The Rising Tide is Lifting All Ships

The direct market is up, and up big. And it's those outside the Big Two seemingly reflecting that the most.

People love quantifying results. Whether you’re talking box office charts, streaming viewership, social media engagement, YouTube views, or whatever your metric of choice is, being able to look at something and say “See, this thing is good!” 1 is something we’ve only become increasingly fascinated or even infatuated with over the passage of time. Comics are no different. While the comic industry as a whole is a far more difficult one to quantify due to the disparate markets and the lack of clarity on certain channels, people still love to play Monday Morning Quarterback with orders from comic shops in the direct market.

And almost universally, it’s not the average or lower tier levels we obsess over when we get to looking at box office numbers or ratings or engagement or sales, but the upper limits of performance. People don’t want to talk about decent sales. We want to talk about what was #1! That’s the way it is. We love our winners, and the rest is just history. 2

The strange thing, though, is in comics, it’s the other parts of the charts that are often the most interesting. The apex of the direct market sales charts have a tendency of staying the same. Check each chart for the past decade and you’ll likely find the ten spots at the top dominated by a mix of debuts, event comics, and Batman, with intermittent surprises in its midst. That’s not necessarily useful information, unless you work in comics and your takeaway is to make more comics that feature Batman at the head of new titles and events. 3 Even more than that, actual orders are typically pretty consistent at the top, even though there are ebbs and flows there to a degree as well.

Further down the charts, though, you can find a lot of intrigue. Especially now, as the pandemic has led to a consolidation of publisher release lists, resulting in a cascading effect across the market. This part of the rankings has only increasingly become of interest to me because of that, particularly after a recent conversation with a comics publisher sent me down a rabbit hole.

I was chatting with this individual for another piece when they noted to me that while their line-wide sales had been growing for the past three years, the pandemic sent that into overdrive, triggering an exponential expansion in orders from comic shops. And not just on first issues! This worked all the way down the line, with subsequent issues selling two or three times what they had just three or four years ago.

That blew me away. I could have easily handwaved this knowledge away as a product of other factors, saying it was part of the publisher’s natural growth pattern or perhaps there was a level up in there that was obvious. But none of that felt right. That was especially the case when I considered how retailers had been telling me sales were up for them too, and typically across the board. When combined, this added up to something rather unusual.

Because typically, we aren’t just focusing on the top in the direct market because big numbers are more appealing; it’s because this side of comics is so often fueled by the sales leader above all. 4 But since the pandemic hit, it seemed that isn’t entirely the case, if this publisher and those retailers were to be believed.

From the outside, it appears the pandemic has been – despite its objectively terrible nature and the endless challenges it presents – a rising tide that has lifted all ships. I’d have to go back to 2011’s The New 52 endeavor by DC to even think of a comparable event in terms of generating growth in orders across the market.

And with the publisher suggesting they weren’t alone in seeing their growth accelerate, it felt like it was time to examine this unique environment where it isn’t just Marvel and DC carrying the direct market, but a little bit of everyone. So today, that’s just what I’ll be doing, as I try to get a feel for what it really looks like, what’s driving it, and ultimately, try to determine whether this growth is real or if that’s yet to be determined.

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  1. Or, more often, bad or wrong or against whatever agenda someone is pushing.

  2. Unless something fails spectacularly. We’re also interested in that.

  3. Which DC 100% has done!

  4. That’s the case in the book market too, where Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man series carries a huge portion of the market alone, albeit with more immense hits around it.