Every year seems to bring a new highwater mark for the graphic novel business, and 2004 saw still more explosive growth for the category in both bookstores and in the comic shop market.
While manga is leading the charge in bookstores, other formats and genres are beginning to find sales traction as well. With mainstream publishers like Random House, W.W. Norton, Scholastic, Penguin and Simon & Schuster jumping on the graphic novel bandwagon, 2005 should be an even more impressive year.
To see what's on the horizon, PW asked top figures at a variety of graphic novel publishers for their views on what 2005 will hold for them and the industry. Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson, DC Comics president and publisher Paul Levitz, iBooks president Byron Preiss, Marvel Entertainment publisher Dan Buckley, NBM publisher Terry Nantier, Pantheon Books editor Chip Kidd and Tokyopop CEO Stuart Levy all took part.
While everyone agrees that 2004 was a banner year, 2005 will bring a lot of high-profile projects. Tokyopop will release original graphic novels by some of its "Rising Stars" contest winners as well as established comics writers. Dark Horse is high on Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels, which will be relaunched in a smaller 6"x9" format with new covers designed by Chip Kidd. The relaunch is timed to tie in with the upcoming movie, which should attract enormous attention.
DC Comics has several big projects for the year, including the trade paperback collecting the much discussed Identity Crisis series and The Quitter, a new work of autobiographical nonfiction by Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) and illustrator Dean Haspiel. DC is also releasing a new Bizarro World anthology with an all-star line-up of contributors and a new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel. Marvel is planning to capitalize on the upcoming movie Elektra starring Jennifer Garner and its big summer tentpole will be the much-anticipated Fantastic Four film.
At Pantheon, Chip Kidd points out that 2004 was the publisher's biggest year yet for graphic novels, with Art Spiegelman's bestseller In the Shadow of No Towers (on both the New York Times and PW bestseller lists) and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis 2. Next year will be even bigger, with new work by Chris Ware, Satrapi and a collected edition of acclaimed French comics artist David B.'s memoir Epileptic. "The only thing I worry about is that really talented people will either die or stop working," Kidd quips.
One huge trend for 2005 will be publishers targeting younger readers—from Scholastic's ambitious launch of Jeff Smith's new, full-color edition of Bone to NBM's Papercuts, a new line of comics adaptations of the classic Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys titles. Marvel has already had some young adult success with its Marvel Age line and will be trying several new formats to go after the 10—12-year-old boy market in the coming year. "It's a tremendous opportunity for whoever figures out that group," Buckley says.
And libraries and book clubs are embracing comics and their ready-made audience. "We've gotten excellent response toPapercutsfrom book clubs and book fairs," says Nantier, who hopes the line will attract readers who find manga too exotic.
Preiss is also making younger readers a priority with titles like Penguins in Ice by Serge Salma, a Calvin and Hobbes—type tale, and Valerian, a European SF hit that also has YA appeal.
But kids' comics have traditionally faced a rough time in comics shops, and non-manga kids books may still face an uphill battle. "We haven't been able to find a place to sell kids' comics and we haven't had a generation of Carl Barkses or John Stanleys creating them," Levitz says. "I think there's a little more hope now that we can find a place to sell them."
All of these books are going to come up against what everyone sees as the big challenge for 2005—a severe shelf space crunch in bookstores. Although the number of books being published is growing dramatically, the space to sell them isn't.
The much predicted manga glut has materialized to some extent, although the notion that manga is just a passing fad has been abandoned. Dark Horse began publishing manga long before the current boom. "It's clear to me we're going to hit a wall with those books," Richardson says. "Obviously, we worry about it, but we're going to do the best books we can. We trust our product. People seem to be able to find the quality material."
"Just because you have more titles doesn't mean they have to give you more shelf space—you have to make the product that people want to buy," Buckley says. He adds that publishers need to experiment with format and price points. "But content is always king," he notes.
Over at Tokyopop, which published between 400—500 manga titles this year, Levy acknowledges significant returns of manga for the first time since the company's explosive growth curve began. But he doesn't think it's a danger sign; "It shows that we're finally getting distribution wider than it's ever been before." Nonetheless, Tokyopop will be taking a long look at its publishing plan. "We put out a lot of books, but it's not an intelligent move to put out more than this," Levy says. He notes that Tokyopop has been leading the bookstore charge and doesn't intend to shirk that responsibility. The next six to 12 months may see some adjustments, but "we're going to find other shelving opportunities with retailers and help them to build."
While the shelf-space crunch is going to affect all publishers on some level, no one believes it's going to be catastrophic. Richardson hopes that buyers will be supportive of other kinds of comics material even if manga sales reach a saturation point. In addition, the buyers at the major chains are not only market savvy but comics savvy. "These are very bright and knowledgeable guys who have been comics fans in their own right, so they know what's god and bad," Preiss points out.
In the comics shop market, also called the direct sales market—where traditional comic book periodicals still dominate—comics retailers are beginning to accept graphic novels—books—as a core part of their business. After a slow start, manga sales are picking up in comics shops. Both Levitz and Buckley point to what they call "understoring"—the dwindling number of comics shops—as the key difficulty. "Our biggest challenge in the direct market is what can we do to help it grow," says Buckley. "We need more retailers."
And mass market retailers like Wal-Mart and Target remain elusive. Although several publishers have made tentative moves here, no one has found the sweet spot. Marvel has had its YA Marvel Age collections in Target for about six months with positive but modest results.
Levitz also acknowledges the difficulty: "I don't know that there's a natural enormous opportunity for graphic novels. When you're approaching retailers like Wal-Mart, Target or K-Mart, it has to be what they believe in."
Tokyopop has also experienced slow going with mass market retailers. "I don't think we've figured it out yet," Levy says. "I don't think a mass market product has truly been developed yet. Maybe it will come from a new guy who gets a new format right for them."
There are a few other speed bumps for graphic novels along the way. Richardson points out the importance of establishing new characters in the direct market, something no one has been able to do for several years. Eric Powell's The Goon and upcoming books by the Love Brothers have the potential to create new franchises, he tells PW: "The marketplace in comics shops has settled on characters that have been around for 50 or more years. My parents' generation had Superman, and my generation had Spider-man. Now manga is that for one segment of readers."
Buckley agrees that finding new voices is crucial. "I do think there's a new generation of creators that's going to reflect more of the manga influence. I don't know who the Neil Gaiman or Jack Kirby of that set is going to be, but Marvel is going to be active in finding them," he says. To that end Marvel has hired editor Mark Paniccia, who formerly headed Tokyopop's original manga line.
Levy agrees that finding new American creative stars is vitally important, since that can create an even stronger identification with the material: "There's a level of personal relation that can happen that makes it even more exciting to read."
Levitz notes that the book buyers and media critics who are now championing graphic novels grew up reading groundbreaking comics works like Watchmen and Maus, which changed the marketplace in the 1980s. He adds, "It's always hard when you're living through a process of change to be able to look at it and say we've crossed the line and it's real as of this moment. But certainly, we have creators who are doing projects of greater ambition more often then was done a decade ago and a broader access to an audience."
One thing is clear—there is more good comics material available than ever before, with even more on the way. And that's what's fueling the growth of the category. "I truly believe that you have this extraordinary group of artists making this stuff right now," Kidd says. "Somehow it's meeting a need in the public that didn't seem to exist 10 years or 15 years ago. As long as really good people are creating terrific stuff, our only question is how and when to publish."