Tilting at Windmills: What's Happening with Marvel NOW!?

Fri, July 27th, 2012 at 12:01am PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

We haven't talked in-depth about Marvel comics in this column, in a good long while.

Marvel, as you know, is just wrapping up on of their most successful storylines in years: "Avengers Versus X-Men." Great strong sales, lots of consumer interest, everything you want a crossover event to be!

Industry speculation was that, post-AvX, Marvel would be relaunching a lot of their books, perhaps even rebooting them, in the same way that DC launched "The New 52" out of "Flashpoint."

Now, one can certainly have a conversation about whether or not "The New 52" was an entirely successful program (and, guess what? That's exactly what I'll be tackling in next month's column, as that program hits its one year anniversary), but I think it would be hard to argue that "The New 52" didn't give DC a lot of attention and eyeballs.

The key problem facing Marvel right now, as I see it, is that, with the exception of AvX, their line is slowly withering. While high-performing miniseries, or one-off stunts like Northstar's gay marriage, can spike some sales up, the bread-and-butter for a periodical company is the month-in-month-out sales performance of their 12(+) times a year regular ongoing books. This is also the bread-and-butter for the retailer, as well.

Prior to AvX crossovers (in March), Marvel's best-selling not-issue-#1 ongoing book (this time: "Uncanny X-Men" #8) had dropped below 60k copies. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the absolute nadir of sales for Marvel's top ongoing. While this was a very long time ago, indeed, when I first got into this business in the 80s, Marvel would routinely cancel books that sold that low.

In June, with direct cover-bannered AvX crossovers happening, "Uncanny" has spiked up almost 20% to just a bit over 70k. But even that's not very good, and will come right back down when the crossover is over.

(Just a quick parenthetical here to give you your annual public service reminder that this page is a good one to bookmark, it being the index to comics sales reported through Diamond going back to 2001)

I've discussed the economic mechanics of Direct Market comic shops at length before, but for the quick reminder: stores buy most material non-returnable. The math of meeting your fixed costs (rent, salary, electricity, etc.) means that the typical retailer needs to hit at least 75% sell-through simply to break even, and that, therefore, the lower your initial numbers, the less "wiggle room" one has to increase one's orders.

Or to put it more directly: what the market needs is a whole lot of books that are selling "50 or more" copies per store (a pulled-from-a-hat number), and a whole lot less comics that are selling 5 or less copies. Without that strong base at the top of the line, stores are much more impacted by the "death of 1000 papercuts" from all of the books at the bottom. And there are a lot of books at the bottom.

Clearly, every store is different, and it's always a horrible mistake to universalize one's individual experiences to the greater whole, but at Comix Experience regular monthly Marvel sales are entirely terrible right now. We're making more and more titles "subs only" (because they literally sell zero copies from rack sales), and the number of Marvel titles that have only single-digit rack sales has crossed over to the majority of the line.

Even the books at the top are truly anemic -- I was staggered a few months ago when I realized that Comix Experience was now selling fewer total copies of "Avengers" and of "Uncanny X-Men" than I did during the brief period in 1995-'96 where we literally stopped racking Marvel comics at all, during the Heroes World years. Sure, we're making a total greater dollar amount, because cover prices are wildly higher, frequency is greater than monthly, and there are a ton of multiple titles in each franchise, but still, that's a huge huge sea change.

Here's the thing, though: the Direct Market needs a strong Marvel comics. And as strong as the sales of AvX have been (and they've been spiffy, thanks!), that's really is supposed to be just a little bit more than what the sales of the regular monthly adventures of those two teams should be. Not 2-300% of the regular monthly sales!

Marvel is the best known brand in comics. Kind of indisputably so. I'm a DC guy at heart, and even I know this. There is absolutely no reason that "Batman" should be outselling "Amazing Spider-Man" by 2:1 right now from a straight-up market awareness POV. In fact, I tend to think that Marvel should be kind of destroying DC by 20 points or better any given month, and the fact that they aren't is less about what a great job that DC is doing (though they are doing a great job right now), and more about what a mediocre job Marvel is doing.

The crazy thing to me is that if Marvel did what DC did, and did a clean full-line reboot, they would have crushed. Just absolutely destroyed. There is every reason to think we could be talking about half-a-million copies or more on multiple titles -- the Marvel "lapsed" reader is many magnitudes higher than the lapsed reader for DC was -- and the market is actually primed for it right now. I think it is entirely possible that we could have ended up with an entire top 20 filled with 100k+ books if Marvel had come along and shown DC how to do a reboot "right", without the clumsiness of "five years later" or whatever, with an actual cohesive, planned-out plan.

Success feeds success, but you also have to be bold in order to capture the real prizes. And the problem with "Marvel NOW!" is that they haven't showed us anything bold, as of yet.

Now, I realize that we actually have next-to-nothing to actually judge, as of yet -- only one single actual solicitation, and a couple of sketched-in announcements for the following month, but this is meant, we're told, as a five month plan, from October to February -- and therefore I am mostly talking out of my ass here, but I do know that one key factor in successful marketing is a sense of uniqueness or urgency.

Uniqueness is harder for Marvel here for a couple of reasons. First off, editorially they've dismissed any chance at a restart, instead believing that "everything happened" in the Marvel Universe as being a virtue. I think it is less of one than it was 20 years ago, and I think Marvel's continuity has gotten insanely tangled and illogical as it has aged (anything from teenage Tony Stark, to the Cold War-centered origins of most of the characters), but I can totally see why they might think that.

Second, they've gone to the "#1 well" a whole darn lot, and each time they do it again there's more of a sense of familiarity. "Captain America" was relaunched with a new number one in November 1997, April 2002, November 2004, July 2009, July 2011 and now in late 2012. If the only thing that is different is the creative team, it is hard to see home run sales. Now, sure, if the next Cap #1 is, dunno, by Clint Eastwood and Banksy, then that might be something, but given their first set of announcements, there's every reason to think we're primarily talking about shuffling familiar Marvel talents between books.

Third, they've done that already, anyway. We've had Rick Remender and Jonathan Hickman on "Avengers" already -- sure it was "Secret" and "Ultimate" rather than "Uncanny" and "Adjective-less", but there's a real sense of deckchair-shuffling going on here.

As far as "urgency" goes, I strongly believe that staging out a rolling relaunch with "one book a week" for the 20+ week period strips much of the urgency from it. As a retailer, I appreciate the premise of a new opportunity every week, but in actual practice, I think it makes the new "Marvel NOW!" branding seem much more like "The Heroic Age", where by week five everyone was already sick of seeing those no-content slogans bannered to the top of so many comics.

The problem as a retailer is that I don't actually have a hook for "Marvel NOW!" because I don't actually know the full contents of it. I can't "talk it up" except in the most generic way. Instead, I have to make each of those sales connections individually by book as they announce them, and without the benefit of the global branding to tie them together. One thing we were able to do with "The New 52" was to create a specific one-time sell-sheet for our customers outlining the whole program. That intensely focused interest because we're urgently needed them to sign up for these new series within the next month (so we could accurately order!) -- but I can't create 20+ different sell-sheets, and, even if I could, that won't work because by #3, people are going to be saying, "Ugh, not this again".

I don't know what the hook actually is for "Uncanny Avengers." I mean, sure, I know that it is the follow-up to AvX, and I know that at least the first arc will have art by John Cassaday, and he's a tremendous artist, but none of that's a hook. None of that is sexy in and of itself, and that how what they've announced of "Marvel NOW!" feels like as well -- kind of formless. Sure, this will launch strong, but how is it not going to be selling just like "another Avengers spinoff" in a few months? The most recent Avengers #1 -- "Avengers Assemble" #1 -- by Bendis and Bagley, hardly a non-commercial team, is already down to 43k by #4, and that's with a storyline specifically meant to be echoing the Avengers movie in the theaters.

That's not even talking about the market dangers of rotating creative teams, $3.99-for-20 pages of story or more-than-monthly shipping, none of which the market appears to be responding to at the moment.

Unfortunately, the feeling I get from "Marvel NOW!" is "You know all that stuff we've been doing that you don't seem to be responding to? Here's more of it." Which is a hard message to sell.

We're in a market that's primed to buy and primed to explode well past where we've been living the last decade or more, but we need everyone's head in the game in order to make that come true.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is one of the founders of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization (even if this column and every other one is purely and entirely his individual viewpoint as an individual retailer!) Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here.

TAGS:  tilting at windmills, marvel now, marvel comics, uncanny avengers

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