29 May 2012

THAT HOLLYWOOD GLOW

At the Diamond Retailer Summit in Chicago last month, I talked about how excited I am to get into the office and check our orders each day. I wasn't exaggerating: Even though yesterday was a holiday, I spent the better part of it at work.

And yes, the first thing I did when I got in was check the numbers. It was the first thing I did this morning, too.

At this point in the month, we're awaiting initial orders for titles shipping in July. We won't have a final tally for a few days yet, but I like to track the preliminary figures as they come in. I put together a spreadsheet that includes whatever sales info is available, alongside an estimate of where I think the numbers will end up.

So far, there's a lot of good news for Image in the preliminary numbers for July, but the books I'm most interested in at the moment are The Walking Dead #100 and Thief of Thieves #6. Both will experience significant growth from June to July, building on gains made during previous months, and it's interesting to analyze the whys and wherefores behind that. Both are bucking traditional metrics after all: It's far more common for a series' sales to go in the other direction following its debut.

The Walking Dead, in particular has been on a real tear lately. Orders increased almost 25% from issue 96 to 97, making the latter issue the first in the series to sell over 40,000 copies. Issue 98 came in over 50k, and 99 is tracking even higher than that. Issue 100? Well, it's still early, but it looks like it's going to demolish those numbers in ways neither myself nor series creator Robert Kirkman could have ever anticipated. Consider the fact that The Walking Dead #1 came in at just over 7,000 when it launched back in 2003 and the mind reels.

Thief of Thieves, meanwhile, is traveling uphill as well: We're on the fourth printings of issues 1 and 2, and we're doing third printings of 3 and 4. Issue 5 was the highest ordered issue of the series so far, and it's looking like issue 6 is going to top that. It's currently the second best-selling Robert Kirkman title here at Image, easily outpacing the longer running Invincible in sales, not to mention Kirkman's all-ages adventures series Super Dinosaur.

And therein lies the rub.

Both The Walking Dead and Thief of Thieves are good books. I say that not as the guy who publishes them, but as an unabashed fan. Zombies aren't my thing by a long shot – and I think it's well-documented at this point that Image nearly passed on The Walking Dead initially because of its subject matter – but the world Robert has created hinges on far more than mere gore. I think even horror fans would agree that nearly 100 issues in, it's not the zombies that keep them coming back, but the richly developed characters and unpredictable situations. As a long-time fan of crime comics, I was more pre-disposed to Thief of Thieves, but even so, Robert and collaborators Nick Spencer and Shawn Martinbrough are doing amazing work. These two books are seriously two of my favorites in all of comics right now.

But here's the thing: Invincible and Super Dinosaur are just as good.

Though the series numbering would lead you to believe otherwise, Invincible actually started before The Walking Dead. It was Kirkman's second stab at an ongoing superhero series at Image after a short-lived book called Tech Jacket and it launched a full 10 months earlier. It was even ordered higher than The Walking Dead  30% higher, in fact. Today, it sells roughly 30% less than Thief of Thieves. Super Dinosaur sells over 50% less.

Now, if you don't already know what the difference is between these books, don't worry, I'm going to spell it out for you: The Walking Dead is a popular television series on AMC, and it was recently announced that Thief of Thieves is being developed for TV by the same network.

Growth on The Walking Dead had been steady for years, but it spiked with the announcement of the TV series, and then again when the show actually aired. When Season Two concluded, sales spiked so severely we couldn't keep up with demand on the single issues and our trade paperback stock on several volumes was eliminated almost overnight. And even after all that, when AMC staked their claim on Thief of Thieves, we were unprepared for the impact on sales. It has been tough to keep that book in stock.

There are way worse problems to have, obviously, and I'm not complaining, but it is a little disconcerting that the dividing line between The Walking Dead and Thief of Thieves and Invincible and Super Dinosaur is the attention the former two titles have received from Hollywood. Is that a good thing for those books? Absolutely. But it's a bad thing for comics as a whole, when we sit back and let mainstream popularity guide how we as industry order and sell comics and how we as a community buy and collect comics. In essence, we wait for someone outside comics to tell us something is worthwhile before accepting it ourselves.

And that's just plain backwards.

For a little over a decade now, the comic book industry has looked a lot like California during the Gold Rush. There are more and more comic book-based films ever year, there are television shows in the works, video games, and even when comic book properties aren't actually optioned, the writers and artists who make this industry what it is are finding that their talents are just as valuable – if not more so – in other mediums.

Comics is overflowing with creativity – it's what draws other media to our business. They want what we've got.

But despite that, despite the fact comics are viewed more positively now than perhaps ever before, we still crave validation – from Hollywood, from the mainstream press, from anywhere other than our own guts. We seem intent on letting outside forces shape our tastes, but the reality of the situation is that we are the taste makers. Whether it's The Walking Dead, Sin City, Scott PilgrimBatman or The Avengers, we are ahead of the entertainment curve. We create the trends, not the other way around.

So Invincible is an awesome book – anyone who reads it will tell you so – but I guarantee you, the minute it is optioned as a film or goes into development as a television show, it will sell better than it ever has. Super Dinosaur will absolutely increase in sales as soon as there is a cartoon or an animated film or a toy line.

Similarly, look at the sales on licensed comics – on Buffy, or Transformers, or Star Wars. Pit something new and vital and homegrown against one those books and it will lose almost every time. Instead of embracing the cool new thing now, we wait until someone else decides it's the cool new thing somewhere down the line.

In the case of Thief of Thieves, that wound up being a matter of months. With The Walking Dead, it took years. I don't regret the success of either, but like I said – Invincible is just as good. Fatale is just as good. Near Death is just as good. Prophet is just as good. Glory. The Manhattan Projects. Danger Club. Saga. And those are just the books from Image. There are more amazing comics now than ever before, and we shouldn't have to wait for any of them to get the bask in the glow of Hollywood's shimmering lights before they receive the kind of exposure they deserve.

Comics are a power unto themselves, and nobody knows that like we know it. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can use that power more aggressively to shape this industry in more constructive and sustainable ways. When something like The Walking Dead hits, instead of just enjoying that singular success, we can ensure it carries over to the myriad other comics that could appeal to just as broad a readership.

As a friend said to me earlier today, the Hollywood glow is an afterglow. We have what they want – not tomorrow, but today. It's right here, right now, and in great abundance. Let the rest of world wait to find out about the next big thin when it hits their TV screens or the local cineplex – we have it on the stands now. Grab a copy and find out for yourself.