(This is the first in a three-part series which will examine The Walking Dead’s rise to become the most successful independent comic book on the market)
There is no stopping The Walking Dead.
It goes without saying that Robert Kirkman‘s post-apocalyptic zombie thriller has become a bona fide cultural phenomenon. The comic on which the AMC television series is based is a perennial resident among the top sellers in the comic book market, and the show itself regularly eclipsed Sunday Night Football in ratings among American households.
What is it which has allowed this series to flourish and develop into the powerhouse that it is? In a comic book market where so many excellent titles languish, falter, and eventually disappear, how has The Walking Dead become not just the best-selling independent comic book, but one of the most dominant forces in the overall market, eclipsing all but the most powerful superhero brands?
YEAR ONE: IN THE BEGINNING
The Walking Dead launched in October of 2003 with what could only be called moderately respectable sales. There was the inevitable bump from market speculators (who will always gobble up new #1 issues) and the title sold an estimated 7,266 copies. This is a startlingly low number when one considers the heights to which the series has ascended, but is also why perfectly graded copies of this issue sell for well over two-thousand dollars at auctions. To put it in context with the rest of the market, debut sales for The Walking Dead positioned it for a tie for 233rd place with Sonic the Hedgehog.
As the chart demonstrates, it wouldn’t be long before the ascent began. After a slight dip in second issue sales (attributable to retailers’ understanding that the first issue bump is just that), The Walking Dead more than doubled its initial sales over the first fourteen issues. That increase saw it boost it’s position on the charts by nearly one hundred places to #144 by issue #14. It is also worth noting that it took fifteen months to reach that number of releases. In its early days, The Walking Dead would often be beset by publication delays which would subsequently be offset by months in which the title double-shipped. This sort of irregularity is typically poison for a new series, but the steady upward trend of the title in its first year showed that its readership was passionate and growing.
One reason the title continued to trend upward was the steadiness of it’s trade release schedule. The first volume released in June of 2004 at a price point of just $9.99 but didn’t exactly blow up the charts, coming in at just #46 for the month. What separated it from most mainstream books was that it was only two issues behind the latest issue of The Walking Dead to hit shelves, where most books were a good six to twelve months behind. This has since become a staple of Image Comics‘ trade schedule and would only get tighter as this book marched on. The second volume released at a higher price point of $12.95 just in time for Christmas, but both slipped to the bottom third of the Top 100 for the month. This would be the last time that any trade of The Walking Dead would debut outside of the top 50.
YEAR TWO: PRISON BREAKOUT
Where the first two volumes had seen only moderate success, selling under two thousand copies at their debut, “The Walking Dead – Volume 3: Safety Behind Bars” debuted at #1 for the month of May, selling over 6,500 copies and bringing the first volume along for the ride at a #51 finish.
This release also marked the first time that new readers of The Walking Dead could completely catch up with the series by purchasing the trades. Waiting until June to release issue #19 allowed new readers time to get up to speed and move on from there, which is demonstrated by the sharp jump in readership after the one-month hiatus. The jump from 15,540 copies in April to 17,222 in June represents more than a 10% increase in unit sales. Further, after only a slight dip in July, the upward march would resume. Despite an increasingly irregular release schedule, The Walking Dead continued to climb up the charts.
While only ten issues were released in 2005, with January, May, September, and December lacking a book on the shelves, the monthly sales grew by almost twenty percent over the course of the year, ending at 18,545. That number represents a startling 155% growth from its initial debut. More shocking is the meteoric rise in trade sales.By the time Volume 4 was released in December at #4 in the rankings, all four volumes of The Walking Dead (as well as the $100 first hardcover omnibus) would be in the Top 100 trades for the month, selling over 8,000 copies combined.
YEAR THREE: SHOWING ITS LEGS
In it’s third year, The Walking Dead truly began to take off. With only a few exceptionS, the title lingered just outside the Top 100 individual books for the entire year, held off primarily by the runaway success of DC Comics’ weekly series, 52. Were it not for that title occupying several of the top spots each month, 2006 would have been the year when The Walking Dead started to show itself as a serious challenger to the superhero titles which dominate the market. This year would also see the first and only price increase in the series’ history, with the cover price climbing ever-so-slightly from $2.95 to $2.99, where it has remained ever since.
While only nine issues of The Walking Dead were released over the course of the year, the readership continued to grow almost every month. The only declines came in April and November, and were negligible at less than 3%. Overall, the series saw nearly 10% growth for the second year in a row, with December’s issue #33 delivering sales of 21,234 copies, which is nearly three times the series’ debut numbers.
By the end of the year, after the fifth volume released at #2 in September, all five volumes would remain in the Top 100 trades, selling nearly 7,500 copies combined in December alone.
YEAR FOUR: BREAKING IN, BREAKING OUT
2007 would be The Walking Dead‘s most regular year of publication to that point. With the only break coming in May, following the release of the sixth volume, the series would deliver a twelve issue run which demonstrated it’s staying power. Mainstream publishers could have been advised to beware the proverbial ides of March, as that month was the first time that The Walking Dead broke into the Top 100 at #97. It would climb as high as #93 in June, but eventually fall out again as summer events such as DC’s Countdown and Marvel’s World War Hulk again began to dominate the sales charts.
It was a curious year for trade sales, as Volume 6 released in April to a paltry #43 finish, but immediately leapt to the #2 spot the following month, which did not have a monthly issue on comic shop shelves. The subsequent release of Volume 7 in September would mark the second time The Walking Dead topped the monthly trade sales, selling nearly 14,000 copies in that month alone.
Overall, it was a year of modest growth. Monthly sales grew by just under 7% for the year, making it the lowest growth for the series to that point. However, December marked the onset of America’s Great Recession, and consumer spending had begun to fall across the board. With economic panic on the horizon, The Walking Dead was about to show how the best comic books, with the help of a loyal fan base, may be the best investment one can make.