It’s a well worn pattern in the comic book business: Release a new #1 issue (ideally with multiple variant covers available in limited quantities), sell a lot of comics, and then watch month after month as sales slowly decline on the title. There is such a large uptick in sales for a new #1 issue of a comic series, that publishers have gone to great lengths to get the number one on their covers. Marvel, as part of the All New Marvel Now campaign, even began numbering issues in a story arc, just to try to lure in new readers with the large number “1” on the cover. It has become such an expected practice that some readers even wondered why the recent change in creative direction for Batgirl didn’t result in DC relaunching the series with a new #1.
Each relaunch, each new #1 issue, seems to stir up conflicting emotions in comic book readers. Bloggers complain that publishers are blatantly cashing in on the new first issue phenomenon. They lament the loss of long running series with issue numbers in the hundreds. This same readership, however, then goes out and spends its money on the new #1 issue, thus reinforcing the practice.
While comic book publishers seem to understand the effect of the new first issue, they don’t yet seem to understand why they are so effective for driving sales. If they did, they would probably be looking to other forms of media for better ways to harness the number 1. They might ask themselves why it is so much easier to get readers to pick up a new series, than to get them to start reading an established series. They could look no further than Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes for possible reasons why.
With the advent of video-on-demand and streaming services like Netflix, it has become incredibly easy for viewers to watch an entire series or season of a show. This has allowed for anyone, whether they decide mid-season or mid-series, to be able to go back and start a show from the beginning. You no longer have to start in the middle of a season and try to piece together the parts of the story you missed. Simply binge watch the first half of the season over the weekend and you are all caught up. We have developed an expectation that we will be able to know the whole story. We want to know the whole story. We need to be in from beginning. We fear missing some important plot point or character. No one only watched the last two seasons of Breaking Bad.
This same desire is why it has become so hard to raise readership for an existing comic book series. Making the decision to pick up issue 34 of a series now comes with a mental calculation which includes the value of not having been in from the start. Oh hey, here’s a new first issue. Think I’ll get that instead. What can comic book publishers do to harness this new expectation when it comes to how we consume media and the stories they tell in this day in age?
Embrace the seasons. Instead of publishing open-ended ongoing series, publish finite seasons of a title. Twelve issues of Justice League Season 1. Thirteen issues of Season 2. Plan stories that span a season of the title. Make each season enjoyable on its own, but reward those who have been reading all along. And with each season the publisher gets a new #1 issue. And since it is expected that a new #1 will come out yearly (or so) the readers won’t feel that the companies are resorting to a gimmick to get their money. Some companies are already doing this, especially those publishing comic book extensions of television shows, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Dynamite has also begun publishing seasons of some of it’s titles.
Make catching up on older seasons easy. The move to releasing comic books on digital platforms like ComiXology has helped greatly, just as it has with Netflix and television shows. However, prices on collected editions remain high, higher than if you had bought the comics individually. Instead, publishers should make lower cost season collected editions available in both print and digitally. Netflix succeeds at this. Finally there may be a comic book equivalent. Scribd is a potential solution which recently began offering $8.99 monthly online subscriptions with a collection of more than ten thousand comics available to read. It’s Netflix for comic books (and books too). If publishers made recent seasons of their titles available fairly quickly, even if for only a limited time, on a platform such as Scribd it would be incredibly easy and affordable to binge read your way to the current season.
Admittedly, smaller companies like Valiant or Dynamite may find these changes easier to make. Publisher’s like Marvel, with long running series and long established characters, might see the hurdle of moving to seasons as diminishing the past. However, DC proved you could make a similar change when they launched the New 52 and left all previous continuity behind. Personal opinions on whether you liked the move put aside, two years after the New 52 launched they are basically even on the sales charts with where they were before the relaunch. This despite a very loud portion of the readership criticizing and decrying the New 52.
The moral of the story is that big changes can be made. To look at other forms of media for ways to change and be successful should be obvious. The nature of episodic storytelling is so similar between television shows and comic books that applying the successes of one to the other warrants serious consideration.