Monday, February 15, 2010

Something That Matters

Last week at Robot 6, Sean T. Collins interviewed Marvel editor Tom Brevoort, who at one point manages to cram a lot of what's been wrong with Marvel and DC's editorial management in a few consecutive sentences:

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that DC began to have a lot of success around the time of Identity Crisis and its aftermath. Besides the fact that it was a big, earth-shattering story by a top-tier creative team, it was also perfect counter-programming for what Marvel was then publishing. You want a big, shared universe of super heroes? Then step right this way! So I don’t think we’re ever going to see the end of these sorts of stories—they’re simply too popular, and at a time when fans are more concerned than ever that their money is being spent on something that matters, event storylines tend to stand the greatest chance of paying off on that promise for the greatest number of people.

First up, Identity Crisis was not a crossover, of course; neither was 52, another title from DC's now remote-seeming period of great comic-book success in the mid-00s. People are forgetting that, evidently, because Identity Crisis is often wrongly lumped in with the bunch of sprawling crossover titles that followed.

Second, Identity Crisis wasn't so much an "earth-shattering" story as a character-driven one. I'm not saying it was a particularly good story, but it used characters as a starting point, not "universes."

Third, I'm questioning that "these sorts of stories" that Brevoort has in mind are very popular at all right now.

The best-selling ongoing Marvel book barely breaks 70k units in the direct market anymore, and, as Brian Hibbs just pointed out, all evidence suggests Marvel's core comics are stinking up the bookstores—which is where more casual readers go to buy comics.

A year ago, I would have said that at least Marvel managed to lure people into direct-market with shiploads of immediately understandable and accessible Civil War and World War Hulk comic books and collections. But that seems no longer true.

Where are those people now?

I don't know, but it seems to me that the point at which they started to leave was when editorial thought it was a good idea to turn the Marvel Universe into one big story and call it "Dark Reign."

Which is funny, because over at DC, the point at which the success ushered in by Identity Crisis began to wane was when the publisher abandoned the philosophy of creator-driven individual titles in favor of the big, sprawling universe-spanning stuff.

Remember: Superman/Batman, Supergirl, Teen Titans, Outsiders, Justice League of America and Justice Society of America used to be best sellers, five years back.

What happened? Infinite Crisis and the subsequent "One Year Later" happened—a highly publicized, sprawling "event" that sold very well, but ushered in a sales decline that lasted years. For Marvel, Secret Invasion and its follow-up "Dark Reign" have done the same.

Fourth and last, here's the most wrongheaded part of Brevoort's comment: "something that matters."

In the current direct-market climate—which both DC and Marvel have worked tirelessly to bring about, in a very systematic and deliberate fashion, over the last five years—the two publishers' only remaining trick is to try and convince their audience that something matters.

And the more they've been using that trick, the less effective it's become. At Marvel, the emphasis is everywhere; at DC, there's no emphasis except on "Blackest Night"—with predictable results.

Case in point: Siege #1—a book that, by Brevoort's definition, surely should "matter" more than any other Marvel comic since Secret Invasion—sold an estimated 108,484 units in January 2010, according to ICv2.com.

For the sake of comparison: In April 2008, Secret Invasion #1 sold an estimated 250,263 units. In May 2008, Final Crisis #1 followed with 144,826. January 2009 saw Dark Avengers #1 (118,579), June Batman and Robin #1 (168,604) and July Captain America: Reborn #1 (193,142). Also in July, Blackest Night #1 came out with estimated sales of 177,105—and none of the five subsequent issues of Blackest Night released to date have fallen below 135,000 units.

In short, the Siege number is far below the figures of any similar books of that type released by Marvel or DC in the last five years.

Now, of course, market conditions have grown more adverse lately, because of the economy, but all this means is that the audience is becoming more discriminating with every new major release; and evidently, Blackest Night and a couple of strong individual titles like Batman and Robin and Captain America are all the market is able to focus on right now.

Plainly, it doesn't look like Brevoort and Marvel have a very good grasp anymore on what it is that "matters" to their audience—they did with books like Civil War and World War Hulk and Secret Invasion, certainly. But last year's "Dark Reign," which effectively abandoned the kind of slow-burn focus that's paying off for DC right now, was a massive misreading of the market.

Neither Marvel nor DC have fully realized what time it is. Both publishers are still acting like it's 2005, seeking a kind of aggressive expansion that the market stopped supporting long ago. DC's recent Batman revamp was quite a success, for instance, right until the point where they got greedy and thought the momentum was enough to get a dozen secondary Batman titles off the ground, in addition to whatever was going on with Blackest Night; and now the whole bunch of them, except for the Grant Morrison main one, are sliding down the charts like there's no tomorrow.

Everything that's doing relatively well in the direct market at this time is not the result of expansion, but the pay-off of years' worth of steady growth and consolidation—Johns' Green Lantern, Brubaker's Captain America and Morrison's Batman: books that have been largely self-contained. "Dark Reign" and now Siege have been the opposite of that—even worse, they cut off Straczynski's Thor at the knees, one of the few strong Marvel titles of late that hadn't grown to a bloated quagmire of a franchise.

It's past time to trim those franchises back down. It's sheer madness to keep flooding the market with more JSA or Ultimate or Superman or Wolverine product at a time when the audience is less and less convinced that even one of each really "matters" to them.

6 comments:

Christopher said...

I think you're right on the money. The titles you mentioned that have been the most successful despite the downturn are the ones that have been honed in for years with a set creative team telling a focused story. DC should be falling on its knees being thankful that Johns has done the exceptional work that he has on Green Lantern because without it, SCW and BN wouldn't have mattered and DC would be in even rougher shape than they already are. Ditto Bru on Cap at Marvel. Even though Reborn didn't totally deliver, that franchise is still one of the only Marvel titles going strong.

I think that both companies need to seriously trim the fat. Marvel in particular since Wolverine has been oversaturated into irrelevance with Deadpool joining him momentarily. Both companies need to cancel all their underperformers, consolidate their franchise titles, and slowly rebuild.

I doubt that anything of the sort will actually happen though...

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece on the insatiable greed of the companies.
Secret Invasion was tolerable but the failure to resolve it cleanly and push into Dark Reing was misguided.
Minor event stuff happening across the whole line induces boredom - sub-standard stuff released to tie in.
Stuff matters? That's a poor joke when Marvel bring back Bucky. Nothing matters - recycling old stories only stand up so many times.
Market is way overdue for failure & realignment.

Charles Knight said...

"First up, Identity Crisis was not a crossover, of course"

Well it depends on how you define Cross-over, a number of issues were labeled as "identity crisis Tie-ins" and various parts of the story were done away from the main title - for example, the autopsy of Sue was done in JSA rather than in the mini-series itself.

Anonymous said...

As someone that used to read across a line voraciously, its amazing how 'thin' my pull-list has become.

Over the last 2 or so years i have :

Stopped reading Superman / Action Comics due to baffling emphasis on characters apart from, you know, Superman.

Stopped reading any X-Men titles (previously had read Astonishing X-Men)

Stopped reading any Ultimate titles (up until Ultimatum had read Ult Spider-Man and, up until 3 or so years ago had read Ult FF and Ult X-Men.

Add to that the series that I have closely followed which have finished or are finishing (Y : The Last Man, Ex Machina, 100 Bullets) and it makes for about half the spending on comics from two years ago.

The other thing was these ridiculous three or so issue tie-ins to event comics which mean absolutely nothing. I am reading Siege, but may or may not dump all Avengers titles thereafter....

Jay said...

I think the key here is Brian Bendis. Bendis has applied his character-destruction to the Avengers for years now, through the main Avenger books, SECRET INVASION, etc., and now SEIGE. I picked up the first issue and it just read like the same old stuff. Overwritten dialogue, characters that I was growing to despise (his Spider-man is just giant irritant) and a storyline that just seemed like a continuation of all of the other stories...WHICH IT IS. Bendis cannot end a story. He just adds to it for years and years and years and...

Enough already.

colsmi said...

Can I just say what a fine piece of work this was? I would find it exceptionally hard to argue with a single thing you wrote here. I too have found that I simply buy far less comics these days because of event fatigue. When I go back over 45 years of buying comics and tally up my favourite comics, not a single one is a line-wide crossover. (I've even got to the point where I'm not so interested in the internal continuity of single books because pretty much everything is structured exactly like a soap opera, where one melodramatic payoff must endlessly follow another.) We're in an era where continuity is all, where the Big Two want us to immerse ourselves in the day to day, crisis-to-crisis interactions of their universes, as if comic book realities functioned like virtual realities where we'd want to spend all our money and time. But all I want is a strong story that, yes, begins and ends with those two points joined by a middle. As Mencken said, "The older I get the more I admire & crave competence, just simple competence .....". The breaking point for me was a Bendis story where Hank Pym, newly returned from the clutches of the Skrulls, was having it explained to him all the big "events" which he'd missed while off-Earth. At which point, even I, a decades-long fan, thought "That's just too many huge disasters in a short time for any fictional universe to survive." It's more than I have.