Monday, June 20, 2011

And I Can Prove It With Math! - Super-Hero Web Comics

And I Can Prove It With Math!
Super-Hero Web Comics

Chris Sims
Chris Sims of the Invincible Super-Blog, Awesome Hospital, Comics Alliance and War Rocket Ajax, recently argued that DC and Marvel should be producing Super-Hero Web Comics.

It is a seductive argument and makes a lot of sense, but the question is would it make economic sense for Marvel or DC to publish free web-comics online?

It seems like it would have to. After all, if Penny Arcade can run a small empire built off of a free web-comic. than surely Marvel or DC could figure out how to make money doing it. And if they could make money doing it, they would have to do it, unless of course (as the Internet frequently alleges) Marvel and DC hate money?

Exhibit A

Well, is there a way that we could prove that you could make money doing a super-hero web comic?


I am not an economist, but for the last six months I have been working on a series of short videos about key concepts on Introductory Economics for So, let's see if we can run some numbers and figure out if you could make super-hero web comics work.

Penny Arcade makes a profit by charging for advertising on their web-site. (Part of their inspired lunacy is that they only accept ads for games and products that they use and endorse.)

Even "unsuccessful" have a marketing budget
So our hypothetical super-hero web-comic would have to be supported by advertising. That should be pretty easy for both DC and Marvel. Given the number of Super-Hero movies coming out, the sites could do well just on advertising from within the same umbrella: Disney, Pixar and Marvel Films for Marvel and Warner Brothers for DC.

To get the super-hero web-comic launched, let's assume that the project's site will offer a sweet-heart deal to the film divisions of its partner companies and agrees to provide CPM (cost per thousand) rates of $3.00. (This is lower than industry rates, so if you can make the project work on those rates, than you can feel comfortable projecting that the project will be successful.) The film divisions benefit from advertising directly to their target audience at preferential rates. The project benefits from having a guaranteed revenue source. They only have to concentrate on delivering and building an audience.

(The one problem with this is that their might be competition rules that forbid offering sweetheart deals to partner companies. I suspect that the workaround on this would be that you would have to allow other compatible and/or competing companies to buy advertising at similar rates.)

Thor had much better marketing
How much would such a web-comic cost?

Let's forecast extremely high and say $600 per page to create the page, pay for its writer, artists, editor and to host it. At a page per week-day, your yearly cost is just over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. This is probably high, but if you can make it work at these numbers (i.e. break even), than any money that you save is profit. At 250 pages, you would be producing the equivalent of eleven 22 page comics, plus an eight page back-up per year. Ambitious for one creative team, but doable and if you did a new story every month and rotated art teams for each story, it's more than doable.

So if we are making 3 dollars per thousand views and each page costs $600.00, than you need 200, 000 views per page to break even.

For political reasons, you probably want to use a character and title that failed on the direct market. After all, it would be hard for comic-book stores to complain about Marvel or DC giving away a comic for free, if it was a comic that they couldn't sell. Even better if this comic happens to be an internet darling.

What could we possibly pick?

In addition to the above criteria, it would help if it was a family friendly title that had as its hero a character that has already been featured in a film and will be featured in more films over teh next couple of years.

How about Thor the Mighty Avenger by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee? It certainly qualifies as a title that was not supported by the direct market.

Thor the Mighty Avenger Circulation Numbers
(Numbers taken from Comichron)

Thor Mighty Avenger, 1, $2.99, Marvel, 20076
Thor Mighty Avenger, 2, $2.99, Marvel, 14315
Thor Mighty Avenger, 3, $2.99, Marvel, 12112
Thor Mighty Avenger, 4, $2.99, Marvel, 10887
Thor Mighty Avenger, 5, $2.99, Marvel, 9673
Thor Mighty Avenger, 6, $2.99, Marvel, 8420
Thor Mighty Avenger, 7, $2.99, Marvel, 8244
Thor Mighty Avenger, 8, $2.99, Marvel, 8323


Quick digression about the direct market. (For those who don't know anything about how comics are sold.)

Comic book publishers like Marvel and DC solicit comic-book stores (through comics distributor Diamond) generally two months in advance for how many copies of each title they want. The stores have to keep what they ordered unless they were in some way misled about what they were ordering. (The book was delivered late, the advertised artistic team changed, that sort of thing). As many people have mentioned, this means that for DC and Marvel, their real customer is the stores themselves, not the people who buy their comic at the store level.

How could a series with Volstagg fail?
The disadvantage to this system is that you have to order the third issue of a series before you receive the first issue. Which is why there is a calamitous drop-off between issues number 1 and 2 of Thor the Mighty Avenger. The retailers are just guessing how many copies that they will sell. Sometimes they guess low and sell-out. Generally, though they do a pretty good job of guessing how many copies that they can sell. (And you'll note that when they ordered issue number 4, when they knew how many copies of number 1 that they had sold, the numbers dropped even more. If anything, comic book store retailers were too optimistic about sales of Thor the Mighty Avenger.)

Most stores encourage their regular customers to give them their "pull list" of what comics that they will buy on a regular basis and the store puts those aside for those customers. This gives stores a good basis to predict how many copies of each book that they will sell. This is especially important when you need to average better than 90% sell-through to make a profit.


Based on those circulation numbers it seems clear that the direct market collectively decided that an all-ages critically acclaimed Thor comic book would sell about 8, 500 copies a month at $2.99. (Or to put it another way, comic book stores were prepared to buy 8, 500 copies a month at about $1.45 each to sell at $2.99.)

8, 500 readers is a long way away from the 200, 000 readers that we need to sustain the Thor Mighty Avenger web-comic.

If only there was a way to know how many readers a free Thor the Mighty Avenger comic book would get...



Nice of Marvel to do the market research
Fortunately for would-be economists, this year during Free Comic Book Day, comic-book retailers were able to order a Thor the Mighty Avenger comic book (featuring Captain America) by Landridge and Samnee to give away.

Technically, this doesn't tell us how many people would read a free Thor the Mighty Avengers comic book available on the Internet. It tells us how many copies of this comic book that retailers were prepared to order at 25 cents each to make available for free to customers that came to their store on Free Comic Book Day. We can safely assume that they would have ordered enough to be able to make their customers happy but also to run out before the end of the day.

At the very least, the number of free Thor the Mighty Avenger comics ordered for FCBD should tell us the minimum number of readers that a free Landrige and Samnee Thor the Mighty Avenger web-comic would attract.

That number?

195, 150.


Missing 4, 850 readers.

I guess Sims is wrong. This plan will obviously never work.

(Thanks to Leslie Jackson of Diamond for FCBD circulation numbers and Comichron for the regular price circulation numbers. All pictures copyright their respective owners.)


  1. You sir are a king of maths

  2. Very interesting running of numbers. And I bet they could get away with less than $600 a page by recruiting new talent, thereby also keeping that part of the industry more sustainable.

    However, I found this amusing: "At 250 pages, you would be producing the equivalent of eleven 22 page comics, plus an eight page back-up per year. Ambitious for one creative team..."

    "Ambitious," eh? Or as we called it in the old days, "What every creative team did all the time on every title."

  3. "Ambitious," eh? Or as we called it in the old days, "What every creative team did all the time on every title."

    Emphasis on old days. Now it seems like the only way that a creative team does 12 issues in a year without at least one fill-in issue is if they get a running start at it.

    Or to put it another way, the guys who manage to do this (Mark Bagley, Stuart Immonen off the top of my head) feel like exceptions rather than the rule.