Friday, September 14, 2007

The Big Question

Given the news of the post below, a fella could ask himself, "Why?"

Not, "Why isn't Wildstorm going to do another arc worth of Highwaymen stories." I know why. Because it didn't sell. We moved a hair under 10,000 copies of issue #1. At the time, we were told that was as good a number as one could expect for a book about two characters no one had ever heard of, created by three guys no one had ever heard of.

But issue #2 took a 40% dive—which would be fine if we were a movie; that's considered a pretty good hold in week two. However, we're not a movie. And it's not enough to warrant doing more. I get that.

So, the question is, "Why didn't it sell?"

Did we not spread the word adequately? I'd like to think we did. We did oodles of press, interviews with anyone who asked. Had pieces up on, Newsarama, CBR, Silver Bullet, IGN, and Broken Frontier. Some mainstream press, too, in EW and a couple of news syndicates, which got us into a whole host of regional papers. We did in-store signings and convention appearances, a couple of podcast interviews to boot. DC gave the first issue the better part of a page in Previews, and seeded house ads throughout the bulk of its books the month before it came out. It's possible we could've done more—a cross-country tour would've been nice, but not in the cards...and we all can't have Warren's internet presence, not overnight—but we didn't let it stumble out there without any support at all.

Was The Highwaymen simply a bad comic? I'd almost say that's a more important concern, except for the fact that there are tons of shitty books that do/did better than ours. So quality does not insure sales. But, judging by the overwhelmingly positive response we've gotten from almost every critic who's reviewed it, quality was not our problem.

Was it the subject matter? Were potential readers turned off by the cast, a pair of old dudes, one white and one black? Was ageism or racism a factor? No way to be sure. Though, we've been told, in pitching other books, that black characters just don't sell. Even Blade, with three hit movies behind him, can't keep ongoing-series hope alive.

Can a good action-adventure book that received a decent PR launch about a pair of racially diverse seniors who aren't superheroes fly in today's market? I guess that's the $64,000 question.

And I guess we got our answer.


Anonymous said...
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marc bernardin said...

and, I suppose, at the end of the day, that's all a fella can ask for...

ish-lilith said...

Sad news -- though nothing I’m not prepared for, since from childhood onward my tastes have always run toward the TV show that gets canceled before the third commercial and the comic that’s discontinued on Page 9. By that standard, I feel lucky y’all will get to finish the first arc, though it’s bittersweet knowing the end is coming as I read the last two issues. But not as bittersweet as it might be -- you and your team crafted such a tightly choreographed, richly imagined and novelistically structured story that even any one issue of it felt like a look into someone’s whole lifetime; that “start late and end early” maxim was in full effect here, hinting at whole worlds (the Highwaymen’s mythic past, the reshaped landscape of Neo Orleans) and delivering big swaths of ’em each time. Original yet classic, witty yet not facile -- in some ways you’re wrong; this *is* a movie, or at least it might clean up as one. But it played out like widescreen even on the page, and more publishers and fans should appreciate that. Many of my favorite books are at Wildstorm, and this is one of them; given the disappearance of Desolation Jones, the premature dismemberment of Winter Men, etc., I guess I’m thankful for a whole, timely arc of Highwaymen -- and I look forward to following its architects on the rest of their road.

Adam McGovern

Randy said...

I can give you the anecdotal observations of one retailer/long-time industry observer (that'd be me), for what little they're worth:

1) The Wildstorm brand is hurtin'. Bad. Ex Machina is the exception, and that still really doesn't sell as well as it would if it were Vertigo. I don't know why this is, entirely, although I suspect a lot of reader trust was lost when DC sandbagged them on The Authority, then again on some of the Alan Moore stuff, etc.

2) It is hard as hell to get anybody to try anything new in comics these days. A lot of readers are really only looking for "comfort food" and no matter how many trusted employees of the comic shop tell them "This is awesome! I will give you your money back if you don't like it!", they're going to smile politely, offer up an insincere "I might have to check that out" and leave with their copies of Batman or Spider-Man.

The comics industry is actually in better shape now than it was for several years... but it's also as brutally unfriendly to new concepts as I've ever seen it. Even well-executed, full color, accessible mainstream style entertainment like Highwaymen. If it had been a movie, I bet you guys would have ruled the box office that weekend. But in comics, mainstream is this weird, exceptionally tiny little niche.

Of course, I'm probably not telling you anything you don't already know. But I will say that I was disappointed, as a reviewer, a retailer *and* just a fan, that I couldn't move more of these books.

Rob S. said...

I've enjoyed every issue, and I'm sorry to hear that it's not selling well.

Best thing to do is concentrate on future projects. When you get your mainstream success, sooner or later DC will look to exploiting your little-known back catalog -- at which point the rewards of a gem like this will finally start to roll in.

It's a great book. I wish more people had discovered it.

Josh Elder said...

Speaking as someone who has almost entirely switched to buying trades, I can say that I've often bought the first few issues of a series and then stopped because I already knew I wanted to buy the trade. Properties like "The Highwaymen" are creatures of the trade paperback, not the floppy.

So there is a real possibility that the market WILL support Highwaymen -- just not in the monthly comic format.

Anonymous said...

I was one of the people who posted a positive review of the book (at the Comic Treadmill). Unfortunately, the story of a quality comic book that got the axe for failing to be an immediate sales hit is not a new one.

Success often seems to be a matter of catching a lucky break in market timing or attention. Just keep giving us books like Highwaymen and Monster Attack Network and eventually the breaks will come.

Anonymous said...

It's the format! Everything I saw about this "mini-series" suggested it was a Graphic Novel being serialized and spoon-fed to the consumers. Who wants that? Not me! If I'm going to spend good money, the format should fit the story. What about this story required that it be published as 5 comic booklets instead of under one cover? Too bad, because had the creators and publisher chosen to publish the story in a single-volume format, I would have snapped it up. I guess there's always ebay.

AlteredEgo said...

If anyone wonders why comics are in the state that they are in, they should read this and wonder no longer. Tits, Capes, Pecks, Guns and all things "Manga" sell comic books.

When people do anything outside of the box and it fails, everyone else takes note and says, "better just stick to the formula".

I do find it interesting that 'racially diverse' means having a black character in the main lineup.
Though, I doubt that had much impact on the final outcome of the book.

There are some stories that are simply too important to be placed in the hands of the audience. Unless you're giving their ego a handjob, most people just aren't interested in anything new. That's why the books that sell spend their panel count placating the increasingly infantile audience.

The creator must be the one to finish the work for ITS OWN sake. Here's where it gets sticky because we all have to pay the mortgage. How you solve this problem is complicated, but the creator must solve it. Relying on the audience to support new things is generally a recipe for failure.

Better to work on something else to pay the bills and soldier on independently if you can. If you believe in your story then it must be brought to a conclusion even if you are the only one who ever reads it.

Otherwise people will only just keep regurgitating the same crap and slapping boobs on it and selling it back to the customers.

At some point the creator should rise above the audience. If he/she desperately needs the audience's monthly support, then he/she will have to dance to the tune that THEY play. And we all know what that tune sound's like (think superman theme song).

The audience will never want anything new, because it only wants what it knows and it only knows what it has already seen before. The creator must convince the audience by the force of his conviction that they SHOULD want something new. Only then can the audience follow the creator's example.

If you're hoping to change the audience while holding your hand out, I wouldn't hold my breath.

Best of luck in the future.


Skipper Pickle said...

Big fan of The Highwaymen here--aren't your sales square in the middle of Wildstorm's typical range these days? Wildstorm has a pretty low ceiling right now, it seems. Do you really think the comic is the problem?

i agree with Josh, and i'd expect this trade to have a long shelf life.

Joe Willy said...

Is it possible that sometimes things just don't click even when something is good and deserves to find it's audience? Is it possible that despite everyone's best efforts, a quality book and good reviews that perhaps it just comes out in a week where a lot of other, possibly "more exciting," books targeting the same audience comes out? I know it's disappointing to not be able to point to that one thing (yeah, it doesn't help Wildstorm's brand is in the toilet right now and many readers of quality books are waiting for trades and all the other stuff mentioned above) but sometimes I thinkthe right product just hits at the wrong time and for no other reason it doesn't perform like it should or could have.

It's too bad that good books don't always success but you mentioned films and I have to say I've seen a ton of good movies that are considered flops even though they did decent numbers. Sometimes it's just about perception even when there's no hard facts to back up that perception. If anything I hope this book helps your name ID and helps insure that the next book does even better.

And I hate to say it but that 40% is standard for retailer who are guessing about the demand for book #2 before #1 even hits the shelves. I've often hard a hard time finding later issues in a series because they cut their orders despite the fact demand remains steady- they have to assume half the people buying number #1 won't return for #2 and often get burned when a quality book maintains its audience or when word of mouth actually increases demand.

Mirka23 said...

So, apparently this Big Question points to two additional questions:
1. When does the trade paperback come out?
2. When is Highwaymen going to be made into a movie?

Don't give up on this story finding its audience, Marc!

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

A 40% drop is unusually harsh -- but the reason for it, in this case, is no mystery. DC supported issue #1 with a retailer incentive: They offered full returnability to any retailer doubling their initial orders for the issue.

No such incentive was in place for issue #2, so the drop-off ended up being steeper than usual.

That said, both Vertigo and WildStorm have been struggling to get any successful new properties off the ground in the periodical market for a while now, even when fairly prominent names are attached to a given project. I'm not surprised THE HIGHWAYMEN isn't selling, to be honest.

marc bernardin said...

Skip: Yeah, issue one was around average for Wildstorm, but issue two was somewhere in the basement of everything DC publishes.

Marc-Oliver: Yeah, I know that retailers were incented to buy #1...but 10,000 isn't a lot of retailers willing to take a chance on a sure thing. Even when it wouldn't matter if it sold or not. And I get that shelf space is a premium, and why waste it on something that isn't a guaranteed sale, but given the advance press we did, maybe they might've given it a shot.

Mirka: 1) soon. Early '08, I think. 2) who can tell? but things are moving, or so they tell me.

Rich said...

If you can sell 6000 a month through Image, that's a fair to middling income.

So do that.

Chad said...

Here's my 2 cents as someone who DIDN'T read it...

1) I was aware of the comic. I saw the ads, saw it on the shelf. So it's not about the advertising and PR.

2) Why didn't I pick it up? It just didn't grab my attention. There's a lot in the market at the moment.

With new titles, I just wait for the feedback. Find out if other people think it's worth reading and then, chances are, wait for the trade. I read fewer and fewer individual issues these days across all sorts of titles.

Oh and to the person who's crying over the abundance of capes and tits in comics - um... thats what sells. There's art and there's commerce, you can't blame the big companies for chasing the bucks.

Anyway, having read this whole post, which I found very interesting, I'm more likely to pick up the book... in trade.

Johnny B said...

I can't really add more to what the other, more erudite commenters above have said...but it is a shame that the market doesn't seem to want this kind of book.

Guess it will just be added to the long list of good comics that I liked and got canceled before they should have been. At least this particular story will have a conclusion, something you don't always see!

Rick Rottman said...

After what they did to The Boys, I won’t buy any new books from Wildstorm. Who’s to say that they won’t publish 4 or 5 issues and then decide the week before the next issue is to come out that the content is too extreme? This was after they advertised that The Boys was going to out “Preacher” Preacher. I liked The Boys and I thought what they did to the book really sucked. It took months until The Boys was published again and I thought the delay really hurt the flow. They have been so good about getting it out on a constant basis.

They Highwaymen may very well be a good book, but I just don’t trust Wildstorm.

Anonymous said...

I think it is extremely hard for a serialized story to launch in comics when it has no recognizable names (creators or characters) for the Direct Market.

The DC PR machine is built to work for the exact opposite (and superheroes, to boot!) so while their PR push was more than nothing, it couldn't offset the handicaps presented by the series trying to gain a foothold in the Direct Market.

Like someone said 10k sales at in the DC family isn't good, but if you had those kinds of sales while being in anywhere besides DC/Marvel, you'd be celebrating.

Nothing against Wildstorm (i'm a big fan of the line), but they've been unable for the past 10 years to keep a title going continously. EX MACHINA is the exception, and that I believe is because of the creative team involved's sales power.

Anonymous said...

I found this book via the podcast, and I really dig it. I am sorry that the it won't see another arc.

It is an awesome book. It's got everything... action, humor, and an interesting cast.

My take isn't that it is a bad story, or a story that people wouldn't enjoy. I just think that there is tons of product being pushed on the market now... and people are simply just not able to "take a risk". Maybe if it had a world war Hulk tie-in you'd have gotten more folks to give it a shot. That single story concept (world war hulk) has nearly 40 issues.

Also, I remember reading an article (I think it was Tilting at Windmills on Newsarama) that said that most books have a 50% drop in the second issue. Y the last man & Fables were books that took a few issues to become popular.

I hope you won't be discouraged as I think your work is amazing.

P.S. I want to see this on HBO :-)

Annalee said...

I loved The Highwaymen, and what struck me about it immediately was how much it seemed like the storyboards for a kickass, smartypants action movie. As you pointed out, the performance of the comic book was similar to what many fine movies do at the box office.

Various critics have pointed out that the mainstream public is willing to watch characters in movies that they'd never tolerate long-term for a series (whether in comics or on TV). Movie audiences embrace ambiguous characters who don't conform to stereotypes of "hero" and "villain." But people investing months or even years in a series? Not so much. With a few notable exceptions, mainstream audiences need the characters in a series to be simple, conforming to type. That's why, for example, Buffy is such a boring character in many ways -- even when she's sleeping with Spike or running away from home, she's still basically the Hot Babe Who Fights For Justice. Put another way, she's not anywhere near as complicated a character as a middle-aged black guy with a twisty past.

I guess what I'm saying is that what made it hard for mainstream audiences to embrace The Highwaymen as a serial might make it work quite well as a mainstream movie.

Anonymous said...

"If you can sell 6000 a month through Image, that's a fair to middling income.

So do that."

Not quite that easy - many retailers will order a token copy or two of everything DC, but not necessarily Image. There's no reason to expect the book would do 6000 without the DC/Wildstorm brand.

Plus, while it's easy enough to find starting writers who will work without a page rate, many artists won't work for the Image backend deal.

Bill Cunningham said...

I know how you feel. I've ben involved with a couple of movies that we all thought were going to fly off the shelves, but the audience, bless their cotton socks, just didn't see it that way...

I for one think that HIGHWAYMEN is made for those guys who read THE DESTROYER and EXECUTIONER paperbacks every month. Same sense of action and sarcasm, but those guys don't read comics.

Jesse Post said...

I think there's one main problem, just touched upon by other commenters. It's this Direct Market that the industry is enthralled by.

Those sales numbers can't be considered an accurate measure of reader demand. They're a measure of how the retailers gambled that month. Returns are the best way to get actual accurate numbers on sell-through, but we don't have that in our industry. Retailers can't keep any title well-stocked unless it's a guaranteed sell.

If a retailer conservatively orders say, ten copies and they sell out, a customer casually browsing the shelves won't even think to ask for it. This idea that customers will demand reorders isn't based on any kind of logic. They might if the new "Buffy" or "Spider-Man" is sold out. But if "Highwaymen" is sold out they won't even know it. And they might have picked it up if it was there. But it wasn't because retailers are forced to gamble.

The Direct Market audience is very small -- I can't imagine there are more than 300,000 fans of Direct Market floppy comics in the country. They already have a lot of stuff to buy. If comics opened up to the newsstand again, in a big way, and if the Direct Market went returnable, I'm sure there'd be a lot more success for lesser known properties.

Brian Hibbs said...

Um, Jesse, HIGHWAYMAN #1 *was* returnable.

Returnability isn't an answer to almost anything; it just increases the costs when something flops, and reduces the profit if something hits...