Or, Why Robert Kirkman Irritates Me So Much
Welcome to my first opinion rant! Of the many types of content that I want to do going forward, I thought the occasional industry opinion piece could be a good way to explain certain bits of news and pulp culture happenings through the eyes of an ex-comic retailer. So hold onto your butts because I have a lot of pent up retailer grief that I'm more than happy to share as a part of self-therapy. I will try to keep swearing down to a minimum, but hey.......let me have this.
The topic of this particular rant, as you can see, is of the horribly successful comic creator Robert Kirkman. Here's some quick context:
-Kirkman's first comic work was back in 2000 in the series Battle Pope, which he created with Tony Moore.
-In 2003, Kirkman and Cory Walker created Invincible, which always throws me off because I always thought it was after Walking Dead but my old man memory is definitely a thing. Invincible will eventually (probably) be an animated show, making Kirkman more money.
-With the success of the Walking Dead as a show and franchise, Robert Kirkman is a poster child for successful independent comic creators. Regardless of any ownership shenanigans, which I ain't touching in this rant.
-It took Kirkman only 20 years to reach this level of success. Just think about that.
My main focus is on how, as a retailer, its always felt that Kirkman has been a bit tone deaf in regards to the fragile relationships between comic publishers/creators and comic book stores. I'm not going to say he's abusive, but I am going to say that he just can't read a room, or even be anywhere near the room, or even acknowledge that there is a room at times. He definitely would like us to throw a party for him in the room though.
The first instance I'll bring up is the secret launch of his Image title Die!Die!Die! back in 2018. Kirkman likes to be innovative (maybe not always in his scripting, but in marketing), and so he wanted to try something new with this title. There were no solicitations for the project at all, and the week before its arrival retailers might have noticed a notation on their invoices for something called 'RetailerThankYou' (or something along those lines, I can't quite recall the exact listing). Then on the Tuesday before new comic book day, retailers opened their shipments up and saw this odd book that was not on their invoices. Kirkman released the following statement the same day:
"That's right, in stores TOMORROW. We want to make going to a comic shop exciting again -- a place for discovery! The internet has drained all surprise and anticipation from comics. Everyone hears about exciting new projects and then has to wait months or years for it to be in their hands... and half the time at the end of that buildup, the stories get spoiled in some lame attempt at getting wider media attention. So, surprise! Here's a new monthly series. How cool is that?! This is literally the only way I can be like Beyoncé."
So...ok, I kind of get it. There's some validity to what he says, but it's also the nature of the beast. Because here's the thing, even though the book was technically free to retailers (making it difficult to complain about but OH I WILL FIND A WAY), we had no control over the orders. They took a look at some previous order numbers on similar titles and just shot them out, with no idea on if this would be enough or too much for any store because we are the only ones who would know that. Ordering comics is a dangerous combination of trend tracking, dark wizardry, and non-linear mental gymnastics that could impress an elder god at times. So I would thank you to not assume you know what I need to order for my customers.
In general, there was no real harm done. We never sold through it all despite all the variant covers, and the book never really hit our customer base. I think I had like 6 subscribers when all was said and done, as opposed to the 50+ regular Walking Dead single-issue sales we had every month. Kirkman doesn't even translate to Kirkman as far as trends go, the Walking Dead had always been its own unique case. The more aggravating aspect about this whole thing was that tracking this book in our subscription software was a pain in the ass. It wasn't coded properly because it was a surprise, when the series code was finally introduced into the software it didn't automatically connect customer accounts to the series, it wouldn't place orders for future issues because of the disconnect, and so on. Kirkman had what he thought was a cool idea and acted without completely bothering to figure out what all the consequences were.
This created a precedent.
Fast forward to 2019. We're minding our business, and we receive our copies of Walking Dead #193. It's oddly oversized, which makes me worry as I check the invoice to see how much we paid for this issue. Then the news breaks online that it is the final issue. Keep in mind, we aren't reading the books as they arrive, because new comic inventory takes at least 8-12 hours of focused processing time. So we take a look inside, and yup, it's the final issue. And how many shelf copies did I have on hand after my pre-orders? About 10, which is exactly what I have always needed for the past year, no more and no less. What possible, surprise reason would require more copies......oh.
And how many copies could I have sold once the news broke? Probably a minimum of another 50, but I bet you I could have hit 100.
So, a few things to take into account:
2. We know from Die!Die!Die! that it is within your power to surprise ship extra free books. So......why not now?
3. I'm not saying give us free copies. If you have any confidence in your product, you'll send them as a consignment. If you are unaware, a consignment in this industry means you overship copies and if they do not sell after a certain date then you can send them back. If retailers do not return them, then retailers have to pay for them. A lot of publisher's don't like the extra effort. Marvel refuses to do it, and instead just overships comics for free to varying degrees of effectiveness. Seriously, we couldn't give away those copies of Strikeforce #1.
So, with 10 shelf copies, what do we have? We have a lot of disappointed customers, some who just want to read the damn thing and not collect or resell it. The book jumps in price on the secondary market, and sure, there was a 2nd print, but people have to wait. And if they have to wait, then the spoilers can hit, which definitely goes against the surprise element. He wrote an open letter about it and made up some bullshit, but I just straight up don't care. Very simple steps could have been taken to ensure that this was a 'surprise' without screwing over retailers and fans. I've spoken with plenty of fans who thought it was a cool thing, and hey, that's great, you got a payoff on your story investment. That also means you were lucky enough to get a copy.
My only joy I can take from this situation is that it was later revealed that this whole thing made a mess for Midtown Comics and DCBS. In an interview, Kirkman went on to explain, "The downside to that, though, is that the largest retailers are DCBS and Midtown Comics, and they do a ton of business through mail order. So your most valuable retail partners who order the most books had taken a ton of orders for issues that no longer exist, and they had to cancel those orders and refund those customers. So that part was possibly a miscalculation on my part."
"Possibly a miscalculation on my part." Gee, you think, you insufferable shit canoe?
So, fast forward to 2020, year of the Dumpster Fire. In his ever-generous desire to support the industry, Kirkman makes a surprise announcement (HEY I LOVE THOSE) revealing a special one-shot Walking Dead comic titled Negan Lives.
“I've been inspired by Steve Geppi and Diamond's efforts to shine a light on how essential the Direct Market is to our beloved industry with their #backthecomeback campaign. While Charlie Adlard and I had laid the series to rest, this felt like something special we could do for the store owners who made our series a success to begin with. To that end, I'm happy to report that 100% of the revenue generated from this book will go to the stores selling it. The retailer community does backbreaking work to get comics into the hands of our loving fans, we should all be doing more in these trying times to show them how appreciated they are.”
Ok. So the intent is good. Legit, we did not have to pay for the books or for shipping. The bitter part for us was this was announced the week after our stores announced we were shutting down for good. And hey, any free money is good money regardless of the situation, it's not like this was going to save us in any way. In general, this was a positive thing. Even the last-minute coding for the software worked out ok, they figured it out.
But what's that on the invoice? 55 copies, with no ability beforehand to increase (and we would have gladly paid for more if needed), or decrease (please I don't need any more Strikeforce, we gotta liquidate an entire store now man). Nope, we just get the equivalent of how many copies we normally ordered for Walking Dead. Plus some variants, which, if you had allowed us to place orders on those based on whatever rules you set up, we probably could have made a lot of customers happy. No? Just 3 customers happy? Oh, and most of them arrived damaged? So 1 customer happy.....hooooray.
In the end it didn't matter. We had like 20 unsold copies that went into the dollar bins in our final weeks of operation, and even then they didn't sell. Because that whole 'surprise' element? It's nothing. The system is meant to work on a cycle, because people need time to process and find things. People need their retailers to help them find things. If I hadn't posted the news about Negan in my newsletter and didn't broadcast it, I know for a fact that at least 20 people wouldn't have known or cared. And 20 might not seem like a lot, but it adds up. If I had 2 months to broadcast? I could have probably gotten more copies pre-sold. So even though Kirkman apparently understands that, "The retailer community does backbreaking work to get comics into the hands of our loving fans", he still doesn't understand or care for the systems in place to help retailers do that efficiently.
My final note is about his newest Walking Dead endeavor. This past month they've announced that they're going to color Walking Dead, complete with an onslaught of variant covers. For the past couple years, our sales of Walking Dead trades have stagnated like you wouldn't believe. What was once one of our most consistent sellers for Image trades just sat and sat on the shelf. We tried blowing them out sale after sale after sale, and even at $5 a pop barely any ever sold.
For us in Seattle, the series is just a rotting carcass that can't even shamble like its namesake. This announcement feels like desperation, and feels just as creatively hollow as Kirkman's marketing innovations have proven to be time after time.
That's it for this first opinion piece! I promise they won't all be so negative as I'll want to focus on such subjects as:
Mental Health & Comics
Print VS Digital
Collectability & Completism
The Strange Business of Variant Covers