It's no secret that the American comic book business, as we know it, is in deep trouble. Since the boom that crested in the early '90s, when a single issue of X-Men sold eight million copies, comics sales have been in a nearly continuous dive; every month, the figures for even the most popular series sink a little lower, a few more comics specialty stores shutter their doors, and the major comics companies hunker down and try to figure out what they can do to draw in new readers.
As it turns out, this is great news for the book business.
While the business of selling monthly, saddle-stitched pamphlets flails, its companion, the graphic novel market, especially in traditional bookstores, is booming. There are more hardcover and paperback collections of comics material than there have ever been in America before, and their sales have never been better. Rich Johnson, director of book trade sales for DC Comics (and its associated Vertigo and Wildstorm imprints) reports that his company has seen double-digit growth in bookstore sales every year for the last four years. Terry Nantier, publisher of NBM, notes that the comics specialty store market, which used to account for well over half of NBM's sales, has shrunk to about one third, but adds that the crunch "hasn't had an effect overall--general trade bookstores have taken up the slack."
Chris Staros of the small press Top Shelf Productions, which publishes almost nothing but graphic novels, says, "In the last 3 years, the worst years of comics ever, Top Shelf has doubled its size every year. The future of the graphic novel is rosy." The company's bestselling title right now is From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's terrifying dissection of the Jack the Ripper murders and Victorian England. Distributing through the LPC Group, as well as directly to specialty stores, Staros has sold about 30,000 copies of the $35 paperback so far--and that's before the upcoming movie adaptation starring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham. Even Goodbye Chunky Rice, the first graphic novel by artist Craig Thompson, also from Top Shelf, has worked up enough critical steam to sell 10,000.
Comics obviously have changed a lot in the last 15 or 20 years, from flimsy pamphlets aimed at young kids to a thriving medium with gorgeously produced products for more mature readers (and, well, flimsy pamphlets aimed at young kids, too). Now, though, comics companies' attitude toward squarebound books is changing, and in a hurry. It used to be that books were rare events for them: if you had a comic-book series that was especially successful, you might compile it and try to squeeze a few more dollars out of it. By the mid-'90s, pretty much every successful current series was being anthologized in paperback, and vintage comics were being reprinted in deluxe, archival hardcovers priced at $40 or $50, aimed at serious collectors. Now, some publishers factor in plans for a book at the start of a new project. "We are very happy to invest in a major, costly, high-profile project that may or may not make money as an individual comic book, and allocate the cost over the trade paperback in the long haul," reports Marvel president Bill Jemas. In other cases, comics publishers are thinking of the graphic-novel collections as the product they're selling, and individual comic books as a way to amortize the cost of producing them.
Sometimes the cart is pulling the horse--DC/Vertigo's Transmetropolitan, a dark science-fiction satire about a gonzo journalist in a sprawling future city, is the textbook example of a well-regarded comic for older readers that pulled itself up from poor sales with the help of some heavily promoted collections. "It's really changing quite a bit with the dropping of the [individual comic] sales numbers," says Michael Martens, director of sales and marketing at Dark Horse. "Our demographic is moving upwards--we're not getting a lot of young readers, and consumers are more reluctant to go to the comic shop five or six months in a row. People are waiting, and a lot of them are waiting to buy the graphic novels in bookstores."
In addition, every couple of years there's a graphic novel so strong that it pulls in tens of thousands of new readers who haven't looked at comics in decades. In the '80s, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen were flashpoints for new readers; a little later, there was Art Spiegelman's Maus, and then Neil Gaiman's Sandman books. The hot title of the moment is Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon), an overwhelming, stunningly original book about the force of history on a single family, by award-winning cartoonist Chris Ware. Ware's comics were featured in a recent exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and his Acme Novelty Library series, in which Jimmy Corrigan was originally serialized, has been a critical smash and a consistently strong seller in the comics business for years. The collection has been rapturously received in the consumer press ("this haunting and unshakable book will change the way you look at your world," James Poniewozik wrote in Time), and despite a hefty $27.50 tag, its first printing sold out within weeks. (Waldenbooks' graphic novels buyer Stuart Carter notes that a lot of his stores are more receptive to Jimmy Corrigan than their customers--"they're kinda languishing on the shelves"--but adds that that might have to do with Waldenbooks being "a mall type of retailer.")
Pantheon has also collected David Boring, a serial from the Eightball periodical series by Daniel Clowes, whose previous graphic novel Ghost World has been adapted into a film that will open next year. Those two fall releases are so strong that almost every other comics publisher we spoke with is raving about what they'll do for the business. "We're poised at a time when comics are about to make a bigger impact than they ever have before," says Staros of Top Shelf. "There's the Pantheon things; a movie based on Jeff Smith's Bone [an award-winning self-published fantasy/humor series] is in development; Ghost World is in development; J Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde [an extended piece of comics journalism about the former Yugoslavia] is making quite a dent.... I think that if people look at those few titles, it could change their whole perception of what comics are."
There is a certain perception barrier with graphic novels, mostly because it's a medium that tends to get mistaken for a genre (and, usually, shelved like one in bookstores). Some publishers focus on the artier, older-audience-directed side, like NBM's Comics Lit line: translations of European comics by the likes of Vittorio Giardino (A Jew in Communist Prague). Publisher Terry Nantier says they've been most successful with in venues like Virgin Megastores and Tower Books: "They have the best understanding of our kind of market and how to sell to it." Other publishers do well with what Marvel's Bill Jemas calls "spandex"--reprints of popular superhero comics. On K n Book Distributors' graphic-novel bestseller list, MacArthur Grant-winning cartoonist Ben Katchor's subtle evocation of a bygone Jewish mercantile world, Julius Knipl: The Beauty Supply District, sits next to PokÃ©mon Adventures 5: Ghastly Ghosts.
The biggest problem retailers have with graphic novels, though, is keeping the right ones in stock. DC/Vertigo is known for maintaining an enormous backlist, and anthologizing nearly anything that might sell over time (its affiliation with Time Warner Publishing helps on the warehousing and distribution front), but other publishers aren't quite so diligent--Waldenbooks' Carter notes that "right now, Sailor Moon is blowing out, and half the titles are out of stock." He also complains that he ordered Marvel's X-Men titles heavily when the movie came out this summer, and sold through, but many of them are still unavailable. (Marvel has hired Frank Fochetta, recently of HarperCollins, and Lisa Dolin to direct its publishing program, and they're planning to keep an eye on the company's backlist and expand its selection of new titles.)
Buyers privately grouse that publishers cater their release schedules to the nonreturnable, comics specialty-store market, rather than to general trade booksellers: "When I say I need [DC's] Crisis on Infinite Earths in October, and they tell me they're bringing it out in January, that kills 1,000 copies," one buyer protests. The problem arises partly because comics specialty stores have historically been slow to reorder $15 or $20 books when there are more customers looking for $2.50 comics. "If the comic book market adopted trade booksellers' habit of constantly restocking as they sell, things would greatly improve all around," Staros notes. "We just keep selling the books month after month. We can't think of them any more as a periodical format that you sell for one week and then never again."
Marvel, in fact, is beginning a novel approach to the transition between periodical and book: "When a comic book gets sold out," Jemas explains, "we're doing two things right away: we plan for a trade paperback to come out as soon as we can, and within two weeks we'll put [the issue] out on marvel.com as a streamed comic, so people can read it in the meantime."
Manga (translations of Japanese comics) and anime (Japanese animated films) are especially popular right now, par-
ticularly the Sailor Moon series. Dark Horse has been doing well with itsOh My Goddess and Blade of the Immortal manga series, and is launching two more whose American following is primed and waiting. The long-out-of-print epic series Akira, graphic novels set in a post-apocalytic city, is to be republished as six 360-page volumes in standard graphic novel size; and Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's entire groundbreaking Lone Wolf and Cub will be published in English for the first time--as a series of 28 monthly volumes in a pocket-sized 4x6-inch format. (Waldenbooks' Carter praises Lone Wolf's design, but says it's "so small, it could be difficult to shelve. I would like to see some kind of point-of-sale thing for this.")
And, as always, media tie-ins are hot. John Davis at K n reports that the official X-Men movie adaptation and its companion volume, X-Men: Beginnings, were "absolutely huge" this year. Dark Horse, always on top of the licensing world, has sold more than 100,000 copies of its five Buffy the Vampire Slayer graphic novels; it also has an extensive and successful Star Wars line, and is about to publish a Digimon manga collection. (Hits like those help to fund Dark Horse's quirkier projects, like Tony Millionare's twisted, sweetly obsessive children's graphic novel, Sock Monkey.)
Beyond the big crossover names from other media, though, graphic novels sometimes need a little push at retail. "A bunch of single copies of graphic novels, spine out, aren't going to get anyone's attention except hardcore fans, but if retailers do frequent faceouts and change them, it can draw a lot of fire," Davis says. He cites the small chain Joseph-Beth Booksellers, headquartered in Cincinnati; its buyer Brandy Vickers recently put together a tabletop display that included Jimmy Corrigan and David Boring, as well as Drawn & Quarterly (D&Q), Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics (DC/HarperCollins) and a charming small-press book called The Last Lonely Saturday (Highwater). "It's been getting great response from their customers so far--they seem really excited," Davis says.
Even where they're shelved can make a difference. Waldenbooks used to keep a graphic novel shelf by the comics section, but Carter has found that most people look for them on the bookshelves, so now they're shelved in science fiction; displaying them on endcaps or Plexiglas stands works particularly well, he notes, and points out that a well-maintained graphic novel section can develop evergreens. "Last year I sold almost 2,000 copies of DC's Kingdom Come; this year it'll be more like 2,500-3,000, and that's a three-year-old book!"
The key, Davis says, is paying attention to what customers are focused on: Are they looking for youth-market superhero stuff? Is there an older, more sophisticated audience looking for titles like Sandman (Vertigo) and film director Kevin Smith's Daredevil (Marvel)? Are they seeking out small-press titles from publishers like Top Shelf and Highwater Books? "The crucial component is having somebody in the store who's enthusiastic and knowledgeable about graphic novels. Fans tend to really know their stuff--and they talk to their friends. And a few breakthrough titles can make all the difference," Davis says.
They can also bring in new customers. "For a long time, a lot of bookstores were kind of haughty about carrying graphic novels--'we're not in pictures!'" Carter jokes. "But more booksellers are becoming aware that they're a way to bring a different sort of customer into your store--maybe not the kind who's buying a bestseller--and maybe they'll buy something else, too."
Wolk writes on comics and music for the Village Voice, Spin and Rolling Stone.
He will edit PW's new comics department, which debuts in December.
Volume 246 Issue 42 10/16/2000