Holding out for a hero

Comics have won us over.

TV, film, fashion, toys - comics have conquered the world in every possible way.

Well, almost.

Using numbers captured by Comichron, let's look at the sales figures of comic books themselves.

In 2007, if you tallied up the total sales of the top 300 comics every month, the total volume for the year would be around 85.27m copies. In 2008, that was around the same: 81.34m copies. Fast forward to 2017, and... we're looking at roughly the same number: 79.74m comics sold last year. About the same place as it was 10 years before.

You know what happened in 2008? 

Iron Man.

Followed by: The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Captain America 2, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers 2, Ant-Man, Captain America 3, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor 3, (deep breath), Agents of Shield, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, Agent Carter, Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman, Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, Justice League, The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, The Fantastic Four, The Walking Dead, two other Spider-Man movies (the shit ones), three X-Men movies, three Wolverine movies, Deadpool, and, good god, Watchmen.

A lot of those were really bad. But almost all of them were really popular. Five of the top grossing films of all time are in there - and that's excluding the more recent Infinity War and Black Panther. The most popular TV show in the world is hiding in that list as well. The films and TV alone add up to over $10 billion in category marketing, and that's not counting the media value of the collected screen time. We're talking about complete media saturation for an entire decade, and - looks back at chart - the source material is selling 5m fewer copies. 

This may literally be the worst marketing campaign of all time. 

I think it is fair to say that there are some structural challenges: the retail landscape, for example. But, again, given the context of the largest promotional campaign in human history, I have limited sympathy. There's something fundamentally wrong going on here.

A few possibilities:

Pricing. The average comic book is almost $4. In 1990, Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man #1 swung its way onto shelves at a then-costly $1.25. When you calculate inflation, the equivalent in 2018 dollars would be... $1.92. Pocket money has also increased over that time, but the average British kid still only has £6-8/week to spend. Two 22 page comic books (32 pages, including 10 pages of ads) makes for a lousy return on investment. 

Formatting. The trade format is great for Amazon shoppers who don't want to hit stores every week, but, price-wise, further removed from a pre-teen's pocket money and does nothing to address FOMO. Digital comics are cheaper, but e-retail is difficult for under 14s and impossible for under 14s. Digital comics are also designed tablets, not mobiles, which are a (distant) second in the youth gadget-of-preference. All the NPD has been geared towards maximising the value of existing customers, not recruiting new, younger ones. 

No clear entry point. If you like watching Game of Thrones, I can point you to the book. But in comics, at any given moment, each major character is featured in multiple titles, multiple team titles, a CAN'T MISS SUMMER EVENT (Part 7 of 22), a comedy spinoff, and a DRAMATIC RELAUNCH. Plus a half-century of 'essential' back issues. This mess is unwelcoming to new readers and alienating to the giant, non-specialist retailers you need to make a mass-market hit. If Sainsbury's wants to capitalise on a new hit film, it can stock The Hate U Give. One ISBN. But no grocery store will clear out a shelf of lucrative Unilever products in order to make space for sixteen possible Spider-Man entry points.

Which is to say: comics are expensive, they're inaccessible, and they're complicated. If you want to get the least possible value out of a $10 billion marketing campaign, that's a good way of going about it.

Optimistically, there are exceptions:

  • The Walking Dead is the world's most successful TV show, and the comic book has continuously topped the charts. The comic. One way in; one clear point of entry. 

  • Walmart is starting to stock hefty, low-priced anthology comics - featuring both origin stories and self-contained tales. 

  • Children's graphic novels are going like gangbusters. They're accessible in retail, good value, and stand-alone. They're competing (and winning) as books, not comics.

  • The Phoenix is a weekly, ad-free, subscription comic for 6-12 year olds. Despite all the conventional wisdom dictating why it 'can't' succeed (e.g. gender neutral; no free toy offer with every issue), it has been selling like crazy since it was founded in 2012. Retailers like Waitrose and WH Smith stock it as as an easy win, parents like it as good value, kids like it for the great content. 

These all combine value and accessibility. Simple solutions, designed to meet the needs of a new audience.

Is it too late for comics? There will still be opportunities to turn everything around - we're not short on comic book movies, after all - but I still can't help but think the industry has somehow squandered its shot at an entire generation. Nuff said.

Get: Cultural properties
To: Take full advantage of their media moment
By: Creating a painfully simple recruitment journey

Further reading:

It is Shirley Jackson Day! Come celebrate at Foyles Royal Festival Hall. English PEN's Robert Sharp hosts, with Sophia Al-Maria, Tade Thompson, Gary Budden and Rob Shearman. Tickets and details.