The New Comics Customers: Who Are These People?

As formats, genres, and marketplaces multiply, the picture of the comics consumer has moved far away from the stereotypical 20- to 30-year-old male buying monthly comics in a comic shop. But what has it moved to? In a series of panels sponsored by the retailer newsletter ICv2 immediately prior to New York Comic Con, insiders from different sectors of the industry discussed who, exactly, is buying comics these days.

Of course, there is no single answer. Men are still the majority, but women are gaining ground, whether they are buying monthly comics at the comic shop, graphic novels in bookstores (the one area where they dominate), digital comics on their tablets or special editions at comics conventions. Young people are coming to the medium with enthusiasm -- but they have less money to spend than their elders. And despite Denise Dorman's recent doubts as to whether artists can make money at comics conventions, the statistics show that attendees go there with shopping on their minds and money in their wallets.

RELATED: ICv2 White Paper: Rise of the New Comics Customers

The ICv2 Conference, titled "The New Comics Customer," kicked off with a White Paper by ICv2 CEO Milton Greipp, previously covered by CBR News, and two subsequent panels painted a more nuanced picture of comics customers.

New Customers for Traditional Retailers

In the panel titled "The New Customer Connection," moderated by Griepp, Andrew McIntire, vice president and general manager of Things From Another World, presented data from surveys of customers who had recently made purchases in the chain's four brick-and-mortar stores and its online comics shop, TFAW.com. Customers were asked to choose at least one category they felt described them, and could select as many as they saw fit. Here are the results:

  • Marvel/DC Readers: 41.5%
  • Independent Readers: (small publishers and indie comics): 32.6%
  • Horror or Gore: 15.7%
  • Die Hard (fans who follow specific characters strongly) 45.6%
  • Strong Female Leads 24.7%
  • Investors 10.8%
  • Checklist 35.5%
  • Open to New Books 55.7%
  • Just Getting Into Comics 18.9%

McIntire then took a closer look at attitudes within several subgroups compared to customers as a whole.

"Die Hards" were more likely to be Marvel/DC readers, prefer strong female leads, and be open to new books; many also identified as "investors" or "checklist" buyers. Not surprisingly, they were less likely to be just getting into comics.

"New to Comics" customers were significantly less likely to identify as Marvel, DC, or independent comics readers, perhaps, McIntire said, because they haven't developed strong attachments to particular properties yet. They were more likely to prefer strong female leads. The number of people who identified themselves as both "Die Hards" and "New to Comics" was smaller than the general population but still significant. "While that might not speak to the volume of their collection or the extensivity of their knowledge, it does speak to the passion they have for a medium they are just getting into," McIntire said. The majority of customers in the general sample were between the ages of 26 and 40, but this group tends to skew younger, with 58.5% between the ages of 21 and 35 and more customers in the 18-20 age group compared to the market as a whole.

Women were 23.5% of the sample, but McIntire said the percentage is larger for online shoppers than those in brick-and-mortar stores. "Women often skew as high as 55% of our visits, with about 30% of our sales," he said. "We see extended site visits, extended comparison times."

"Are they not finding what they want?" asked Greipp.

"No, we often see them come back and buy in a separate session," McIntire said. "What we do see is comparison shopping, and the average order value when that purchase is made is considerably higher than the baseline."

Women were more likely to prefer independent comics and less likely to be Marvel/DC readers. "We are looking at almost 50% of female respondents identifying as 'Die Hard' fans as well," McIntire said, "which amongst other factors such as common sense should put a definitive nail in the coffin [of the idea] that women just get into comics because it's what guys like. It's an idiotic concept and it's one that's not borne out by money which is ultimately what I look at." Not surprisingly, the percentage who favored a strong female lead was double the average. Women were also the most likely to be open to new books, and about 50% are new to comics. The ages skewed younger than the overall customer base, with more than 60% between the ages of 21 and 35.

While this was the only hard data presented at the panel, the other panelists fleshed it out with anecdotal evidence of their own. Each one represented a different type of retail store with a different customer base: digital, direct market, specialty bookstore, and Japanese specialty bookstore.

"Over the last couple of years, we have seen an increase in younger customers," said comiXology CEO David Steinberger. When they first started out, just over five years ago, their customer base was "solidly male, solidly 30s and over." Last year they did a survey of their customer demographics, and Steinberger said the results are similar this year: "A slight increase in the women customers and a real increase in the younger customers, 18-30." comiXology's sales are different from the direct market, he said: "Digital is more of a reading activity, not a collecting activity... so our toplist reflects much more what you see in graphic novels and trade paperbacks," he said, adding that greater diversity in content, driven by Image and other publishers, is starting to drive a change in demographics.

A more traditional direct market point of view came from Tucker Stone, managing partner for Bergen Street Comics in Brooklyn. Stone said the primary customer base was still men in their 30s, but the number of women and children goes up every year. He estimated that young adult and children's comics started out as about 5-10% of their stock and now make up about a third of the comics they carry in the store. "In terms of your single issue, superhero, genre-based comics, including Image, we are still about one-third female customers," he said, "but when it comes to graphic novels, that's parity with women customers, and actually right now that number doesn't seem to be stopping and staying -- it seems to be continuing in terms of women and children taking over more and more, which to my understanding is just following traditional U.S. retail, which is women and children."

Jim Crocker described his stores, Modern Myths in Northampton Massachusetts, as "like a specialty bookstore that happens to carry comics." The store doesn't carry back issues at all, and graphic novels have always outsold monthly comics. "Because we also do gaming, we have a genuinely hybrid store," he said, "so the sales break down pretty evenly across the company between the gaming and the comics stuff. Gaming is one of the other vectors that we use to try to bring people to comics, because they are already engaged in what amounts to fandom culture, but that fandom culture may just not be comics."

Terence Irvins, graphic novel and comics buyer for Kinokuniya Books in New York City, also sees customers who are willing to cross over from one fandom to another. Kinokuniya is a Japanese based bookstore, and the focus is on manga and other Japanese properties, but they have begun to carry Western graphic novels as well; the store has no monthly comics. Irvins sees a wide-ranging group of customers, including manga and anime fans who date back to the 1970s and those of more recent vintage. While the current market base for anime and manga is readers between 10- and 20-years old, he said, there are older fans, and readers who love the medium will cross over not only to different genres of manga but also to Western style comics such as the French comics being published by Humanoids.

The Growth of Comics Conventions

Conventions are, in their own way, a different type of retail space, and at another ICv2 panel, titled "The Con Explosion" and moderated by comic editor and commentator Heidi MacDonald, several convention insiders presented more statistics about the comics audience, this time looking at the fans who go to conventions.

Rob Salkowitz began with information gathered by the ticket seller Eventbrite. In 2013, Eventbrite did a market sizing study that looked at almost 1,000 fan events -- comics, anime, gaming, and other types of genre conventions -- and found that it was a $650 million business in 2013 alone. What's more, comics conventions have an economic impact on the surrounding area that is typically five to seven times the gross ticket sales, Salkowitz said, making a total economic impact of about $5 billion.

Eventbrite did a survey of people who had attended a fan convention or bought tickets for one in the past two years; they got a total of 2,600 responses. They found that the vast majority, 80%, go to more than one event per year, and about 20% go to more than five per year. "So it is a lot of the same people going through the turnstiles again and again," he said.

Salkowitz also found evidence that convention attendees don't stick to a single narrow interest. When asked to indicate their interest in nine different genres, fans on average identified themselves as "superfans" of between two and three. "That means people who are going to special-interest shows may have wider interests," said Salkowitz. "A lot of people who are coming to the big pop culture shows are interested in a lot of different stuff and not just one thing any more."

Later in the panel, Christine Bohle, senior category marketing manager for Eventbrite, pointed to this and noted that many conventions are adding new components in an effort to bring more people in. "People aren't just comic book fans, they are superfans of multiple things," she said. "[Conventions] are trying to cater to these multiple interests." At the same time, events that are focused on very narrow interests are also growing because "people still want to have those kind of unique things," she said.

Salkowitz summarized some of the survey results with regard to demographics and spending (he did a more detailed breakdown at ICv2). The gender breakdown is 45% women, 55% men, but for the under 30 age group, which was about half the respondents, the gender split was closer to 50/50. "What we get to is that, at least from a fan event perspective, the future of fandom is definitely approaching gender parity," he said.

No matter what the demographic, the number one reason fans cited for attending conventions was "To buy stuff that I'm interested in." The survey found that at every level of spending, customers are dividing their money more or less equally among retailers, conventions and online purchases, and the majority of customers were spending between $100 and $500 per year in each channel. Among those who spent more than that, women were more likely to be spending money at conventions than in stores or online. "And cosplayers spend about as much as everybody else," he added.

Lance Fensterman, senior vice president of ReedPOP, which produces NYCC, had some statistics that were specific to that show: Last year, 85% of attendees budgeted more money than they had in 2012, he said. The gender split was 59%/41% in favor of males in 2013, he said, but the gap is narrowing every year. On the other hand at ReedPOP's Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo (C2E2), the gender split is 62% male, 38% female, and has remained fairly constant.

Patrick Bradley, executive vice president of digital media and entertainment for Wizard World, which puts on comics conventions around the country, also had some statistics drawn from physical cards filled out by 6,516 attendees in five different markets. He found that almost 40% of attendees were going to their first con, and another 40% had attended one to three cons. Celebrities were the biggest draw for 52% of attendees, and artists were next, at 13%; cosplay, exhibits/vendors, gaming, merchandise, panels, and parties/special events were selected by fewer than 10% each.

Many of the cons are regional events, with 46% of attendees traveling less than 50 miles and only 8% traveling more than 500 miles to get to the event. In terms of age group, the gender split was 57/43 male to female, and the core age group was 18-34; Bradley noted that Wizard World cons don't cater to children.

While there was some variation in the results of these different surveys, it seems clear that fan conventions are a growing business with considerable retail potential. As Fensterman said of NYCC, "We are pop-up retailers. We build a geek mall on the west side of Manhattan for four days and, ideally, you come here and get things you can't get anywhere else."

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