By Brian Hibbs
So, right now Marvel comics is in a little spot of trouble. In February 2017 Marvel’s best-selling ongoing superhero title barely passed 60k on the Diamond chart estimates. They ran three “event” style crossovers – “IvX”, which sold fewer copies than that, and “Clone Conspiracy” and “Monsters Unleashed”, neither of which cracked 50k. In fact, in what probably has to be a first for Marvel comics, other than “Amazing Spider-Man”, they don’t have any ongoing superhero titles selling over 50k in February.
(DC meanwhile places fifteen superhero comics selling over 50k that month, so you have a reasonable comparative)
This has led to Marvel taking several pretty unprecedented-for-them steps, the chief of which might be in holding a retailer summit in New York as well as building a “secret” Facebook group to discuss Marvel marketing with retailers. While it might be possible to argue the full value of these efforts (the Facebook group, in particular, only allows “positive” posts on Marvel, so is less of a valuable conversation between peers – Marvel does not openly participate in any other retailer-focused messaging boards or Facebook groups), it does represent some sort of move towards more open retailer communication that has been mostly absent in the decades since Marvel’s bankruptcy.
But for all of these attempts, it appears from the outside that Marvel is receiving many of the “wrong” messages about what the market is saying. This is probably best-represented by this widely-spread interview with David Gabriel, SVP of Sales and Marketing. David was indelicate in some of his quotes, but I do think that most internet commentators willfully misread what David was attempting to say here. “I don’t know if that’s a question for me. I think that’s a better question for retailers who are seeing all publishers. What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not. I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales. We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against. That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked.”
To me, nowhere in there says that David (or Marvel) thinks “diversity” is a problem (quite the opposite – he sounds frustrated there) – which is good, because the “diversity” canard is a distraction, at best.
I’m very much of the opinion that a significant number of the “blame points” that the internet magnifies (ie: “I need a digital code!” or “there are too many ‘SJW’ versions of these characters!”) are not actually the true culprits of Marvel’s recent change in fortunes. Instead they’re what a readership without the tools to really express what their deeper feelings are latches on to try to express their concerns. In some ways, it might be like people who complain about “Obamacare” and say it needs to be repealed – but who don’t actually want key portions of it (like, say, children staying on parent’s plans until 25 or companies not being able to refuse you for “pre-existing conditions”) to go anywhere.
I think that a goodly portion of the complaints is really looking at the trees, and not particularly seeing the forest – because I think that Marvel’s core problem the last decade or so has been a lack of judiciousness, more than anything else.
I’ve been selling comics long enough to remember the “Marvel Zombie” – the guys who were buying Marvel’s entire output (and loving it). Even at the height of the “Sandman” salad days for my main store, when we were a significant prototype of “the Vertigo store”, we had always had scores of “Zombies” shopping here (and we loved them for it!), but the tribe has been hunted to extinction by Marvel’s own sales practices. First the “Marvel Zombie” started to fracture into families – becoming “Avengers Zombies” or “X-Men Zombies” – then it descended further down into character-driven purchasing as they expanded your line, not just by title count, but also by frequency-of-release as well as by overall-cost-to-collect. It isn’t merely that there are never fewer than six “Avengers”-titled books going on at a single time (February 2017 brought “Avengers”, “Avengers point one”, “Great Lake Avengers”, “Occupy Avengers”, “Uncanny Avengers” and “US Avengers”, sheesh – the best-seller was about 40k copies, yuck!) – but that Marvel prices each of them at $4 (minimum), and tries to publish as many titles as it possibly can at 16-18 times a year.
The harder you make it to collect “Marvel comics”, the fewer people will do so. And that audience fracturing has finally come home to roost.
One personal stat that I always try to get across is that at my main store, most mainstream superhero style books, because of mismanagement of the brands by the publishers, have dropped down to “preorders plus 1-2 rack copies”. Generally speaking, this yields sell-ins that are sub-20 copies for most titles, and a truly depressing number of books are sub-5.
Sell-through is, thus, what matters for retailers as a class, and it is virtually impossible to sell comics profitably if your initial orders are so low. Even a book like “Amazing Spider-Man”, we now are down to a bare eleven preorders, and we’re selling just three or four more additional rack copies of current issues. There’s no room to “go long” here – I really only have a two copy tolerance for unsold goods before what should be a flagship book of the line becomes an issue-by-issue break-even proposition, at best. It’s just math.
But the point is that even if “ASM” took a sudden quality shift that might draw new eyes on it, it’s difficult for retailers to then fully capitalize on any change because the overproduction of comics (in general) and Marvel comics (in particular) has fractured and fragmented the audience significantly.
And here’s where sell-through becomes critical – in the ICv2 interview, David Gabriel talked about how Marvel views the recent $10 issue of “ASM” as a win, because it was triple dollars sold. Except that was sell-in. Sell-through, at least in my two stores worth of micro, was significantly down beause of the $10 cover price, and, much much worse, it caused multiple long-term ASM subscribers to drop the book entirely from their pull lists. Over the course of the next year that $10 issue is very likely to yield a 10% (or more!) lower dollars for the entire year. And they thought it was a “win”.
Meanwhile, we’re selling one hundred and sixty copies of “Saga” every month, on preorders of about eighty copies. The takeaway here, as I see it, as that there is no lack of customers for periodical comics, and there’s no lack of passion and energy for the format, and that there is no indication that “casual” readers won’t be interested in purchasing periodical comics (A big chunk of those “Saga” readers, like the “Sandman” wave that happened two decades before, are not normal and traditional “Wednesday Warriors”, yet there are still stoked to buy periodical comics!) – but that Marvel (and DC, largely) have harmed their own sales and chased their own customers away. There’s a problem when I sell 160 “Saga” and 16 copies of “ASM”… but this is problem of Marvel’s making over the accumulation of time.
So, if “ASM” is going to stay as 15-18 times a year, at $3.99 (with some issues much more), in a family of multiple other “Spider” titles that are all also produced the same way, well, even if Marvel finds some sort of rejuvenating formula, perhaps by going “back to basics”, I don’t see how I push the order for an issue significantly to anything more than 25, maybe 30 copies without the risk on my end being out of control in relationship to both the reward as well as recent history. Even then, I’ll have to have a hard argument with my store managers to win them over.
I want to be clear: this isn’t me saying “I can’t sell Spider-Man”. I don’t think that at all. I think a properly launched, properly marketed, properly published Spider-Man comic in an eco-system where it isn’t surrounded by too many brand-killing spinoffs could absolutely murder. I fundamentally and completely think that the market for Spider-Man comics done right is multiples of what we sell of “Saga”.
Why? Well, beyond “Saga” clearly and directly showing me that there’s a huge market for the right periodical to the right market, we’ve had our best superhero success in something like a decade with Marvel’s “Black Panther”. The first issue was our #1 best-selling title of 2016, we sold near double the copies as we did of “Saga” – and I’m sure we can sell way more than that of the right Spidey comic, in an eco-system where Spidey comics are actually something special.
People who say the new audience inherently don’t want super-heroes or don’t want periodicals are fundamentally wrong. They just don’t want them in the way they’re being offered.
With “Black Panther”, it was tons of new faces, diverse faces, genuinely excited about comics. And they were vibing on it… until Marvel saw it had a hit on its hand, and decided to push out “Black Panther: World of Wakanda”, and then “Black Panther: The Crew”. And this new audience began to leap off in droves because they don’t grasp (or want) Marvel’s publishing plan.
Seriously, our sales drop-off on “Black Panther” is significantly worse than similar titles and launches, and you can see the deflection points accelerate as the additional titles are released. Less is more when it comes to entertainment and branding – something that I said all the way back in my ninth column in 1993 – which is mostly just copying something that Joe Brancatelli said back in 1976 (!) (We’re just about to move our website, so I’m pretty positive that link is going to break in a week or two…. If it 404s when you read this try a search on “Hibbs Tilting Brancatelli”… or email me!) Adding a second “Black Panther” title doesn’t double your sales; instead it causes x% of Panther readers to walk away instead.
The same thing happened with “Doctor Strange”, when “Sorcerors Supreme” launched, the same thing happened when Marvel published two different “Squirrel Girl” issue #1’s in a single year, or when they expanded “Guardians of the Galaxy” into like six books or more a month – the new audience? The ones who have been freshly minted this decade? They don’t understand Marvel’s publishing plans.
They’re not looking for a LINE of comics… they’re looking for a comic. That new young woman who is buying “Squirrel Girl”? For the most part she’s not looking for five more female heroines to go along with it. That’s not to say that maybe she couldn’t be convinced to buy five more comics (she can!), but they have to be different flavors. They emphatically don’t want a line, like we did when we were kids.
In the micro, the kid who is buying “Totally Awesome Hulk” is most likely going to jump the heck off when that book crosses over into “Weapon X”, especially when you add an extra and above $5 special in there as part of the crossover – that kid doesn’t care that it is creatively valid, being driven by a writer’s story… what he cares about is he just wants to read “TAH”! Up and down the line Marvel is constantly pushing for customers to buy more and more, and that worked (for a while…. Even a good long while), but I think those days are now gone, and so they’ve made it harder to draw people into the line without a truly radical rethink of how they publish comics.
One website seems to be getting leaks that suggest that Marvel’s new path is to look backwards and to do what he calls “Meat and Potato Comics”. And there’s some small evidence that this could potentially work – witness DC’s “Rebirth” – but I strongly believe that if Marvel continues on the path of publishing too many titles, diluting their brands, and publishing far too frequently at too high of a price, they’ve got an uphill battle on their hands.
The old customer? The “Marvel Zombie”? They’re largely gone at this point, and have been for many many years. We’ve gone at least a whole generation of readers who don’t even know what a “Marvel Zombie” is, and so doing things that seem designed to cater to an audience that left already, with “legacy heroes and legacy numbering” seems fairly well designed to not hit with the market that exists in pursuit of a market that got chased away.
I don’t think Marvel can successfully publish multiple incarnations of a large percentage of their brands; it cuts the audience down to levels that are unsustainable for sell-through. I don’t think I can sell two “Hulk” comics a month, just like we can’t sell two “Captain America” titles, or two “Iron Man” titles, or going back, two “Fantastic Four” titles – unless you stop over-extending the audience (and the “Generations” plan seems to imply that they’re going for a double-down, instead), the mass audience simply isn’t going to come back because they don’t understand or want a line.
What I especially don’t see is hordes of readers returning because Tony Stark becomes Iron Man again in and of itself – Iron Man has a long long history of other people getting in the suit for a while, and when Tony comes back (as he always does) it’s usually a short period of time before Tony feels played out again, and someone else climbs into the suit.
There’s the conversation going around that, somehow, “diversity” is the blame for all of this – Iron Man is a black woman, Hulk is Korean, Cap is a nazi, and Spider-Man is a black boy, and, oh no, all that “Political Correctness” is what’s harming Marvel. To which I think nonsense – if there’s a problem stemming from who is in the costumes, it’s that all of these changes are happening at the same exact time, where essentially “none” of the “legacy” characters are active right now at all. That’s a problem of timing, to be sure, but it doesn’t mean the solution is to just bring the “legacy” characters all back in a rush. Ultimately “Tony Stark as Iron Man again!” becomes a creative dead-end, just like it’s been the other half-dozen times they’ve done this. There’s a reason that Steve Rogers quits being Captain America every few years – Steve Rogers is kind of dull. There’s a reason that they keep changing the status quo of Bruce Banner and The Hulk – because otherwise the formula gets stale really fast.
No, Marvel’s true problem is over-production, and, like I said before, a lack of judiciousness.
The “new” customer (and there’s tons of folks you can describe that way) can be made to want to buy into the Marvel universe. In fact, the Marvel (and DC) universe is arguably the greatest strength(s) of serialized comics. But in order for them to successfully buy in, they have to understand the shape of what you’re doing. They want to know what they’re buying “matters”. They want to believe that Marvel is their friend, not just a guy who has gotten used to hitting them up for money again and again. It shouldn’t be a struggle to keep up with the greater story of the Marvel universe; and it is today…. It has been so for a good long time now
It is hard to think each comic story “matters” when there’s such a wall of them coming at you every month, and nothing sticks around for more than 12 months anyway. It is critical to deal with both sides of that equation, though. You can’t just do half of it.
Here’s an example: Marvel’s really trying to make a big push for “Secret Empire”, their latest crossover event that will presumably lead into some kind of a “Heroes Return” for the “meat and potatoes” style. And the first issue (head-shakingly foolishly numbered as “#0”) came out today (as I write this). But it also came with three other tie-in comics in the same week. The message to the consumer is “Want to be on board? That will be $17 for week number one, please!” That’s not a pitch that will draw (m)any new readers in. Nor will it appear to the older audience… who mostly quit as the line went to $4 a throw across the board, with double or triple production to what they can (or want to) support.
So, end of the day: I don’t think “Legacy!” itself is an especially dynamic push that will draw lapsed readers back in, unless you’re making a large number of scheduling and pricing changes at the same time. Something that fundamentally changes the ordering dynamic and risk that $4 comics bring is what is needed if you expect the market to make more than cautious and incremental steps back to Marvel.
I don’t really see that happening, because I’m not at all sure that Marvel actually understands the root problem. Which is not treating your customers like bottomless ATM machines.
Here’s another example: with most “significant” launches, Marvel has gotten into a habit of front-loading those launches so that the retailers are being asked to bear more of the risk – for example, solicited many early issues so that retailers are ordering “blind” on more issues in the pipeline. I’ll give a specific and recent example of the “X-Men” relaunches where not only are we being asked to order “Blue” and “Gold” as biweekly books, but Marvel front-loaded titles like “Generation X” or “Jean Grey” not only far too soon before we see what the wider results of the X-relaunch are, but also so that we’re ordering two issues of each in the first month with no sales data. Then there are the additional X-launches at around the same time like “Cable”, “Weapon X” and “Iceman”. All together, there’s less of an opportunity for individual retailers to buy in when presented with that much material that fast, especially without covering activity like returnability.
Fundamentally, it’s a bad idea to ask retailers (who have the lowest return-on-investment of any participant in the supply chain) to bear more risk, so that, even if you cut title counts a bit, we’re still in a place where it’s very difficult for us to bear the costs and to be willing to bear the risk of the kinds of repeated failures-to-launch that have been plaguing Marvel since “Secret Wars”. I’m totally down with a revitalized “X-Men” line, going for a “Meat and Potatoes” vibe…. But when launched so there will quickly be two or more books shipping in the line each and every week…. Well just who exactly do they think is going to buy in to that, and not get buried under the weight of all of the superfluous production?
For me, I can’t possibly see whatever Marvel tries as being a “success” unless then end up with at least one title (at issue #8, not just the launch – they know how to front-end a launch) selling regularly over 100k, and let’s say at least five more books selling over 75k, long-term. This is MARVEL COMICS we’re talking about, after all – completely synonymous in the mass market’s eyes with “superhero comics”. If they’re not utterly stomping DC’s unit sales by a significant percentage, they’re doing something utterly wrong.
There’s a way that Marvel could potentially do it, and that’s with a full-on “Rebirth”-style relaunch and continuity reset – that could bring hundreds of new and returning readers back to each and every store Marvel for the curiosity of it all, but Marvel’s people have been adamant that they’ll never do that – but, again, even if they tried, it wouldn’t stick for very long if they didn’t reassess the manner in which they publish comics and treat customers. I know I’d rather have fewer Marvel comics that we sell significantly more copies of – but Marvel’s instinct has always been to push the market as hard as it possible can.
It’s my opinion it took Marvel something like decade for the slow bleed to readership to finally get deep enough that they’re paying attention – so it’s going to take them 5+ years to build audience trust (consumer and retailer!) back up if they don’t do a “Rebirth”, in my opinion. I would love to be wrong, however, and I wish them nothing but well in their efforts to try, however, because the market really needs a strong a healthy Marvel comics.
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.