Who's buying digital comics, anyway? If they're gonna be a big deal in the future, there has to be a market for them, right? Up until recently, however, the answer was a resounding chorus of "who knows?" but with the release of a few of ComiXology's top 10 lists for 2010, which details the bestselling comics by unit, we can finally begin to make some educated guesses.You can tell a lot about an audience by what it consumes. The Direct Market in traditional comic shops is mainly concerned with superhero periodicals, where Marvel and DC dominate the sales charts, with a combined 77.35% of the the total number of comics sold for 2010. Will digital comics evolve to be similarly saturated, or will we see an abundance of some other publisher's books?

We can start to examine this with ComiXology's official lists of Top 10 comics for 2010, which do not include sales for the publisher-branded apps, including Marvel and DC, but do include sales from those companies in the main Comics app. So while we do not have the full picture, we can look at that specific app, which includes dozens of publishers and thousands of comics, as representing the potential digital market who are not specifically searching for Marvel or DC Comics.

We examined several charts of best-sellers to figure out who's buying digital comics, and what they're buying, and the differences from the Direct Market were dramatic

ComiXology's lists tell us the top 10 best-selling comics via their online services, in addition to the top 10 best-selling series. Here are the two charts in question:

Top Ten Best-Selling Comics (by unique series)

  1. Wanted #2
  2. Kick-Ass #1
  3. The Walking Dead Vol. 1
  4. The Pro
  5. Grimm Fairy Tales Return to Wonderland #2
  6. Chew #2
  7. Civil War #1
  8. Hack/Slash: The Series #1
  9. Sandman #1
  10. Y: The Last Man #1

Top Ten Series (units sold)

  1. The Walking Dead
  2. Kick-Ass
  3. Wanted
  4. Civil War
  5. Grimm Fairy Tales Return to Wonderland
  6. Hack/Slash: The Series
  7. Chew
  8. Hunter Killer
  9. Witchblade
  10. Sandman

And here's Diamond Comics Distributors' top ten for the year, also sorted by unit:

  1. Avengers #1
  2. X-Men #1
  3. Blackest Night #8
  4. Siege #1
  5. Blackest Night #7
  6. New Avengers #1
  7. Brightest Day #0
  8. Brightest Day #1
  9. Siege #2
  10. Batman: Return Of Bruce Wayne #1

A quick glance at the Comixology's best-selling comics list reveals something remarkable right off the bat. The only Marvel or DC books on the list are Mark Millar and John Romita Jr's Kick-Ass, a creator-owned book, Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's Civil War, a work for hire title, and Neil Gaiman and Sam Kieth's Sandman, another work for hire book. If you go by the top ten series, the Big Two are responsible for just 30% of ComiXology's units sold. This is a sharp drop from the 77% they control in the Direct Market.

Further examination of the Top Ten Series on ComiXology reveals even more interesting data. Creator-owned books are 50% of the list. Creator-owned series don't even show up on Diamond's top ten list, but I was still curious. I created a chart of the combined Top 300 sales lists from January 2010 to November 2010, covering 3317 comics, to go along with Diamond's official Top 500 for 2010.

The highest charting creator-owned comic on the official Diamond list was Kick-Ass 2 #1 at #103, followed by Nemesis #1 at #136, and Image Firsts Walking Dead at #171 on my Top 3317 chart. Diamond's chart does not count reprint comics, apparently. Diamond's top ten, with the exceptions of Avengers #1, New Avengers #1, and X-Men #1, are event comics. That means 70% of the top ten at Diamond were event books, while the only event comic that rates on ComiXology is Civil War. That's quite a difference, isn't it?

Image is the number one publisher on ComiXology, distributing five out of the top ten series, whether directly or via its Top Cow imprint. In the Direct Market via Diamond Image took fourth place in 2010, with 3.71% unit share, just slightly below Dark Horse's 3.88%. The Walking Dead's prominence is unsurprising, with a high profile AMC television series and day-and-date releases undoubtedly bringing in fans.

Meanwhile, Garth Ennis and Amanda Conner's The Pro's appearance at #4 of the best-selling comics is an impressive showing. This creator-owned one-shot about a prostitute superheroine came out nearly a decade ago, but still continues to sell and sell. There's clearly a market for this type of comic, and hopefully we'll see more digital books from both creators.

Hack/Slash: The Series is Tim Seeley's slasher comic from Devil's Due. Though the series moved to Image earlier this year, these issues are still distributed under the Devil's Due name, and for a mere $0.99. The price is right, judging by its place on ComiXology's chart, and Hack/Slash's combination of Scream-style slasher film deconstruction/glorification and fantastic covers has paid off very well.

The only huge suprise here is Zenescope's Grimm Fairy Tales Return to Wonderland. The highest Grimm Fairy Tales, a related series, charted on my Top 3317 was #142 as of issue 50. As for why such a relatively obscure series charted so well on ComiXology's app, the combination of a free issue #0, a $0.99 price point for all but one issue of the series, and a frankly astonishing amount of T&A on the covers assuredly helped out quite a bit. #0 has 627 ratings, working out to an average of slightly less than 3.5 stars, while the other issues range from 15 to 120 reviews, each sitting somewhere between 4 and 5 stars. I'm not sure who the market is for these books, but that market is clearly dedicated.

On a final note, the top ten best-selling comics and series reveal one more fact worth looking at. The only DC comics that made the cut are Sandman and Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra's Y: the Last Man. Vertigo, and the power of Neil Gaiman's Twitter account, clearly reigns supreme on ComiXology.

The data we have is clearly incomplete. We don't know how well the branded ComiXology apps, which include Marvel and DC, are selling, but looking at this data, we don't really need it. ComiXology sells both publishers through their app, so it stands to reason that ComiXology's audience had clear and easy access to both publishers. Barring some amazing level of sell-through in the branded apps, it's fair to say that ComiXology is a brand new market serving a different audience from the DM, and worthy of study and examination on that level. After all, people purchasing comics through the Marvel and DC apps are not looking for comics. They're looking for superhero comics, which is an entirely different thing.

What have we learned? First and foremost, people love Mark Millar's writing. I mean, he's directly responsible for the Marvel books on both of ComiXology's lists. Beyond that, however, we can see that the Big Two do not currently control the digital marketplace the way they control traditional comic stores. While they lend a certain measure of prestige to ComiXology's efforts, people are more than willing to eat up Chew and The Walking Dead rather than the majority of Marvel and DC's offerings. The price points vary between the two as well. The Walking Dead offers a bunch of ten dollar collections, older issues at two bucks, and day-and-date issues for three. In contrast, the Direct Market list features exactly one comic in the top ten that isn't $3.99: Brightest Day #1.

Creator-owned practically dominate the top ten at ComiXology in comparison to the Direct Market, and personally, I find that very healthy for the comics industry. When a series like Chew, which two regular guys thought up and pushed out because they thought it was a good idea, outstrips all but three of Marvel and DC's comics, I think we're in a very good place.

So, who's reading digital comics? I think it's fair to say that the answer to that question is "Not the same people who shop at Direct Market comic shops." The series that sell online are, for the most part, ones that don't sell half as well in comic shops. What can companies do with this data? For one, they can start figuring out who they're selling comics to, since it clearly isn't your traditional Wednesday Comics Crowd. If it were the same old readers, the charts would look a lot different. We don't know who they are, but we can start talking about who they are not.

Regardless, these sales show that brands work differently online. Marvel and DC are playing second fiddle to companies that they dominate in the Direct Market, and Image is going for the crown. I'm curious to see what ComiXology's Top 300 for 2010 looks like, and look forward to seeing more sales data over the coming months.

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