Are Mini-Series the New Ongoings?

Was 2019 being the year of the mini-series a random blip or a sign of real change?

Despite the standard clichés and stereotypes, comic shop owners are typically rather disparate individuals. Each person and the shop they own is as distinctive as any other small business and its owner, with the differences ranging from obvious things as inventory or focuses to additional products 1 or how they want their stores to look. That’s one of the million reasons comic shops can be such wondrous, unique or downright strange places: you never know what you’re going to get. They’re all so different!

But after talking to many retailers over the years for pieces and podcasts and visiting with them at events like ComicsPRO’s annual meeting, there are a few consistencies you discover in regards to what works and what doesn’t for shops. And one uniform idea I’ve heard is a pretty important one: by and large, mini-series don’t sell. Of course, it’s not that shops don’t want them to sell. In an ideal world, every comic they order sells dozens, hundreds, thousands of copies! It’s just that in the era of the trade paperback, a mini-series is often prelude to six of the most feared words you can hear from a customer: “I’m going to wait for trade.”

That in of itself isn’t a problem, of course. Waiting for trade is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and something many readers – including myself – do on a regular basis. But there is a considerable portion of those readers who eventually just forget that comic ever existed. And when the trade arrives, there’s no one there to greet it. And that’s a problem, and not even the only one minis face. Another of substance is a weird, tacit belief many comic readers have long shared: the idea that a mini-series is inherently not important, or at the very least, lesser. If they skip said mini-series, it won’t matter, because in regular ol’ floppy comics, we’ve created an air of insignificance to the average mini. And being important is essential to the comics consumer equation.

These ideas are all a thing. These ideas have been a thing for quite some time – certainly since I started writing about comics – and it’s enough to hamstring otherwise impactful, notable releases that have been unfortunately reduced to the relative ghetto of minidom. That is, if they ever became a thing, as this all bounced back to publishers, many of whom took those inputs – retailers don’t want to order minis because readers don’t value them – and made a decision that minis would be a minimal focus for them. After all, why would they produce something that wouldn’t sell?

And yet, in 2019, all of this was not the case. As I was putting together a recent feature on the year that was for comics retailers, an astonishing overlap between the majority of the shops began to appear: the biggest titles from the largest publishers were all mini-series. Each and every one of them was at least initially designed to be a finite length, an idea that once would have been a kiss of death. 2 But in 2019, being a mini-series was often a prelude to success, not failure, with the top titles of the form leading the way for readers, retailers and publishers alike. All of a sudden, it was cool to be a mini-series in an industry where that was almost never the case.

It’s a curious situation, and something I’ve been ruminating about quite a bit. That’s at least in part because the big question about this phenomenon isn’t whether a trend is real, which is what I normally explore. Instead, the question is an altogether more interesting one. It’s this: was the year of the mini-series a random blip in the otherwise consistent belief structure of how comics work, or are minis the new ongoings and this was a sign of real change? That – and how this came to be – are far more interesting questions altogether.

Naturally, before we can explore this trend in full, we have to look at the titles that led the way in 2019. As I said, there was a list of comics that retailers repeatedly brought up to me as successes from the year, and I’d wager none of them will really surprise you. 3 They were:

  • House of X and Powers of X, two six-issue mini-series that were really one 12-issue maxi-series
  • Doomsday Clock, a 12-issue maxi-series at DC that took several years to complete but finally did so in 2019
  • Black Label, the adult-aimed prestige line age band that featured a slew of high profile, high production value minis starring DC’s most notable characters 4
  • Once & Future, a BOOM! title originally announced as a six-issue mini-series 5 that eventually graduated to an ongoing
  • Little Bird, a five-issue mini-series at Image that is really the first book amongst multiple that will occur in the world of the first comic

These five comics or ideas earned by far the most mentions amongst retailers this year, 6 with each driving interest and sales in a wide mix of retail stores from around the globe. Each was at least initially designed as a mini-series, and they didn’t just do well in the eight shops I spoke to, they led the way for their respective publishers overall. They were the clubhouse leaders, the leading lights, and the books that drove the conversation for the top four names in the direct market. And crucially, it wasn’t just the publishers and retailers: these titles connected with readers too.

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  1. Including games or toys, but also things like connected coffee shops or selling food.

  2. Outside of events, of course.

  3. Because they were successes, after all.

  4. But mostly Batman-related characters.

  5. And even labeled as one until the end of its first arc.

  6. At least amongst single issue titles.