I'm pretty excited about "The Walking Dead" #100; and what it might augur both for comic book creators and the Direct Market.
While the final numbers aren't available as I'm writing this column, it is said that #100 will come in over 330,000 copies, beating Jim Lee & Geoff Johns' "Justice League" #1, the most recent sales record holder.
As long time readers of this column know, I've been championing creator ownership and control for decades -- while the corporately controlled icons at Marvel and DC generate the largest percentage of dollars sold in this market, relying solely on characters created primarily before I was even born (and I'm not young!) is, I think the last decade has proven, pretty much a formula for stagnation, not expansion.
Part of the problem is clearly that creators are aware that giving new ideas or new characters to multinational corporations will generally not enrich them in the way they should be enriched for their original idea. As overall sales of individual books decrease, the circulation-boosting value of marketing and promotion that "the big two" provide begins to diminish in the face of giving up your rights to other media -- if Robert Kirkman can directly take "the best-selling comic in the last three years" crown, what does he need Marvel or DC to do so? Especially because those companies would have insisted on all of the movie, TV, etc. rights.
Don't get me wrong: I love Batman, I love Spider-Man. I love the Justice League, and the Avengers, and, hell, I love Brother Power the Geek and Man-Thing, even -- but for me, the promise of the Direct Market was never about efficiently selling Marvel and DC characters to Marvel and DC fans (though, damn, do we do that well!), but rather it was about "Elfquest." It was about "Cerebus." It was about "Love & Rockets." It was about "Bone," and "Scott Pilgrim," and it certainly is about "The Walking Dead."
Because it is only a dedicated specialist driven market that can nurture those kinds of works, that can help them flower and grow until they're established enough to survive "out in the wider world". That can give creators direct access to an audience that is already predisposed to purchase goods in this format. There's a power in a comic book store, displaying "The Walking Dead" right next to "Batman" and "Spider-Man," and saying, "This is just as important as its fellows." There are few other commercial venues in which that happens.
I firmly believe that creators do their best work when they're left alone to create. I firmly believe that creativity flourishes when it's allowed to be and do its own thing. When we look at the best (and best-selling, for that matter -- best-selling over the long haul, I mean) comics material, very, very seldom is it crossovers that will take that prize, very seldom is it regular monthly continuity-driven work that is asked to change and be changed by whatever else the company is publishing.
Work has to be able to stand on its own, to stand the test of time.
"Sandman" is a transformative work, and it (still!) sells extremely well to "people who don't normally read comics" -- but it didn't start doing so until it got past jokes about the Martian Manhunter liking Oreos, or tie-ins with "Hellblazer." When I start a new reader on that series, I invariably give them the second paperback, not the first, strictly because of those continuity reasons.
I believe that it is almost always better for the creator of a work to have significant say in how and when a work is exploited. If "The Walking Dead" was somehow now at Marvel, there'd be a TWD title shipping each and every week, we'd have the crossovers and the prequel mini-series and all kinds of other tat that would certainly sell copies, but wouldn't actually advance the viability of the brand -- in fact, it would likely do the opposite.
No one can force Kirkman to do a "Before Walking" miniseries that goes into great depth of where the Zombies came from, or the spin-off Michonne comic where the new author actually gets the essential nature of the character wrong.
No one can force Kirkman to do anything with TWD, that he doesn't want to do; and I think that's a pretty incredible thing. And, at my core, why I'll always find the Direct Market to be the best system for initially bringing entertainment to market.
It really is just as viable to publish in the Direct Market as an individual creator as it is as a multi-national corporation because the retail venues aren't controlled by any one single entity (or small group). That's rare. You're not going to see your "local" Best Buy or Gamestop (or [Fill in the Chain]) broadly promote something just because they think its swell -- no, they're promoting either what is already popular, or what they get paid to promote, that's how large scale retail operates.
But in owner-operated stores, like 98% of the Direct Market, we're free to sell the things we adore alongside the easy commercial hits. If I (and my staff) take a personal shine to a book like Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' "Saga," we can work to sell it and make it our best-selling comic in the year to date.
I watch the trajectory of a book like "The Walking Dead" (slowly, steadily, up and up and up), and stunts like #100 (and its nine covers) aside, it seems clear to me that TWD is going to, monthly, hit the national Top 20 before too long (I'll say sometime in 2013, but maybe it won't be until 2014) -- just a slow, steady creep up the charts until it is playing well alongside the "big boys". This is an incredibly important moment where Kirkman is showing that anyone, even some fat kid from Kentucky, can compete with "the big two" on their own turf.
Kirkman is, in many ways, the poster child for the Direct Market. Not only is his comic radically profitable (a black & white comic has much lower costs than a color book) in and of itself as a new release each month -- something very few comics can say -- but his backlist sales are phenomenal. Remember, BookScan last year says that the Book stores alone (not counting the comics stores) sold over 359k copies of TWD books, for nearly $9 million retail dollars. There's at least another 265k in the Direct Market, you got to figure you're looking at somewhere between $16 and 20 million dollars in total retail backlist sales for all markets combined, before expenses. That's not bad.
In fact, I'd be surprised if Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard are not the best paid writer and artist in comics at the end of each year. The math is entirely on their side, and it is math -- of a periodical comic book that they literally can not lose money on, thanks to the non-returnable nature of the Direct Market -- that only escalates as you add in that backlist. Think of it this way: they're being paid (and paid very, very well) to build a machine that almost literally prints money.
I don't think it would be possible for an independently owned book like "The Walking Dead" to have found the success that it has over the last nine years in any market other than the Direct Market -- as near as I can tell from looking at the sales charts, and from what (little) I know about printing and distribution costs, TWD was no worse than break even within its first year (by issue #7, I'd judge), then it is largely all profitable backlist and slow growth from there. That's the model, and it worked entirely perfectly in TWD's case.
What we need now is three books/creators like this. Five. Ten. Then we'll really have something.
And I think we're closer now in 2012 for that maybe to happen than at any other time in recent memory that I can recall -- "Saga," "The Massive," "Fatale," "Mind MGMT," "Prophet," "Manhattan Projects" -- these are all currently monthly ongoing creator-controlled books that are doing extremely well at my store in addition to TWD. We're in a rare Virtuous Circle now in comics, and success is leading to success, and there are probably more potential opportunities for creators at this exact moment in time than ever before.
I want creators to succeed, because the more that do so, the more that will devote their time to the craft. The more that do so, the better comics end up becoming, and the more that I will be able to sell. That's what we call "win-win".
The promise of the "Image experiment" was always one of enormous benefit for the creators, but there's now a maturity of work that actually supports the business model -- Robert Kirkman isn't a pioneer, per se, but he's establishing that the path can be significantly more lucrative for creators than by keeping their creative expression in the Marvel & DC wheelhouse. May there be thirty creators following this example to both creative freedom and economic success! I'm here, ready to sell their comics.
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, even if this column and every other one is purely and entirely his individual viewpoint as an individual retailer! Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here.