With the festive season upon us and 2015 racing to a close, over on Comic Book Resources, staff writer and comics retailer Brian Hibbs, in an article titled “Tilting at Windmills: Trouble on the Horizon?“notes we’re in an extremely odd place in the US comic book market as 2015 draws to a close: a market that, for most retailers, really is focused on the “Big Two” – publishers Marvel and DC.
In an interesting and challenging article about the US comics industry, he argues both of those publishers have largely abrogated any roles of benevolent stewardship, and have both made simultaneous tactical errors that seem probable to break years of buying habits from their largest and most core readership:
Most retailers I know are generally undercapitalized, and those who don’t have a solid six months of operating expenses socked away (thankfully, I count myself at least toward that financially prudent camp) are looking at a mediocre Christmas season, and what looks like, so far, to be one of the weakest first quarters of product that I’ve seen in 26 years of selling comics. This could be really rough for a lot of participants going into 2016.
Looking ahead into 2016, here in the UK, while the costs of creating new comics are a major issue, the perils facing our home grown publishers (and creators) remain primarily, I’d argue, those of cost of distribution and promotion. These potential barriers make it hard to launch new titles on their main distribution option, the high street news stand, particularly new titles not attached to a well-known commercial brand, be it TV show, film or game.
In my view, there’s also a lack on the part of one key high street retailer – WH Smiths – to consider their magazine and newspaper sales core to their success and instead charging aspiring publishers huge amounts to get their titles on the news stand. In addition, having raised those charges, there’s little or no monitoring of those paid-for news stand slots by local staff in some stores to ensure that what publishers have paid for to launch their title hasn’t been hijacked by a rival title.
Visibility is vital to a new title’s success and if doesn’t have that, and a publisher has used most of its promotional spend for a new title at retail level rather than spending it on promotion to potential customers, it’s already lost the battle for sales. Even some licensed titles struggle in such an environment.
There is of course competition from other forms of entertainment and the rise of digital readership (but a lack of revenue from it) has impacted on comic sales, which are much less than they were even five years ago. Despite this, the “youth market” remains bouyant and publishers are still launching new titles while other sectors are in decline.
Some titles still sell in a week what US comics sell in a month. Potential readers, young or old, are still thrilled when a comic is put in front of them. In addition, some smaller publishers have taken a canny approach to combatting the way distribution chains work against their potential success by taking a softly, softly approach to their expansion. In the comics sector, The Phoenix is the best example of this approach, which earlier this year went on sale in selected high street WH Smiths and is now on sale in more places than ever.
No-one can pretend that UK comic sales are anywhere near the stratospheric 100,000 a week of, for example, The Real Ghostbusters or Transformers at their height for Marvel UK in the 1980s and 1990s, but the publishers best known for their comics publishing, including DC Thomson, Egmont and Titan remain confident of their product and continue to develop and refine their range, just as publishers did back in the days of huge sales.
As we head into 2016, I’m hearing about one major publisher – yes, trust me, I’m trying to find out who, but I doubt it’s troubled Time UK, despite their huge catalogue of comic characters in their archive – is looking at setting up their own comics and graphic novel department in 2016.
This would be a significant investment for any company requiring new staff, office space, research costs etc. They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t think they couldn’t make money.
Yes, believe it or not, there still is a “comics industry” in Britain – albeit one that has adapted to survive in many different ways as the market, and potential readers, have changed.
Publishers have risen to the problems they face in challenging times, and the reach of some of their comic characters has never been wider. Dennis the Menace, for example is much more than the strip appearing in The Beano every week. DC Thomson, assisted by canny licensing folk, have over time successfully built the character into a globe-spanning brand, with spin-off books, games and a hugely-successful TV series. None of that would have been possible without the comic character’s success, and as DC Thomson heads into 2016, as we reported here in November, the company began hiring new staff for a major expansion of The Beano brand.
Publishers on both sides of the Atlantic continue to see comics as a relatively inexpensive way to build what’s known as “brand awareness”, compared with, say, the costs and development time of a film or TV show, or the long gestation period (and cost) of a new computer game.
The loss of a wide range of originated comics which some of us are old enough to remember does mean there isn’t as much commissioning of British creators as there once was – and I’m sad to see some creatives still struggling in 2015. But there does seem to be a sense of renewed interest in the medium, with Titan Comics‘ commercial success this year perhaps the inspiration that’s tempting others, such as Rebellion, as well as their own strong sales in both he UK and US, to follow suit with their own graphic novel range unconnected wit its core 2000AD comic, starting with Goldtiger early in 2016.
News stand comics publication has always been a commercial enterprise, and it stands or falls on its perceived profit margins. That those comics bring us creative joy, characters we’ve grown up with and love, stories we still remember as adults is, to be brutal, incidental to some in the comic publishers accounts departments… but we thank all those creators who give us just that, past and present, anyway.
My best wishes of the season to all those still involved in creating comics – be they news stand, small press, digital or some new form yet to come. Be you small or large or digital comics publisher, be you web comic creator or crowd funding supported or comics publishing staffer, I salute your determination to succeed, to make us laugh, jump in fear at the turn of a page, shock, squeal, cry and above all, continue to bring us a much appreciated sense of wonder through what you do.
May 2016 bring you the success you aspire to, be your aims small or high. I’ll continue to support the comics community and do my best (time permitting!) to promote your work here on downthetubes along with an equally dedicated and much appreciated team of writers.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
• Read the Brian Hibbs feature here on ComicBookResources: Tilting at Windmills: Trouble on the Horizon?