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June 19, 2012

What Walking Dead #100 Selling A Lot Of Copies Will Mean

Industry speculation is rampant that a multiple-cover driven anniversary issue of the Robert Kirkman/Charlie Adlard series Walking Dead is going to crush the July periodicals sales charts. I don't know if there's still time remaining for a massive over-ship by one of the two majors to prevent or ameliorate, but at the levels they're talking I don't think the amount of time remaining matters all that much. I suspect the rough outlines of what we're hearing is true; the fact that I've even heard about it from a trio of different folks indicates just how common-knowledge this sales breakout has become.

imageSo what would that mean?

Usually when something like this happens the two ways comics culture processes the story are 1) Treat it as an abstraction and 2) Treat it as symbolic. I actually mean two different things by this, although you could say they're two sides of the same coin. By the first I mean that the numbers -- such as they are, with the estimating involved because some companies see a strategic advantage in not releasing numbers -- are treated as an automatic important thing in comics to the point that companies that should know better will fight over percentages of a small pie as fervently as working to increase the overall size of the pie. So it's likely that Walking Dead #100 will be treated as a big thing for simply "winning." By the second, I mean you're likely to see think-pieces and Internet postings about how this is a coronation moment for the title and its creators, or what this means for Image Comics that they're able to get a book like this to chart that high, or what it means for a non-superhero book to be put into this position, or the growing importance of cross-media promotion. I think all of the symbolic stuff is worth talking about, particularly as we've entered a phase in which people are branding business moves for PR benefit. Image and Walking Dead and Kirkman and Adlard and non-superhero comics and getting your stuff on TV should all get some juice out of this.

I think there are going to be some specific elements worth appreciating, though. The symbolism of Image's ability to sell a big issue like this may not be as important as their actual ability to do so. That takes some doing, both in terms of the company's efforts and the willingness of retailers to buy into the moment and into the company providing the moment. I think it's fair to point out the massive, multiple-cover stunt aspect of this issue's release makes its numbers not as wholly impressive as this many sales of a copy without these kinds of efforts would be. At the same time, I think there's a lot of truth in the potential rejoinder that this kind of effort wouldn't be possible without massive baseline desire for the content. The Walking Dead series has begun to move up the charts in a very healthy way, reminiscent of Sandman at the end of its run, except this time there's no ending in sight. In addition, a lot of Image's comics are selling well right now, really good independent comics numbers, including similar high-profile writer working with talented, well-regarded artist projects Saga (Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples) and Fatale (Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips). So you can't put this all on the stunt.

Another thing I think is worth noting is that if you analyze the chart placement in terms of the inside-sports aspect you miss out on the crucial factor that a comic book for Image that crosses these thresholds favors the creators to a far, far greater extent than a Marvel or DC book selling at that level. So it's not just about an Image book usurping the place usually held by a DC or Marvel comic; it's also about what that means in terms of financial reward and who sees it. Unless it's somehow changed drastically, the Image deal is ideally suited to maximize profit for individual issues that take off -- that was what happened to the Image founders way back in the day; it wasn't TV deals and opportunities to score other gigs that got that crew their homes and the ability to more or less call their own career shots from that point on. That Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard are likely to do really, really, well with this issue of a comic book is what is going to underline the potential in the Image model for a lot of creators at a time when seeking your own way seems like an important thing to do. It's also a simple, basic good when creators benefit from their work, or at least I think so.

You probably also shouldn't forget the potential hangover. There are likely to be positives to that. There should be interest around that specific series and others like them for a while that will mean more units sold or at least a greater chance for same. There may also be negatives in that the project may lead to other efforts that replicate the sizzle without the meat -- a dozen covers, say, for a book with less appeal content-wise than this one. A lot of the positives assume that sell-through matches anticipation here, which we don't know yet. I also think there may be a long-term lesson in that Walking Dead is a consistent comic book at a time when a lot of Marvel and DC efforts aren't -- almost the opposite of the original Image to Marvel/DC relationship, although that was at a time when abbreviated runs and comics-series-as-events had a greater currency than they have now, or at least could be seen in terms of the DIY charm of that era. Now matter how you feel about the comic itself, there are worse things that could happen to that market than for it to start taking on some of the virtues of Walking Dead.
posted 5:25 am PST | Permalink

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