Brainiac On Banjo #027: Comic Book Economics

Dan DiDio

Somebody noticed the comic book racks are overcrowded… and that somebody is Dan DiDio, co-publisher, DC Comics. I gather Dan’s deductive skills were sharpened by his decades of comic book collecting.

Well, he’s the right man for the job. Just about each month for the better part of a half-century the Diamond Distributors catalog, the one that terrorizes your friendly neighborhood comic book store owner who must bet the rent on his or her non-returnable orders, has grown like Stumbo on steroids to its present size and weight, rivaling the Manhattan phone book in water displacement.

I had an interesting conversation with DC’s then-president Sol Harrison way back in the day. Around that time – I’m using September 1977 as my reference point (source: The Comic Reader) – 43 comics were published by Marvel, 35 comics were published by DC, 23 by Gold Key (Whitman), 11 by Archie Comics, 11 by Harvey Comics, three by Warren and about a pound or so of Charltons. There were no trade paperbacks or hardcovers, and we were a couple years shy of the so-called independent comics movement. Joe Kubert’s groundbreaking and sadly short-lived pro-zine Sojourn had just come out, if memory serves (for a change) Mike Friedrich was still doing Star*Reach, and a few underground comix were still coming out around then. So, I think it’s safe to say that approximately 135 comics were published in September 1977.

Sol had postulated that the racks were overcrowded, but a 10% cutback across the board would put things straight. Maybe so, but that didn’t happen until the following year when Warner Communications looked at DC’s sales figures for the first time in quite a while and imposed a substantial budget cut-back, cancelling both titles and jobs. During 1978 Marvel also cut their roster but they did so slowly over a longer period. Gold Key was in the process of abandoning the newsstands and was cutting back as well, and Harvey and Charlton sort of flickered in and out of existence around that time.

So, by the fall of 1978 we had a dramatic cut in comic book titles, with little evidence of significant increased profitability.

Last week Dan said some 400 comics are being published each month. In order to do an apples-to-apples comparison, I’m not including trade and hardcover reprints but nonetheless I think that number is somewhat higher, maybe a bit over 425 comics per month on average. DiDio was a bit vague on the number of cutbacks coming up; he said 10 – 15% but I’m uncertain if he’s referring to 10 – 15% more in the future or if that percentage includes their significant cuts in trades and hardcovers.

Sol Harrison and Friends

That’s fine in concept, but here is where the smart money is going: Marvel Comics will go Hydra on DC’s ass. With every DC cancellation, Marvel will add two in its place. This probably would have happened anyway, with all those movies and movie tie-ins in the pipeline. I suspect other publishers will look towards adding to their lines as well, even though history has yet to show that cutbacks from DC and/or Marvel inure to be benefit of the other outfits.

Historically, we have gone through this all this many times before. We haven’t seen cancellations promote significantly higher sales of remaining titles, certainly not on an enduring basis. What goes around… pretty much stays the same.

Will electronic publishing change the field? Maybe; thus far we’ve seen some real growth, but these sales figures are a well-kept secret. I hope this is adding to everybody’s bottom line, as the ever-shrinking number of comic book stores will not help keep the medium alive. Since back issue sales no longer provide an ordering incentive for retailers who had looked to such sales to rid themselves of overstock, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Which is still another reason why the brightest light bulb in years was the idea of expanding diversity in talent, in characters, and in concepts. Yeah, I’m proud to be a Social Justice Warrior and those fools who think the world is coming to an end because of increasing diversity should realize that after Little Lulu was shit-canned decades ago, we burned down Tubby’s clubhouse.

And you thought I wasn’t going to get political.