Thursday, December 2, 2010

What's The Secret? part 2

In part one we looked at the fact that unlike every other comic book stands on the rack, Walking Dead not only beats attrition, but has been steadily growing in circulation.  It's done so because it's very good - in all the best ways.  The subject matter caught the nation's fancy, Kirkman's sense of character and drama are impeccable, and the issue beats fairly begged the reader to find the next issue.

These are all outstanding elements, but not enough to secure a growing fan base, oddly enough, and also not unique to Walking Dead.  We now look to an element that further separates this comic from the pack:


Consistency does not sound very sexy, but it is woefully absent from most comic book titles currently being published, and it works.

Don't misconstrue the global category of consistency as meaning "coming out on time", although that's a significant part of the equation.  To be fair, Walking Dead has an imperfect record with it's publishing schedule.  It has not come out on time every month.  But neither has it disappeared in Lindelofian fashion for extended periods, either.  It hasn't been perfect, but I don't know that anybody in the know would categorize Walking Dead as a "late book".

In fact the title has been reliable about most everything from its inception.  In order to grow in circulation, you have to begin by keeping the readers you have.  A huge part of that is a sense of stability, of knowing what you are getting when you buy the Walking Dead product.  And everything about the comic book suggests consistency and reliability.

When you pick up an issue of the Walking Dead, you're going to get a Robert Kirkman story with art by Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn.  That's it, chisel it in stone.  Your first six issues featured art by Tony Moore, who also provided covers for a period after that.  Fine.  The style was consistent.  You can pick Walking Dead out on the rack from across the room, and it's going to look like that next month as well, guaranteed.   

It goes deeper than just the creative elements as well.  A Walking Dead trade consists of six issues, a hardcover collects 12 issues, an Omnibus 24, and a compendium 48.  The trade dress will be consistent as well.  The hardcovers won't look like the soft trades, necessarily, but the hardcovers will be reliably consistent with the other hardcovers.

Does this kind of familiarity breed boredom?  I don't know, maybe.  Does it hurt Walking Dead that it doesn't tend to do odd shifts and "shake things up?"  I suppose it might in some sense.  I think it probably precludes the title from explosive growth, and let's be real, here - Walking Dead is a success story to be sure, but it does not top the charts.

The title is currently as popular as it has ever been, and sits at around 25,000 copies sold to retailers per month.  We're not talking about the little engine that climbed the mountain and dethroned The Avengers.  We're talking about the extraordinarily microscopic engine that started out at 7,000 copies and inched its way to the middle of the sales charts. 

Again, please don't misconstrue that as a slight on Walking Dead, because there are no similar success stories of that nature.  Taking an indy black-and-white book and taking it to the middle of the chart is nothing short of a miracle.  Factor in that it's the only comic going actually growing in numbers, and you have to grant that what Kirkman has achieved with this comic is impossible.  No reason to apologize for accomplishing the impossible.

One wonders what the television show will do for circulation.  My guess?  Absolutely nothing in terms of the monthly floppy.  Literally nothing.  I suspect we'll see a sizable boost in trade/hardcover sales, because that's where the mass market lives.  Nobody is going to watch the TV show and think "comic shop."  But they might browse a book store at the mall, see it displayed on a rack and pick it up.

I'm getting off point, though.  The point is that being reliable might actually prevent potential booms for the title...but it also prevents it from dropping off any cliffs.  Robert Kirkman has obviously made a deliberate, conscious effort to make this product identifiable, consistent, reliable.  You know what you're getting.  You know what it looks like, and you know where to find it.

In a comic book kingdom dominated by incessant explosions, pops, whistles, and clutter, Walking Dead's consistency makes it almost revolutionary.  If you want to know why this book grows quietly while everything else withers or explodes, it's largely because it's one of the few things on the rack that a reader can understand and count on without a slide rule or earplugs/sunglasses.

This month, Walking Dead readers will get a fantastic story by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn.  Next month, Walking Dead readers will get a fantastic story by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn.  Crikey, that's just crazy enough to work!

Next up:  Simplicity


Jake said...

So what you are saying is that Kirkman is using F.A. Hayeks economic model rather than Keynes? Which was the economic model the old-timey comic book companies used to employ. Build a reliable brand instead of utilizing the boom and the bust...

Chronic Insomnia said...

I'm no economist, but that sounds about right. And incidentally, there's nothing wrong with chasing a boom or risking a bust every now and again. But when you're business model consists of nothing but milking every last cent you can out of the next five minutes at the expense of your entire've got a problem. Marvel has a problem.