The last time a new Alex Ross comic was in the back of the catalogue, there wasn't such a thing as back of the catalogue. Ross—famed for his painted renderings and occasional reimaginings of iconic figures in the likes of Kingdom Come for DC Comics and Marvels for Marvel Comics—toiled briefly in obscurity with Now Comics before moving up to the big leagues. Back then, the comic distributors hadn't consolidated into a single catalogue that divided "Premiere Partners" like DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and Image into a separate section. This "front of the book" section, with everyone else lumped together alphabetically in the back, has created a barrier to high sales for most of the independent publishers.
Now Ross is back with a smaller publisher in the traditional circulation hinterlands of the back of the catalogue with Project Superpowers from Dynamite Entertainment. Ross has worked mainly with DC and Marvel, and even his excursions into Image imprints with Astro City and Battle of the Planets were still in the front of the Diamond catalogue, with DC later publishing Astro City with the acquisition of Wildstorm (Jim Lee's Image imprint). Project Superpowers takes a group of superheroes in the public domain and updates them; Ross does the covers and provides plots and art direction.
Project Superpowers is a very important book from a publishing perspective because it’s a rare instance of an A-list artist participating in an independent comic. How well the project does could go a long way to luring other top artists out of their exclusive contracts with DC and Marvel. But perhaps a better question would be: why would a creator whose previous project, DC's Justice, regularly sold in the vicinity of 100,000 copies an issue pick his next project in a distribution area where selling more than 10,000 copies an issue is rarified air?
The answer is Ross’s unusual relationship with and faith in Dynamite's president, Nick Barrucci. Indeed, the normally cynical Ross positively gushes when talking about Barrucci and both his promotional prowess and commitment to the comics medium.
"Nobody lives and breathes [comics] like Nick," Ross said, and really, any publisher who would revive the '80s comic Radioactive Adolescent Blackbelt Hamsters has to have a fanboy side. It goes a bit deeper than that, though, with Barrucci having brought to Ross the concept of reviving the public domain characters of Project Superpowers, as well as packaging Avengers/Invaders, the next Ross project with Dynamite, and selling it to Marvel. While not having the Dynamite logo on it, that's actually where the project originates.
"Nick has functioned as a representative for me and opened some doors," explained Ross about this unusual relationship, where Barrucci's role is sometimes that of an agent. The two enjoy a longstanding business relationship through Barrucci's other company, Dynamic Forces, where Ross has frequently produced art for collectible items.
Ross detailed a few of the differences between his relationship with Dynamite and with other comics publishers, ranging from his level of involvement in each stage and the lack of publisher micromanagement to his delight that Dynamite prints with Transcontinental instead of Quebecor. "Dynamite has been printing with a different printer in Canada, and gets a different result," Ross wryly observed.
The business side of the relationship is possibly the most quantifiable: "Nick knows what it takes to promote something. Established publishers, not so much."
If you talk to comics creators, you hear a lot of complaints about the promotional efforts and commitments of their various publishers. If you talk to creators whose books are in the back section of the Diamond catalogue, you hear a lot of frustration that they can't even get retailers to order from that section. Dynamite, along with IDW (and perhaps Avatar, if it can sustain its recent push), are really the only two small publishers in this category regularly pumping out multiple periodicals over the 10,000 sales range. The standard formula for this has been licenses. Dynamite started out with Army of Darkness and Battlestar Galactica, and did best out of the gate with Red Sonja. It later parleyed Army of Darkness into an especially popular crossover with Marvel's Marvel Zombies franchise. Similarly, IDW scored an early hit with the then original 30 Days of Night property and has gone on to do well with Transformers and has reportedly won the GI Joe license (another title typically with sales in the 14,000-15,000-per-issue range) away from Devil's Due.
The norm for these small publisher hits is typically these licensed books, and while that certainly has been central to Dynamite's ongoing publishing profile, this is also the point where Dynamite's success starts to veer off from the norm. In 2007, DC decided to drop a comic called The Boys from its Wildstorm imprint. While the reasons were never officially stated, the cancellation was rumored to be due to the title’s extremely dark, adult humor. It certainly wasn't for sales. In an uncommonly civilized move, despite already healthy sales, DC allowed The Boys to simply leave for a new publisher, which happened to be Dynamite. And then a funny thing happened. The sales went up. Yes, you read that correctly—a comic moved from the DC section at the front of the Diamond catalogue to the back section and gained orders. That just doesn’t happen. The first trade paperback collection ended up at #15 on Diamond's 2007 bestseller list for graphic novels.
Which brings us to Project Superpowers, whose $1 "Zero" issue was estimated to have sold 113,191 copies by ICV2.com. That's a lot of comics. At this writing, the estimates for issue #1, the first at the normal price of $3.50, are not available. Barrucci informs me that the initial orders are a bit over 60,000, with some reorder activity that would fall into the March estimates. Forget the back of the catalogue; the only book not by DC or Marvel selling that many books is the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic from Dark Horse. The only back of the catalogue book coming close is the comics version of the Buffy television spinoff, Angel, with sales roughly in the 45,000-50,000 range. And those are mainstream licenses with audiences.
"Nobody hits the street like he does," Ross said of Barrucci. While sell-through will determine the continuing health of this miniseries, the sell-in to retailers has been huge for a small press. Call this a developing situation and one only to get more interesting come the fall, when the collected edition hits. Ross has something of an evergreen reputation for the graphic novel category, particularly with Kingdom Come, and he does sell in bookstores. The long-term question remains, if this is sustainable, will we see more A-list talent try their hands at independent projects, as we did in the ’90s?
[Todd Allen is a technology consultant and adjunct professor with Columbia College Chicago's Arts, Entertainment & Media Management department. As a graduate student, he did a study of digital comics revenue models for Marvel Entertainment. Allen's book, The Economics of Web Comics, is taught at the college level. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of PW Comics Week.]