Tilting at Windmills

Fri, November 12th, 2010 at 5:28am PST | Updated: November 13th, 2010 at 4:44am

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

WHOSE FUTURE?

There's a fairly interesting line of thought coming from the announcement that writer J. Michael Straczynski is leaving his monthly assignments on Superman and Wonder Woman to concentrate on stand alone projects, particularly a sequel to "Superman Earth One". In JMS' own words:

"I'm taking full advantage of the situation to take a one- to five-year sabbatical from writing monthlies in order to go exclusively into writing graphic novels like 'Superman Earth One' and 'Samaritan X,' along with the occasional high-visibility mini series. I think that's where the business is going, and creatively, limited series and graphic novels have always been my strong suit in that they let me tell cohesive stories with a beginning, middle and end."

Now far be it for me to second guess a creator's specific decisions of how and what kind of stories they want to tell – and JMS and the monthly comic book format haven't always been a comfortable fit to begin with, with truncated or problem filled runs on titles like "Supreme Power," "Thor" or "Amazing Spider-Man" – but I'm fairly intrigued by the notion that stand-alone projects are "where the business is going", because that doesn't particularly follow the experience that I have in selling comics.

I think one place to start might be with "Superman Earth One" itself.

Now, as many of you know, trying to get reality-based numbers on comics sales is sometimes a tricky proposition. There's a reasonably robust reporting on numbers from Direct Market comic shops (I have ICv2's index of Diamond sales estimates going back to 2001 bookmarked as a great resource), but those only report on sell-in to stores, and not sell-through to consumers. On the bookstore side of the business, the tools available are largely focused on BookScan, which is a subscription-based reporting tool on the sell-through to consumers in the bookstore channel (which includes internet retailers like Amazon)

There are other channels than DM and bookstores as well – there are schools, there are libraries, there are book clubs, there are a whole myriad of possible places books can be sold; I seem to recall asking a major publishing executive about the breadth of sales channels and being told that there were like 14-18 of them (albeit with some being exceptionally minor in terms of overall sales)

I don't have regular access to BookScan (I certainly don't have the money to burn on the subscription fees – their pricing is designed for significantly sized publishing houses), but I know enough people that do that I can gain access to end-of-year numbers so I can write an end of year BookScan analysis (2010's coming in February, we'll hope!); and of course I can make phone calls if I want to spot check something.

So, here's what "hard data" we have on "Superman Earth One" ("SEO" after this for typing ease):

ICv2 shows DM numbers as just over 16k; a phone call to a mole about BookScan numbers claims their YTD reported sales as of last Monday are just over 6k – that's (and let's round up wildly) 23k copies combined in "provable" sales figures. But, clearly that must be low. As noted, there are a dozen or so "other" sales channels for the book, and while "SEO" is "sold out" from DC, one imagines that some bookstores somewhere may still have copies available for sale, and BookScan doesn't capture 100% of bookstore sales, and so on and so forth. My guess (and purely a guess, just based upon what I've managed to figure out over the years about how print runs are set and such) is the print-run of "SEO" was at least 35k, but probably not more than 50k. Those copies are all sold out from DC Comics.

Those are pretty respectable numbers, but they are aren't in the same class as, say, the 350k copies of the "Twilight" GN, or the million copies of "Watchmen" – and while it is dumb to try and prove something through negation, I do tend to suspect that were the print run of "SEO" were truly large that there would have been a press release crowing about that particular fact.

Now the thing that I find interesting is when we look over into the comics charts for the same month. Superman #703, which is the fourth issue of JMS' "Grounded" storyline, has reported sales of just over 50k copies (#700, which kicked off the storyline is listed at 67k copies in June)

Or, to put it another way, the middle of a late-shipping and critically-panned storyline, with the same character and the same writer, the periodical release of the ongoing Superman comic almost certainly sold more copies in the DM alone than the new, highly promoted and widely-reviewed new high profile OGN did in both channels. The periodical verifiably sold three times as many copies of the OGN in the Direct Market.

Obviously, those really aren't apples-to-apples comparisons: for one thing, books certainly aren't one-month-only sellers, while on the other side the serialization is simply the first monetization of a story. Further, I really think that a serialization of "SEO", if it were positioned in the market properly would have done significantly better numbers than "Grounded" – I'd personally peg a theoretical "Superman Earth One #1 (of 6)" as selling in the 80k range as a periodical comic.

I mean, this is why when really smart people like Shaenon Garrity say things like:

"Monthly comic books are dead. We all know this, right? Again, it's a format with a lot of good qualities that will be sorely missed (foremost among them the ability to sample a story cheaply before investing in an entire book), but the direct market is a mess and pamphlet-style monthly comic books now barely work even as loss leaders. Among younger readers, "waiting for the trade" is the default position, to the point that most teenage fans seem only foggily aware that the monthly format even exists."

…it just makes my mind boggle and my head explode – there could not possibly be a more clear cut example than a comparison between Superman #703 and "Superman Earth One" – same month, same creator, same character, critical reaction favoring the OGN, yet the periodical sells better – to show just how off-base this kind of thinking is.

And, understand that "SEO" is considered a hit. Most OGNs simply aren't this successful.

At the end of the day, for mainstream comics, if a writer would prefer working without a monthly deadline, and thinks they make better comics that way, I say all power to them! If you can make the pay and schedule work for you, and it serves your creative muse, that's a wonderful thing. But I really don't think that "this is where the business is going" anytime soon; the periodical is far too important to the bottom line of print comics and they reach much larger audiences than the overwhelming majority of OGNs manage to sell.

More broadly, I really do think that periodical comics could be produced a little closer to OGNs in terms of deadlines and function. I had an argument with a colleague of mine where he said something like "Well, if ‘SEO' had been a periodical, it would have come out late like ‘Grounded' did" and I think that's really the crux of so many problems we have in the market today. "SEO" came out on time because it wasn't solicited until it was done. The monthly periodical comic could in fact come out on time if the work is banked properly. Clearly it isn't necessary or economically viable to have 6 months or more of work on hand and ready to go for each and every title published, but serialization shouldn't automatically lead to the chance of lateness.

Anyway, the periodical isn't going anywhere anytime soon – there are far too many advantages to the format, and many potential pitfalls to the OGN. It is great to a retailer's bottom line when we get one that's a hit, but our day-to-day cash flow is driven by regular serialization.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase a collection of the first one hundred Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) from IDW Publishing. An Index of v2 of Tilting at Windmills may be found here. (but you have to insert "classic." before all of the resulting links)

TAGS:  tilting at windmills, j michael straczynski, superman, superman earth one, dc comics, wonder woman

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