How Lee & Kirby's "Fantastic Four" Birthed the Marvel Universe, Part 1
Two to three years ago, it seemed inevitable: Single issue comic books, derisively called “floppies,” were on the way out. Graphic novels were the future for most publishers, and floppies weren’t even working as loss-leaders. But over the past year, the single issue is on the rebound and flourishing.
While I love graphic novels, the episodic consumption of comics is one of its unique strengths. Comics can excel in either form, but they aren’t interchangeable. Just as TV shows and movies present stories differently, so too do comic book series and original graphic novels. For a time, it seemed like The Walking Dead was the last great monthly comic book because it knew how to grab with the first issue, it knew how to use the monthly cliffhanger, it knew how to utilize those 30-some odd pages, it knew how to keep the status quo shifting. It still does, and now it’s being joined by more and more comics that are embracing the episodic nature of the format. It wasn’t always that way, though, in part due to creative patterns and economic changes in the industry.
In 2010, only an estimated 69 million comic books were ordered by North American specialty stores, the lowest quantity in nearly a decade. For publishers not backed by large entertainment corporations (i.e., not Marvel and DC), single issues were starting to look like the next horse and buggy, something from a soon-to-be bygone era.
To some extent, this was foreshadowed in the aughts when the “writing for the trade” criticism was first coined. As outlined at Publishers Weekly, the success of manga in the book market resulted in unprecedented graphic novel sections in bookstores. Suddenly publishers like DC, Dark Horse and Marvel had a new revenue stream and saw big growth potential. Creators wisely took advantage of this new audience, but sometimes to the detriment of the perceived entertainment value of individual issues that formed the collected editions sold in Barnes & Noble and Borders.
The shift away from single issues occurred in other areas, too. Revered series like Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library, Seth’s Palookaville and Los Bros Hernandez’s Love and Rockets all transitioned into forms more friendly to the book market, which was embracing graphic novels. Fondly remembered series like David Lapham’s Stray Bullets vanished years ago. Others, like Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve, are in some kind of limbo, with an issue suddenly appearing out of nowhere and then nothing again. A number of respected and acclaimed publishers like Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly, Archaia, and Top Shelf mostly abandoned publishing individual issues. Some newer publishers, like First Second Books, have released graphic novels exclusively from the outset.
Among this transition away from floppies, several “micro-publishers” started popping up to help revitalize them in the alt/indie scene. In 2011, Box Brown successfully raised more than $9,000 to launch Retrofit Comics, a publisher dedicated to releasing floppy alt-comics, and they still seem to be going strong. The all-ages comic Operation Pizza by Brown and Grand Gestures by Simon Moreton are about to be released, and a number of their previous releases have sold out. Hic & Hoc Publications, run by Mathew Moses, followed last year and will soon release the anthology, Hic & Hoc Illustrated Journal of Humor, which follows the more creepy Unknown Origins and Untimely Ends: A Collection of Unsolved Mysteries.
Meanwhile, two significant developments probably helped save the floppy: the demise of Borders and the rise of digital comics. In 2011, the struggling Borders finally filed for bankruptcy. By most accounts, manga publishers like Tokyopop were hit harder than most graphic novel publishers, but the loss of more than 1,000 retail locations amid an economic recession is bound to have an effect on the industry. Graphic novel and trade paperback sales in the direct market were down by an estimated $6 million that same year.
Around the same time, digital comics were coming into their own, and primarily focusing on the single issue. ComiXology’s summer 2010 launch of its web reader kicked off the momentum to significantly increase availability beyond access through mobile devices; the company surpassed 100 million downloads last October. Only a few months earlier, DC made the bold move of relaunching its entire line as the New 52 and syncing digital releases with print releases, accompanied by a massive marketing blitz focused squarely on floppies. Subsequent theme months, such as Zero Month and April’s gatefold covers continue to put the spotlight on the single issues. Marvel, which has never had as good of a book market presence as it should, echoed that strategy in print and digital with Marvel NOW. Releasing same-day digital, a controversial move a year ago, is now an industry standard across most publishers. There’s also the Free Comic Book Day factor, which gets bigger and bigger every year, and is almost entirely focused on floppies.
This renewed attention to the single issue in digital is helping shift back to the approach of making each floppy as satisfying as possible. This in turn results in sales going up on individual issues, which is exactly what they’ve done both in print and digital, even as graphic novels have recovered.
In 2012, more than 80 million comic books were ordered by North American specialty stores, compared to 2010’s 69 million. This year is on track to exceed that amount. The fact that publishers other than Marvel and DC are having comics crack Diamond’s Top 100 speaks volumes to me. For most of this year, there have been 10 or 11 comics from other comics in the Top 100. That means individual issues are getting people excited enough to compete with the established superhero icons. That’s a big deal, especially when you consider about half of them are original properties like Jupiter’s Legacy and East of West, not licensed comics. Other channels are starting to pick up on single issues as well. The Kindle has helped floppies start to compete with graphic novels at Amazon, if David Carter’s weekly Top 50 snapshot is any indication. OK, granted it’s almost entirely Injustice: Gods Among Us, but individual comic issues on Kindle and Nook are still very new, and that could help open up awareness. Plus there’s been a Batman and an Amazing Spider-Man here and there, so there is likely more not being captured below the Top 50.
The truth is that comics seem to be gradually and even steadily rising in all sectors, and comics have more ways to bring in money than ever before, from comic book stores to book stores to digital platforms to schools to libraries to conventions. The fear has always been that one will cannibalize one or more of the others. So far reality has debunked that theory, and it has shown that a format completely unique to comics considered endangered only two years ago can make a comeback.