After a year of slipping sales and smaller lines, the comics industry was in a more upbeat mood for the 2016 Diamond Retailer Summit, held Aug. 31-Sept.2 in Baltimore by Diamond Comic Distributors, the main distributor for periodical comics and traditional comics publishers. With a lively exhibit hall–Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman was a star attraction–and an improved slate of panels, the event drew over 400 attendees and 200 retail shops.
While sales have yet to fully recover from a shaky start this year–overall sales are down 2.2%–graphic novels are up 2.4%. Additionally, Diamond’s customer count is up 3.6%.
Periodical comics are down 2.6%, and merchandise down 1.6%. However, at a breakfast presentation, Diamond reps announced that sales had picked up over the summer, and by year's end they expect sales to stabilize.
The growth in graphic novels was remarked on by nearly every publisher. Mainstream authors Chuck Palahniuk and Margaret Atwood have had success at Dark Horse, said editor in chief Dave Marshall, at a state of the industry panel. “More and more of our readers are preferring the collected [book] format.”
Last year’s meeting took place at a time of uncertainty. Although sales were up in 2015, two publishers, Boom! Studios and Dynamite, announced cutbacks in their lines last year, and questions about the appeal of DC’s line drew wide concern at that time.
Much of this summer’s surge in sales is due to DC’s Rebirth event, a moderate revamp of its superhero comics line, which launched in April and has shipped over 12 million returnable units since then. The sales velocity of Rebirth has been even bigger than 2011’s New 52 (an earlier DC superhero revamp), with Rebirth showing a 76% rise in sales compared to New 52’s 47% rise. DC hopes to continue the upswing with a Justice League vs Suicide Squad event—DC’s iconic superhero team battles DC’s bad-guys turned good-guys team—early in 2017, announced by co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee.
DC has also had unexpected success with its Hanna Barbera line, a remake of characters from the classic animation studio that features updated, SF takes on such characters as Scooby Doo and the Flintstones; and DC Super Hero Girls, a line of comics, graphic novels, animation and merchandise aimed at preteen girls, a market often underserved by comics, has also been a big commercial hit.
At Marvel, retail channels outside the direct market (local comic book stores) have had an impact, including Scholastic Book Fairs, where lighthearted Marvel characters such as Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl are sold. Marvel senior v-p of marketing and sales David Gabriel said Marvel is having its best year since he started at the company 14 years ago. The new Black Panther series by Ta-Nehisi Coates has also expanded the diversity of Marvel’s line, as well.
IDW president & COO Greg Goldstein cited the massive success of the third volume of March, Rep. John Lewis’s acclaimed Civil Rights memoir. He also cited the importance of having a diverse product mix. “We're having a good year but an unpredictable year,” he said. “Some things we relied on in the past need retooling and on the flip side some dark horses have shown up.”
Independent houses Boom! and Dynamite have bounced back from their cutbacks. Dynamite’s James Bond launch—the classic spy series was relaunched in partnership with the Ian Fleming estate with writer Warren Ellis—was a success, and Boom! Studios, is “the biggest non-premier publisher,” according to resident of publishing and marketing Fillip Sablik, with the goal of becoming a premier publisher.
Image remained a favorite with retailers, with a presentation of its fall books one of the best received presentations. Cartoonist Brian Lee O’Malley’s new fashion industry focused series, Snotgirl, has been a big mid-year hit, and “we’re going to end the year very strong,” said direct market sales representative Jeff Stang.
The upbeat mood was prevalent despite the recent bankruptcy of the Hastings book chain, which owed Diamond Comics Distributors $1.6 million according to bankruptcy filings. While Hasting had been increasingly ordering periodical comics, including publishing some with their own branded variant covers, none of the publishers PW spoke with felt the bankruptcy would have a major impact. . “We learned lessons from Borders, and have been keeping an eye on things,” said Diamond’s vp of retailer services Chris Powell.
Several startup periodical publishers who debuted at last year’s summit are still in the game, and have been showing growth. After an ambitious launch, Aftershock reported a sell out for Animosity #1, which is now in its fourth printing. Sales for upcoming titles Alters and Shipwreck are even higher, according to recently hired senior v-p of digital and creative Mike Zagari, who says the publisher is doing more retailer outreach than ever before.
Although not a new publisher, Black Mask Studios is also getting increased attention. Several retailers mentioned Kim and Kim, a SF comedy from BMS about two bounty hunters that features trans/LGBTQ themes, was a surprise hit.
While presentations from the big publishers are the most eagerly awaited, even a small house can get attention at the Diamond Retailer Summit. Youneek Studios’ presentation for E.X.O. – The Legend Of Wale Williams, about a team of Nigerian superheroes, impressed many retailers. Publisher and author Roye Okupe’s straightforward request to get 100 retailers to order 10 books each to justify the cost of exhibiting, resulted in several orders and more attention.
Next year’s Retailer Summit will move to Chicago during C2E2 (Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo) and will be held April 24 -26, 2017.