by KC Carlson
There’s a really big question that I want to explore. (Even bigger than “What am comics?”, Mr. Bizarro.) It’s a question so big that I think most comic book publishers and comic book creators and even comic book shop owners should ask themselves this question at least once a day.
And we’ll get to that question — and several others — very soon.
But first, I have to go to the bookstore.
Every Journey Starts Somewhere
A recent trip to my local Barnes & Noble provided me with a big surprise. The magazine racks had been totally reorganized, apparently to allow for the expansion and front-rack placement of several dozen comic book titles. Most of the DCU and Johnny DC lines (no Vertigo) and virtually all of the Marvel superhero line (not including MAX or Icon) were there. As were smatterings of Dark Horse, Archie, Bongo, and even Bluewater.
It wasn’t that surprising to see comic books at B&N. They’ve been carrying kid-friendly titles — including Mad magazine, Archie comics and digests, most of Bongo’s line, a handful of Marvel & DC’s most recognizable characters (Superman, Spider-Man), or whatever was tying into the most current superhero movie — for years now. But they used to be buried somewhere behind the crossword puzzle and sudoku magazines and not that easy to find. What was surprising to see was the up-front placement, less than 10 feet from the front door, and that there were so many to choose from. While they expanded the space to add so many titles, not many were displayed full-face (although Batman: Brave & Bold and a Captain America movie tie-in were prominent). If this additional exposure continues, look for the Big 2 to add more “corner box” treatments to upcoming covers, because if all you can see is the spine — your lead character needs to be there!
There’s still work to be done. There was no signage directing comics customers to also check out the Graphic Novels section of the store (unfortunately located on a completely different floor in this particular location), but I was impressed that the majority of mass-produced comics had finally returned to a national mass-market network of chain stores.
Part of this may be a reaction to the closing of hundreds of Borders bookstores across the county. Most Borders stores carried a healthy amount of comics — although much more limited than what I saw at B&N. As far as I’m concerned, the more national outlets there are for comic books, the more Jane and Joe Average (and their kids!) will see comics around. And the more they see comics, the more they’ll get used to the idea that (as we already know) comic books are a great and relatively inexpensive form of fantasy and escapist entertainment.
Where Did the Comics Go?
Because here’s the thing that a lot of ongoing comics fans (with access to great Direct Sales comic shops and subscriptions services) may not realize — when comic books started to disappear from newsstands, and mom & pop shops, and drug stores, and department stores, and even from barbershops and doctors’ waiting rooms in the late 1970s/early 1980s — for those folks who didn’t know about or have access to specialty comic book stores at the time — well, they probably just thought that comic books completely disappeared.
The early comics shops — or even the publishers — didn’t always do a lot to educate customers about (aka: advertise) the changes happening to comics. Practically overnight, a once-thriving industry (though admittedly on a downslide at this particular point in history) virtually went “underground”. If you wanted comic books, you had to know somebody who knew where they were — and in those early days, they weren’t always in places where you wanted to go. Early, underfunded comic book shops were often located in your town’s “low-rent district” (aka the “bad” parts of town). (I could tell you some stories…) You had to really want comics to go into some of these places. While there were a few comic shop pioneers who were good businesspeople and knew what they were doing, it was a long process (still ongoing today) to get comic shops to get professional.
Which leads me to comics’ biggest unanswered question… but first, a little history.
Let’s Talk Numbers
When comics books started evolving their own identity back in the 1930s by developing original material (after gaining their foothold by offering up reprints of the popular newspaper comic strips of the day), the most popular characters of the day — Superman, Batman, Captain America, Captain Marvel among them — not only sold millions of copies monthly, they also developed a true American art form. Of course, not all comic books of the era sold as well as that, but the advent of the superheroes occurred just as the world was bracing for what would become World War II. People just loved reading about those colorful and unique heroes.
By the time that I started getting serious about reading comics in the mid-1960s, you could actually see the sales figures published in the comics (assuming you could put up with teeny tiny type and legalese). Superman was no longer selling in the millions but was often in the 600,000s, average sales for comics seemed to be around 300,000, and a book was probably doomed for cancellation if it dropped below 150,000. In the early 60s, DC comics were the sales kings but Marvel, with their more sophisticated storytelling which appealed to a slightly older (college age) readership, was rapidly gaining throughout the decade. They eventually passed DC, once they worked out their distribution problems. (It helps if your distributor isn’t owned by your biggest competitor!)
Flash-forward to 1991: After years of slowly declining sales for an ever-increasing number of reasons (changes in distribution being a major one), Marvel sells (pre-ordered) eight million copies of X-Men #1. A number of other popular titles (Spider-Man #1, X-Force #1) also post phenomenal sales based on preorders. This is the beginning of the speculator era of comics. Some high-roller customers start buying comics as investments, based on either superstar creator names or sales gimmicks of the era (also called “enhancements”). Some retailers get caught up in the frenzy and speculate themselves, leaving many unsold copies in comic store basements or warehouses (or future landfill). It’s estimated that of the eight million copies of X-Men #1 ordered, only three million or so were actually sold to humans. Marvel doesn’t care — they got money for all eight million. (Karma would haunt Marvel in the 90s, when bad management almost took them to bankruptcy.) Still, three million actual sales is pretty impressive. DC also has some big-number books (notably Batman: The Dark Knight Returns), and occasionally pulls close to Marvel in overall sales, but seemingly can’t ever close the deal.
Today: Only big event comics (by big-name creators) can come close to selling 100,000 these days. What once were 100K titles can barely break 60,000. Many of your favorite comics possibly sell less than 10,000 (although not for long). If you rated comics eras by sales, right now would definitely be the Rationalization Era of Comics. How much longer can this erosion of sales go on?
It must be said, the seemingly massive erosion of current sales has to be considered in light of the huge numbers of individual publications that companies are releasing today, compared to what they were publishing back then. For example, in the Silver Age, DC was only publishing about 30 titles a month (and Marvel even fewer). Today, including all their imprints, collections, and ephemera, DC and Marvel easily solicit over 100 items each month. And there’s a lot more competition for rack space than there was back then, as well. Individual sales naturally “spread out” with increased production.
Which leads us back to Comics’ Biggest Unanswered Question… Except… here’s another thing.
As the ID (newsstand) distributors slowly phased out comic books (supposedly for lack of profitability) and the independent Direct Market network of comic book distributors (yes, there used to be more than one!) and independently owned comic shops became the primary source for them, comic books got “lost” for much of the general public. If they didn’t see one in their local mall, why would they imagine that they even existed? Or if they did, they probably assumed that they were just places that sold older, “back issue” comics — which was the primary function of the few comics shops that existed prior to the Direct Market.
For casual comics readers (and in those days, there were probably more casual comic readers than hardcore fans and collectors), if they could no longer find comics at their newsstands or drug stores or grocery stores, they probably assumed they just stopped being made — if they even thought about it at all. After all, casual readers weren’t necessarily focused on getting every issue of a series, like many of us hardcore, serial readers/collectors.
What Am Comics?
Good question — but still not Comics’ Biggest Unanswered Question. (Just a few more paragraphs…)
Like most superheroes with their “secret identities,” comic books have always lead a dual life and function. For the so-called casual reader, comics are (and always have been) light, inexpensive, and disposable entertainment. Something to pass the time while waiting to get your hair cut or your teeth cleaned. Something to read while waiting for a bus, or subway, or plane. For a kid, something to read and then trade for a different comic (or baseball cards) from a friend. For a service person, something to break up the tedium of being in the barracks. Or a foxhole. Or for anyone, just a much-needed escape from your current reality.
Then there was the darker, more seductive side of comic books. They were addictive and collectible. We were told that they’d be worth money some day — with an annual “guide” written in a mysterious, exotic language telling us so. As we found out more about the characters, we wanted to know more about their history and background, just like any good serialized soap opera. Tracking down back issues was both fun and frustrating — an unbeatable mix for kid-brained obsessives. Gotta have ‘em all!
Most important of all, comic books were something that most of our parents and teachers and ministers and other authority figures didn’t want us to have. So, of course, we had to have them!
But that was back then. What are comics today? If we truly have chased away all the casual readers — by limiting availability, continually increasing prices, and creating stories stretched out so far that it is a) impossible to find all the issues; b) expensive to buy all the issues (or the trade); or c) boring and not worth it — why would casual readers stick around? We have chased them away — mostly with flaming pointy sticks!
That leaves our industry with an ever-dwindling hardcore readership of ever-obsessive collectors/hoarders who only want things “their way” and a collective readership that can hardly agree on anything. (You disagree? Shocking. Have you read message boards lately?)
Which leads us back to Comics’ Biggest Unanswered Question. If comic books used to sell in the hundreds of thousands or millions per issue…
Where the hell did all those readers go?
(They can’t all be playing video games, can they?)
Aren’t there more people on the planet today than back then? Why aren’t there more people reading comic books than there used to be?
NEXT: What went wrong — and what went right.
KC CARLSON: Still reading comics (since 1960).
(Thinks: Hey, this decompressed column writing is pretty neat — bet I can keep this going for… hmmm… maybe another five or six columns! Oh, wait — gotta do a 10 Things next time.)
WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you.
Roger sez: The photo of Daniel Bryan reading comics comes from the site Hot Nerds Reading Comics. You should check it out. It’s a trip!