors, the news was taken by most as a well-deserved victory lap for the genre publisher who had slowly but surely climbed their way up the sales charts and into a prime front spot in Diamond's monthly "PREVIEWS" catalogue. But beyond that, astute industry watchers picked up two key takeaways. First, IDW's move represents an important change in Diamond's approach to presenting comics to retailers and fans. Often seen as rigid with their virtual monopoly on the distribution of comics to the Direct Market, picking up IDW as the first new Premier Publisher in almost 14 years showed that Diamond is responding to the growing harsher climate for comics retail by bolstering its biggest strengths. Second, discussions with IDW's Ted Adams and Diamond's Bill Schanes provided clear evidence of what it really takes to be a successful publisher in today's comics marketplace: recognizable properties and books that ship on time, every time.
6. Diamond Flirts With Tuesday Comics
In what ended up being a very big shift for most comic shop owners that many consumers may not even notice, Diamond also marked 2010 as a year of change by shifting the shipping schedule for new comics to a "street date" model that has product being delivered to stores on Tuesdays for the traditional Wednesday on sale. But this move didn't come lightly.
Announced with dramatic fanfare at their pre-C2E2 retailer summit, Diamond's original proposal covered a wide range of options for shaking up their system, most notably the idea of making comics go on sale on Tuesday. That move would mean the four color medium would fall more in line with other entrainment media like DVDs, which comics have grown closer and closer to culturally if not quite in a business sense. The debate over Tuesday sales, street dates and a system of secret shoppers to police stores that would sell comics before they were allowed went out across the country in a publicized retailer survey. Ultimately, the distributor heard the voice of its customers saying that the tradition of Wednesday comics was too strong to abandon, however the street date move was heralded by Diamond as a necessary move in pushing the business of comics retail forward.
The new system of street dates starts in earnest on January 11, 2011.
5. Comic Sales Slump
2010 started with a bit of classic big two "one-upsmanship" as Marvel Comics took a shot across the bow of DC Comics by offering a special "Siege" Deadpool variant issue for covers torn from "Brightest Day" tie-in comics whose orders came along with plastic Lantern rings. The back-and-forth led to plenty of buzz and some largely good-natured razzing, but by the time the year was fully under way, very few people were laughing about comics sales.
As the year dragged on, it became more and more evident that no amount of special promotions, variant covers, event books or movie tie-ins would bolster a grim sales outlook across the board. Things started to turn down in a major way in July when the months total sales had dropped 12% from 2009 and the #1 comic – Marvel's "X-Men" #1 – barely broke 100,000 units in sales. No single comic since then has broken the six-digit barrier. Through August and September, things only got worse with analysts frequently using phrases like "sales fell off a cliff" and "sales are in the toilet" to describe the numbers in the DM. In October at their annual White Paper wrap up, sales watching site ICv2 announced that 2009 had been a year of loss across all print sales channels, and then earlier this month, the site released a grim report for the shape of total sales in 2010.
What's worst of all in all this news is that no one has been capable of pinpointing exactly why sales have been hit so hard across the year. The long tail of the recession has been blamed as has a refusal from fans to go along with price increases on standard monthly comics to $3.99 a book. Of course, the strain that the event comic era put on readers to buy every "important" tie-in comic may also have had an effect as well as loss to digital readers both legal and illegal. Likely, a combination of these factors has led to the hemorrhaging of sales, but the way to get those dollars back into the hands of retailers remains elusive.
Moving into 2011, each of the anchor publishers of the Direct Market are making moves to up sales levels across the board – Marvel with the launch of another massive event cycle with the "Fear Itself" series and DC with a highly publicized price drop to $2.99 across the board. If neither of these moves help to bring sales back up, who knows what's in store for 2012?
In a flight of "Will they/Won't they?" drama for the ages, the entire comics community waited with baited breath in 2010 to see whether or not Comic-Con International – the biggest convention in North America – would move from its 40-year home of San Diego to Los Angeles or Anaheim after their lease expired in 2012. The question was widely debated in the press including some strong moves by the cities pitching to get the show, but CCI took a slow and steady approach and waited until after this summer's edition of the show to finalize their decision. In the end, they opted to stay put.
However, that deal only holds Comic-Con in place through 2015, leading some to wonder whether another round of public courtship from Hollywood is on the way in five years. In the meantime, the show continues to feel extended growing pains as it looks to best fit into a San Diego Convention Center that won't grow in size for a few years yet and struggles to make a ticket sales system that works for the thousands upon thousands of attendees looking to head to San Diego next summer.
3. DC Restructures
When the creation of DC Entertainment was announced at the end of 2009, no one could have foresaw how much change it would mean for the company or how long and winding a path that change would make. As 2010 came into being, each quarter was punctuated by a new round of rumor, revelation, changes and promotions surrounding the corporate hierarchy of DC Comics, and only now are fans starting to see the full picture of what the publisher will be moving forward.
What eventually became known as the restructuring of DC really started in February with the announcement of an executive team that included Co-Publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee and Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns. While such familiar faces seemed to mark a staying of the course in some ways for the company, rumors soon began to swirl that the New York City fixture would soon move to Warner Bros. home of Burbank, California. That round of speculation lasted through to September when it was announced that DC would move its digital and administrative staff out West while leaving publishing in New York. But that was only the first change noted. DC closed its Wildstorm and Zuda imprints and then saw numbers rise and fall in the press about the number of employees that would be laid off or relocated (while some of both actions have taken place, the full extent of staffing losses at DC have yet to be seen).
DCE President Diane Nelson and the Co-Publishers took to the press in the days that followed the big shift, but questions still hung as to the shape of the company. Later, a series of other staffing announcements trickled out to the public starting big with the installation of Bob Harras as Editor-in-Chief and Eddie Berganza as Executive Editor but continuing through the ranks of DC's talent management and sales divisions.
As 2010 wraps, the company is looking at a solid shape for the first time in over a year, leading to the hope that the time and thought put into the restructuring will pay off with a new series of publishing moves that will excite fans and strengthen sales.
Whether comic publishers wanted it or not, a war over prices was brought to their door in 2010. After sales prices of books crept up from $2.99 to $3.99 over the course of last year, fans became more and more vocal about their displeasure in the changes all the while industry leaders Marvel and DC argued that the increases were a necessary part of running profitable businesses while also trying to find ways to add value to the higher-priced package in various ways.
Things reached a fever pitch at October's New York Comic Con where fan questions about prices were inescapable, leading to a tit-for-tat response where both publishers announced literally moments apart that they would make moves toward cheaper comics. DC's announcement involved an across the board cut to $2.99 accompanied by a page cut to 20 story pages per issue of monthly comics. Marvel's announcement held less specifics initially, but over the course of the next month it came to light that the publisher would debut a number of limited series and specials at a $2.99 price point as well.
Both sides have used their own methods as PR fodder since then, DC claiming that they offer the best deal for fans while Marvel argues that the two-page cut in new comics will mean a loss of wages for the creative community. But as we noted above, these debates are far from over as another round of events and promotions is in the offing to try and capture back some of the attention of readers in 2011.
1. Digital Explosion
Yes, there were a lot of hard facts and dire predictions released about comics in 2010. But the change from the that will have the most long term impact on the comics business is a positive one: the establishment of digital comics as a viable sales model.
Think of it this way: at the end of $2.99, no one knew what an iPad was. The only way to get digital comics legally was through a number of iPhone apps bolstered by smaller yet forward-thinking companies like IDW or through Marvel's Flash-based Digital Comics Unlimited subscription service. And comiXology was known by many as a site for coordinating pull lists and reading editorial columns.
All that changed this year as the use of digital comics skyrocketed thanks to a number of key moves. Marvel making their way onto Apple's hotly anticipated iPad with a launch app powered by now undisputed digital platform leader comiXology helped change the market for digital comics. Soon they were expanding their presence with other partners like Graphic.ly while DC made their way to an across the board launch while talking up their multi-platform plans for their product online. That news was followed by a dedicated DC store for desktop reading of comics as well as a heated debate over which publisher was first to announce a royalties plan for creators based on digital sales.
Meanwhile, the market for digital comics grew in other areas by leaps and bound. Providers like comiXology made moves to include as many independent voices as possible in their libraries while other publishers signed up for as many providers as possible. IDW announced it would help distribute Jeff Smith's classic "Bone" through the PSP while BOOM! made its own deal with comiXology and then a host of other providers. Meanwhile Image launched its own iPad app while making moves towards more day-and-date releases for superstar writer Robert Kirkman's work. And all that still doesn't touch on moves by players like Dynamite Entertainment or Dark Horse's aggressive plan to bring digital prices down a notch.
Overall, ICv2 estimated that the 2010 sales for digital comics would reach nearly $6 million up from only half a million in 2009 – a massive amount of growth by any standard.
And while there are plenty of questions surrounding digital content to be grappled with in the months ahead – who's to say that the platforms fans now use to reach content will remain in their current shape even by 2012? – the arrival of legal digital sales marks that segment of the business as a large potential growth category in an otherwise soft marketplace, and keeping an eye on what all the players do next will be key to understanding comics future in 2011 and beyond.