When we talk about comics today, readers still cannot help but think of the superhero genre. Comics? Yep. Batman just popped into your head. Or maybe it was Spidey. This isn’t a failed Rorschach test or a definitive indication of taste, it’s the same impetus behind people asking for a Kleenex when they really want a tissue: brand domination. Sixty years ago, Dick Tracy might’ve been just as likely to apparate into your mind upon hearing the words “comic books.” When superhero properties inspire multi-billion dollar film franchises, it’s not a matter of choice what the zeitgeist includes in our collective subconscious view of the medium. Comics are not and never have been seen as the sum of their parts. To the outside world (ie, anyone that doesn’t read comics on a regular basis), everything stands behind the cape. For many fans, nothing stands behind the cape.
Today, zombies are eating the capes. At least in the collective minds of readers new and old, The Walking Dead is now part of a larger conversation about what comics are today (everything) and who they are for (everyone), and that’s a good thing. This is because it is one of the best selling, non-superhero titles being published today. Both in mainstream media coverage and within the small world of comics journalism, focus tends to shift between legacy books that have existed in one form or another for the last fifty plus years, and the breakout hits. Unsurprisingly, both of those types of properties are the ones that are getting optioned for television and movies. The Walking Dead is not quite new, having been on comic shelves for the past twelve years, and on tv sets for the last five (yes, it’s been half a decade). Perhaps the success of this property compared to say, The Avengers, seems less consequential. But then think back to that visual of the zombie eating the superhero. It takes a while to leave an indelible mark on pop culture. It takes even longer for the effects to be recognized. Saying The Walking Dead is a huge seller and game changer in comics is an almost eye-roll worthy statement because it is so widely accepted. A lesser known truth, and one that is gaining more recognition, is that outside of the direct market, there are many independent non-superhero comics that outsell The Walking Dead.
Little girls are eating the zombies.
Raina Telgemeier’s books like Drama and Sisters have probably not yet popped into your mind while reading this article, despite being some of the bestselling graphic novels today. Cape and zombie titles wish they could sell like Telgemeier’s books. In a recent analysis of the Bookscan sales charts for the year of 2014 by Brian Hibbs for Comics Beat, Telgemeier’s titles reign supreme. These numbers don’t include the sales figures for the comic shop market, libraries, or book fairs, but considering Smile has been on the New York Times’ bestseller list for paperback graphic novels for 142 weeks, I think it’s safe to say that the direct market comic sales figures would not matter much in comparison to that level of success. This week alone, Drama, Sisters, and Smile make up the top three best selling paperback graphic novels.
The Walking Dead is still up there, filling in three of its own spots in the top ten best selling paperback graphic novels this week, along with two more Image titles, Saga and Sex Criminals. In the direct market (sales within comic shops), Image is slowly but surely cutting into the market share that is still dominated by Marvel and DC. The Walking Dead may be Image’s largest, most consistent seller over the last decade, but it is that coupled with more recent successful launches like Saga and East of West that have pushed Image to 10.4% of the unit market share in the direct market this past December. If their other breakout hits from last year, including Wytches, Autumnlands, and Bitch Planet continue to succeed, this could be Image’s biggest year yet, and that’s not even taking into consideration the titles they have slated for release in 2015 like Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang’s upcoming Paper Girls.
The fact that Image has so many top selling titles is great for diversifying the comic market, but the difference between Bookscan numbers (of the market outside of comic shops) and within comic shops show a troubling disparity. The fact that Raina Telgemeier’s books are behemoths everywhere but within comic stores is not a sign of a healthy comic market. Her books are selling hand over fist because Scholastic is targeting customers outside of the direct market model, they prominently feature young female characters, and that success should turn a lot of heads. Young readers buying graphic novels in droves outside of comic shops is good for the publisher and Telgemeier, but it doesn’t provide many opportunities for those readers to keep reading and discovering new comics in brick and mortar stores. If comic shops and publishers don’t react to what sells outside of their walls, they’re essentially just selling to the readers that are already in the door.
The most successful Image titles are the ones that are appealing to new readers, the ones outside of your local comic shop, the ones buying books digitally and online. That is part of the reason they make their way onto the New York Time’s and Amazon bestseller list. The Walking Dead was a big seller before it was optioned for television, but its status as cultural phenomenon was likely cemented by the hugely successful tv series. Image’s success is both a combination of expanding the appeal of comics outside of the direct market, but also syphoning market share away from Marvel and DC. Image readers are certainly fans both new and old to comics, but no one can say for sure how those demographics break down. The Walking Dead is the one book that industry analysts can definitively say has a larger audience outside of the direct comics market, and that is entirely because of its small screen success. Though a more diverse marketplace spearheaded by Image is creating new opportunities for readers and creators alike, it’s also just shifting chips on the table, where money that would’ve been spent on superhero titles is being spent at Image instead. I know my pull list is leaning heavily toward independent, creator-owned titles these days, but my money was spent when I walked in the door.
Many creators that find success with Image are not unfamiliar to seasoned readers either. Brian K. Vaughn found great success with Marvel, Vertigo, and Dark Horse long before Saga became a top-selling Image title. Artist and Saga co-creator Fiona Staples is refreshingly a newer talent, but having been unproven before this title, it is uncertain if success will follow her after it ends. Image may have been founded by artists, but historically artists do not always fair as well after big indie successes. Look no further than original Walking Dead artist Tony Moore for example. Moore left the series after creating artwork for the series’ first six issues, but felt he was unfairly cut out of future profits. The lawsuits that followed were eventually settled out of court, but not before ugly mudslinging revealed that work for hire arrangements still remain a problem for artists, even on creator-owned titles.
Other top selling, well-known creators at Image include Sex Criminals’ writer Matt Fraction, East of West writer Jonathan Hickman, Bitch Planet’s Kelly Sue DeConnick — all talents that continue to work for hire at Marvel where they have established audiences over time. The list of familiar names doesn’t end there. Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, Chris Burnham, Rick Remender, Cliff Chiang, Jock, Scott Snyder, Kurt Busiek; these immensely talented creators have all achieved substantial success at Marvel and DC, and they’re all currently creating top-selling titles for Image Comics, too. Unlike writers, artists cannot easily commit to working on multiple books a month, so they can’t take advantage of the ability to work for multiple publishers. Exceptions do exist, such as Jason Latour, who is establishing himself as a writer for Marvel (see this month’s Spider-Gwen) while continuing as artist on South Bastards, written by Jason Aaron, another Marvel writer by day and Image creator by night. As much as I love these titles (and I’m buying quite a few of them), the publisher is increasingly looking like the creative sandbox for the industry’s top talent, a business model that relies heavily on the quality and name recognition honed at traditional comic publishers. That is why it is no coincidence that Image’s pool of top-selling talent is as white and male as the Big Two — for the most part, they’re the same creators.
There is no doubt that Image is changing how readers view comics. But if that innovation comes at the cost of perpetuating deeply ingrained problems surrounding representation amongst creators and content, it isn’t worth it. Image is often left out of discussions of diversity within the industry because of their business model. In oversimplified terms, they put out the content that is brought to them. They don’t do page rates, editorial support is minimal, and if your name is Brian K. Vaughan, they will throw some marketing behind you. If you are a lesser known talent that happens to get a book published by Image or one of their imprints like Shadowline, the market and the book’s content decides your fate, not Image. If a comic sells well, the creator reeps much larger profits than through any other publishing model (except maybe self-publishing), and all the while creators retain rights to their property. Jim Zub, writer of Skullkickers and Wayward, recently broke down the sales figures for both of his Image titles, clearly demonstrating the unique benefits offered by the Image business model. No other publisher in comics offers the kind of success that Image can facilitate, but the biggest successes at Image rarely feature new creators, and even less of them are minority and / or women.
The road to success at Image has been achieved by enough creators recently to create a recognizable pattern. Garner attention with a small, self-published title, write or draw for Marvel and DC until you get bored, pitch to Image as an “established creator,” return triumphantly to creator-owned books, but now with the third largest publisher promoting your work. Whether intentional or not, Image is inheriting all of the disparities in representation that plague the industry at large. I sure am glad more people are seeing comics differently because of Image, but without real commitment to diversifying their content and creators, then where is the real change? It’s just the same folks making the same comics for the same people, and anything that succeeds outside of that is just icing on the cake. The comics industry doesn’t need another publisher that has to explain why there are so few women and minorities behind and in their comics.
Image, like most comic publishers, is run by a lot of white men, with a more diverse support staff. Co-founder and Image creator Todd McFarlane has publicly demonstrated staggeringly backward views on sexism within the industry. When an owner of the company treats very real systemic problems as a mere matter of opinion, that is a big hurdle to get past before one can create positive change. The large number of new Image comics featuring women and minorities made by mostly white and male creators makes it an empty victory.
I’m glad that capes aren’t the only thing that come to mind when we talk about comics. I’m grateful that there are so many film and television properties based on comic books that it is barely newsworthy when one is announced. I think Image deserves a great amount of credit and respect for the recent shift in perception of mainstream comics among old fans and potential readers alike. But an independent market driven by Image won’t take us much further if it doesn’t include more diverse creators making comics that include underrepresented groups and topics. The zombies very well could eat the capes, and no one outside of the comic shop would notice. Raina Telgemeier’s books would still be outselling them both.