Time for The Walking Dead to Say Goodbye

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(Photo: Image Comics)

The Walking Dead was one of the best-selling creator-owned series in the direct market ever; it’s only as of this week that this sentiment changed from the present to the past tense. News leaked Monday that The Walking Dead #193 would be the series’ final issue, wrapping up events and the future of almost every survivor in a surprise 70+-page issue. Series co-creator Robert Kirkman wrote a letter to readers in the back of the issue clarifying that this was the ending he had intended to tell for some time. The conclusion of such a long-running and financially successful series does raise questions about whether the series was ended purely for creative reasons and what kind of longevity even the most successful runs in comics today can possess.

And, before going any further, it is worth noting that even before production on the television adaptation of The Walking Dead began, the comic was experiencing higher-than-expected sales given the market of the early 2000s and growing its readership with later issues, an almost unheard of phenomena. The overall success of The Walking Dead as a monthly comic series in America is difficult to overstate; this analysis should not be read as diminishing one of the largest success stories of modern comics. However, a look at the recent sales numbers for this Image Comics’ icon suggests that it was past its prime even before announcing its surprise ending.

Recent Trends

When we are looking for sales stories at ComicBook.com, we start with data and then seek out trends that appear interesting or abnormal, it’s a fundamental part of our approach. It was only when reviewing sales for The Walking Dead in the wake of series’ protagonist Rick Grimes death in The Walking Dead #192 that something unexpected stood out. The Walking Dead has been regarded as a reliable seller by retailers for many years, and was the sort of series we expect to experience little fluctuation. However, the trend from June 2018 through April 2019 revealed something much different.

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Between The Walking Dead #180 and The Walking Dead #190, unit sales decreased 40.8%. Charting out the individual issues also makes it clear that this decline was part of a steady trend across all 10 months. This suggests that the decrease was ongoing and tied to some specific reason or reasons, especially when compared to the series past numbers. So in order to gain a better understanding, we expanded our perspective to the past decade of sales.

Long-Term Trends

We collected quarterly sales data (using the months of January, April, July, and October) to explore how the series had performed since January 2011. Since The Walking Dead has reliably run on a monthly schedule, these samples from each year would collect about one-third of all data and provide a sense of the series’ general health across almost 9 years. Significantly, this would show how the comic series had performed since the debut of the television series on October 31, 2010, an event that changed the context (e.g. speculation market, audience) surrounding The Walking Dead considerably.

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This initial set of data provided some obvious outliers though. As we’ve explained before, sales of an individual issue can be very unrepresentative of readership or the health of a series. For example, this data includes:

- The Walking Dead #100: An anniversary issue including many incentive covers

- The Walking Dead #115: The start of “All-Out War” including many incentive covers

- The Walking Dead #132: Including sales of 200,000 or more issues to Loot Crate

- The Walking Dead #150: An anniversary issue including many incentive covers

These individual issues are great successes, but don’t help us sales and readership trends for the ongoing series. We then excluded them from the data and replaced them with the subsequent issue’s sales to represent each quarter identified as an outlier. This produced a much more accurate vision of the series’ long-term sales.

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This perspective on The Walking Dead reveals that the series was a bastion of sales security for most of the past decade. Between October 2012 and April 2018, The Walking Dead sold approximately 73,000 units for non-excluded issues. This applies to collections of the series as well, with the first volume “Days Gone Bye” ranging between 2,000 and 8,000 new units most months (not including sales to bookstores like Barnes & Noble where the series is a staple).

In fact, there have been only two noticeable trends of change within the past 10 years, occurring at the very start of that period and the current moment leading to its surprise conclusion. That includes a rise in sales from an average of approximately 31,000 units in 2011 to its future norm of 73,000, a rise that coincides with the release of the first and second seasons of the television series. The second change is the current decrease, which raises one big question: why were sales of The Walking Dead decreasing at comic book stores now?

What Happened

Reviewing the data, it is difficult to untangle the narrative of The Walking Dead as a comic from its television adaptation. Both the series and its collections increased their sales in the wake of the first season. Sales of collections, including the first trade paperback, hardcover, and compendium, were all more responsive, while the individual issue sales only began to increase as the second season approached. This would make sense as viewers caught up on the series and speculators saw prices continue to rise for key issues from the past.

It’s also important to note that this data doesn’t account for sales in the book market (e.g. Barnes & Noble) or digital sales (e.g. Comixology). We can only speculate, but it’s probable that given the limited reach of the direct market, overall sales on the series grew much larger, especially with the various available collection formats.

The Walking Dead had always been a reliable seller, though. Before the television series premiered, the comic series was already selling around 31,000 units, which is an impressive number for any creator-owned title in the direct market. What the television series appears to have accomplished was to create a new normal for those sales, growing the audience into average unit sales of 73,000, a 135% increase. This new normal remained in place for more than five years.

Sales had been steadily declining since the release of The Walking Dead #180 in June 2018. There are multiple occurrences in both the comic and television series that suggest possible causes for the subsequent decline. It was during this period that it became clear Andrew Lincoln, the actor who portrays Rick Grimes, the central protagonist of both narratives, would be departing the television series. This followed multiple other key cast members either being announced or rumored as also leaving. While reviews and viewership have fluctuated over nine seasons, this would be the first time the comic series showed a notable response in sales. That could be due to the sense that the television series was drawing to an end or, at the very least, weakening due to so many departures.

The Walking Dead #180 also concluded the “Brave New World” story arc, one that radically changed the direction of the comic. It introduced a new community, the Commonwealth, one with tens of thousands of residents resembling a small city. With that shift in setting, the series also began to focus more on how to organize and rebuild society, minimizing the survival-horror elements.

The real reason for the steady decline in sales across the past year is likely a combination of both of these changes, and other, less notable, topics. Just as a single issue’s sales do not explain the overall health of a series, no single reason can explain long-term changes in the health of a series either. The decline of the television adaptation and changes in the plot of the comic both seem to be primary reasons for a decline in overall sales and the potential establishment of yet another new normal for the series.

Closing Time

We will never know if The Walking Dead would have continued to decline, discovered a new normal around its current sales mark, or rebounded following the shocking death of Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead #192. General trends in the direct market suggest one of the first two options, but May sales for The Walking Dead #191 did rebound slightly with 48,743 units sold. It is clear that the series’ was unlikely to recapture its sales heyday as the reliable readership who serve as the foundation for sales trends in the direct market slowly departed across the past year. This might have served as an additional impetus for Kirkman and his collaborators to find a satisfying conclusion for the series.

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Considering the consistency in Kirkman and collaborator Charlie Adlard’s work on the title, it’s reliable release schedule, and the continuation of the television series, quality was, most likely, not the primary driver of those declining sales. Instead, after so many years and issues of publication, The Walking Dead might have come across a barrier of sorts in which even a long-running series of consistent quality will inevitably lose readership. There are very few points of comparison for this hypothesis as the only recent run of similarly high readership and stability would be Ultimate Spider-Man and Fables, both of which also seemed to wind down in sales over their past few years as they breached issue #100 (but never came close to #200).

What is clear is that the decision to conclude The Walking Dead this month expresses both a narrative and economic wisdom on Robert Kirkman’s behalf. Based on the farewell letter and initial responses from fans, The Walking Dead provided a satisfying conclusion, one that followed Rick Grimes from the start of the apocalypse through his death, and delivered a stirring epilogue regarding his legacy. With steadily declining sales for the monthly series, it seems as though both creators and readers were ready to say goodbye. The Walking Dead is more likely to be fondly remembered in the history of comics for this willingness to do so when the time was right.

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