8: CBSI Writer Wars Round 1 : Collecting Data by Dan Carreker

 

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Are We Heading for A 90’s Style Crash?

 

Hi, and welcome to my first article. Collecting Data focuses on using analytics and analysis to explore the theories, questions, and myths related to collecting comics. Out of the gate I want to explore one of the more common questions related to the health of the hobby – namely, “Is the current comic book collecting climate lending itself to a crash similar to the 90’s ‘Big One’ anytime soon?”

Of course, that’s a very tough question to answer and, in all honesty, even when I’m done laying out all the arguments, figures, facts, and plain old guesswork, it's unlikely we’ll all agree, and that’s perfect. The point of Collecting Data isn’t to win everyone over to my point of view but to start a discussion on the topic, promote a logical, solid examination of the information that’s out there, and see if we can come to some sort of understanding of the topic at hand even if we disagree in some areas. In that spirit, I invite comments suggesting alternative interpretations and fact checking; we’ve got a very accomplished community here and in no way am I qualified to lecture anyone here about comics. Instead, I see myself more as a moderator and an organizer…though hopefully one with some insights…who can brings up interesting questions and reveal some data, ultimately learning right alongside with the community.

All that said, trying to come up with an answer to the whole “are we about to crash” question is a big undertaking. To really have a shot at it, a lot of groundwork has to be laid. We need to investigate the causes of the 90s crash, as well as any related social, industrial, and economic factors. Then we need to draw analogies to today’s circumstances using the best, most reliable data we have access to. Unfortunately, the data we actually have is often times incomplete, unreliable, and, other times, just plain unavailable. In short, we have our work cut out for us. So, this won’t be one brief article with the answer nicely wrapped up in the final paragraph. Instead, this will be a multi-part in-depth investigation, starting with an inquiry into what nearly killed the comic industry in the mid-90s.

The History of the Crash

The 90s saw a tremendous downswing in the comic collecting market after a rapid rise during the 80s. Comic shops closed, publishers went out of business, and circulation dropped precariously. A lot of figures have been bandied about showing just how dire the situation was; however, the figures I’ve seen quoted on the internet are often unsourced, or prone to bias, and the accuracy is therefore questionable. However, Marvel’s public offering in 1991 and fall into bankruptcy in 1996 provides a window into the industry at that time.  According to a New York Times article in 1991, “Marvel's comics sold an average of 8.7 million copies a month in the last half of 1990, up 31.2 percent from 6.6 million in the corresponding period in 1989.” The article continues with other figures based on the report filing. Marvels 1990 comic sales amounted to $70.6 million, with approximately 9 million copies selling per month, with 73% of sales happening in the Direct Market. By the time Marvel filed for Bankruptcy six years later, a little more than ten million copies were sold per month…in the entire industry. It would not be until 2002 before we’d see any year-over-year growth again.

(For those who want a little more in background figures, Marvel’s portion of direct sales at the end of 1996 was 42.4%, or approximately 4.3 million copies. Marvel’s share in terms of dollars was 10.10 million, but that price represents retail price of delivered comics, which is neither what Marvel’s take was nor the net sales the retailer made to the consumers. Assuming the wholesale price to retailers was 70% of cover price (which may not be an historically accurate assumption, but I have no source for what standard rates were at the time – I wonder if any readers have any input on this?) that would put Marvel as receiving approximately 7 million a month from their direct sales. According to the well-worth reading article, Newsstand vs. Direct Edition Comics by Benjamin Nobel, direct editions likely accounted for over 90% of Marvel’s sales during this time so, even giving a generous benefit of a doubt, it’s unlikely Marvel’s revenue from comic per month was more than 7.75 million. This scholarly paper suggests that between 1991 and 1995, Marvels revenue increased by 800%, though that almost certainly included all revenue from all operations, not just the sales of comics. We do not know how much drop in total revenue Marvel had between 1995 and 1996, nor do we know how much of the revenue in 1995 was from comic sales. Yet, for a company whose primary identity was a comic book publisher, to only have 12% of last year’s revenue derived from selling comic books is not likely to be seen as a positive sign of industry health.)

It's important to keep in mind all these figures have deservedly received some degree of shade cast upon their accuracy. In 1996 Marvel had switched to an exclusive, less-than-transparent, and short-lived distribution model, Chomichron’s reports are based on estimations, and many of the figures plugged into various calculations are “industry-standard” rule-of-thumb measurements whose validity is hidden behind proprietary corporate information and trade secrets. Figures released to the press and regulators are often “best light” versions of the facts and have a bias. More importantly, Marvel’s results are obviously tied into it management strategy at the time, which, at the very least, differed considerably from other publishers and therefore Marvel’s data points are not necessarily indicative of the state of the whole industry. So, Marvel might not be the best case-study to follow, but it’s really the only one we have. The takeaway here is: we know the crash happened, and we know it was bad, even if the data here is a bit hard to parse and the information we do have should be taken with a healthy bit of skepticism.

The Usual Suspects

So, what caused the crash? A lot of theories about, but the general consensus it wasn’t any one thing but a combination of factors. Still, at least in the simplified versions often given, there are several common causes assigned the majority of the blame: money-grabbing gimmicks, publisher greed, spectators, consumer psychology, and more.  Over the next few articles we’ll look at both the commonly mentioned and the sometimes overlooked suspects, including:

  • Gimmicks vs Quality (Part I)
  • Growth and Greed (Part II)
  • Economics; In and Out of a Bubble (Part III)
  • It’s a Small (Electronic) World, After All (Part IV)

The truth is that each of these causes overlap; gimmicks may be dictated by greed, growth obviously is tied to economics, and so on. We’ll explore these one at a time, but we’ll also need to look at how each of these factors might have affected each other. After that, we’ll have to compare those factors in the 90s with those factors in today’s market, so they’re will be another article or two to deal with that, depending on just how much data we will have to cover. A six-part series seems to be called as thoroughness is essential —I warned you it’s a tough question to handle. So, let’s not waste any time and get to Part I right away.

Gimmicks vs. Quality (Part I)

The Gimmicks

The one element that has now become the icon for corporate money-grabbing over well-written comics has been the gimmick. A jump-the-shark moment designed to get fans to buy the book without really developing anything of quality. Die-cut, glow-in-the-dark, wrap-around, embossed, chromium, numbered, and foiled covers all began showing up on a more and more regular basis. Of course, comic gimmicks were not new. KISS (not surprisingly) marketed a comic book made from the blood of its band members in 1977. Marvel certainly had built their entire brand on the idea of having popular heroes show up in less popular titles (and loudly proclaiming it on the cover—I’m looking at you ASM #1) and if you go all the way back to 1953’s Three Dimension Comics: Starring Paul Terry’s Mighty Mouse it probably still isn’t the first example of gimmicking a book to sell more copies. The thing is, all of those examples were very successful with Marvel Comics Super Special #1 (featuring Kiss )selling almost half a million copies, and the Mighty Mouse book sold over a million copies, so it makes sense that publishers would start going to the well more and more often. By the time we hit the mid 90’s we have more and more books using unusual covers to sell, almost always at a higher (and more profitable) price point. Books like Amazing Spider-man #400, Superman #75, and Valiant’s Turok Dinosaur Hunter #1 continued the trend and sold well.

 

 

Yet, while cover gimmicks get most of the blame, what we’ll call story gimmicks were perhaps more common, at least at first. Limited series for Punisher, Wolverine, and the Dark Knight were early (80s) successes. They grew to become miniseries. Miniseries became maxiseries and maxiseries became multi-titled crossover events, which began requiring the reader to invest in more and more books to follow the storylines. While the Death of Gwen Stacy required only two issues (ASM #121-122) to cover its plot and The Judas Contract (Teen Titans #42,43, 44 and Annual 3) spanned what at the time was a very large four issues arch, 1994’s Clone Saga lasted 30 issues or 77 issues or 140 issues (pretty much feel free to put any number you want here basically based on which issues you feel have relevance.) Heavily marketed events were geared more towards convincing new readers that something important was happening than satisfying the existing subscribers and regular fans of a title. DC killed off Superman and paralyzed Batman with a wink and a nod, all but promising to bring them back a year later, but not until their PR machine had sold the general public on the importance of owning these books. The thing is, just like the earlier examples, they too were commercial successes, at least in the short term.

It could be argued these story gimmicks had greater impact than the cover gimmicks did in the 90s. Definitely Marvel’s attempt at a drawn-out relaunch of the Spiderman character backfired in the long run and fans began to drop Spider-man titles from their weekly pulls. But in and by themselves how much did the gimmicks hurt the industry as a whole? It’s not an easy thing to find data for—it’s not easy finding a listing every gimmick in the history of comics, nor is it likely we could ever agree what makes a gimmick (Variant covers? Celebrity writers? Contests, inserted trading cards, misleading cover art? A 900 number to vote if a character lives or dies?)

We do know though that “gimmicks” help sell a lot of copies (which is why the publishers used them in the first place) and, while strong sales it may hurt the investor, more readers and more sales are a good thing for the industry, right? Couldn’t one interpretation the market at the time as responding positively to flashy, desirable covers and new “important” storylines? (I know, many of you are already ahead of me, drawing connections to collector confidence and reader fatigue, issues we’ll get into later.) For now, though, entirely of themselves, it’s hard to draw a connection between the concept of a gimmick and the crashing of the industry. This is particularly true when evaluating the long history of gimmicks in comics none of which were blamed for crashes when they occurred; obviously a lot more is at play here than just “holo-covers cause comic collectors to stop buying books.”

The Quality

Still, there were an awful lot of new gimmicks showing up in the 90s; so the idea that there could be a connection between gimmicks and the crash isn’t farfetched. While a gimmick may or may not have cause a title to lose favor with its fans, the reliance on a gimmick to carry sales instead of good writing can be seen as an eroding factor of the comic book industry. Bad writing (the argument goes, if this were a medical mystery drama) is the disease; gimmicks are the just the symptom that cover it up and distracts us from the real pathology. Certainly, people are less willing to buy a poorly executed story than one they enjoy and so it would stand to reason that titles that suffer in that way would lose support and disappear. But crashing the industry as a whole? Like the gimmicks, such an effect may not be easily blamed on poor writing. We need to devise a way to test if poor writing resulted in fewer sales during this time.

Luckily for us (both as investigators and fans of good comics), not all titles published during this time had poor writing. The mid to late 90’s saw new characters, worlds, and titles emerge such as Preacher, Deadpool, Sin City, Hellboy, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Starman, Kingdom Come, Astro City, Bone, and Harley Quinn; all of which received critical praise for their writing and general quality. If quality of the story was a factor, then we’d expect to see those books gain in popularity during the crash while the poorer titles died off. So, let's dig in and look at some numbers (all numbers here are derived from Comichron).

We’ll start by comparing the growth of critically acclaimed series during a 25 month period, April 1995-April 1997. If we can agree that quality matters to comic readers, then when quality drops more readers should stay with (or join) the better written books while abandoning the poorly written ones. Certainly, we see a drop in general readership throughout this time. During these two-plus years, the industry suffered an approximately 40% decrease in sales. In order though to get a baseline and see if that drop affected the popular titles, let’s first examine how the two perennial powerhouse titles, Batman and Amazing Spider-Man, performed during this stretch. These two titles have consistently been in the top sold comics since they’ve been introduced and are considered to have one of the most secure fan bases – they are extremely well known among collectors and non-collectors alike and reach across many different demographics.

April 1995

Issue Ranking

(Direct Distribution)

Units Sold (Direct Distribution)

In Thousands

Amazing Spider-Man 402 18th 100.0
Batman 519 21st 86.2

 

April 1997

Issue Ranking

(Direct Distribution)

Units Sold (Direct Distribution)

In Thousands

Change from 1995
Amazing Spider-man 424 34th 79.1 -21%
Batman 519 46th 59.7 -38%

 

This suggests that whatever the causes for the decrease to the market, they affected the Batman title nearly as strongly as the market in general as that title had nearly the same percentage of decrease to readership (for the time being we’ll assume that there are no conflicting forces that might simultaneously promote and restrict growth of the title differently for different titles—an assumption that is unlikely true but necessary at this stage to lay out some basic reference points.) The Amazing Spider-Man title, for comparison, did not suffer as much of a decrease but still lost over 20% of its readers. This resulted in a wider gap between the two series’ readership by 1997. (I’ll leave it to each of you to go back and re-read the stories to gauge if Batman’s stories’ quality were dropping faster than Spiderman’s; the point to be made here is simply that even the traditionally popular series were feeling the effects of the downturn.)

We now know in general comics were losing buyers and that popular titles were not immune. Now let’s see how critically acclaimed titles did during this time. First, from our list of “well written” comics, we need to select our samples and we’re limited since we need ones which were published during the three years in question on a fairly regular basis (so no limited series, one shots, or short run) as well as ones with a fairly stable creative team to avoid major shifts in quality. We also want to avoid, as much as we can, using data from months that have special issues (including gimmicked covers and heavily publicized storylines) as these often have spikes in sales that are not representative of the comic’s overall performance. Additionally, we want to avoid first issues, since first issue sales are not really indicative of the quality of the book; the general public has not really had a chance to gauge it yet. For that reason, I will adjust a month forwards or backwards as needed when compiling the data to avoid those instances; it is assumed that the variation in numbers there would be far less disruptive that those related to the above-mentioned factors.

 

April 1995 – Avg units sold (in thousands) for Top 5 comics this month = 241.4

Issue Ranking

(Direct Distribution)

Units Sold (Direct Distribution)

In Thousands

Preacher 3 119th 29.0
Starman 7 131st 26.0
Bone 19 112th 29.7

 

The first thing to notice is how many fewer of these comics were being sold than that of the Top 5 selling comics that month. The Top 5 usually represent heavily hyped books and often have a lot of churn: what titles appears one month may be totally different than what appears there the next. They also rely on heavy invested fan bases and spectators (you see a lot of X-Titles and Spawn during this period as well as relaunches and event books.)  Each of our sample titles are below the 100th best selling book that month according to Diamond’s figure (though remember selling means to retailers not consumers in this case.) This bodes well for our study since they have both room to grow and to shrink.

April 1996 – Avg units sold (in thousands) for Top 5 comics this month = 220.0*

Issue Ranking

(Direct Distribution)

Units Sold (Direct Distribution)

In Thousands

Change from 1995
Preacher 14 69th* 57.4 +97%
Starman 18 99th* 41.8 +61%
Bone 24 79th* 50.7 +71%

* Due to Marvel’s exclusive distribution process in 1996, I’ve had to approximate the ranking and top 5 averages used for that year based on Marvel’s reported sales compared to the non-Marvel issues distributed by Diamond.

Now we have our first comparable set of data, we begin to see some of the effects we predicted would happen if the overall quality of comics being offered dropped, namely the higher quality books not only maintained but actually improved their standings. Though comic sales dropped just under 10% compared to the year earlier, these three books dramatically rose in both ranking and units sold. While some of the increase could be ascribed to the fact that both Preacher and Starman were new and still finding their audience, it’s unlikely that the same reasoning could be applied to Bone, which had been out for six years already.

 

April 1997 – Avg units sold (in thousands) for Top 5 comics this month = 138.5

Issue Ranking

(Direct Distribution)

Units Sold (Direct Distribution)

In Thousands

Change from 1995
Preacher 26 54th 47.7 +65%
Starman 31 94th 30.6 +18%
Bone 29** 84th 25.5 -12%

**There was no issue of Bone in April 1997. May 1997 figures (when the Top 5 Avg was 153.38) used instead.

1997 saw a precipitous drop with the Top 5 comics for April experiencing a nearly 40% drop when compared to 1995, mirroring the drop across the entirety of comic sales for that month. This gives us confidence that the popularity of a book may not be a competing factor when evaluating for the effect of quality. Immediately we can see that there is a notable drop in our “high quality” books compared to last year though all titles significantly outperformed the average title. Preacher, remaining strong, dropped just 17% from last year but is up 65% versus where it was two years ago. Starman outperformed the average drop of 40% by actually increasing 18% over the two years. Only Bone lost readership during this time, but still outperformed the average comic by 28%.

One interpretation is that by this time, the effects of the collapse had begun taking its toll on all books; that whatever combination of factors had occurred to drive readership away had crossed over and started infecting even well written material. In an upcoming article, we’ll look at the effects the collapse had on retailer locations as closing of local comic shops could theoretically had a drastic impact on sales, particularly of these titles that were not readily available at non-direct sales locations. Alternatively, series may normally lose some of their quality after so many issues, and we may be seeing a normal drop off in readership as a result. Yet, if we expected to see well-written books outperform the average during a downturn in the marketplace, then we may have found some evidence that there was a decrease in quality occurring at the time of the crash.

Still, we have to temper all this analysis with some caution. There is some concerns about the assumptions regarding these numbers. Perhaps there were other factors that made these three books gain popularity besides just having high-quality writing. Also, these books never came close to being the best sellers for the month – does this mean most comic readers are not interested in quality books? Or is “well-written” too vague and undefinable, and the market sales actually reflect a broader sense of quality as defined by the masses? Are Preacher, Starman, and Bone even well written books? These are much harder questions to answer with analytics, so at this point the best we can say is that there is some evidence to support the idea that the quality of writing may have gone down during this time, and that such a change could have been a cause, or at least a contributing factor, for the collapse of the industry.

Conclusion

In researching this aspect of the crash, I was actually surprised to find such a quantifiable potential correlation between quality of comics and the crash. I personally felt that the writing during this time on popular titles had diminished and was THE reason I stopped collecting new comics at this time (instead I began buying bronze and late silver age back issues.) However, I came into this article believing that the crash itself was mostly affected by other factors; the data I presented here, though preliminary, has opened the door a bit more for me to consider that it might have played a stronger role than I had been giving it credit for. In my mind, there’s a high probability that the decrease in quality writing was an effect of many of the other factors of the crash and not a chief instigation, but that remains to be seen.

Ideally, a larger sample group of well-written comics would be utilized with better (more reliable and consistent) reporting of sales in order to verify the findings here. A generally agreed upon list of which comics were well-written would be useful as would an algorithm for converting sales to retailers into sales to customers, so we can evaluate the end consumer’s position in all this. A comparison of how well-written comics affected the market pre-1990s would also help. Unfortunately, gathering all that is easier said than done. Reporting of sales before 1995 is largely a matter of guesswork now; even the mid-90s information is hampered by incomplete and inconsistent reports. Collectors are unlikely to ever agree on what constitutes a quality comic and finding a consistently well-written books that spans several years and did not succumb to reboots, gimmick covers, and other factors is close to impossible.

Still with the figures we have we should be able to draw some correlation to the 1990s and today's market. We can look at the last two years of several acclaimed series currently being published and see if they have similar results, which we will do after the next several articles which continue to examine suspected causes of the crash.

In the next article I’ll be specifically looking at what impact the industry’s growth of the 80s and the greed of a number of parties (not just publishers) had on the decline of the comic hobby. Please remember to vote if you found this article interesting. See you next time.

3 comments

  • That is a lot of information to take in and I think you may need to interview a couple of shop owners to get the perspective of someone who owned a shop during this time to get a better grasp on what exactly caused the crash, but it is definitely a interesting article and I look forward to the other parts. In the first example you use the same issue number for Batman for 1995 and 1997.

  • Great article. And it got me thinking about another potential cause to the overall drop in comic collecting/readership… the shift in collecting from comics to action figures. It was around this time that ToyBiz expanded its marvel toy line and 1995 saw the beginning of the “new” Star Wars Power of the Force line. I bring up toys as I noticed that my collecting dollars also shifted during this time. Attending smaller comic book shows in the DC/MD/VA area I noticed more and more dealers were selling “hot” toys versus comic book dealers. Chase figures (1 per case) were the equivalent of the 1:50 ratio variant. Enter expanded toy lines (Spider-Man and X-Men) that brought out obscure characters (Starjammers Raza – what kid actually wanted this) creating a challenge for completionists. Then we have the Star Wars line that added fuel to the toy collecting craze and most likely contributed to the success of 1997 theatrical re-release and the catalyst for the prequel trilogy. Food for thought.

    Obviously the toy market has corrected itself somewhat and we see more quality and variety but in smaller quantities (try finding some of the Spawn releases between 2002-2010, tough). I think this is where the comic market, in general, is today. Again, great article and look forward to the next installments.

  • Excellent article Ben C. I remember going to my LCS in the 90s and seeing all of the gimmicky books e.g. me buying 2 copies of Aria #1 from 1999 because they had 2 covers (cover B was a Michael Turner variant). This book in fact had 6 different variants for an Image book!

    I also started moving towards buying Silver age books.

    Looking forward to your next article! Keep up the amazing work.

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