Note: This post is based on the New York Times bestsellers list dated May 17, 2015.
Forget awards, curated lists, and expert opinions. Money talks- let’s have a look at what people say with theirs. No conspiracy theories, no nepotism, just what people are willing to pay for!
The first thing that jumps out at you when you look at the NYT best sellers list is the number of books authored by women. Out of the top 10 paper back graphic books, seven are written and drawn by a woman and two more have a woman has part of the creative team (artist or writer). Raina Telgemeier scores spots number 1 (Drama), 2 (Smile), 3 (Sisters), and 4 (The Baby-Sitter’s Club Graphix). You read that right: a woman writing and drawing all ages comics currently holds the first four spots of the best sellers list. Smile has been there for 151 weeks! Not bad for an autobiographical dental drama. And while she is exceptional, Raina Telgemeier is not the exception. The rest of the list includes Cece Bell’s El Deafo, Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl and Jillian Tamaki’s Supermutant Magic Academy.
So where are the superhero comic books published by the big two? There is one representative of Marvel. Not Spider-Man, not Captain America, not any X-guy. The only ambassador of Marvel is a teenage Pakistani American girl from New Jersey: Ms. Marvel. And if you are looking for a dark and gritty superhero comic, there is only one book that fits the bill (the only book in the entire list that does not include a woman in the creative team) and it is… from 1986. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns ranks number 6 and is the sole DC book on the list.
Another interesting trend emerges when you also consider the top 10 hardcover graphic books: the success of highly personal projects and distinct stories. DC and Marvel do get four out of ten spots, but the six additional books – from The Sculptor by Scott McCloud to Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor by Nathan Hale – would most definitely qualify as indie comics. And for lack of a better word, all the latter have strong and singular voices. Roz Chast (ranking at number 3 with Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?) and Sydney Padua (ranking number 4 with The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage) echo the trend of women cartoonists with personal projects from the trade paperback list.
A parallel can be made between two very different books: Scott Pilgrim, Vol. 6 by Bryan Lee O’Malley and Rage of Ultron by Rick Remender and Jerome Opeña (Full disclosure: I have read the first one multiple times and have not yet read the second). Both these books benefit from the draw of movies. Marvel released Rage of Ultron because a big Avengers movie starring Ultron was coming, and Scott Pilgrim’s success is in part due to the existence of the movie adaptation of the comic. What is remarkable is that Age of Ultron is an international blockbuster and only one related book appears on the best sellers list. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was a relative commercial failure and yet the colored re-edition of the comic rose to the top of the charts more than 10 years after volume 1 was first released. So do movies help sell comics? Yes, but the boost they provide to sales seems to depend on the type of comics. To paraphrase Scott McCloud, people seek the source of the “creative spark.” When a movie adaptation of an existing book happens, people are willing to look for the work that justified Hollywood’s interest. If they can identify it, such as with O’Malley’s work (an easy to name creative team, a clear place to start and end), the effect will only be greater.
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