Just over one year ago, comic fans and retailers alike were wondering what impact DC Comics New 52 relaunch would have on the comics market. Today, the results are undeniably positive, though the degree of success and the prospects for the future of comics, as always, remain vigorously debated.
Last week, the latest fuel to the fire of fan and professional chatter came in the form of Diamond Comic Distributors September sales numbers. This time out, DC did very well with their one-year anniversary stunt where all the New 52 titles received origin-centric #0 issues -Â taking #2 through #10 on the top ten listings -Â though periodical sales were a bit down year-over-year in a month that only had four Wednesdays to 2011's five. Still, robust graphic novels sales raised the bar overall for September, leaving DC with a lot to feel good about.
CBR News spoke with SVP of Sales Bob Wayne and SVP of Marketing John Cunningham about the September performance of the #0 issues and what they said about the state of the New 52 overall. Would more titles be dropped or added to the line in the wake of the one year anniversary? Could Marvel's incoming Marvel NOW! relaunch shake up the market again? And how do digital sales, evidenced by CBR's exclusive top 20 sales rankings, factor in when books nearly 30 years old continue to rank high up the charts? Read on for their responses to that and more.
CBR News: Gentlemen, it looked like DC's Zero Month stunt did very well in September, though not as well as the #1s a year ago, obviously. When Diamond released this month's sales numbers, they came with the asterisk noting that September 2011 was a 5-week month so it's harder to make a direct comparison with one year ago. With all that in mind, what do you think the #0 performance says about both what the one-year impact of the New 52 has been, and how did it perform as a stunt all its own?
Bob Wayne: The #0s have performed better than we expected. I think the fact that we have nine of the top ten comics on the Diamond chart are zero issues this month helps reinforce why we feel that way. Between that and the book format collections of various New 52 titles that we were publishing as periodicals a year ago, things like "Batman Earth One" and our Batman backlist tying to the "Dark Knight Rises" film, we ended up having a very strong September overall. And so did the industry overall because the industry is up on total volume a little bit from last September. It doesn't matter if it's a four-week month or a five-week month, when the revenue is up it's a good thing.
John Cunningham: If total revenue is up 1% September on September and it's a four-week month versus a five-week month, I think that's a pretty spectacular result given what was happening last September with the relaunch of the New 52. It's also one of the moments where as everyone has gone through their "one year later" moments -Â including those of us internally here -Â we think back to how much uncertainty was out there in the marketplace last summer as we were getting ready to launch the New 52. The questions then were "How is same-day digital going to work?" or "How is the DC Universe going to work?" Now here we are a year later looking at a month where sales are slightly higher while the month is one-week less. I'm not sure how the results could seem any better.
Obviously, the New 52 on the whole has been successful over the past year, but I believe you've talked about how that success has raised the general bar for success. We saw a number of New 52 titles end over the past year and even more end in September, maybe at sales levels that once would have given them some more time. Do these strong September sales mean that some books may be looking at the chopping block, or is the current makeup of the line pretty stable?
Wayne: Well, we always have talents writers and artists pitching us ideas for stories, and the Editorial team is always looking for things that are new to keep things invigorated and exciting in the New 52. So there's always going to be some pressure on whether or not the new idea being pitched is maybe more exciting than another series we have that may have already told its story. That might mean it's maybe time to put that title on the shelf for a while or have the characters migrate into some other title.
So there's not really a hard and fast rule where there's a line in the sand where if it falls below this point on the Diamond chart or doesn't make this percentage of X, it's gone. It's really very story driven.
Well, I've got to ask with New York Comic Con coming around the bend, people are expecting new titles to be announced. If new titles are coming in, does that mean that some will be up for the chopping block soon, or is there a chance that you wont' stick to 52 comics as a hard and fast rule forever?
Wayne: 52 is kind of the rule that Dan and Jim have set for the core New 52/DC Universe publishing program. There are other titles that operate to the side of that, plus Vertigo, "MAD," original graphic novels and the like. So there's always more story opportunities than it would seem. But 52 does seem to be a manageable number of titles for us to work with, and it tends to keep at a level of excitement. But as far as what we'll announce at the panels that John and I are moderating next week at New York Comic Con...I think you'll find some of them interesting, and you'll be curious as to what happens next. And that's what we want you guys to be!
We always get the top ten book when the initial sales numbers come out, and we're seeing what we expect to see on top at this point: "Batman," "Justice League," "Action Comics," "Detective Comics"...it seems that "Earth 2" has established itself as a top seller now. What have you guys learned later on down the charts that we haven't seen yet? Has the #0 month helped pique interest in titles that needed a boost heading to #13, 14 and 15?
Wayne: The short answer to that is yes. We definitely look at all the chart data as it becomes available to us, and we look at where our titles grow on the chart versus our competitor's titles. We're very pleased with - and I don't think it's any big surprise to say -Â the fact that "Aquaman" #0 is the #11 title on the chart for September. We're in a situation now where two years ago, I don't think that anyone would have thought that "Earth 2" would have existed much less been a top ten title nor that "Aquaman" would have launched in the New 52 and stayed this far up in the charts and be out-selling all the monthly titles from our competitors a whole year after it launched. That's a pretty big thing, and that's not just a bold statement of wishing. It's reflected on the charts. And we're pretty happy with how we're doing far down the list as well. I mean, there are characters that have movies to their names that are being outsold by some of our titles that don't!
Well, that begs the question of what's coming next month. September is the last time in a long time where a month won't have at least one brand new Marvel NOW! title hitting shops. After all the talk of how the New 52 would impact the whole market last year, what do you think of Marvel NOW! as a launch compared to the New 52? Are there things you're looking for in their initial performance that could impact what you do next?
Wayne: The New 52 plans are already running for various story arcs and titles and events well into next year. Beyond that, we don't really want to do a big market analysis report for our competitor because they can just cut and paste it and turn it in as their own work. [Laughs]
Cunningham: I don't mean to imply that we don't pay attention to markets and trends, but the story planning that goes on, as Bob alluded to, takes place on such a long term basis that it's not like we look at one month's sales and go, "Oh, we have to correct course!" I think overall, we're happy to see Marvel trying an initiative like Marvel NOW! in order to improve their sales and improve the marketplace. And I hope that there's a greater marketing outreach outside the core readerships, which was really the centerpiece of what we tried to do with the New 52. This is indeed the time to grow the market, and it can't be done by just shifting dollars around within our current customers. We need to all be working to pull new readers into the marketplace.
Wayne: The only thing I'd add is that I have heard some retailers worried about their reliance on variants. In that case, it does kind of feel like Marvel NOW! is like Marvel then. But we're happy that they're stepping up and making some moves. We think that the more good comics being published simultaneously by ourselves and our competitors makes for a good marketplace. We're very comfortable that we'll get our fair share of the marketplace and the attention and that the people reading will enjoy the stories when they come into the shops.
Let's shift to digital for a moment. Our top 20 rankings for this month show the same kinds of interest in the top sellers that we usually see, although surprisingly this month, there was a huge spike for Frank Miller's "Dark Knight" comics. I believe those titles have been available on the DC Comics app for a while, so what do we lay this sudden interest at the feet of? Residual sales from the latest Batman film? Interest in the DVD adaptation of "Dark Knight Returns"?
Wayne: I think you touched on it. This is part of a promotion that was tied to the DC Universe original DVD adaptation of "Dark Knight Returns, Part 1." We were trying to reach out to the fans of our animation as much as the fans of our publishing to point out to them, "Hey! These comics are available!" I think that's what moved those up: the fact that we were promoting Frank's comics work tied to the DVD.
Cunningham: And it mirrors what we've seen when looking through the Neisen BookScan analysis of the book market. We've seen week-to-week jumps on the numbers for Frank Miller's graphic novels in conjunction with that DVD/BluRay release as well. I think it's one of those things where it's more evident through digital because those numbers mix frontlist and backlist. And it's evident through BookScan because new titles and backlist are mixed together. Just the way Diamond reports, there's not such a way to see what impact this is having inside comic shops, but my best guess would be that they also saw some pretty healthy increases on sales of the "DKR" graphic novel.
Wayne: "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" was maybe a top 25 title for us in the Direct Market for September. And I don't think there was speculative buying on the title. I think that it was just constant replenishment of copies on the shelves. That book continues to turn for us in every format in every way, and the excitement around the animated project was just a driver in this particular month.
The way you describe that digital performance in terms of audience speaks to digital as a market that can connect the disparate fans of DC characters. People who buy graphic novels in bookstores can be different than people in comic shops who are different than people watching the movies or cartoons. I know that there's been some promotional muscle behind the DC Nation kids app online to get more young readers. How has that outreach strategy to pull readers back in been building as a part of the digital business?
Wayne: Not necessarily to draw readers back in but to bring in people who are fans of other interpretations of our work into our regular sequential storytelling week in and week out. "Smallville Season 11" is a good example of that where we've got good sales on the digital side as well as good, solid sales repackaging that material for print. But a lot of those readers, particularly on the digital side, were not readers who were regular comic book readers. They're people whose enthusiasm was for that TV show and wanted to continue the experience.