Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Vertigo and WildStorm Month-to-Month Sales: The Long View

DC’s Vertigo and WildStorm imprints have been through tumultuous times. While WildStorm closed its doors in 2010, Vertigo just saw another round of cancellations and new title launches. Time to take a closer look at the long-term performance of both publishing labels.

Vertigo was established in 1993 as an outlet for darker, more mature, partly creator-owned stories at DC Comics, as created by British writers like Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison. The imprint has since published such signature titles as Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and The Invisibles, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan, Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man and Bill Willingham’s Fables, among many others—all of which were first serialized as 20-page comic books before being collected in bookshelf editions.

Through the 2000s, though, Vertigo’s business model has been increasingly put to the test.

WildStorm, on the other hand, was created by comics artist Jim Lee in 1992 as one of several studios comprising the burgeoning Image Comics imprint. Published through Malibu Comics at first, Image soon became its own publishing house, and WildStorm one of its most popular studios, thanks to Lee’s artwork. In the late 1990s, WildStorm attracted writers Alan Moore and Warren Ellis, who revamped its flagship titles WildC.A.T.s and StormWatch, and established successful sub-imprints Homage Comics and Cliffhanger!, which published creator-owned titles like Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, James Robinson and Paul Smith’s Leave It to Chance and Joe Madureira’s Battle Chasers.

In 1998, Lee left Image Comics and sold WildStorm to DC Comics. For the first five years, WildStorm continued to prosper with projects like Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics line (including The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Tom Strong and Top 10, among others) and a new wave of cutting-edge superhero titles like Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s (and later Mark Millar and Frank Quitely’s) The Authority, Ellis and John Cassaday’s Planetary, Joe Casey’s Wildcats and Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Sleeper, to name but a few, which exerted a lasting influence on Marvel and DC’s mainstream superhero oeuvre.

By 2004, however, most of these groundbreaking creators had left WildStorm, and the imprint’s attitude—despite occasional gems like Astro City, Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ Ex Machina or Brett Lewis and John Paul Leon’s The Winter Men—turned increasingly conservative and, ultimately, redundant in a market already overcrowded by conservative superhero titles. A few fruitless fits and starts later, WildStorm finally closed its doors in December 2010, at which point it had mostly become an outlet for faceless licensed comics adapted from television or video-game properties.

With the history brief out of the way, let’s look at some long-term month-to-month graphs for both Vertigo and WildStorm, based on the first-month comic-book sales estimates provided by ICv2.com, which, in turn, are based on the chart and index information provided by comics distributor Diamond. (Please click on the graphs to enlarge them.)

Starting with the same graph we ended on yesterday, the number of new Vertigo and WildStorm titles has been fairly consistent since 2003 (other than the fact that WildStorm stopped existing in December 2010, I mean). Both imprints have mostly tended to publish between 10 and 20 new comic-book releases per month.

The largest number of Vertigo titles, to date, came out in October 2010 (20) and in March 2010 (19), whereas November (6) and October 2003 (7) were the slowest months. At WildStorm, the busiest months were October 2003 (20 new titles) and September 2010 (18), while March, April and September 2004 tie for the smallest number of new releases (6 each).

In terms of average sales, a clear decline is visible for both imprints. Average Vertigo numbers used to revolve around the 15,000-unit mark from 2003 through 2006, but permanently dropped below that number after October 2006. They proceeded to decline for the subsequent year, as Y: The Last Man—then in its final storyline—no longer came out monthly and Fables spin-off Jack of Fables dipped below 20K.

Y: The Last Man concluded in January 2008, and Vertigo has yet to find a replacement, in terms of sales. Subsequent Vertigo launches have rarely managed to stay above 15,000 units for more than a few issues (one exception being American Vampire, which ran for more than 20 issues before falling, a few months ago, below the 15K mark), and as of April 2010, even sales stalwart Fables permanently dipped below 20,000 units, apart from issue #100 in December 2010.

Since October 2007, Vertigo’s average periodical sales have been more or less steady, although the trend has been less than promising. In February 2010, average Vertigo sales dipped below 10,000 units for the first time, and they’ve done so six more times since.

For WildStorm, meanwhile, the decline is more pronounced. From March 2003 through January 2005, average WildStorm sales stayed above 15,000 units with one exception (January 2004, with average sales of 14,234) and even cracked the 20,000-unit mark five times.

From February 2005 through December 2007, average WildStorm sales frequently dropped below the 15K mark, however, and only cracked 20,000 copies one more time—with the highly publicized relaunch of the WildStorm Universe line spearheaded by Grant Morrison and Jim Lee in October 2006, which led the average figure to soar to an estimated 25,747 units. It’s a record month for WildStorm.

That relaunch was abandoned by its flagship creators before the first issue even came out, however (Wildcats #1, by Morrison and Lee, was six weeks late; we’re still waiting for #2), and retailers responded accordingly. In late 2007, the average number rose above 15K again for two months thanks to a last-ditch WildStorm Universe crossover, but it dropped below that mark again immediately and never recovered.

Less than a year later, in December 2008, average WildStorm sales dropped permanently below 10,000 units and then proceeded to die a slow and tedious death in the two subsequent years. In the imprint’s final month, December 2010, average WildStorm sales dipped below 5,000 units—the lowest point in its 20-year history.

Viewed over the last three years, Vertigo’s high points in terms of average sales were May 2009, with an estimated 12,918 units, and March 2012, with 12,688. In May 2009, the spike was due to the first issue of Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ The Unwritten, which was promoted with a $1.00 cover price, and three issues’ worth of “The Great Fables Crossover,” a crossover (duh) that involved Fables, Jack of Fables and the three-part spin-off miniseries The Literals.

In March 2012, the increase came as a result of various new series launches, including Saucer Country, The New Deadwardians, Dominique Laveau and, chiefly as far as better-than-average sales are concerned, Fairest, yet another title spinning out of Bill Willingham’s Fables. (In April 2012, average Vertigo sales dropped below the 12K mark again, but remain several hundred units higher than usual, at least.)

Those two high points aside, it’s been the worst period yet for Vertigo’s average sales, with, as mentioned earlier, seven months below the 10K mark from 2010 through 2012.

WildStorm, meanwhile, published a total of 14 periodicals in its last 12 months that managed to crack 10,000 units. Three of them were the final issues of Ex Machina, six more were the two most recent Astro City miniseries; in WildStorm’s three final months, once both of these projects had concluded, the imprint had no more 10K+ titles to publish.

Planetary #27, the long-awaited conclusion to Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s story, which came out in October 2009 and sold an estimated 31,691 units, was WildStorm’s final comic book with first-month sales above 20,000 units.

As the long-term chart shows, WildStorm dollar sales used to be well ahead of Vertigo’s for a while, as far as periodicals were concerned. Then 2004 happened, and after March 2009, Vertigo permanently overtook WildStorm.

For the first year covered by these charts, March 2003 through March 2004, there was an abundance of relatively high-selling WildStorm books: various Thundercats (really) and Robotech (swear to god) titles, as well as Kurt Busiek’s Astro City and Arrowsmith, Alan Moore’s Terra Obscura, Smax and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, plus titles like The Authority, Planetary and Danger Girl regularly cracked 20 or even 30K (or close to 60, in the case of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), and there were many other WildStorm titles above 15,000 units, as well.

Through 2004, those types of books became less frequent, however, and even the ones that still existed, like some licensed titles or the post-Millar/Quitely version of The Authority, quickly proceeded to decline in sales.

That big red spike on the chart, which occurred in October 2006 and represents a record $1.3 million sales for WildStorm in the period covered by these data, is due to the relaunch of the WildStorm Universe line led by Morrison and Lee.

May 2007 was the last month in which WildStorm shifted more than $500,000; its low point came in February 2010, with dollar sales well below the $200,000 mark.

Vertigo dollar sales have mostly been in the area between 400 and 600K for the last nine years, although there have been frequent dips below the $400,000 mark since 2008.

Vertigo’s all-time high point in terms of dollar sales was March 2010, thanks to 19 new Vertigo periodicals being on sale that month—the second-highest number of new comic-book releases since March 2003. (The fact that one of them was American Vampire #1, with a story by Stephen King, did not hurt.) The low point, with $298K, was November 2003, with only six new issues on sale.

For total unit sales, the picture is similar, as you will not be surprised to hear. At Vertigo, they have ranged from 220,000 (August 2004, 12 new issues) to 90,000 (January 2012, nine new issues). At WildStorm, from 438,000 (October 2006, 20 new issues) to 51,000 (February 2010, 16 new issues).

In both cases, the spikes and dips broadly echo those of the average and dollar sales graphs, give or take a few releases more or less in any given month.

While it’s easy to pin WildStorm’s failure on a bunch of comics by Grant Morrison and Jim Lee that were promised but failed to materialize, the real blow occurred much earlier; by 2006, creators like Moore, Millar, Quitely, Ellis, Brubaker or Casey, whose approaches to the genre had been crucial to WildStorm as a brand since the late 1990s, had long packed up and taken their talents elsewhere, and titles like Astro City or Ex Machina only came out sporadically anymore and were exceptions rather than the rule.

WildStorm’s failure to accommodate Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys, which launched in August 2006 and then moved to Dynamite Entertainment after six issues because of “creative differences,” really says more about the imprint’s shortcomings than the mismanaged WildStorm Universe relaunch that was going on at the same time.

The Boys was the type of creator-driven book that had established WildStorm as a place to watch, once upon a time—and, more importantly: It sold well. The fact that WildStorm was no longer right for a book like The Boys suggested that maybe WildStorm had outlived its usefulness to the comics market. The subsequent sales charts show as much.

As far as Vertigo is concerned, there’s cause for concern on the imprint’s long-term prospects as a publisher of periodical comic books. Its two best-selling franchises right now are Fables and American Vampire, and neither of them has the draw it used to, in terms of single-issue sales.

And other than that, there’s not much that sells at all. The list of established, critically acclaimed creators who are struggling or failing to crack 10,000 units at Vertigo includes Jeff Lemire, Michael Allred, Peter Milligan, Mike Carey and Paul Cornell. Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, who used to have great critical and some commercial success with 100 Bullets at Vertigo, are down at 13K with their latest project.

And Brian Wood, a Vertigo stalwart for the last six years, just saw his last series cancelled due to low sales; he’s publishing his new projects through Dark Horse and Image, who evidently offered him better deals than Vertigo does, at this stage.

The notion that Vertigo does not need periodical sales to function is popular, but not quite accurate. It’s true that Vertigo has an impressive backlist of perennial sellers like The Sandman, V for Vendetta, Y: The Last Man and several others, collected editions of which serve as the imprint’s backbone.

Vertigo’s current ongoing comic-book series mostly rely on a very fragile combination of comic-book and collection sales to remain in publication, though. There have been titles that, at least in theory, probably could have been supported through collection sales alone, such as Y: The Last Man or Fables. But those tend to be the ones already doing well as comic books. So the suggestion that comic-book sales don’t matter to Vertigo is a big misconception; they very much do. (See here for a closer inspection of Vertigo bookshelf sales from 2007. Things looked better then for the imprint, but the basic conclusions still hold true five years on, as far as I can tell.)

Vertigo’s backlist is probably too strong for them to be in any sort of trouble as a publisher, and some of their newer paperback collections and graphic novels still seem to be doing well. As far as traditional, periodical comic-book series are concerned, though, things have been looking increasingly bleak for the imprint. If WildStorm’s fate is any indication, we can’t be sure anymore if Vertigo series in 20-page comic-book form will still exist, a couple of years down the road.

1 comment:

Arion said...

Excellent article, although I must say now I'm a bit depressed. Low sales seem to be the one constant in the comics industry.