Monday, December 31, 2007

2007: The Year in Comics (1)

The first thing that comes to mind whenever I consider doing one of those end-of-the-year thingamalists is that I haven't read nearly enough comics to claim that the "best" of anything was among them. Consequently, I'm going to take a more subjective approach.

What you get here is nothing definitive, comprehensive or objective. It is, quite simply, in alphabetical order, a list of comics that I've enjoyed reading in 2007, and that I remember fondly enough to recommend. I'm sure I'm forgetting some, and, yes, I'm aware that some of this stuff didn't even come out in 2007 at all. I don't really care.

* * *

Jason Aaron, Howard Chaykin, et al. Wolverine. Well, the one issue of it there was, at any rate, which was #56. The double-sized one-shot tells the story of Wendell, a hired goon whose job consists of a shift's worth of shooting "The Man in the Pit" with a machine gun every day - that man being Wolverine, of course, who's the prisoner of some inconsequential bad guy and is constantly kept under fire due to his superhuman healing abilities. Based on this gloriously over-the-top high concept, the creators manage to deliver a neat little character study, as well as the best Wolverine story I've read in a very long time. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

* * *

Jason Aaron, Cameron Stewart, et al. The Other Side. In a nutshell, imagine every good Vietnam War film you've ever seen rolled into one and done as a comic, and you'll have an approximation of The Other Side. The book isn't shy about its influences, but it also firmly stands on its own two feet as a smartly crafted, well-researched exploration of humanity, by way of two soldiers fighting the Vietnam War on opposing sides. It doesn't need to hide from any of its cinematic ancestors, certainly. Based on this work, I'm very much looking forward to reading Jason Aaron's Scalped, which is somewhere in my stack. (DC Comics/Vertigo, paperback)

* * *

Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano, et al. Daredevil. This is still very much Frank Miller's Daredevil. There are numerous twice-told tropes to be found here - the differences are cosmetic, really, and all the basic ingredients remain the same ones that Miller brought to the table 25 years ago. Fortunately, Daredevil also just so happens to be a good comic right now. Brubaker and company are pretty much the best caretakers you could find for superhero stories with film noir and pulp fiction influences these days, and it's tremendously entertaining to watch them making the material sing. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

* * *

Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Val Staples. Criminal. Sure, it's great fun to read these ugly, coarse, splendidly told pulp sons-of-bitches of yarns about crooked people driven by creed, guilt and revenge - there's no doubt about that. What they usually don't tell you, though, is that it's really those little, sparse moments of kindness, love and redemption that bring stories like this one home. After all, if even the evil cocksuckers in Criminal can manage to find some ragged shred of happiness in their fucked-up lives, if only for the briefest of moments, then perhaps it's not so hopeless for the rest of us ... right? Bang. You're dead. (Marvel Comics/Icon, periodical)

* * *

Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, et al. Astro City: The Dark Age. Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson are still successfully conning us into thinking Astro City is one of the best superhero books in the market today, when in fact it is, of course, a most profound expedition across the length and breadth of the human condition. Astro City is a North American city with a particularly high population of superheroes and super-villains. The 16-part epic The Dark Age chronicles its history throughout the seventies, as seen through the eyes of two regular human brothers - one a cop, the other a crook. The book has been coming out at snail's pace, unfortunately, but when it does show up, it still delivers. (DC Comics/WildStorm, periodical)

* * *

Kurt Busiek, Carlos Pacheco, et al. Superman. I'm not very fond of either Superman or DC's mainstream line in general, but the ten-part "Camelot Falls" arc was well worth my time this year. It's got a neat premise, for starters: A time traveler shows up from the future to inform Superman that all of his good deeds in the present only strengthen the "tide of darkness," and will ultimately lead to humanity's destruction. The time-traveler's solution: Superman has to stop doing what he does immediately, letting millions of humans die now for the long-term survival of humanity. So, what's he going to do? Admittedly, the ending is a bit of a cop-out, but it's still one of the best traditional superhero stories I've read lately. (DC Comics, periodical)

* * *

Mike Carey, Chris Bachalo, Humberto Ramos, et al. X-Men. Paul O'Brien said it best last week: "Mike Carey has been doing great work on the X-books lately, and shows a better understanding of the characters than many of his contemporaries. He's able to work with continuity and use it to his advantage, but he recognizes that this is not what the characters are ultimately about." Mind you, if you're not already familiar with the X-Men, now probably isn't the best time to delve into Carey's run, since the book is entangled in a big whopping crossover with the other X-Men titles. Come February, though, it's going to be revamped and renamed X-Men: Legacy. Unless something goes horribly wrong, I'm optimistic that it's going to be a good book. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

* * *

Joe Casey, Charlie Adlard, et al. Rock Bottom. What a strange beast. The protagonist is a man who literally turns to stone - not the convenient kind that allows him to walk around and become a superhero, mind you, but the real deal. On the one hand, Rock Bottom passes muster as a weird-science character study. On the other, it also has to offer a few worthwhile twists on the superhero genre, and as such fits in quite nicely with Casey's body of work. It's a flawed but intriguing comic. The book actually came out in 2006, but I didn't get around to it until this year. (AiT/Planet Lar, paperback)

* * *

Joe Casey, Tom Scioli, et al. Gødland. Protagonist Adam Archer is a cosmically powered superhero whose sidekick is a wise, old talking dog from outer space. Imagine a comic picking up where Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey left off, and spinning forth the story as a Kirby-styled over-the-top superhero epic involving swinging super-villains, Freudian destroyers, angry space gods and the origin of the universe. Gødland is like the mad cousin of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All Star Superman - not the best superhero comic out there, perhaps, but probably the most fearless. (Image Comics, periodical)

* * *

Alright, that's it for today. There'll be more in 2008, as soon as I'll be willing and able to see and touch my keyboard again.

Thanks very much for your time, and have a happy new year.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Cause and Defect

Let's have a look at some quotes and see if we can spot a common thread.

[Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man] has only been the book I wanted it to be since issue 11. Up to now it's been a little bit frustrating, but I can't blame anyone at Marvel because, like I said, I knew the job was going to be dangerous when I took it.

-writer Peter David, January 2007

 

I think my Marvel time is winding down. That's not to say there are no properties, but right now, everything is so connected that I can't get my head around it.

-writer Joss Whedon, March 2007

 

I think [the "cohesive universe" approach is] restrictive. Personally, I think it’s been going on for too long, but that’s just me. I think at the end of the day, you have to tell the best story you can, not to do as many stunts as you can. I think when you keep building everything the way Marvel has done and the way DC is doing you make the books obtuse. You make them impenetrable and you generate this false sense of hype.

-writer Greg Rucka, November 2007

(Providing a degree of contrast to the "Creator X Exclusive with Publisher Y" press releases that have become so frequent lately, Rucka recently announced that he was not going to renew his exclusive contract with DC Comics.)

 

In the current storyline, there's a lot that I don't agree with, and I made this very clear to everybody within shouting distance at Marvel, especially [editor-in-chief Joe Quesada]. I'll be honest: there was a point where I made the decision, and told Joe, that I was going to take my name off the last two issues of the ["One More Day"] arc.

-writer J. Michael Straczynski, December 2007

 

I've got stories I want to tell there, and I'll get to them if Marvel gives me half a chance.

-writer Mike Carey, December 2007

 

When you're working on a big crossover like [Amazons Attack], a lot of the plotting is just connecting the dots in a way. This is going to happen here, we'll deal with this here, and then over in Teen Titans this will happen, and then we'll deal with this, and then we'll deal with that. Readers may not like it, and in some ways it can be a pain to write, but that's what a lot of modern comic books are. The big ones that sell and the big ones that people seem to like are the ones that have crossovers crossovers crossovers. When you're writing it, the object is to hit those plot points. As a writer you try to work in those human emotions and twists and surprises and fun and action along the way. But you have to hit point A, B, C, and D because in another book, somebody's going to be hitting it.

-writer Will Pfeifer, December 2007

 

No, again, this was [executive editor] Dan Didio. And [coordinating editor] Jann Jones was in on this one too. They called me up and said, "We have an idea. Hear us out." All of these projects that I've talked about with DC have come from them. They're all DC calling me up and asking me if I was interested.

-writer/artist Keith Giffen, December 2007

 

With Countdown, we went very vocal about how it was going to bring everything together, therefore, the fact that everything was tied together overshadowed what was going on with the characters in the story, and that became the focal point of what all the discussions were about, more so than whether or not these stories and these characters appearing in them were engaging.

-DC Comics executive editor Dan Didio, December 2007

On Dealing with the Devil

There were some raised eyebrows recently when it was reported that popular writer J. Michael Straczynski (Marvel Comics' Amazing Spider-Man and Thor) spoke candidly about his discontent with the creative direction he's been saddled with by his publisher.

Straczynski aired his disagreement on 2004's poorly received "Sins Past" storyline, as well as the current "One More Day" crossover running through various Spider-Man titles, whose conclusion is widely expected to reset the title character to a more palatable version by undoing his 1987 marriage to love interest Mary Jane Watson.

To his Usenet community, Straczynski writes:

In ["Sins Past"], yes, I wanted it to be Peter's kids, Joe [Quesada] over-rode that, which is his right as [Marvel Comics editor-in-chief]. I got the flack for that decision, but them's the breaks.

In ["One More Day"], there's a lot that I don't agree with, and I made this very clear to everybody within shouting distance at Marvel, especially Joe. I'll be honest: there was a point where I made the decision, and told Joe, that I was going to take my name off the last two issues of the OMD arc. Eventually Joe talked me out of that decision because at the end of the day, I don't want to sabotage Joe or Marvel, and I have a lot of respect for both of those.

Now, a few things spring to mind.

First up, Straczynski seems to believe that "Sins Past" would have been better - or, at least, more favorably received, perhaps - if Spider-Man had been the father of the kids he introduced, instead of the Green Goblin.

The storyline, we recall, featured the hitherto unseen love children of Gwen Stacy and Norman Osborn (!), which Peter Parker confirmed by stabbing Gwen's grave with a big honkin' rod (!!) and comparing their DNA. Since time works differently in the Marvel Universe, the story also postulated that the pair had the appearance of teenagers due to a combination of Osborn's "Goblin formula" and progeria (!!!). Shall we say, I'm not quite convinced Straczynski's original idea would really have improved that story. (A follow-up story called "Sins Remembered," written by Straczynski protégée Fiona Avery, had Peter Parker doing his best Humbert Humbert impression and giving Gwen's twelve-year-old daughter a wet one - another dazzling example of Marvel's frequent sure-footedness when it comes to their flagship property.)

Second, I'm curious what prompted Straczynski to change his mind, as far as sabotaging Quesada or Marvel is concerned. Because that, of course, is precisely what he's doing by publicly disowning "One More Day." As Augie De Blieck Jr. points out, Straczynski has been both a professional writer and an established internet presence for a very long time now, so it's safe to assume he was well aware his comments would make the rounds immediately. So, is it the overwhelmingly negative internet reaction to "One More Day" that made Straczynski, with all his experience in dealing with vocal fans on the internet, change his mind all of a sudden and air his grievances in public, after all? I really doubt it. 

Third, it's kind of interesting to see how even an otherwise perfectly levelheaded industry observer like Paul O'Brien deems it necessary to acknowledge that Straczynski's message may be just another Marvel publicity stunt and a piece of misdirection. Such, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the legacy of Bill Jemas.

Finally, a few thoughts on the story itself, which involves Mephisto, who's probably as close to the Biblical idea of the devil as you're going to get in the Marvel Universe, offering Spider-Man to save his Aunt May's life in return for his marriage with Mary Jane. Right. Spider-Man? "Mephisto"? "Deal with the devil"? Smell any red herrings yet? Come on, folks. I know Marvel have a rather crappy track record when it comes to handling their flagship character, I but surely nobody honestly believes that Peter Parker's really going to take Mephisto up on his offer.

(If I had to guess, I'd say that the twist is Mary Jane accepting the deal behind Peter's back and taking a big bite out of that apple. Which probably won't go over well with the new "fangirl" front... but I'm getting ahead of myself.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Defense Reaction

So it turns out I was right back in September, when I speculated that idiosyncratic comics writer Joe Casey was working on a revamp of Marvel's old Defenders property. The book, which will debut in March, is a six-issue limited series titled The Last Defenders. It's being edited by Steven Wacker and set in the present-day Marvel Universe.

In a brief Newsarama interview, Casey acknowledges the concept's inherent major flaw: that, unlike with most long-running Marvel books - remember, The Defenders ran for more than 150 issues back in the 1970s and 1980s - there is no concept, basically. So when he says he's confident that he's found a way to make the Defenders work, I'm curious what it is.

Casey also makes the following, rather pointed statement:

I don't think anyone will be able to predict where this series is going (and consider that an open invitation for readers to try... that's where the fun is). It feels new to me, and I'd like to think I'm a decent barometer for this stuff. Not a lot of stuff has felt new lately, a feeling that I see vibrating through the readership.

Coming from most creators, a comment like this would seem slightly preposterous. But looking at Casey's œuvre to date, it's easy to believe him.

Also recommended, while we're at it:



Joe Casey and artist Derec Donovan's revamp of Rob Liefeld's Youngblood, published as an ongoing monthly series by Image Comics starting in January 2008.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Glee: Full

Important note to my readers in the United States and in the United Kingdom:

Amazon just informed me that my copy of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, which I'd ordered in December 2006, is on the way. For 22.45 Euros. In Germany. And it's currently... out of stock!

Take that, Mike Sterling.

Collection Business

Over in the comments section of the "DC Comics Month-to-Month Sales" column at The Beat, there's been a discussion on the sales of DC Comics' Vertigo sublabel. In a nutshell, while the imprint's average monthly periodical sales have hit an all-time low and are still trending downwards, people are wondering how well the collections of Vertigo's titles have been doing.

The problem with that is that data on comics collection or graphic novel sales is notoriously hard to come by. There's virtually no way to get comprehensive, consistent and reliable enough figures on bookstore sales, for example. And even though Diamond Comic Distributors, who provide reasonably reliable and comprehensive data on periodical sales to comics stores in North America, also offer information on collection and graphic novel sales, the nature of the collection and graphic novel market renders their reports all but meaningless in that respect.

Because, first up, unlike periodicals, collections and graphic novels tend to rely heavily on other markets, such as the aforementioned book market. Consequently, even in an ideal situation where every sale of every collection or graphic novel in the North American direct market is tracked by the Diamond charts, that's still not enough information to make a reasonably educated guess at those items' total sales.

Second, the situation, in most cases, is far from ideal. Collections and graphic novels obviously have a much longer shelf-life than periodicals: Whereas the vast majority of periodicals is already out of print by the time they arrive in stores, collections and graphic novels tend to remain available for months and often years after their initial publication. So while they may appear on Diamond's charts in the first month - or even in the first few months - of publication, at some point many books' sales tend to drop to a level at which they no longer register on the chart. (Especially since Diamond's "Graphic Novel" chart only covers the Top 100 books, in contrast to the Top 300 books included in their monthly periodical chart.)

Consequently, it's quite possible for a given book to keep shifting significant quantities in the direct market for significant periods of time without those quantities being tracked by the Diamond charts. The No. 100 title on October's chart, for instance, sold 1,482 units, according to ICv2.com's estimates. This means that books can sell thousands of copies over the period of a few months without ever appearing on Diamond's charts. Therefore, it's virtually impossible to extrapolate the total amount of copies sold of a given book even in the North American direct market alone, based on Diamond's charts. There are just too many sales that regularly slip under the radar.

Why am I telling you all this, now?

Well, we've now established very carefully and, I hope, with a workable degree of clarity, that the Diamond "Graphic Novel" charts are an insufficient basis for drawing conclusions on overall collection and graphic novel sales in the direct market and beyond. I think there is something they actually can provide accurate data on, though, and that's the question how the direct market numbers for different collections or graphic novels compare to each other in their first months of release. And based on that, to go one step further, I think they can also offer a reasonably accurate idea of how the total direct market sales of those books compare to each other.

With all that in mind, let's get back to those Vertigo collections. Below, you can see statistics on the first-month direct market collection sales of Vertigo's current series, as per ICv2.com's sales estimates, arranged according to the numbers of the most recent volume, from highest to lowest. What these statistics show, as indicated above, are (a) the first-month sales trends for each given title, and (b) how the individual Vertigo titles compare to each other in terms of first-month sales. (It only goes back to March 2003, because that's when Diamond started to report data on sales, rather than initial orders.)

Y: THE LAST MAN
03/2003: Vol.  1 --  4,761
08/2003: Vol.  2 --  7,901 (+66.0%)
03/2004: Vol.  3 --  7,303 (- 7.6%)
11/2004: Vol.  4 --  7,665 (+ 5.0%)
07/2005: Vol.  5 --  8,526 (+11.2%)
11/2005: Vol.  6 --  8,513 (- 0.2%)
05/2006: Vol.  7 -- 10,298 (+21.0%)
11/2006: Vol.  8 -- 10,794 (+ 4.8%)
05/2007: Vol.  9 -- 12,964 (+20.1%)

FABLES
07/2003: Vol.  2 --  6,524
04/2004: Vol.  3 --  6,478 (- 0.7%)
10/2004: Vol.  4 --  6,288 (- 2.9%)
03/2005: Vol.  5 --  7,289 (+15.9%)
12/2005: Vol.  6 --  7,136 (- 2.1%)
07/2006: Vol.  7 -- 10,732 (+50.4%)
12/2006: Vol.  8 -- 10,267 (- 4.3%)
06/2007: Vol.  9 -- 12,168 (+18.5%)

 

100 BULLETS
03/2003: Vol.  5 --  6,005
09/2003: Vol.  6 --  6,195 (+ 3.2%)
07/2004: Vol.  7 --  5,550 (-10.4%)
07/2005: Vol.  8 --  5,575 (+ 0.5%)
04/2006: Vol.  9 --  5,809 (+ 4.2%)
12/2006: Vol. 10 --  6,735 (+15.9%)
08/2007: Vol. 11 --  7,712 (+14.5%)

 

DMZ
06/2006: Vol. 1 -- 5,387
02/2007: Vol. 2 -- 5,489 (+ 1.9%)
09/2007: Vol. 3 -- 6,098 (+11.1%)


JACK OF FABLES
02/2007: Vol. 1 -- 6,046
10/2007: Vol. 2 -- 5,521 (-8.7%)

SCALPED
08/2007: Vol. 1 -- 3,502

THE EXTERMINATORS
08/2006: Vol. 1 -- 3,628
03/2007: Vol. 2 -- 3,252 (-10.4%) 
10/2007: Vol. 3 -- 3,339 (+ 2.7%)

HELLBLAZER
05/2003: Freezes Over   --  3,372
10/2003: Gates of Hell  --  3,617 (+7.3%)
03/2004: Son of Man     --  3,502 (-3.2%)
06/2004: Highwater      --  3,507 (+0.1%)
09/2004: Setting Sun    --  3,441 (-1.9%)
05/2005: Red Sepulcre   --  3,479 (+1.1%)
09/2005: Black Flowers  --  3,147 (-9.5%)
01/2006: Staring    --  3,312 (+5.2%)
08/2006: Stations --  3,196 (-3.5%)
11/2006: Empathy --  3,378 (+5.7%)
04/2007: Cheerful --  3,422 (+1.3%)
07/2007: Red Right Hand --  3,443 (+0.6%)
09/2007: The Gift       --  3,299 (-4.2%)

LOVELESS
05/2006: Vol. 1 -- 3,801
03/2007: Vol. 2 -- 3,164 (-16.8%)

ARMY@LOVE
10/2007: Vol. 1 -- 2,708

CROSSING MIDNIGHT
06/2007: Vol. 1 -- 2,510

AMERICAN VIRGIN
10/2006: Vol. 1 -- 2,953
07/2007: Vol. 2 -- 2,371 (-19.7%)

TESTAMENT
07/2006: Vol. 1 -- 2,953
01/2007: Vol. 2 -- 2,240 (-24.2%)

DEADMAN
03/2007: Vol. 1 -- 1,787

Conflating these numbers with Vertigo's performance in the periodical market, and starting with the easy part, it's safe to say that Y: The Last Man and Fables are perfectly healthy. As periodicals, they've been hovering around the 25K mark for years, outselling everything else Vertigo have been attempting by a league; and they've apparently seen some tremendous growth as collected editions, as far as the direct market is concerned, similarly outselling the rest of the bunch. Indeed, Y and Fables collections are now selling in substantially higher quantities than the rest of Vertigo's titles are as periodicals.

The periodical numbers of 100 Bullets and DMZ have been in a slow but noticeable decline, but they're still firmly in profitable territory. Add the steadily growing first-month direct market sales the collections of both series are experiencing, and there shouldn't be anything to worry about there, either. The Fables spin-off Jack of Fables, Vertigo's third-bestselling periodical, is a good performer in terms of collections as well, though maybe not as good as you'd expect, based on its performance as a periodical.

Scalped and The Exterminators, perhaps surprisingly, seem to be holding their own remarkably well as collected editions, despite performing rather poorly as periodicals. Sales of the long-running Hellblazer have been largely flat in both formats, meanwhile; neither periodicals nor collections appear to be selling in impressive numbers, but both seem to be doing well enough. Periodical sales of Loveless, on the other hand, have been in a worrying decline lately, and the drop in first-month sales between the first and the second collection of the series doesn't look encouraging, either.

As we're getting to the tail-end of the periodical and collection sales charts, the titles are the same on both lists. American Virgin, Testament and Deadman have all been canceled, and it's not hard to see why. Obviously, those titles were earning their keep neither as periodicals nor as collections. Army@Love doesn't seem to be faring much better to date, but Vertigo aren't willing to abandon it yet. The book will be on hiatus after issue #12, according to the publisher, waiting to be relaunched after an unspecified period of time. The idea, presumably, is to give the generally positive reviews and mainstream coverage some time to sink in.

Crossing Midnight, finally, represents a bit of an anomaly. The book seems to be performing very poorly where both periodicals and collections are concerned, but unlike the other titles selling in the same area - and selling better than Crossing Midnight, in some cases - it's still ongoing at this time. If there's a sales-related reason for that, it's not one that's evident in the available direct market charts.

If there's any real surprise in these numbers, it's the tremendous degree of growth Y and Fables (and, to a lesser but still impressive degree, 100 Bullets and DMZ) have apparently been experiencing in the last few years. Overall, however, it seems that the books doing well as collected editions in the direct market tend to be the same ones doing well as periodicals, the notable exceptions of Scalped and The Exterminators aside.

That shouldn't come unexpectedly, I guess - it is the direct market, after all, and consequently pretty much the same target audience. Of course, it's entirely possible for things to be completely different in the bookstore market. Judging from the numbers we have, though, the notion that collection sales have been increasing for Vertigo appears to be true for a select few titles only, and those tend to be the ones which are already doing well enough to be profitable as periodicals.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Horse's Mouth

At this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, Björn Wederhake and I had the opportunity to sit down with Dirk Wood, Director of Marketing at Dark Horse Comics, for Comicgate.

Among other topics, we talked about the state of the direct market, the dawn of digital comics, the apparent shortages of the 300 graphic novel when the film adaptation came out, and the status of the Star Wars license.

The interview's up now - you can read it in English or in German.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Draft Notice

Within the last couple of months, DC Comics has announced
  • the return of fan-favorite writer, controversial industry figure and time-and-time-again pariah Jim Shooter to the Legion of Super-Heroes series (interview at Newsarama),
  • the appointment of legendary creator and aggressive creators-rights advocate Jerry Robinson, who was crucial in rallying support and negotiating with Warner to grant Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster appropriate compensation and credit for the creation of Superman, as a "creative consultant" (press release at Newsarama),
  • and the signing of an exclusive contract with the company by fan-favorite longtime Marvel artist Mark Bagley, known as one of the fastest-working, most professional creators in the industry (press release at Newsarama).

Could they possibly be trying to communicate something?

Well, as I noted a while ago, DC don't seem to have many reliable, consistent high-profile creators in their stable currently - Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison aside, they simply don't have anyone who can be counted on to deliver a Top 10 book consistently and monthly.

Then there's the latest round of lawsuits filed against Time Warner by the Siegel estate surrounding the creation of the Superman/Superboy characters, which is again bringing a lot of attention to the company that they'd probably rather avoid.

Finally, two of the most prominent complaints currently aimed at DC by fans are concerned with the publisher's frequent failure to get their books out on time and with their supposedly regular creative teams involved.

Bearing all this in mind, those announcements seem to be saying two things:

One, if you're a popular creator, come to us, or come back to us. It doesn't matter whether you've burned bridges in the past. We need you, we want you, and we're going to take good care of you.

Two, if you're a fan, don't worry about late books or fill-in issues anymore. We've learned from our mistakes, and we've got it covered.

Of course, this leaves one major concern: What about the top-down approach of editorially-driven storytelling that's currently dominating their line? It may be necessary to coordinate all those large-scale events, sure. But I doubt it's very attractive to the kind of creator DC is in desperate need of at this point.

If they're serious about a new round of high-profile talent hiring, I'd expect the DC Universe's major franchises to become much more creator-driven and self-contained after next year's Final Crisis series.

Chart Breaker

Brian Wood, the author of DMZ and Local, isn't angry about sales numbers, after all. Good for him. It doesn't stop him from making incorrect claims about them, however. Let's do another fact check.

At his weblog, Wood responds to John Mayo, who writes a monthly sales column for Comic Book Resources. Wood states:

And just to further beat you all with the point we've been making all this time, that these sales charts are fiction - they would tell you that this book has sold, to date, significantly less than half of the actual amount.

To support his point, Wood cites a royalty statement for one of his books, noting the discrepancies between it and the estimates derived from the Diamond charts.

There are a couple of problems with that line of thought. First up, Mayo doesn't claim that the numbers he uses refer to total sales. On the contrary: His columns come with all the appropriate disclaimers and qualifiers. So if anyone reads them and comes away with the assumption that he's talking about total sales, it's certainly not his fault.

Of course, Wood is actually on the record saying that he doesn't trust people to be able to read and understand the existing sales reports properly and make their own judgments about them. So his complaint doesn't come as a great surprise at this stage. Still, I think it's worthwhile to set the record straight on this stuff. (For anyone who's interested, I addressed the question what information Diamond Comic Distributors' charts represent, how they do it and which sales are on the charts in detail here, so I won't go into that again.)

Second, on a related note, I'm not sure why anyone, including Wood, would expect the Diamond numbers to match the numbers from Wood's royalty statements. As we've just established - and Wood agrees on that, evidently -, the Diamond charts do not reflect total sales, whereas Wood's royalty statements presumably do. As such, it's eminently pointless to compare the two. We know that the North American direct market isn't the only distribution channel, so it's no great surprise that the total number of books sold is larger than the number of books sold through Diamond only. If Wood's comparison says anything relevant to the topic he's discussing, I'm missing it.

Another one of Wood's comments seems to be more aimed at the column I write for The Beat, although he doesn't come out and say so.

I never see how one-liners like "wow, this is on it's last legs" or "another failed launch" or "predictably mediocre" or "the losing streak continues" or the classic one-word: "declining" or "solid" actually contribute anything meaningful to the situation. Do you?

Well, I do, obviously. I think these recurring phrases are useful in describing and identifying certain recurring sales patterns. And I think that's meaningful, in a purely functional sense. Of course, whether or not the discussion on direct market sales, comics sales or comics in general is meaningful in a broader sense is open to debate. (And, for the record, I don't recall writing something as gleeful as "wow, this is on its last legs." I frequently use the other comments Wood is citing, though.)

In the discussion thread of his blog post, Wood adds:

Thankfully, we don't see blog posts about [the New York Times bestsellers list], saying, wow, Book X is slipping in the charts!  Harper Collins is totally fucked! :)

Well, that's probably because Book X generally isn't a series and the New York Times bestsellers list doesn't suggest actual sales numbers. Otherwise, I'm sure we'd see quite a few blog posts about that.

Later on, in a Blog@Newsarama post, Wood summarizes his misgivings again.

[T]hese top 100 and top 300 sales charts are just full of incomplete data that gets misrepresented, intentionally and unintentionally, as gospel in the subsequent analysis. [...] If we’re going to have analysis, even snarky analysis, it might as well be based on fact, not fiction.

So far, I've always assumed that Wood, as a seasoned creator and someone with quite a bit of experience in the industry, may be privy to information I don't have, so I've been more than willing to grant him the benefit of the doubt on many of the vague blanket statements he's been making. Unfortunately, I can't help but observe that he's yet to identify a single concrete case of those numbers or their subsequent interpretation and analysis being wrong. Instead, he keeps bringing up limitations of the available data that are already well-known to anyone dealing with it, and he keeps criticizing the data for not saying what he wants it to say. While that's fair enough in principle, it doesn't support his larger point of the data and subsequent analysis being wrong.

If Wood really thinks that the available sales data is "fiction," and that it's being "misrepresented," or "intentionally" misrepresented even, as he says in the passages quoted above, he's failed to back these claims up with anything approaching fact or even the hint of an explanation so far. To be honest, looking at comparisons like the one with the royalty statement, which are deeply flawed at best, I'm beginning to wonder whether he even knows what he's talking about.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Links, zwo, drei, vier

Here are some pointers to insightful places on the interwub you may want to visit if you've got some (okay: a lot of) time to kill, for your convenience.

o Blogger Andrew Hickey on comics writer Grant Morrison's work: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.

o Marvel Comics editor Tom Brevoort on the history and evolution of Marvel Comics covers: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8.

o Comics letterer and designer Todd Klein on the logos of Marvel Comics' X-Men series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Update.

o Blogger G. Kendall on X-Men and other comics in the 1990s.

o Former DC Comics/WildStorm editor Scott Dunbier on comics and life.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Fair Share

Belated notes on the Frankfurt Book Fair:

o Missed the panel discussion on "The International Comics Market 2007" with, among others, Mile High Comics' Chuck Rozanski, because I was too stupid to read the program. Unfortunate.

o Didn't miss the panel on "Comics in Bookshops - Graphic Novels as Bestsellers" with a bunch of German (and Swiss) booksellers and publishers. Wasn't very enlightening, though. What's a "Graphic Novel"? What does "bestseller" mean in this context? Are comics a medium or a genre, and what's the difference, anyway? The participants used a lot of terms and buzzwords without really being able to define what they meant, and so clarity was lost and not much in terms of new information was to be learned.

o Saw Scott McCloud's presentation "Comics: An Art Form in Transition," and found that everything they say about him is true. In about an hour's time, McCloud clicked himself through more than 600 projected images while giving an involving, highly condensed lecture on the possibilities of the medium, his own background and the history of the universe in general - a crash course through his books Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics and Making Comics, essentially. McCloud never missed a beat, and it was a thoroughly intriguing and entertaining 60 minutes.

The event was announced as a "PowerPoint presentation," but live comics is probably closer to the truth. Amazingly, McCloud doesn't just have a lot to say on sequential art - he's become sequential art. My Comicgate fellows Björn and Daniel conducted a pretty sharp interview with the man on the final day of the Fair, which hopefully should be up soon.

o Attended the "Catalonia and Its Artists" panel, with an illustrious mix of creators including Max, Albert Monteys and Pascual Ferry. Additionally, there was an eye-opening exhibition on the history of Catalan comics at the Frankfurt Museum for Communication. To someone like myself, who's mostly concerned with the Anglo-American branch of comics and not much else, the discussion and the exhibition served as a gentle reminder that what most people in that sphere mean when they talk of "comics" tends to be defined by a very, very, very narrow focus, even if they're aware of the Asian or European branches. The wealth of material out there that I'll probably never even hear of is awe-inspiring, really.

o Also at the Museum for Communication: "Erlesene Comics - Comiclesung ohne Bilder," in which a bunch of fine ladies and gentlemen from the German comics scene gave a reading of select comics, effectively turning them into impromptu audio plays. Among the many highlights were a crappy, unintentionally comical old German spine-chiller from the long-running Gespenstergeschichten series (read by Tobi Dahmen), Will Eisner's haunting Spirit story "Life Below" (marvellously brought to life by Jan and Stefan Dinter), the Karl Marx piece from Action Philosophers (dramatized by Comicgate's Björn) and two unpublished short stories by German cartoonist Oliver Ferreira (read by his friend Mawil). A splendidly entertaining affair, all told.

o In terms of extracurricular activities, a lot of fun was to be had, as well. On Friday, Dark Horse Comics' Dirk Wood, Matt Parkinson and Lance Kreiter, a.k.a. Tiger & The Scorpion, played the Spritzehaus pub, covering a bunch of hard rock classics. As a very pleasant surprise, David Lloyd showed up, bought everyone a beer and stuck around to chat with us about all kinds of comics stuff.

o For the rest of the Fair, pretty much whenever you walked past the Panini booth, Mr. Lloyd, who'd come to Frankfurt to promote the German release of his graphic novel Kickback, was sitting there, signing books, drawing sketches or just talking to people - an utter professional, a perfect gentleman and a terribly nice bloke if I've ever seen one. He was kind enough to draw me a Night Raven sketch.

o Also briefly talked with Dirk Schwieger, who won this year's Sondermann Award for "Best Newcomer" with Moresukine, which is now available as a very nice-looking printed edition from German publisher Reprodukt. Congratulations!

o The best part of the whole thing was the people, really. Got a chance to say hi to a lot of people from all over the world I'd never met, or whom I'd only known from the internet, and everyone turned out to be great folks. A special thank you goes out to Comicgate's Thomas, Björn and Daniel, who welcomed me with open arms, and of course to Frauke, who let me crash on her couch for the duration of the Fair.

For more detailed Fair reports and pictures coverage (in German), look here. For even more pictures, go here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fair Game

I'll be heading for the Frankfurt Book Fair later today. As usual, lots of time and space will be devoted to comics: This year, creators David Lloyd and Paschalis Ferry are going to be there, as are Dirk Schwieger of the fascinating Moresukine and, of course, storytelling textbook guru Scott McCloud, among many others. DC Comics apparently have a booth, and it seems Dark Horse Comics will have some presence as well, although I haven't been able to find them at the Book Fair's website.

From Thursday through Sunday, I'll be based in Hall 3.0 at booth J834-836, at any rate. It's the joint presence of German indie publishers Cross Cult, Eidalon and Zwerchfell and German comics magazine Comicgate, among others. So if you happen to be there, come over and say hi.

Your Move, Seaguy

At the recent New Yorker Festival in New York City, writer Grant Morrison and some other people went on a stage and had a public discussion on superheroes. Comic Book Resources and Galleycat have reports and pictures, while The New Yorker promises to provide video footage of some of the festival's events soon - so, with a bit of luck, it may pay off to watch their website in the next few days.

In comparison with your average Grant Morrison panel or interview, this one doesn't seem as juicy, if only because it lacks one of those statements which don't just turn accepted wisdom on its head, but actually make you wonder why it's been upside down all along. Still, there are few nice quotes, such as Morrison's response to an audience member's suggestion that comics "as a genre" may be in trouble.
Morrison said that comics have always been a bit despised. “But,” he continued, “comics are currently a licensing farm for Hollywood, and as long as that keeps happening, comics will be okay.

“Comics are the wellspring of imagination; comics can tell stories cheaply that other mediums cannot express. Today it costs 100 million dollars to do special effects on film in Fantastic Four that Jack Kirby could create 40 years ago with a pencil.”
That said, one of Morrison's most interesting statements at the panel actually comes when he's asked about his current projects: In addition to his ongoing runs on All Star Superman and Batman and the upcoming Final Crisis for DC Comics' mainstream line, Morrison reveals that he's writing a second Seaguy limited series. Now, personally, I'm tickled pink, because I liked Seaguy tremendously and think it's the probably most underrated thing Morrison's done to date. But this raises a couple of questions.

When the initial three-issue miniseries came out via DC Comics' Vertigo sublabel, we recall, it sold rather poorly (well, by the standards of 2004, anyway; today it'd be a modest hit for them) and was met with mixed reviews. Although the final issue announced a follow-up series (the first of three planned sequels, Morrison has said), titled Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye, the publisher apparently wasn't very enthusiastic about the project, according to artist Cameron Stewart, and recently, nobody really had it on the map anymore. I guess the fact that it's finally concrete enough to mention it either means that sales of the Seaguy collection have served to restore Vertigo's faith in the property or that Morrison has produced enough blockbusters for DC in the last few years to earn himself another go. (Then again, perhaps Vertigo are just desperate for big-name talent, given that their average periodical sales are currently threatening to drop below 10,000.)

What's almost as interesting, though, it what doesn't make Morrison's list of things he's working on: Wildcats and The Authority, notionally the flagship titles of that other DC imprint, WildStorm. Both supposedly bimonthly series were launched with much fanfare and decent numbers last fall, but after one issue of Wildcats and two of The Authority were released, both titles vanished in publishing limbo. Jim Lee, Wildcats penciler and WildStorm's editor-in-chief, and Gene Ha, artist on The Authority, recently seemed to suggest that the two titles' massive delays mainly rest on Morrison's shoulders. Still, Lee was optimistic about Morrison's commitment to Wildcats.
[A]ccording to Lee, Morrison reiterated his enthusiasm for [Wildcats], and he still wants to do it. Currently, plans call for the collaboration to run for a minimum of six issues, but maybe as many as 12. Ideally, Lee wants to stockpile the issues, and not solicit it until there are multiple issues in the drawer drawer, but when it came down to which project to work on, [Lee] had to chose between that and [All Star Batman], and [All Star Batman] had more scripts in.
Regarding Morrison's work on The Authority, Gene Ha sounded rather more skeptical, however.
[...] I don't think The Authority #3 by Grant Morrison and Gene Ha is ever coming out. Grant is busy redesigning the DC Universe and I've moved onto new projects. Most importantly, it seems that editor Scott Dunbier has been forced out of WildStorm. There is no #3 script, there may never be a #3 script.
Emphasis mine. Now, let's summarize what we know, if we take the comments by Lee, Ha and Morrison at face value for a moment:

o Grant Morrison is still interested in doing between six and twelve issues of Wildcats, all told, but hasn't written enough scripts yet to make it worthwhile for Jim Lee to continue drawing the book.

o Gene Ha isn't working on The Authority due to a lack of scripts, doubts he ever will be again, and has moved on to other projects.

o Grant Morrison isn't working on Wildcats, and he isn't working on The Authority, but he's not too busy with his DC Universe work to be writing a second Seaguy series.

o Editor Scott Dunbier's alleged firing (see here, here and here for more on that) is the "most important" factor in the apparent abortion of The Authority.

Initially, the reason behind the books' delays seemed to be an unfortunate combination of both Jim Lee and Grant Morrison being overwhelmed by other work which had to take precedence over their WildStorm commitments - in Lee's case, All Star Batman and a time-intensive trading card game featuring DC's mainstream characters; in Morrison's case, his involvement in the weekly 52 series. And, really, it's not a great surprise that DC want their talent to make work on their mainstream properties a priority.

Now, things seem to have changed, however. Plainly, what the collective comments by Lee, Ha and Morrison imply is that it's no longer conflicting schedules keeping Morrison's Wildcats and The Authority from publication (or, perhaps, creation), but office politics.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Fowl Play

It suddenly occurs to me that, with Howard the Duck #1, Omega: The Unknown #1 and Foolkiller #1, Marvel are bringing back this month not one, not two, but three properties created - or co-created, in the case of Omega - by writer Steve Gerber in the seventies. If you want to stretch things, you can add the Legion of Monsters collection as well, which includes a Man-Thing story. That character isn't one of Gerber's creations, but it's certainly one that's come to be associated with Gerber above everyone else.

And, incidentally, none of those books are written by Gerber himself. Considering that Gerber is still working and is suffering from massive, terminal health troubles (see his weblog and recent interviews at Newsarama and Wizard Universe), that somehow seems wrong.

(To be fair, I should point out that in the Wizard Universe piece, Gerber states he and Marvel have come to an understanding about Omega and "a couple" of other characters and that he himself considers the matter closed.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Dream Team

Marvel editor Tom Brevoort provides a neat little four-pager by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. The story first appeared in issue #26 of Marvel's Tales to Astonish series, cover-dated December 1961. It's a simple idea, but so perfectly told and paced, both in the words and in the artwork, that you could call it the comics equivalent of a good three-minute pop song.

Given Lee and Ditko's later, more famous collaborations, it's sometimes easy to forget that it wasn't just their creative vision which distinguished them in the sixties, but also their skill as storytellers. The story's final caption aside, which obviously seems very much of its time now, "Dream World!," amazingly, still gives the majority of the publisher's current output a run for its money in terms of simplicity and effectiveness. Click over and have a look - it may just be the best comic you're going to read this week.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Service Charge

At Newsarama, Vaneta Rogers talks to Keith Champagne, the writer of DC Comics' upcoming miniseries Countdown: Arena. Obviously, the book is a spin-off of the publisher's weekly Countdown title. Its premise: Alternate versions of DC's major characters beat each other up inside an arena over positions in the Countdown villain's army. There's even a website on which DC let their fans vote on the outcomes of four of the fights - one for every issue.

Asked about the criticisms which have been directed at Countdown: Arena since it was first announced a few months back, Champagne is puzzled. "I was surprised at the mixed reaction to a project that’s been designed to be so fan friendly," he tells Rogers. And Champagne isn't alone in his confusion, it seems. Back in August, trying to convince people of the book's merits, DC Comics executive editor Dan Didio described Countdown: Arena as "fan-fiction at its finest."

Again, as with Didio's recent admission that "about 75% of the concepts that are being created [for DC's mainstream superhero line] are editorially driven," it's not really a great surprise to anyone who's been following DC's output that this sort of editorial policy exists. The surprising part, once more, is the fact that they wear it as a badge of honor.

Comments by Countdown editor Michael Carlin, again made at Newsarama, highlight a related problem.
NRAMA: Mike - hate to keep kicking this dead horse, but wouldn't this have been a great place for an Editor's Note? After all, you've got a main character referring to something which hasn't even been seen yet... so it's not as if even the regular readers know what's going on, let alone the readers who only pick up Countdown... I mean - what's the philosophy behind not pointing readers to another story they might enjoy and possibly buy?

MC: The answer remains the same: There would simply be too many footnotes in a series like this... There are already several narrators forcing several caption styles and I would still like for some of the art to show through the copy. Also the internet does much of this job for us, and we’ve just run several DC Nation pages to help you out.
Let's summarize: (1) The reason why there are no editorial notes in Countdown helping readers to sort out what's actually happening in the book is because there would have to be too many of them. (2) The term "fan-fiction" is a seal of quality at DC.

If you've been wondering why sales of the publisher's DC Universe line has been drastically losing steam over the last year, you can probably stop now.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Figure Skating Update

There've been a few reactions to my essay on the merits of direct market sales reports adding insightful information and analysis to the discussion:

o At the recent comics retailer summit held by Diamond Comic Distributors in Baltimore, Heidi MacDonald asked retailers about the influence online sales reports have on their ordering patterns.
Among the folks we talked to, the answer was a clear no. “I make my decisions based on what sells in my store, not what’s on a chart,” said one, summarizing the general consensus.
While I'm not especially surprised by MacDonald's findings, she's to be commended for actually doing the legwork and, you know, just asking the people who sell the books about their everyday business reality, instead of speculating on it like the rest of us have been doing.

In fairness, MacDonald's article doesn't specify with how many retailers she spoke, and it does point out that retailers who place more stock in online sales reports than in their own customers' buying patterns may exist. Overall, though, I have to say I'm fairly relieved to get at least a little bit of confirmation that I'm not living on Bizarro World. And it's good to know that I'm probably not actively grabbing food out of Brian Wood's children's mouths by reporting on DC sales every month. I'm serious.

o Speaking of Brian Wood, I should mention that he's clarified his comments in a number of places and stated right out that he's been misinterpreted and that, no, he doesn't think the publication and discussion of sales numbers per se are evil or harmful.

Admittedly, Brian, I have a hard time reconciling that with your comments here or here, but I'm willing to take your word on it, and I apologize if I've misrepresented your views.

o At his weblog, Dick Hyacinth uses MacDonald's piece and my ruminations as a starting point for a whole slew of insightful observations and analysis on online sales reports in general and Vertigo sales in particular - Hyacinth expresses skepticism on the existence of the mythical "bad retailers" who place their orders according to online sales reports, further investigates the issue of reorders and ponders Vertigo's future options in the direct market. Go over and read it, if you haven't already.

o In response to the most recent DC sales column, commenter Heinz Hochkoepper points out that the average number of Vertigo periodicals seems to have been increasing over the last few years. Looking into the matter, it turns out that he's quite correct. According to the Diamond Charts, the average monthly number of Vertigo periodicals was 9.5 in 2003 (not counting January and February, for which we only have preorder charts), 10.8 in 2004, 12 in 2005, 12.1 in 2006 and 12.9 in 2007 to date. That's a noticeable increase, and while I'm not sure what it means, it's certainly an interesting observation.

o In the same comments thread, retailer Randy Lander shares information on the performance of certain Vertigo books at his store.
This is anecdotal, but we sell two to three times the number of DMZ trades as we did of Transmetropolitan and Invisibles. Of course, we’re a growing store, so part of that is that we’re bigger and have a bigger customer base now as opposed to then, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that a similar pattern is happening at other stores.

Certainly we sell more DMZ trades in the first week than we did of Transmetropolitan. And I’m pretty sure our sales momentum is faster, too. We sell a DMZ trade almost every week (sometimes more than one), we sold Transmetropolitan maybe once a month.

Not sure how relevant this is, but just wanted to provide a direct response that for us, at least, DMZ (and Fables, and American Virgin) trades sell better than comparable Vertigo titles a few years ago.
As Lander says, it's anecdotal, and there are other factors at play besides plain popularity of the properties.

That said, I have to admit I'm surprised that DMZ collection sales today are so much stronger - at Lander's store, at any rate - than those of Transmetropolitan or The Invisibles were a few years back. It's certainly something to consider, and I'm curious how things are looking at other stores.

(By the way, if you're a retailer - or a creator or publisher or distributor, for that matter - I highly appreciate any feedback on the column you may have. Looking at the statistics is good and well, but it always helps to have input from the people in the trenches. So feel free to drop me a line at any time if I got something wrong or right or if I'm missing anything.)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Figure Skating

Heidi MacDonald posted a few pieces on comics sales charts at The Beat last week (One, Two, Three) that spawned quite a bit of discussion in their comment sections, with input from industry observers Dirk Deppey, Eric Reynolds, Paul O'Brien and Tom Spurgeon, among others.

As it frequently does in this context, the question of the usefulness of the available direct market sales data comes up. And not surprisingly, not everyone's convinced of it - the most vehement criticisms, in this instance, come from creator Brian Wood (DC Comics/Vertigo's DMZ, Oni Press' Local). Wood is arguing, in a nutshell, that the direct market sales index information provided by Diamond Comic Distributors, the sales estimates calculated from it by ICv2.com and others, as well as the frequent publication and analysis thereof, are wrong, harmful and - that's the impression - generally and wholesomely evil.

Now, don't get me wrong. I have all the respect in the world for Wood's work, his experience and his contributions to the medium and the market. And given that he makes a living creating comics, I can certainly see where he's coming from, as far as his attitude towards the public discussion of sales figures is concerned. That said, though, Wood's objection basically seems to be that he doesn't like what the available sales data says, and therefore everybody should stop reporting it and talking about it. Naturally, I don't think that's a very useful approach - or a very realistic one, for that matter. But let's look at Wood's points.

For starters, Wood makes a comment on reorders that seems rather fuzzy.
The life of a book does not begin and end with its initial orders, and even those IVC2 [sic] charts that claim to also include reorders, they only report some reorders and for inconsistent periods of time. Again, incorrect information.
Well, first up, it's not ICv2.com who put together the charts and decide what's included and why, but Diamond Comic Distributors. ICv2.com merely use the Diamond charts and index information to calculate sales estimates of those books included in the charts. (And, by the way, I agree that Diamond's notion of using a given month's issue of Batman as the "100%" benchmark for their index points is fairly asinine.)

Second, and more significant, the charts do include reorders. However, they're obviously the "Top 300" charts (or "Top 100," in the case of the "Graphic Novel" chart), so naturally they only include those reorders which actually register on these charts.

Which can happen in two ways. If the reorders ship in the initial month of a book's release, they're all counted and added to the book's initial sales. Let's take the July chart as an example: Wood's DMZ #21 was released in the second week of July. What this means, in terms of reorders, is that any and all copies of DMZ #21 reaching stores in the third and fourth weeks of July are added to those initial sales in the first week, as far as the chart is concerned.

If the reorder copies don't reach stores in the month of the book's initial release, on the other hand, the only way for them to appear on the chart is if there are enough of them in any given subsequent month to make the chart. Again using the July chart as an example, an estimated 2,354 units of World War Hulk: X-Men #1 appear in slot No. 291. The issue in question was first released back in June, so those are reorders, and they're evidently strong enough to place the book on the chart again in July. If the sales of reorders for World War Hulk: X-Men #1 had been fewer than 2,000 in July, it likely wouldn't have appeared on the chart, since the lowest-selling book on the Top 300 chart that month sold an estimated 2,086 units.

Obviously - and this is where I agree with Wood - this approach isn't ideal. It means that reorders which appear after a book's initial month of release but aren't strong enough to make the chart on their own are inevitably going to fall through the cracks. But while that's most definitely a limitation, it's arguably a minor one in most cases, because the same demand that keeps generating reorders for a title tends to result in additional initial orders for subsequent issues: If you're a retailer and constantly have to reorder copies of a given periodical without ever reacting to that by adjusting your initial orders for the next issue, you're doing something wrong. So while not all reorders may be tracked by the Diamond charts, the accuracy of the trends they show shouldn't be affected by that.

And, really, while the Diamond charts may not track some reorder activity, they're not hiding that fact, and there's nothing inconsistent or inaccurate about the information they do provide. The information is simply not as complete as we'd like it to be, in an ideal world. I believe it comes close, though, in most cases.

In another comment, Wood criticizes the term "actual sales" in the analysis of Diamond's periodical sales charts.
There is nothing “actual” about them at all. Still mostly North American pre-orders only.
Well, that's incorrect. What the Diamond charts "mostly" report is indeed sales to North American retailers, and not just preorders. As I've explained above, some reorders regularly slip under the radar of these charts, but that doesn't change the fact that they report sales - including most reorders, most of the time.

And, by the way, yes, I'm aware that's not the same as sales to customers. Information on actual sell-through would be very welcome to anyone with a faint interest in the overall market, I'm sure, for a variety of reasons. But in a market in which 99% of the product is non-returnable, it's simply not required when it comes to the question how well publishers and individual books are faring commercially in a given month, which is, after all, precisely what those charts are meant to track. Blaming the available sales charts for the system they provide data on, surely, is putting the cart in front of the horse.

I agree with Wood in so far as the term "actual" can be misleading in this context, though, because of all the qualifiers you need to understand the charts. But I don't think that mischief on anyone's part is involved. Rather, the term is owed to the history of the charts. Several years back, you see, Diamond did provide data on preorders only. That changed in March 2003, however, when they made the switch to reporting the sales of books as they actually shipped. To highlight the difference between the two approaches, the term "actual sales" was introduced. What it actually means, of course, is "actual sales through Diamond Comic Distributors to comics retailers in the North American direct market, not including reorders which shipped after a book's initial month of release and failed to make the chart again." There you go.

That about covers Wood's objections to the systematic limitations of the available sales charts. They're fair game, really: The limitations exist, and for the sake of transparency and full disclosure, they can't be pointed out often enough. Where we part ways, though, is in the conclusions he draws.

Wood says:
[A]nalysis of an incomplete picture can be a harmful thing. Consumers and retailers can see a monthly title dropping low in these charts, read some snarky one-line analysis about how bad its looking for a book, and maybe decide its not worth buying/ordering any more if its likely to be canceled. When the reality of the situation can be very different.
Later, he adds:
Seriously, everyone, the name of the game is perception, and most readers aren’t going to scour an article or a comments section looking for the grand big picture or the little caveats sprinkled around. They’ll breeze through, reading the title, looking at the charts, and walk away depressed that their favorite book is tanking, or whatever, never knowing they’re only getting part of the story.
I've had this discussion a few times in the past - a couple of times with Wood himself, I think -, and these kinds of statements never fail to annoy me in their glorious wrong-headedness. What the Diamond charts provide, at the end of the day, is information - nothing more, and nothing less. Is it incomplete information? Of course it is. But which publicly available sales data on pretty much anything can claim to be "complete"? It's not like Diamond are trying to hide the limitations of their charts, either - in fact, they've always been relatively upfront about them. And the same goes for most of the articles that frequently publish, process and interpret the information provided by Diamond.

Bearing this in mind, the gloomy image of hordes of customers and retailers, lemming-like in their sudden divorce from reason and experience, dropping supposedly low-selling titles left and right after "breezing through" a sales report does not seem to be a very likely scenario to me. Nor, by the way, do Wood's comments suggest a very flattering notion of his readers and their wits. And even if all those vague speculations were justified, for that matter, since when is the mere possibility of people misunderstanding information offered to them considered to be a valid reason against its dissemination?

As long as the origins and limitations of the available sales data are made clear in a given article, I don't see any convincing reason to view it as inherently "harmful" to anyone or anything. Rather, I regard it as a valuable, sober counterpoint to the publishers' own frenetic hype machines, which makes the direct market and its workings a little more transparent to everyone. And, honestly, if the sales reports help retailers - who, lest we forget, probably have their own experience and cycle sheets to draw upon - to get a better idea of how well a book is doing across the board, then surely that's a good thing in the long run.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Picture Story, Updated, and Now Updated Again, for, Like, the Second Time, It's So Hot

Breaking News: Major comics publisher says jump, major comics news sites ask how high.

Update: Well, there are no bounds, apparently. Right now, if you're klicking on this...

...you're getting this:

(Click on the images to enlarge them.) It's like that letter sent to the airport complaining about your missing luggage, and concluding with the observation that you just found it and they shouldn't worry about it. What would Marvel and DC do without sites like good, old Newsarama?

Update 2: The entire thing has now been removed from Newsarama. It's very exciting.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Under the Gun

Random revelation of the day: Writer Jason Aaron and artist Cameron Stewart's recent, highly acclaimed (and justly so, by the way, judging from the first two chapters) Vietnam War comic The Other Side goes splendidly with The Sisters of Mercy's Greatest Hits album, A Slight Case of Overbombing. Try it, if you get the chance.

Which reminds me that much too little has been said on the combination of comics and music. What's holding you up, Warren Ellis?

L for Lloyd

Back in June, Thomas and Björn of Comicgate talked to inimitable British creator David Lloyd about a variety of subjects, including V for Vendetta (both the comic and the film), War Stories and Espers - and, of course, Lloyd's most recent graphic novel, Kickback, which he was in Europe to promote at the time. While Lloyd seems happy with the reactions to the book, he's been less than impressed with its American publisher's promotional efforts.
Dark Horse, I’m sorry to say, didn’t actually put any publicity behind [Kickback]. Which was kind of crazy, because last year I had the highest career profile I could have had, because of the V for Vendetta movie. But unfortunately there was no publicity for me on Kickback.

So, since realizing that that happened, I’ve been trying to promote it myself. I try to make sure that it’s being promoted in every country where it gets published. Because there are lots of books coming out - especially in America - and if you don’t have a heavy publicity budget behind them, it’s very easy for them not to be noticed.
It's an entertaining and insightful interview, all told, and there are worse ways to spend your time. (There's also a German translation, if you like.)

Friday, September 7, 2007

Subject to Appeal

If it wasn't blindingly obvious already, Marvel Comics editor Tom Brevoort shares one of the reasons why Marvel's recent slew of event books and crossovers have been met with rather more commercial success than the competition's.
The key to what Marvel does better than anybody else in the industry, and what keeps us on top, is creating stories that have a resonance with our readership. So regardless of the project, finding those touchstones is job number one. Bill Jemas used to ask, “What’s the metaphor?” whenever talking about projects, and while he tended to become dogmatic about his approach, there’s a definite validity to it. Civil War was a massive hit and appealed to the mainstream because the underlying metaphors connected as well with a civilian audience as with the faithful readership. While it’s a realm of fantasy, the Marvel Universe works best when it mirrors the real-world concerns of its audience.
Of course, that's only half the equation. After all, one of Marvel's current big successes are the World War Hulk series and its various spin-off titles and crossover stories - whose metaphorical qualities are rather moderate, unless you count that ancient and basic human fear of being run over by a steamroller.

No, what makes World War Hulk a hit, clearly, is the beautiful simplicity and accessibility of the premise. It's the Hulk beating up everyone else in the Marvel Universe! It's an immediately graspable concept, immediately appealing to both superhero comics and mainstream audiences.

Over at DC, meanwhile, the serpent keeps eating its own tail with byzantine exercises in navel-gazing like Countdown, which are having even the hardcore fans scratching their heads wondering what on earth the story is meant to be about.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Secret Defenders?

Is writer Joe Casey working on a Defenders revamp for Marvel Comics? Maybe. In a recent piece on his favorite superhero team books for Blog@Newsarama, Casey writes:
Y’know, someone really needs to bring back the Defenders, don’t they? It’s just time. Now, I’d imagine the book would need to evolve out of its 70’s nostalgia, but it could definitely be done. Maybe someday…
The appreciation's signature, then, includes a clue about an upcoming project.
Joe Casey
proud writer of many team books, such as Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes (I and II), FF: First Family, Wildcats (vol. 2 and Version 3.0), The Intimates, Uncanny X-Men, G.I. Joe: America's Elite, KISS, Youngblood and the upcoming **** *********.
Of course, "**** *********" could mean anything, but the second word has precisely as many letters as the word "Defenders." And over at Comic Book Resources, promoting his upcoming book for Top Cow Productions with artist Kevin Maguire, Pilot Season: Velocity #1, Casey provides another tease.
And there's another top secret Marvel project on the horizon, too, one I feel like I've been working toward for most of my career.
If both pieces indeed hint at the same "mystery project," I'd say there's a good chance it's a new Defenders title. Which in itself wouldn't get my knickers in a twist by any stretch. But at this stage, Casey's name on a book ensures that I'm at least going to be interested: I'd be hard-pressed to think of any (native) North American mainstream comics writer more versatile or willing to reinvent themselves and their approach with each and every new project, in a way otherwise only managed by his British colleagues Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis.

By default, I'm looking forward to pretty much anything Casey has in the pipeline.

(Which, by the way, at present, besides the already mentioned Pilot Season: Velocity, also includes two Image Comics graphic novels called Krash Bastards and Nixon's Pals, a relaunch of Rob Liefeld's Youngblood and the Marvel limited series Iron Man: Enter the Mandarin - the latter two with his frequent collaborators Derec Donovan and Eric Canete, respectively.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Weekly Defended

Quote of the Month:
You can’t put out a weekly book three times a month.
So spoken by DC Comics editor Dan Didio, in his extensive defense of Countdown, DC's current weekly series, at Newsarama.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Genre Conventions: Marvel

Rather than putting all their eggs in one basket (see the competition's Final Crisis), Marvel announced a whole bunch of potential free-standing sales juggernauts at the recent major conventions. Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi doing Astonishing X-Men: Second Stage certainly fits that bill. Although it likely won't be up there with the Whedon/Cassaday run commercially, I wouldn't underestimate Ellis' appeal. The British author is currently seeing something of a second spring, with a slew of critically acclaimed projects like Fell, Nextwave and Thunderbolts under his belt, most of which are also selling respectably, and a well-received novel out. Coupled with up-and-coming newcomer Bianchi, who knows, maybe it's just the right mix to get people excited. Creatively, Ellis tends to be hit and miss with existing work-for-hire concepts; we could end up with another Thunderbolts, or we could end up with another Iron Man.

In other news, Marvel are revamping their Spider-Man line. Both Sensational Spider-Man and Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man will be canceled later this year, while Amazing Spider-Man will start coming out three times a month to pick up the slack. The new writers for the book are Bob Gale, Dan Slott, Marc Guggenheim and Zeb Wells - quite the appealing mix of fresh voices, which is just what the franchise needs right now. Slott and Wells have proven more than capable of understanding and handling the character in the past, in limited capacities, and Gale and Guggenheim seem like good choices as well. The four writers are plotting the series together, similarly to how TV shows tend to be created, before splitting the stories into separate arcs that dovetail each other.

The crew's mantra is "back to basics" - after years of having a Peter Parker married to a super model, living in an ivory tower and wearing fancy high-tech suits that enable him to scratch his back without putting his hands there, it seems we're heading back to the more lighthearted, down to earth stories that made the character popular. While that's all good and well, though, massively ramping up the book's output rate clearly doesn't come without risks, and none of the writers can be considered much of a sales draw in their own right. Marvel seem to be aware of that problem, though. If the book's creative and literal change of pace alone don't generate enough interest among fans and retailers, the addition of high-profile artists Steve McNiven, Chris Bachalo, Phil Jimenez and Salvador Larroca probably won't hurt. It's an interesting experiment, all told, and Marvel are probably viewing it as a trial run for other franchises.

Marvel's third major announcement was writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch's next project after the recent completion of Ultimates 2. As it turns out, it's Fantastic Four, after all, despite Hitch's denial of the possibility a few months back. The creative team's plan is, over the course of twelve monthly issues, to introduce a new supporting cast and largely focus on the creation of new concepts and ideas, in the spirit of the book's acclaimed Stan Lee/Jack Kirby and John Byrne runs. It's a laudable goal, certainly, and, who knows, maybe they're the right creators to finally reimbue the series with the sense of wonder, adventure and invention that's largely been missing in its more recent incarnations, apart from the occasional blip. And, yes, they really do want to do it monthly this time, and it seems they've already got four issues completed. Then again, I recall similar displays of confidence when Ultimates 2 was coming up, and we know how that turned out.

Those were the three major announcements made by Marvel, but even some of the less prominent ones have a commercial potential that DC would kill for. Take Avengers/Invaders, for example, a new twelve-issue maxiseries by co-writers Alex Ross and Jim Krueger and artist Stephen Sadowski: Ross and Krueger's last project, the recently completed Justice, was one of DC's best and most consistent sellers over the past year. Jeph Loeb, meanwhile, another high-profile creator who made the switch from DC to Marvel not too long ago, has apparently been tasked with restoring Marvel's Ultimate line to full steam; he's not only the writer of Ultimates 3 (with artist Joe Madureira) and Ultimates 4 (drawn by Ed McGuinness), but he's also writing "Ultimatum," a six-part crossover running through the waning Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four titles, and drawn by David Finch. (Personally, I'm intrigued to hear that Paul Cornell, the writer of the praised Wisdom miniseries, is taking over New Excalibur. It's hardly going to be a big seller, but I'm certainly looking forward to it.)

On balance, it's obvious that neither of the two North American comics publishers is bidding farewell to the trends of recent years. The crucial difference between Marvel and DC, I think, is that Marvel are finding the right balance between the sprawling events and titles which are free-standing and attractive.