"The Dark Knight" Sales Effect, Vertigo's Future & Digital Rankings

The Direct Market of comic book specialty shops experienced another month of a surprise sales upswing in July. Overall, the market grew from July of 2011 in both the comics and graphic novel categories, with the former led by Image's "The Walking Dead" #100 and the latter by DC Comics' "Batman: Earth One."

As usual, DC Comics lit out to discuss their piece of the pie for the month with SVP of Sales Bob Wayne and SVP of Marketing John Cunningham taking the reins. Aside from "Earth One" leading the graphic novel category, the publisher took six of the top ten slots in periodical sales and half the top ten in graphic novels -- which added up to a leadership position for the market overall. However, there were few breakout surprises in that sales win with best-sellers like "Justice League," "Batman" and the latest "Before Watchmen" title hitting the same levels as last month. On the digital side, DC provided CBR with an exclusive look at their in house sales rankings, which saw more strong performances from digital first initiatives including the new "Masters of the Universe" digital-first comics.

Below, Wayne and Cunningham explain how "Before Watchmen" has faired in relation to the publisher's expectations, what "The Dark Knight Rises" has done to their graphic novel backlist, what the future holds for mature readers imprint Vertigo, how digital sales continue to develop alongside print and much more.

CBR News: Gents, one thing we haven't had the chance to talk about yet is "Before Watchmen." While there was a lot of press for the series both positive and negative, I think one thing everyone agreed on was that these books were likely to sell well out the gate. With each series debuting over 100,000 copies, I wonder how you feel the launch has gone overall. Did those books hit where you expected? Go over or under that expectation?

Bob Wayne: We are right around where we predicted we'd be for internal purposes on how we thought this would operate as a periodical. The only thing for the month of July we noticed was that because of the strong, strong showing of "Walking Dead" #100 -- which ranked highest in units and dollars on the Diamond chart - it puts everything else down the chart one place from where it would have been. So I could have said that all the "Before Watchmen" titles for July were in the top 20, but now I have to say that they're in the top 21.

After having the New 52 set sales on your upper books a rung higher than it maybe had been in the past, do you have a new level at which you judge the success of a highly publicized launch like this? Has your anticipation changed from what it would have been a year or two years ago?

Wayne: We are approaching each one of these as its own thing. We're not taking for granted that retailers and readers are going to give us the benefit of the doubt on one initiative because we scored well with the last initiative. We know we have to keep proving ourselves each month that we deserve their support, and we think we can do that by putting out really interesting comics and books.

As you said, "The Walking Dead" did huge numbers, but it wasn't the only Image piece of news for the month. For months we've heard from the creator-owned corner of the marketplace that their strengths compared to corporate owned comics like DC and Marvel puts them at a growth advantage in the marketplace. And while both DC and Marvel did well in July, Image and Dark Horse saw their slice of the pie growing bigger while the big two stayed in the same range. What does that performance mean to you and for you? Are other publishers growing in readership in a way that's not related to what you do?

Wayne: We think that it's very healthy to have as many players with solid business plans, solid publishing plans and a lot of reader and storytelling excitement. So we're happy to be carrying the spotlight on the charts with "Walking Dead" and seeing on the book side that Top Shelf has a title ranking and IDW has a title. That's good for the business overall. It keeps everybody on their toes. It keeps things competitive and makes it exciting for everybody to go into the shop every week and see what's new from everyone. We feel comfortable and very confident that we continue to be dominant in the top 20 rankings on the comics and book side, but we're also happy when other good things are selling and finding an audience as well.

Let's shift to the book side of the equation for the month. DC had a number of launches including "Batman: Earth One" and "Get Jiro!" which both seemed to get press at places like Comic-Con and other traditional direct market promotional platforms. But when "The Dark Knight" came out in theaters a few years ago, Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo's "Joker" OGN seemed to get a nice bump in the book stores as well. What's been the sales effect from "The Dark Knight Rises?" I've felt like I've seen less discussion of the comics side of the character in the press surrounding the film this year.

John Cunningham: I think our numbers and what we're seeing in terms of sell through around the movie has been everything we hoped for it to do. I think you're correct when you say there hasn't been as much talk about the comics space going into this movie. I think that has more to do with the fact that there was so much of that talk around the first two movies, and there's been a general lack of discussion around "Rises" because they wanted to keep so much of the plot secret -- which they did a fantastic job of doing. But that perceived quiet has not changed anything about our numbers. We are seeing tremendous upside numbers on our core Dark Knight/Batman backlist.

Wayne: Certainly, the success we had in the month with Geoff Johns and Gary Frank's "Earth One" graphic novel is that it's been the #1 book in units and dollars on the Diamond chart and the #1 book on the book trade side as well in graphic novels. We're going back to press for a third printing, and we're really just a few weeks into the sales on that book. That's much better than we expected.

Cunningham: Looking at how all the Batman books have done in the wake of the movie, the New York Times graphic novel best-seller list announced [Friday] saw "Batman: Earth One" as the #1 hardcover and "Batman: Knightfall" as the #1 trade paperback. More to the point on the hardcover list, seven of the ten titles on the Times list are DC books, and five of those ten are Batman titles. That's just on the hardcover side. On the trade side, six of the top ten are DC books, and five of those are Batman titles. So basically half the New York Times list are Batman-related titles from us, which I think is a pretty clear indicator that we've seen terrific numbers on these books.

Looking forward, after having a book like "Get Jiro!" come out with a lot of attention surrounding its celebrity author and anticipated big titles coming between more "Sandman" work from Neil Gaiman and "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" adaptation, what do you feel is the state and focus of Vertigo these days? Many people have worried that the numbers on the monthly books bode ill for the future of that imprint. Is its longterm health as predicated on graphic novel sales as many expect?

Wayne: I think you've hit upon something we've seen on "Get Jiro!" as we're going to a second printing and saw it hit the New York Times best-seller list. We announced Neil's return to "Sandman" and the "Django Unchained" adaptation from the Quentin Tarantino film in San Diego. "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" has already shown us some strong pre-orders and forecasts. But at the same time, "Fairest" -- the latest book from the "Fables" franchise -- is establishing the same kind of sales pattern in periodical form that "Fables" has had for the past several years. "Fables" Vol. 17 was our #2 book on the Diamond chart for July. And we've had a lot of excitement for titles like "Punk Rock Jesus" and "Saucer Country" where we think they'll perform well in collected editions, as well as "Spaceman" by Brian [Azzarello] and Eduardo [Risso]. "Scalped" is wrapping up, and we're looking for some movement right now on its backlist.

So we've got strong periodicals, strong upcoming periodicals, strong collections and strong original graphic novels all in the works. That's they way we work across that imprint. I think we have some exciting things on the board, and I don't think you need to be worried about Vertigo per se. I think with an imprint like that that's trying to stay on the cutting edge and be as topical with its storytelling as possible is always looking to reinvigorate itself, and I don't think that the next couple of years will be any exception.

With your digital sales Rankings for July, the rankings seem to hold for what we've expected as the top sellers there between strong print comics like "Batman" and "Justice League" and digital originals with "Smallville Season 11." When you have a surge of interest on the print side for things like the Batman movie, is there a similar effect in digital?

Wayne: They play off each other some. But I think what's more interesting for us is the things that are proportionally strong on the digital side. In particular, things like "Smallville Season 11" is one where it seems to be bringing people in based on our analysis who wouldn't have gone to a comics shop. They're just fans of the "Smallville" TV series who are looking to continue that experience. We're happy to bring in a lot of people on that. And we're happy overall that we've got some research in this week showing that people who buy digital books are also buying more physical books than they used to buy. This is increasing their appetite for reading in general. For some people, it's a way of determining what they want to have a copy of in their home library as a physical book. We're seeing some of that on the comics side, as well. We're also doing very well in digital with "Masters of the Universe" which has performed solidly both in digital and in print over its debut.

Another interesting indicator of what you were asking about is that while our graphic novel digital business is still in its early stages, we've seen this week from Amazon that right now in our top ten books have "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" from Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley at #1 in physical sales and #10 on that list in the Kindle version of the book. And that's the highest-ranking book on our Kindle list overall right now. I think that shows a direct correlation, once again, between what sells in physical books and what sells in digital. We're just starting to see how graphic novels are doing in digital numbers -- coming up to print levels in terms of best-seller sales while not necessarily hurting the print book. The fact that the print is as #1 and the Kindle is at #10 shows that people are buying both formats. This has turned out to be good for the business on any number of levels.

One last bit on digital is a question I had that Bob seemed to anticipate with his "Masters of the Universe" talk. That's a property that's had some strong connection with DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. in the past, and I wondered if it's a precursor to more licensed comics for digital that come from sources outside comics?

Wayne: We're always going to look at opportunities. Masters of the Universe is a Mattel line, and we have a strong licensing relationship with our IP and Mattel. They're doing a lot of mass market action figures with our characters that we've had success with. And there's certainly been a new level of interest where the [He-Man] property is at a nostalgia point where people who were interested in it when they were younger will go back and try to add to their collection and relive that particular moment in their lives.

I think we'll always have an interest in looking for that type of thing, but some of that is just what you see in the nature of our publishing as well. A series like "Animal Man" in the New 52 that's doing very well for us is one where I think a lot of people buying it in both periodical and book form probably enjoyed "Animal Man" when it was done by Grant Morrison as a Vertigo book years ago. There's almost a nostalgia for that character that's also turned into its own thing.

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