Comic Book Publishing - The Status Quo

Written by Martin Shapiro on Wednesday, 07 November 2012. Posted in Publishing

For the last 25 years, the competitive environment of the American comic book industry as remained essentially the same. Two publishers, Marvel Comics and DC Comics, continue to dominate the playing field. These giants control roughly 70% of the market share. They have been around for decades and have the most widely known characters. Marvel owns Spider-Man and The Avengers. DC has Batman and Superman.

DC Comics versus Marvel Comics

DC Comics is the oldest company, with a continuous publishing history that spans over 60 years. They are one of the industry's most prolific publishers, producing more than 80 titles every month and close to 1000 books per year. DC owns and operates several other distinct publisher labels. Vertigo is their mature readers line, devoted to more literary themes and subject matter that does not fit in with the traditional superhero comics DC is famous for.

Marvel has a proprietary library of over 5000 characters. Marvel now generates over 80% of its income from licensing its characters for use in a wide variety of products and media, including movies, TV shows, video games, toys, and clothing. They use comic book publishing as a foundation to support consumer awareness of the Marvel brand. Like DC Comics, their strategy is centered around superheroes and kid-friendly content. Marvel is now owned by Disney.

Established publishers like Marvel and DC are primarily interested in grooming and promoting their existing bread and butter superhero brands, with their profits now mainly coming from movie and licensing deals. For decades, nobody has seriously challenged Marvel and DC’s market supremacy. These companies generate millions in revenue, but they remain stuck in the proverbial “comfort zone.” They have so much invested in their well-oiled business model that they are reluctant to initiate the deep change needed to expand their product lines beyond superhero properties. In reaction to the Japanese manga phenomenon, they have made only minimal changes that barely touch their traditional business culture.

Second-tier publishers such as Dark Horse, IDW and Image have carved out a strong presence and although they make up a relatively small slice of the market, they are continuing to grow and become a greater part of the landscape. These companies have helped push the boundaries of comic book content. They don’t offer as many titles as Marvel or DC, but they have managed to survive and thrive in their respective market niches.

Dark Horse has seen a lot of success in creating comics based on popular movie and TV properties like Star Wars and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Image first became famous back in the mid 90's when seven top artists broke away from Marvel to launch their own creator-owned line, meaning the creators would own the rights to the characters they created. These new comic book series included Spawn, Savage Dragon, Youngblood, and Witchblade, among others. The move was hyped by the media and the first comics they published outsold many Marvel and DC titles. Lately, Image has continued to prosper, bringing new artistic talent into the limelight.

Many small publishers have come and gone over the years. Most of these companies are owned by the artists and writers who create the comic books. They are attracted to self-publishing because it affords them much greater creative control over the stories and characters than when they work for the big companies on corporate-owned properties. Independent creators like Harvey Pekar, Jeff Smith, and Alan Moore have all found success at different levels with self-publishing.

Foreign Publishers

Starting in 2002, two Japanese manga publishers, Viz and TokyoPop, took the American comics market by storm. While American publishers were focused on their own little kingdoms, Viz and TokyoPop snuck in and quickly took over the bookstore market, pulled in a new audience from thin air, and became the top publishers in total dollar sales. TokyoPop popularized an entirely new format and $9.99 price point that bookstores learned to love.

Comic Book Distribution and Marketing

There are two primary retail channels of distribution for comic books in North America -- comic book specialty shops and bookstores.

For over 40 years, the newsstand was the primary retail outlet for comic books, which were distributed and displayed in much the same way as magazines. That all changed in the mid-1970s when comic book shops began to spring up throughout the country and eventually replaced the newsstand as the chief place to buy monthly comics. These comic book shops, known as the “direct market,” now account for about 90% of the industry’s sales. Today, newsstands in convenience stores and drugstores generally no longer carry comic books. Many feel that taking comic books away from the exposure of mainstream locations and into specialty shops has hurt the comics industry as a whole by not encouraging new readers.

Diamond Comic Distributors is the nation’s largest wholesaler of comic books. Every month, publishers provide Diamond with a list of titles they want to solicit to stores. The solicitation includes information such as the names of the artists, a description of the story, the expected release date, and the cover art. Diamond then combines this information with all the other publisher submissions into a big catalog called Previews, which is mailed out every month to all the retail comic shops. From this catalog, each retailer pre-orders the quantity of new books that they believe they will be able to sell to customers.

About the Author

Martin Shapiro

Martin Shapiro

Martin Shapiro created the horror comic book series Chopper, and sold the movie rights to it. The prequel to Chopper was produced as a web TV series starring Tyler Mane (Halloween, X-Men). Mr. Shapiro’s action-thriller screenplay Lair of the Fox was optioned by Ilya Salkind (Producer of Superman). Mr. Shapiro has written and developed projects for MGM, HBO and numerous production companies including an adaptation of Dragonlance, the New York Times bestselling series of fantasy novels with sales of 22 million copies. He received a Master’s Degree in Screenwriting from UCLA and now teaches classes at New Hampshire School of Film and Television.

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