Roger’s Comic Ramblings: Surprise Hits

Roger Ash

Roger Ash


by Roger Ash

Last week, I read a new post on David Lowery’s blog 300 Songs in which he wrote about the unpredictability of creating a hit song. If you’re not familiar with Lowery, he’s the lead singer for Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker and on this blog he looks at the songs done by those bands. In this post, he looked at Camper’s unlikely first hit single, Take the Skinheads Bowling. Along the way, he comments on how much in creating a hit single is due to luck; hitting at exactly the right time, getting airplay on just the right stations, etc. As he points out, having the backing of a major label helps, but it’s no guarantee of success. Reading this got me thinking about how this is true for other forms of entertainment as well, including comic books. So today I’m going to look at three surprise hits in the world of comics; DC/Vertigo’s Sandman, Frank Miller’s work on Marvel’s Daredevil, and Jeff Smith’s Bone.

Sandman #1

Sandman #1


Sandman

Sandman debuted from DC in 1989 (it became a Vertigo title with issue #47 in 1993 with the creation of the mature-themed imprint). It would go on to become one of the most successful and influential comics of the 90s and make creator/writer Neil Gaiman one of the top names in fantasy literature. Yet no one could have predicted that level of success when it launched.

When it was announced, some people expected the series to star the old Jack Kirby Sandman character, but no. This was a brand new character. He was the enigmatic being Morpheus, also known as Dream. The best known person working on the book was artist Sam Kieth, though he was not by any means a hot artist. Gaiman and cover artist Dave McKean were best known to American audiences for their three-issue Black Orchid mini-series from DC. While it was good, it didn’t position them as the next big thing. So, new writer, new cover artist, new character, and an artist who had a cult following but not a huge name. The perfect mixture for a hit comic, right?

And yet that’s what they got. The first seven issues did OK, but with issue 8, drawn by Mike Dringenberg, which introduced Dream’s sister Death, things gelled. That was the first issue where a number of people, readers and critics alike, realized something special was happening here. Sandman would go on to huge critical and popular success, deservedly so, but it was hardly a book anyone could have predicted would have been as big as it was.

Daredevil #158

Daredevil #158



Daredevil

In the late 1970s, Marvel’s Daredevil wasn’t selling great so not many people noticed when this new artist named Frank Miller joined writer Roger McKenzie on Daredevil #158 in 1979. But as the months went on, more and more people started to pay attention to what was happening. Miller and inker Klaus Janson were a dynamic art team. There was controversy as an issue dealing with Angel Dust was rejected by the Comics Code (this story would eventually see light at a much later date). As Miller moved to co-plotter and eventually writing the book himself, it became clear that this was one of those moments where the right creator was paired with the right character at the right time. It was magic time. In the first issue he wrote (#168), Miller introduced another character closely associated with him – Elektra. Daredevil’s mentor Stick and the villainous Hand first appeared during Miller’s run on the book, and he added new layers to the Kingpin, Ben Urich, and Bullseye. Many see as defining issues of Daredevil, yet who would have expected this from a little-known creator?

Bone #1

Bone #1



Bone

A self-published, black and white comic starring three non-human characters doesn’t sound like the recipe for a hit comic, yet that’s what eventually happened with Jeff Smith’s Bone. When Smith self-published Bone through Cartoon Books, the first issue had a very low print run (I have 2,000 copies stuck in my head, but I can’t back that up. Anyone out there know for sure?). Early on, you could buy a limited edition print from Smith that was advertised in the back of the comics. I have one hanging on my office wall which I purchased as I wanted to do what I could to support the book, aside from telling all my friends how good it was. In a conversation I had with Smith around that time, he commented that sales of those prints helped keep Bone going in the early days. Smith was a tireless promoter of the book, and word started getting out about it. According to Smith’s website Boneville.com, Bone benefited greatly from positive buzz on the Internet. Don Thompson wrote a glowing review of Bone in Comics Buyer’s Guide that many people site as giving Bone a major push. And sales grew and grew.

Today, Bone is sold in collected versions by Scholastic and is loved by kids and adults alike. There are probably hundreds of thousands (if not more) of copies of Bone in print. That’s really amazing considering where the book started.

There are other surprising comic book successes and I may share a few others some day. Do you have a favorite surprise success? If so, share it with us in the comment section. Looking at books like this makes me realize how unpredictable hits can be. If there was a magic formula, everyone would be following it. But luck plays a huge element in it, and that’s something no one can predict.

Now, go read a comic!

Classic comic covers are from the Grand Comics Database.

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