What Will Image Comics Do Without 'The Walking Dead'?

Image Comics Split Main - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Skybound Entertainment; Fiona Staples/Image Comics; Courtesy of Sana Takeda/Image Comics
The independent publisher will be left wanting without Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's undead monster hit.

If the surprise end of the Walking Dead comic book series is bad news for fans who have been following the story since its 2003 debut, it might be even worse news for Image Comics, which loses its highest-selling title by some margin at a time when, perhaps, it can least afford to do so.

For many years, Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s long-running horror series had been a reliable best-seller for the Portland, Oregon-based independent publisher, providing an anchor around which it could build an eclectic mix of titles from established and upcoming creators. It was arguably the success of The Walking Dead, and later, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga, that made Image such a destination for Marvel and DC creators in recent years.

Despite its big success and a hit AMC series, sales for The Walking Dead have dropped over the past several years. Data from May’s comic store retailer orders — the most recent month available — suggests orders in the region of 49,000 in the North American market, with an average of 56,000 copies for the 12 months prior. Compare that to an average of 72,642 copies in the previous 12-month period.

The drop wasn’t just limited to the comic store market, either; Bookscan numbers for the mainstream book trade show that demand for The Walking Dead collapsed over the past two years, going from 37 titles charting in the best-seller list for an estimated $17.5 million retail value in 2016 to just 13 titles with an estimated value of $3.1 million in 2018. At some point, a lot of people just stopped being interested in reading The Walking Dead comics.

This would be less of a problem for Image Comics if there was an obvious successor to The Walking Dead in terms of sales, but there just… isn’t. Outside of Todd McFarlane’s long-running Spawn — approaching its 300th issue this year — no other Image Comics series is reliably selling more than 20,000 copies in the North American comic store market, with some of the most critically acclaimed titles selling closer to half that. Monstress, which won multiple Eisner Awards at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con, sold approximately 12,000 copies in May, according to industry tracking site Comichron.com.

In bookstores, Image has seen its presence drop significantly compared with recent years, with its bookstore value dropping almost 20 percent last year, following a 34 percent drop the previous year. The best-selling bookstore property for Image in 2018 was Saga — another series that is no longer on the active list. The highest-selling non-Walking Dead, non-Saga title in bookstores is Monstress, and that title lost a third of its sales power between 2017 and 2018.

Image Comics is not a traditional publisher; it owns no intellectual property beyond its corporate logo, has no specific publishing plan or outlook and places the majority of financial risk on the creators (it offers no money upfront for projects, and instead takes a “small flat fee” for each project published, which means that even a middling success can earn them as much money as a hit title at one of the larger publishers). It’s a model that allows it to weather storms that would drown other publishers, including losing its biggest seller by a substantial margin, and watching its customer base shrink considerably.

One thing’s for sure: If Image Comics is to halt its current downward slide, it needs another hit. But where that would come from, and what it would look like, remains entirely unclear. If only Kirkman would start writing about zombies again...