Comics sales figures are stagnant, but the mood among retailers remains upbeat. That was the paradoxical takeaway from the Diamond Retailer Summit, a gathering of comics retailers held during the Chicago Comics Entertainment Expo or C2E2, which took place April 19-23 at McCormack Place in Chicago.
C2E2 had its biggest single day ever on Saturday, when fans lined up for a joint appearance by mythic comics figures Stan Lee and Frank Miller, their first convention team-up. Initial numbers show attendance of 80,000 fans, up from 72,000 in 2016, according to Mike Armstrong, event and sales director at show organizer ReedPOP.
At the Diamond Retail Summit breakfast presentation for comics specialty retailers, results for the first quarter of 2017 were mixed, with comics periodicals up 0.7% in dollars but graphic novels down 10.7% from 2016. When toys are factored in, Diamond’s sales are down 3.5% for the year. Customer count--the number of new stores being opened--was flat.
Unit sales are up, but mostly because of free overships (comics publishers sometimes add free bonus copies to a retailer’s order) by Marvel and DC. Also boosting the sales numbers is the continued use of variant covers (offering multiple covers done by high profile artists for certain issues).
The drop in graphic novel sales wasn’t explained, but may be at least partly due to the strong 2016. Last year's high points included Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, a perrennial backlist bestseller, and various Image titles.
Both Marvel and DC announced new programs. DC revealed Dark Matter, a line that will introduce new characters into the DC universe, executed by top level talent. Meanwhile, Marvel is looking to shore up its flagging sales with Legacy, a storyline that will bring back an emphasis on the brand's most iconic characters.
Dark Matter, announced at a high energy presentation by DC co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, will see six periodicals roll out. The forthcoming titles include The Silencer by Dan Abnett and artist John Romita Jr., and Immortal Men, by James Tynion IV with art by Jim Lee. At a press event Romita, whose father, John Romita Sr. was an iconic Marvel artist, pushed back against comments in the media about the importance of comics writers over artists. “People have the impression that writers are the gods of this process. They are not,” Romita said.
DC also promoted the idea of diversity both on the page and behind it– although the optics of the press conference, with four white men and Lee (who is of Korean descent), somewhat played against that idea. Lee acknowledged it wasn’t the most “woke” look, but attributed the lack of diversity on the stage to scheduling difficulties.
Marvel’s rebranding is even more of an uphill climb after a widely unpopular linewide crossover event called Secret Empire that has polarized readers. After a multi-year stretch where their major characters were replaced by new ethnically and gender diverse versions--a black Miles Morales as Spider-Man and a female Thor, for instance--the Legacy initiative will return the regular white male versions of these heroes to their titles. It does so, however, after they team up with their replacements in a series of one shot periodicals called “Generations.”
Despite the changes at the Big Two, retailers were generally upbeat about the industry. They cited the increase in graphic novels for kids, and a variety of content options from independent publishers including Image, Valiant, Dynamite, IDW and Boom!, as well as new publishers such as AfterShock and Lion Forge, which will debut of its Catalyst line of superhero comics, and Cubhouse comics for young readers.
As for the show itself, which made a number of improvements over last year's show, including the expansion of Artist Alley (a section devoted to tables by individual artists), the jury is still out on whether C2E2 will become a “must do show.”
Mitigating factors include a crowded spring schedule that features such shows as Emerald City Comic Con (also run by ReedPOP), the well-established WonderCon and now Fan Expo Dallas. All three shows are held in March and April.
Still, this year’s event had the air of a special moment. Citing the huge crowd on Saturday, Armstrong said: "It felt a little like New York Comic Con the year when it broke out and we thought ‘ Man, we really have something here.’"