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Old August 9 2010, 06:59 AM   #1
Python Trek
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How Do Comics Stay Afloat?

I've been looking up current comic book sales figures online recently, and I am amazed at what I've found. Most months, there are only two or three titles that manage to sell 100,000 copies, and most Marvels and DCs sell in the 30,000 range. A few titles from the Big Two average 5,000 copies per month! When I was a kid, if a title got down to around 100,000, they'd usually demote it to bi-monthly status, then kill it off a few months later.

So my question is: How do these companies make a profit off of these low-selling titles? I don't understand how they even cover their printing costs, let alone pay the artists. I understand that the real money is in merchandising and movie rights, but they don't need comics to keep those things afloat---if no one is reading the comics, they're not actually "selling" your action figures or your movie scripts for you, are they?

How and why are these companies still publishing comic books???
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Old August 9 2010, 07:09 AM   #2
Snaploud
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Re: How Do Comics Stay Afloat?

Zero returns. High prices. It's a specialty market.

Edit: Plus, you have to factor in how many different comics are being produced by each publisher per month.

And movie producers do use comic book popularity to determine which characters (and/or storylines) deserve investment...
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Old August 9 2010, 07:18 AM   #3
Mike Farley
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Re: How Do Comics Stay Afloat?

One of the things to remember is that when you were a kid and comics had huge print runs those were returnable books and usually the sell through was about 50% or so of the print run. These days the companies are pretty much only selling to the direct market and basically printing almost exactly the amount of copies ordered (with slight overprinting for reorders). Before any given copy had a 50/50 chance of being a sale, today every copy printed is a sale. So they're making more money off fewer books printed. The lowest selling titles (sub-10,000 copies) often have big trade paperback sales. Trade sales are what, generally, keep Vertigo in business.

And while they may not be making as much money overall from publishing, they are making tons of $$$ from licensing. That beings in a lot more money than the publishing end of the business. The Big Two are, for all intents and purposes, Intellectual Property Farms. They exist to license characters and to create new characters to license. And keeping those characters published helps maintain copyrights--they have proof that they are using the properties. Both DC and Marvel are supported by the HUGE entertainment conglomerates that own them--Warner Bros. and Disney respectively. They don't need to make tons of money publishing, just enough to keep in business, so the real cash can be made from tee-shirts, movies, and underoos.
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Old August 9 2010, 08:21 AM   #4
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Re: How Do Comics Stay Afloat?

Thanks very much for the replies! Sometimes when I post here it's like chirping crickets.

I see what you are saying, Mike, about the brands being maintained, but I wonder why they don't make more effort to keep the brands "pure"? If you print Spider-Man comics just to keep the copyright alive, then why print so many versions of him? And why not have a house style that makes these characters more recognizable? So much comics art these days is muddy and sketchy. In the old days, when comics were printed to sell er...comics, characters were often re-drawn by artists whose job it was to keep everyone "on model". Wouldn't that sort of thing fit in perfectly today with the corporate mentality that "we're really selling t-shirts, not comics"? Also, seeing as DC and Marvel both have huge reservoirs of characters from which to draw---literally thousands of them---why do they ever launch new ones?

And I get the points about non-returnable books, but where is the threshold? If DC sells, say, 50 copies per month of something, surely, _that_ would not stay afloat, whether they're backed up by a corporate giant or not. They do still cancel titles, from time to time.
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Old August 9 2010, 08:51 AM   #5
Mike Farley
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Re: How Do Comics Stay Afloat?

Seems to me that these days the threshold is all over the place. Vertigo books, for example can keep going selling in the 7000 copy range, mainly because they sell a lot of trades.

And that's another thing that changed since "back in the day." Trade paperback sales are a big part of the business now. Everything gets traded and those trade prop up the sales. NEW AVENGERS mat sell 120,000 copies of the single issues, but then they sell it again as a hardcover and then again as a softcover. And since the creators have already been paid from the single sales, the collected editions are just like printing money.
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Old August 9 2010, 10:13 AM   #6
Technobuilder
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Re: How Do Comics Stay Afloat?

And then depending on BRAND popularity (or if a particular arc is just well received) that trade can be republished ad infinitum for the next several decades.

Look at books like:

Watchmen
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Batman: The Long Halloween
Batman: The Killing Joke
Kingdom Come
Marvels
300
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Multiple Volumes)

etc.
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Old August 9 2010, 10:14 AM   #7
Myasishchev
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Re: How Do Comics Stay Afloat?

Python Trek wrote: View Post
Thanks very much for the replies! Sometimes when I post here it's like chirping crickets.

I see what you are saying, Mike, about the brands being maintained, but I wonder why they don't make more effort to keep the brands "pure"? If you print Spider-Man comics just to keep the copyright alive, then why print so many versions of him? And why not have a house style that makes these characters more recognizable? So much comics art these days is muddy and sketchy.
Really? I'd go as far as to say a lot of it is too clean and photoshopped. *cough*Greg Land*cough* And the big guys I can still name, like Bryan Hitch and John Cassady (I presume he still works) are very tight draftsmen. But there's a zillion different styles, even in today's wasteland. Maybe you read All Star Batman and Robin. Jim Lee's pretty good, and for better or worse became a titan in the field based on his style, but he likes to put lines all over the place. I wouldn't call him muddy or sketchy, though... now Frank Miller himself has regressed to the point where that charge would be accurate, but I think the last thing he drew was Dark Knight Strikes Again...

Regarding house styles: the last house style that was seriously attempted and seriously sustained, that I know about, was Valiant. Now, whether this was a good thing or not...

To a lesser extent Jim Lee's and Rob Liefeld's wings of Image, which became Wildstorm and Extreme/Awesome/Supercalifragilisticexpialodocious Studios respectively maintained something like a house style, at least in the early days--especially Liefeld, who had Myrat Michaels, Dan Fraga, and a few significantly lesser stars who aped to some degree Liefeld's bombastic style; but of course Lee had Brett Booth. I don't think that was dictated, however, and that this was more of a case of following the leader, and possibly just the artists-turned-human-resources-manager hiring people whose work they liked, which coincidentally happened to be people who drew like they did.

(Fraga and Booth, afaik, developed their own styles and became quite awesome; I thought Michaels had some iota of talent, but have no idea what happened to him; see also Brian Murray, who was the excellent artist of the early Supreme books. Then again I'll still defend Liefeld's art, so I am idiosyncratic at best when it comes to judging artists.)

In any event, house styles are a double-edged sword, emblandening even the greatest comics producers (like early Valiant), and I also suspect that most good artists are, well, artists, not animation sweatshop hacks.

In the old days, when comics were printed to sell er...comics, characters were often re-drawn by artists whose job it was to keep everyone "on model". Wouldn't that sort of thing fit in perfectly today with the corporate mentality that "we're really selling t-shirts, not comics"? Also, seeing as DC and Marvel both have huge reservoirs of characters from which to draw---literally thousands of them---why do they ever launch new ones?
My only guess is that there's still good in them, even if they are more machine now than man.

Why they didn't switch to a GN-only format ages ago is beyond me, however. I remember Warren Ellis predicting the collapse of monthlies any time now. Yet somehow they survive, even though they became obsolete by, at the latest, 1986.
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Old August 9 2010, 03:57 PM   #8
JoeZhang
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Re: How Do Comics Stay Afloat?

Why they didn't switch to a GN-only format ages ago is beyond me, however.
Because the direct market absorbs the costs of the artist and writer etc.
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Old August 9 2010, 04:56 PM   #9
Greg Cox
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Re: How Do Comics Stay Afloat?

Python Trek wrote: View Post

I see what you are saying, Mike, about the brands being maintained, but I wonder why they don't make more effort to keep the brands "pure"? If you print Spider-Man comics just to keep the copyright alive, then why print so many versions of him? And why not have a house style that makes these characters more recognizable? So much comics art these days is muddy and sketchy. In the old days, when comics were printed to sell er...comics, characters were often re-drawn by artists whose job it was to keep everyone "on model". .

I don't know. It seems to me that, at least as far back as the seventies, you had all sorts of idyosyncratic art styles. Frank Robbins hardly looked like Gene Colan who hardly looked like Gil Kane who hardly looked like Paul Gulacy, etcetera, even when they were all drawing the same characters. Even as a teenager, I noticed when my favorite comic books switched artists. The change was often that noticeable.

I think there may have been more variety, and less consistency, in the the art styles than you're remembering.

Just compare Barry Smith's version of CONAN to John Buscema's. Or Neal Adams to Jack Kirby.
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Old August 9 2010, 07:54 PM   #10
Mike Farley
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Re: How Do Comics Stay Afloat?

The difference, Greg, at least to my eye, is that while all those artists, while varying in style, seemed to be drawing from the same model. They were "looking" at the same imaginary source. These days I feel like they're drawing however they want and using style as an excuse for not staying on model.
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Old August 9 2010, 08:54 PM   #11
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Re: How Do Comics Stay Afloat?

I think in today's market - decompressed serialized "event" cross-over storylines - they have to print often enough to get the people to *stay* interested - especially the market that is still buying individual "floppies" (as opposed to the trades).

eg. I read Green Lantern starting with the reboot from the Green Lantern: Rebirth to the end of the Sinestro Corps War (which is almost one single ongoing storyline with very few standalone items) using Graphics Novels in a period of about 6 months (I get my trades from my friendly neighborhood library). If you were a subscriber and only had Green Lantern without Green Lantern Corps also following the same/similar storyline in the same month then I think "attention/enthusiasm" would flag.
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Old August 9 2010, 09:04 PM   #12
Trekker4747
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Re: How Do Comics Stay Afloat?

How Do Comics Stay Afloat?
Obviously because the paper and material they are made of weighs less than the water it displaces.
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Old August 9 2010, 11:13 PM   #13
Mike Farley
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Re: How Do Comics Stay Afloat?

coolghoul wrote: View Post
I think in today's market - decompressed serialized "event" cross-over storylines - they have to print often enough to get the people to *stay* interested - especially the market that is still buying individual "floppies" (as opposed to the trades).

eg. I read Green Lantern starting with the reboot from the Green Lantern: Rebirth to the end of the Sinestro Corps War (which is almost one single ongoing storyline with very few standalone items) using Graphics Novels in a period of about 6 months (I get my trades from my friendly neighborhood library). If you were a subscriber and only had Green Lantern without Green Lantern Corps also following the same/similar storyline in the same month then I think "attention/enthusiasm" would flag.
Quite the contrary for me. The 6 month (or more) wait in between collected volumes has killed off my enthusiasm for more than one series when I switched over to trades. The serialized nature of the monthlies keeps me interested. WALKING DEAD, INVINCIBLE, and FABLES are the only series that I follow regularly in trades-- and in the case of the first two, it's mostly habit because that's how I started reading them.
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Old August 9 2010, 11:59 PM   #14
Captain Mike
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Re: How Do Comics Stay Afloat?

Technobuilder wrote: View Post
And then depending on BRAND popularity (or if a particular arc is just well received) that trade can be republished ad infinitum for the next several decades.

Look at books like:

Watchmen
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Batman: The Long Halloween
Batman: The Killing Joke
Kingdom Come
Marvels
300
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Multiple Volumes)

etc.
Oh, Then I will want the artist or writer to sign my Apple or Ipod at that time to sign my screen just so that t makes it more profitable?...
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Old August 10 2010, 01:01 AM   #15
Lapis Exilis
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Re: How Do Comics Stay Afloat?

Mike Farley wrote: View Post
One of the things to remember is that when you were a kid and comics had huge print runs those were returnable books and usually the sell through was about 50% or so of the print run. These days the companies are pretty much only selling to the direct market and basically printing almost exactly the amount of copies ordered (with slight overprinting for reorders). Before any given copy had a 50/50 chance of being a sale, today every copy printed is a sale. So they're making more money off fewer books printed. The lowest selling titles (sub-10,000 copies) often have big trade paperback sales. Trade sales are what, generally, keep Vertigo in business.

And while they may not be making as much money overall from publishing, they are making tons of $$$ from licensing. That beings in a lot more money than the publishing end of the business. The Big Two are, for all intents and purposes, Intellectual Property Farms. They exist to license characters and to create new characters to license. And keeping those characters published helps maintain copyrights--they have proof that they are using the properties. Both DC and Marvel are supported by the HUGE entertainment conglomerates that own them--Warner Bros. and Disney respectively. They don't need to make tons of money publishing, just enough to keep in business, so the real cash can be made from tee-shirts, movies, and underoos.
Don't forget the beauty part - their biggest money-makers are the ones where they got the intellectual property rights for pittances because of the lousy contracts creators had back in the day. And beauty part, er, part II, as corporations they don't have to allow the intellectual property rights to evolve to the public domain but can maintain them forever and ever as private property.

Corporations: an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility. - Ambrose Bierce
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