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The secret to the record-breaking success of The Walking Dead

The second best-selling issue of The Walking Dead in 2012

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.

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5 Comments

You hear that Big 2?
You’re guaranteed to make money from marketing stunts and endless events because of a built-in audience. But to have real, lasting appeal takes something more than cheap tricks.

It’s quality art and quality storytelling from quality creators being treated well that’ll truly rake it in.
Of course, marketing to Everyone never hurt anyone too.

Stunts are what drove me away…spider-man 700

Hey, Stitch and warren: quit picking on the Big Two, the guys, who started the whole industry.
I swear, it’s like nobody’s likes Marvel or DC nowadays, despite the fact that there is a reason that their comics lasted as long as they did.
Hey, everybody, I like Walking Dead, and I’m glad for its success, but this whole fan war against Marvel and DC has to end, cause nobody likes it.

To think that Kirkman hasn’t used stunts, events, or cheap tricks to promote and sell The Walking Dead, or any of his other titles is ignorant and moronic in the extreme. How many variant issues did he put out for 100? And the ongoing, “who’s going to be killed in the most brutal way imaginable?” story beats are just as gratuitous as anything Marvel or DC has put out. Kirkman is today’s Stan Lee, as much so as Mark Millar is.

I can admit this and still be a Walking Dead, Marvel, and DC fan too.

I completely agree AC. But I’d go as far to say, this is far more of a lesson for the independents & TV producers to follow. While at the same time I think some ideas are worth noting for the big 2 to consider as they make there TV series. Because, Rick’s character arch is no less that of a superhero. A superhero in the meanest world imaginable and this world his costume is that of a deputy sheriff in a world of killers and the dead. If anything the “big 2″ should consider about this series I hope it’s Rick’s character arch warts and all.

I’d would also add that the walking dead success is not particularly unique contrary to this article; the Japanese built an entire industry on the same business model as this production is seems to emulate. They’d produce or contract an ongoing Manga, produce a TV show that follows the plot tightly and if the producers did their jobs right the show is a success than both the ratings and Manga sales will skyrockets. They’ve been doing this since long before we were born. What is dumb is that it’s taken this long for a US company to duplicate this very successful business model. However, I’m willing to guess AMC never even considered the 70 – 80+ years of success their “experiment” has had in Japan.

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