Is the Single Comic Issue an Outdated Format?

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Well, yes, but I’ve been saying that the book-format comic is a superior format for decades, now. (I made a list, somewhere, but searching “graphic novel” on this site is futile.)

What spurred the latest? Retailer Brandon Schatz in his column at the Beat has an entry titled “The Death & Rebirth of Print Single Issues”. He’s reflecting on how both DC and Marvel used the pandemic disruption to decide that some of their series — including Supergirl, The Terrifics, Ant-Man, and Ghost-Spider — will wrap up as digital-only releases. The print issues are cancelled, although they may appear in print in collected editions later.

The economics of single-issue comics haven’t been good for a while, particularly with only one monopoly distributor for the last while (although that has now forcibly changed, more on that later). Here’s only one example, from 2014, but many publishers release work either as chunkier lumps (graphic novels) or in some kind of digital format, which also builds an audience, with collection to follow. That’s the real product, since it’s easier to store and ship and keep in print and not age as soon as it’s released.

Those committed to the print issue seem to me to be driven by nostalgia. “I loved comics like that decades ago, so I’ll put out something similar.” That’s not a great reason.

Anyway, here are some of Schatz’s discoveries:

…if single issues stopped coming out, we would be fine. Despite ordering extremely tight for shelf in the past, single issues turned out to be a fair burden for our relatively young shop, and not the engine that kept things running….

[Other retailers will] even go so far as to say that single issues are “perishable goods” like groceries. If they’re not purchased and consumed in short measure, they moulder and become unsellable….

…the twenty page comic is not long for this world. The profits don’t work. The only distributor who wants to carry and distribute them couldn’t figure out a way to stay open and get them to shops. There’s nearly a 100% chance that — despite this “comeback” — that will be the case again soon enough. Nobody else wants to distribute them, and only comic stores really want them.

He proposes a return to the anthology model, with a quadruple-size publication with multiple stories. This is not a new idea; it’s been suggested for at least 15 years. (I have a dynamite proposal for a Legion of Super-Heroes package, myself.) The way the market is set up now, it doesn’t really work, though, because fans want particular characters with particular creators and to love everything they’re buying, without much mind-space for trying something new or skipping part of the package. With current costs, that’s understandable.

What is a new idea from Schatz is splitting the content apart for digital distribution and having that available first. Which turns the monthly comic into a collected edition, a reprint. At first, I thought this wouldn’t fly, but then I realized DC and Marvel have already been doing this with various digital-first titles, usually tied into media releases of some kind. The traditional comic shop superhero customer doesn’t pay much attention to those. If they became the “real” stories, it would be transformational, though, because the comic shop would no longer have the big reveals. They’d all have to become bookstores, where customers knew a lot more about what they were buying before they put down their money. I can’t see this being widely accepted in such a habit-driven, backwards-looking business. And the commenters on Schatz’s post seem to agree. (Well, with the “people don’t want this” not the “backwards” bit. That’s me.)

Schatz makes a very good side point, about comic publishers not treating retailers as business partners but as fans. There was no official communication to them about these format changes, just press releases. To be fair, the history of the business suggests that a significant portion of retailers do put their fandom equal to or before their business, making it difficult to put out business notices without the news immediately going wide.

I am less sympathetic to Schatz’s other complaint, that there will be no recourse to those who feel as if this will make them buy the issues twice. That’s always a gamble, that the story you want to read will be completed as planned. Publishers that do this tend to pay the price, eventually, as customers stop buying from the ones that make a habit of cancelling early or trying to force them to a format they don’t want.

And superhero publishers have often relied on the fan habit of complete acquisition to drive multiple purposes. That’s why they use variant covers to goose business so often and put bonus features in collected editions. But that approach is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy — it may be that single issues, pamphlets, floppy versions are viable in the future only as art objects, thick trading cards or something of the sort, particularly as prices continue to rise.

Those who read comics instead of collecting them have many better choices than the single issue these days.



18 comments

  • James Schee

    I only read digital and tpbs/HCs in comics these days. I hadn’t realized that I hadn’t even held a pamphlet comic in 2 years or more, until I saw some weird looking ones in a Walmart from publisher I didn’t recognize.(had some hero named after a chicken) And I was shocked to see they want $4.99 for a 20 something page comic.

    My prefered choice would be to hire creators to do a run on characters, perhaps distribute the chapters when they come out online digitally, and release a collection once a year. I would put multiple teams doing works on big characters, so you could still get multiple Superman, Batman etc. stories a year. But eliminate the need for them to connect IE Jane Smith and Mark Jones Green Lantern run, doesn’t have to tie in or follow events going on in Lana Reeves and Mary Jones Green Lantern run.

    And if their run proves popular, and they have more stories to tell they sign on for further volumes of work. Those creators whose work prove extra popular, they get a chance to take on smaller characters or series, to tell a story with them and if it works out they can do more as well.

    Creator Owned work would basically run the same, they can choose to release chapters online or wait and release the full story or at least volume at once in a collection.

    I don’t think an anthology would work well. I look at the DC Walmart titles when they come out and I’ve yet to buy a one. Most of it is stuff I’ve read, or at least know about, and the smaller incomplete stories just don’t appeal to me that much to pay the price for them

  • That’s an excellent point. The model has become “string out the storytelling to get people on the hook for at least 4 or 6 issues”, and the economics for that, from the customer perspective, is atrocious. Each chunk is not satisfying in itself.

    I’ve found it interesting to see how many house ads DC has been running for their original kids’ graphic novels. And those have moved past the recognizable characters now, with some having originals. So that sounds like what you’re proposing, except without the digital pieces.

  • James Schee

    Yeah the digital component is really just a way to have potential income or even a way to sample books. But the end goal is getting books out for people to read. And I think it’d make easier to follow, and more enjoyable, if I knew there were volumes done by mostly(maybe artists might change between volumes) same creators telling their story. Most authors I follow only put out 1 or 2 book a year so having comics become that would be nice.

    I know some people would hate the non-continuity part, but I’m weird about it as I remember when i really got into comics in mid to late 80s being surprised that what happened in Fantastic Four(that I wasn’t reading) was mentioned and had bearing in the Spider-Man comic I was reading.

    I love team up books and stories too, but how much easier and probably better would a crossover/team-up story be. If it was done by the same creators telling one big cohesive story in a volume (or more if needed) and that was an actual story. Not something designed to change or fix a prior status quo.

  • James Schee

    Oh and though not the target audience (I turn 45- eek -next month) I have been wanting to try the DC original kids graphic novels.

  • Hellers

    I only buy digital these days. Generally from Amazon/Comixology but Humble and others often do really good bundles. Recently Comixology hiked up the prices in Europe so I severely cut back on my singles purchases. They’re really not good value for money.

    Anthology style comics can work really well if they’re done right. I have a subscription to 2000AD and it’s probably my favourite comic ever. I do think the future has to be primarily digital though.

  • Hal Shipman

    There’s nothing wrong with the serialization followed by collection model. It’s worked literally since Victorian times through television DVD collections. Even the idea of mid-series smaller collections followed by an “omnibus” had its roots then. But the economics of the floppy plus the idea of trying to maximize sales within a LCS, rather than truly expanding the market make no sense. If you tried that with literally any other product, you’d be laughed out of any product development or marketing meeting.

    Whoever leaned into the direct market instead of figuring out a packaging model that would have worked on newsstands were idiots. And, yes, print magazines started dying, but comics beat that with the direct market move by a good 15 years. The original model with the Ultimate line wasn’t bad. They floppies we know were to be in the LCS, but a few months later, they were to be in a larger format, anthologized with several titles, and sold at a price point that would have worked on the newsstand. If they’d rolled it out much, much earlier, they might have made it on the newsstand a good while longer.

    To the argument that we won’t buy reprints, we also have to remember, we are not the market. Selling more to us is a losing game. You have to expand the market and constantly backfill. The YA lines are great for selling the IP, but if you want to be selling comics stories as we know them, you can’t plan on them coming into an LCS. The Walmart idea wasn’t bad, just a bit late also.

    Which is to say, yes, you’re absolutely right. The format is way past it’s day and the direct market focus was a crappy lifeline from the get go..

  • Jim Perreault

    It’s important to note that the article is one in part of a series, talking about the “death of the Direct Market.” Early on, it wasn’t clear to me what exactly that meant. But it’s clear now that they are talking about a major restructuring the the comics market where specialty stores selling serialized stories in magazine format are no longer the primary outlet for new comic material.

    Without that context, what they propose does not make sense. The target audience is not so much existing comic shop customers, but the newsstand market where the larger format would be economically viable. It is a bold vision. Whether or not it comes to pass, there are certain to be major changes in comics distribution post COVID.

    As for single issues versus paperbacks, while I do buy both I tend to read the single issues first and the paperbacks sit on the shelf. I think that is because it is easier for me to fit a 20 page story into my schedule than larger stories. With the COVID shutdown, I’ve finally been able to make a dent in my paperback backlog. But I still tend to chunk it in 20 or so page chunks.

    Regarding digital comics, I recently purchased a tablet for the purpose of reading them. What apps do people suggest? Should I use Comicxology, or the Marvel or DC apps?

  • Hellers, I think whether or not the anthology seems workable to someone may depend on how much exposure they’ve had to it. Comics in the UK and Japan, for example, have used this model much more than in the US.

    “Value for money” — that’s it, isn’t it? So many industries have retreated to expectations of how they’ve always done things, so it’s not just comics, but trying truly new and different models is SO scary, particularly to industry leaders who came up when the economy and customer behavior was different. (Movie studios, for example, are petrified right now, with streaming and digital debuts threatening to destroy their traditional business.)

    Hal, expanding the market would mean acknowledging, and even trying to serve, an audience that Isn’t Like Them. The fanboy security blanket of the direct market has been a kind of handcuffs for SO long, and the people making superhero comics are in it for complicated psychological reasons, in some cases.

    Understanding that a lifeline isn’t intended to keep you afloat forever appears to have been where things went wrong for comics.

    Jim, there is no newsstand market any more. If comics wants to reach a mass market — well, that’s the question, right? People don’t seem to read much, in mass numbers, and there is SO much competition for entertainment attention. With webcomics, there’s a lot of great reading for free (if people like the medium, not the genre), and with superheroes, the movies are more satisfying with less commitment, and the TV shows are free (and with more every year).

    You make a great point about there being a place for shorter reading chunks, but I find what’s actually published in that format often doesn’t work without more chapters.

    Use ComiXology. It’s the clearing house for most. You may also want to explore webtoons.com.

  • Jim Perreault

    You are right, newsstand is not the right term. Mass market is more accurate and what, I think, Brandon Schatz is aiming towards. An anthology title that reprints what has already been published online would not work in the direct market. But the direct market is not Brandon’s intended audience.

    Good point about web comics. There is certainly a lot of innovation there, and I could see that becoming (if it isn’t already) the mass market outlet for comics. In regards as to whether or not comics make a good read, a lot of comics are written for the trade paperback and don’t provide much of a story in each issue. That is a problem. but not all. I feel like Grant Morrison puts as much story in 1 page as other writers put into whole issues. Another problem is the continuity heavy stories that Marvel and DC are putting out. That is a big barrier to new readers.

    Thanks for the recommendation. Much appreciated.

  • Hal Shipman

    “Another problem is the continuity heavy stories that Marvel and DC are putting out. That is a big barrier to new readers.”

    I don’t know if that’s really true, though. at a market level. If that were the case, Marvel would never have been successful 5 years after FF #1. Marvel leaned super-heavily into a shared continuity, with references and dependencies all over the place really, really fast. Legion of Super-Heroes in the mid-1980’s was DC’s #1 book for a while AFTER having already building up the most complicated continuities ever. New Teen Titans, the other top selling book at the time, was also heavily steeped in obscure continuity.

    But the market research and distribution channels are SO messed up, it’s all expensive guesswork now. If continuity were the issue, how would you be able to tell what was too much as opposed to enough to intrigue and interest readers (like the examples above might have done)?

  • There are plenty of anecdotes (I know) about new customers wandering into comic shops after seeing a superhero movie and leaving empty-handed because it’s not at all clear what they should read that’s like the film. There are too many titles and too many stories that require pre-existing knowledge of superhero characters and history.

    The time you reference, in the 60s, the market was very different… as was the approach to writing superhero comics. The idea that “every issue was someone’s first” was probably never that true, but it used to be much more of a guiding principle.

    LSH was complicated within itself and its history, but you didn’t have to read any other DC comics to enjoy it. (And that said, the first LSH issue I tried, I hated, because there were too many characters with weird names that I didn’t understand who they were or what they did. That was back in the Superboy & the days.)

  • Jim Perreault

    When I made the “continuity” comment, I was thinking of the convoluted storylines that both the X-men and the Avengers were having when their respective movies came out. I expect they would be impenetrable to a newcomer. ( In X-men, Claremont was back on the book, writing an involved story. Avengers came out in the middle of Hickman’s run.)

    Like Johanna said, in the 80s they made sure each story was accessible, by making sure all the characters ae introduced and powers explained. That doesn’t happen nowadays, especially when writing for the trade paperback.

    Another thought on this topic that occurred to me as that superhero comics are mostly targeted towards adult fans. Many of them are simply not kid appropriate. Which means a major audience is being left out. People have talked about that ad nauseam , so I don’t think I need to belabor the point.

  • Beyond whether a new reader can understand the story, there’s also the question of whether they’ll enjoy it. I could know all the characters’ names and not care a whit about any of them.

    As for comics for kids, there are abundances of those, but few are superheroes. Instead, there are stories that reflect their concerns and their lives, as well as all kinds of fantasy adventures. It’s true that the superhero reader seems to be getting ever older. Perhaps that genre, like the Western, needs to take a break before being refreshed.

  • Jim Perreault

    Kids comics are indeed booming. I see several notable aspects of that:

    1) They are not superheroes.
    2) They are not single issue magazine format.
    3) The primary retail for them is not the direct market.
    4) The major publishers are the traditional book publishers, not Marvel or DC.

    I can’t see superhero comics going away, as there are trademarks to keep. But I could see them being downsized considerably. And I wonder if the tight nit shared universe is going to last.

  • It’s true, the value for money proposition of a kids’ graphic novel (particularly those put out in hardcover for libraries) is a lot easier for many people to justify.

    Your fourth point is particularly interesting, as the first time the major book publishers tried to get into comics, they lost a lot of money and pulled back. Then they discovered the kids market. So this was a case where the audience could have been addressed by comic publishers (and IDW, for example, has gone into that in a big way by licensing the Marvel characters) but they didn’t move fast enough or strongly enough.

  • Hal Shipman

    That’s what I’m getting at with market research – it’s all anecdotes. And opinions like the differing ones like we have now about continuity and whether it’s a barrier are just those – opinions that we’ll never really know the answers to. I get the argument – it certainly feels true.

    The mantra of “every issue was someone’s first”was a Shooterism in the late 70’s and 80’s, a good 15+ years after Stan’s time, at least. Marvel’ stories prior to Shooter certainly didn’t follow that. They leaned really heavily into their own continuity. And, that said, Shooter’s supposed direction change in storywriting didn’t seem to help much.

    And for “continuity” to be the problem, you have to ignore soap operas. For a long, long time, soap operas picked up viewers years after they started. People even followed them across media, from radio to TV (Days of Our Lives[?]). But here’s a HUGE difference: the soaps were always easily accessible, over the airwaves. Comics shops, even in their peak, required a special trip, if there was even one you could get to. The product was restricted.

    Which gets back to your original point: by catering and marketing to fans, doubling down on that narrow channel via the direct market, instead of broadening their customer base, the industry crippled themselves years before the rest of the print market. Death spiral.

    So, I really think the distribution, format and comic shop/direct market models are much more to blame that the storytelling. As I think more on it, I believe that the shift in media is exactly what needed to happen. Just like the soaps. They survived because they successfully move their IP and genre from radio to TV.

    With the print periodical dying, changing the type of print probably wouldn’t help much. And with comics, there are two axes to follow – form (words & image) and genre. The graphic story form is moving to web and books. The superhero genre is moving to TV and film. In both cases, yes, the floppy comic book is an outdated format.

    Back to continuity being a barrier: My counter example on the LSH is my experience. The first time I ever saw the LSH (and Supergirl, actually) was a copy of Adventure #350, the first half of the Sir Prize & Miss Terious story I found at a hotel con when I was a kid. Not only there were a LOT of characters I’d never heard of, there was 2 pages of references to past stories I had no idea what they were talking about. And that’s exactly why I was instantly hooked. The continuity was a richness. I wanted to know more about those adventures they were all talking about.

    And, yes, you do have a point that the LSH is self-contained. But what about the Titans? They were steeped in Batman, Flash, Wonder Woman and Doom Patrol continuities from the start. But going forward, you generally read one title and you were okay. Except for the damned summer crossovers.

    By the same token, at the time, I didn’t buy Marvel for years because I hated continued stories (and, yes, I know that #350 was a two parter. It was a few years before I saw #351. And five or more before I found out that the Adult Legion story was also split across 2 issues). There’s definitely a balance that has to be struck to create a satisfying read. Enough continuity to get you coming back for more of the property, but enough completeness to the story in the “unit” that is satisfying.

  • I would be interested to know if the comic company approach to market research has changed. When I was there, it was only done to create stats that could be shown to potential advertisers in order to get their business. (Along the lines of “it’s hard to reach young men in print, we’re one of the few reliable ways to do that.”)

    Great analysis, Hal.

  • Jim Perreault

    I was being very sloppy when I said continuity was the problem. I don’t think continuity per say is a barrier to entry (modulo issues like not introducing the characters ; something soap operas take great pains to do). But a casual reader can’t pick up an issue of Batman, for instance, if it is part 3 of a 15 part weekly crossover. And in today’s market, that happens constantly. It’s an example of what you describe:

    “[…] by catering and marketing to fans, doubling down on that narrow channel via the direct market, instead of broadening their customer base, the industry crippled themselves years before the rest of the print market.”

    And, as Johanna has pointed out, the comic book format is doing fine. But the single issue traditional Super-hero comics? Not so much. I expect drastic changes in the industry in the coming years. Although, you are right, I am guessing. I have not done any market research to back this up.

    I do have a side note, regarding children targeted comics. Two of the comics that I read recently that I really adored were: “Harley Quinn:Breaking Glass” and “Catherine’s War.” Both were targeted towards children. And neither were superhero books (not even the Harley Quinn one). Neither book wrote down to the audience and the quality shows.

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