I've been thinking a lot about comics, recently. That's the addiction, you see. Like nicotine it burrows into your brain, rewires it, sits back and waits for you to make all the wrong moves. I also can't help but see the irony that I have had comics sales on the brain; if a song can earworm, then comics sales have been my brain-worm and the irony is that it is almost 21 years to the day since X-Men #1 came out and any of you who waded through all the minutiae of the first part of My Monthly Curse will know just how important I view that comic and why I still believe that future history will probably look back at October 1991 and say, "That was when it started to wither and die."
What has prompted this dip back into my bête noire hasn't actually been anything to do with comics, but actually an article I read in one of our Sunday papers - The Observer - about the decline and fall of the newspaper industry. It backed up my belief that in 25 years time there probably will be as much demand for a printed newspaper as there is for vinyl records. Printed newspapers will become a niche market - a bit like the US comic book industry. ABC figures suggest there's been a drop of nearly 50% in readers in the last 25 years and when you consider that it is estimated that less than a third of the population would read a newspaper in those days, that means, with natural wastage, etc., that less than 1/8th of the population pick up a daily paper now (and that doesn't just mean the national press).
Take one of the UK's most popular comics, Viz and examine it's sales. [In many ways I don't know why I didn't focus more on this comedy comic in the main bulk of the book, but...] Viz began modestly, the first issue from 1979 only had a 'print' run of 150. By the early 80s it was up to 5,000 and had become a cult success. By 1989 its worldwide sales (99% of which were in the UK) was in excess of 1,000,000 - a phenomenal rise, but by 2001, as the Internet and computer technology steam rolled across the world, sales were down to less than 200,000. In 2009 they were down to less than 80,000 and unofficial figures suggest that sales in 2012 are below 50,000. Even the most optimistic fellow would have to agree that this sales trend doesn't look like it's going to reverse itself. Viz by some of its contributors own admissions could cease to exist by 2015, or become what it was before it was sold to Virgin Books and then ultimately to John Brown Publishing, a cult magazine with a small but select audience, or as we used to call it in the 70s - a stripzine. Viz is also not your conventional comic with probably 95% of its readers never looking at (or even being aware of) a 'mainstream' superhero comic.
Someone I work with bought the Kindle version of the book and has been talking to me about the 1990s and how he couldn't understand the incentive to run a comic shop if the odds were so firmly stacked against you. The truth is it looks like it was easier to run a comic shop in the 1990s compared to now; for starters you had some comics which 'sold' easily in excess of 100,000 copies, which given the split should have, at least, given lots of retailers some turnover. But, there are comics that 'sell' over 100,000 in 2012, so surely it has to be much healthier, especially as most comics cost a gold ingot or a small mortgage now? Well, for starters there were more books selling in excess of 100,000 copies (some even got into the millions, but we know what happened after that) and there were a lot more titles selling between 40-99,000. 38 titles sold more than 40,000 copies in March 2012, but in March 2000 (when I was still producing Comics Economics for Comics International), 92 of the top 100 were selling more than 40k. In 1991, the top 142 comics sold more than 40k - that's 102 less comics in 21 years (which unfortunately is a pretty meaningless fact, but looks like it backs my argument up).
In other words there has been nothing to disprove my theory of diminishing returns and arguably had superhero films not sparked the imagination of cinema going crowds in recent years, the sales might be considerably less. The smart arses, clever clogs and blindly defensive amongst you will scream at me about trade paperbacks and how they are the future and I'm, yet again, an anachronism who is talking the 1990s in the second decade of the 21st century. But are trade paperback sales that good? A friend of mine who has co-created a reasonably successful comic that has been collected told me a few very interesting facts. For a start we tend to think Amazon is now the big seller and if you see a book at the top of an Amazon chart then you take it for granted it's sold a shed load. No; my friend's first trade paperback got to the top of its specific Amazon chart on the basis of selling just over 50 copies. The total sales for the book with Amazon have been somewhere in the region of 2000, the overall sales was around 8,000 and while that made everyone money, it hardly made anyone a millionaire - it barely paid a year's mortgage payments. Donald Trump or Alan Sugar would not be viewing the comic trade paperback market as a growth market.
The trade paperback market is actually just the same as the comic book market and those who don't believe me are obviously wilfully ignorant - it's the same product in a different package; therefore practically the same audience is being targeted. There is little or no evidence that more than a handful of trade paperback sales go to people who aren't already comic fans. When asked for a guess, my friend suggested that possibly half of the 2000 Amazon sales might be from people who were unabashed comic fans, half of the rest were probably comics fans trying something new, half of the remainder would be casual comics buyers, half of those that were left were probably at some point in their lives comic fans, which would leave about 125, or roughly 6% of sales, being bought by Joe Public, and frankly I think that's optimistic, because any company claiming 6% of their sales from people who don't fall into any demographic they abide by has to be seen as a good thing. But... this isn't a multi-million dollar business any longer. It is smaller now than it has ever been and the profit margins get smaller every year.
People will argue that a trade paperback produced in the right way could make the creators/publishers a lot of money from selling very few copies; oddly enough, I hear this argument but I never actually see any evidence to back it up, while I have seen the comics industry contract continuously. I know a few young people who read comics; they spend maybe £10 a month; that's four new comics, possibly five if they're lucky. For £1 in 1976 I could buy 14 comics and have enough money left for some sweets. Yes, I know, times change, inflation, cost of living, manufacturing costs, etc., but if comics want to survive surely the best way is to make them cheap enough for more kids to buy them - if, that is, they want the print genre to remain. So like I blame Margaret Thatcher for the mess Britain is in today, I blame X-Men #1 for where the comics industry is now. It hasn't escaped me that the X-Men are no longer guaranteed to be the top seller. If you'd've said to Marvel execs in 1991 that by 2012 the X-Men would be selling 65,000 copies, he probably would have looked at you like you were a fool (he might even have called you one, they were wild and crazy those Marvel execs).
I'm betting Jim Lee will never see another million dollar pay day from a comic, even if he returned to the X-Men with Chris Claremont and resurrected a zombie Jack Kirby to draw the covers. I'm pretty convinced you'd have to be a very frugal and resourceful person to be able to live really well from comic book work alone and even if there are 200 writers and artists out there who are, 20 years ago there was 1000 and ironically 20 years before that probably less than 100 (because most artists had to supplement their income in some other way and were treated like shit by the publishers).
I would like to see the comic book stay and it will because nostalgia tends to be a powerful thing. Until we banish paper someone will be banging out pamphlets in one form or another and maybe that should be where comics go; at least there would be love behind the staples and a passion between the panels.
So Happy 21st (New) X-Men #1; I'm amazed so many years have passed since then and I'm still talking about you.