Crowded House: A Look at the Packed Comics Market Through the Publishers in the Middle

2020 marks my eleventh year writing about comics, and during that stretch, no time has felt weirder for the comic industry. Please note the phrase I used, though: “weirder.” It wasn’t “worse” or “terrible” or some other phrase. It was “weirder.” That’s an important note, because by all accounts, 2019 was a fairly decent year! The direct market 23 was up 2.02% from 2018, and while we don’t know for sure, most indications are that the book market will be flat at worst and a decent uptick at best. It was, after all, a Double Raina year while Dav Pilkey evolved into a one-man sales machine. So that’s to be expected.

It’s not weird because of sales performance, though. It’s because of a general sense of unease in the air, a nervous energy as the winds of change gather. The comic consumer is evolving, retailers are battening down the hatches, and the publishers at the top are largely behaving like everything is the same as it ever was. There’s an incongruity there; a divergence in vision that creates the appearance of success but the feeling of something different. There are a bevy of contributing factors to this notion, 24 and certainly too many to examine today.

When situations like this are scrutinized, it’s typically focused on the names at the top. For the direct market, we’re talking Marvel, DC and Image, while in the book market it’s houses like Scholastic Graphix, First Second and Viz Media. That’s understandable. These are the drivers of change in the industry, the publishers that form the foundation of success for the medium and, because of that, trigger much of the anxiety within it. We look at them because they 25 are the ones that create the troubled waters we analyze.

But there is a deluge of publishing houses in comics today, as dozens of others compete for market and mind share, with even more coming. What of these other publishers who have to navigate the chop formed in the wake of the big guns? If there’s a feeling of uncertainty at the heart of the comic industry right now, what does that mean for those publishers who are perhaps more susceptible to the ebbs and flows the comic market can go through? And more than that, what are they doing to keep up?

That’s what we’ll be focusing on today, as we go behind the scenes with some of the publishers outside of those at the top, hopefully providing a slightly different perspective on where comics are today and what publishers are doing to negotiate the rather weird present state we find ourselves in.


To provide a varied perspective on where things are and where they’re headed, we’re going to focus on five different publishers today, each of which has a slightly different angle on how they do business. They are:

Oni Press: Founded in 1997, this publisher is best known for titles like Scott Pilgrim and The Sixth Gun. Its biggest splash in 2019 was arguably its much-discussed merger with fellow publisher Lion Forge. 26 Operated on the periphery of the 10 biggest publishers in the direct market in 2019, although much of its focus during the year was on other markets.

BOOM! Studios: Launched in 2005, BOOM! Studios went from a publisher focused on licenses early on to one that’s succeeding with originals and diverse storytelling. One of the rotating houses at the #4 spot in the market, it ended the year strong with releases like Once & Future and Something is Killing the Children scoring big for them and leading to a 4th place finish in November.

Vault Comics: One of the rising stars in the direct market, Vault arrived on the scene in 2016 with a concentration on science fiction and fantasy titles. This manifested itself best in titles like These Savage Shores, Heathen and Test. Has already made a dent in the market, recently making a leap into the top 10 publishers. 27

Ahoy Comics: A 2018 launch, Ahoy Comics is a quirky publisher creatively led by vets Stuart Moore and Tom Peyer. Known for its atypical format, Ahoy publishes comics in a magazine style book with loads of backup materials, including prose pieces and even puzzles.

TKO Studios: A late arrival on the scene in December 2018, TKO is the only publisher I spoke with that doesn’t distribute its books via Diamond Comic Distributors. Instead, they self-distribute binge released titles like Jeff Lemire and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s Sentient and Garth Ennis and Steve Epting’s Sara in three formats (digital, trade, and single issues in box sets) simultaneously.

These five publishers have different histories and focuses – even approaches, especially with Ahoy and TKO’s rather rebellious setups – and naturally, they all have a different view on the way things work today. But for the most part, they have at least one thing in common. Each of them believes there is space in the direct market for smaller publishers, but the enthusiasm connected to that idea largely depended on the lifespan of the publisher answering.

TKO’s Sara from Garth Ennis and Steve Epting

For example, TKO’s co-founder and co-publisher Tze Chun told me that he believes “there will always be room in this industry for well-told stories,” and that a broader mix of offerings “only bolsters the comic book landscape, creatively and commercially.”

Similarly, that publisher’s fellow newcomer in 2018 – Ahoy – has a cheerful view on the whole thing, as their Editor-in-Chief Tom Peyer suggested that they entered the market simply because they saw an opportunity to “make the kinds of comics” they love, claiming to have not even considered the timing or health of the market in the process as they developed.

Vault’s CEO and Publisher Damian Wassel, one of the most genuinely pragmatic people I’ve talked to in comics, 28 believed there is opportunity for smaller houses…depending on your approach. While he was careful to couch his answers with a note that he isn’t a comics historian or an economist with insight into the comics industry, 29 Wassel said “the answer is ‘yes’ and ‘no.’”

“Yes, there is room for a publisher striving to achieve aesthetic, narrative, or curatorial goals with their catalog, around which they can build a recognizable brand. No, there isn’t room for a publisher simply chasing sales numbers with whatever high-profile book comes to hand,” Wassel shared. “Probably there’s the most room for a publisher who adopts a hybrid approach.”

BOOM!’s President of Publishing and Marketing Filip Sablik and Oni’s Publisher James Lucas Jones both had views cultivated by the span of time they’ve worked in comics. To the seasoned veteran, all this has happened before and all this will happen again. While Sablik admits “it’s a crowded marketplace,” he believes publishers with longevity have an easier time given their pre-existing awareness amongst readers. Meanwhile, Jones said that while they’re happy with the success they’ve seen recently – especially in the book market with Simon & Schuster, who distributes their books to book stores – there are of course downsides to the overstuffed nature of both primary markets.

One of the true comic greats in Zander Cannon’s Kaijumax

“For midsize folks, you’re battling at a disadvantage in both markets,” Jones said. “So it’s trying to figure out ways to make each market work for you.”

He especially noted the stiff competition at the top in the form of Marvel, DC and Image in the direct market and Scholastic Graphix, First Second and the deluge of heavily funded newcomers in the book market, as they can suck a lot of the oxygen out of the room. Jones expanded on that idea, as the difficulties with that level of competition doesn’t simply manifest itself on a comic-by-comic basic. It’s more foundational than that. Even for a nearly 23-year-old publisher like Oni, it can still be a struggle to have their titles ordered at all by comic shops.

“Right now, there’s like 4,000 Diamond accounts, there’s maybe 2,500 legit brick-and-mortar stores and then in terms of full line comic shops, 30 there might be under 1,000 in terms of folks that carry a wide range of our stuff and not just a few titles here and there,” Jones shared.

That’s why it’s key to find an angle for yourself as a smaller publisher. Oni has given “character driven and idiosyncratic” titles a home, publishing a range of comics with a wide breadth of subjects and formats that might speak to audiences outside of your vision of the typical comic shop customer. That’s been important for BOOM! too, Sablik shared.

“It’s always been part of our publishing strategy to publish material that we think speaks to an audience that isn’t already being serviced in the marketplace,” Sablik said, specifically noting how you can see that in the success of their all-ages imprint KaBOOM!, originals like Lumberjanes, and properties like Adventure Time and Steven Universe. These reached hungry all-ages readers ready for something a little different, and they became hits thanks to BOOM!’s supply meeting that audience’s demand. But as the release lists expanded and the market changed, so too did the publisher. 2019 saw BOOM! shift its approach to better match what comic shops were looking for.

Noelle Stevenson’s cover to Lumberjanes Vol. 1

“I feel like the problem isn’t that there’s too many comics or that there’s too many graphic novels,” Sablik shared. “The problem is that there are too many comics and graphic novels that don’t sell well enough for retailers to invest in them.”

“So the struggle for whether you’re talking about an independent bookstore or a comic shop, or even a Barnes & Noble buyer, is they have all of these choices, but there’s an element of risk in that they know that a large portion of these will not bear out for them,” he added. “So part of our shifted strategy this year was looking at the market, acknowledging that we cut back 15% output, 31 and essentially, what that was was, internally, a recommitment and a deeper commitment to, ‘let’s play the hits.’ Let’s do things that we know there is an audience for, that we can identify the audience for, that we believe is going to generate success for our retail partners.

“So that seems to have worked out. This year, we’re up both at Diamond and at Simon. 32 We’ve seen growth in both places at a time where the market is either flat or down at the end of the year, and that’s with putting out less material.”

Wassel shared that Vault made changes as well, but that they were “less in response to the maneuvering of other publishers, and more in service of where we think we have room to tell excellent stories in the genres on which we focus.” That last point is crucial, as it reveals something Vault excels at: doing something different. Too often in comics, everything can feel a little similar, as if they all were cooked in a pot using the same base. But as Wassel told me, Vault is “always looking for books that take risks,” which has manifested itself in a line with some wild books like Money Shot (“A book about space porn that isn’t a porn book”) and Black Stars Above (“A desolate and severe historical cosmic horror tale.”) that have become successes for them.

“Whenever we can achieve this, the book resonates with our fans,” Wassel said.

Amanda Conner’s cover to Second Coming #1

Ahoy’s focus is very much on doing their own thing as well, as Peyer shared that they knew from the start that they were “not going to compete with big companies on their own terms.”

“We don’t exist in a vacuum,” Peyer said. “It feels right to offer self-contained stories that aren’t interrupted by crossovers. The story’s the thing here, not the larger event. And maybe the big companies have helped us by creating a vacancy there.”

He’s not wrong. Marvel and DC have largely abandoned anything resembling titles free from the constraints of line-wide responsibilities, and that means there is opportunity there. Whether magazine-style releases loaded with bonus features like “short stories, humor pieces, maybe poems, even a puzzle” fills that vacuum is uncertain – Ahoy hasn’t made a huge impact on the direct market to date, with most retailers I spoke to suggesting they’ve had little traction with their titles so far, outside of one shop that adores their books and has had great success hand-selling them – but it’s early in their existence. It can take time to make a dent in any industry. Peyer suggests that they’ve “had success in building audiences month-to-month,” but even he admits there are pain points in the direct market right now.

“The solicitation deadlines can feel inconvenient, and it can be harder to spring surprises on readers when we have to tell them so much, so far in advance. And of course the fact that books are not returnable induces retailers to order in smaller numbers than we’d like,” Peyer said. “But these limitations are industry-wide and the big publishers feel them, too. I guess the hardest thing when you’re not publishing Batman or Spider-Man is simply getting noticed in that huge order catalog.” 33

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  1. Meaning comic shops.

  2. Including the amount of releases it’s taking to accomplish these gains (particularly from Marvel), DC’s plans for the future, price as a factor, the disappearing #2 customer, the growing number of publishers, etc.

  3. And by they, I largely mean Marvel and DC.

  4. More on that later.

  5. In terms of unit share.

  6. I say that with love. It’s not a bad characteristic to have if you’re a CEO!

  7. He admitted that their ignorance of the way things worked may have helped Vault take risks that ultimately worked out for them, and ones they may have avoided if they knew better. Sometimes not being a historian works out!

  8. Meaning shops that order from all publishers, not just Marvel, DC and some other publishers.

  9. Meaning they reduced the size of their line.

  10. That’s Simon & Schuster, whom they distribute trades and graphic novels through in the book market.

  11. Peyer did note there are ways around that too, as they’ve bought large ads in Diamond’s Previews magazine. He believes those helped, and the same goes for other programs they participated in through the distribution giant.

  12. Meaning comic shops.

  13. Including the amount of releases it’s taking to accomplish these gains (particularly from Marvel), DC’s plans for the future, price as a factor, the disappearing #2 customer, the growing number of publishers, etc.

  14. And by they, I largely mean Marvel and DC.

  15. More on that later.

  16. In terms of unit share.

  17. I say that with love. It’s not a bad characteristic to have if you’re a CEO!

  18. He admitted that their ignorance of the way things worked may have helped Vault take risks that ultimately worked out for them, and ones they may have avoided if they knew better. Sometimes not being a historian works out!

  19. Meaning shops that order from all publishers, not just Marvel, DC and some other publishers.

  20. Meaning they reduced the size of their line.

  21. That’s Simon & Schuster, whom they distribute trades and graphic novels through in the book market.

  22. Peyer did note there are ways around that too, as they’ve bought large ads in Diamond’s Previews magazine. He believes those helped, and the same goes for other programs they participated in through the distribution giant.

  23. Meaning comic shops.

  24. Including the amount of releases it’s taking to accomplish these gains (particularly from Marvel), DC’s plans for the future, price as a factor, the disappearing #2 customer, the growing number of publishers, etc.

  25. And by they, I largely mean Marvel and DC.

  26. More on that later.

  27. In terms of unit share.

  28. I say that with love. It’s not a bad characteristic to have if you’re a CEO!

  29. He admitted that their ignorance of the way things worked may have helped Vault take risks that ultimately worked out for them, and ones they may have avoided if they knew better. Sometimes not being a historian works out!

  30. Meaning shops that order from all publishers, not just Marvel, DC and some other publishers.

  31. Meaning they reduced the size of their line.

  32. That’s Simon & Schuster, whom they distribute trades and graphic novels through in the book market.

  33. Peyer did note there are ways around that too, as they’ve bought large ads in Diamond’s Previews magazine. He believes those helped, and the same goes for other programs they participated in through the distribution giant.