Tilting at Windmills

Thu, September 9th, 2010 at 11:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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QUITTERS AND CUTTERS

I think we're heading in the wrong direction.

I make no secret of the fact that I strongly believe in periodical serialization – there are a tremendous number of advantages that serialization can and does bring, including but not limited to:

  1. Providing cash flow during the creation process (creative costs are, in situations where creators are being properly recompensed for their creativity, the single largest expense in making comics).

  2. Supporting and maintaining a regular, steady audience that engages with the creative work more frequently and gets trained to regularly come back for more. This is really essential because the less frequently you engage with a medium, the less likely you're going to think you need to engage with it more.

  3. Creating and maintaining the relationship between creator and audience – generally speaking, creators that produce work less frequently find it harder and steeper to build and grow "their" own audience that will follow them from project to project. This also goes for building "brands" (be it the publishers imprint, or specific characters).

  4. Providing more opportunities and feedback to see what work is "working" and what needs to be changed. Audience feedback is, I believe, essential to creating the strongest possible creative work.

These benefits, I believe, apply equally to "mainstream" (ie: Marvel & DC Superhero universes) and "alternative"-style work; I've certainly discussed in the past the winnowing that happens among the audience even for "name" "alternative" creators (Clowes, Tomine, Los Bros, etc.) as their projects shift from serially released to "Original Graphic Novels" (OGN) – if you shift, as a consumer, from looking for new work four-to-six times a year to once-a-year (or less!), you're less likely to stay engaged, or to possibly discover other creators and works that you'll enjoy just as much!

But the "economic engine" of the modern comics industry is largely driven by the serialization of the "soap opera" of Marvel and DC comics – there's a precious and unique thrill that comes from a shared universe, of watching how things inter-relate, of seeing the creative energies of scores of creators playing "can you top this?" in a common playground.

Marvel and DC produce most of the serialized comics in America – they're the fulcrum that makes it profitable for Diamond to do the kind of pinpoint national distribution they achieve week after week; that provides the cash flow needed for our fragile network of Direct Market stores to pay our monthly bills.

And I think both publishers are heading in the wrong direction, and, therefore, taking us down the wrong paths as they try to maximize every dollar, or perhaps cent, they can from our market, without regard to the long-term harm they are doing to their core business.

I was particularly struck by two public statements that have been made somewhat recently. The first was a tweet made by Mark Waid back in July: "Annnnd today was the day I stopped reading super-hero comics. One that I won't name finally broke me. Collection stops as of now. No joke."

That was followed by a post that Rich Johnston broke that was revealed as coming from Kurt Busiek. Now, Kurt apparently posted this to a creators-only board, and didn't intend for this to be taken public, but that genie is already out of the bottle at this point.

In part (and, please, go and read the entire thing) Kurt says:

I get all the DC books free, like Steve, and don't read most of them.

Part of it's that they're just not aimed at me — there are a lot of line-wide stunts that seem to affect all the books, which makes it hard to follow them as individual series, but at the same time there's no apparent interest in building or maintaining a coherent universe. So whether you're looking for self-contained series or want to wallow in the peculiar glories of a shared universe (and I like both), they're presented in a way that messes up either thrill. At least for me.

Add to that the tone of the books, which seems to be overwhelmingly grim, cheerless and bleak, and it's a sandbox I don't much want to play in or read about. But like I said, they're not aimed at me.

There's a whole lot of talk about how the "mainstream" comics industry is narrowly aiming it wares only at people who are reading comics currently – this kind of dismissive commentary generally has derogatory phrasing like "fanmen" and so on. But I'd like to suggest to you that Waid and Busiek and, hell, myself for that matter, are exactly and precisely the "fanmen" audience they're talking about. We've been reading these comics our entire lives, and our livelihoods are supported with or informed by or just generally tied to the mainstream comics industry – we are the target audience for the majority of comics being produced by Marvel and DC.

And there's a growing resentment over what Marvel and DC are producing in their race to grab every square inch of display space available.

(One could, I suppose, add Darwyn Cooke's recently publicized comments as part of this symptom as well, though Cooke's comments are slightly more narrowly-casted in terms of characters and worlds being asked to support things they're not actually built for)

I guess what I'm saying is that if you've lost Mark "I've never met a Marvel/DC trivia question you can stump me with" Waid and Kurt "…and I can answer the ones he can't" Busiek, then that's a pretty large cross-section of your putative demographic right there.

For myself, I also have a comics review site, and for the last few months I've been finding it harder and harder to find mainstream comics that I actually have any interest in discussing. I can still work up the rage to post about the most egregious examples of "superhero decadence," but, you know, that isn't why I'm in this business. No one wants to define themselves in opposition to work; that's simply not healthy or productive.

Over the last two years or so (and particularly accelerating in the last six months), I've been watching as my customer base seems to be thinking the same things – there's a marked renitence amongst our subscriber (pre-order) base to try or embrace new titles. Just as a single example, we have 20-something percent of our subscribers with standing pre-orders for "Uncanny X-Men." The new "adjectiveless" "X-Men" book that just launched? Well under 5%. Why does 75% of the "main X-Men readership" not want to commit to a new major X-title?

I could make a little exercise in list-making here that would broadly point out the same things – how my audience is walking away from relaunched books in fairly staggering numbers (we've lost a third of the readership for the Avengers franchise with the new #1 relaunches?), how only single digit numbers are signing up for new expansions of lines (we're only selling about 1/15th the number of copies of second monthly ongoing Iron Man title, "Iron Man: Legacy" than we do of the "main" Iron Man title?), and so on, but that would just be an exercise in list making, and probably not a lot of fun to read. Further, I'm always a little leery of trying to universalize my specific experiences, and the national sales charts aren't (yet) showing the kind of deadly and dire results I'm personally experiencing, but I smell something in the air anyway, and if we're going to do something about it, we need to start steering away from the iceberg now, before we run aground of it.

Because what I'm seeing and feeling now is a mood that reminds me of previous catastrophic crashes in the market – the B&W Bust of the late 80s, the speculator exodus of the 90s. In those cases, Marvel and DC were largely insulated from the backlash – they weren't really producing B&W comics much in the late 80s (apart from oddities like Street Poet Ray or something), and when the post-speculator crash came, all they had to do was to stop producing foil covers and polybags (I simplify here).

But, today, at the end of 2010, the rot appears to be woven deeply in the warp and weft of Marvel and DC's core output, and it appears, from the outside looking in, that their very business plans are built upon unsustainable tactics, so that if it does come to a full-on crash, they're going to find it difficult to be able to retool quickly enough to avoid catastrophe.

Clearly, in my own micro-environment, some of what's happening with sales is clearly a function of the economy – I have a lot of unemployed customers, certainly, even in as "wealthy" of a city as San Francisco, and it would be ridiculous to not at least acknowledge the impact of the recession upon buying habits. But my customers also talk to me, and I fundamentally believe that the new customer patterns I'm seeing aren't strictly related to the economy or employment status, but rather to content and pricing.

(I know some wag will pop up around here to suggest that customers are moving to digital, or, really, more specifically piracy – and I just don't think so. Unless my customers are lying directly to my face about their interests, the overwhelming majority of current periodical readers in my store are vehemently in favor of print comics on paper)

Starting with the easier one to discuss, I strongly believe that $3.99 for a standard format Marvel or DC comic is just absurd. Especially with the growing prevalence of "decompressed" storytelling that is "written for the trade (paperback)" where there just isn't enough "density" in the published work for the prices that are being asked.

I constantly hear customers complaining about the prices of the comics. The problem isn't necessarily bad in the specific (people will pay nearly whatever is asked for something that they are passionate for and engaged in – in comics or out of them for that matter), but in the aggregate the problem becomes pretty staggering, and multiplicative for the consumer.

Ultimately, it comes down to getting value for your money, and far too many comics are currently a "bad value" in terms of time-to-read and story-content delivered. As Busiek said above, too many comics are failing both as self-contained works (and, I'd argue, as self-contained single issues) and as pieces of the larger tapestry. In trying to serve two masters, they serve neither. So, naturally consumers are going to be gun shy at trying new things. When comics are cheap enough (and, traditionally comics, in my 25 years of retailing experience, tend to do better in times of economic downturn, precisely because they were inexpensive things to retreat to) then maybe it doesn't matter so much when individual pieces aren't so wonderful. But when you couple expensive product with weak content, it suddenly becomes a major issue.

So, economy, price, those are certainly major factors, but the core problem really comes down content, and over-proliferation.

Let's talk about that second bit, a little. In the September 2010 Previews catalog, DC is offering nineteen distinct series in the "Batman" section of the catalog. If you add in all of the various incentive covers, you're looking at a staggering twenty-six releases in a single month. Over in the Marvel section, there are eleven titles about Thor or his supporting cast (thirteen with incentive covers). And all but one are $3.99! I understand that Marvel's got a film coming up, and there's a desire to ramp up the product (especially for the bookstore market), but Thor is a character who, traditionally, can barely sell a single comic book series – I don't know who the audience for these is supposed to be, or, probably more importantly, how I can order anything except the most token of orders on the overwhelming majority of them.

(Just so Marvel and DC don't think I'm picking on them [heh], IDW is offering five different GI Joe series the same month, or, gah, ten items when you look at incentive covers, too)

Those are simply irrational title counts and just plain aren't sustainable in any kind of a medium-term or greater fashion.

As a working retailer, I'm finding that a growing number of "mainstream" books are selling merely token copies off the stands – and by "token," I mean under five copies, to a regular customer base that numbers in the hundreds. There isn't money to be made at that scale. In fact, at that scale, the game plan becomes how to minimize losses, rather than how to maximize profits. In dealing with non-returnable product, the general rule of thumb is that anything below an 80% sell-through isn't making you a profit. Therefore, if you're ordering 5 copies, you must sell 4, just to break even. If you're ordering 3 copies, unless you sell each and every one of them, you're losing money.

And there are a lot of comics which are selling in that sales range.

There are an increasing number of mainstream books that we're ordering as "subs only." A year ago, we might have barely one title a week that was in that class; with the shipment of comics I checked in the second week of September ("This week," if you're reading this on initial publication), there were nine titles like that. That's a dramatic change, and, moreover, it is one that I'm struggling with possibly dramatically expanding by forcing the issue.

You see, my racks look pretty crappy when they're stuffed full of scores of titles that "nobody wants" – certainly there's a great deal of value in being perceived as a "full service store," but if that means that a third or more of your rack space is being consumed by product that under 1% of your customer base is actually willing to open their wallets up for, if you're carrying inventory just to foster an "appearance" that isn't translated into sales, well then maybe something needs to change.

Basically, I'm actively asking myself if maybe, just maybe, I don't need to offer those "token" rack copies of like eight out of ten of those Thor comics I'm meant to be ordering in 2 weeks from now? Maybe, in fact, I should zero out rack copies on any Marvel or DC book that doesn't sell at least 3 copies off the rack? What would happen then?

I haven't sat down with the pen and paper yet to confirm exact counts, but I think immediately I'd be dealing with a 20% lower title count – maybe as high as a third. There's a whole lot of gray areas in there, of course, because of the ways that titles crossover and inter-relate, and I've certainly got books with 20+ preorders that don't shift more than 2 copies off the rack, what do you do with those? On the one hand, those rack copies aren't losing any money (you made your nut on the subs), and you're less likely to be able to add new subs if you don't have copies on the rack, but on the other hand the reduced clutter should help books that have a wider audience reach that audience even more effectively.

What you have to understand is that even entertaining this line of thinking is a major change in process for a retailer of my generation. That's just Not How It Is Done, you know? I mean, for at least 22 of the 25 years, I've sold comics to people, Marvel and DC would traditionally voluntarily cancel material that had dropped that much in mindshare with the broadest market. Today, however, it seems like both publishers are more interested in growing like kudzu into every tiny possible niche, accepting sales that would have gotten you laughed out of Jim Shooter's office in the Marvel Comics of 1987.

If I'm counting correctly, for the July 2010 charts (the most recent as I write this) Marvel released exactly 100 comic books. Thirty-Five of those sold less than 15k copies – if we assume there are 3k order forms turned in (Diamond officially says a number about 10% higher than that), that's the average-of-just-five-copies-per-order threshold; books below that number are, in my opinion by definition not a "mass" product.

(At DC, it is 45 out of 91 that are below 15k)

As I see it, Marvel and DC have abrogated their role as gardeners, so maybe it becomes up to the individual store owner to cut that kudzu.

But here's the long-term harm for Marvel and DC: once you start over-writing decades of training (for both consumers and retailers!) of a "completionist" viewpoint to a situation where it is more rational to "pick and choose" what "matters" and what "doesn't matter," you've then destroyed your biggest single tool of continued dominance in the marketplace – the idea that people had to buy most or all of the books you produce to get the best possible view of your universe. No, strike that, not even "had," but that they wanted to do so, there was a desire to stay fully current with their universes. You gut that desire, or even, really, the possibility of meeting that desire, and you've lost your biggest single tool to keep people engaged in your universe, let alone the utterly vital job of bringing in new people to those universes.

That's, seriously, just digging your own grave.

I've lived through crashes in this business before, and have successfully navigated them by watching my customer's behavior closely and adjusting my stocking accordingly, but I've never seen such a concentrated assault on the core product of the mainstream periodical market. There's probably still (just) time to steer away from those shoals, but it is going to take an immediate and utterly frank assessment of what output is additive and encouraging of the brand, what is harmful to brand loyalty and ruthlessly pruning accordingly.

You've "lost" Mark Waid. You've "lost" Kurt Busiek. You've "lost" me and scores of my customers, with more questioning their buying habits every day, and it just doesn't have to be like this. (And, in fact, I think many/most of the people "lost" can, in fact, be wooed back)

But it is going to take firm leadership to do so, and I very much hope Marvel and DC are capable of it.

Wish us all luck.

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.

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