What Our Failure to Cover Attack on Titan Says About the Comics Industry

Comics Features
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What Our Failure to Cover <i>Attack on Titan</i> Says About the Comics Industry

With a retail price of $4.99 and featuring some of the most iconic characters of the last 50 years (and nearly 70 variant covers), Star Wars #1 shipped over one million units to retailers in January 2015. Within a historical context, this was big news. The first issue marked the first direct market series to sell that many units since 1993. It made headlines left and right; everyone was losing their minds over those numbers. But what all those toothsome articles and giddy dispatches failed to do was to contextualize that million plus units sold.

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Star Wars #1 Art by John Cassaday

There are quite a few things to keep in mind when qualifying those numbers. First: Loot Crate ordered approximately 300,000 of the million and gave them out to their subscribers. More importantly, the number of units sold to retailers does not represent the number of units sold to customers. Publishers don’t care about the latter, because, unlike book distributors, Diamond very rarely makes pamphlet comics returnable; once Diamond ships them to retailers, publishers count that as a sale. In summary: one retailer bought nearly 1/3 of the 1,000,000 and distributed them under a subscription; other retailers accounted for the remaining copies, but they most likely bought them at a steep discount under variant cover incentives. The publishers have no way of knowing what percentage of those 700,000 was actually purchased by customers. (When I was working at a small shop, a co-worker and I once counted 200 copies of Uncanny Avengers #1 that we still had six months after it came out. Because we got them at such a deep discount, my boss ordered an ungodly number just to get the variants).

The direct market is, in many ways, a shell game. Anyone who’s worked on the publishing or retail end can attest to that. Still—more than a million units is nothing to scoff at. While maybe less impressive than its raw numbers might suggest, those numbers are still high—a historic quantity of units for pamphlet comics. However, this news does raise a few questions about how narrow the purview of the American comics press is. Namely, why isn’t it news when other comics sell more than a million copies?

Earlier this week, sites like Anime News Network translated a July 4 report from Kodansha which concluded that there were 2.5 million copies of Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan in print in English (nearly 45 million copies of those volumes in Japanese). The series is about the last bastion of humanity defending itself from naked, mindless giants who exist to eat people; it’s remained enormously successful at home and abroad. Though those reported 2.5 million copies are spread out over 15 volumes, at a price tag of $10.99—with significantly less brand recognition—and with a huge presence in the book marketplace (where units are usually returnable and customers are usually not regular comics readers), why didn’t Attack receive the same aplomb as the juked stats of Star Wars #1. Why did nearly every niche site of note that traffics in comics-related content (Comics Beat and Comic Book Resources published a combined four sentences as this article was written; ICv2 devoted an article to it) completely ignore one story while devoting multiple articles to a comparable one?

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Attack on Titan Art by Hajime Isayama

One explanation is that the comics industry is growing, expanding and becoming more inclusive—cartoonists are finally receiving MacArthur fellowships and comics are finally winning Caldecott honors. But the discourse surrounding the comics industry has only grown marginally in the last 30 years.

Two parallel mainstreams seem to have developed. One mainstream includes Marvel, DC (and very soon Image) and the other entails books that actually dominate the sales charts; in other words, the comics considered mainstream by comic readers and comics considered mainstream by statistics. This dissonance is best illustrated thus: much of the general public still thinks comics are for kids (which is why every mainstream publication has published a “Comics aren’t just for kids!” headline at some point); primarily, comics reading circles maintain that the medium is designed for adults—and not kids, which is how you get a DC comic where Frankenstein sews Black Canary’s head to his chest.

Marvel and DC are consistently considered the mainstream, but they are routinely beat out in pure sales and popularity by webcomics, manga and graphic novels including Telgemeier’s Smile and Drama (both with more copies in print than Star Wars #1, and at a higher retail price). Homestuck is a webcomic that was, at least at one point, getting 600,000 unique visitors per day, and Randall Munroe’s XKCD was reportedly pulling in between 60 and 70 million hits a month at times. The last pamphlet comic prior to Star Wars #1 to sell one million copies was a Pokemon manga from 1999.

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Ms. Marvel Cover Art by Jamie McKelvie

Ironically, Marvel’s own Ms. Marvel presents a perfect example of this scenario: the ongoing title remains one of Marvel’s most successful series, but its success is still qualified and written off, because it’s just “placating a vocal minority at the expense of the rest of the paying audience.” Another prominent example is how The Walking Dead #100 sales were qualified—it sold nearly 400,000 copies, and the series’ collections sell consistently well in bookstores and online, but it’s still an “indie” book despite evidence to the contrary. Book after book continues to regularly dwarf the sales of Marvel and DC output—some even casting a shadow on the historic sales of Star Wars #1—but their success is overlooked. Regardless of how many units are sold, Marvel and DC are mainstream and everything else is “other.”

Chris Butcher, the manager of Toronto comic shop The Beguiling, recently wrote an insightful essay regarding this “Othering”—of comics aimed at young readers, manga, anything that doesn’t fit into the comics industry’s definition of what is and is not mainstream. He lays the blame at comics snobbery—people who wrote off the influx of manga because of the audiences it brought in, and then subsequently wrote off every kind of book that catered to that audience. He writes:

So how did the rest of the comics industry react to this sea-change? In the pettiest way possible of course, by othering the success of that material as much as they could. “Manga aren’t comics,” went the discussion. They were, and are in many ways, treated as something else. The success that they had, the massive success that they continue to have, doesn’t ‘count’. All those sales and new readers were just ‘a fad’, and not worthy of interest, respect, or comparison to real comics. It was the one thing that superhero-buying-snobs and art-comics-touting-snobs could agree on (with the exception of Dirk Deppey at TCJ, bless him): This shit just isn’t comics, real comics, therefore we don’t have to engage it.

The avoidance to cover Attack on Titan’s success can well be seen as a result of this long-term othering, and it’s just the most recent manifestation of the way in which superheroes are inflated as the most popular comics genre, regardless of what the evidence says. This phenomenon is ultimately myopic, and it maintains harmful stereotypes about who reads comics and who doesn’t. For the comics industry to grow further, it must reconcile itself to reality.

The medium has to further recognize that women, children, LGBT folk and people of color read comics too, and it has to recognize that a book isn’t inferior simply because it’s aimed at those audiences. Webcomics are comparable in quality and superior in diversity to print comics, and critics and press would do well to pay it more attention. Manga, though not as booming as it was at its peak in the mid-aughts, is still a formidable sector of the comics industry that few Americans engage. European comics have, in recent years, seen a return to their late-’70s prominence, and most Americans still know very little about them. The world of comics is so much bigger than it’s ever been. Maybe it’s time its pundits figured that out.