Tilting at Windmills

Fri, May 15th, 2009 at 9:28am PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

Same As It Ever Was

From the “Oh, will they never learn?” file:

In order to better support retailers in their quest to translate interest in X-Men Origins: Wolverine into sales for this title, Marvel will release Wolverine #73 (MAR092604D, $2.99) before Wolverine #72 (FEB092578D, $2.99), the continuation of Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s “Old Man Logan” storyline. Issue #73 will arrive on May 13, while issue #72 will go on sale May 20.

This is done because issue #73 from writers Jason Aaron & Daniel Way and artists Adam Kubert & Tommy Lee Edwards features the start of two two-part stories focusing on the character, thus providing the perfect jumping on point for new readers the Wolverine film could help produce. Both stories will be concluded in the pages of Wolverine #74 (MAR092605D, $2.99), scheduled to land in stores on May 27.

The “Old Man Logan” storyline continuing in May 20’s Wolverine #72 will now conclude in a Giant Size Old Man Logan special, which was announced at this year's New York ComicCon.

There a word which applies here, and sounds remarkably like “fustercluck”.

This isn’t, of course, the first time such a thing has happened – if we set the wayback machine to 1994 we can recall Todd McFarlane’s "Spawn" where he skipped issues #19 & 20 of that series. #19 was eventually shipped between issues #24 & 25, while #20 shipped between #25 & 26.

Here’s what I wrote back then (Tilting at Windmills #28):

There are a lot of ways for a comic to be missolicited: different creative teams; erroneous catalog descriptions; format or price changes; incorrect shipping dates. But all of these things are covered clearly in the distributor's terms, and we, the retailers, are covered from publisher malfeasance, because missolicited items are fully returnable. However, as of late, we've discovered a new problem -- one that isn't specifically spelled out: sequence.

I don't think I'm alone in believing that sequence is as important an issue in sell-through as creative team, description, format, price, or ship dates. We don't want customers, particularly in today's glutted market, to be given any reason to drop a book, and material shipping out of the sequence it was solicited in, is as clear of an invitation for the customer to reconsider their purchase as anything else. Particularly because we're dealing with serial fiction, and habitual entertainment, where the regular steady fix is what the customer is looking for.

There were two recent attempts to subvert the sequence issue that leap immediately to my mind Continuity Comics' Valeria the She-Bat, which attempted to completely skip the two Spawn crossover issues; and Marvel's Starblast crossover, where a number of the crossover issues shipped long before the book they were meant to be crossing into. In both cases, these sequence-errors got rightly shut down by the distributors, and the affected titles were made fully returnable. At the time, I placed several calls to Diamond suggesting that they write into their trade terms a "sequence clause", so that these problems won't arise again, costing everyone more money (in phone calls and employee time, not only in indentifying the problem, but in packaging and shipping returns), avoiding "case by case determination". My reasoning was that if these things were clearly stated ahead of time, then the publishers might think twice before soliciting an item if there is any question of it arriving in proper sequence.

Of course, the distributors did not create such a policy, which brings us neatly to the item du jour: Spawn #21.

We're all aware at this point that Image has announced that Spawn #19 & 20 were running behind schedule enough that those issues would've been returnable under the distributors new 30-days policies. #21, however, was for some reason done, and ready to go, and could be shipped "on time" in the month it was solicited for. Rather than be responsible and either ship #19 & 20 late (having to take returns), renumber #21 to #19 (having to take returns) or resolicit the material (meaning there wouldn't be a Spawn on the market for 4 months), it was decided to ship #21 out of sequence, non-returnably, resoliciting the late issues #19 & 20 at some later date, sticking us with the ramifications of Todd McFarlane's inability to produce the material when he promised.

And the distributors went for it.

They went for it. Can you believe that?

Now, even ignoring the very very real possibility of customers dropping Spawn, losing us long-term dollars at a time where so few of us can afford that kind of loss, there is the inevitable and incessant phone calls we're all going to receive. When things have shipped out of sequence in the past, I generally receive two to three the number of phone calls asking me to explain it as I have any expectation of selling of the items in question. Some customers will call every store in town looking for the "missing" issues, although it's been carefully explained to them several times that those titles weren't even produced yet - they seem to assume that the retailers are holding the comic back in their storerooms, although no one in town has every even received the book. I logged at least a dozen calls each on Starblast and Valeria, and I was selling less than 5 copies of those books. I can't even begin to guess how many calls I'm going to be fielding on a well-selling book like Spawn. Each and every phone call you take on these issues is costing you money, not only in time that could be better put towards keeping your store running efficiently, but also in potential loss of real customers who aren't going to be able to get through to you.

And we are going to lose some sales - it might only be one copy per store, but I know consumers: when faced with something confusing, a certain percentage will go away. And for us, that not only reduces our potential profit all the way down the line, but it leaves us with merchandise that we have no surety of selling, for at least the next three months, until we can adjust our orders again.

However, Todd, Image, and the Distributors are all protected with a non-returnable #21: they have no unsold inventory, and we're stuck paying for their decision – a decision that we not only had no say in, but no culpability for as well! And that's not right nor fair.

Which brings us back to today.

Clearly comics distribution is a bit different today than it was in 1994. The primary difference is that the “Big Four” (Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and Image) are now “brokered” publisher, where they are setting their own Terms of Sale and rules and language about what is returnable and what is not – Diamond no longer has any say in that process whatsoever – and we also have “Final Order Cut-off” based ordering which reduces our exposure to approximately 3 weeks, rather than 3 months. This mitigates the problem to some degree, though it surely doesn’t 100% eliminate it. Diamond did eventually add a “sequence clause” to their TOS with vendors, but in current-Marvel’s TOS with retailers, they have absolutely no liability of any kind.

As I write this today, in 2009, "Wolverine" #73 has been on sale for less than 24 hours. In that time I received three in-store questions, four phone calls (“Do you have #72?!?”), and had at least one customer angrily put the issue back on the shelf, and told me to cancel his future orders for the title.

Can I tell you that this is no fun to deal with? That I really shouldn’t have to deal with answering questions of publication sequence, or to try and soothe confusion or angry feelings? That every minute I spend on something like this is a minute where I’m not being productive, selling more comics to more people, and feeling my own frustration level rising?

Marvel may not have a current contractual obligation to their retailers, nor to their consumers, but I sure as hell think they have a moral obligation.

Neil Gaiman (quite co-incidentally) wrote a blog post on Tuesday about readers sense of entitlement when it comes to creative work. He’s speaking specifically to novels, in this case, and to author George R.R. Martin’s "A Song of Fire and Ice" cycle (excellent books, by the way) where the newest volume, “A Dance With Dragons” is pretty late (it was originally expected in 2007).

Neil is quite correct when he observes that creator’s only obligation is to themselves and to the quality of their own work, using the piquant phrasing of “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.”

This is true. Creators are not machines, and creation isn’t like building machinery. If it takes a creator x number of months to create a work, then that’s what it is. Even if it was supposed to be half of what x eventually ended up being.

Publishers, on the other hand, have a greater responsibility, because the decisions they make impact a great many people. It is flatly irresponsible for publishers to promise things they are incapable of delivering, particularly in the context of an ongoing series.

See, if “Old Man Logan” had been a separate mini-series not within the monthly "Wolverine" title, there wouldn’t be a lot of problem. I mean, sure, there’d be some wailing and gnashing that the last issues were desperately late, but since they’d be self-contained within its own mini-series, the greater impact would be relatively inconsequential.

But for a continuing, sequentially numbered series, the rules are different. In point of fact, the issue of "Wolverine" that was released this week was not the seventy-third issue – it was the seventy-second issue. They might call it something else, but even my kindergartener knows how to count.

Someone at Marvel made a decision to publish “Old Man Logan” in "Wolverine." A conscious and specific decision to do that, rather than make it its own mini-series. Generally speaking, I applaud decisions like that because I am of the belief that top-flight creators doing top-flight work is how monthly comics really should be working, and I’m just as happy having, say, “Batman: Year One” be in "Batman" #404-407 as to be its own mini-series. That creates a much larger potential audience for #408, at the end of the day.

But, then, someone maybe should have looked at the creative team on this one: Mark Millar and Steve McNiven – a creative team that is responsible for delaying the entire Marvel universe for two months thanks to the scheduling fiasco that was "Civil War."

Look, I can buy the argument that one should only publish the best possible comics, and sometimes that takes extra time, and, in a world of collected editions the real goal is the final bound package of work. I get that, and I generally support that. But we’re in a publishing environment for serializations where pieces of the puzzle are like sections of clockwork – one story depends on the next to be read in a proper sequence, and breaking that sequence is breaking your compact with the audience.

Marvel has a corporate culture that demands that each quarter does better than the one before. I, personally, think that’s a bad idea when dealing with what is meant to be entertainment, because creators are not machines, and art is not machine parts, and so the end result of such a corporate culture is that you end up producing a whole lot of “catalog fillers” in order to be able to hit your numbers, and you have to do goofy stuff like raise prices on much of your line when it probably isn’t required, or particularly healthy for your long-term business – but then I’m not at Marvel nor required to answer to their Board.

But that’s why this happens.

Oh, sure, they can try and spin it to make this into a positive: “In order to better support retailers in their quest to translate interest in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" into sales for this title” – but that’s pretty palpably nonsense. Let’s enumerate why.

“New readership” for a media-driven project (such as a film), virtually always comes before that film is released. People get “primed” by all of the advertising they see, and want to check it out. Once the film gets released, they have the film to satisfy that demand. Further, the more potential items to purchase there are (in any media, in any form), the more diluted the direct impact of “new readership” is going to be. One of the reasons that the graphic novel of "Watchmen" exploded the way that it did was because that was it – there wasn’t any other way for the created consumer demand to express itself other than reading the (singular) GN.

With Wolverine there are scores of things you could be buying. Too many, in fact. I had a customer come in a few weeks ago, a civvie, looking for Wolverine stuff, so I showed him the entire shelf of Wolverine comics and graphic novels out there. I tried to point him to “the classics” – Barry Windsor-Smith’s "Weapon X," Claremont & Miller’s "Wolverine" mini, "Origin," and so on – but he was clearly overwhelmed and walked out with “Let me think about it some more.”

Either way, the majority of new interest comes either before the film is released, or immediately (typically 1 week or less) after. "Wolverine" #73 is, at this point, coming far too late to thread that particular needle.

All other things being equal, it is harder to convert a customer drawn in by movie advertising with an ongoing issue number than an issue #1 – and so, "Wolverine: Weapon X" #1 was pitched to us as the civvie gateway book. "Wolverine" #73 has a much harder time meeting that goal, and does nothing but, best case, compete with that #1 for the consumer dollar.

But, let’s say that somehow it happens, and this increasingly mythical customer buys #73 cold, and likes it, and comes back looking for more – and the next issue released will be, um, #72, and will feature a completely different story. Yay!

There’s really no level on which this works – it won’t do what they’re pitching it as, and it will create a whole lot of confusion and headache. It makes them look bad. It makes us look bad. Hell, it makes comics look bad, because even a kindergartener knows how to count in sequence. The only way it makes sense is on the money counter’s ledger: we have to sell x number of units of "Wolverine" this quarter to make our number, and even with the increased sales of storyline y, the delays in publication means we won’t make our quarterly target, so let’s publish them out of sequence!

And in the meantime the retailers are the ones who have to pay for it.

Shouldn’t we be past that kind of 90s thinking by now?

I grow very very weary of being asked to pay for other people’s mistakes.

Can we talk a little bit of Free Comic Book Day?

I love Free Comic Book Day, it is really comics’ national holiday, better than Christmas, and I get both joy and a tremendous amount of profit by participating in it. Joe Field, FCBD’s creator, is guaranteed to be sainted in Heaven for doing so.

But I fear a lot of the time that the various publishers don’t really get the point of FCBD, or don’t know how to best leverage it.

Let’s all remember that FCBD is only that way for the consumer – retailers have to pay quite a bit in bringing those comics into our stores. Some stores will bring each and every FCBD book in and give them all out; I’m not one of those. I think very carefully about what to stock on FCBD, because not all books are created equal.

First and foremost is the to-retailer cost. I’m at the point where anything over a 25-cents unit cost is not something I’m interested in stocking for the day – while I’m happy to give out nearly anything to my customers, there’s a limit of what I’m willing to pay from my own pockets to make it happen.

Second, the FCBD book needs to promote something that I have a chance of selling in sufficient quantity so that it is worthwhile to give out x number of copies for free. There are publishers offering FCBD books that only publish one or two things a year – I will generally give those FCBD books a pass. A couple of years ago there was a "Gumby" FCBD book which amounted to basically nothing as Gumby’s production schedule was somewhere between thin and none. There isn’t any point to handing out teasers if more product isn’t immediately forthcoming.

This year, for example, we had another "Owly" FCBD comic. I love "Owly," "Owly" is great, and I like to promote it. But it is fairly less than useful to promote "Owly" when books 2 & 3 are unavailable.

In much the same way, the price point of what we’re trying to promote has to be civvie-friendly. It was really awesome last year to be able to hand out EC samplers, because those are incredible comics which everyone really should read – but getting anyone casual to drop $50 on a fancy hardcover production of six old comics is an uphill battle, at best. Typically speaking, the civvie audience is looking for items that are, say, $10 or less.

Finally: FCBD books need to have enough space on the front cover for stores to stamp them with their own contact information – there’s a remarkable inconsistency on this score. They also need to have a barcode, and it both should absolutely be on the front cover to ease processing and checkout for the most number of stores.

Helping us give out the FCBD comics more efficiently can’t have anything except positive results!

Here’s looking forward to an even better event next FCBD!

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 (but you have to insert “classic.” before all of the resulting links).

TAGS:  tilting at windmills, wolverine, free comic book day

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