The secret to the record-breaking success of The Walking Dead
Diamond Comic Distributors this week released its lists of the bestselling comics and graphic novels of 2012, and ahead of all the expected big titles from Marvel and DC was The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn. While the splashy headline is that The Walking Dead‘s 100th issue is the bestselling comic of the year — possibly of the past 15 years — what makes the achievement so remarkable is that the success is so thorough and consistent.
Not only did The Walking Dead top both the comic and the graphic novel lists, but nearly every conceivably qualifying product with the words The, Walking and Dead appears significantly high on both direct-market charts. Nine issues of the comic book are in the Top 300. In additional, all 17 volumes of the softcover trade paperback are among the Top 30 graphic novels, with Volume 1 claiming the top spot for the third year in a row. But wait, there’s more: Both oversized Compendiums, all eight hardcover collections and The Walking Dead Survivor’s Guide all appear elsewhere on the graphic novel chart. These are all remarkable achievements for an indie comic, and in many ways has primed the direct market for the success of Saga, Chew, Fatale and other titles that didn’t come from established franchises.
Perhaps most noteworthy is that this isn’t just one issue, with a sales spike that reverts back immediately once the special month is over. The Walking Dead rode a wave of excitement over the television series and the comic series nearly all year long. Yes, the 100th issue had 16 variant covers, which obviously helped to push the orders over the threshold. However, the three issues before and after it had just one variant each, and issues 104 and 105 didn’t have any variant covers at all — and they all made the Top 300 as well. Four other issues of The Walking Dead published in early 2012 (one issue with two variant covers) didn’t make the lists.
What’s interesting is the issues that didn’t make it are from an earlier story arc. All of the issues that ranked on the bestseller list are part of the “Something to Fear” storyline and the first three issues of the next (and current) storyline “New World Order.” That indicates that, in large part, sales are actually being driven by story, not just by covers or collectibility. That’s an important distinction. Unlike the previous bestselling comics record holders like The Amazing Spider-Man #583 and The Darkness #11, sales aren’t being driven by a stunt like an appearance by Barack Obama or the most variant covers ever. They’re being driven by the quality and content of the stories and their characters. Readers are emotionally attached, and that is a guaranteed way to achieve long-term sales across an entire property.
Of course, making an exciting story with excellent art that has mass appeal and somehow captures a cultural zeitgeist is a lot easier to recommend than to do. But it’s a reminder that it’s the work of the creators that brings success. Marketing stunts can help bring attention to their work, but if it’s not there, the sales will vanish as fast as they appeared.