No matter what we call comics—be it comix, comic books, cartoons, webcomics, and so on—they are also books. The transition of North American comics publishing from the traditional monthly comic book format to an emphasis on books has also influenced American comics storytelling commercially and artistically. Over the past 25 years or so, the book format and the book trade have had a tremendous impact on the popularity, sales reach, and diversity of comics material of all kinds published in the U.S. market.
Today the North American comics market features ever-increasing sales of middle grade and YA graphic novels by such authors as Raina Telgemeier, Dav Pilkey, Jeff Kinney, and Jerry Craft, authors whose books dominate the bestseller lists and sell millions of copies of graphic novels and nonfiction. On the adult side, literary graphic works—Will Eisner’s 1978 short story collection A Contract with God is generally cited as one of the first book-format literary comics—by such contemporary comics authors as Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, Chester Brown, Emil Ferris, Tim Fielder, Joe Sacco, Ron Wimberly, and Alan Moore crowd the shelves and best book lists, alongside a wave of book-format comics in many genres from a variety of comics publishers, aimed at a new generation of diverse fans and readers.
North American comics had been primarily sold in the periodical format—the traditional American comic book—from the time the superhero comics genre and the modern American comic book industry (companies like Marvel and DC) were invented in the 1930s. Indeed, the early American comics market at one point offered material in almost every genre: comics flourished in the periodical format, in glossy magazines (primarily single panel gag cartoons), and in newspaper syndication. Superhero comics, led by Superman and Batman, were enormously popular and sold millions of copies, but there were also humor, kids, crime, and other pulp genres popular with a wide variety of readers into the 1950s.
American comics in those years were primarily sold via newsstands (as well as racks in drugstores and small retail outlets, mom and pop stores, and the like) well into the 1960s. But in the 1970s, Phil Seuling, a New York City comics retailer and distributor, essentially invented the comics shop market that remains today. Unlike general trade bookstores—which sell on consignment and can return unsold product—comics shops buy their stock primarily nonreturnable wholesale. (This is changing, however, as comics shops embrace the book format and have access to limited returnability on some titles depending on the publisher.)
The bookstore market
Bookstore returnability—publishers joining with retailers to share the risk of constantly introducing new product—is a key element in book retailing. And while the comics shop market—often called the direct market—did transform comics retailing in the 1970s with its efficiency, its reliance on nonreturnability and the continuing impact of the Comics Code Authority—a 1950s industry code organized to self-censor comic book content and head off government regulation—had another effect. The popularity and moral clarity of superhero comics, combined with the heavy-handed Comics Code, which required stories in which good triumphed over evil and banned illicit sexual relations, among many other restrictions, left publishers of the time wary of other comics genres. Distributors refused to carry comics that did not carry the ubiquitous CCA seal on the upper left corner. That moral clarity plus the code is believed by many to have contributed to the longevity of the superhero genre up to the present day.
The 1970s saw the growth of underground comix (the sex, drugs, and rock & roll comics of R. Crumb, Spain Rodriquez, and other counterculture comics creators of the time) sold via head shops. Underground comix mark a break from the Comics Code Authority (which still existed in limited form into the 2000s), as indie publishers sidestepped traditional distributors and retailers to sell such artists as R. Crumb. It was the beginning of a new era of comics storytelling, including literary and genre works released in the 1980s and 1990s that came to be termed “alternative comics,” published by a growing number of small independent publishers determined to showcase a new kind of American comics storytelling.
Alternative comics in the form of R. Crumb’s Weirdo magazine or as original graphic novels—book format comics—began in the early ’80s to appear from small indie publishers like Fantagraphics (such artists as the Hernandez Brothers, Jessica Abel, and Mary Fleener), Drawn & Quarterly (artists Julie Doucet, Seth, and Chester Brown), Terry Nantier at NBM, Kitchen Sink Press, and Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s RAW, a zine turned trade paperback showcase for eccentric, highly cerebral, or wildly experimental comics. In the traditional book trade there was Pantheon (Art Spiegelman’s acclaimed Holocaust memoir, Maus, published in 1991), as well as collected book editions from the Big Two—Marvel and DC—most notably Alan Moore and David Gibbon’s celebrated literary superhero epic Watchmen, released in trade paper in 1987. Also important: Kyle Baker’s influential 1990 satirical graphic novel, Why I Hate Saturn, from DC. Many other publishers began to appear in greater numbers on the shelves of chain bookstores and some local comics shops. More growth followed.
The popularity of book format comics—graphic novels and graphic nonfiction—in the North American marketplace highlights a key moment of development in the comics medium, as well as in the comics business in America. Everything was changing and growing: comics’ physical format, where they could be purchased, and a vast increase in genres and the kinds of stories likely to be done as comics, including a rise in nonfiction of all kinds (especially memoir and autobiography) that continues today. And while book format popularity is not the only driver of change, it has influenced virtually every aspect of the North American comics market over the past 25 years, from the changing demographics of fans and consumers to how comics are published and marketed and, certainly, how and where they are sold.
Librarians, the Internet, and manga
The adoption of the book format by comics publishers was also driven by a convergence of demographic and market trends, among them a new generation of librarians and teachers influenced by the rise of nonsuperhero comics that they read and admired in the late 1980s, such as the underground comix and Spiegelman’s Maus. The early impact of the internet and the World Wide Web brought fans together to promote their interests and the medium on a global scale. The web showed young fans (and a few older ones) that comics were more than superhero power fantasies designed for boys (and the middle-aged versions of boys). And manga (licensed Japanese book format comics) from Asia offered a massive variety of comics designed by and for young girls and women, a market that North American superhero publishers had virtually ignored.
Book format comics are the norm in other major comics markets around the world. In Europe and Asia, comics have long been integrated into the general bookstore market; they offer a wide range of literary and commercial works and are sold as books alongside other kinds of books. In Japan, manga (comics in Korea are called manwha, and in China, manhua) can represent as much as 30%–40% of big publishers’ sales revenues. Three elements—the increasing influence of Japanese popular culture in the late 1990s driven by manga, Japanese animation, cosplay, and gaming; its popularity among a diverse generation of young fans in the West; and the internet, enabling these fans to connect over the Asian pop stuff they love—worked in concert to identify and drive a format change taking place in American comics culture, helping book format comics grow and attract an ever-larger audience.
The book format spurred diversification of comics publishing and a growing demand for comics works in a wider variety of popular genres and serious nonfiction. Historically, the American comics industry was based overwhelmingly on the work-for-hire model; even star creators were often freelancers, did not own their copyrights (i.e., to Superman and other characters), and generally did not receive royalties. The supply chain infrastructure and contract standards of the book industry were also key to this transformation—copyright, advances from trade book houses, as well as book trade distribution, and marketing, which was able to put comics in front of far more readers—has benefited creators as well as their fans. The book trade has created new career options for comics writers and artists, and created a new category in trade book publishing that didn’t really exist before.
As graphic novel sales rose, American publishers responded, launching new imprints and lines devoted to graphic works for adults and children. Every major New York City publisher has either a dedicated graphic novel imprint (among them First Second at Macmillan; Graphix, HarperAlley, Gallery 13 at S&S; Pantheon Graphic Novels; Random House Graphic; Hachette/Yen Press) or a focused line within their publishing program that publishes graphic novels. And giant Japanese publishers like Viz Media, Kodansha, and Square Enix now have U.S. offices and have established their presence alongside indie manga houses Seven Seas Press, Denpa Books, and Tokyopop, as an integral part of the North American comics marketplace.
New graphic novels and new readers
Graphic novel sales have been growing at a lively rate since the late 1990s. In a PW report from 2006, pop culture trade news site ICv2.com reported book format sales of $330 million and another $310 million in comics periodical sales. ICv2 concluded that the graphic novel market had quadrupled since 2001 and credited the continuing growth to manga and genre works other than superhero comics. The report also cited “the increase in female readers, both through such exotic [manga] genres as yaoi and more traditional subjects with proven female appeal, including memoirs such as Persepolis, Cancer Vixen, and Mom’s Cancer.” The impact of blockbuster movies based on classic superhero characters such as Spider-Man and Superman have certainly driven massive sales of books collecting their story arcs aimed at both adults and children.
Leap forward to 2020, and combined sales of periodical comics and graphic novels in North America have climbed to $1.28 billion, including $835 million in book format graphic novel sales and $285 million in periodical (or traditional comic books) sales, with about $160 million in digital sales (according to ICv2/Comichron reports). In the face of a global pandemic, widespread disruptions of physical retail, book distribution, and the book production supply chain, consumer demand continued to grow about 6% over the same period in 2019. Indeed, the growth continues due to many of the same reasons cited in 2006: a generation of new and diverse consumers and an explosion of new comics material designed for every reading taste.
PW initiated regular reviews of graphic novels and graphic nonfiction in the late 1980s. In 2005 the magazine launched PW Comics Week, a weekly newsletter on graphic novel publishing (now defunct, it later became PW Comics World, a twice a month newsletter), and in 2011 started More to Come, a weekly podcast on comics and graphic novel publishing, hosted by Heidi MacDonald, editor-in-chief of the comics news site the Beat (and a former PW graphic novels reviews editor), and the podcast’s producer, Kate Fitzsimons. More to Come recently aired its 500th episode.
PW arrived on the New York publishing scene some years before Richard Outcault’s Yellow Kid, the first successful American newspaper comics strip, arrived in 1898, effectively launching the comics medium. No matter what it is called—graphic novels, comix, sequential art, or books—the comics medium is in a really good place. And PW has been able to play its usual role in an exciting marketplace, highlighting a new category in the book trade and working to nurture its growth and popularity.
“Today graphic novels are an accepted, acclaimed, and exceptionally fast-growing part of the book business. But their roughly four-decade journey to achieve that is a story in which PW plays a meaningful part,” says Paul Levitz, comics writer, author, editor, and former president and publisher of DC Comics, 2002–2009, where he worked for 35 years.
“There had been collections of comic strips and comic books as long as PW’s been around, but they were viewed contemptuously, even when they dominated a particular bestseller list—consider the degree of dignity accorded Garfield when he was the fat cat on the paperback lists. But starting in the 1980s, that began to change,” Levitz says.
“Pivotal comics creators Art Spiegelman (Maus), Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns), Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), and Neil Gaiman (Sandman), with their literary aspirations and accomplishments, were the shock troops invading the culture, creating a beachhead for the army of cartoonists to follow. But finding a place for their work on bookstore shelves stocked by lovers of prose wasn’t easy, and opening libraries’ tight purses wasn’t even on their publishers’ agendas.
“PW looked at what was happening, and judged these books fairly, giving them credibility with buyers and librarians, who trusted PW’s reviews and news coverage. Well into the beginning of this century, it was unusual for a graphic novel to show up in review in the Times or New Yorker, but PW covered them with a fair and even hand. Not all were applauded, but the worthy were supported, and the growing phenomenon of the form was steadily reported on. It made a big difference.”
Heidi MacDonald contributed reporting.
Below, more on the evolution of comics.
A Graphic Novel/Comics Timeline, 1997–2022
A timeline of notable moments in the evolution of comics and graphic novels.