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Credit: Marvel Comics

Comics Wire: Comics book sales hit new record in 2019. Plus a deep dive into Marvel's Empyre event & more

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Jul 15, 2020

Welcome to Comics Wire, SYFY WIRE's weekly comics column that gets at the pulse of what's going on in comics right now. We've got what you need to know about huge crossovers, real-life issues facing the industry, cool first looks, the week's hot new comics, and everything in between.

It's a strange time for everyone in the entertainment world, and we've written a lot in this very column about how the comics world is no different. Projects have been put on hold, staff have been laid off from some publishers, local retailers are struggling, and for a little while there New Comic Book Day simply stopped happening. It's a time when good news is welcome, and a few days ago the industry got some very nice news in the form of new analysis from Comichron and ICv2: Comics and graphic novels hit a record $1.2 billion in North American sales in 2019. 

That number marks an 11 percent increase from last year, and also marks the first time ever that sales of print comics topped $1 billion, as the analysis notes that digital sales only accounted for about $90 million. The biggest driver of these big numbers: Graphic novels, which continue to grow as a market, particularly among young readers as more and more publishers (including, as of earlier this month, Marvel Comics) churn out more material to serve kids.

Thanks to both physical and online bookstores and in-school book fairs, book channels accounted for $570 million of the total revenue. Graphic novels across various sales channels pulled in $765 million, compared to $355 million for floppy comics and $90 million for digital comics.

“The massive shift to graphic novels as the preferred format for comics continued in 2019,” ICv2's Milton Griepp said, “bringing sales in the book channel above the comic store channel in North America for the first time in the history of the medium.”

Comichron/ICv2

There are many different factors contributing to this sales boost, and while I'm not an expert on the business side of comics I honestly think it can't be overstated how much growing the tent has contributed to higher sales. Whether it's introducing more diversity both on creative rosters and character rosters or simply putting a wider variety of content for a broader age range, bringing more people into comics as a medium is about showing them that there really is something for everyone here.

We still have a long way to go in that regard, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is going to impact things in terms of sales in 2020. But, the more publishers are able to grow the tent — through publishing choices as well as, and this is important, addressing issues of misconduct to get their houses in order — the more readers will see that those "BIFF! BAM! POW!" headlines that come up so often in non-comics press are far from representative of the medium. You really can do anything within those panel borders, and more readers are noticing. 


Speaking of boosting comics sales, since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, comics publishers have been coming up with all sorts of ways to drive traffic to local comics shops in the wake of the brief Diamond distribution shutdown. BOOM! Studios expanded the much-anticipated graphic novel WYND into an ongoing series that launched earlier this summer, Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard dropped a surprise The Walking Dead one-shot, and much more. A lot of cool stuff has already been revealed, but publishers aren't done yet, as Image Comics revealed last week when they tweeted out this still-mysterious teaser.

If you're a comic book fan and you hear the word "crossover," it instantly conjures a mega-event in your mind, and it's a particularly intriguing thing to hear about from Image. The publisher rather infamously attempted a crossover event titled Image United at 2009, but it was never completed, and though some creator-owned titles (most recent John Layman's Chew/Outer Darkness team-up) have linked up in the past, they haven't tried something on the scale of Image United since that effort. So...what could this be?

A team-up of the Image partners that will unite some of their most popular characters? A team-up of the Image partners in which they create all-new characters? A team-up of some of Image's most popular non-partner creators? An event by a single creative team that unites various popular characters? Maybe it's none of those things. Maybe it's just a comic called "Crossover" and we're all reading way too much into that image. Whatever it is, we'll hopefully know more soon. For now, it's at least nice to know that all that chatter about a big crossover event to boost comic book sales has, perhaps, not gone unaddressed.


Empyre strikes

This week we are fortunately back in the very fun position of having two major superhero event books running at the same time, as DC releases the second issue of Dark Nights: Death Metal and Marvel drops the first issue of Empyre after two #0 preludes starring the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, respectively. Since I spent a good chunk of time a few weeks back digging into Death Metal's debut and its implications, now feels like a very good time to do the same with Marvel. 

There was a time not that long ago when Marvel would very often launch cosmic events in a way that stood rather separately from their Earthbound heroes — while we got Civil War starring The Avengers, we also got Annihilation starring Nova and the Guardians of the Galaxy. There's nothing wrong with this system, because it speaks to the sheer scope of the fictional universe you've created, but if you happen to be reading both at the same time, one can make the other look perhaps a bit small. "The Annihilation Wave threatens the entire universe" is a little different than "Congress wants superheroes to say who they really are," after all. 

This is why, to me at least, it's nice when Marvel's creators can find ways to meld the massive implications of its cosmic happenings with whatever's happening on Earth in a way that feels organic and gripping. At least as far as its first issue extends, Empyre manages to feel like both, but what I really want to talk about here is something that gets into very slight spoiler territory, because what I really love about this debut is the way it manages to swerve at the last moment to create something far more compelling. 

Empyre is written by Dan Slott and Al Ewing, two writers who have some experience with giving us readers what we need rather than what we necessarily want. We're talking about the guy who killed Peter Parker and the guy who made the Hulk into a horror character, respectively, so I tend to trust both of them when they want to take a little detour in an effort to make a point. To that end, so much of the buildup to Empyre has been about the decades of comic book history devoted to the conflict between the Kree and the Skrulls, and how this series will finally unite those two alien races under the sword of their new emperor, Hulkling.

There was a whole prelude issue that was all about reminding us of that background, and both #0 issues reinforced the sense that a war armada composed of Kree and Skrull at the same time is so monumental, so gobsmackingly unheard of in Marvel Comics before (despite, let's be real, a few key truces here and there in the past), that we simply had to pay attention to exactly why they were making a beeline for Earth. 

Well, Empyre #1 tells us the why of it all, but before it does it sets up an intellectual and philosophical standoff between two of Marvel's greatest minds, Reed Richards and Tony Stark. Both men are seeing the scenario play out, both see Hulkling standing between these two contentious alien races, but they each have their own path forward. As it turns out, neither of them was able to see what's coming, and that's both refreshing and immediately compelling.

I don't want to dig too deep into how this issue plays out, because you should read it for yourself if you haven't yet, but if the rest of Empyre manages to pull off this level of fun — while playing with our expectations built from years of reading Marvel cosmic stories along the way — we're in for something special. Together with Valerio Schiti's beautifully ambitious art, Slott and Ewing stand to change the course of Marvel's cosmic empires. Let's see if they can stick the landing.


New Comics: Rob Liefeld's Snake EyesThe Old Guard hits a milestone, and more

IDW Publishing

Now that we've talked about Empyre #1, here are the other comics I got excited about this week. 

Snake Eyes: Deadgame #1: At last, one of the most anticipated new books of 2020 is here as Rob Liefeld launches his take on G.I. Joe legend Snake Eyes with a first issue and a whopping three dozen different variant covers. Deadgame follows the title character, the legendary silent ninja of the Joe team, as he heads to a secret facility in Norway that points to a deadly and ancient secret which just might point to his most challenging mission effort.

The first issue — which moves like a freight train thanks to Liefeld and co-writer Chad Bowers — is mostly devoted to awakening the secrets at the heart of the facility and then fighting through them, which offers ample opportunity for Liefeld to just unleash as much cool Snake Eyes action as he can possibly pack into a single comic. The result is some of his most compelling work, a mixture of widescreen action shots, splashes, and quick-cut vertical panels that all play like a killer opening sequence to a great action movie. Sometimes you can just sense when a creative team is having a blast on a book they just launched. You can feel how thrilling it was to get the stuff down on the page. Deadgame #1 reads like that. 

The Old Guard: Force Multiplied #5: Last week, Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez's The Old Guard gained a ton of new fans when the film based on the comic hit Netflix. Now, just as many of those fans are checking out the comic for the first time, Rucka and Fernandez are wrapping up the second arc in a planned Old Guard trilogy. Force Multiplied tells the story of what happens when Noriko (the character renamed Quynh in the film) tracks down Andy and her crew centuries after she vanished and challenges everything they thought they know. As anyone who's read The Old Guard before could probably guess, the finale of this clash is a barn burner of an issue, featuring Fernandez delivering perhaps his most emotionally resonant pencils in the entire series and Rucka writing the hell out of what turns out to be a major shift for the characters.

While the first arc was all about integrating Nile into the group, the second has been all about reckoning with past defeats, both physical and emotional, and it all comes to a head here in a poetic, gloriously violent thunderclap of a comic. I can't wait for the third volume of the series to arrive, but I'm willing to wait at least a little while because I still don't want The Old Guard to be over.

Engineward #1: Vault Comics is one of the premier publishers of sci-fi high-concept right now, and lately they've been particularly good about delivering various takes on life after Earthly civilization as we know it has come crashing down. This week, the publisher launched Engineward from writer George Mann and artist Joe Eisma, and set in motion another ambitious new genre series with intriguing worldbuilding and a fascinating hook. 

In the world of Engineward, Earth is nothing but a myth, an ancient story that the current version of humanity barely remembers. The book follows Joss, the Engineward of the title, as she comes across a relic of this ancient world, and in the process unlocks secrets that Celestials, the ruling class of her reorganized world, might not want anyone to know. The first issue, featuring some really fascinating design work from Eisma and a clever script from Mann that manages to blend worldbuilding captions rather seamlessly with present dialogue, largely follows the journey of this relic as it goes from discovery to Joss' work table, and in between we get a peek at what life looks like for these people in the age that follows Earth. There are so many compelling little details laced into this patient, thoughtful debut that, by the time the issue hits the exclamation point of its cliffhanger ending, you can't help but want to read on.

Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #12: If you've been reading SYFY WIRE this week, you know that I've already done quite a bit of coverage of the finale of Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen from writer Matt Fraction and artist Steve Lieber, so the fact that I'm devoting still more space to it here should really drive home just how much I love this comic. Jimmy Olsen is a book that's made me laugh so hard in bed that I've woken up the rest of my household. It's a comic that fearlessly and nimbly leaps through DC Comics lore like a 10-year-old nerd with a sugar high, and then somehow turns around delivers the most emotionally resonant, thoughtful piece of storytelling imaginable on the next page. 

Here, in the final issue, it's time to wrap up the mystery of Jimmy's would-be assassin, but it's also time to address the future of Metropolis. The Daily Planet is in trouble, only Jimmy Olsen can save it, and to do that he's going to have to pull out all the stops. Which is handy, because that's exactly what Fraction and Lieber do. This is a creative team (shout-out to colorist Nathan Fairbairn and letterer Clayton Cowles) that leaves it all on the field, in a story that's as much about the wacky world of comics continuity as it is about the true core of lasting friendship and loyalty. In a year when many of us have been strapped for joy, Jimmy Olsen turned out to be a joyful gift. 

And that's it for Comics Wire this week. Until next time, remember what John Custer told his son Jesse in the pages of Preacher:

"You gotta be one of the good guys, son: 'Cause there's way too many of the bad."

 

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