11 Ways Marvel Comics Can Change To Attract Consumers
Marvel Comics sold a boatload of Black Panther #1's in April 2016, but comics sales had already begun flagging across the board. Cut to October and things were less across the board, and Marvel was losing sales to DC. Cut to March of 2017 and Marvel's sales were sagging badly enough that they held a retailer summit to find out what was happening "on the ground" and how they might boost sales.
For the purpose of this column, let’s pretend we’re at that retailer summit. In this (really awesome) alternate universe, I own a comics store (Pete’s Comics Hole), and I have a series of ideas, which I will express loudly and inarticulately through mouthfuls of cookies, which I assume were served.
Here are those cookie-spattered suggestions. And I apologize in advance for spitting cookie crumbs all over you.
Ms. Marvel #1 (Kamala Khan) came out in February 2014. We got 19 issues before the book was relaunched with a new Ms. Marvel #1 in November 2015. Same creative team, same character, basically a continuation of the same series with a new "#1!" slapped on the cover. I think that it might even be the same "#1" in terms of font, size, and placement. However, credit where credit's due, it IS yellow. Brave new world!
This means you can open two “Ms. Marvel #1’s” published within two years of each other and find completely different content. You can pick up an issue listed as "Ms. Marvel #1," but if you want to read that same issue in trade paperback, you'll find it in Ms. Marvel vol. 5.
Ms. Marvel was selling, establishing a fan base, and defying the odds by pushing a newish character into staple status. Not to mention that nobody in their right mind is recommending new readers start in on this series with the second, relaunched #1. Issues 1-19 are good readin' and by no means a long slog. It's probably a solid afternoon's reading to be completely caught up with Ms. Marvel. Which begs the question, Why relaunch something that doesn't need it?
Because the larger relaunch of the Marvel Universe demanded it. They had to throw out the bath water, the baby, the washtub, the rag, and that yellow bottle of "No More Tears" shampoo. (Note to anyone, like me, who thought "No More Tears" meant this product was somehow emotionally soothing: There are no depression-fighting effects in that bottle. The bottle you want in that case is bourbon.)
Before we demonize the idea of relaunches, let's note that relaunches can be good. They can be purposeful and necessary. They can signal a change in creative teams, story arcs, characters, or what have you. Marvel has made good use of relaunches to diversify their lineup. If you were considering getting into Spider-Man at this point, a relaunched title would make it so you don't have to go back through 50+ years of funnybooks.
However, those are all reasons to relaunch individual books and characters, not the universe as a whole.
When books need a relaunch, do it. When there's a good story reason or character change, do it. If something in a given title is stale, fix it. But don't relaunch a title just because you're relaunching everything. Don't make a book that's working relaunch because all the other kids are doing it.
You used to sell Hostess products constantly. What happened? Hostess is probably desperate for something like a Spider-Man to sell fruit pies at this point. Seriously, you could give them a third-tier character, Trapster or Ghost Rider (face it, he’s the coolest-looking superhero ever to have so many boring storylines). I hardly ever see kids eating wholesome Hostess Fruit Pies anymore, and I think when we look back at it, this dietary tragedy will reveal itself as an early warning sign of America’s downfall, one we should have heeded.
Look, it's whoring, but so what? I'd rather see Spider-Man selling Twinkies than watch the Guardians of the Galaxy sell a Ford. What the hell would someone with a spaceship need a Ford for? Spidey's got super powers, but the guy's gotta eat.
Get back in the fruit pies game, make that money.
Promote Your Artists And Writers The Way You Promote Your Characters
Ask any adult to name five directors who are currently working. Ask any adult to name five authors who are currently writing. Ask any adult to name five athletes who are currently sports-ing. You’ll get answers.
Ask any adult to name five Marvel characters. You'll get answers.
Ask any adult to name five authors or five illustrators who are currently working in comics. They probably can’t.
And I don't think it's an issue of ignorance. I think it's an issue that creators aren't being promoted. I went to Marvel's subscription site, and I could search for subscription titles by series, character, by rating, by something called "Combo" and something called "New Readers." But there wasn't any "By Creator" tab.
Ta-Nehisi Coates brought new readers to the fold through the force of his prior work in prose. Kelly Sue DeConnick has been really good at creating a following for herself in addition to creating one for the books she’s working on.
What makes these individuals alike is that they are popular as people, and what also makes them alike is that they had to cultivate this popularity themselves.
Start making a big deal about your top-tier talent. Talent which you have. Turn their names into big names, household names. Stop hiding that Chip Zdarsky under a rock! Let his beautiful light shine!
Have A Great Book (In Trade) Ready
Captain America: Civil War came out May 6th, 2016, and it was the first time we saw Black Panther kicking ass in a major movie. Black Panther Volume 1, which collected the first four issues of the new series, didn’t come out until nearly 5 months later.
Why in the holy hell wouldn’t you have PLENTY of shit for new fans to buy immediately upon leaving the theater? A couple issues is not enough. There should be a great, current trade available that showcases the Panther if he’s on-screen.
Why let that love and curiosity have even one moment to be redirected? Capitalize on the early interest in shows and movies based on comics. Have some stuff people can read, in trade, ready to roll, weeks before the movie or the show.
Bring Back Dazzler
Screw Steve Rogers. I would love to find out that Dazzler was frozen in ice and is now emerging in 2017. You could go legitimate and serious, use the character to talk about the changes in society, feminism, and authentic music in the last 40 years. Or you could go completely bonkers, make the book totally bizarre and fun. There are endless ways to go with this one. You’re a fool if you ignore it.
Enough With The Crossover Events Already
For the unfamiliar, a crossover event is something like Civil War where ALL Marvel books are involved for a while. This means you might be reading a title like Fantastic Four, and during the events of Civil War, the Fantastic Four are rerouted from whatever they were doing, and they get involved in the hubbub.
The theory here is that you, a reader who picks up a couple Marvel books every month, will be encouraged to read more, maybe even EVERY Marvel book during the crossover event in order to get the full story.
Theories are fun, but in practice, what we see is that general audiences are either confused, don’t care, or just sort of give up on books they’re enjoying during big crossovers. And when these events come too often, it doesn’t leave enough room for different titles to be, well, different.
Tell big crossover stories, but make them their own thing.
Build An eReader
So far, I’ve been mixing it up, some ideas I think are good and some oddball ideas. This one's a little bit of both. Oddball because it's probably impossible to make money from dedicated eReaders, unless you're Amazon, but good because, well, I want it, damn it.
There’s still no dedicated hardware, no solid eReader that successfully mimics the comics reading experience. Nothing of a size that can replicate a two-page spread. Two-page spreads are small on any screen. Being navigated through the panels is one way some apps work, but that takes the exploratory nature of reading comics and turns it into an on-rails experience that’s just not as unique and cool.
This might sound unimportant to some, but big layouts, big art, and the way panels and balloons are placed really do matter to comics. They are part of the art. They’re a big part of what makes comics different from movies and books, which is the visual interplay, the way time and action are represented visually. Comics are different from other reading in that a reader has to take an active role and decide where to look, unlike text-only books that lead a reader across the page on a leash.
These are some of the beautiful, important things that comics do, and they’re rarely replicable in other media.
Why is is that, in the move to digital, nobody has created a device that preserves those crucial pieces of the form?
Publish Some Books In Trade Only
Some audiences read in trade only. And some books probably attract more fans who read this way than others.
Comics, you done good in getting almost everything in trade. That was a big step in the right direction. Now I’m asking you to consider the next step, which is publishing some books ONLY in trade.
Why not have some books that come out in bigger chunks, or even better, as whole, complete pieces? I’m a lot more likely to pick up some books if I know I can read the entire story right there, beginning to end, and some writers and stories have a style that lend themselves better to chunked reading rather than monthly, bite-sized bits.
It’s not just a new way of selling, it’s a new mode of telling stories.
Put It To Consumers
I’ll say it for you because I think you’re afraid to say it.
We can write a billion think pieces about comics, we can make a billion comments online, we can have Twitter wars until we’re as blue in the face as that Twitter bird is in his whole body, but if we don’t go out and buy the comics we love, in single issues, the titles we love will be canceled.
That seems to be the model. If sales drop below a certain level, a title just isn’t sustainable. My question to you: Why not put that out to the people? If it’s new book day, and if I know that a title I’ve been considering is on the chopping block, maybe I pick it up. Maybe I think a book is not my cup of tea, but I think it’s something that should exist, and I’ll fork over a few bucks. Maybe I feel a book is like the early episodes of a sitcom and hasn’t found its feet, but it’s getting there.
With the current model, consumers don't know a book is on its way out until it's too late. It would be nice to have the chance to save a title.
The Goodyear Blimp had its run, and now I think it’s time for the Marvel Zeppelin to start kicking some ass.
The Wienermobile is still going strong, the Batmobile is a draw at any con. Where’s the Marvel novelty car? The Silver (Mercury) Sable? The Galactabus? Hell, you’ve already got the Kra-Van, and you turned your noses up at it.
Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vol 2 #6
I know. It's nearly impossible. But if you’re spreading the seeds today, hoping to make new readers into lifelong fans, the habit's gotta be cheaper. It just plain has to. $4 or $5 bucks is a lot to fork over for about five minutes of entertainment. It’s like a buck per minute. That would make a movie ticket like $150 bucks, which isn’t worth it unless they revive the Beetlejuice sequel, Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian. For that I'd pay $150 plus an additional quarter for each piece of popcorn consumed. Which, for me, is a debt I'd be working off the rest of my able-bodied life.
That's all I've got. I peaked too early on cookie energy and blew everything I had. Now it's your turn.
A) What can comics do to get you buying?
B) Which promotional vehicles should Marvel invest in? Silver Surfboards? V(enom)espas? A Power-Man-branded motorcycle with an Iron Fist sidecar? This idea's got legs. Er, wheels.
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