Comics, FYI

By Graeme McMillan

Comeback/Setback (Slight Return)

#35・
51

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Comics, FYI
Comeback/Setback (Slight Return)
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #35 • View online
What if comics are in a far better place in 2022 than anyone expected them to be two years ago?

There are a lot of worthwhile parts to David Harper’s recent must-read SKTCHD piece about the growth of the “middle” of the comics industry over the past couple of years – which is to say, prominent mid-range independent publishers, such as Boom! Studios, Vault Comics, and Oni Lion Forge. It’s a well-considered story with some great insights from a number of different people inside many of the publishers he’s writing about, and something that anyone interested in the industry today should take a look at.
Something in particular stuck out to me, though: namely, that two of the publishers in the story – Oni Lion Forge and AHOY Comics – have gone from being distributed solely by Diamond Comic Distributors to being available through both Diamond and relative newcomer Lunar Distribution, with Vault Comics making a similar move next month. AHOY’s head of operations Stuart Moore is quoted in the piece as saying that adding Lunar as a distributor has “increased our overall sales enormously.“ 
As the joke goes, I’m old enough to remember when Lunar was treated with no small level of suspicion by Direct Market retailers when it was first created in the early days of the COVID pandemic at a point when Diamond had suspended operations entirely. Looking back today at some of the initial responses from the industry at the time is both instructive and amusing. Who could forget Symbiote Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2099 writer Peter David’s explanation of just what DC was planning all along by leaving Diamond to find other distribution options, for example? “DC represents thirty percent of the market, and there is no way – simply no way – Diamond will be able to survive with that kind of come down in revenue,” he argued, going on to explain that DC’s “mission here is to drive Diamond out of business, which will then cripple Marvel Comics.”
Of course, Diamond turned out to survive just fine without DC, and instead of being crippled, Marvel followed DC out the door and signed an exclusive distribution deal with Penguin Random House less than a year later, but you know what they say about the best laid plans. Better luck next time, DC!
Similarly, the doomsaying of Mile High Comics’ Chuck Rozanski proved, thankfully, to be little more than paranoid fear mongering: “Of greater importance to me is the future of periodic comic books, and the retailers who can only cover their operating costs by selling those new issues,” he declared at the time. “Frankly, my first instinct is to say that they are all dead, and that the party is totally over for new comics.” 
Two years on, the scale of just how wrong Rozanski turned out to be is just becoming clear. It’s not just Harper’s SKTCHD piece that makes a case for comics being in a far better place than anyone expected them to be when DC left Diamond; John Jackson Miller of the ever-worthwhile Comichron has been on the case as well.
Late last week, Miller shared a pretty impressive statistic on Twitter, when he revealed that Image Comics’ single issue sales had tripled in the first three months of 2022, when compared with the first three months of 2020. Image wasn’t alone; a later tweet in the same thread detailed significant – if, admittedly, less sizeable – increases from Dynamite Entertainment and Boom! Studios in the same period, with the market for most independent publishers growing during that two year period. Overall, the independent publishing Direct Market grew 67% in that time, Miller estimates.
As Miller made a point of noting, there are some things to bear in mind when comparing the two periods, not least of which is that the 2020 slot didn’t really have any significant breakout hits. Compare that to 2022’s first quarter, which featured both a new Spawn series launch* and the return of Saga, as well as Something is Killing the Children coming back after a six-month gap**.
So, sure; the first quarter of 2022 had an unusual amount of activity in terms of independent Direct Market releases – something that might simply have been the result of creators, publishers, and retailers trying to make things work in a period where no-one quite understood what was actually happening in the Direct Market anymore*** – but nonetheless, as Miller pointed out elsewhere, if this growth holds, Diamond Comic Distributors has essentially made up for the loss of DC two years earlier in terms of overall sales, even with Marvel going to Penguin Random House late last year. 
The party for new comics was clearly not over after all****.
If we’re celebrating my oh-so-advanced years, I should point out that I’m also old enough to remember a time when publishers distributing their material through more than one distributor was the norm, rather than the break from convention it’s still treated as today. Remember those halcyon days before Marvel accidentally broke the market by buying its own distributor and trying to do everything itself before failing spectacularly? Those were the days, my friends, when there was more than one way for retailers to get copies of books they wanted. New comic book day wasn’t even a Wednesday back then, because books arrived at different stores from different distributors on different days! It was like the Wild West.
I know the argument from retailers is that it’s a lot of work keeping up with three different catalogs every month, and processing, monitoring, and keeping track of all the moving pieces; I get that, I do. I just keep thinking about the fact that, back when Diamond did have a monopoly on distribution, retailers would complain about that. I keep thinking about the idea that, maybe, having some competition might make distributors get their houses in order a little bit more. I keep remembering what Vault CEO Damien Wassel said in that SKTCHD piece about why Vault will be adding Lunar as a distributor: “We decided that diversification was better for us and more empowering for our retail partners… Why should we decide from whom they should order, whose freight costs they should pay, and so on?” I mean, they’re not unfair questions, to be honest.
If there’s one thing that the past couple of years should demonstrate to everyone, it’s that all kinds of perceived wisdom about what the industry would and wouldn’t support was, bluntly, entirely wrong. Both DC and Marvel could leave Diamond, and both Diamond and its remaining publishers could thrive; the sales ceiling for smaller publishers wasn’t necessarily the ceiling; hell, even Steve Geppi could be right when he declared that the comeback would be stronger than the setback, despite how much shit I gave that slogan at the time. (Look, I’m as likely to get things completely wrong as anyone else, I’ll happily admit.)
As an industry, there’s almost no way that comics is out of the turbulent times just yet; if nothing else, we’re not even a year into the Substack era, with the majority of creators attached to that company some time away from releasing print editions of the work underwritten by that money. But maybe – just maybe – there are reasons to feel optimistic about what the future holds, instead of the traditional feeling of unease and mild dread. Just imagine…!
* I know, I know, but Spawn books really sell. Like, Spawn books really, really sell. 
** The scale of the success of Something is Killing the Children is the kind of thing that we’ll only appreciate fully after the fact, I suspect; I know the comic was in development with Netflix last year, and I can only hope that’s still the case given the number of developmental cutbacks the company is currently undergoing. It feels very much like the next Walking Dead, to me.
*** Bear in mind that material published from January through March of this year was solicited from October through December last year, which were the first three months of Marvel’s new distribution deal with Penguin Random House. 
**** It’s particularly fascinating to reconsider all of this “comics are doomed, Diamond will never survive without DC” approach after the past couple of years, which haven’t just seen the introduction of new distribution options for publishers, but also Substack and Zestworld bringing venture capitalist funding to the comics industry. “The party is totally over for new comics” feels very hollow at a time when there are more ways to get comics to readers than before. (Don’t forget, webcomics are still a significant growth area in general, as well.) 
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Graeme McMillan

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