As the number and popularity of such streaming services as Netflix, and Disney+ continue to grow, many of these services have turned to adapting comics and graphic novels which have gone on to become some of their biggest hit shows.
Comics properties that have been adapted range from eccentric indie comics titles–for example, Charles Forsman’s The End of the F****** World on Netflix–to highly promoted superhero franchise series, among them WandaVision on Disney+ and The Boys on Amazon Prime. All of these shows have led to increased graphic novel sales, but along the way publishers have had to adapt and find new strategies to capitalize on their popularity on streaming media.
Among the challenges publishers face is the effort to link book releases to streaming TV shows: these services often don’t publicize broadcast dates until only a few months out. This means that publishers have to guess what the print demand will be, leaving them a narrow window to prepare. This can mean that books will be out of print for months just as demand spikes, unless publishers turn to more costly printers located in North America that can print and ship books to bookstores and comic shops more quickly.
One of the earliest (and most surprising) streaming successes based on a graphic novel was Forsman’s TEOTFW (as it’s called by many publications), the story of a teenage sociopath and a bratty thrill-seeker on a roadtrip, which was initially published as a series of mini-comics before being collected into a book by Fantagraphics. TEOTFW was published just as the streaming wars began heating up in 2017.
Fantagraphics associate publisher Eric Reynolds says they had little time to prepare for the TV debut. “We literally had a week's notice. We had what would normally have been a good number in stock, but we sold out pretty quickly, probably over the weekend.” The surge in sales led Reynolds to order a new printing of the book from a Canadian printer, “which we almost never do, but we needed to have the books in stores in three weeks versus the usual three or four months.”
The success of Garth Ennis and Derrick Robertson’s The Boys, the story of a group of government superheroes charged with controlling rogue superheroes, on Amazon Prime also led Dynamite publisher Nick Barrucci to take his own leap of publishing faith. There were only about 3,600 copies of the first volume of a new collected edition on order, and he knew that wouldn’t be enough. Barrucci also decided to print the book in North America for a quicker turnaround and upped the order to 15,000 copies. Amazon started a big promotional push for the show about a month before it aired, and Barrucci says, “we went right back to press aggressively, even though we hadn't even sold half of what we had on hand.”
It was the right move. The book flew off the shelves once the dark take on superheroes started streaming. The first volume sold more than 80,000 copies, with more than 200,000 copies of the four volume omnibus series selling in 2019. Barrucci’s decision to print in Canada was a costly one—he estimates it added a $1 more in cost per book than printing the book in China, where most graphic novels are printed. However, keeping the books flowing to stores was far more important.
Image Comics had to make similar guesses last summer when Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández’s The Old Guard, a comics series about a group of immortal soldiers, was adapted into a Netflix movie and became a surprise hit. The decision about printing was made even more difficult after the pandemic upended the printing and retail supply chain.
Jeff Boison, director of sales and publishing planning at Image, said “we realized early on that the game had changed—entirely—and the familiar practice of having retailers stock up in anticipation of impending sales opportunities was not a risk that anyone was prepared to assume.”
The Old Guard has a strong sales history and Image was confident the book and movie would succeed. The publisher made a "sizeable" reprint order with a North American printer just as the series began to air. They weren’t wrong: when The Old Guard trailer was released, book sales increased 400%. And when the film itself began streaming, sales increased another 700%. “At no point were we out of stock,” Boison recalls.
A Wrong Call
Sometimes the publisher guesses wrong. When Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba’s The Umbella Academy, a Dark Horse comics series about a family of dysfunctional adopted super-powered siblings, debuted as a TV series on Netflix in 2019, the publisher thought they had enough copies on hand for retailers.
Dark Horse v-p of book trade and digital sales Mark Bernardi, said Umbrella Academy was a strong backlist title, and Dark Horse had what would normally be a three-year supply of the graphic novel series in the warehouse—but it just wasn’t enough. “The show was an immediate hit and seemingly everyone who watched it tried to get their hands on the books,” Bernardi says.
But Dark Horse continued to print the books in China, reorders were unavailable for several months, and comics retailers were vocal in their frustration with the publisher. Many viewers who wanted to read the original comics switched to digital editions. “They just bought the e-book,” Bernardi says. “In 2019 the e-book edition of the first Umbrella Academy volume was in our top 10 selling books in all categories, which is unheard of.”
When the second season of Umbrella Academy was released in mid-2020, Dark Horse was prepared, even though “season two turned out to be even more watched than season one,” Bernardi says. Although he declined to give exact figures, Bernardi says the Umbrella Academy graphic novel series, has sold, “hundreds of thousands of copies.”
Even mighty Marvel Comics has occasionally had a hard time gauging demand for a title, as its parent company rolls out a series of newly adapted stories on its Disney+ service set in the wildly popular Marvel Cinematic Universe.
When WandaVision, which is based on characters and events from Marvel’s recent Avengers movies, debuted early in 2021, it quickly spawned endless fan discussions around virtual water coolers, analyzing the series’ various mysteries and character histories. While most Marvel movies are based on an amalgam of dozens of comics, WandaVision had several direct influences–Tom King and Gabriel Walta’s The Vision mini-series which also used the suburban setting and vibe, and Brian Michael Bendis and Olivier Coipel’s House of M, which is about Wanda (aka The Scarlet Witch) undergoing a mental breakdown and its disastrous results.
Creating new book collections for WandaVision viewers involved pouring over decades of stories to give readers insights into the character's greatest moments. But when Wandavision aired, the demand for related titles outstripped supply, the books sold out almost immediately and once again, there was a frustrating gap in availability for retailers. New printings are just now arriving in the U.S. this month, nearly two months after the show's first season ended.
Stronger Ties to Services
There’s no sign of a slow-down. There are numerous streaming series based on comics in development, but the publishers noted here have developed stronger ties with streaming services. Reynolds says the success of TV shows based on Forsman’s books has “opened doors, and I actually have a relationship with Netflix now. I could see us going to them to pitch them something or vice versa.” Dark Horse has an ongoing relationship with Netflix, which includes creating and publishing a successful series of comics and graphic novel collections based on the Netflix TV series Stranger Things.
Barrucci says Dynamite’s relationship with Amazon Studios/Prime has grown considerably. “For season two they created a online store-page for The Boys and worked with us to make sure the omnibus editions were on it.”
And TV hits based on comics and graphic novels keep coming: Invincible, an animated series based on the Image indie superhero comics series by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley and Cory Walker, debuted March 26 on Amazon Prime, to critical acclaim.
It’s still early, says Image’s Boison, but "in the last two weeks we've seen the sales velocity of the Invincible trade paperbacks increase over 200% since the show began streaming.”