Monday, January 15, 2018

What If...Marvel sees comic book stories as a byproduct of comic book cover production?

I recently read one of the dumber posts on The Beat that I can recall reading, of the sort that I found so irritating that I probably would have quit looking at the site over it a few years ago, but seeing as how degraded the comics press has become in the last few years, well, there aren't a whole lot of options for other places to see DC Comics press releases like that. Plus, I do enjoy reading The Beat's sales chart pieces.

The latest one about Marvel's sales was particularly interesting, and not simply because it traced the effect of the publisher's insane-looking "Legacy" variant scheme, where retailers were being asked to pump up their orders of books by ludicrously high, completely un-sellable percentages in order to unlock permission to order special variant covers that signaled the launch of Marvel's best jumping-off point in years (Instead of relaunching books with new #1 issues, or just not monkeying with the numbers at all, they moved to random-looking high numbers arrived at by adding the issues of all the relaunches over the decades together. These are numbers only appreciable to devoted comics historians and Marvel super-fans of a certain age.)

This passage by writer Xavier Lancel made me think about Marvel's scheme--in fact, their whole publishing strategy--in a different way:
Marvel is pretty happy about the situation. They sell their comics to the shops, after that be they read or not, that's not their problem. The advantage of not having a customer reading it is that he or she will not be disappointed. People buying comics mostly for their covers, they know exactly what they're gonna have: a cover they already saw in the Marvel Previews catalogs or solicitations. Readers are way more difficult to keep. So Marvel is still and again putting a large chunk of their efforts to sell their covers.
In other words, maybe Marvel is not so focused on the business of selling comic books to comic book readers now as they are as selling comic book covers to comic book collectors and, if viewed in that light, a lot of their moves start to make an awful lot of sense.

To a degree Lancel is joking about a lot of stuff, but he's pretty much on the money here, particularly as he goes on to emphasize that it is the comic book retailers who assumed all the risk in this endeavor, and who Marvel has to thank for it's success...or, as the numbers show, "success."

In almost every instance, it seems to have worked, at least looking at these sales estimates. For the most part, participating title saw their sales shoot up two or three times higher for the goofy "Legacy" cover issue, and then crash back down for the following issue to either exactly where they were the issue before, or slightly worse. Is the slightly worse a matter of standard attrition, or did this stupid sales initiative actively drive readers away in sizable numbers?

In either case, it certainly seems that Marvel's scheme worked...for all of one issue. It would seem to be a case of the publisher taking ten steps forward one month, only to take 10-15 steps back the next month. And it didn't cost them anything aside from the good will of many of the people who form the cornerstone of their current business model.

It's a damn shame too, because as far as I as a Marvel comics reader--well, at least via trade; Marvel's sales practices drove me from their serially-published wares years ago--the comics under those many variant covers are just as good as they have ever been, featuring a rather wide variety of genres, tone, art style and types of (admittedly all superhero-ish) characters. I may skip plenty of books featuring characters or concepts I have zero interest in--Captain Marvel, Inhumans, Deadpool and some of the too-many X-books and Spider-books--but the books I do read? I rarely if ever actively dislike any of them. I can't say the same for Marvel's Distinguished Competition, which genuinely seems to be focused on selling comic books to readers, rather than covers to collectors.

1 comment:

Bram said...

Appears a lot of retailers chose not to assume that risk, and it might not have worked out as well for Marvel (and then they blundered even more).

The more I think about it, the more I'm baffled — there's no scarcity, it's all manufactured — how can anybody think this is worth it?