Journalists FINALLY agree; Comicsgate was RIGHT!

by 02.21.2023


After a few fat years during the pandemic, it sure looks like periodical comics are deep into a cyclical downturn, both financially and creatively. January’s unit and dollar sales charts (see “Top 50 Comics – January 2023”) are not exactly full of surprises, with various Spider-Man and Batman family titles leading the way, give or take a few stray Turtles. Retailers, do these books have fans lathered with excitement? Is everyone – or anyone – looking forward to upcoming events like Dawn of DC?

Though hard numbers can be tough to figure, reports are that sales are flat or down dating back as far as September, outside of the usual manga and kid-oriented material. Whatever graphic novels, webtoons and media adaptations are doing to expand the top of the market funnel, the perennial market leaders aren’t doing much to keep those readers in the pipeline with monthly must-reads.

Recent data shows superheroes are about to lose their place as the top selling category in U.S. comics and graphic novels, something that, frankly, might end up being good for the medium, but is going to hurt the direct market that depends on reliable, repeat customers for monthly periodicals.

So what’s keeping things bottled up? Here are a few possible culprits.

Supply and demand mismatch. If there are too many books chasing not enough readers, the result is a market slowdown. 2022 saw a 7% increase in the number of monthly titles published by the major publishers, according to Comichron, showing the market is gradually recovering to pre-pandemic levels. But is reader interest and buying power also increasing to match the new supply?

More to the point, do readers have the same money and attention to devote to the hobby as they had when everyone was stuck inside doing Zoom meetings? The relaxation of public health restrictions has uncorked a lot of pent-up demand for out-of-home experiences, at the same time more entertainment options are competing for our eyeballs. This is the perennial problem with a medium like comics, consumed through the basically solitary and linear activity of reading.

Stale creative process. Not to disparage the hardworking men and women who make our comic books month in and month out, but the sparkle of imagination that was at work at various points over the past 10-12 years seems fainter these days. Some of the top talent that propelled DC Comics and Marvel Comics in the teens has moved on to creator-owned titles, digital-first books or opportunities elsewhere in the entertainment industry, and their replacements have not quite hit their stride.

Part of that has to do with the economics of the business, which allows creators to make more money on lesser-selling independent books, and/or affords them more control and back-end opportunities. The past few years have seen a steady exodus of DC and Marvel’s top-name creators to pursue their own projects, only a few of which (Something is Killing the Children leaps to mind) even come close to matching the popularity of the titles they were working on previously.

In the meantime, Marvel and especially DC have tightened their belts considerably on the editorial side, shedding higher-priced veteran talent with decades of market savvy and experience in favor of younger, cheaper hands to move the books through the production line.

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