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Rude Health, And Other Stories

Comics, FYI
Rude Health, And Other Stories
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #51 • View online
Rumors of comics’ death have been… well, nonsense, as it turns out.

If there’s been one common refrain across the past three decades of comic book fandom, it’s that comics are dying. It’s an idea that might take different forms depending on the era or the agenda of those sharing their thoughts at the time*, but it’s a concept that has seemingly refused to go away for any appreciable amount of time for the past 30 years. Comics, according to a lot of people, are for sure, unavoidably, certainly, dying. 
This doesn’t mean that comics are creatively in the doldrums, although there will always be those for whom Things Aren’t As Good As They Used To Be in whatever area of the industry they’re looking at in any given moment. I’ve watched with no small amount of amusement as certain eras of comics receive critical reappraisal as a new generation of critics come up and write about the comics they grew up with, remembering when those same comics were dismissed in the same way that today’s comics are**; it’s a worthwhile reminder of just how overwhelming nostalgia can be to even the more discerning critical minds out there. (Just ask me about my love of late 1980s DC, if you don’t believe me.)
Instead, I’m talking about the oft-repeated idea that comics are dying as a commercial medium. It’s a complaint/observation/worry that has been floating around, in and out of the public consciousness pretty much since the origin of the industry itself, for somewhat obvious reasons: comics were originally an intentionally throwaway, trash medium that, against all odds, survived past the initial fad only to run almost immediately into government investigation and self-imposed censorship, existing thereafter as a niche medium with intermittent spikes in popularity and pop culture relevancy. That creators – even iconic creators whose work defined the medium in many people’s eyes – had escape plans targeting other industries in case of emergency was a sign that no-one really seemed to believe that comics weren’t about to go belly up at any given moment.
I’ve not done any substantial research into the subject – although, now that I think about it, that might be something that could be a fun project – but I strongly suspect that that the omnipresence of the belief that comics as an industry is about to die in contemporary times can be traced back to the speculation boom and bust of the 1990s. A lot of people in comics fandom (not to mention a vast number of comics professionals) were around at that time, and watching roughly two-thirds of the industry implode is definitely the kind of thing that leaves both scars and a certainty that the rest of the sky is going to fall with very little warning at any given moment. 
The thing is, it’s not actually true.
Last week, the always impressive John Jackson Miller released the latest installment of the annual industry analysis he does with ICv2’s Milton Griepp, and it makes for fascinating, exciting reading. According to Miller, sales of comics and graphic novels in 2021 were up 62% on the previous year, and more than 70% since pre-pandemic numbers, generating around $2.075 billion in total. While the majority of that came from graphic novels – which took in around $1.47 billion by themselves – that’s not to say that single issues were suffering; bringing in around $435 million, single issue comic sales were up 53% on 2020. (Digital comics brought in $170 million, a small bump over 2020’s $160 million.) 
A quote from Miller that accompanied the analysis put this into helpful, if somewhat surprising, context: “Publishers made more selling comics content than in any year in the history of the business, even when adjusted for inflation,” he explained. “The biggest year in the modern era, 1993, saw sales of around $1.6 billion in 2021 dollars – and the pricier product mix puts 2021 ahead of what the colossal circulations of the early 1950s brought in, also adjusted for inflation.”
It’s worth remembering that adjusting for inflation doesn’t exactly address the fact that comics themselves have massively increased in price across the past few decades, hence Miller’s mention of “pricier product mix” in the above quote. 1962’s Amazing Spider-Man #1 cost 12 cents upon release which, when adjusted for inflation, comes out as $1.15 today. 2022’s Amazing Spider-Man #1 cost more than five times that amount***. Miller and Griepp aren’t arguing that comics are necessarily as popular as they used to be, simply that the industry is making more money. 
A large part of that is clearly the diversifying of format – collected editions and graphic novels are, by far, the most successful, and the fastest growing, section of the industry – as well as the diversification of material available, and the diversification of sales location, too. While manga and YA material were, at least theoretically, available three or four decades ago, both didn’t have the retail presence they now enjoy and weren’t easily available to the audience that clearly wants those kinds of comics. Seeing that book channel sales grew by 81% in 2021 is the kind of thing that underscores just how much bigger comics as both a medium and an industry can be than either superheroes or the Direct Market, respectively.
Also worth noting is that even this picture isn’t the complete picture. The digital numbers, for example, are specifically referring to what Miller and Griepp call “digital download” – which means that it’s overlooking the revenue from subscription services like Marvel Unlimited and DC Universe Infinite (two proprietary systems that I sincerely doubt we’ll ever get any insight into the finances of), as well as Substack newsletters****, or even publishers that sell digitally directly to customers like Vault Comics or Rebellion. It’s unclear just how much money isn’t factoring into the digital picture right now – or even if it would make any appreciable difference in the grand scheme of things – but I’d be curious to see how it could impact the relatively flat digital growth numbers year-on-year moving forward.
Even without that, there’s the simple, blunt reality that comics really aren’t dying by any appreciable measure of things. But if everyone were to accept the reality of that, what would we have to complain about, week in, week out?
* I’m sure that everyone who was online at the turn of the century and shortly thereafter can remember the wholehearted conviction of those loudly declaring the death of the “floppy” and what it meant for the rise of graphic novels as the dominant comic book format. Delphi Forums have a lot to answer for, in so many ways, let’s be honest.
** I look forward to Dark Crisis being given the attention and care it’s due at some point in 2037. (That’s only a joke because no-one will be writing about comics in 2037; I’m very much enjoying Dark Crisis and think it’s doing a lot of things right for a superhero event in today’s reality, despite some of the brickbats I’ve seen thrown its way.)
*** Because I’m me, I also inflation adjusted the price of 1992’s Spider-Man 2099 #1 – $1.75 – to see how it compares with today. Adjusted, it would be $3.62. 
**** I’m not sure I mentioned this when it was published, but the 3 Worlds 3 Moons Substack collective gave some soft subscription numbers back in May, which offers an idea of what kind of income it’s making. “As of today, we have just under 10,000 overall subscribers, with 2300 of you supporting us financially as paid subscribers,” the group explained. “About a third of those do so at the founding level.” The founding level is $250 annually, so lets round down slightly – 750 is just under a third for 2300 – to come up with a rough estimate of $187,500 generated annually through Founding Member subscriptions. Let’s also assume that the remaining 1550 paid subscribers are doing so as annual subscribers, which generates less income than monthly subscribers. That’s an additional $124,000 annually. All told, we can guess that 3W3M is making somewhere in the region of $311,500 in its first year. 3 Worlds 3 Moons is assumed to be one of the most successful, if not the most, so it’s not the best indicator of how the Substack program is working overall, but still useful as a high watermark.
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Graeme McMillan

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