The Retailer’s View // Archie Comics and the Uncertain Future

The Retailer’s View // Archie Comics and the Uncertain Future

 The Retailer’s View // Archie Comics and the Uncertain Future

by Brandon Schatz

Archie Comics gave readers a one-two punch over the past couple of weeks with the arrival of the Death of Archie storyline and the long awaited arrival of Afterlife With Archie #6. Both are poster children for the seemingly revitalized company, harbingers of a gradual change that has been occurring across the line and seeping into other media. Not only will the company be launching a new line of superhero books under the Dark Circle umbrella, but they have been making forays into the world of cartoons and movies with their (surprisingly) diverse catalogue. It would be easy to say that the company is entering a period of creative and cultural renaissance. Unfortunately, this seems to be down to necessity more than anything else.

A look at the various moves the company has made quietly in the background paints a picture of quiet desperation. While their library of characters remains stronger than ever, garnering deals with make-up companies and book publishers, their line of comics has been shuddering and dwindling. Over three years ago, they stopped publishing their digests, opting to beef up their line of double digests instead. They began shedding titles with the 32 page books like Archie & Friends, Betty, Veronica and Jughead sliding to a bi-monthly schedule before disappearing off the docket entirely, some ending their runs with reprinted material. The current Archie line consists of their flagship title (Archie, of course) and a bi-monthly shipping Betty & Veronica series – as the buzzy Kevin Keller ongoing has very recently joined the scrap pile. The rest is either licensed, or part of a new darker initiative that has been met with heavy delays.

While the line still has some consistent performers, recent signs have pointed to the company having some cash flow problems. As of this month, their entire line of books has jumped in price by a dollar. Regular sized Double Digests (now titled “Digests”, because due to their being double the size of a non-existent format) now run $4.99 a copy – unless they are an all-too-frequent Annual Digest which costs $5.99, or a Jumbo Digest, which runs $6.99. The regular line of Archie books, including their solid Action line, are now all $3.99. On the one hand, this could be the company making a swift move to match a now-traditional pricing threshold, or their way of combating the low price point problems that saw the removal of many comics from newsstands a little over a decade ago. On the other, this move is coupled with a dwindling line, and their increasingly worrying practice of shipping their books (especially collections) late. Having once been a company with a backlog structure that saw (and sees) years worth of material sitting at the ready to be plugged into a random staple-bound issue or digest, this speaks volumes.

While I’m be able to speak to the actual content of the problems the company is facing, at least in its publishing division, you can understand why I might be worried, right? These are all things publishers do or have done when they are in trouble. Low selling books get their production schedule slashed, books ship late as the company waits on money to come in. Writers start looking more and more like people from the editorial masthead (Alex Segura, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa) as the overlap generally saves money. These are all signs that point to trouble, and while the company seems to be making fast with the change, there is a slight possibility that we’re looking at too little, too late.

What prompted me to write this piece and congeal some desperate thoughts I’d sent to twitter was the fact that Afterlife With Archie was missing from the October Previews. Right now, the book is full of steam, but has run into a lot of timing problems. The publishing indicium proclaims the title to be monthly – though if this were the case, we would be reading issue #10 this month instead of issue #6. This in and of itself isn’t a huge problem. There are several books that run in arcs and take some room to breathe, which is fine. In fact, it’s my preferred method of release for independent comics. Books like Skullkickers and Saga are prime examples of monthly comics that run their arc, take a breath, and are rewarded with a jolt of interest upon return. It’s a model books like Umbral, The Fuse, Stumptown and The Bunker are following, and while it’s a little early to gage just how well that model will do for them, it certainly can’t hurt.

 The Retailer’s View // Archie Comics and the Uncertain Future

What does harm a book’s chance at longevity is a lack of momentum. When you’re running a series, you should absolutely make sure your arc is going to come out in one chunk. Delays are death in an age where single sales are supported with fast shipping collections and shortened attention spans. Start shipping your story late, and people will be more inclined to wait for a collection – and while the industry is moving ever so slowly away from the printed monthly model, we’ve yet to reach a point where series can ride through to collections without single sales bolstering the bottom line.

Take a look at any series that has gone bi-monthly over the past… I don’t know, forever. Beyond rare instances like Frank Miller on Daredevil, the majority of these books, whether they were placed on the schedule for financial reasons, or production reasons, start bleeding sales. Even those who manage to sustain a certain level of sales certainly never see an increasing in interest. At this point, it looks as though Archie has settled on a bi-monthly schedule for their highest selling monthly title, shipping #6 in July, #7 in September, and presumably #8 in November. You can take a look at sales for books like All Star Superman or Hawkeye or Runaways during the Whedon run to see just how spreading out a book’s shipping will stamp dead any potential sales growth through positive word of mouth. More to the point, remember when Marvel put books like Runaways and Dan Slott’s She-Hulk on a hiatus for a while and when they came back, they had longer runs? Along with books like Saga and Skullkickers, that’s proof positive that putting your book on the back burner while content builds will result in much better sales than if you had let the series come trickling out as it was done. I would bet any amount of money that Runaways would have been a going concern a whole lot longer had Marvel put the book on hiatus once more, announced Whedon, and allowed the pressure to build as the arc readied itself in production.

 The Retailer’s View // Archie Comics and the Uncertain Future

Archie sales chart, as collected by Comichron

Anyway, I understand why the company might be releasing the book in such a way. In the end, I feel (and I emphasize feel, not know) that the company might be doing the best they can with cash on hand – especially with a series that needs such a deft hand to work. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like such a schedule will do them any good in the long run. Why not take a risk on your proven commodity? Rough a few months without it on the schedule before ripping through an arc and sending folks into a fevered frenzy before putting them back in the pressure cooker as they wait for more? If anyone involved with production schedules is reading this, whether it be for a company or for your independent comic series, take a look at what schedules are working in terms of positive sales movement, and which aren’t. Even if it makes things tougher for a little while, consider an arc based production schedule, at least when it comes to publishing the work. Sales data at my store supports the viability of such a release schedule, even over that of a consistent monthly grind of content (which I will talk about more in another column). While I might not be running a major comic book company, I’ve spent years mining through external and internal data, nearly doubling the store’s sales in the span of four years. I don’t know it all, but I know I can sell your books, and what the optimal conditions for doing so are, and I am sharing that data as I can. Hopefully, some of it helps.

[Brandon Schatz has been working behind the comic book counter for eight years. He’s spent the past four as the manager of Wizard’s Comics and Collectibles in Edmonton, Alberta. In his spare time, he writes about the comics he likes over at Comics! The Blog and builds his comic book recommendation engine over at Variant Edition. You can find him on twitter @soupytoasterson. The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat.]

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