Since last we spoke, the store received its first bit of hate mail, which was nice.
As a shop, we had been fairly vocal about our take on Marvel’s big Secret Empire event and how we couldn’t, in good conscience, hand-sell the book to customers. Danica had appeared in a few articles in particular explaining our aversion to the story and Marvel’s marketing tactics for it. Why push a book about a hate group with Nazi ties by offering stores the ability to cosplay as Hydra fronts without offering up similar opportunities for an opposition? We would gladly sell the book to anyone who wanted it, and would keep a couple of copies on shelf – but unless we were approached about it specifically, we would not include it in our talk of what was new or interesting. This prompted some interesting comments from the public, including a phone call from a gentleman who felt the need to lecture us on how to run a comic shop, and an e-mail that stated the following, verbatim:
“Your attempts to censor this book is disgusting. People like you that are pushing the Nazi narrative are a disgrace to the medium.”
After reading this note, we couldn’t have been more pleased. After stating it was problematic for a company to ask comic retailers to dress as Nazi sympathizers, and after stating that we would be carrying the book regardless – just without offering unprompted positive or negative response – we were deemed a “disgrace to the medium”.
It’s a badge we wear with pride.
And for good reason.
By Brandon Schatz & Danica LeBlanc
The industry has changed substantially over the past few years, but many are refusing to acknowledge this fact. From distributor to publisher to retailer to consumer, you find old thoughts that linger and fester while the whole structure attempts to lumber on.
At the distributor level, you have Diamond – a company which manufactured a modified monopoly that has directly contributed to the instability of the industry. In the time since it formed, the comic industry has grown past its terrible service and has flourished through alternative means of distribution – although the monthly periodicals seem to be pretty landlocked. Despite the fact that there are better alternatives to get several evergreen products that Diamond offers, they continue to run that portion at the same discount levels to retailers, without the ability to return a majority of the product.
At the publisher level, you have companies that are relying on their old business models to produce numbers in an age where distraction and market fragmentation abound. Gone is the harder focus of the Marvel Zombie or whatever the heck DC called their die-hards. In its place are people with the means for any kind of entertainment they could possibly hope for just a few clicks away – and so the age of publishing for the sake of hitting a budget has been replaced with the need to create art with the ability to grab and hold attention above any and all else.
At the retailer level, you have folks who are pretending as though the old model is something they are owed. Where are the ongoing series that last for hundreds of issues? But also, where are those number ones that sold in the millions? And why can’t I sell back issues like I used to? In a world where a digital copy of that comic you’re selling for $25 is just a digital payment of $2 away, or a couple of weeks away from being available as part of a collection for far less, where’s the incentive to spend? And what’s more: if the person does still grab that $25 issue, what other books did they leave behind that could have made you ongoing money in the future?
And finally, there’s the consumer level, where folks are wondering where all the fresh new ideas are for characters that have been around for over 75 years. There’s always a low rumble of voices complaining about how the medium is becoming “too PC”. “Why can’t things be like they used to?” some folks wonder out loud, coming just short of saying, “When everyone was a white dude.”
The industry has been running on all of these old ideas and models for far too long while the medium strains against the constraints those old structures offer, and if that continues, things are going to get really bad, really quick. For some in the industry, that time has seemingly already come.
We’re looking at you, Marvel.
Any way you want to look at it, Marvel has had a garbage year. Their sales are dwindling, their big event is the constant subject of dubious press, and they’re fighting a war on multiple fronts. As higher ups continue to cut costs within Marvel’s publishing wing, those left are asked to use dwindling resources to create better results. Like a lot of comic companies, Marvel has always been reliant on short term solutions, but faced with this mounting pressure, they started using a lot of these short term solutions as crutches, offering more variants, accelerated shipping, bigger events and various incentives to move dials. Under the best of circumstances, this would have been a mistake. These, sadly, are not the best of circumstances.
Marvel Comics, and this industry, are stuck in a feedback loop that’s built from outdated ideas. Some of these outdated ideas are the variants and the shipping schedules and the events and the incentives. Some of them involve the language that Marvel continues to use to promote the books in their line. Let’s start with one of the more obvious ones: the term “ongoing comic”.
In the classic sense of the term, an “ongoing comic” was a book you could reliably count on to ship monthly, in perpetuity. Yes, books would come and go, but something that was given the chance to be an ongoing concern was ran with the intent of the book being published in perpetuity with creators arriving and departing as required. The market has long been shifting away from this model, recognizing the power of the “new #1” as a demarkation to new readers that there’s a starting point ready for them. Add to that the fact that the entertainment market has reached an intense saturation point, and you have an environment where the traditional idea of an “ongoing comic” has long been rendered useless. People don’t have time for the never ending second act that the traditional ongoing offered – they want ideas with form, with a beginning, a middle and an end. And more importantly? They want those ideas to speak directly to them. The idea that an ongoing, never-ending book can satisfy this need is ridiculous.
So as consumers began looking to grab onto ideas and concepts that spoke directly too them, Marvel began seeing folks drifting away from the ongoing concepts that served them so well. Employing a lot of short-term thinking, they resolved to put out a lot more number ones, and turned their “ongoings” into something else. Yes, the concepts technically continued – they were ongoing stories – but the presentation was different. The form of release was different. Hundreds of issues became tens. Tens soon became ones.
In an attempt to both satisfy budgetary needs and the shifting attention of the market, the term “ongoing” continued to be used without thought. These days, an ongoing comic runs more like a television series, with unifying themes for a season, but instead of welcoming new readers to a brand new season of X-Men, Marvel welcomed readers to another ongoing… that would last a few years at most.
For their part, retailers reacted to this change poorly, again working from old models. As the market has changed to welcome regular collected editions and access to digital content, the back issue market has changed. While Marvel (and many other companies, to be fair) are going around brandishing the term “ongoing”, many retailers are stuck on the old ordering patterns for books with that designation. The idea is to order high of earlier issues for back issues and make a bit of money on the back end. The problem? As the runs of ongoings become shorter and shorter, this ordering practice leaves retailers with dead product – as back issue sales tend to tank after a series has ended. And that’s all before you get to the part where many folks who aren’t grabbing comics week to week are more and more likely to grab collected editions of product (at a much cheaper price point) or digital copies instead of inflated back issue prices. All of this leaves a lot of retailers with less cash flow on hand and dead titles – a memory which they often carry with them towards the next launch.
What results from this is the previously mentioned feedback loop. Marvel sees sales dropping on their single issues, so they’re more quick to reboot and relaunch. Retailers are slow to adjust, but have an easier time sending out a reaction in the form of orders of the next relaunch – which tend to be smaller. This cycle continues because old thinking is comfortable, and short term gain is the path of least resistance. The only problem? Old thinking and short term gain always, always, always result in a hard fall – and this is the place Marvel finds themselves right now.
There are ways Marvel can break this cycle – but absolutely none of them appear to be present in their Legacy marketing. In fact, the company actually seems like they’re regressing through a series of even older ideas, leaning harder on the crutches that are already straining from the weight. It’s clear from where they’ve been they know how valuable a well marked jumping on point can be, but they’ve squandered that form of marketing through a lot of bad faith moves that have left retailers and fans less willing to give up their hard earned dollars. So instead of trying to innovate, Marvel has decided to look back and roll out… old numbering? Corner boxes? The return of FOOM? What? These changes are purely cosmetic, and do nothing to address the real problems that exist in the company.
Honestly, if Marvel were looking to turn things around, they have to start looking at companies that are doing so without relying so heavily on gimmicks. Companies like Boom! Studios, who pledged to deliver less books in 2016 than before in order to provide a focus in content and marketing. That company ended up having one of their very best years, and we’ve been reaping the rewards of that in our shop. Image is doing similar things – keeping tight schedules, but ones that build in breaks for people to catch up on collected editions, and to make sure the creative team isn’t handing in books that don’t contribute to the main ideas being sold. You won’t find a book like Spider-Man/Deadpool (or Trinity, for an example from across the aisle) coming out from either, where the main driving creative forces flit in and out of the book. You won’t find their titles interrupted by events, which modify the formula that readers were finding connections with in order to goose the numbers for a few short issues.
What Marvel needs to do, is focus on ideas, and not on cosmetics or marketing – because they are officially bad at both of those things. They need to be up front. The ongoing titles they offer will continue until the idea that fuels them runs out, or the sales necessitate an ending. They need to stop shoehorning content in that doesn’t run along with those ideas, and if they need a title to take a break for a few months to make sure stories come out on time? So be it. They need to stop looking backwards to the methods and audience that necessitated these short term marketing tactics in the first place, and start looking into the future. And if for some reason there are internal struggles that are preventing this from happening? Well, that’s rough, but if things keep going the way they are, there are worse things to come for both the company and the industry than what relatively little growing pains moving forward and incorporating new ideas would provide.
Because as it stands? They’re acting like a true disgrace to the medium. And unlike us? They shouldn’t be proud of that badge.
Change. Grow. Do better. Or else we’ll soon see what a comic industry looks like without monthly Marvel titles on the stands sooner rather than later.
Brandon Schatz and Danica LeBlanc are the co-owners of Variant Edition Comics + Culture in Edmonton, Alberta, and in their spare time, they fill up Submetropolitan with words and podcasts.