Jul
21

Number Crunching: Looking at Vertigo Cancellations

Posted by on Wednesday, July 21st, 2010 at 02:23:56 AM

Vertigo has recently announced the end of three titles: Air, Unknown Soldier, and most recently Greek Street. While comic fans have become inured to superhero cancellations — Agents of Atlas just got canned for what I believe is the nineteenth time in five years — many people feel special pain for the premature end of more personal creator-owned books like those at Vertigo. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise: the majority of Vertigo titles end within about two years, well before their creators’ projected endpoints:

vertigo-graph-series-lengths

I don’t wish to suggest people cannot lament their favorite underdogs: at least some of us at FBB are outspoken fans of Air and Young Liars, and while none of us cared much for Greek Street, I don’t wish to make light of its fans. But people — and I am focusing on the most prominent mourner, Rich Johnston — need to be realistic about their love of spectacularly unsuccessful projects.

After the cancellation of Air, Unknown Soldier and now Greek Street, this feels like a bit of an epidemic. Another sign that Vertigo is suffering from undue attention from above. Will people please stop cancelling my favourite comics? Especilly the ones that seemed to have legs!

He also lamented the entire Vertigo line:

So now of course I’m suddenly also fearful for DMZ, Northlanders, Greek Street, Sweet Tooth and Scalped. Who do I need to pray to to keep the likes of these on the books?

Obviously, Rich was right-on to worry about Greek Street, but let’s look at the June sales numbers for all of these books:

Sweet Tooth 10 9,570
Northlanders 29 7,498
Scalped* 38 6.632
DMZ 54 6,661
Greek Street 12 5,905
Unknown Soldier 21 5,371
Air 22 4,973

*No issue of Scalped in June, numbers taken from the May issue

Seems pretty logical, the three lowest-selling books are the ones on the chopping block. Granted, the distance between the seven books isn’t that great, under 5,000 copies, and conventional wisdom has been that books selling under 10,000 are subject to cancellation, even with Vertigo’s lowered expectations. But as Johnston points out in his own articles, trade sales are a big part of Vertigo’s success. Looking at the past twelve months worth of trade sales through Diamond, let’s look at these same seven books:

Title DM Amazon Rank
DMZ v7: War Powers 5,473 51,056
Sweet Tooth v1: Out of the Woods 5,442 68,902
Northlanders v2: The Cross + The Hammer 5,100 43,697
DMZ v8: Hearts and Minds 4,857 11,712
Northlanders v3: Blood in the Snow 4,658 114,172
Scalped v6: The Gnawing 4,388 22,045
Scalped v5: High Lonesome 4,121 197,966
DMZ v1: On the Ground 3,969 86,638
Unknown Soldier v1: Haunted House 3,680 134,762
Scalped v1: Indian Country 3,554 89,786
Greek Street v1: Blood Calls for Blood 3,430 182,184
Northlanders v1: Sven the Returned 3,083 34,195
Air v2: Flying Machine 2,814 248,146
Unknown Soldier v2: Easy Kill 2,379 212,002
Air v3: Pureland 2,184 70,891

(Amazon Sales Rankings taken the evening of 20 July and are probably absolutely meaningless)

DMZ, Northlanders and Scalped, though performing only marginally better than the doomed books on a monthly basis, are all several years into their runs. While there’s been attrition on the monthly level, it appears they all enjoy a fairly robust life in collections: though it’s over four years old, the first volume of DMZ appears to be outselling all of the newer trades from the canceled books, both in comic shops and on Amazon. One could argue this is an unfair fight, since these surviving books have had longer to find an audience, and if you gave them time, they would flourish. But none of the surviving books ever had sales as low as Air, Greek Street or Unknown Soldier, and there is little to no precedent for a book suddenly finding a new audience a year or more after it debuts. Greek Street in particular, though the numbers were skewed due to its $1 first issue, shed over 70% of its initial audience in its first year. The only ongoing in the history of Vertigo to do that badly was the late, unlamented Deadman revamp helmed by Bruce Jones. Most successful Vertigo books lose less than 40% of their audience in the first year: DMZ lost 22%, Lucifer lost 31%, Fables and Y the Last Man gained readers between their first and twelfth issue.

But still, Johnston maintains that the only reason these books were canceled was due to mucking around from Diane Nelson and Dan Didio, and that prior to their “undue attention” these books would’ve kept going. But historically, Vertigo has canceled books selling considerably better than any of these three. Check out the sales figures for the final issues of these books:

Title Final Issue Sales
Hunter: Age of Magic 11,200
Swamp Thing v3 10,900
Books of Magick: Life During Wartime 10,900
Codename: Knockout 10,300
The Witching 9,100
Outlaw Nation 9,100
American Century 8,700
The Crusades 8,100
Swamp Thing v4 7,400
Human Target v2 7,300
Loveless 6,843
Deadenders 6,700
American Virgin 6,694
Exterminators 6,378

If there has been any change in their behavior over the past several years, it seems as if it has been to let books sink lower than before, as five or six years ago, books selling over 10,000 were up for execution. I want to make it clear, I have no real insight into the goings-on at Vertigo: the sales figures released to the public are incomplete at best, and there are all sorts of variables I’m not privy to — the nature of creator contracts and payments, sales outside of Diamond Comics Distribution, international reprints, planned licensing deals, the cost of printing, all sorts of stuff — that have changed from the launch of Deadenders ten years ago and now. I’m sure there are solid reasons that books used to be canceled with sales much higher than some of today’s enduring series. But looking at all of this, I have no idea why anyone would postulate these books are being canceled because of “undue attention from above”, beyond baseless rumor-mongering.

Speaking of baseless rumor-mongering, after Keith Giffen relaunched Legion of Super Heroes with the divisive “Five Years Later” storyline in 1989, he went seventeen years before he got another assignment that lasted for more than a twelve issue run. Look it up: sure, his runs on Justice League America and Justice League Europe went longer, but those were hit titles he started prior to Legion. Until he lasted all fifty-two issues of layouts on 52, he never had more than a twelve issue run from 1989-2006. He even had mini-seriesPunX, Beast, Tattered Spirits — left incomplete or finished by other writers. You want to look for a conspiracy, follow the Disgruntled Legion Fans. That’s where the real secrets are buried.

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