While the United States is still recovering from a bitterly-fought election season, comic book retailers are hoping readers will switch their attention back to entertainment for the holiday season, capping off what they hope will be a successful sales year.
Yet there are a lot of uncertainties ahead, according to retailers. Not only did the returnability of "Rebirth" issues just end - meaning the twice-a-month titles are a little more risky to order - but retailers are noticing signs of change that might mean lower sales long-term.
Although there were a lot of elements that have made 2016 a positive sales year for brick-and-mortar stores, most retailers cited DC's "Rebirth" as the stand-out event.
"DC's 'Rebirth' was the defining change that made 2016 the growth year that it was," said Charlie Harris, owner/operator of Charlie's Comic Books in Tucson, Arizonza
Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff in Concord, California, agreed.
"The biggest and most obvious opportunity has been DC Rebirth," said the retailer, who's also well-known for founding Free Comic Book Day and helping establish the ComicsPRO retailer organization. "In early February, I went to the ComicsPRO annual meeting wanting to know that DC had plans to significantly move their publishing ahead in a new creative direction coupled with strong sales incentives, promotion and advertising. The 'Rebirth' plan has been a big hit so far."
But Brian Hibbs, owner of San Francisco's Comix Experience, hesitated to praise only one event for the success in 2016. It "ignores a lot of individual work done with individual titles that aren't as big and flashy."
However, he admitted that alongside some of the more reliable and quality titles that drove sales in his store, some publishing programs were unique opportunities.
"Any plan with full, no-hoop returnability and/or increased discounts is always a win, regardless of publisher," he said. "DC's 'Rebirth' program was a clear winner, but there are also ongoing programs from BOOM! (the 'Innovator' program) and discount opportunities from Marvel that help tremendously."
Field also cited an opportunity he was given by Marvel to do an exclusive variant, and other retailers said Image Comics and BOOM! Studios had particularly strong sales years with their titles.
But retailers are also noticing some changes in the industry - both positive and negative - that have become trends over the last few years.
Among the more positive advancements in the industry is the diversification of titles, creators, and readers. Mike Wellman, co-owner of the Comic Bug in Manhattan Beach and Culver City, California, said he's been in business for 22 years and has watched the comic book industry grow from what he called a "boy's club" to a broad and widely-accepted medium.
Hibbs agreed, specifically citing an increase in people from varying ethnic backgrounds. "I think the broadening of the comics audience to include more readers and creators who are persons of color is the most significant recent change, and I think it has been overwhelmingly positive for comics and comics culture."
Harris said he's also sensing that creators are being given more room to interpret characters in their own way.
"Image Comics, after floundering for decades, finally found their strengths and audience," Harris said. He believes that other publishers reacted by giving more power to the creators - and less to what he calls 'marketing committee.' "Five years of the same creative team on Batman and their commitment to signing exclusives to preserve solid creative teams on books for long arcs is what pulled them past Marvel."
But Field said the starts and stops of other titles has been concerning, causing "negative consequences at the retail level."
"Most new re-launches are less successful than the ones that came before," Field said. "DC 'Rebirth' certainly reinvigorated that line, but at numbers for my shop that weren’t quite as high as the 'New 52' re-launch. With Marvel, every 'new season' of re-launches may be a small step up from the last issue of the previous season, but also a couple of steps down from the previous series re-launch. Marvel used to be very dependable for delivering new series that would be instant hits."
And although Field recognizes that Image has seen extensive success in recent years, he also recognizes that many readers are what he calls "trade waiters."
"Even top sellers like The Walking Dead and Saga are losing periodical sales as more fans wait for the collected editions," Field said. "While those big sellers can withstand some drops in periodical sales, many other Image titles just can’t, and without reader feedback - requests and sales for the periodicals - my likelihood of ordering the trade paperbacks drops precipitously."
Unsure Fourth Quarter
Heading into the holiday season, retailers are hopeful that 2016 will continue its positive sales trend, but they also recognize that there are a lot of unknowns ahead - particularly the future of DC's twice-monthly books.
"The risk of ordering is back," Hibbs said, referring to the end of DC's returnability offer. "And the bi-weekly nature of much of 'Rebirth's' shipping means that the risk of ordering is much higher than usual."
"Thank goodness those first four issues were returnable," Wellman said. "I think DC wanted us to be able to measure the potential of the audience on 'Rebirth' and we certainly did. Now that the books aren't returnable, we are much more careful with the amounts we are ordering, but we more of less know the potential of most of these titles now. We're grateful they had the program but knew it couldn't last forever."
But the returnability isn't the only issue as the retailers head into the last two months of the year.
"We’re already halfway into the fourth quarter and it’s a challenge," Field said. "I hope that’s a short-term thing. Holiday business doesn’t really hit hard until mid-December, but I’m hoping Local Comic Shop Day on November 19 and Thanksgiving weekend sales just a week later will fuel some earlier than normal shopping in comics’ shops."
"I suspect that Q4 will either be flat or modestly down," Hibbs added, "between the excitement for 'Rebirth' wearing off, and the utter lack of consumer excitement for 'Marvel NOW!,' coupled with the depressive effects of the recent elections, it's going to be hard to sustain the incredible growth that we've had for the last couple of years.'
But the retailers said they'd keep trying. For example, Wellman is hoping some of his store's convention appearances and special events will continue his positive sales trend in 2016 and beyond. "Local Comic Shop Day, happening again this Saturday, was a successful experiment that I think will grow more legs as the years go by," he said.
Hopes for the Future
Wellman also thinks Marvel is going to show some strength in sales soon.
"After the dust of Civil War II settles, we're going to see Marvel taking some radical and exciting new direction with their books," he said. "I think that Marvel is currently skewing to a younger and fresher audience which is not a bad thing. Their books have, for mainstream comics, what I would call a unique energy, with a sense of humor and are a bit more daring and risk-taking than the 'Rebirth' era of DC. And that's not a slam against DC. They are doing a great job reconnecting with their traditional superhero audience and also provide a consistent and reliable super-hero comic experience to those looking for it."
The retailers are also hoping other titles - outside DC and Marvel - will continue to gain new readers.
"Dark Horse has been producing some great titles with creators like Matt Kindt, Jeff Lemire, Brian Wood, and, of course Mike Mignola, but still hasn't found the audience these titles deserve," Harris said. "I would like to see them get some of the same success that Image has had."
Field said it's difficult to know what the future will bring for the comic book industry, but the key is to continually adapt to the trends and market the product.
"There is so much more content than ever before as more publishers come into the business, more book publishers dive deeper into the graphic novel business and more entertainment media is spread out thinner and further than ever," Field said. "All publishers, big and small, direct market stalwarts and newer publishers alike, need to be totally on their game to find buyers for what they’re selling. Creating the product isn't enough. There needs to be more creative promotion for the incredibly wide range of interesting things being published currently."