This past weekend, The Beat columnist Todd Allen wrote one of the better articles I’ve read on what could be the problem(s) behind the low sales Marvel Comics has been facing lately.
As someone who grew up reading comics in the 70s, the worse it got in regards to crossovers would be the occasional appearance of Spiderman in, say, Daredevil for one issue or there would be the rare multiple-title crossover between The Avengers and The Defenders, culminating in a finale in one of these title’s annual giant-size issues. All was well-and-good in regards to crossovers for Marvel till the mid 80s with the release of the year-long Secret Wars.
Secret Wars was a major success for Marvel. A Secret Wars sequel came out a short while later along with other Secret Wars-spinoffs. For the next 20 years, Marvel would experiment with crossovers and event-driven story lines, mainly involving their biggest sellers at the time: X-Men and The Avengers. This “experimentation” became a full-blown addiction in 2004 – 2005 when Marvel launched a number of crossover / event-driven story lines helmed by writer Brian Michael Bendis. Some of these include The House of M, Secret Invasion, Secret War, and Civil War. All of these were successful in regards to sales and giving Marvel fans what they wanted.
Since these releases, Marvel (and Bendis, to a certain extent) has given us Siege, Heroic Age, Fear Itself, and, most recently, Avengers vs. X-Men. And if that wasn’t enough, this coming October 2012, Marvel will launch Marvel NOW which will (hopefully) do for Marvel what DC’s recent clearing-the-decks sales success has done for them.
But the problem Marvel is finding themselves facing is- if the sales figures for the last six months is any indication- their regular event-driven story lines (while big sellers) could be taking sales from their other titles.
Allen goes over some recent sales figures showing the difference between the sales figures of Marvel’s top titles a month without any type of crossover / event and the following month with the start of a crossover / event. Those titles involved in the crossover / event saw their sales increase (some saw a double and even triple sales increase) while those not involved had the same sales figures as the previous month. Even though their sales figures didn’t dip, these same Marvel titles has lower sales than their main competitor, DC’s titles at the same number of sales ranking.
But what has to be a concern for Marvel is without an event or crossover to push sales, their top titles are selling less than DC’s top titles- which hasn’t had any type of crossover or event to drive sales since their New 52 relaunch.
So What Now?
The decision makers at Marvel have to realize the writing is on the wall: their dependency on crossovers and events has to change. While profitable, they can not base their yearly publishing model on the sales boost crossovers and events provide while their sales suffer the rest of the year. So what is the solution? Here are a couple of ideas of how I would do it if I was in charge:
Wipe The Decks Clean
The easiest solution (and one which has worked out well for DC so far) is to push the nuclear button on the whole line of comics and start over again. Even though Marvel has recently restarted a number of their titles over again, in most cases, this simply meant cancelling a title and restarting it again with little to no changes to signify a major upheaval in the cast or story lines. By rebooting the entire line, Marvel would essentially be starting over again. But this time, they would start out with a set number of titles featuring their A-list characters and teams. Except this time, the mutant characters would stay in the X-Men titles, and no single character would have no more than two titles to themselves. And yes- that is directed at Spiderman and Wolverine.
In the comments for The Beat article, I stated Marvel should use the current relaunch of Daredevil as a model on how they should do their line of titles. This would be the editorial direction I would insist on for this relaunch for a minimum of two years. Doing this would make it easier for new readers to jump onto titles for both regular comic buyers as well as someone new to the medium who wants to check out the latest Spiderman comic, for example.
Publish Cheaper Titles Aimed At Newcomers
One of the major problems facing comics is there is to much competition for people’s disposable income today. Marvel’s current policy of pricing a number of their titles at 3.99 has caused a large number of regular comic buyers from buying their comics. So you can imagine what someone who just saw the new Spiderman movie or The Avengers must think if they decide to checkout their local comic shop to see what they have only to find the latest issues of Spiderman and The Avengers are just under $4 dollars each. Chances are they probably walked out empty handed, disappointed.
To change this, I would introduce a new line of titles featuring just a handful of characters (Spiderman, Iron Man, Captain America, The Avengers, Daredevil, The Hulk, and The X-Men) that is printed on less-expensive paper done by new and less-established creators. The costs involved would be far less by using cheaper paper stock and hiring creators who don’t command a high page rate.
The main focus of these titles would be to serve as a gateway into Marvel comics. They would be based on the aforementioned Daredevil model of having mostly self-contained stories with little history to deal with. They would be simple in that a person could pick up an issue and have a good idea of who the characters are and what their relations are to one another. By using a cheaper paper stock (I’m thinking something just above the paper stock Dave Sim used on Cerebus), Marvel could include extra pages to market their regular line of Marvel comics.
Just Tell Good Stories
The other option would be to focus on producing the best comics possible. This would mean doing the following:
One: Cutting out the fat with “The fat” being multiple titles involving certain characters and teams. Not every title has to have either Wolverine or Spiderman involved. No character or team would have more than two titles dedicated to them- and two would be one to many.
Two: Limit crossovers to only two titles for a maximum of three issues. Having to buy comics of a character you don’t really care about just to keep up with a crossover sucks- plain and simple.
Three: The story lines are not there to serve a movie or toy line. Now I’m looking at you, Hawkeye.
Four: Make the comics fun to read. Some of the titles published by Marvel just leave me feeling depressed after reading them.
Five: Give the creators more freedom to do what they want. Marvel has some of the best creators working for them right now. Let them see what sticks to the wall and what doesn’t. Chances are, there will be far more hits than misses.
It’s easy to play armchair quarterback in a situation like this. Even though I only read a couple of Marvel titles now, I would hate for their sales to continuing sliding downward. Maybe this new Marvel Now initiative will be a step in the right direction. But I have a feeling they will need more than just one step to get themselves back to the respected House of Ideas they once were.