After a rough year for the economy, the graphic novel business seemed to be doing well as 2008 wrapped thanks to bigs sales for some big books including "Watchmen," "Naruto" and various Batman trade paperbacks – so reported sales analyst Milton Griepp at Thursday's ICv2 Graphic Novel Conference at the New York Comic Con. The fourth annual conference hosted by Griepp's ICv2 analysis site was accompanied by panels anchored by industry heavy weights from Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada to Tokyopop Chief Executive Stuart Levy and, for the first time, a keynote address delivered by legendary cartoonist Art Spieglman. The general outlook for the industry moving forward was positive, yet tempered with talk of more economic woes and the role of digital media within the comics marketplace.
"How big is the market?" asked Griepp at the start of his annual White Paper report on sales. "We estimate the 2008 North American graphic novel market is $395 million in retail. That's up about 5% from 2006. That's the slowest growth rate since 2001, but if flat is the new up, graphic novels are doing great."
Interestingly, 2008 presented the first year since ICv2 started tracking graphic novel sales in 2002 that American superhero and other genre comics grew in size (carrying 6% growth in number of releases), while the Japanese manga market saw declines (dropping 9% in number of releases and from $210 million to $175 million in annual sales). However, manga still represents the majority of the graphic novel market across the board. Griepp attributed the shift to a combination of factors, including sales driven by movie buzz for American comics and the weakened bookstore market hurting manga numbers. One of the big winners in terms of the former was sales of Batman graphic novels, thanks to the runaway success of Warner Brothers' "The Dark Knight" film. "In the final year's best-seller list, Batman graphic novels were two of the top 20 in the book market and four of the top 20 in comic stores. So Batman really got a boost from this, and it had sort of a halo effect around the entire Batman property," Griepp explained, noting high sales for Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo's "Joker" amongst other titles. "Perhaps the most important thing about the Batman movie didn't have anything to do with Batman. It was, of course, the 'Watchmen' trailer."
"Watchmen" indeed represented the strongest showing of any kind of graphic novel for the year, and most likely the entire decade. Spurred on by advance movie buzz for the March-debuting adaptation, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' ubiquitous superhero story has nearly sold through all of it's 900,000+ print run for the year, with more copies on the way for 2009. "I was talking to [DC Publisher] Paul Levitz earlier this week, and for both of us, we can't remember seeing anything like this since the 1989 'Batman' movie in terms of its impact on popular culture and impact on sales. These things only come around once in a generation, so as an industry we have to figure out a way to take advantage of that and use it to continue the growth of the business," he noted.
"Many people who are buying the 'Watchmen' graphic novel are either lapsed readers or may not have read comics or graphic novels before. And that presents a great opportunity. If there are hundreds of thousands of readers who are not buying comics buying the 'Watchmen' graphic novel, then they are going to be introduced or re-introduced to the medium through a book that is considered one of the finest examples of the superhero genre available. That's such a great opportunity to group those readers into more regular purchasers of comics. Nobody really knows how many of them will convert or where they'll end up going after 'Watchmen,' but it represents probably the biggest opportunity to service new readers since the influx of younger readers and female readers that manga brought into the business a few years ago."
Speaking of manga, while the popular Japanese comics saw a slight decline for the year overall, that market too had its own smash sales success story: the uber-popular kid ninja seriers "Naruto." "'Naruto' continues to pick up new readers, both at the beginning of the series with Volume 1 and at the beginning of the Shippūden story line," said Griepp, noting that publisher Viz's choice to rapidly push new volumes to catch the series' schedule up to match the new "Naruto" stories from Japan was a rousing success again. "So this is still a growing property. It's still on the upswing and a very powerful property that recruits new readers to manga and is a very positive force in the industry. Certainly Tokyopop with 'Fruits Basket' and Del Rey's hit books do well, but 'Naruto' is sort of in a class of its own. There really isn't anything else that has that kind of scale."
Despite that fact, manga numbers took a hit, particularly in the beleaguered bookstore market where manga gained most of its dominance over the past decade. Griepp noted that a drop in anime series airing on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block, the closing of many mall bookstores where teens shop and the general economic downturn all affected manga, adding, "I think another factor is that there's competition for the attention of teen girls in this unbelievable phenomenon that is 'Twilight.' They've sold 20 million books in the U.S., not all in the last year, but you take a chunk of [the manga] audience and send it over to prose fiction instead of manga and there's going to be an impact...that audience of teen girls which has been so important to the growth of manga had some of their attention diverted this year as opposed to past years when things weren't directed at them so directly."
However, the news for graphic novels and comics sales remained good in 2008, with gains in total sales and a jaw-dropping 134% increase in the number of comics for children and tweens. "Graphic novels are continuing to grow, albeit not as fast as they were before. Overall, [there was] about 5% growth in the comics and graphic novel medium. I think one of the questions for 2009 will be whether there will be an economic impact on format choice for people buying comics. I've been in this business for over 30 years, and in that time there's been a very reliable, counter-cyclical relationship between economic conditions and sales of periodical comics. It's very cheap entertainment and something that is a good entertainment alternative. This is kind of uncharted territory because graphic novels are a much greater percentage of the business than they've ever been in the past when the economy has been bad. Also, comic cover prices have gone up faster than inflation, and the continuity of comics is probably different than it has been, [because] the very tightly woven continuity between comic titles makes comic periodicals a much bigger investment than when you're buying one-off stories."
Aside from the continuing question of how the recession will continue to impact the market, the issue of digital comics creation and distribution remains heavy in the minds of the community, according to Griepp. "Nobody really knows what's going to happen next, but it's going to be important. You're hearing artists say the same thing. [The web] is really an opportunity to revolutionize the creative process and to revolutionize content and how it's delivered. I think everybody in the business needs to be aware of it and understand how it's working because it's going to be an important part of how people receive content in the future. They're either going to be a part of it, or in some ways get left behind. I'm not saying that books are going to go away, but the web is going to be part of our content and how audiences are built."
Griepp even tied the two future issues to another period of tumult in comics past, saying, "I see these times as comparable to the 80s. In the early 1980s, I was in the business, and it was really bad economic times...people were not buying because of what I think President Carter called 'a sense of malaise' in the late '70s. And in comics during that time, it was a period of huge opportunity. Some of that came from a shift in distribution channels, and it was a time when the newsstand distribution system was collapsing for comics or at least being viewed as less of an opportunity while comic stores were coming to the fore. It happened quite rapidly. I think when you have tough economic times, the impetuses for change become more emphasized...so if there's going to be one impact from the economy, I'd say it's going to accelerate the pace of change in comics."
Change by way of web content was also the focus of the two morning panels at the conference which preceded Griepp's sales survey. In the "Comics on the Web: Marketing Tool or Revenue Stream?" outspoken Toykopop Executive Stuart Levy dropped the gauntlet on the future of digital comics, saying, "I personally believe that there will come a time when books become – and I say this to maybe spark up the panel a little bit – but where books become irrelevant. I think that certainly for all of us in the room, we'll always be reading books, but for the younger generation, they honestly don't care if they're reading it in a book or on a screen. The piracy issues are going to become huge. There are so many sites where you can read comic you want, any manga you want and exactly the same problems that hit the music industry are going to hit our industry. They're starting to, but it's going to become more big as these [e-book] devices become more ubiquitous and more easy to use."
Other panelists including "Nickelodeon Magazine" Associate Editor Dave Roman and Marvel Digital Executive ira Rubenstein agreed that the galvanizing event that will make computer created and distributed comics financially soluble will be when a reading device such as Amazon's Kindle gains wide popularity with readers the way the iPod has for music lovers. Although, Roman noted that the music and book businesses may be more like apples and oranges, especially when comics are involved. "Most people I know and that I've talked to don't read books more than once. There is that collector mentality, but that's a very niche comic book mentality that has to do with rarity and collectibility that will not exist digitally. The idea of a rare digital file may never really happen."
Later, on the "Comics and Social Networking" panel, discussion between comic executives including Joe Quesada, Dark Horse editor Scott Allie, Top Cow Publisher Filip Sablik and Image Marketing Coordinator Joe Keatinge focused on fostering sales power through interaction with fans. All the panelists agreed that giving away comics for free online (Dark Horse's MySpace relaunch of "Dark Horse Presents" was a chief example) had proven out to increase sales. Keatinge noted that such promotions and other social networking features that put fans in contact with creators "s really an extension of convention going. When I was a fan coming up, I could meet a creator once at a convention, but if they made a good impression on me, I would buy their books or follow them onto titles I never would've thought of purchasing. Having those creators foster that online is certainly a lot easier than sending them to 10 shows a year."
In the end, the final word on all things comics both digital and print came from cartoonist Art Spiegelman who, in a keynote address that covered the history of the comics medium from his point of view, educated the assembled crowd of book sellers, librarians and publishing professionals on comics' place in the current culture (sometimes sarcastically so). "Ironically, the same technology that may make comics as we know them obsolete – the wonderful, wired world of computers – also makes it possible to make very efficient color reproduction and printed reproduction happen. That's at the core of what's going on," Spiegelman said. "In a way, one might think that the comic book will be the last book left standing. When everything else is put on your Kindle, we're going to have our comic books even if some other version of comics, with Vladek Spiegelman waving as his goes to Auschwitz in Flash animation, real comics have been – and with good reason – dependent on their print. If you read Falkner or Stephen King or whatever, it could be on one of those Kindle gadgets. Why not? I've met many authors who don't even know what color their book covers are underneath their dust jacket. Many don't care. Cartoonists all care, every single one of them. It's because they're making a book. And a book asks for something. It asks you to make your artwork a certain dimension, a certain size, so it looks good on the page. It takes advantage one way or another of the elements of book design. It's part of the core of what comics at least have been.
"Books ask you to concentrate. It's good with a medium like comics that you can read quickly, that you slow down. When you look at something on the web, it encourages you to click. It doesn't encourage you to read. You're only one click away from Porn Tube or Huffington Post, whatever your vice is. And the result is that you're not encouraged to focus and stay with something. A book is like one-point perspective asking you to come in and stay with it, to not turn the page as fast as you can. So I think it's part of its bookness that has made comics from the get go what they have been."