Numlock Sunday: John Jackson Miller talks the oncoming dark ages of comics data
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to John Jackson Miller, who this year did not write an article about the comic book market.
I will level with you: for, me? This is devastating.
John runs Comichron, which is a one-of-a-kind data project that tracks the entire history of comic books in North America. I talk to him every year, and he’s a historian who tracks one of the most important mediums of pop culture, and today he is blaring the siren: this is the dark ages. Because of several decisions made by the main publishers, we have never known less about the comics market than we do today. From a historian’s perspective, this is the worst time in decades.
I talked to John — live, at New York Comic Con — all about his work, what happened to impede historians working right now, and what we could hope for in the future. This is far from the only field in media in which entrenched interests have tried to kill open data sharing, and it’s far from the last.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
John, thank you so much for coming back on. I wanted to talk to you this week because usually I talk to you after I put a big story of yours every year in the newsletter, but this year I didn't because it wasn't possible for you to write it. Do you want to tell me a little bit about what's going on with comics?
I had done for about 10 years with Milton Griepp and ICv2 an annual state of the industry report where we looked at all the numbers that were available in terms of comic sales. What began happening is in March of 2020, the pandemic caused Diamond Comic Distributors to shut down for several weeks.
This led to a, more or less, I don't want to say a disintegration of the distribution system, but everything went fragmented. So while we did have excellent data on circulation, the number of copies that were out there in the comics direct market, which refers to the comic shops, we had had that information for decades. We suddenly had a situation where DC Comics had opted out of it. And then Marvel goes to its own distributor as well, at Random House.
And then we only had basically the remnant at Diamond. And then over the last couple of years, Diamond has lost Dark Horse and Image as well. They still distribute those comics, but as a wholesaler. So they are only carrying a fraction of those books.
So right now, even though Diamond still does some reporting, it's basically their weekly reorder reports saying what retailers ran out of or what they think they're going to run out of in terms of their advanced reorder report. And this is a lopsided thing in the data. Because you have the titles that they have exclusively from publishers, like Boom and Dynamite, doing much better relative to other titles that almost certainly are outselling them from Marvel and Image. And of course there's no DC at all in the picture because Diamond is only carrying DC internationally. It's not carrying DC in the States.
Curiously, after Image left this September, those particular charts started to look a little bit more normal. Because now we had a case where Diamond is only reporting its portion of Marvel sales, its portion of Dark Horse sales, its portion of Image sales. And though we do have a handful of publishers that they are reporting 100 percent of the sales from, it's much more likely that when you see a title leading Diamond's advanced reorder report that it will be the number one title of that particular week, presuming there isn't a DC title that did better. Again, there are no numbers you can attach to this, though.
And so I have nothing from which to work to generate any content.
You're a historian. Is it fair to say that this is the worst time for comic book data in history?
This is the worst time for comic book data in history.
People in the business, ComicPro, various publishers, various entities that are serving the business or providing software to the business, they have been talking about various things. There was a discussion here at New York Comic Con during the industry days of the event about data streamlining and doing things to handle the fact that we used to have one order code for a particular comic book, an identifier that came from Diamond, and that referred to it and it led to a reference to a unique book.
Whereas once you get Lunar distributing DC books, that's a different system that they have. Random House is using UPC code. So we have all these things that make it very difficult just to know whether we're talking about the same books, whether we're referring to books that are releasing in the same time frame. It's just very complicated and what they've been talking about, I saw the report a couple of days ago from Heidi McDonald who runs Comics Beat. She was saying that there's some discussion that maybe they'll have sell-through reporting available from some service in several years. And of course the sell-through reporting is already sort of done by my former partners in this project in ICv2.
There's a company called Comic Hub, which is a point-of-sale service, and they collate their sales every month and they report it. But that's only a small portion of the retailers. And it's also, there are various issues with time frame in terms of the reporting, because you'll see a comic book that comes out in the last week of their reporting period and it will be shorted by about 14 or 15 percent versus a title that came out in the first week of the month.
I have always felt, and I have done in my years — now almost 30 years this November of being a reporter professionally covering the comics business — I have done stuff having to do with sales to consumers. I've done the consumer market reporting. I have done projects where I send the call for data out and it comes in from the retailers. Comics Retailer Magazine for years had a sheet in the magazine, a reader response card where people would fill out what they sold. My earliest project was actually how I met my wife.
Oh my gosh.
Because yes, Meredith Miller was originally Meredith Woodwell, who was the manager of Zanadu Comics in Seattle.
We met through the project, and she was faxing me their sales figures, at that time I needed guinea pig data to work on. She was one of several people who was sending me this material. And I realized at the time that it was going to be a full-time job for somebody. Somebody needs to pay for somebody to do this.
And even so, I never thought that the sell-through data in the comic shop market was very interesting because, first of all, it fails the test that I apply to data when it comes to comics, because what is the most important data to the comics collector or retailer? It is not how many copies sold in a given month in a given reporting period. We don't care about what was in the Billboard Hot 100 in a particular week. We care about how many copies were pressed. To use the record metaphor—
We care about how many copies exist. How many copies were originally out there so that we can go back and look up Walking Dead, no. 1, and say, okay, there are legitimately under 10,000 copies of this particular product out there. X-Men, no. 1, vol. 2, in 1991: 8.127 million copies.
This is useful to us. It is not meaningful to us or the person looking back through history that, oh, this many copies of it sold the month that it came out. That's not useful information. So who's it useful to? It’s useful to the publishers who are wanting to beat their chests about what's selling. It's useful for PR purposes. It's useful to a degree for retailers who are trying to figure out how to stock their stores and what to buy more of, but that information is already reflected in the order numbers.
The numbers that we used to have. Because the direct market comics when you buy them, they're nonreturnable. So it just so happened that the number of copies retailers ordered naturally would gravitate to something close to what they sold because if they didn't sell out, they wouldn't order as many the next time.
So what are we losing, and what are future historians losing when we don't have this data?
We don't know the size of the market relative to previous years. We don't know what genres were more resilient or powerful at one time or another. We've got lawsuits that get filed by creators all the time. I remember I submitted some data to one of the more famous lawsuits more than 20 years ago in comics. I didn't get subpoenaed on it, but I did have a situation here recently where that could have happened where somebody needed to know how many copies were actually put into the marketplace to be able to say, “Hey, this is forensic accounting here. Here's what they really sold. Here's what they really got paid for.”
All this kind of stuff. All these kinds of questions I think are of interest and there's just no way right now. That's why when it came time to do the annual report with ICv2, I just kind of stepped out of it. I made sure that my partner, Milton Griepp, had the files because he did continue to use his material.
He does the graphic novel market.
A lot of what he brought to that project was information that was distinct from what I had.
I had a lot of stuff about the newsstand. Well, the newsstand market got smaller and smaller and smaller every year. There were a lot of things that just weren't trackable even before now. And so I got to the point where I sort of said, there really is only so much I can contribute on this score. Much, much more of what I’m interested in is the harder data that I've got from the 1930s all the way up that is not on my website. That I will be finding a way to get out there.
Just to take a little step back, this is not just comics that we're seeing this trend in. You see the kind of demise of television ratings. You see the kind of demise of watch numbers all across media. People are withholding information that used to be really important, not only for current people operating in a market, but also just for the historical record. What do you make of that?
In many cases, there's way too much data. In many cases, the publishers themselves don't have ready or correct access to things. This really starts to blow apart in the ebook era. Ebooks at the beginning of unit sales being irrelevant to a lot of markets where the only care is, what did they make? What's the final dollar value?
I'm a comics writer. I'm an author. At least on the comics side of things, I know how much money I've made from digital comics from my traditional publishers, but I don't have any accounting whatsoever of how many digital units were moved. And I'm not certain the publishers have that information, either.
Because I think, what's the importance of it? I mean, you're not going to use it to set your prices anyway, because of the way these contracts are set up with these publishers. It's not as if the difference between having 100,000 units out there and 120,000 units out there has any impact on the supply of electrons that you've got sitting around someplace.
It just became a less salient piece of information to have. And again, that's fine. This was always going to happen, in a lot of different fields as we began digitizing things, as we began divorcing things from the physical component.
I follow the Billboard charts from 20, 30, 40 years ago. I'm fascinated by the things like that. I think the guy at Stereo Gum that does that, Tom Breihan, it's a wonderful, wonderful thing, he also does a box office one, I think it's fascinating watching over the years, You start being able to game the system of record sales —
With streaming now, too, you just see the deterioration in real time.
And it becomes less and less useful and becomes less and less interesting and less and less reflective of what’s really going on I think in the culture.
I'm honestly constantly questioning at what point do I cut bait and stop covering anything related to Billboard.
Yeah, I mean, I love it.
Yeah, I do too. I really do.
I think it's fascinating, but I was really filling that same space. And the thing is, I was unlike Billboard in that, well, again, this goes back to the consumers. The consumers want new sales charts, sales charts about new things for different reasons than the historian wants those charts. The consumer wants to go, “Hey, Taylor Swift's stuff.” Or Morgan Wallen. And then...
They'll affirm that their love of a thing is justified.
Exactly. So they want it for those reasons, none of which is really that relevant to history. And the historian looking back, wanting to say, “Okay, what was the real impact of Batmania in 1989? What was the real impact of Batmania in 1966? What was the real impact of television shows having an influence on sales?”
You're talking my language right now.
In 1969, the number one comic book in America is Archie. Why? And we know it's because Archie has a TV show and Archie has a hit single in “Sugar, Sugar.”
Again, this is the kind of thing where we have this accident of history and we have the postal sales data they legally had to file. That's why we know, here's a data point that shows you the seismic charge in comic sales. This is the reflection of this happening here. This is the reflection of Batman debuting in January 1966.
Your data is so cool, man. I could pore over it all day. I'm always excited to see what you’ve got next. Just kind of backing out a bit, first things first, you're the historian saying that we're in the dark ages. If you’ve got a call to action, what would you like to see?
I’d like to see the three major distributors recognize what the two distributors in 1996 recognized. When I reconciled the data between Marvel, which had its own distribution company, and Diamond, my reconciliation of those working with both companies caused the beginning of what is now Comichron as a monthly reporting system. It was because Marvel, which had in the previous year and a half not released any data, Marvel realized that it was hurting their business.
It was hurting their retailers, not to have that information out. They look to me as a person in the middle. I have not been willing, really, to go to too much trouble to try to replicate that now because I realize that there is, I don't want to say it's just corporate reluctance now, that didn't exist 30 years ago, although that is the case.
Marvel was its own small entity back then. It's now part of a major conglomerate. DC is part of its own system. Random House is yet another player, and Diamond is another player. So there are more players to worry about.
But if everybody released the same information that followed the same criteria—
That's the challenge, because you can't have everybody just trying to make things look like, “Oh, we sold more than anybody else.” It would really be about what Diamond was doing. Diamond was reporting what left the warehouse. I want to know what left the warehouse, and it has to be the identical time frame at all reporting places. I have to be able to bring it all together with something where I can actually get the metadata right, so that I know the ship dates of things. I know the cover prices of things, and everything else.
I mean, the history of this field is relying on that.
It's relying on that and I really sort of came to the conclusion that what was going to make that very difficult is the players involved beyond what the publishers might say about whether they should do it or not. I don't know that they have the personnel to be able to do that kind of reporting.
This is why when Lunar took control of DC distribution, I was not surprised at all that they didn't even look at doing a sales chart, because whether DC wanted them to or not, they had a huge job taking over DC comic sales for everybody, being a small company.
In the midst of a pandemic.
In the midst of a pandemic.
So the thing is, this is something where I think if the publishers realized that they make money from this information being available, then it'll happen. But otherwise, as I've said, all of the sources of this kind of data historically have usually come from some particular situation that forced them to do it.
The Audit Bureau of Circulation had data from all the publishers because if they wanted to sell advertising, they had to be audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulation or one of its successors. There aren't any ads in comics anymore.
If you wanted to send your comics by subscription in what was second-class mail, which later becomes periodical class, you absolutely had to have one of these expensive postal licenses that required you starting in 1960 to report your annual sales publicly in your own publication so that the American consumer knew that you weren't ripping them off getting a cheaper rate by selling catalogs to them.
Amazing. What a fascinating accident of history.
Well, and these are all things like that. Milton Griepp and ICv2 had been at Capital City Distribution and he decided one day, “Hey, wouldn't it be nice if the retailers saw how well Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is selling relative to X-Men? And then they'll realize, oh, they've got something there.” Well, that's not necessarily in the interest of a single publisher to try to promote the fortunes of a brand new title by somebody else.
You have been so generous with your time. In addition to being a historian and honestly one of my favorite people to read on this topic, you are also an acclaimed author and comic creator. What books have you got out now?
On the shelves? Now I am following in the footsteps of Alan Dean Foster and Christie Golden and other people who have done Star Wars and Star Trek, more or less at the same time. My latest Star Trek novel is out now, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds: The High Country in hardcover and audiobook and ebook. It also has the fun distinction of being the first Star Trek novel with planetary maps in it. And that's a very cool thing.
One of my joys here recently is I got to speak to another academic, the person who does the archiving for the Tolkien estate. And we got to discuss the role of maps, and the interesting connection between the Tolkien maps and that led directly to the maps being in my book.
That's so cool.
Because the maps in the 1990s version of The Lord of the Rings were drawn for Del Rey by Shelly Shapiro, who was the assistant editor to Judy-Lynn and Lester del Rey. She was my editor on Star Wars: Lost Tribe of the Sith.
I asked her, “Hey Shelly, can I include my maps?” And she says, “John, do you know who I am?” But I said, “Well, you're my editor.” And she said, “Yes.” But she did not just those maps, but also she did almost all of the maps that appeared in Del Rey's science fiction and fantasy novels, and hand drew them in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
And I said, “Great.” She said, “I'd love to include your maps.” And I said, “Well, that's wonderful. Will you draw mine?”
And she said, “No.”
But of course we included them. I literally took that book up to one of the people that I deal with at Paramount when we were getting ready to do Strange New Worlds: The High Country. And she happened to know Shelly and saw the maps. And I said, “I've got maps. Let's do maps.” And so we've got maps, and that's a nice added thing.
So that book is on shelves now. I also have two academic works that I have articles in from Vernon Press. There's one on Star Wars, one on Star Trek. There's an essay in each of them on the relationship between Star Wars and Star Trek individually in the Star Wars volume and the Star Trek volume. There's an essay that I wrote on the history of their comics and novels and canon. Amy Sturgis is the editor. Emily Strand is the co-editor of those volumes, those are out now; it’s fascinating watching the way that those two franchises react to one another.
I have to read this immediately. Holy crap John, I had no idea.
Finally the new thing, just announced, is the next Star Wars novel for me. The first Star Wars novel for me since Star Wars: A New Dawn back in 2014. This comes out April 9, 2024. It is called Star Wars: The Living Force and it celebrates 25 years of The Phantom Menace by telling a story a year before it, in which Qui-Gon Jinn along with Obi-Wan Kenobi convinces the Jedi Council to go on a road trip. So it's the Jedi Council on spring break.
And it's just a lot of fun. And it will be out audiobook, ebook and hardcover April 9.
All right, I'm getting my preorder in now. That sounds amazing, John. Thank you so much for your time.
Thanks very much.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.