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What We Talk About When We Talk About Superheroes and the Sales Charts
posted October 23, 2007

The writer and sometimes comics critic Tim O'Neil has a fun review of recent Marvel comics up, which includes some notions about the general shape of sales in the comic book Direct Market of hobby shops and comic book stores, which is driven by sales of superhero funnybooks from Marvel and competitor DC Comics.

O'Neil's rough theory is that Marvel is more dynamic within the marketplace than DC is right now, that either more than or in addition to the relative quality of their books, they are perceived as having the more exciting general stories and specific titles right now. I think there's something to that, and I don't want to hold O'Neil to a super-rigorous standard for simply floating an explanation about current market climes. I do it every month when releases their sales figure. However, I was intrigued by this analysis.
"Has anyone noticed that Marvel seems to be going through a rather ruthless process of culling their mid-list? Underperforming peripheral Spider-Man and X-Men titles are being dropped left and right. The X-Men are heading into a big crossover cycle which will, Marvel is hoping, reinvigorate the franchise in much the same was that Avengers: Disassembled and New Avengers invigorated the moribund Avengers books. Potentially more interesting, Marvel is making Amazing Spider-Man their test-case for a new almost-weekly format (thrice monthly), with thanks to DC for that unpaid market research, I'm sure.

What does this market consolidation mean? It means, partly, that Marvel smells blood in the water. The direct market is a zero-sum game, and DC is suffering badly in both actual sales and customer perception. The more dynamic Marvel appears to be, and the more they can turn this perception of dynamism into sales, the smaller DC's piece of the pie becomes."
Now on this stuff, I'm not sure what to think. For one thing, no mainstream comics source that I can find seems to be running analysis of a basic sort like what titles are coming out and are being canceled, so I can't check on O'Neil's assertion. That's weird, isn't it? That no one keeps track of this basic market function with a dedicated "what is being published and canceled" look at things?

However, from a rough look at the charts, it seems like there are plenty of moderate-selling books from Marvel that are currently in the low series numbers. I count 15 with sales between 25,000 and 50,000 and issue number less than #50. Additionally, judging by the lack of comics being published in a certain issue range beyond that (#50-200), it seems like the moderate-selling books have long been volatile. If Marvel is goosing the orientation of their X-Men titles to match the sales of their Avengers titles, that sort of makes sense to me. The former group is outperformed by the latter in terms of top-of-market presence. I don't see a divergent course that indicates a vote against the DM as directly constituted, not yet.

What I'm more interested in is the floated notion that "The direct market is a zero-sum game...". I understand the idea, but is it true? Haven't DM sales gone up since 2002? Aren't more shops opening? Aren't more shops opening aimed at the reader rather than at the collector being added to the overall mix based on the "can't compete with that durn Ebay" kinds of shops we seem to see closing? While there are more comics performing at certain levels at the tops of the charts and mounting evidence that DC and Marvel have a greater interest in sustaining top of charts numbers through things like sales gimmicks and the emphasis of their PR than they are supporting their mid-list with such things, the numbers for the #50 and the #100 have also gone up, haven't they? This probably shouldn't be ignored.

That doesn't mean there aren't criticisms that you can lay on the Direct Market and the kinds of books that sell there. Take your pick! You can point to unethical and outdated industry structures and practices that limit competition and hamper analysis (exclusive perks, non-reportage of sales figures, the persistence of pay for play programs at Diamond), mounting anecdotal evidence that suggests problems with long-term health in terms of genre exhaustion (the drop in non-event sales, the chaotic pattern of sales success for DM-type books away from the beneficial structure provided by the DM) or what seems like a persistent lack of regional coverage, or point out how the market has largely calcified in terms of rigid expectations for certain kinds of sales successes for certain kinds of books (although even you'd have to float an argument that explains performers like the Whedon Buffy series), or point out how the expectation for any sales on some types of books have been bled out of the bottom end of the DM altogether (hello, indy genre titles now serializing on-line), or the perceived ceiling for kid-friendly and humor work that seems much more severe than it was for Bone and Hate a half-generation earlier, or you can argue that DC and Marvel seem more interested in seizing market share than overall growth and react with the former in mind more than the latter (DC shifting Countdown so that it drives attention to the next maxi-series as opposed to the regular-title emphasis of 52; the emphasis given stunt creative teams at both companies even when the result stands against time-honored sales virtues like publishing regularity), and that despite gains that companies may be leaving sales on the table now or down the road and perhaps making more severe any eventual down cycle.

And yet, if just to be fair, this sort of analysis should probably take some of the bottom-line numbers into account, at least every once in a while. Mainstream comics companies and fans have long been hilariously dismissive of numbers outside the Direct Market, a kind of vocational values hangover from the generation that didn't see indy/alt guys as actually working in the comic book industry until they pulled a gig on Green Lantern. That doesn't mean those of us who are cognizant of such successes should be dismissive of where the DM might work just because it better suits our pet Armageddon scenario. There's plenty out there to criticize without having to load our arguments through too-casual assertion.