By Todd Allen
My turn for the annual forward-looking column. 2011 saw DC bet the house (and possibly the entire Direct Market) on a massive relaunch — and win. It also saw the emergence of digital downloads as a multi-platform trend that seems to be gaining momentum.
What should we be looking at in 2012?
Can DC Hold On To Their Gains?
Sure DC had a big September and October. Those November issue #3s, on the other hand, looked a lot like retailers were saying “OK, now we know where to plug them in to our formulas and what percentage to drop each month.” 17%-25% seemed to be the average drop rate. So if #3’s are treated like #2’s, does that mean we won’t know what’s really going on until the #5’s are on the stands? Was the “New 52″ a reset button followed by the regular declining monthly returns after an additional one month grace period? Right now, DC’s top 10 is looking good and their bottom 10, while still above mid-2011, is on a path to rejoin the old status quo in a few months. DC sure does seem to be hinting at a lot of crossovers in the not-too-distant future: I, Vampire and Justice League Dark; Swamp Thing and Animal Man; whatever this Pandora business is with the hooded woman from Flashpoint — and that seems like the next universe wide Event; a likely Daemonite crossover for W.I.L.D.Cats to spin out of, as those old Wildstorm villains are now popping up in several books. How will these new/lapsed readers respond to cross-overs and Events? Moreso, where will DC’s sales be at the end of 2012? The relaunch experiment is still fairly new and the old patterns may or may not fit.
How Stable is Marvel?
Marvel had a few layoffs towards the end of 2011. Marvel regained the overall sales lead in December (by a thumbnail), but Marvel hasn’t been setting the charts on fire with the flair of previous years. Fear Itself sold well, but was much maligned by readers, making you wonder how many more times Marvel can go to the short term ledger strategy of an Event and get the results management is looking for. Avengers Vs. X-Men, the Event du jour, purports to have fewer tie-in books, but we’ll have to wait and see what the exact slate for that is. This “versus” spin-off purported to be there just for two characters to fight each other is either a flash of inspiration or desperate clawing about for something new to try and we won’t know which for a while yet. Brian Michael Bendis is leaving Avengers, but it isn’t clear whether the last Avengers book he writes will be published in 2012 or 2013. Bryan Hitch, one of their stars, is leaving Marvel to do an Image series with Britain’s comics-loving answer to Johnny Carson, Jonathon Ross. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips took their Fatale mini-series over to Image, instead of their usual Icon slot. There was a batch of cancellations in the Fall, including cutting the All-Winners Squad: Band of Heroes title in mid-story. There isn’t an imminent looming crisis, per se, but there is a sense of transition at Marvel. It’s obvious Marvel is under earnings pressure, be it from CEO Ike Perlmutter or Disney corporate. Given that pressure from above, the unspoken question looms: what happens if there are more sales declines? Marvel has spent the last year quietly relaunching a lot of old books with new #1’s (Incredible Hulk, Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine and the X-Men, Moon Knight, Defenders, Daredevil, Punisher, Mighty Thor, Captain America, the entire Ultimate line), but nothing has been holding on to sales after #1 quite like the DC relaunch. Marvel could use a breakout hit to alleviate some of that earnings pressure. If not, you have to wonder if there will be repeat of the Fall 2011 belt tightening. Ironically, as Marvel has earnings pressure on them, DC is quite happy with similar sales totals.
Can Image Gain 20%?
Creatively, Image is back. Sales-wise, they still need a little work. The sales threshold for replicating a DC/Marvel creative budget is around 10K, depending on the cover price. Image has a few books like that — Chew, Walking Dead and Invincible come to mind; but they have a whole lot more in the 5K – 7 K range. Image is also pulling in some higher profile creators again. The aforementioned Hitch and Brubaker/Phillips projects. Brian K. Vaughan returning to comics. A few things we probably don’t know about yet. If Image can start posting more series at the 10K+ level, better yet the 15K+ level, the wind may blow a few more higher profile creators their way. Image just needs to capitalize on their increased buzz.
Where Are Our Digital Download Breakouts?
Right now conventional wisdom has the two BIG paid digital download comic franchises as Pocket God and Transformers. Both are licensed comics, only Transformers has a real presence in the Direct Market. Is 2012 we a non-licensed digital download get hot? Will that comic reflect the content the powers the Direct Market? You’re hearing comics pundits talking about the need to migrate to digital. You’ve been hearing that for a few years, but it’s a little more acknowledged now and there’s a desire to have a digital sales infrastructure with sufficient sales levels to mitigate a decline in print sales that drops past mid-2011’s trough. Do I think there are a handful of digital downloads selling 10K copies? Yes, I do. I’d be surprised if Justice League, for example, didn’t. Batman, too. One of these days we’re going to have a few comics pop up with sales consistently higher than 20K. I’m curious what they will look like. We know who’s doing well in webcomics. How different are the downloads (comic books) vs. webcomics (comic strips) going to be?