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Good news: The comics biz remains as resilient as ever
I miss New York Comic Con.
Yes, I know the virtual edition is happening now, and there are all sorts of cool panels happening that SYFY WIRE is dutifully chronicling. If we're being honest, though — and I would never, ever be anything but to you, loyal readers — it's just not the same as being there. I've attended every single NYCC, and it's the only reason I'll voluntarily step inside the Jacob Javits Center. One of my favorite Con activities — and I'm sure I'm not alone in this — is to scour the floor to find specific comics or graphic novel collections on my want list.
I typically go in search of out-of-print TPBs or recently released single issues. One book I would have certainly wanted to pick up at NYCC this year would be Image Comics' The Department of Truth, from co-creators James Tynion IV and Martin Simmonds. I'm mainly a "wait for the trades" reader nowadays, but I couldn't resist the hook of this book: That the conspiracy theories we've dismissed over the years are all true, and there's an agency tasked with covering them up.
With creators whose work I follow closely, like Tynion, I also like to support their creator-owned books by getting the single issues. One problem: I can't find the first issue of The Department of Truth anywhere! There isn't a store here where I live in the Miami area that has a copy in stock. An Image press release noted that the book launched with over 100,000 units ordered, a stellar number for any comic book today, let alone one without a Batman, Spider-Man, or a handful of X-Men.
My quixotic search for a copy of this comic was giving me flashbacks to the glorious early '90s when collectors would go from store to store looking for those fresh copies of Spider-Man or X-Force. Because even when those books were selling millions of copies, the speculator frenzy made it hard to find some issues. These are different times. Comics that sell in the six-figure range are exceedingly rare. And for me, it's rare not to be able to find a copy of a book I want to read, since I'm not interested in variant covers that collectors covet. But this one is different, and I was curious to figure out why TDoT is such a hit (it's the third-biggest debut comic for Image in the past 12 years). It turns out, this particular comic seems to be emblematic of the comics industry's resilience and ability to survive even under the most challenging conditions.
There are several factors playing into the successful debut. First, of course, is a killer premise conceived of by a popular pair of creators. Tynion in particular is at a career peak right now thanks to his surging run on Batman. But there are other considerations to er.. well, consider.
"There's something in the water right now. It's a very weird time in the comics industry ... and it's helping these creator-owned series," says John Jackson Miller, curator/founder of Comichron.com, the world's largest database of comics sales data. "Is The Department of Truth legitimately sold out? Yeah. It's a really good launch. But there are several other things going on."
Miller notes that reporting on comics sales is much different than other parts of the publishing industry. For the past 30 years, those figures have come from Diamond Comics Distributors, which has essentially held a monopoly on comics distribution. But with DC Comics leaving Diamond after the pandemic ground much of the U.S. to a halt, Miller says Diamond's charts aren't much help in getting a complete sales picture.
This means industry observers are depending on publishers and their press releases to add up the numbers, as when Image sent out a news blast this week announcing that Tynion and Simmonds' comic was going back for a second printing after selling out at the distribution level. This goes to another factor Miller says can't be overlooked: Reprinting is more important than ever to comics publishers, mainly because collectors no longer look down on them.
"Back in the day, the first issue of Star Wars [from Marvel] was reprinted. Those reprints are worth a lot less. Older collectors looked down on them, nobody cared about them," Miller explains. "Now, the publisher can now do a ‘snap' reprint, even before the book comes out. They can announce the book sold out, and is going back to the printer. And then it pops up on comics sites and collectors apps."
Because publishers often jazz up second and third printings of hot comics with a new cover image, at a much lower print run, "We have this crazy dynamic where second, third and fourth printings on new books are sometimes worth more than the first printings," according to Miller.
Don't overlook the impact DC exiting Diamond has had on other publishers. By removing 30 percent of their volume (what Comichron estimates to be the percentage of Diamond's business it lost when DC Comics left), it also removes that equal amount of attention paid to DC's comic line. "Diamond is paying more attention to comics like The Department of Truth because they don't have to think about Batman," Miller says. "Image, IDW, Boom!, etc, are benefiting from DC being away — and I'm not convinced that split is permanent."
Then there's this fact. Collectors can't go to conventions, and they're bored, and those who are fortunate to be able to still have disposable income despite the pandemic are happily spending it on comfort items like comics. They're doing it via eBay and also through the Facebook Live and YouTube auctions some comic shops and dealers are holding. If you pay attention to auction sites, you will have noticed prices for high-end CGC-graded books and original art have skyrocketed. Somehow, the economic downturn has not touched the collectibles market ... yet.
"The industry is doing pretty well right now, much better than expected given the pandemic. But that's coming at the expense of conventions," says Miller, who, as a comics writer and bestselling author of several Star Wars and Star Trek novels, spends a lot of time on the convention circuit.
How the return of actual in-person conventions in 2021, assuming those events resume next year, will impact the industry is anyone's guess. But as of right now, looking at sales numbers as well as anecdotal signs like how non-superhero comic book launches are selling in the six-figure range, it would seem the comics industry is weathering the storms of 2020 much better than expected. And in this insanely turbulent and chaotic year, we should take the good news however, and whenever, we can.
Now can someone please, PLEASE, sell me a copy of The Department of Truth #1? Hit me up Twitter / Facebook / Instagram ... and please remember I have two kids to support, so be gentle with the asking price. :)
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.