Tilting at Windmills: Marvel NOW! and Later

Thu, January 17th, 2013 at 11:58pm PST

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

Marvel NOW! and Later

I've been holding off a bit on writing about Marvel NOW!, because the narrative simply hasn't been clear to me. Unlike the DC reboot in almost every way, NOW! has been (at least here) a much slower burn -- but we're now at three months since the launch of "Uncanny Avengers" the first week of October, and the line is doing reasonably well.

You'll forgive me for the comparison to DC's reboot, but it is, perhaps illustrative to look at the differences between the two and to see how they played out, because those differences may in fact be the key to understanding how things are going to ultimately go.

When DC rebooted, there was a fierce amount of advance consumer interest that was genuinely burning white hot -- new and "lapsed" fans were pouring into my store, looking to check out what DC was doing, and doing so in a very brief window of time, as all of the books relaunched at once. The structure of the promotion meant that a great deal of the interest was front-loaded, and, perhaps more importantly, that even the commercially weakest idea got a wide exposure -- for perhaps the first time in the quarter-century I've been selling comics, you could legitimately say that the titles that failed did so purely because audience didn't like them, not that they couldn't get in front of that audience in the first place.

NOW! has been, conversely, a slow burn of a relaunch. While Marvel originally suggested that we'd be getting a new book each and every week for about five months, it didn't really work out like that at all. In fact, after "Uncanny Avengers" launched, it was three weeks until the next new number one shipped ("A Plus X"), then we got two new titles the week after that, four more the week after that, followed by two weeks of a single new number ones, and two weeks of two books each.

Further adding to the shipping confusions are that several books that were supposed to be shipping bi-weekly, instead came one week after another ("All-New X-Men" #3 was just seven days after #2, and both "Avengers Arena" and "Cable & X-Force" shipped their second issues just a single week after the first). Again, this can stand in pretty sharp contrast to DC's relaunch, which, if nothing else, has been pretty admirable at having the trains arriving on-time, like clockwork (except for a few books from Geoff Johns and Jim Lee) -- by contrast to the rigid formality of DC arrivals, Marvel's schedules seem entirely random and haphazard. There's a real value in knowing what's going to ship when and to be able to speak with confidence to consumer inquiries of the same.

Now the sales results between the two are what is interesting to me -- and though I am just one store and so my sell-through patterns shouldn't necessarily reflect what's happening nationally, I was about ready to write the first few weeks of release off as a flop. Certainly, "Uncanny Avengers" was just trickling out when it launched, especially compared to "Avengers Vs. X-Men" -- by the second on-sale week, we still had well over 40% of our original order left of "Uncanny" #1, while any given "AvX" would be below 20%, on a much higher base number. But "Uncanny" continued to sell over a longer period of time than the base number would have suggested, and we eventually had to reorder to restock for demand. That is encouraging.

This is a different pattern than I am used to with Marvel comics. In fact, I would say that, traditionally, you can figure out 90% of what your reorder needs will be after the first week on sale -- most demand is front-loaded. Longer horizons for sales on a book usually show that it is word-of-mouth which is driving sales, rather than the typical inertia, and, generally, bode well for longer-term sales.

This, too, is a place where NOW! and "New 52" are pretty distinct -- while the DC books feel editorially directed, and often independent-of-creative-team, the NOW! books really feel like they reflect a creator's vision rather than an editorially-mandated direction, and I think this will potentially give Marvel a powerful leg up on the broader market, as long as the market continues to enjoy those directions.

Another fairly significant difference between this launch and others is that Marvel actually had pretty copious reorders available for a good long time on most of the books. While it is impossible to tell for certain if this is from over-saturated demand by the deep-discount launch promotions that Marvel created, or if it is that someone up there understood that a relaunch without copies-on-hand wasn't a great idea, it was utterly refreshing to be able to get timely reorders on the few books upon which we guessed wrong.

If current sales figures continue, it looks like Marvel will get a solid -- perhaps 10-20%? -- boost in sales in my store from the relaunch. I'm down with that, but, as I said, it has been a slow burn, and we have not seen any of the huge wave of "lapsed" fans coming back in the way we did with DC. With New 52, I had multiple titles selling into triple digits for the first issues, but no current NOW! titles has yet hit those levels. What's relatively odd about this is that the number of "Lapsed" Marvel readers is a couple of multiples of the same for DC, which makes me wonder why NOW! hasn't brought in massive crowds.

A couple of possible reasons:

Lack of sufficient outside marketing. One thing that DC did well was spending real money on advertising their relaunch; they also offered a pretty robust co-op program. Marvel has seemingly done less outside-comics marketing, with their biggest "get," in my opinion, (a feature in "Entertainment Weekly") coming several months before the books started arriving.

Lack of clarity. I don't think that I was alone in thinking that Marvel largely promoted NOW! in opposition to "New 52" -- "It is not a reboot" -- rather than in terms of what it was. There was a tremendous "wait and see" from my customers for NOW!, and that still continues -- I'm having a difficult time getting subscribers to actually commit to many of the NOW! books. Some portion of that might be coming from the diminishing returns of multiple reboots. This was, I think, the seventh "Captain America" #1 that we've seen, without any real indication that this one will stick around for more than a few years.

It isn't that there aren't lapsed Marvel fans paying attention -- when the news about Peter Parker "dying" in "Amazing Spider-Man" #700 broke, that brought a lot of former readers coming in. Sadly, for many of them, it was because they "thought it would be worth money," not because they were interested in picking up the hobby again.

Actually, I think this might be a valuable sidebar point, as well -- I think that the constant restarts of numbering actually end up hurting the true "collectibility" of long-running series, because they're constantly resetting the continuity of a title. And I don't mean the "Steve Rogers loves Sharon Carter" sense of "continuity," but rather the understanding that Marvel is actually comprised of titles that have (by and large) run unceasingly for 50-ish years. Back when I first opened, you'd simply bring new creative teams wherever they fell, and that constant, regular infusion into ongoing books created points every so often where a book became highly collectible -- "Thor" #337, "Amazing Spider-Man" #298, "X-Men" #108, and so on -- by having those points appear in the middle of long runs, it drives up collectibility for the series as a whole. By relaunching the series instead, you're able to leverage that collectibility thinking ("It is a #1, therefore it will be worth more") and get a sales increase, but, ironically, it's that very sales increase that mitigates against the comic being collectible in the mid-to-long-run.

For example, thanks to coming off of "AvX," a whole lot of variant covers, and some, frankly, insane retail discounts, Diamond is reporting sales of ~304k for "Uncanny Avengers #1," while #2 only booked ~114k. Even assuming that retailers as a class wildly under-ordered #2, and long-term sales will come in at, say, 125k/issue, there's still more than twice-as-many copies of the first issue potentially floating in the market as there will be "readers." That's not how things collect and retain value. And I think that's not good for the long-term health of the collectible market. It decreases consumer confidence. End sidebar.

One other thing that I find a little distressing from the November and December Marvel estimates is that only that one single book shipped a second issue that managed to keep sales over 100K. What's utterly unknown is if this is a result of retailer caution (two issues in a month often means that you're ordering the second one entirely "blind"), or audience reaction. But either way, that's not really a particularly healthy nationwide base to decline further from -- it's hard to see how the best-selling Marvel monthly ongoing will settle much above the 80k mark, with the best-selling DC book ("Batman") being in the 130-150k range.

For my own store, I'm cautiously optimistic we've picked up a few new readers (from the already existing base) for much of the line, but I think pricing, scheduling and the aggregate cost of supporting Marvel's comics is keeping a lot of people away. If the current trends keep as they are, in two months my best-selling Marvel book is likely to be "Hawkeye," not any of the specific-to-NOW! titles. That's a little weird, but it's a very good book. But why is this success not being translated to other Marvel titles? This concerns me, because it isn't that I don't have the customer base, just that my consumers seem disinclined to commit to more-than-monthly publication, or over-extended franchises. We're going to get a small bump from NOW!, but not the 2-300% bounces that the high end DC books managed -- we simply don't have an equivalent here to the "Batman" or "Justice League" relaunches, and that's a real shame. There are clearly many more potential customers out there, Marvel has simply got to do a better job of capturing them.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is one of the founders of , 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 comics, marvel now, dc comics

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