The Comics Audience is Starting to Abandon Superhero Fare


Rob Salkowitz at Forbes discovers signs that readers are letting go of superhero comics, and manga is even outselling them by a comfy margin at this point. There’s one mistake made in the 2nd paragraph highlighted here though:


A day after New York Comic Con put an exclamation mark on the media dominance that superheroes exert over today’s entertainment and popular culture, data was shared in a private industry conference indicating that a massive shift in the comics publishing industry has reached a tipping point. For the first time that anyone can remember, superheroes are being outsold in their native medium – American comic books and graphic novels – by other kinds of content, notably kid-oriented fare and Japanese (or Japanese-inspired) manga. […]

Sizing the market for comics has become a complicated process. After comic books vanished from newsstands in the early 1980s, nearly all periodical comic books were sold through a network of independently-owned retail comic shops. The comics are distributed through a single firm, Diamond, in an arrangement known as the “direct market.” Because this inventory is non-returnable, the number of copies ordered and shipped to comic stores are counted as sales, even if they do not sell through to customers at retail.


There’s one flaw here: comics were still on newsstands in the early 80s; it was the early 90s when they began to vanish, and by the mid-90s this was largely the case. But you could argue that, in the early 80s, that’s when the precursors to the ill-advised shift began – there were titles introduced that were sold on the direct market only, with Dazzler being the first (along with being easily the first spinoff from the X-Men), and there’d soon be more like Marvel Fanfare and Omega Men. The New Teen Titans even went direct sales in 1984 with its 2nd volume, and a number of these titles were printed on Baxter paper, boosting their price by nearly a dollar, though admittedly, it was a very good quality of paper. At the time, this may have been a gimmick to encourage people to look for specific items off the shelf at specialty stores, but it later became almost entirely the norm, and the worst part is how it only enforced insularity in the worst ways possible. The mainstream media was no help either.

And neither, for that matter, was the non-returnability of anything that couldn’t be sold off. It practically hurts the medium and business methods.


Typically, increases in the overall market are driven by the comic industry’s two largest companies, Marvel (owned by Disney), and DC (a part of AT&T’s WarnerMedia group), which both publish corporate-owned superhero comics almost exclusively and together account for about 80% of all comics sold through the direct market.

But for the last several years, the trade book channel has become an increasingly significant driver of revenue, gaining double-digit year over year increases as comic store sales have declined. ICv2 estimates that bookstore sales accounted for $465M in 2018, compared to $510M in the direct market. When you add in the digital and other channels, direct market sales fell under 50% of the total for the first time since comic shops overtook newsstand distribution in the early 1980s.

While comic shops tend to focus on longtime fans – often older readers who grew up on and collect superhero comics – mass-market bookstores sell to everyone, including younger readers and those outside of traditional comics fandom. Consequently, the books that are selling in bookstores are, generally, not superhero-oriented. According to Bookscan data shared at the conference, kid-oriented comics and graphic novels account for a whopping 41% of sell-through at bookstores; manga is 28%. Superhero content is less than 10%, down 9.6% year-over-year.

That trend away from capes and cowls is also starting to be reflected even within the more insular comic store market with the arrival of a more diverse audience with different tastes. ICv2 notes a massive shift in the past two years, with kid-oriented titles for readers age 6-18 up 20% in comic store sales and 39% in bookstores, manga up 41% in comics stores and 5% in bookstores, while superhero graphic novels (typically collections of previously-issued periodicals) fell 10% in bookstores and 15% in comic shops.


This is telling, though it’d be a lot better if business magazines like these would be more in depth about the reasons for superhero comics losing sales. When rotten omens like Joe Quesada and Dan DiDio infiltrate and set about denigrating and deconstructing the creations, and bring in a lot of writers who’re either on their side or don’t have the courage to object to their worst steps, it only figures they’d lose audience, sooner or later. And it’s mainly the newer superhero stuff from the past 2 decades that’s not selling well in any venue. What is selling relatively better are the creator-owned titles from smaller companies. The mainstream superhero titles have also suffered from declining quality of artwork in recent years, pandering to social justice ideology, company wide crossovers, along with shocking contempt on social media from creators who clearly aren’t in the job for the glory, but rather, for a paycheck, while their editors did nothing to reign them in, if at all. Towards the end, however, Salkowitz veers into a form of sugarcoating:


Disney and AT&T are probably not losing too much sleep over this. The worldwide box office of a single, average-grossing superhero blockbuster feature is as large as the entire comics publishing industry, and the profits on mega-hits like Avengers: Endgame or Joker can buy and sell the entire book and periodical market several times over. […]


Sorry, but if this is implying movies actually encourage serious readership of the comics, it’s largely wrong. A lot of the series the films are based on sell well under 100,000 copies, and any boost they get from movies has never lasted long, if at all. With such bad writing on many, it’s no surprise. All these faults and errors are what’ll eventually bring down superhero comics for good, and to revive them successfully, they can’t be part of conglomerate and corporations.

I think Salkowitz has some impressive insight, but he still falls short of the mark in favor of movies. But, this does indicate the superhero genre is collapsing due to poor quality and management, while smaller companies and creator-owned products are gaining more interest with the audience that’s been disillusioned by creations that should never have been sold to corporations to begin with.




Originally published here.

Avi Green

Avi Green was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. He enjoyed reading comics when he was young, the first being Fantastic Four. He maintains a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy of facts. He considers himself a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. Follow him on his blog at Four Color Media Monitor or on Twitter at @avigreen1