By Brian Hibbs
Welcome to Tilting at Windmills #252. Some of you will be scratching your heads and saying “Wait, doesn’t this appear on Comic Book Resources?” Yeah, it did, but CBR got sold, and the new ownership decided that “columns” were not a thing that they wanted to do any longer – which, fair enough, it’s their website. Ultimately I think The Beat is going to be a better home anyway – the kind of think pieces I write are much more in sync to the commentary-focus that the Beat has. I want to thank Heidi for a very smooth landing, and let’s also thank Dynamite Entertainment for sponsoring the column – you should probably go click through the ad to show your support – but Nick knows that I still get to take a shot if he does something wrong! Best of both worlds!
A few weeks ago Marvel released their Marvel Now Previews, where the majority of the titles being offered are new first issues – thirty three out of sixty-two listed titles are first issues. And, even of the twenty-nine (currently listed!) continuing titles, thirteen of them are below issue #12, so would have been… awkward… to restart already.
What the comics internet currently assuming (usually a terrible idea) is that Marvel’s current strategy is now to restart their numbering every year – according to Marvel Now Previews their highest numbered comic will be a distinction shared by Deadpool and Spider-Man 2099 at issue #21 – and Marvel is offering twelve of their currently existing series with new, renumbered, first issues (I am including Hawkeye and Star-Lord in that count, since both books had new issues within the last year). Additionally, it isn’t clear yet which of these featured comics are ongoings and which are mini-series, a very important distinction for the market, and one that Marvel appears to be purposefully obfuscating in their presentation.
It turns out that of the sixty two items in Marvel Now Previews, only twenty two of them are actually solicited in October. And there are twenty two more new #1s that are not shipping in October, so this appears to actually be a multi-month rollout.
Finally, the comics internet is also assuming (I told you that’s a bad idea, right?) that anything not listed in Marvel Now Previews is therefore cancelled – most especially the X-Men line, leading to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. I wouldn’t be so sure of the accuracy of those projections: for the lowest hanging fruit, one of the “missing” titles is Spider-Man/Deadpool, which would be an entirely insane book to cancel – every issue has gone through multiple printings so far, with issue #1 being up to eight printings now. I imagine that the X-Men family is just on hiatus for Death of X (a mini series), and will relaunch in a different marketing push next quarter.
I know that I am really growing concerned about the constant renumbering of long-running books – certainly in both of my stores the 2015 “All New, All Different” renumbering ended up with individual titles’ sales past issue #1 as being well under what they were before the relaunch (and Xavier Lancel’s analysis shows the same nationally for the majority of “ANAD” titles). Renumbering is a very powerful tool, but it needs to be used sparingly, not casually. And as a line-wide program, it only really works if there’s a strong (creatively-driven!) reason to be done. By this I mean that one could point to DC’s “Rebirth” as “Hey, that works, let’s do it again!” – but “Rebirth” worked because it was a “Mea Culpa, we screwed up, give us another chance, baby!”
I especially don’t think that the “Marvel Now” renumbering will have any significant impact on long-running titles that have borderline marginal sales at the moment – titles like Nova, or Venom, Rocket Raccoon or Captain Marvel – Captain Marvel in particular is coming up on what I think will be the ninth iteration of the series, and appears like it will be a book that had two distinct first issues released in the same calendar year.
Think like a retailer, for a minute: we buy non-returnable, if we don’t sell it, we eat it. It appears very unlikely that there will be more than a month between October’s issue #10 (of v8) and whenever v9’s restart at #1. CM has been running continuously for years, and while a fresh #1 will get some new eyes on it for a moment, by the time we’re at issue #3, it’s hard to imagine that it isn’t going to be selling 25-28k, just exactly like the last volume (and the one before that, too). If you’re eating unsold product, and that product is $4 a copy, and you have years of data that says about where CM sells, where exactly is the motivation to take a flier on what objectively appears to be the same product in a slightly new wrapper? I mean, Marvel does appear inclined to cover our bets – they flatly never ever make material returnable (even in cases like new store openings, where literally every other publisher offers returns), and they don’t have any kind of co-op program or anything, so it isn’t like we can reach out to new potential readers.
At the end of the day, if you’re not putting six to nine months between volumes, then there really isn’t any other rational way to order renumbered comics (Again, outside of something very specifically focused on a direct and clear marketing message like “Rebirth”) as anything other than “Here’s the next issue”, which would self-evidently appear to be a direct case of diminishing returns.
If ongoing books aren’t working, commercially, then you have to give them time off the market so the audience can miss them – otherwise everyone (retailers and consumers alike!) is simply going to perceive Captain Marvel v9 #2 as not really any different as CM v8 #10. What “growth” will happen will be from the (solely one-time) boost you get from first issue collectors, or the knowing calculation to overbuy from retailers in order to qualify for variants they can then up-price, and use to make up for the loss from the overbought copies? That’s not a long-term plan to expand your audience!
When we look at the new books announced in the Marvel Now Previews, far too many of them are for C- and D-list characters – I think I have a pretty good idea of what the potential audience is for a non A-list-talent-driven comic starring Slapstick or Foolkiller or Solo or Prowler – those are single digit audiences at the local level! There aren’t masses of folks pining to line up to spend $4 on a Bullseye or Kingpin-led comic. And when we look at the line expansions for books that are doing solidly – like two Doctor Strange comics, or two Thor comics – my retailer instincts say that those books are almost certainly more likely to hurt the sales of the existing title through cannibalization than to expand the audience by even one reader.
I want to be very clear to you: I am extremely bullish on comics, and periodical comics in particular. I see how many people who walk through my doors, and I see how many of them are both willing and excited to buy new comics. The market is easily capable with the current audience of sustaining multiple ongoing comics with six figure circulations, and the reasons that we don’t are almost always on publishing, editorial and marketing decisions, not to the lack of an audience. This is even more true for Marvel comics, because they have a wide-ranging name recognition in the greater world.
Oh, and let’s talk about the marketing of Marvel Now Previews a little bit. In an ideal world, all products are offered in the regular catalog, Diamond’s Previews – but most promo material is offered outside of that sequence for some reason. Marvel regularly does this kind of magazine, and most months it’s just a regular free giveaway of no particular note. Even Marvel, largely, treats them this way: we get free copies in bundles of 25, with the option to buy more – but those free copies are very minor: the average comic book store is getting just 75 copies to give away. Now, in most cases, that’s just about right for us at least, because we normally treat these are freebies that we leave on the counter rather than a full-throated marketing tool – 75 copies is well under my best-selling Marvel comic most months, and it’s only about 1/3 of our subs at either store, and of course maybe only half of our periodical customers are actually subs.
Because it wasn’t in the main catalog, that makes it FOC-only. That means that when being asked to make a purchasing decision, I don’t have weeks to plan, think, and consider. Further, I do FOC on Saturday nights, after the store is closed, so I am trying to be as swift and efficient as possible in getting done as quick as I can. So when I see “MARVEL NOW PREVIEWS (BUNDLE OF 25) (NET)” on the FOC form there’s nothing there that distinguishes that from, say, “MARVEL NEW STORIES START NOW PREVIEWS (BUNDLE OF 25) (NET)”, which was last quarter’s free giveaway, or any other (BUNDLE OF 25) offer that we get made.
But I would argue that “here’s where we renumber the line” is probably a lot more important of a jumping-in opportunity than “Here’s our second story arcs”, and that the education for retailers should be considerably more intensive as a result. That’s, in my opinion, a missed opportunity to get stores on board at the time that most of them are making the majority of their purchasing decisions – during the normal monthly order cycle.
But there’s another problem with how Marvel structured this, as well, and that’s for trying to talk up items that do not yet “exist” in our databases. Retailers with Point-of-Sale systems generally track preorders by using a title’s “series code”, which is created by Diamond. But Diamond doesn’t release series code information until books are actually solicited. As I noted, there are twenty-two titles in Marvel Now Previews that are not being offered in October. So when a customer says to me, “Hey, can you order The Unworthy Thor for me?”, my question is: “how do I mechanically do this in an efficient way?” In all practical senses, the answer is actually “No” because that series doesn’t yet exist. So, I’ve got to write a note on a post-it or something, and then hope to god that we don’t lose it, or forget it was even written, when we get to the November or December (or later? Who knows?) solicits when we can actually act upon our customer’s requests.
The other thing that happens when you announce books too early is that when they finally arrive, a good chunk of the thrill is gone – there’s at least some chance that we’re talking about twenty-two titles some of which that are then six months or more away to the consumer’s hand.
I hope that I am wrong, and that “Marvel Now” works well, because the market needs every publisher firing on every cylinder to meet the potential that we’re capable of.
Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing. You may also find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here, and a list of columns from the CBR years here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.