Tilting at Windmills #252: Is Marvel Now what retailers need now?

Marvel Now Logo (needs to be trimmed)

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By Brian Hibbs

 

tiltingWelcome 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.

quote1_tiltingI 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 MarvelCaptain 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.kiss-sponsor-600x100.gif

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!

Solo.jpgWhen 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.

tiltingquote-2Oh, 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.

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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.

 

Comments

  1. Earth-2 Chad says

    Good on Heidi for giving you a new home! Kinda crazy to see CBR shed all of its columns, as the columns by Joe Casey, Warren Ellis, Steven Grant, Rich Johnston, Augie DeBlieck and yourself were what made me a regular reader of the site.

    As for this week’s column, an interesting perspective as always on missed opportunities by Marvel as it relaunches yet again.

  2. says

    I think an interesting question is whether part of the reason that first issues get a sales boost — the presumption of increased aftermarket value — is in any way dependent on the length of the series that follows. Obviously a first issue of an unsuccessful series won’t be worth much, and creators and existing supply are likely more important. But it would seem to be a question that’s testable, given the number of restarts of series of varying lengths.

    (And welcome to the Beat! Good to see the column as always. Heard from Preston Sweet, one of the other early Comics Retailer columnists, just the other day.)

  3. Glenn Simpson says

    If you get, and sell, a variant such that you make up what you lost on the extra copies, wouldn’t those copies be pretty much free at that point, and suitable for use as promotional items? Thus creating an item for gaining new customers?

    Or maybe you don’t make that much on the sale of the variant, I dunno.

  4. says

    JJ: I think the math is harder than it seems on the surface, because “market reaction to work” is a large impact on “length of series”. For example, SUPERIOR IRON MAN was pitched as a regular, ongoing title, but it collapsed in 9 issues because it was poor. You’d need to check each books announcement, not merely when it landed, you see?

    Glenn: You’re generally not making the wholesale cost of all of the components of the variant, except in a few edge cases — for $3.99 Marvel comics, on a 1:10 cover you’d need to sell it for ~ $20 to make that happen; ~$100 on a 1:50, etc. My individual anecdotal experience is that about 1/3 of Variants have next-to-no demand, even at cover price, and of the remaining 2/3 probably 75% of those won’t generate back their full wholesale cost on their own — this is our experience into eBay, trying to not crap where we eat as much as possible.

    But many many stores have many many different set-ups, and mileage absolutely does vary!

    -B

  5. Suzene says

    Got to the first paragraph and had a “Wait? WHAT?!” moment. Guess we can count on the quality of content at CBR going right down the tubes. Anyway, glad to see you here, Mr. Hibbs. At least now I can read TaW on my lunch break without half a dozen ads wrecking my phone screen.

    As someone whose primary interest at Marvel is the X-Men, it still makes little sense to me that fans would assume Marvel’s just going to flat-out cancel one of their better selling lines when there’s nothing on their slate that could replace those sales. There are currently three X-Men team books, two solos, the occasional experimental mini or satellite book (Worst X-Man Ever, X-Men ’92, Deadpool vs Gambit, etc.), and two high-profile event books coming up. That’s not exactly shabby. Mutants may not be the be-all and end-all of Marvel’s marketing anymore, but they’re not going anywhere so long as the comics are selling.

    As for Marvel Now? Meh. Relaunches don’t get me excited anymore, and it’s probably not going to change my buying habits. I’m buying Captain Marvel mostly for the old Alpha Flight crew, so as long as they’re still getting their glorified cameos, I’ll probably stick around for the new book. I’m getting Vision in trade, but that’s got a fixed end point and I won’t be following Viv to Champions. Everything else can wait for Marvel Unlimited. The only place where Marvel might be able to pick up a few bucks extra from me would be an X-Men relaunch. Save for X-Men ’92 (singles) and All-New Wolverine (trade), I find the current X-Books to be too boring and/or depressing to keep up with, so a post-IvX retooling would be welcome.

  6. says

    Welcome, Brian! You’re right, Tilting is a much better fit here at The Beat.

    I’m glad you are still bullish on comics and think periodicals have a chance in the marketplace. As an older fan (52. Take that, DC!) I long to buy monthly superhero comics, but no longer do. Constant relaunching, politically correct storylines, the disappearance of supporting casts, awful costumes and some modern storytelling approaches turn me off. However, fans like me need Marvel and DC to do well to help support books we DO like. Dynamite’s Shadow books are a great example of current superhero writing that deal with fun adventure stories, not checking PC boxes. It’s all about the story. Marvel and DC are making comics for a very slim percentage of society; mouth-frothing, progressive Bernie supporters who need safe spaces and constant censorship of ideas. I want adventure stories for all ages. As long as superhero comics are produced for that one specific group, by that group, I don’t think superheroes are sustainable. But again, I want them to survive to get my Shadow, Stray Bullets, Birthright and Manifest Destiny. I’m not sure comic shops could stay in business without a healthy Marvel.

    Can Marvel or DC put out a book that doesn’t automatically alienate half their audience? To me, that is a key to maintaining comic book periodicals.

  7. says

    The other thing that concerned me in the Marvel Previews was that all of the continuing ongoing books in the front half said “#1 of a new story arc” with a #1 in the corner of the page just like the actual #1s. I really hope they don’t put big #1s on the cover of issues #7s again. Customer confusion is not a solid marketing plan.

  8. Hufnagel0 says

    “At least now I can read TaW on my lunch break without half a dozen ads wrecking my phone screen.”

    @Suzene – This is so spot on. Apparently their plan was to ditch quality content and throw up incredibly intrusive ads all over the page. I can’t even visit CBR on my poor work comp. It just laughs at me for trying.

  9. Chris Hero says

    Jerry Smith:

    52 year old white men are exactly the market DC is currently selling to.

  10. says

    Possibly Chris, but I would clarify that to middle-aged LIBERAL people. DC is actually more inclusive than just whites, and that’s not a bad thing. However, they should create new heroes, rather than yet another turn at making XX character a minority. That’s totally cliche now. My humble opinion.

  11. says

    Jerry, this complaint about making new minority heroes rather than changing existing brands is very disingenuous for two reasons’
    1) Launching new characters is incredibly difficult. The last successfully launched character with no legacy ties was probably Deadpool, over 20 years ago.
    2) There are tons of new minority characters. Look at Bendis’ X-Men run, or Young Avengers. Very well balanced. They simply don’t have brand recognition.

    So, yeah, they are making new heroes. That line can be retired.

    The big name characters were created in a much more racist age. I have the utmost respect for companies diversifying their lines, and even if there are dips in sales by people who are sick of political correctness, I think it’ll pay off in the long term, to have books that invite everybody to participate. For that matter, I’ll be happy when the comics world stops having people complaining about political correctness

  12. Glenn Simpson says

    Brian Hibbs – at some point, if you feel like it’s something you can speak to, I’d be interested in your experiences with the level of “trade” knowledge you feel like the biggest chunk of your customers has. My impression is most comics buyers just kinda come in and look at the posters and covers and don’t really know much about it ahead of time (maybe the release week of the books they like, at most).

    Most importantly (speaking of CBR), the hardcore fan who is going to get on a newsgroup to talk comics probably doesn’t really represent the overall readership, from my experiences. But is that accurate, from your observations?

  13. MBunge says

    “this complaint about making new minority heroes rather than changing existing brands is very disingenuous ”

    It’s a perfectly valid complaint. If you grew up with a character, spent years of your life and a not insignificant amount of money reading stories about that character, if you love that character…what in the world is wrong with being upset when that character is changed?

    And you may be too young to remember this, but back in the 80s when Iron Man was replaced and Thor was replaced and Captain America was replaced and the Thing was replaced, people didn’t freak out. Why do you think that was?

    Mike

  14. Glenn Simpson says

    “It’s a perfectly valid complaint. If you grew up with a character, spent years of your life and a not insignificant amount of money reading stories about that character, if you love that character…what in the world is wrong with being upset when that character is changed?”

    Considering that the change is addressing an important mistake in the most effective way possible…what is wrong with being upset is that it displays a dire misplacement of priorities on the part of the complainer.

    It’s like complaining that the guy helping the elderly lady across the street is making you late for work.

  15. Glenn Simpson says

    Correction – making you late getting home to watch a TV show. In other words, something less important that taking care of other human beings.

  16. says

    Mr Bunge, I’m 40 years old, and clearly remember the issue of Secret Wars where, trapped under a mountain, Rhodey Iron Man wonders if Mr Fantastic is surprised to see a black person under the armour. Is that credentials/age enough to find that a disingenuous complaint?

    Seriously, complaints about PC comics are way more distressing to me than change in comics, and the bitterness about change make me all the more sure that I want to see it.

    And how is it a valid complaint if there are loads of new minority characters? The guy I replied to specifically said he wanted new characters… And they are there.

  17. Mo Walker says

    I am glad Tilting at Windmills found a new home at The Beat. Too be honest, I have become desensitized to the various Marvel relaunches. I certainly check out the press/catalogs to see what is happening with a title I am buying. Unfortunately, I have tended to use these relaunches as a jumping off point. I have not seen anything in Marvel Now 2.0, so far, that interests me. I am like Suzene; I am a X-fan who hopes Marvel relaunches the titles post IvX.

  18. MBunge says

    “Is that credentials/age enough to find that a disingenuous complaint?”

    I don’t care if you are 100 and have read every single comic ever printed. Who the bleep do you think you are to tell ANYONE else they are being disingenuous? You can disagree with the reaction someone else has without accusing them of essentially lying about it.

    People not wanting a favorite fictional character to be altered is a perfectly normal human response. Lecturing someone that they shouldn’t feel that way because their feeling doesn’t fit into your view of how things are/should be is exactly the sort of “political correctness” that drives people crazy.

    Mike

  19. MBunge says

    “Considering that the change is addressing an important mistake”

    Johnny Storm being white was not a mistake. The original Ghostbusters being dudes was not a mistake. Iron Man being Tony Stark was not a mistake. Nothing needed to be fixed. You can argue changes are needed to achieve some positive result but that doesn’t mean there was anything wrong with the original.

    Mike

  20. says

    Mr, Bunge, you brought age into it,

    If you want to be on the side that says political correctness drives people crazy, go at it. I think it’s pretty sad. So do many others, not dependant on age or race,

    The ‘disingenuousness’ point I made was that the OP was saying new minority characters should be made, when any comics reader would know that they are actually being made. They simply aren’t as popular as Captain America. If you want to make the claim that new minority characters aren’t being made, go at that too.

  21. Daniel says

    Welcome to the Beat, this site suits your column more than CBR. More power to them but im not sure why people dont use adblockers on that atrocious click bait html file. bleah! nothing about that site gets me going anymore at least with comic vine dot com you are notified when someone replies to your comment. cbr is antiquated. not sorry to see brett white and Illidge kicked to the curb. all they ever cried about was how bigoted tennessee was and how there are not enough poc in the biz.

    I to have become numb to the renumbering. i got back into comics right after marvel now was ending. i thought to myself how the heck am i going to figure out what i need to catch up on? i litterally had to use wikipedia to understand the core books for the x-men. i cant imagine how it will feel for a brand new reader with zero experience reading comics. so sad too, marvel is not longer the house of ideas but rather the house of reboot. i assume this is the influence of Disney?

  22. says

    @Jerry Smith
    “I don’t think superheroes are sustainable”

    They said that in 1989 when I opened, and on our 10th anniversary in 1999, and our 20th anniversary in 2009, and they’ll say it on our 30th anniversary in 2019, and they said it 10 years before we opened in 1979, and superhero comics seem to still be doing “perfectly fine”.

    @Glenn Simpson
    “I’d be interested in your experiences with the level of “trade” knowledge you feel like the biggest chunk of your customers has.”

    Oh, that’s simple: the VAST majority of people who shop in comics shops, even on a weekly basis, has only marginal information about what and who and how is being released any given week, and way way less about comics coming out in the future. WHAT MOST CUSTOMERS KNOW ABOUT COMICS IS WHAT THEY *SEE* WHEN THEY WALK IN THE DOOR!

    People like us who read the Beat daily? We are *not* normal or reflective of the average comics consumer. And this is even more the “Why” of Why Good Comics Stores Are A Gift From Heaven.

    -B

  23. says

    “CBR got sold, and the new ownership decided that “columns” were not a thing that they wanted to do any longer”

    This bums me out incredibly. Columns–Pipeline, Lying in the Gutters, Master of the Obvious–are what made me start going to that site, and honestly, Pipeline, Tilting at Windmills, and Ron Marz’s Shelf Life were the only things that kept me going back. Over the past year and change, I’ve re-read almost 200 of Steven Grant’s columns, because even a decade and a half on they’re still relevant as hell. Here’s hoping they at least keep the archive up on the site!

    As for the main topic at hand, Marvel’s constant renumbering is killing my ability to keep up with anything. I had to change comic shops after my old one closed, and my new one is far enough away that I only go about once every other month. I love to sample a handful of new series every time I go to the shop, but there are so many of them that there’s no hope of keeping up, and even my shop can’t keep straight all of the renumberings. I was getting Ms. Marvel pulled for me and after a renumbering it stopped, and by the time I noticed it some of the issues I missed were long since sold out. It’s beyond irritating.

  24. Torsten Adair says

    First of all, welcome to The Beat!

    I’ve read a lot of comics, but I don’t buy a lot of comics now, because I get a lot of stuff for free, and there are other distractions to reading.

    I don’t really know what Marvel is publishing now (HA!), but I do read the review copies which come through work, especially the Timely editions.
    Not only are those a satisfying chunk (3 issues of story for $3!?!) but those stories are fun, enjoyable, and generally follow the Shooter Dictum. (“Every issue of a comic is somebody’s first issue.”)
    Do you use these editions to entice new readers?

    As for the above thread about diversity… I just want to read good stories.
    Marvel is doing a good job, creating stories with fascinating characters.
    If that’s a problem for fans, well, fine, but you’re missing some good stories.
    But that’s okay… enjoy what you enjoy.

    The Marvel Previews catalog is generally good…
    I wonder, though… about the supplemental “Now” freebies… why doesn’t Marvel just create a monthly/bimonthly promotional title, similar to “Marvel Age”, which features some text, and some preview pages. Maybe treat each like a “0.5” issue, with a short 4-page intro of whatever new title is coming out. This makes them collectible, and encourages readers to pick up what would otherwise be a boring catalog.

    Marvel could index the number of free copies to whatever title each store orders the most of, in the hopes that retailers would slide a copy into each bag. (Am I assuming too much from Marvel and/or retailers?)

  25. says

    @Torsten:

    We’ve scrolled off the front page, so odds are great no one is reading this, buuuuutttt….

    “the Timely editions…..Not only are those a satisfying chunk (3 issues of story for $3!?!) but those stories are fun, enjoyable, and generally follow the Shooter Dictum…..Do you use these editions to entice new readers?”

    They’re a new plan in the last 6 (or so?) months.

    I personally find them neither fish-nor-fowl, because Marvel is statistically more likely to be sold out of #4 & 5 than of a #1-3, and these editions are generally released within the same calendar month as the first 5 or 6 issue TRADE PAPERBACK, so they’re directly competing, AND don’t have a clear follow through to sales.

    “Marvel could index the number of free copies to whatever title each store orders the most of, in the hopes that retailers would slide a copy into each bag. (Am I assuming too much from Marvel and/or retailers?)”

    That’s not free — besides labor costs, there’s also shipping and processing involved. There are probably once or twice a decade occasions where it is rational to go long on that kind of presentation, but in the overwhelming majority of cases consumers take free giveaways as having as much value as free giveaways: that is to say, basically none.

    Doing a $1 priced “Marvel Age” would present a whole lot more consumer value than a freebie, actually.

    -B

  26. Roger Moore says

    Great to find the column!
    Is there an rss or a way to be notified when you are publishing a new one?

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