Monday, August 31, 2009

Some thoughts on Marvel Comics' business strategy that I had after I received my latest shipment from Amazon.com

Late last year Marvel began publishing Punisher: War Zone, a six-issue miniseries re-teaming the "Welcome Back, Frank" creative team of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. Each 22-page issue cost $3.99, so if you read the book as it was originally released, it would cost you $23.94.

The hardcover collection was released earlier this year, and featured the usual advantages of a collection—the whole story available to be read start to finish all at once, no ads and a more convenient, easy to store format. That cost $24.99, a buck and nickle more than the individual comics, although you can currently buy it on Amazon.com for just $16.49.

I just received and read the trade paperback version this weekend, the version which, of course, shares all the advantages of the hardcover, save the heaviness of the cover stock. It only cost $20, but Amazon was selling it for $13.59, about $10 less than it would have cost me to read it one 22-page chapter at a time, with a bunch of dumb-ass ads for Hulk toilet water and Iron Man cupcake decorators between the pages.

I don't understand how this business model works.

I suppose it works and will continue to work as long as the pool of readers who need to know what's happening in the Marvel Universe immediately is large enough to make it profitable (and enough of them have enough flexible income that they don't care whether Marvel charges 'em $2.99 or $3.99 for the same 22 pages).

Spider-Man and X-Men fans will certainly always have enough of a steady stream of product that it may pay for them to stay engaged on a weekly basis with their franchises. Same with the Avengers under Brian Michael Bendis' care, as he's used the series as a launching ground for big Marvel Universe changes.

But when you move beyond the goings on of the Marvel Universe proper, into more self-contained books, there's less and less incentive for even those readers who care about keeping up with comics in a timely fashion to care about those books in comic book format. That's the Ultimate Comics line, the Marvel Knights lines, the Max line, most of the miniseries and, I imagine, almost everything that doesn't currently have a "Dark Reign" logo at the top, and/or involve a major player in the Marvel Universe.

That Punisher miniseries, for example, was a standalone series with a beginning middle and end, one that wouldn't have any ramifications on the other two Punisher comics, one set in the Marvel Universe proper, the other in the quasi-continuity Max-iverse. I have a hard time imagining thousands of people who read Punisher: War Zone simply because they had to know what happened in each installment, and how it would all end (The Punisher would kill a bunch of people and, at the end, he would live and his enemies would all die).

This would seem to indicate that there's little chance of line-wide storytelling in the "Dark Regin" model going away any time soon, but, at the same time, the increases in interest in such books seems to always come at the expense of the rest of the line.

Say you're a Jeff Parker fan (as I am) who goes to shop every Wednesday (like me!), but you have limited funds (also, sadly, like me). Do you buy Dark Reign: The Hood and Agents of Atlas (which prominently featured the "Dark Reign" logo and featured appearances from Norman Osborn and the Avengers in the first few issues), or do you read Exiles or The Golden Age of the Sentry, an ongoing and miniseries set in the furthest corners of Marvel continuity?

Sure, maybe price is a factor (it was for me), as one of those four books was $3.99, as is your interest in various characters, but all of them are going to be in trade within a month or two of the end of the first arc/end of the mini, and two of them don't impact the ongoing Marvel Universe soap opera. If that's the reason you're still reading single issues on a weekly basis, then of course you're going to buy the "Dark Reign" stuff and then maybe catch up on the other stuff in trade someday.

Using myself as a test case, I see I'm currently down to just three Marvel ongoings—Incredible Hercules, Runaways and Agents of Atlas. Of those, two are about to be canceled/go in to some form of hiatus.

That's not to say I have no interest in Marvel Comics any more; there are a lot of books I'd like to read if they were cheaper and/or I was richer. But because Marvel's pricing makes many single issues seem impractical to the point of insanity, and their trade program has become so swift, why on Earth would I want to read Ultimate Comics Spider-Man or Marvel Zombies 4 or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in any format other than an Amazon-discounted trade paperback format?

In a few more weeks or so, I'll be just one comic away from reading about half my super-comics in trade format only.

And keep in mind, I love comics. I like going to get them every Wednesday, I like flipping through them in the shop, I like the way they feel and smell, I like the cliffhangers, I like putting them in stacks and then in longboxes.

But I like having enough money to buy and read comics a heck of a lot more.

2 comments:

Matt Ampersand said...

You don't read Nova or Guardians of the Galaxy? Both of them are great/excellent books!

Felicity Walker said...

My reasons for buying comics individually are:

1. I give immediate dollar-vote feedback to the retailer and the comic company. Occasionally I hear comics pros complain that when readers wait for the trade paperback, they hurt the title, because sales appear deceptively low while the individual issues are coming out and everyone is waiting for the collection. The company thinks the readers don’t care and cancels the title or fires the creative team.

If I buy a comic when it comes out, the industry gets the message right away: that comic sells, and they should keep doing that comic. And in a direct sales system--where unsold comics are non-returnable from the retailer to the publisher, and the retailer has to make a darn good guess what will sell, because once he’s got the things, he’s stuck with them--every comic that I buy off the shelf improves the retailer’s opinion of that title.

(The publishers will probably figure out--if they haven’t already--that there’s always more sales numbers waiting in the trade paperbacks, and start to factor that into their budget, the way Hollywood now counts on overseas attendance of their movies to pad the box-office receipts.)

2. Collections always have something I don’t like in them, like one issue out of a six-issue story arc where there was a bad fill-in artist. If I bought the collection I’d be supporting the bad art along with the good.