Back in 2011, DC Comics shook up the comics publishing world with The New 52, in which they rebooted continuity in hopes of gaining increased readership. The plan worked, at least initially, leading to massive spikes in sales for all of their titles.
Marvel Comics, as DC’s main rival, was not to be outdone, and launched their own initiative, Marvel NOW!, roughly a year later. Though Marvel NOW! was not a reboot, it did restart most series at #1, offering readers new and old a fresh start for stories about the Avengers, X-Men, Spider-Man, and more. Like DC, Marvel saw a massive sales spike in the wake of Marvel NOW!, and launched a similar initiative a year later known as All-New Marvel NOW! which introduced even more new series, characters, and concepts.
While from an overall sales perspective Marvel’s latest initiatives have been an unqualified success, rats are gnawing at the foot of the House of Ideas. Series after series is cancelled, only for some to be relaunched shortly thereafter with a new #1 (and sometimes almost no changes, as seen with Daredevil and Hulk). While I do enjoy Marvel’s comics, I’m here to discuss why I think their latest strategy hurts the publisher, the comic book industry and, perhaps most of all, the fans.
Before I talk about the downsides of Marvel’s recent publishing initiatives, I’d like to talk about some positive aspects. The first and foremost is diversity, both of creators and of content. Over the last two years, Marvel has not only brought more female and minority creators to the fore, but also has published a number of successful and well-regarded series featuring minority protagonists, with Ms. Marvel starring Kamala Khan as the most prominent example. I like that Marvel has taken risks recently, such as placing Sam Wilson into the role of Captain America and allowing a female hero to take up the mantle of Thor. These series demonstrate that Marvel is open to trying new ideas, and allowing their publishing line to better reflect the varied world in which we live.
Alas, the majority of Marvel’s new series are ultimately doomed. I don’t want to sound defeatist, but not every character deserves an ongoing. While series for characters like Storm and Black Widow are long overdue, others such as Deathlok and Silk lead to much head-scratching. While it can be argued that these new series are attempts to better tie the comic universe to the cinematic universe, this play still seems like a poor move.
Simply using sales numbers as a proxy (for what they’re worth), Deathlok #1 sold roughly 44,000 copies; while that number may sound high, it’s still well below the 60,000+ copies the first issues of most Marvel NOW! and All-New Marvel NOW! series garnered, even before factoring in multiple printings. Furthermore, while almost every Marvel NOW! and All-New Marvel NOW! #1s returned for multiple printings, the latest slew of titles has a noticeable decrease in the numbers of titles receiving this treatment, indicative of less sell-through of these issues within shops.
It seems to me that Marvel’s current strategy is simply to throw as many comics as they can at the wall and see what sticks. Their plan of giving nearly every character an ongoing title and constantly relaunching to #1 seems a way to temporarily boost sales, but erode the overall fanbase. Sales are shrinking on Marvel’s mid and low tier titles, leading them to average sales significantly below what they achieved during the heyday of Marvel NOW!
Furthermore, Marvel’s latest initiatives hurts fans. It’s clear that fans are tiring of “stunts”; while the first few issues of relaunched titles may see upticks, overall Marvel’s sales on a per-issue basis are lower now than they were around a year after Marvel NOW! initially launched. Furthermore, each new event receives lower sales than those of the past, as there always seems to be a new event as the old one ends.
It’s clear, once again simply looking at sales figures, that an ongoing series can sustain readership if allowed to move beyond 12 or 20 issues, the point at which most of Marvel’s latest series seem to end or are cancelled. I think it’s a misconception that fans won’t jump in on an issue with a high number, as both the historic sales of the likes of Amazing Spider-Man and the latest incarnation of Batgirl indicate.
Retailers, too, are hurt by Marvel’s moves. With such a wide variety of titles, retailers are forced to hedge their bets, needing to place orders on the second and sometimes third issue of a new series before the first even hits the stands. Of course, retailers want their businesses to thrive, and are thus less likely to take wild risks, which feeds the spiral of more new series, even if good, receiving lower orders.
The sell-through on back issues is difficult to gauge, especially with the rise of trade collections and digital comics, meaning that unsold inventory is rarely a boon. It’s clear, at least from my brief readings of retailer reports online and non-scientific surveys at local shops, that comic book shops are ordering fewer and fewer issues of non-A list Marvel titles. Without a doubt, spiking sales are a risky proposition for retailers.
Ultimately, what can we learn from Marvel’s current model? Are we, as fans, to assume Marvel places profits above all else? Of course not. It’s clear Marvel is still dedicated to making solid stories backed by strong creators, but I think their model is flawed. As a company, profit is still a prerogative, and it’d be remiss me of to assume the lucrativeness of this strategy isn’t the major driver behind it. If I had to make a prediction, I’d wager that their latest slate of “replacing” heroes is equally a piece of this; certainly, these new stories are enjoyable and intriguing, but I would bet Marvel plans for when the “original” Thor and Captain America return they can heavily promote the event and, at least temporarily, spike sales again.
Now, I’m also not saying to boycott Marvel; that would be ridiculous. I actually enjoy a few Marvel titles (including Magneto, All-New X-Factor, and Superior Foes of Spider-Man, the latter two of which are cancelled and show no signs of relaunch). What I am suggesting is that we, as comic fans, take a hard look at the industry: if we continue to buy #1s and avoid titles with high issue count regardless of quality, this trend will continue. I think the best thing to do is buy the titles you love, and let everyone else know about them. A well-selling title is rarely within range of cancellation. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to read some Injustice: Gods Among Us Year Three.
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