WHEN COMIC COVERS KILL
Listen up, Mr. and Mrs. Comic Industry Professional, your comic book covers are killing your books.
I make my living doing one thing and one thing only, and that's selling comics. As the final link in the chain between the people who create the comics and the people who those comics are being made for it's my job, my only job, to know what works when it comes to selling comics. I've got a pretty damn good idea what makes a comic book sell and I've got a pretty damn good idea what makes a comic book sink like the Titanic. I'm so confident in my abilities to understand today's modern comic book consumer that I invest thousands of hard-earned American dollars every single week to prove it. I opened up a store in one of the most competitive comic markets in North America, during one of the most devastating economic downturns in San Francisco history, and I grew my business from the ground up over the course of three short years into one of the most well established and respected comic stores on the planet. And as skill, good business, and luck would have it, my business of selling comic books continues to grow every single month.
So I'm not just talking out my ass when I say it, Mr. and Mrs. Comic Industry Professional, but your comic book covers are fucking killing your books.
Back in the day when comics were sold at newsstand, publishers were acutely aware that their titles needed to be not only eye-catching to attract new readers but also immediately recognizable to keep regular readers. Because that's what the comic book selling game is all about when distilled down to it's fundamental truths: "Keep Regular Readers" and "Attract New Readers." One look at any magazine rack and it's easy to see why comic publishers once took covers so seriously. At newsstand the competition for shelf space is incredible, and back when comics were distributed at those newsstands the simple fact was that if a comic cover failed to sell its contents, it was stripped of said cover, and sent back from whence it came in disgrace.
With the invention of the Direct Market for comics, these funnybook wares are no longer returnable to the distributor for credit, and every issue you see on the racks at your local comic book purveyor's shop are all bought and paid for by those high-risk-taking comic retailing daredevils who own and operate those comic shops. Perhaps as a result of this fundamental shift in the financial burden of responsibility, perhaps as a reflection of the ever maturing of the industry's audience, or perhaps it's simply a matter of modern tastes… but comic book covers have changed.
Some for the better, and some for the worse. Thanks to the nurturing quality of the Direct Market comic book covers have had the luxury of becoming more experimentally creative. In any given week there are several comic book covers that verge on fine art and expand the boundaries of what can be done with the once simplistic medium of the comic book cover. For me as both a retailer and a fan, I couldn't be more excited to see the latest offering from our industry's most daring comic cover designers and artists, and I eagerly look forward to displaying these gorgeous comic book covers around my shop.
But even so, much like comic retailers like myself, comic book covers have a job to do… and that's sell comics. The sad reality is that no matter the quality, any comic that doesn't pull its financial weight isn't going to get shelf space for long. And when retailers stop ordering so does the distributor. And when the distributor stops ordering, your hopes of seeing that book on comic store shelves are as good as dead. The Previews book alone is one hell of a Darwinistic dog eat dog world, within the pages of Diamond's catalog every month it's a battle for survival of the funnybook fittest. And while some may see comic retailers as a thing of the past the same holds true in the world outside of the comic shop as well. That which doesn't sell won't be ordered. That which isn't ordered will die.
I watch people shopping for comics every single day. I watch what makes them pick up any given comic and flip through its sequential art pages and makes them leave others on the shelf, and I'm here to tell you that the cover is crucial to the health of a book. It's a harsh reality but in the eyes of the retailer (comic store or otherwise) there's only four things that differentiate one book from any other; and that's the creator, the publisher, the pitch… and the cover.
So why not make sure something that is one-fourth of your sales potential is doing its optimal best?
Since comic stores currently remain the primary source of comic book sales, it's of maximum importance to take the environment of the comic store into consideration. The first thing that publishers and cover artists need to realize is that, like it or not, most comic stores across the country display comics in one of two ways, a waterfall rack or in an overlapping manner. This is not to say that comic retailers don't realize the value of a full-frontal view of a comic. Trust me, we know. But the simple fact is that there are more comics out there than can be accommodated in this fashion.
Here at the Isotope, we do our best to go full-frontal with comics the first week of their release on our New Arrivals rack or along the Isotope's counters in the weeks after their release. Anyone who has had the relaxed pleasure of shopping at my store will tell you that my staff and I take great pains and are rabid in our devotion to showing off as much full-frontal comic book cover exposure as humanly possible. Because covers sell comics. However, despite our best efforts, many weeks there are simply so many comics that we are forced to do some cover overlap. The number of times I see this create problems with partially or even entire obscuring of important things like the comic's title and trade dress tells me that cover artists are not designing covers with these racking systems in mind.
(Warren Ellis showing off his addition to the Isotope's Comic
Rockstars Toilet Seat Museum standing directly in front of the
shop's full-frontal new arrivals rack.)
As I've already said, I love creative covers. I love ones that you want to blow up and plaster your walls with, beautifully painted abstract covers, covers that are so artistic and cunning that you'd never even know that they were comic covers at all. I love it that cover artists are free to experiment with styles and can move design elements around. I love it when comic covers surprise me. I love it that often the result of these cover chemistry experiments are so inspiring that even staunch comic-phobes are inexplicably drawn to this amazing piece of artwork and know subconsciously that there's more to comics that they ever previously suspected.
Before I get any farther I've gotta say that while I love creativity I personally don't suggest getting creative with or trying to hide the comic's price. That shit sucks. It sucks for me, it sucks for my customers, and ultimately it sucks the most for the people who make, print, and publish the comic. Because you can be assured that those comics that appear to not have any printed or listed price aren't selling as well as they could be. And books that don't pull their financial weight…
Think about the last time you were in an antique store where they didn't price the goods. How many times have you asked for a price of something unless you were very interested in it? Sure, I'd ask any retailer at any antique store anywhere the price of one of those vintage Buck Rogers rayguns Daisy made back in the 30's and 40's, but I'm crazy for those things. Usually I'll see something kind of cool, like a KISS piggybank from the 70's, but won't be interested in it enough to bother asking the price. What if that bank was 10 bucks? I'd definitely impulse shop it at that price, but if I don't know the bank was only 10 bucks I'm going to leave it behind. How many times did you walk out of one of those antique stores, full of cool kitschy stuff you'd probably impulse shop stuff at if the price was right, without asking any prices or buying anything? Happens all the time and the same is true with comics. Don't be ashamed of what you're charging for your hard work, you can't encourage that impulse buyer unless you make that price visible!
Okay, okay. I'm well aware that this is a controversial topic, and I'm well aware that everyone who makes or buys comics isn't going to like what I'm saying, or how I'm saying it, or appreciate hearing what a retailer thinks about comic book covers. I'm not trying to piss on anyone's parade or get anyone to stop making cool comic book covers. I'd be sad as hell if all the creative comic book designers and artists stopped doing what they're doing just to please some fussy retailer… even if it was I. But that doesn't lessen the importance of what I've got to say on the topic, so I'm going to continue.
Comic covers are art, we all like art. But they're also on the front of that comic to help it sell. Now I know that to many in the comic industry talk about "sales" and "selling" churns their stomachs and sends them running for the hills like extras in a bad b-movie tsunami flick. But if you're only interested in art why don't you just leave the fucking cover off the damn thing? You've got anywhere from 22 to 34 pages of art on the inside… if it's all about the art why do you even bother having a cover on your comic in the fucking first place?
Oh that's right. Because comic covers sell comics. And because comics that don't sell don't get ordered anymore. And because comics that don't get ordered anymore don't get published for long. And because comics that don't get published don't get seen… by anyone! So if you're going to have to put a cover on your comic you might as well make it an effective sales tool so you can keep having those 22 to 34 pages of art on the inside.
And I'm here to help all those Mr. and Mrs. Comic Industry Professionals make comic covers that help sell more comics. Because nothing breaks my heart more than to see a great series killed by covers that are the sales equivalent to kryptonite. And it does more than just break my heart. It costs me money.
So in the interest of keeping those comics alive and easy for customers to buy we're going to take a little time to see what's out there on those comic racks. And we're going to talk about what they mean for comic book sales. Because that's the Comic Pimp way, my friends.
Here's an example:
"Ultimate Spider-Man" covers, while well designed with the trade dress to tell you that yes, indeed, the comic before is "ultimate" are some of the most yawn inducing on the market. With every cover looking so profoundly similar to the one before it I constantly am seeing customers flipping to the last page of this great comic to see if they already read the issue or not. It's a shame because everyone who reads the series really loves it, and I'm sure this practice has ruined more than one brilliant Bendis cliffhanger ending for these customers.
But I have to give Marvel credit where it's due, The covers have gotten a lot better over the last six months, and this series continues to kick ass everytime I read it and everytime it puts money in the Isotope register. So thanks Marvel, you guys deserve a pat on the back and a refill of the scotch glass. Only I have to think about how much more it would help fill the Isotope bank account if this series had better covers.
Here's another example:
Man I loved this series last year, and so did my customers. But I'm not convinced that despite Cully Hamner's glorious art this book would have done as well without the benefit of Warren Ellis' and Cully Hamner's names sitting right there on the top of the cover. Because I'm sure it wasn't just the five customers here at one store in San Francisco who tried to pre-order the next two issues of the series, only they weren't sure how to do it because they didn't know what the book was called. And these weren't stupid people either, more often than not they were the busy professional types who breeze in the door once every couple weeks and then rush back out to their busy lives.
One of these customers of which I speak is Marc Martin, a man with more education under his belt than most of America's population would ever dare to dream about. Marc has a Master of Arts in Conflict Management, a Master of Fine Arts, and a PhD in Humanistic Psychology. The guy's one hell of a busy man and he likes great comic books. As a retailer I'm overjoyed to see that even with Marc's extensive education and his obviously hectic schedule he still finds time to enjoy comics and share them with his peers. Marc was happy to buy the series regardless of whether it had a name or not thanks to the creative team involved… but still.
Personally I loved these covers, but when you get too clever for your audience they just might decide to leave your book on the shelf and pick up something else. Something to think about.
Here's another example:
I like Tim Bradstreet's stuff, but these "Hellblazer" covers are starting to look so much like back cover ads in recent months that my staff and I have on several occasions gone to turn them around thinking they were shelved backwards before realizing that it was, in fact, facing front. It's something my staff and I got a good laugh at but at the same time you can bet that these recent covers on this excellent comic book have really hurt the "Hellblazer" sales momentum I had going since the beginning of Mike Carey's run. This is a great comic people, but the covers aren't doing it any favors.
C'mon Vertigo, give me some "Hellblazer" covers that will help get this awesome book in people's hands! Please…?
Okay, now I feel bad for picking on these three great comics because of their covers, so we're going to do something completely different. I'm going to show you how comic covers can affect sales and let you be the judge of what makes a good comic book cover. Fuck what anyone else has to say about it, by the very virtue of the fact that you're reading this column it's pretty obvious you're all smart people, so it's time to let you smart people do what you do best. You're going to see with your own eyes and you're going to decide for yourself.
So here's how we're going to do it. We're going to play a comic pimping game! That's right, we all get to be comic pimps today. We're going to set up a little virtual comic shop, stock it full of some of my favorite series being published today, and take a look at what covers and cover design mean to these books.
As well as assuming that you folks are all pretty bright, I'm also going to assume that you are lucky enough to have gotten to visit the comic shop or gotten your mail order comics in the last few months. To keep our virtual comic shop as timely as possible I attempted to get as recent scans of covers as I was able from these series. In all cases I've gotten two of the three most recent issues and in several cases we're going to be stocking issues that came out just this past Wednesday. Because I realize some of these comics might be a bit difficult to pick out if you're not familiar with the series I've also provided you with a series cheat sheet for you here.
Remember when I said that most comic book stores stock their books in an overlapping manner or on a waterfall rack? Well the reality is that the waterfall rack is by far the most prominent form of comic display in today's industry, so in an effort to make our virtual comic shop as universal as possible we're going to use one of those too.
And here we go, our virtual comic shop stocked with some of the most kick ass books the industry has to offer, all nicely organized in alphabetical order!
That's our waterfall rack there, doing what waterfall racks do. Storing comics until they are sold and also covering up anywhere from 40 to 70% of the covers. I figured that since it was our shop we should splurge and get one of the nice waterfall racks that shows as much of the cover as possible. It still covers up some of the cover, but as waterfall racks are the single most popular display choice in our industry, we're just going to have to make due.
Those are some pretty small comics there but terrific series nonetheless! We've got 36 issues total, with two consecutive issues of each series on there for our customers to enjoy. And we've got everything from the latest issues of "Global Frequency," to some kick ass issues of "Gun-Fu," to the stunning "Deep Sleeper" by Phil Hester and Mike Huddleston, to the start of Brian K. Vaughan's "Ultimate X-Men" run, to Becky Cloonan's latest issues of "DEMO," to my current favorite comic book being published today "The Losers," to the homegrown Isotope goodness that is Ryan Yount and Andrew Boyd's "Scurvy Dogs." Damn good start for a comic shop if you ask me!
The size of these comics helps illustrate what it's like walking into a comic shop and seeing the comics from the front door. As with anything that is designed to attract customers, the better you can see it from across a room the better it's going to sell to those customers who are looking for it. And the more attracted your eye is to something the more likely you are to pick it up for the very first time and see what it's got going on. Remember, my fellow comic pimps, when distilled down to it's fundamental truths the comic book selling game is all about: "Keep Regular Readers" and "Attract New Readers."
Take a look at those covers and think about it. Which ones are most likely to keep regular readers and attract new readers? It's up to you to decide for yourself which are the best covers on our virtual comic shop rack, you're smart people and I'm sure you've got some opinions of your own right off the bat.
Okay, how about if we make it a little more challenging?
Quick, can you find the two issues of "Fables?" How about the two issues of "Powers?" How about the two issues of "Deep Sleeper?"
Notice which covers attract your eyes and which ones your brain just subconsciously glosses over. I realize you probably weren't expecting me to come in and completely re-arrange the shelves like that, so take a bit to familiarize yourself with the covers of the books we're carrying. Any comics that you think that are selling better than others here at our little virtual comic shop?
Okay, now that you've got this down to a science, let's try this again…
How fast can you find two issues of "Walking Dead?" How about "Global Frequency?" Or what about "The Losers?" Can you see two issues of "Age of Bronze?"
I'm sure you all get the idea so we're going to turn off the lights and lock the door of our virtual comic shop for the night and go drinking at the local watering hole instead… comic pimping sure is thirsty work!
Now instead of telling you what conclusions to draw from our little comic shop game, I'm going to leave it up to you to decide which books are most likely to maintain an audience month after month, which books are most likely to attract new readers from sight alone, and which books are going end up doing better than the others.
But no matter what conclusions you may draw I'm sure you can understand why a retailer such as myself thinks that comic book covers are so fucking important that I would write a 4,000 word column about nothing else. Even in here in the ever-nurturing, free-wheeling, and comic book lovin' Direct Market competition for the customer's dollar is fierce. And sometimes even the best companies and the greatest intentions can damage the sales on a terrific book without even meaning to. I'm sick as hell of watching good books go the way of the dodo bird because they had problems finding and maintaining an audience, but I realize it's all part of the job. You just can't save them all.
But that doesn't mean you can't try.
There is no magical formula for creating the perfect comic book cover, and there is no end-all be-all to making a comic book pop off a store's shelves. Every book is unique and every creator must forge his or her own path. Many of my favorite comic book covers are those that defy everything that some boring ass "salesman" would suggest. And indeed, sometimes the very exceptions to the rules are the ones that inspire the minds and pocketbooks of the public at large the most.
It's the comic book industry, a lawless wild western town full of hard working folks, foolhardy gamblers, cruel hearted banditos, and mad gunslingers… and I for one couldn't love it more.
Until next week here's to us all!
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