Saturday, December 4, 2010

What's The Secret? part 3

In the entire realm of comic books, only one title demonstrates that it is able to grow readers - Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead.  Is there a secret to his success, a formula that can be replicated?

In part one, I talked about the quality of the book combined with its fortunate entry into a market burning with a genre fetish.  In part two, I looked at the not-very-sexy but very powerful element of consistency, both in the book's content and its presentation.  In part 3, I'll examine another not-very-sexy but critical component to Walking Dead's ability to grow in circulation:


This is the element of the Walking Dead that sits in the shadows like a ninja, unseen.  It's the element of comics success that the Big Two have yet to acknowledge, much less implement.  In my opinion it's the single greatest component of Walking Dead's unique ability to grow readers in the current market, and a testament to the savvy and discipline of Robert Kirkman.

Walking Dead maintains and grows because Robert Kirkman gave the audience one place to leverage their interest.  You don't need to know trigonometry in order to figure out what you should be buying if you're interested in Walking Dead.  You buy Walking Dead.  You start with issue or volume one, and you continue forward from there.

It seems so bloody obvious...and yet so very few practice it.  And let's be clear - I guarantee you that Kirkman was tempted many times to spin the series off, hand out satellite titles and minis to other creators and cash some more checks.  I guarantee you that many people of no small intellect and no small amount of industry experience sidled up to Robert Kirkman and said "You know, you could make a lot more money if you farm this out into a couple of minis per year."

He could have done that.  He could have pumped out a bunch of spin-offs, just like the CSI television franchise.  The market might have even rewarded him in the short term, particularly if he could have snagged some big-name talent for one or more of them.  I'm betting people would have accepted if he'd offered, a lot of people love the book.

I don't know why Robert Kirman didn't do a Walking Dead: Europe book, or Walking Dead vs. Vampires, or Tales of The Walking Dead.  But if you want to know why his is the only comic book expanding....that's why.

If you want healthy growth, keep the brand strong, don't dilute it.  Don't underestimate the power of allowing your consumer to understand where the fuck to funnel their interest.  This is a huge deal, and I can prove it to you.

I'm so weary of people thinking that movies can save comics.  They can't, and they don't. Let me be more specific.  Movies have never brought significant numbers of people into comic book shops.  Not once.  If a movie ever let somebody know that a comic shop exists, that might change.  I'm not holding my breath on that one, frankly.

Movies are able to move product under two conditions:

  • The product is available in the mass market (Borders, Barnes & Noble)
  • The product has a single place to leverage movie interest

When a comic satisfies those conditions, the results are extraordinary.  Watchmen, already a collected legend, absolutely dominated the sales charts in 2009.  It crushed everything.  It single-handedly propped up the sales figures for 2009, making it look like comics were beating the recession.  They weren't.  People got interested in Watchmen, and when they passed by the rack at their bookstore, they had a simple place to funnel that interest: The Watchmen TPB.  Bam.  One thing.  Decision easy.  And they did buy the Watchmen by the hundreds of thousands.

Same thing with Scott Pilgrim.  Right around film release, O'Malley just about went six for six on the top slots.  Why? Because leveraging your interest in Scott Pilgrim doesn't take a comics history degree.  There's nothing to think about or worry about.  There's Scott Pilgrim - you start at volume one, and you continue if you please toward volume six.  These were available at book stores, and that's where the majority of the sales were cashed.  Nobody went to a comic shop to buy Scott Pilgrim.

Don't believe me?  Why don't you take a look at the effect that Iron Man/Iron Man 2 and the Dark Knight had on Iron Man comics and Batman comics.  Let me save you the effort and inform you that it had no discernible impact on these characters in terms of selling monthly comics.  None.

Does this surprise you?  It shouldn't.  If you're a newbie, you decide that Iron Man is cool and you walk into a comic shop, what do you buy?  Hey, there's Iron Man in Invincible Iron Man, oh, and look, there he is again in Iron Man Legacy.  And there he is in Avengers, and that other Avengers book, and there he is again in Iron Man/Thor.  And he's there in 1,000 different TPB collections, and Masterwork hardcovers, and black & white Essentials, and at that point the customer regrets that she ever walked in the door and leaves, never to return.  And don't get me started on Batman.  You need a part time job just to collect the current Bat books, much less begin excavating the history.

 Will the television show help Walking Dead?  You bet your ass it will - at the book store.  Episode five of the AMCBookscan numbers at the end of the year, and cry with me. 

This has been a long-winded way of getting back round to the real point - Robert Kirkman had the presence to understand that he had caught lightning in a bottle, and instead of grasping at every last penny he could in the next five minutes, protected and built an empire instead.  It's a small empire by Marvel standards.  But he's got more readers coming next month then he has this month.  Every one of Marvel's books is bleeding, and they don't know what to do other than dilute themselves further with another five spin-offs.

Walking Dead grows because Kirkman made it easy to find the house and join dinner.  There's nothing to divert, confuse, or dilute.  He did a script book in 2005, he does a calendar, and he did a hardcover with Walking Dead covers.  But no extra story content to chase, fit into continuity, or make you wonder if you've got it all.  If you want Walking Dead, you go out and you pick yourself up some Walking Dead, sitting there in print, on the rack, in numerical order.

If you want to know why Dynamite won't be printing any of their 33 Green Hornet comics this time next year...that's why.  And if you want to know why Robert Kirkman is sitting on a pile of cash and a growing audience, that's why.

- Ryan

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