DC's New 52 - One Year Later
Now that we're a year in, let's talk a little about the DC "New 52" reboot.
I will freely admit, my first initial reaction to the news back at the end of May last year was pretty darn negative -- and in a few places, wildly wrong -- but with an astoundingly strong launch last September and, I think, a lot less attrition than some critics predicted, there's a whole lot to be happy with here.
Here's a chart of the "before and after" -- the seventeen DC titles that had a direct and specific antecedent that was being published in August of 2011, compared to the most recent month of order data available (Issue #11 of each series), as well as the percentage change each series is showing. The data is in thousands of copies sold, and are rounded to the nearest whole number.
Batman & Robin
Batman: Dark Knight
Birds of Prey
Green Lantern Corps
Jonah Hex/All Star
This, I think, is a good sign of the strength of the new DC -- nearly a full year later, when most of the "tourists" have come and gone, six titles have nearly doubled in sales, and another one is almost triple. Only three titles are flat (or down in "GLC's" case).
I think one interesting place to look is at "Batman & Robin" and "Batman: The Dark Knight," both of which has essential the same creative team before the "New 52," and the creative team is not a "star" one -- that's a solid measure of what the reboot has actually done for DC: up something like 25-30%.
Or look at "Superman," which is up nearly 60% from pre-boot. One can make the argument that "Well of course 'JL' tripled, it's Geoff and Jim" or "If you put Grant Morrison on 'Action,' that will naturally boost the numbers," but "Superman" itself, I will be blunt, has been floundering without a clear direction, with changing creative teams, and no certain purpose -- yet a year later and it is still up +60%. Like it, or hate, the new DCU has made a strong impression on their top books.
What most impressed me a year ago was the sheer number of "lapsed" comics readers coming back into the store for the first time in a decade-plus -- there was tons of sampling being done, and a truly significant number of those new customers have seem to stuck. I'm sorry to universalize from my individual experiences, but I can't think of a clear and unambiguous way to measure this in the national sales charts, but in my individual store, customer transaction counts (basically: every time the register is popped, to make a sale) are up 20%. I also have about 20% more subscriber customers than I did a year ago -- and exceedingly few (like "I can count them on one hand" few) new "DC-specific" subs that were opened had to be chased down for payment or cancelled.
What I see is that a lot of new customers came into the market looking at the DC reboot, and they didn't only buy DC comics -- they saw the wide wide range of material that's available, and discovered new favorites. The entire Direct Market is up, directly counter to the general experience of all other print media, and this at the same time that major expansion to digital was announced, providing virtually every comic on sale in print and on line at the exact same time. John Jackson Miller calculates that Direct Market year-to-date sales through July are up 18.5%. Can you name any other print media where this is anything close to true in the year 2012?
So, I put a large amount of the credit on that to DC Comics reboot. That market growth isn't all from DC (at all), but I think a lot of it is down to the new customers we attracted from the reboot.
To be even more specific, I put a great deal of the credit for that on DC's marketing department, for the use of outside advertising in a manner in which I think is really unprecedented in modern comics, and for the application of co-op money for individual retailers for social networking sites. I know I spent the first co-op dollars I've used in something like 15 years because DC opened up advertising to Facebook and Google ad words and the like.
Not everything is rosy for DC, however.
DC has put a lot of weight into the "New 52" branding, with Dan Didio firmly doubling down on that number in particular in most interviews that I see.
The problem is that the market doesn't want 52 comics from a single imprint/universe, really.
We've talked in this space kind of incessantly that the math of the Direct Market assumes that initial orders are reasonably high -- non-returnable goods need to sell through at around an 85-90% level to break even; your profit comes from that last 10% of copies sold. When stores have lots and lots of 10-copy-or-less comics on their racks, they find it very very hard to be profitable, because you have no real wiggle room for unsold copies. Comic stores, I've said before, need more books that sell 50 copies per store or more, and a lot less of the 10-or-less variety.
If we assume that there are roughly 2000 "real" comic book stores (of Diamond's reported 3k+ accounts), and that 10-per is the golden rule of thumb for the market, periodicals that sell less than 20,000 copies per month, especially from the largest publishers, actually end up working like anchors on the market.
As of their eleventh issues, DC has 16 of their New 52 titles below that arbitrary 20k line, and none of those books have any real prospects to come back up over that line -- most are going to just decline further. Even worse: only four of these have been cancelled so far, and the replacement titles that have been announced look unlikely to be selling over 20k a year from now.
This is a problem for DC, I think -- not just because we don't need more rack-warming anchors soaking up dollars without delivering any real profit potential (from any publisher), but because I firmly believe that the sheer scope of the DC line has kept some number of people from jumping on from the start. Thirteen comics in a single "universe" each and every week is seriously a lot of comics -- hell, I read comics for a living, and it's too many for me to enjoy.
As a general rule, I ascribe to "less is more" for comics -- overexpansion of lines isn't healthy either for the line, or the industry, in anything past (at best) the short term. I understand that there are participants in the Direct Market who are entirely about the next quarter, but DC has never really been a company so focused on that. So, I ultimately believe that if DC had launched a tighter line, the remaining books would be selling even better than they currently are.
It is hard to know for certain the full story of the genesis of the New 52, but I think it is fair to say that it appears that a significant proportion of the line was constructed from the Editorial level downwards, rather than from the creative level upwards. It also appears to have been assembled in a very tight development cycle, leading to weird continuity problems. The shame of this is that of all the comic book companies in the universe, DC Comics is the single one with a history that had a prior creative reboot, and who really held the clearest roadmap for how not to confuse issues of continuity and such. On the other hand, institutional memory has maybe not been the strongest suit of DC comics over the years.
Either way, the reason that I bring this up, is it really does appear to me that the majority of the lowest selling DC books are those which were lacking a strong creator vision for the book. The market can usually smell sincerity pretty well, and generally rewards it properly for that. I think this is an important lesson (that you'd think that you'd never have to say out loud) for all companies.
I'm also growing a little concern at DC's large push towards direct crossover stories -- something beginning in "Stormwatch" and ending in "Red Lanterns," or whatever, because while I recognize the "world building" nature of that, most customers really do resent being asked to buy multiple books in order to follow a story. I think it's a trend that needs to be looked at very carefully, because it is dangerous directly crossing a 25k seller over with a 40k seller -- you're more likely to net lose readers than to gain, short of a lot of marketing muscle being put on a top franchise (eg: "Night of the Owls" in the Batman books).
I think that DC's move to a scheduled ship week for comics has also helped immeasurably. People like to be able to plan their purchases, and it makes the retailer's job a lot easier when you actually know the answer to "when will the next issue come out?" However, I find it frustrating that some titles have been "allowed" to slip a week or two -- those being the best-selling books, the very product the largest portion of the audience is most interested in, and thus the projects causing the most consumer frustration.
At the end of the day, I think that DC needs to be much more aggressive about removing their bottom selling books, and I think they need to let go of the premise of having 52 ongoing monthly comics just for the sake on making that number. I actually think the whole "New 52" branding needs to be dropped if only because it isn't "new" any longer.
My final concern is over the backlist: as I thought, "old DCU" backlist material that is continuity-driven and not "classic" has dropped to nil (at least in my own store) -- I can still sell "Dark Knight" and "Kingdom Come" all day long, but no one is looking for the "old" versions of "Birds of Prey" or "Titans" any longer, since they "don't count" now.
The current continuity collections are starting to come on line now, but I'm afraid that the hardcover/softcover split is going to bifurcate the sales of the entire line. While there absolutely are customers who prefer the hardcover format, not having the collections of Batman "sync" up with the collections for (say) Catwoman is the right move. Further, the decision to literally collect each and every reboot book, even the ones cancelled due to lack of interest, I think creates some pretty mixed signals about what and how things are going to be kept in print over the long haul.
But, despite those concerns, from where I look, the reboot was a remarkable success -- the best-selling titles are up wildly an entire year later, the midlist is up at least a little, there are larger and more diverse subscription lists for the individual books, and a very large percentage of the returned lapsed customers are sticking around for some sort of comics.
There hardly could have been a better result, in the real world.
Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is one of the founders 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.