Ghosts of Comics’ Past: 2011

By | November 15th, 2021
Posted in Columns | % Comments

Multiversity’s history column is back with a look at the comic industry of 2011. Enjoy!

Industry overview
2011 started off poorly. The traditional seasonal downturn combined with temporary scheduling troubles to see sales of single issue comics drop to 4.4 million copies, the lowest monthly total since 1933 when comics were invented.

That number is a little misleading, of course, because by 2011 there was more than one way to buy a comic book. Sales in the book market continued to climb as Barnes & Noble doubled and tripled the size of their graphic novel sections. Digital comic sales were also on the rise, seeing a spike in growth from new readers. When Marvel began offering digital copies on the same day as physical copies in November, it put the two formats on equal footing and digital sales spiked again. DC tried to grow its digital business by offering 100 graphic novels exclusively for the Amazon Kindle, but received blow back from Barnes & Noble who responded by pulling DC books off their shelves until after Christmas.

The scheduling glitches, which were due to Diamond Distribution switching delivery day from Tuesday to Wednesday, had mostly worked themselves out by February. Sales soared over 5 million copies as some of the industry’s top sellers double shipped. Marvel’s big contribution to those sales came from Johnathan Hickman’s “Fantastic Four,” which was hitting a high note with the death of the Human Torch. Even though every reader knew he would be back eventually, and probably soon, the event was nevertheless cheapened when a Marvel executive was so pleased with the sales that he announced plans to kill a major character each quarter going forward.

Low points for 2011 were caused by the continuing impact of the Great Recession, which tended to spare industry leaders and target their nearest competitors instead. Borders Bookstores, a national chain which also operated Waldenbooks, closed midyear. The company was the first major chain to champion graphic novels, both in volume and quality of upkeep. Their closure hit manga sales especially hard. Haven Distribution, the primary alternative to Diamond, had eked out a living for years on sales from comics that Diamond chose not to backstock, or not to carry in the first place.

In a bittersweet move, the long-running <a href= Xeric Award was discontinued in 2011. Since 1992, the award had been given to a handful of comic creators annually along with a monetary grant to help them focus on their work without the burden of a day job or commercial concerns. The decision to end the program had nothing to do with the economy, and everything to do with the internet. The rise of webcomics lowered the cost of entry into the comic market at the same time that it expanded the potential audience, making the Xeric Award unnecessary, if not redundant.

In production news, the advancements in print-on-demand technology led publishers to offer to more customized covers. The most popular variant of this type was a basic template with a participating store’s signage inserted. IDW tried this with their first “Godzilla” comic, requiring interested retailers to order 500+ copies. There were 75 stores willing to do this, with their combined orders accounting for 37,500 copies of the issue’s 69,000 total sales. Marvel repeated the stunt with “Amazing Spider-Man” #666 and had 140 stores opt in. Whether this was because of IDW’s success, Spider-Man’s broader appeal, or the change in requirement to 150% of regular “ASM” orders is an exercise left to the reader.

The CCA disbands
The comic industry had been saddled with the Comics Code Authority since 1954, with their censors/reviewers constantly reining in content that might threaten the mental health of a child. The institution, once crushing in its power, had slowly weakened over the decades.

In 2001, Marvel had dealt it a devastating blow when it <a href = Oct 2020 p2left the CCA to create its own rating system and pursue more mature content. In 2010, Bongo gave the CCA a black eye when it left, too, but continued to produce popular comics for kids.

The fatal blow for the CCA came in 2011, when only two publishers still voluntarily paid to have their comics reviewed. When DC abandoned the code in advance of the launch of the New 52, Archie Comics was left as the sole member funding the organization. It didn’t take long for Archie to realize they were in a terrible position, and less than 24 hours after DC’s announcement they too abandoned the code.

Continued below

With no clients and no source of funding, the CMPA (the CCA’s parent organization) made one final act before officially disbanding. In a move overflowing with irony and self-awareness that probably would have been in violation of the code in 1954, the CMPA donated the CCA seal to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. The icon of restricted speech is now used to sell merchandise to fund legal battles against censorship.

Worldwide Impact
As a new millennium dawned in 2000, the United Nations identified eight broad areas for improvement it wanted countries to work together on before 2015. Dubbed the Millennium Development Goals, they were ambitious and broad. A review meeting in 2010 evaluated the current progress and organized a plan to accelerate progress. One of the results of that meeting was a comic book.

“Score the Goals: Teaming Up to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals” debuted in January 2011 and over the year it was distributed around the globe in six different languages: English, French, Spanish, Chinese, German, and Korean. The stated aim of the 32-page pamphlet was to educate kids aged 8-14 about the UN’s anti-poverty goals and educate them on ways they and their families could help. The comic was honored at an October 2011 award ceremony in Monaco.

While it’s hard to judge the actual impact of the comic book on any of the MDGs, the UN must have seen encouraging data. When the MDGs expired in 2015, they were replaced by 17 Sustainable Development Goals. This time, comics were incorporated with the outreach from the start. The UN partnered with the non-profit Reading With Pictures to create a series of comics, each one dedicated to a single SDG. These comics were offered in even more languages than before in both digital and print versions.

DC Comics
DC was the news maker of the year with their ambitious New 52 program. The idea of rebooting an entire universe wasn’t new – it had been floated during “Crisis on Infinite Earths” in 1985 and “Zero Hour in 1994 – but following through with it was.

While hyping big Flash event “Flashpoint,” DC scheduled its other titles to conclude at the same time and go out with a big story, like “War of the Green Lanterns” or a Doomsday story in “Action Comics.” At the time, most observers wrote this off as good prep for “Flashpoint,” which was a time travel / alternate universe story that saw all the current titles replaced by different versions of themselves from this new timeline, similar to the “Age of Apocalypse” crossover from Marvel in 1995. Unlike “AoA,” when the conclusion of “Flashpoint” repaired the universe, it wasn’t back to the original settings. Instead, DC launched 52 new titles over 5 weeks beginning with “Justice League” on August 31.

This unprecedented move attracted lots of attention. To boost retailer confidence, DC offered returnability on most issues for the first few months, but it didn’t matter. The whole line sold out and received at least a second printing, with the demand exceeding supply for months on some titles. The price of first printings went up for every title as speculators raced to be in on the ground floor of the new DC universe. For retailers willing to advertise, DC helped foot the bill for commercials airing in theaters before films that would include the local retailer’s information.

The majority of New 52 readers were current DC customers, but 25% were returning customers and 5% were new comic readers. Some of the relaunches were big hits, like Batman’s ‘Court of Owls’ story. Others lost steam quickly, like “Dragon Knights” and “I, Vampire.” Aside from redesigned costumes, the four Green Lantern titles virtually ignored the reboot and continued with the same (popular) story line that had been running since 2004.

The New 52 would continue to impact the comic industry for years, and that will be covered in future articles.

Kirby v Marvel, et al
In 2009 an attorney for the estate of Jack Kirby sent notices of copyright termination to Marvel for most of the characters appearing in The Avengers and other upcoming films. After two years of discussion, federal judge Colleen McMahon issued a 50-page opinion defining the scope of the case and deciding that there was insufficient evidence to overcome the presumption that all his work had been done for hire. There was a brief outrage among comic fans who paid attention, and backlash from fans who just wanted to read next month’s “Captain America.” There were calls to boycott Avengers, but if anyone heeded them it went unnoticed.

Like this? Check the Ghosts archive for more comic history

//TAGS | Ghosts of Comics' Past

Drew Bradley

Drew Bradley is a long time comic reader whose past contributions to Multiversity include the Minding MIND MGMT, Small Press Spotlight, and Tradewaiter columns, along with Lettering Week and Variant Coverage. He currently writes history-based articles. Feel free to email him about these things, or any other comic related topic.


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