Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

February 5, 2008

Things That Keep Me Up At Night

If, as nearly two-decade old conventional wisdom would have us believe, the vast majority of art comics that move through the Direct Market are sold through a small percentage of diverse, elite stores (such as Comic Relief, The Beguiling, Chicago Comics), and if, as a general look at the retailing landscape suggests, there are more of these kind of diverse, elite stores than ever before (such Comix Revolution, Secret Headquarters, Rocketship), why do art comics sales suck worse than they used to?

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Ben Ostrander
Sadly, art comics sales suck because most buyers spend what money they have on all those ultra high priced hardcovers from the big boys.


Nat Gertler
I suppose it's not fair to answer a question with a question, but I have to ask: do we know that "art comics' sales are down? It's easy to say that DM sales of pamphlet-format art comics are down, or to hear from a given smaller publisher, but we have to weigh that against sales of Persepolis or Flight. Extrapolating from Diamond figures overlooks the fact that many of the full-range or "art"-oriented shops like the ones you cite rely on other sources for much of their art comics stock.


Chris Pitzer
More competition? Isn't it the golden age of comics publishing? There seems to be a greater number of things being published now days. Maybe the percentage of things being published has pulled ahead of the percentage of art comics readers.


Andrew Neal
In my store, we're selling more art comics overall than we used to. However, there are a couple of major differences between sales now and say, ten years ago:

1. Most of our sales on this material is in book-format, as opposed to

2. There's a lot of stuff coming out right now, so while sales are up overall, I'd say individual unit sales are down on low- and mid- range sellers because there's an awful lot to choose from, and folks do have a limit on what they'll spend.


Bill Randall
You mean art comics sales through DM comics stores, right? I haven't been to a comic store this century (Mandarake doesn't count, and believe me, it can cause far deeper, more lasting trauma to random passersby than any DM store). There are no longer regular series that hold my interest, so bookstores & mailorder work much better for me.

Oh, wait, I went to a store while killing time in NYC, but went back out after verifying the nonexistence of Ponent Mon/Fanfare's "Doing Time."


Chris Collins
Can you define terms a little better? Are combined art comics sales lower than they have been in the past? Or are the total number of art comics about the
same, but spread out across different titles? What exactly are you counting as an art comic?


ps. My guess is that with more art titles available people are spreading their money around. Second, I'd say art comics were, in the past, the only alternative to superheroes and now there are several alternatives (including manga, web comics, and stuff that might not fit into whatever your definition of Art Comic is?)


Brian Hibbs
This is really short and surface because I'm swamped (and sick as a dog)

It is my belief that the decrease in frequency of publication (and near-elimination of periodicals, in favor of "books") of art comics means there are fewer "magnets" to pull the "art comics only" customer into the stores in the first place, on a regular basis.

I discussed this in last month's TILTING AT WONDMILLS --

There was a whole class of customers who used to come in every few weeks, because there used to be something published "for them" every couple of weeks. That pretty much isn't the case any longer, so those customers are only coming in every few months (or once or twice a year)

Further, looking at the BookScan numbers (they'll be in my Tilting in a week or two -- I'm writing the analysis now) it appears to me that, outside of a very few high-profile items, the bookstores aren't even carrying "art comics" in the first place.

Just one quick example: looking at FBI books that had most of the year to sell, I see Jason's THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, released in February, sold a total of 522 copies through Bookstores (and Amazon,, B&, etc.!) -- that's with something on the order of 7500 BookScan-reporting outlets (and Amazon!). That's 1 sale per about 15 venues, which would seem to suggest that most bookstores never even racked a single copy.

(Meanwhile my one single, medium-volume DM store sold 13 copies since release, or nearly 2.5% of the total in Bookstores [and Amazon!])

PS: not directly related but an interesting factoid for you to mull… the growth in BookScan year-over-year was about 2%; The growth in Diamond's reported book sales? 18%


Dustin Harbin

As a retailer, I'm more likely to promote things I'm a fan of, and I am only now sliding sideways into an appreciation of art comics. I just got a big box of stuff from Picturebox yesterday, which to me is exciting; but to many "regular" comics customers, most retailers, and myself a few weeks ago, these books would be inscrutable. Even for me, as a longtime reader of "indie" books, RAW, etc., this relatively new genre of comics-as-art--and I'm referring specifically to things like Maggots, Ninja, et al -- has been difficult to jump into. I can only imagine it's even harder for most comics retailers, a famously recalcitrant bunch. Baby steps, baby steps...


J. Chris Campbell
Technology has made everyone a publisher, giving us an over saturation of "art comics" of an unbelievable variety. Making it an incredibly difficult task for stores to offer one of everything.

The percentage of comic readers who like super hero books and "art books" isn't that big. But larger cities would be able to sustain shops that catered to that niche market. I'd be interested in seeing what the area population numbers look like for those elite stores who are able to support themselves on "art comics."


Luke Przybylski
I can only speak for myself:

- I see so much stuff online. It's no longer a special occasion to come across some wild looking art comic. There are so many artists blogs, online shops, cool art sites, etc.

- The "art" in a lot of art comics is too similar. I'm using the term "art comics" in the context of that nebulous post-Fort Thunder/Kramers Ergot thing, mind you. It's becoming a kind of party (as in political parties); Very similar sensibilities and concerns. Not exactly diverse or unexpected.

- Because of the ubiquity of this kind of material, and easier access to it via online shops, I tend to wait for something truly unique to pop up -- New Engineering, for example. Another Mat Thurber comic, or minis full of weird creatures rendered in cool ways, like, doing stuff ? -- Not so much. I do this instead of the grab-bag approach I used to employ in retail shops where I'd pick up anything under $5 that looked relatively "arty."

- Low standards. I'll catch grief for this, I'm sure. Maybe I should say that standards have not risen in proportion to volume; very little rises to the top, so to speak. It's a catch 22 with art comics; the interest comes ( for me) from the distinct vision of creators, but part of the deal seems to come from this 'natural' approach, were creators just kinda do what they do and look upon editorial or commercial concerns with skepticism. Some appreciation for questions like "Is this something I'd be excited about buying?" should come into play. A silk-screened mini is no longer a rare object. In fact, I'd trade 20 of them for a collection of the best material from the best of those in magazine form ( my wish-list here, I realize). This is where an editor would come into play.

It's time the art comics crowd accepted the fact that they're selling stuff in the marketplace and doing that well is the best thing for the artform.


Rory Root
Also a short missive, as I am rushing to get ready for a business trip.

In addition to Brian's reasoned arguments, and it was very nice of him to save me some typing, As an example take L&R’s switch to an annual format, that’s three less visits to the store where other quality books may well be discovered.

Age of readership is also a factor as the folk who had developed the habit of frequent visits to a good comic store left college, found careers, got married, and perhaps moved to the suburbs, they lost time to spend and in many case easy access to their favorite comics. Also for such folk, book format probably works better in a more crowded schedule.

But that can lead to a narrowing in choices and certainly adds to the difficulty of discovering that new work that will bring you back, well it used to be next month, and now is often next quarter.

Now there are still event books being released, but Adrian, Chris, and Dan can't carry the whole load. And I do believe we need more frequent rewards for folks looking to sample some new comics, though the new crop of anthologies does give me hope in that regard.


Adam Staffaroni
It seems to me that the audience for 'art comics' is more interested in buying a lasting product, and therefore more likely to want a hardcover or a collection. Now that most stuff published as pamphlets eventually comes out as a collection anyway, people either wait for the collection or don't even pay attention to things coming out as pamphlets. I think this has something to do with art comics receiving more literary/artistic esteem in general. These are items people want to have, and to own for a long time, in a form that can take some abuse -- when I read a good graphic novel, I want to feel OK loaning out to a friend, knowing that I'll get it back in decent shape. Let's not underestimate the collector mentality that tells people not to loan out, or let anyone touch, a pamphlet. That carries over to the art comics world as well, whether anyone admits it or not.


Mason Johnson
Being someone who works in a store that sells art comics and attempts to make and push their own art comics you'd think I'd have some insight... I don't. I do have personal experience (as previously mentioned) and can contest that selling art comics, your own or other peoples, is really hard. Convincing someone that they should spend time on the new, women-rific anthology Sexy Chix, which is amazing, instead of buying nothing but Marvel and DC books is harder than chewing off your own arm. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Marvel and DC books, but having said that there is nothing wrong with art books either... so why don't the majority of customers who come into the store I work think otherwise? What the hell is it that makes it so hard to push even established artists like Adrian Tomine on to a customer who normally only buys Superman, Batman and Teen Titans? I don't wonder why people don't buy art books, I wonder why a good amount of people avoid them at all costs. I apologize for the fact that I didn't actually answer any questions... though I hope my failed answer can lead to a besterer one.


David Merrill
I'm answering your question from yesterday just to waste everybody's time.

Gotta go with Brian Hibbs on this one; used to be I could go into the shop every two or three weeks and there would be something new and cool from Fantagraphics, from Drawn & Quarterly, from Slave Labor, from any number of indie publishers who were putting out regular books that were kooky and fun. Slowly the number of titles started to dwindle and eventually I found myself buying more 30 year old Archies and Harveys than whatever Fanta was putting out.

Plus, let's not forget that sometime in early 2000 people got really serious and instead of HATE or DORK we were handed some artsy scribbly thing with full-color artsy scribbles that apparently I'm supposed to drop $30 on.

There's a whole slew of artists who have vanished from the comic book racks - where's Jim Woodring? Mark Martin's back but for how long? Where's Carol Tyler? Where's Krystine Kryttre or however her name is spelled? What happened to Dennis Eichorn and his ability to round up legions of talented cartoonists to illustrate his crazy life? What the fuck happened to Pete Sickman-Garner? Where is Sam Henderson? Is Lloyd Dangle so busy knocking out a weekly strip that he can't do a comic story every once in a while? Where's Paul Mavrides when we need him? Is Diane Noomin even still drawing? Colin Upton can't get anybody to publish him? Ivan Brunetti is too busy editing? What happened to you, indy comics? You USED to be cool.

Bookstore sales are all well and good, but what alt-comics needs is a new WEIRDO, a new BUZZARD, a new HYENA -- now THAT was a great comic! -- that comes out like clockwork, doesn't cost an arm and a leg, and features fun comics for adults that might like to read something that isn't manga or Chris Ware. Glenn Head can't do this alone, guys. Patrick Dean is only one man. If we let things continue we'll never have comics by people who get laid and smoke dope every once in awhile -- it'll all be webcomics by basement-dwelling trolls obsessed with Nintendo games whose idea of edgy fun is humiliating furries or cosplayers.


Darko Macan
Possibly reiterating some of the points being made before and writing this from South Mars, anyhow, but:

a) Can't blame the retailers. The imperial stormtroopers combined with Al-Qaeda couldn't make your average customer buy a book he's not interested in. So the retailer's job is to push what already sells and hope that it will cover the loss on the books that don't. It's noteworthy if a retailer is an enthusiast and gives a push to the titles she likes but let's not expect miracles here.

b) Alt comics do not exist anymore. The alternative has been co-opted and is just one more genre with a pre-set audience and with a limited appeal to a casual reader. Just as you need to speak in capes to understand superhero comics so you need a certain mindset for an alt-comics to attract you. In my case, I'm getting to old to care about angst of the young without the added incentive of - oh, I dunno - competent art? Exceptions to the genre rule are possible here as with the supes: a comic-book so gorgeous that it will attract indiscriminatively across all the boards. But how often do you see something like this? Once in five years?

posted 9:25 am PST | Permalink

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