Superheroes smash digital sales records

The comic book industry is seeing an upswing in both print and digital sales figures despite illegal downloading, sources say.
Unlike the music and film industries, the comic book industry is seeing an upswing in both print and digital sales figures despite illegal downloading, sources say. (Courtesy Marvel Entertainment)

Seems some superheroes are faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than the music industry.

According to both industry sources and retailers on the ground, comic shops are managing what has so far eluded most music chains and film studios — flourishing in the golden age of piracy. While other industries have struggled to find a model that curbs illegal downloading and keeps stores open, the comic industry is reportedly bucking that trend with strong sales in both the print and digital media.

Industry heavyweights DC Comics and Marvel Entertainment won't release specific financial data related to digital downloads — but Hank Kanalz, senior vice president of digital at DC told CBC Hamilton that the company is "extremely happy" with the growth of its digital business. "We saw triple digit growth for digital in 2012," he said.

Marvel has been seeing positive sales figures, too.

"An interesting thing happened last year," said David Gabriel, the senior vice-president of sales, print and digital media at Marvel.

"Not only did we see a huge increase in digital comics sales, we saw a significant lift in print comic sales — neither format is hurting the other. We've heard a lot of retailers tell us that digital comics sales are bringing new and lapsed fans into their stores, which is great to hear."

Events and blockbusters driving traffic

According to Paul Barrington, the manager of Hamilton's Conspiracy Comics, sales in his shops have been on the rise since 2009. He attributes that jump to two things: "event comics" and blockbuster movie releases that feature comic book properties.

"It's bringing a lot of people we usually wouldn't have seen into the store," he said.

It's easy to see why — Marvel's The Avengers netted a staggering domestic gross of $623,357,910 in 2012, good enough to make it the third highest grossing film of all time.

Not to be outdone, the third installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise The Dark Knight Rises had a domestic gross of $448,139,099. It is, however, worth noting that Tim Burton's Batman film from 1989 actually sold more tickets than the caped crusader's most recent outing — but at the time, a movie ticket cost just under $4. AMC's The Walking Dead television series has done a lot to bring new fans into comic shops as well, Barrington said.

"Event comics," meanwhile, are large-scale crossovers that typically affect multiple titles, like DC's recent "Death of the Family" arc. Those stories also typically drive people into comic shops, Barrington said.

"They want that 'thing' where Robin dies," he said. (The most current iteration of Robin, Bruce Wayne's son Damian, died in Batman and Robin number eight.)

This isn't to say retailers don't watch digital comic's success with a watchful eye; they certainly do.

"I'm not going to lie — it's obviously a worry," Barrington said. A cursory glance at any torrent site yields thousands of illegal comic downloads, but legitimate comic apps for tablets and phones are seeing a boom, too.

Oops, we broke the internet

Case in point — on Sunday, Marvel and the ComiXology digital comics service revealed they were offering 700 free digital comics from the publisher for a limited time.

But neither company was prepared for a massive onslaught of interest from the public, and the ComiXology website and many of its apps suffered outages because so many people tried to download the free books. Retailers do worry about that kind of mass response causing a dip in their sales, Barrington said, "but so far, we're not seeing it."

When DC first announced same-day digital releases with the launch of the company's "New 52" line, retailers did express some concern, Kanalz said.

"Since that launch both print and digital sales have risen so retailers are more comfortable with digital," Kanalz said. "We've also seen that digital brings new and lapsed readers to comics, so it's additive to the overall industry. We are really interested in widening our readership, as that's good for everybody."

That widening readership can be seen over at Hamilton's Big B comics too, according to sales associate Sam Rush.

"The comics industry is really strong right now," he said, adding that the tangible aspect that a book offers helps drive fans into stores. "People still like collecting something. I know people who have storage lockers full of comics. Comic collectors are totally hoarders."

'Do it for love, not the money'

But Rush does have one worry about this comic industry surge — that it could go the way of the mid '90s comic book boom. In the '90s, fans flocked to comic shops after the success of the first two Batman films and the success of major events like the Death of Superman, which received widespread media attention.

Publishers responded with "ultra-collectible" versions of their books, many with trading card inserts and embossed, gatefold covers. People bought them at an astounding rate — X-Men #1 from 1991 sold over 8 million copies, and holds the Guinness World Record as the bestselling comic book of all time.

But many people bought multiple copies of these books purely for their collectability, hoping to turn a profit as they appreciated in volume. Instead, the industry couldn't sustain itself, and it sputtered before collapsing.

Now that things are on the upswing, collectible variants have started popping up once more, "and I'm worried we're heading into a '90s position where the industry could bust again," Rush said.

But the difference between then and now, he said, is quality. Barrington agrees, and said initiatives like DC's New 52 revamp, Marvel's Now! Initiative and Image Comics' 20th anniversary have put out better quality comics than the industry has seen in years.

And so the best advice from a retailer to the consumer:

"Just buy them for the love of the comics, the story, and the art," Rush said.

"Not for the money."