By Brian Hibbs
The solicits for August 2017 Marvel comics have finally been released – the start of “Marvel Legacy” – and I think it is now fair to ask if Marvel actually hears or heard any of the criticism of their line over the last few months.
People have complained about (among other things) the lack of “the real” Marvel characters, about over-expansion watering down the line, about tired creative teams who should be replaced, and about a reliance on gimmicks over substance. And, based purely on the solicitations, Marvel does not immediately appear to have taken virtually any of these points to heart.
Let’s take those more or less in order, starting with “the real” Marvel characters. Now I, for one, find this particular complaint pretty drastically overblown: despite the new consensus of the internet, I would argue to you that characters like Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and “original Thor” are actually really uninteresting characters who have, largely, outstayed their welcome – there’s a reason that these characters keep getting replaced with new versions again and again and again: unless you’re exclusively mining nostalgia, it’s hard to keep these characters fresh and relevant at all. Watch and see: after they come back, some creator will be trying to replace them again within five years. It happens every time.
If anything, I think Marvel’s actual mistake was having all of those characters off-stage at the same time – you look around the “Marvel Universe” and you recognize almost none of the characters… well, that’s jarring. But it isn’t true that the OG versions are inherently fascinating enough to freeze them in amber, in my considered opinon.
Either way, that was what people are saying that they wanted: “the real” versions back. But reading these solicits, it doesn’t appear that any of the characters are back in these “Legacy” renumbered comics – yes, it looks like they’re setting up stories where they will come back eventually, but they’re not back here at the time of the actual repositioning itself. Here’s the text for, say, Invincible Iron Man #593: “THE SEARCH FOR TONY STARK Part 1 Tony Stark has vanished! The mystery deepens as Stark friends and foes must decide, finally, who will wield the power of Iron Man! All the contenders are in position, and all the armor is polished. There can only be one Armored Avenger! The path to the most startling Iron Man story ever begins here!”
This would appear to be clearly saying that while Tony is coming back, he isn’t in this comic book. I’m going to assume he’s going to show up again probably just in time for “issue #600”, because: comics. But what’s the reason for a reader who has decided he doesn’t like the current direction of “Iron Man” to jump on here at this “jump on” point? Not only is the comic seemingly not giving them what they asked for, it’s doing so under the exact same creative stewardship that has already driven them away from the book.
Think that is strong words? Well, here’s “Iron Man”’s sales arc over the last while (thank you Xavier Lancel for making the chart, and ICv2 for the numbers)
06/14 Iron Man v6 #28 – 28,027 ( -0.9%)
06/15 Sup. Iron Man #9 – 33,989 ( +6.2%)
10/15 Invincible Iron Man #1 – 279,514
10/15 Invincible Iron Man #2 – 66,664 (-76.2%)
11/15 Invincible Iron Man #3 – 59,069 (-11.4%)
12/15 Invincible Iron Man #4 – 57,639 (- 2.4%)
01/16 Invincible Iron Man #5 – 49,225 (-14.6%)
02/16 Invincible Iron Man #6 – 63,234 (+28.5%) (War Machines)
03/16 Invincible Iron Man #7 – 57,972 (War Machines)
04/16 Invincible Iron Man #8 – 46,520 (War Machines)
05/16 Invincible Iron Man #9 – 49,334 (+6.0%) (CV2)
06/16 Invincible Iron Man #10- 49,141 (- 0.4%) (CV2)
07/16 Invincible Iron Man #11- 49,439 (+0.6%) (CV2)
08/16 Invincible Iron Man #12- 50,571 (+2.3%) (CV2)
09/16 Invincible Iron Man #13- 48,394 (- 4.3%) (CV2)
10/16 Invincible Iron Man #14- 43,888 (- 9.3%) (CV2)
11/16 Invincible Iron Man # 1- 97,713
12/16 Invincible Iron Man # 2- 81,271 (-16.8%)
01/17 Invincible Iron Man # 3- 44,184 (-45.7%)
02/17 Invincible Iron Man #4- 36,600 (-17.2%)
03/17 Invincible Iron Man #5- 38,746 (+ 5.9%)
04/17 Invincible Iron Man #6- 31,561 (-18.5%)
05/17 Invincible Iron Man #7- 28,266 (-10.4%)
Those numbers look awful, the book is cratering and the audience isn’t interested in it, delivering some of the lowest “Iron Man” sales of all time – so why is this specific “legacy” iteration going to be any different?
It isn’t just “Iron Man”, of course – of the twenty-nine “Marvel Legacy” comics on the August order form, only two are entirely “new” series (“Falcon” and “Spirits of Vengeance”), and of those remaining twenty-seven, only a single one has a different writer in place (“Cable”, replacing James Robinson with Ed Brisson… in a move that seems like it was going to happen with or without “Legacy”) than it did two months before. And virtually every one of those comics has a similar sales trajectory.
Keeping the creative teams the same seems… well, strange to me. Marvel has reached a point with its publishing program that it has chased enough readers away that the don’t have a single ongoing Marvel Superhero comic that is not a first issue in the month of June that even sold 60,000 copies. If you told Jim Shooter or Tom DeFalco that, I suspect they might laugh in your face (books that sold under 100k back then got the axe!)
So, if you’re flopping on that level, why on earth would you stick with exactly the same creators in exactly the same iteration of titles? I’m not saying “get rid of X!”, but at least change up who is doing what book to bring some fresh energy in.
Here’s your kicker, for all of these new “Legacy” books, Marvel has set a target number of sales that it expects – and also that gates things like certain variant covers – and Iron Man’s reads like this: “Meet or exceed 225% of orders for Invincible Iron Man #7 [MAR171004] with orders for Invincible Iron Man #593 regular cover” Two hundred and twenty five percent, oy!
Now to be fair, Marvel does often downgrade such ambitious targets in the face of retailer incredulousness, and there are some indications that something is going to happen with these targets as well, but in all official documentation available to me today Marvel is claiming that we should more than double our orders for something that essentially the exact same product as it was the month before. The current lowest percentage for any of the “Legacy” books is 125%. The highest is 250%.
What does meeting that gate get you? Well, again, this is only for now, because Marvel has this nasty nasty habit of changing and adding permutations as we get closer to “Final Order Cutoff” (which sucks because that means as a retailer you have to do your math and calculations multiple times unless you don’t place “initial orders” [which can carry its own consequences, see below]) – but currently if you meet that gate, then you’ll be allowed to order 1) “INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #593 DAVIS LH VAR LEG” (which despite lack of that word in the actual product name is the “Lenticular Homage” Variant) 2) “INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #593 ZDARSKY HOW TO DRAW VAR LEG”, and if you “only” match 200% of your orders, then you get blessed to be able to order 3) “INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #593 TRADING CARD VAR LEG”. This doesn’t include the 1:10 and 1:50 covers. Three of these five covers don’t even yet have art for which a retailer can base a decision upon, either!
But, in short if you don’t order 225% of a previous issue of “Iron Man”, then you are not allowed to order any copies of those two variants. None at all.
Now the Lenticular covers are fairly new – in fact, originally the announced plan was to simply have a “Homage” variant for each “Legacy” book. The one for IM #593 is a call-back to IM volume 1 #150. These covers were originally announced as not being lenticular at all, and, oddly, the lenticular is a replacement and not an addition – there’s no longer a non-lenticular edition of any of them.
But the thing is: Lenticular covers (like those on DC books like the whole “Villains Month” stunt a few years back, or more recently on “The Button” storyline) are very popular with customers, to the point where it is my experience that if the lenticular is available, the vast majority of customers prefer the “fancy” one. And in the case of the Marvel “Legacy” covers, this should be even greater because the Lenticular has the same cover price as the regular edition. From a particular POV, the “regular” cover is now far far less desirable as a result.
But again, you can’t order any copies of the lenticular of “Iron Man” if you don’t order 225% of the regular one.
Another problem: this kind of line-wide stunt really becomes an “all-in, or stay out” kind of program – it simply isn’t rational to think you can carry a few of the lenticular covers, but not all of them. That’s not how audience response works. If you buy-in, you have to buy-in across the board.
You’re not even a comic book retailer, and you see the conundrum, right? If you get 225% of the one you can order the other, more desirable version, but then you lose pretty much any demand for the “regular” edition in the first place, even if you can sell 300% or more of the fancy version. Literally, you are being asked to purchase comics you can’t sell, in order to gain access to comics that you can. While a small handful of people are willing or able to buy multiple copies of the same insides, the largest majority of customers just want a single version to buy.
Compounding this situation, Marvel has also announced that you can not receive your regular discount on the Lenticular edition – a massive break from decades of business. Instead, your discount is capped at 50%, removing up to nine percentage points of margin from their largest accounts. That doesn’t necessarily sound like much to the lay person, but please let me assure you that those points of margin are where the actual profit (if any!) of selling comics comes from.
And let’s compound it again: Marvel is also saying that it can only guarantee orders for those covers that are placed by the Initial Order deadline of August 24 (again, these are books shipping in October) – anything placed after that date, even if it is before “Final Order Cutoff” dates in September runs the risk of being allocated. This gives very little time to figure out what you need, and, in fact, runs entirely contrary to how a significant number of retailers now do business.
When you add these things together, it’s very hard to see how a store can stock the lenticular covers in a way that is profitable, unless their intention is to mark them way up for the aftermarket. In fact, that becomes almost a self-reinforcing principle since it seems clear to me that a significant number of stores in any given market are going to opt out of stocking the lenticulars at all because of the low chance at making a profit in a non-mercenary way. This, in turn, increases the demand at the places that do have them, and nearly guarantees that these comics will be speculator-bait and chum for a frenzy as a result. At least one prominent retailer has already openly embraced such a plan, gleefully saying that he intends to sell these for double cover price to all of the customers the less ethically-challenged amongst will be turning away.
And it’s not like he doesn’t have a point – there’s a clear opportunity to profit here that becomes inherently self-reinforcing.
The question for me always becomes: what is the publisher trying to accomplish? Marvel clearly knows, has known, and probably always will know how to sell a speculator-bait launch or first issue. Look back at that “Iron Man” chart – almost two hundred and eighty thousand copies of that first issue in 2015 on the market for a book that clearly had a long-term audience of less than a quarter of that. That’s all from variants – it had a 1:15, three different 1:25 variants, and what looks like no less than four different “beat this threshold to order any” covers (it was 160% of “Old Man Logan” #1 back then) There was also a one-per-store “party” variant, and a number of store-exclusive covers as well.
So they know how to sell a first issue – and these lenticular are going to sell to the national market like a house on fire because they are speculator-bait – but how do they sell a fourth issue? Marvel kind of sucks at that.
For “Legacy” to be a success (a success that the market needs right now!), Marvel needs their lapsed readers to come back. And the problem that I see is that selling the flash and sizzle as the main selling point is sure to induce a speculator frenzy, but will do very little to bring back the lapsed. We’ve played this song before. Played it to death, and the audience doesn’t want to hear it any more.
But again: who is Marvel trying to attract? If it is speculators, they’re set. But if it is the lapsed reader, creating a speculative product that the market doesn’t have easy and equal easy and simple access to seems like entirely 100% the wrong tack to take.
It seems to me that all the talk of a new direction with “Marvel Legacy” is actually yielding very little change at all – in fact, most of the comics that are going to the same comic they were going to be before this rebranding effort was pitched. Sure, there might be certain storylines that have been pushed back or forward as a result, but there’s not the level of wholesale change that the audience appears to be demanding.
Right now “fancy” covers are trying to cover a multitude of underlying problems with the actual core product. This is not the first time such a thing has been tried, and I still have vivid memories of the last time when the entire market almost collapsed when the customers woke up one day and said “this is shit, we don’t want this any more”. I wish I can remember who it was, but I remember talking to a retailer who told me they had built a literal chair out of the leftover copies of “Adventures of Superman #500” they had; with similar stories about just how many unsold and unsalable copies of “Turok” #1 were left over. Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, and while I’m hopefully we’ve wised up as a class to not fall down that same rabbit hole again, when I see Marvel’s August plans, added to DC’s August books with foil covers (three), Lenticulars (two) and even a glow-in-the-dark cover I think “Damn, we’re there again, where greed and glitz has overwhelmed common sense.”
That time of the crash and the few years after it was dire for comics, and this time is likely to be significantly worse, as we don’t have a core of books selling at 100k or more to keep things propped up.
I think it will be great for them if Marvel sells a bunch of dollars of comics in October thanks to manipulative processes designed to get the greedy moving – but it won’t mean a damn thing if come January “Iron Man” is back to selling under 40k again because speculator bait never ever has led to stable long-term growing sales.
Until Marvel is willing to think about the long-term steps needed to right their ship they’re going to remain in danger of collapsing the entire market; and there is literally nothing they’ve shown us from “Marvel Legacy” so far that doesn’t literally feel like rearranging the deck chair on the Titanic.
I hope to god I’m wrong; otherwise 2018 is going to suck.
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, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.