Tilting at Windmills

Thu, January 15th, 2009 at 11:01pm PST | Updated: January 15th, 2009 at 11:02pm

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

GOTTA WEAR SHADES

When I was, say, eighteen years of age, if you had told me I’d still be here in January of 2009, successful in my chosen line of passion, and about to witness an African-American inaugurated as President of the United States, I would have laughed at you and asked you to pass what you’re smoking.

Ain’t the future cool?

Still, like most January’s, I have fifty skabillion things going on at once, so this is going to be one of those scattershot columns as I race ahead with a bunch of little things, instead of one big column – that comes next month when I look at BookScan 2008. (yay for a probable 11k words!)

Ready? Steady. Go!

Look, so John Jackson Miller may have said it in print first, but I bet I thought it before he did, because I was talking about it in last month’s column – the reason Marvel is willing to try selling regular monthly comics at $3.99 is because 10 of the top 10 for the year are $3.99.

Look, you’re buying the things, that’s really the bottom line, and the publishers follow where you, as a consumer, lead.

This is just as true for pricing as it is for content issues.

I have a five year old son, in Kindergarten.

And I think it is possible that he and most of his generation of kids will be truly and properly color-blind.

My parents were parents of the ‘60s. They tried very hard to raise me as color-blind and tolerant of all people. Overall, they did a pretty good job, even though they had their own issues with racism and sexism and classism. I have heard them using epithets that would be, charitably, called politically incorrect.

My kid, however, is being raised in a city, in a time where differences are celebrated. He’s going to grow up with an African-American President, possibly all the way through to his teenager-hood. It will be absolutely normal for him.

This makes me feel good about this country and our future.

Because it is almost Martin Luther King day, they’re teaching the kids a lot about race and racism right now, and I’ve spoken to him about it as well – about segregation and buses and water fountains and just how things were when his grandmother was his age. His two school best friends are an African-American boy (with, might I add, two adopted gay fathers), and a Pakistani, and the vey idea that his two best friends would have had to drink from a different water fountain than himself is utterly foreign to him.

The real legacy of Barack Obama’s presidency isn’t likely just to be the historical fact that he was elected, but rather the impact that will have twenty years from now on my Boy’s generation.

It pretty much makes me feel glad to be an American. And when I’m at his school for “Morning Circle” and we do the Pledge of Allegiance as an entire school, I really feel great about that in a way that I never have before in my life. “With Liberty & Justice FOR ALL.” Damn straight.

So I do get the frenzy over Obama, and particularly how it impacts our tiny corner of the world with the “Spider-Man meets Obama” story in “Amazing Spider-Man” #583.

And, yeah, it is a feeding frenzy out there.

Let us back up a little tiny bit though, and read the original solicitation for ASM #583. It looks like this:

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #583
Written by MARK WAID
Pencils by BARRY KITSON
Cover by JOHN ROMITA SR.
YOU ASKED FOR IT, YOU GOT IT! PETER PARKER ON A DATE!
After the revelations of “Mind on Fire”, love is in the air for more than one member of the cast and Pete finally gets some time out with the ladies. (and who better to bring it to you than two men who both had dates as recently as 1987!) Amidst the romance though, forces are gathering that will spell trouble for Peter in the months to come.

32 PGS./Rated A …$2.99

This is the information that retailers had when they were trying to determine their orders, accept preorders and so on. Not a thing about Obama in there.

As I’m sure most of you are aware, we have a system called “Final Order Cutoff” (FOC) for Marvel and DC comics. What this means is that our orders are able to be freely adjusted upwards or downwards before the FOC date – typically three weeks before a book ships.

The holiday season interfered with the normal FOC schedule, however – because of Christmas and New Year’s, the FOC for ASM #583 (which shipped 1/14) was the week of 12/18. We also had to FOC all of the books shipping 1/7 as well as 1/21 – three different weeks worth of FOC.

The “Marvel Mailer” with the FOC information for ASM #583 then suddenly said this:

*AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #583 OBAMA VARIANT (OCT088192, $3.99, FOC – 12/18) AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #583 (NOV082358, $3.99, FOC - 12/18) will have a previously unannounced variant by Phil Jimenez featuring Spider-Man and the next President of the United States – Barack Obama. You can order the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #583 OBAMA VARIANT without restriction if your orders of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #583 regular cover by FOC are higher than your orders for AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #575 by FOC. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #583 will also feature a 5 page back-up story of Spider-Man meeting Barack Obama.

This was not the first-placed change/incentive/difference, it was the third of twelve different product changes listed for that week. Marvel typically inundates us with last-minute product changes.

The recent trend on variant covers has been a declining one – there are so many of them offered each month that they’ve ceased to be special. Further, the overall sales trend on “Amazing Spider-Man” has been a downwards one – at Comix Experience we’ve been losing roughly 10% a month in sales since “New Ways to Die” ended. So, really, the idea of exceeding our orders from eight issues back, in order to be able to order any of the Obama cover, wasn’t something that really registered to me as a viable possibility.

Of course, this didn’t account for the impact of the Slow News Day, and the media interest in the title. Ah well.

Some (many?) stores missed the notification of the Obama cover in the first place – it was the week before Christmas after all.

Some (many?) stores missed the incentive by a single copy, unfortunately reading “exceed” as “match-to,” and so aren’t receiving a single copy of the Obama cover.

Note that in that latter case, the orders were cancelled out beneath the impacted retailers with zero notice of any kind – it wasn’t until they received their invoices this week that they saw they weren’t getting them, and, of course, it was far too late to do anything about it at that point. That’s pretty bogus behavior on behalf of Marvel and Diamond, however unintentional.

I may be a Pollyanna, but I really believe that had the book had its contents and cover properly solicited in the first place, without the ridiculous hoops that retailers were asked to jump through, supply within the market could be three-to-five times what it was. This still (probably) wouldn’t have been nearly enough copies to meet Slow News Day demand, but it would have gone a long way towards letting the Direct Market put its best foot forward to the hordes of civilians arriving in a frenzy that I haven’t seen since the “Death of Superman.”

(Parenthetically, I’ve heard several people saying they want to buy the Obama cover as an “investment.” I heard exactly the same thing during the “Death of Superman” frenzy. Today, this moment, you appear to be able to buy “Superman” #75 for well under cover price from eBay [I see several with no bids, starting at 99 cents!]. Terrific “investment!” I counsel people to place money in an interest-bearing checking account instead – the return-on-investment would have been significantly greater and the money would be significantly more liquid!)

At the end of the day, if you want retailers to buy enough copies of books to meet demand, you have to give us the appropriate information to do so, and you have to make it easy for us to do so. That doesn’t mean we still might not guess low, but you’re a lot more likely to get the proper market penetration.

There are two real issues at stake here, which are likely to get conflated, but are each worth addressing. First, it is really shady to offer to sell someone a desirable product only if they order an unrealistic number of the undesirable one. The stark truth is that if retailers had an infinite supply of both covers available today, the overwhelming majority of civilian consumers would be interested solely and exclusively in the Obama cover, leaving the Romita cover collecting dust on the shelves. Tying one to the other is fairly despicable behavior, and, frankly, I’m not so certain it is strictly legal by the Uniform Commercial Code.

Second, and this is a problem that Marvel has been making more significant over the last year or so is that the primary source for information in ordering, as well as collecting preorders from consumers, is “Previews.” Information that isn’t in “Previews,” information that changes three weeks before a book ships, is information that is harder to act upon. I think FOC is great for any number of viable business reasons, but completely changing the demand curve outside of the normal solicitation process is completely unacceptable behavior.

While I think that most retailers are fairly understanding about the need to occasionally change the content of a solicitation on a limited basis – no more than one item a week, in my mind – Marvel is really abusing FOC by making dozens of changes each month. What’s less than clear is if this is a problem with Sales, or a problem with Editorial, or a problem with communication between Sales and Editorial, but from my side of the counter it is rather academic. Whether it is adding editorial content that has the potential to increase sales five-fold or more (like this Obama issue), or soliciting comics with 40 story pages and releasing them with 16 (“Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Boxes”), or changing format from trade paperback to “premiere hardcover” (“Hulk Giant Size”), or changing markets that are allowed to stock an item (“The Stand: Captain Trips”), or any of the myriad pricing and page count changes that Marvel incessantly makes, it is clear they are treating the original solicitation in “Previews” as mere suggestion, rather than the iron-clad-except-in-the-most-extreme-of-situations that it has to be.

No other solicitation or notification of change holds the same weight as the original “Previews” solicitation. Nothing. Only a fraction of the necessary audience is going to see non-“Previews” solicitations. Whether that be on the retailer level or on the consumer level. I submit to you that all of the changes listed above have transformed each of those projects into something other than was solicited in very real (and probably legally actionable) ways. A TP is not a HC. 16 pages of story is not 40. “Exclusive to the Direct Market” is not “Available in all markets.” And adding a story and cover featuring the new President Elect the week before inauguration is certainly not the “random issue of Spider-Man” that the market was ordering. These are different projects that we would have ordered differently if we had had the correct information at the time of solicitation.

And it has to stop.

Marvel has to come to understand how destructive these actions are to the market – both in the incremental economic damage they cause, as well as the very trust retailers and consumers place upon the Marvel brand.

Look, there are people at Marvel who like to talk about how Marvel can never catch a break from retailers, how they’re always complaining, how it just isn’t fair to Marvel. But the reason retailers “misunderstand” Marvel is precisely because solicitations are more like mirages than promises, and that they want us to play all kinds of external games (like exceeding your orders of an issue from eight issues back) in order to get the products we want to sell. What current management seems to forget is that Marvel has a history of screwing with the DM retailer. Even if this regime isn’t screwing us in those same exact ways, and shouldn’t be blamed for the mistakes of regimes past, they’re still finding new ways to undermine us. There’s no malice involved, of course, but they need to come to grips that “Previews” Solicitation = The Rule. Each and every department at Marvel has to embrace this notion as absolute gospel.

On the other hand…

I find it incredibly heartening that Marvel obviously realized there had been a mistake, and rushed out a second printing in what we hope will actually be a week’s turnaround (and what looks to be a third printing on the same schedule). That’s really positive, and should be absolutely lauded, both to Marvel and to Diamond, for handling the punishing logistics of that.

Here’s the beautiful, delicious irony to top this Obama pie: while Marvel did certainly err, they quickly stepped forward to try and solve it. All good, points to them.

The Obama comic was a speculators wet dream: short supply, hyper-popular character, rabid piranha-like demand from the real world. Ka-Ching!

But another comic also came out today that really should have hit exactly the same buttons. “Final Crisis” #6. It is two days later, so this should be unnecessary, but there’s a spoiler warning on notice here. Go away if you don’t want it spoiled. Still here? Really? Last chance! OK. They killed Batman.

Ker-zap. Omega beam to the head. Smoking corpse on abundant display. He’s pining for the fjords.

This should have been big news, this should have lead to the single biggest day of comics sales in a decade or more with two major civilian-interest comics going head to head on the same day.

Except for one tiny problem: DC already blew their PR wad a couple of months ago at the end of very-inconclusive “RIP” storyline. You can’t get the press to show up twice for the same story (but different!) – that’s pretty “Boy Who Cried Wolf,” y’know?

Even my five year old knows that one, sheesh.

One wag of a retailer opined that “Marvel cockblocked DC!”, but I think even more so, DC cockblocked themselves.

The story goes that because “RIP” is to be published as a collected edition, they needed to have an “ending” to the storyline within the context of “RIP” itself. Despite the fact that Batman doesn’t actually die in “RIP,” and that DC had to know that was the case, the news got out in November about the end of “RIP,” and all the press played out there.

Hell, I was even on one of our local evening news broadcasts because a camera crew showed up at the door. “Uh, it is more like the psychological death of Batman,” I think I muttered.

But because the story had run, it just isn’t going to run again.

What’s weird is the absolute silence out there on this – I just ran a google search of “batman dead” and “Batman dies” and neither one of them turn up anything about Final Crisis on the first page of results. That’s majorly sub-rosa, man.

Still, I pulled out the solicit for “Amazing,” so let’s be fair and do the same thing for “Final Crisis”:

FINAL CRISIS #6
Written by Grant Morrison
Art and covers by J.G. Jones and Carlos Pacheco & Jesus Merino
As the entire world turns against them, the last of Earth's Super Heroes must face the unstoppable power of the Gods of Apokolips for the final time. Supergirl vs. Mary Marvel! Superman vs. Darkseid! The fate of the Flash! And the incredible return of the New Gods! The End of Days has come and the ultimate war between good and evil will at last be decided on the battlefield of a broken world!

And as the skies bleed, as the walls between universes crumble and fall, the ultimate threat to life makes its presence felt as an evil beyond imagining arrives to claim its prize. Mandrakk the Dark Monitor is coming and the DC Multiverse will never be the same again!

Retailers please note: This issue will ship with two covers by J.G. Jones and Carlos Pacheco & Jesus Merino that will ship in approximately 50/50 ratio. Please see the Previews Order Form for more information.
On sale November 26 • 6 of 7 • 40 pg, FC, $3.99 US

I see at least one story point that emphatically didn’t happen (Superman and Darkseid weren’t even on panel together, man), and two that are pretty marginal (the two that follow that), and, of course, no mention or suggestion, hint, clue, insinuation, or allusion of anything even remotely like the death of Batman.

I mean, even Marvel is willing to send out a corrected solicitation, guys.

It is downright unacceptable to have major plot point books shipping with no (none, zero, zilch, nada) indication in the information to retailers that there might be a major plot point in there.

DC is doubly screwed here, because the “false” branding of “RIP” (and into the ancillary titles which appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with it) has created a lack of faith in their branding itself. If you promise one thing and deliver another, you get disillusioned fans (and retailers, for that matter), and that inexorably leads to lower sales.

A golden, golden opportunity completely blown to hell, and it is all completely and one hundred percent their own fault.

Can you even imagine a world where the death of freaking Batman doesn’t instantly hit half-a-million copies or much, much more? Huh, I can. It’s called Earth-C, and the “C” is a word that sounds very much like fustercluck.

Did I tell you, that for me at least, I have a really high number of what sound to be older women calling for the Spider-Man/Obama comic? Most of them want to buy copies for all of their grandchildren – and often they’re asking for 10 or more for that.

They’re also deliriously happy for second printings. Thus: they’re not looking to make money – they’re trying to connect the importance of Obama’s Presidency to their generation, where they themselves or at worst their parents directly faced the kind of virulent social prejudice we talked about above. And they’re trying to connect that to something they think the children in their lives will respond to: comics. That’s not just nice, that’s completely totally awesome. I wish the object they’re desirous of had more than five pages of Obama in, frankly. I haven’t read the front story yet, but to the best of my recollection, there are currently no African-Americans in Spider-Man’s supporting cast whatsoever, so those grandchildren probably aren’t going to be rushing back for more Spidey comics.

But what saddens me, what truly and completely gets me in the pit of my heart is the “regular” cover for this issue.

“Let’s face it Cougars, you’ve hit the jackpot!” And “his reward is action”.

Both of those are completely farcical takes on two long-running Spider-Man memes – and they’re even genuinely amusing…. As long as you have a twenty-plus year history with the character, and so are essentially jaded about him.

But if you’re not?

I mean, it’s not quite offensive, but it’s at the very least potentially “they’re sending what message to my grandchildren?!?”

As a completely different wag of a retailer put it: what’s next for cover blurbs? "That's not web on her face"?

I know it can be amusing to have that sort of drunken frat boy humor – I mean, I have a twenty-plus year history with Spider-Man, and am essentially jaded about super-hero comics, and so even I had a little smirk at the same time I was cringing at myself for smirking like that – but, brother, is that really the cover presentation you want to have on something that you’re expressly trying to drive civilians towards?

Really?

The last thing that struck me about this week was that, assuming those Spider-Man comics were up on a New Comics Rack, and the civvies had to at least scan that selection to get their Obama comic, they were faced with essentially no new product from Marvel (but a lovely gory shot of Ma Gnuchhi, yes), and a depressing sea of black covers from DC, as “Faces of Evil” kicked into high gear this week with six or seven releases.

That’s our public face this week?

I mean I know that this vast sea of people that flooded into the Direct Market were mostly comprised of people who have never been in a comic book store before, and will almost certainly never come to one again, because they’re buying for the sentiment, not the actual product. And they were mono-focused on what they wanted, so very few took the time to really, y’know, look around. Staffs were stressed and overworked by the constant ringing of the phone, and getting lists for the second printing worked out, and I’m sure that most everyone really tried their best to put a good face on everything, and to try and make this a positive upbeat experience – but this isn’t the atmosphere that is conducive to y’know, selling. Selling takes time with a customer. I managed a few connections, and a few extra sales, maybe inculcating comics into the future.

But, really, seldom has a new comics rack looked so… drab yet tawdry, I guess I’d put it.

We can do better than this, can’t we?

(“Yes, we can”)

Let me be a mercenary whore here and sneak in one more plug for the second volume of “Tilting at Windmills,” which is meant to ship next month from IDW. This covers my last two years at “Comics & Games Retailer” magazine, as well as the entirety of TaW 2.0 from Newsarama.

If you like my writing here, you’ll like it even better in a 400-page long book! Your local comics shop will be able to order it for you by using the order code DEC084122. You can also get the first volume of “Tilting,” which has my first 100 columns, by using STAR18289.

(They’re available outside the Direct Market as well, but I think you should support your local comics shop, man)

Finally, as I said way back at the top, I have my hands on the BookScan 2008 numbers, and I’m slowly working my way through the thing. Next month I’ll talk about it in much, much greater detail, but for now let me tip out the tiniest of overviews.

BookScan represents a significant portion of sales in the bookstore market, including all of the major chain book retailers.

In 2007 the “complete” comics list was 13180 items long, and represented 15,386,549 books sold for $183,066,142.30 in gross sales.

In 2008, the list is 17562 items long, and represents 15,358,751 pieces for $195,488,311.97 in gross sales.

Title count was up by a third, sales in pieces were down by 0.2%, while gross dollars were up by 7%.

More next month!

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase a collection of the first one hundred Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) from IDW Publishing. An Index of v2 of Tilting at Windmills may be found here. (but you have to insert “classic.” before all of the resulting links) You may discuss this column here.

TAGS:  comics retailing, comics publishing, amazing spider-man, final crisis, marvel comics

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