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Making Sense of Black Panther and The Crew’s Cancellation

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Making Sense of Black Panther and The Crew’s Cancellation

It was announced last month that Marvel has canceled Black Panther & The Crew, with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates revealing the series will end with Issue 6 due to poor sales. That news came as a shock to some, because the second issue of the Black Panther spinoff had been published only the previous week.

RELATED: Marvel’s Black Panther & The Crew Canceled After Two Issues

It’s unfortunate news, because those two issues, co-written by Yona Harvey and penciled by Jackson Guice, are genuinely good. It’s amazing just how much Coates has grown as a comic writer over the past year. Black Panther #1 was a solid comic, but it definitely left the impression this was the first time Coates, an acclaimed author and journalist, had written for this medium. The difference between the first issues of Black Panther and The Crew is night and day.

So why was The Crew canceled after a mere two issues had been released, and, more importantly, what does its loss mean?

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Is it really a surprise that The Crew didn’t last longer, when its parent title has been declining in sales with almost every issue? Black Panther #2 sold about 77,700 copies, while the most recent issue, #13, sold an estimated 30,500. That’s a roughly 60-percent drop in 12 months. (I’m not counting the first issue, as those always sell higher, but for what it’s worth Black Panther #1 was the eighth highest-selling single issue of 2016, moving about 287,000 copies). The Crew is also the second Black Panther spinoff helmed by Coates to be canceled this year; Black Panther: World of Wakanda was axed with its sixth issue.

World of Wakanda #3 arrived the same month The Crew was announced, and only sold about 25,000 copies, which is the lower end of mid-tier selling books. Marvel likely had the figures for Issue 4’s preorders, which ended up selling about 17,500 copies. So even going in, Marvel surely knew that another Black Panther spinoff might not bring the sales numbers the publisher wanted.

There’s no doubt Marvel was committed to what Coates, Harvey & Co. wanted to do with Black Panther. If it wasn’t, why would the publisher go through the effort of releases these titles in the first place? Credit where credit is due, Marvel took a chance on a book that showed no signs of topping the sales charts.

In his Tilting At Windmills column, longtime retailer Brian Hibbs attempted to make sense of Marvel’s current strategy of saturating the the direct market with spinoff books. “[New readers aren’t] looking for a LINE of comics,” he wrote, “they’re looking for a comic.” That pretty much hits the nail on the head. Why get sales from one Black Panther title when you can get it from two?

It’s a similar problem with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy line. In December 2016, Marvel launched ongoing titles Gamora, Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon alongside the already-established Guardians of the Galaxy. All three debuted to pretty solid sales, ranging from about 65,000 to 53,000 copies (Gamora sold the most, Star-Lord sold the least). With their second issues, however, sales of each series dropped by more than half (Gamora, 24,900; Rocket, 22,100; and Star-Lord, 20,200). That drop-off isn’t uncommon, as the speculator/collectors market usually bolsters the sales of the first issue, but sales of all three series continued to slide. Both Star-Lord and Rocket closed out their brief runs with their final issues selling 12,300 and 13,400 copies, respectively. Marvel hasjust launched the second Rocket Raccoon ongoing in six months, despite decreasing sales of the first, along with the Groot solo series I Am Groot.

In the same way that all the people reading the main Guardians of the Galaxy title aren’t necessarily going to buy Star-Lord or Gamora, the roughly 30,000 monthly readers of the core Black Panther title don’t necessarily translate into 30,000 who will also buy The Crew. What Guardians has on Black Panther, however, is that the previous six months were spent promoting the Guardians of the Galaxy movie sequel. Even when Guardians of the Galaxy is pushed to the forefront of popular culture, Marvel still struggles to consistently sell the related comics. It’s naïve to suggest everyone who sees Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will pick up a comic, but there has to be some overlap.

Marvel’s “danger zone” for an ongoing series seems to be between 20,000 to 15,000 copies, with any title selling any less than that destined for the chopping block. Black Panther & The Crew #1 sold roughly 35,600 units, making it the 57th highest-selling book of April. The final-order cutoff date for The Crew #3 wasn’t until May 22, slightly more than a week after its cancellation was announced, so the preorder sales for Issue 2 must have been extremely low, and those for Issue 3 even lower.

There’s also the economic factor that readers only have so much money to spend every month. Those invested in a comics line might not have the resources to buy every ongoing title under that banner. Coates has an built-in readership that crosses over from his nonfiction work into comics, and it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to suggest that some of that audience had never previously picked up a comic book. These are readers who have little or no idea how the direct market works, and definitely don’t understand the importance of preordering one comic, let alone two.

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So how is it a comic co-written by one of the biggest authors of the 2010s, a comic that spun out from one of the best-reviewed series of 2016, and co-stars one of the most recognizable X-Men (Storm) and the lead of a Netflix television drama (Luke Cage) barely sells?

The Crew was announced through Time, while World of Wakanda was unveiled via The New York Times. While neither of those publications would be considered a go-to sources for comics news, they certainly carry a higher profile. It makes sense to try and invest the people who read those publications and know Coates’ work, but don’t necessarily read comics.

World of Wakanda was a milestone for Marvel, as its writers, Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey, are the first black women to write for the publisher. How does something as important as that not translate into sales? Admittedly, a comic series that focuses on the Dora Milaje is a hard sell when compared to The Crew’s lineup, but having Gay and Harvey (the former a New York Times bestselling author) is a big deal and should’ve be treated as such.

The one thing The Crew had on World of Wakanda is recognizability. Even if you don’t read comics, you might recognize Luke Cage, and at the very least you probably know who Storm is. A non-comics fan has no idea who the Dora Milaje are, and I’d argue that readers unfamiliar with Black Panther comics would be unfamiliar with them as well.

Marvel is a business, and businesses need to make money. If you want a book to continue, you need to support it financially. However, that support doesn’t just come from the reader’s pocket; it needs to come from publishers as well. Marvel has sunk a chunk of change into marketing its Secret Empire event, which considering all the controversy and press it’s generated on its own, probably wasn’t entirely necessary. How you feel about Secret Empire notwithstanding, Marvel clearly wants it to sell.

The Crew isn’t the only example of Marvel’s support for a book falling short. During Kelly Sue DeConnick tenure on Captain Marvel, where she rebuilt the character from the ground up, Marvel didn’t provide any marketing support for the book. According to DeConnick, “[She] paid for postcards, Carol Corps membership cards and dogtags out of [her] own pocket.”

Marvel needs to demonstrate it’s invested in its product by actually supporting it. If you’re going to talk the talk, you also need to walk the walk. How are we supposed to support a creator and their books when the company publishing them won’t?

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Black Panther & The Crew isn’t the only book to lose out to Marvel’s quick plug-pulling tendencies. Mosaic, another series starring a black lead from black creators, suffered the same fate. Marvel put a considerable amount of effort into pushing it, offering to match preorders of the first issue by sending retailers free copies of the second. Marvel clearly wanted to make Mosaic work, offering a free prelude issue for the series and promoting it hard with a slew of teasers and a press call. That’s impressive, considering Mosaic had only previously shown up in a single issue of Uncanny Inhumans.

Between its first and third issues, sales of Mosiac dropped from about 44,400 copies to 31,700, which isn’t bad. The fourth issue was where sales took a sharp dive, dropping down to roughly 11,000 copies. It’s around thiat point that Marvel’s support for the book stopped. For all the time and money spent hyping Mosaic, it didn’t translate into the sales the publisher wanted. Its seventh, and penultimate, issue sold less than 6,000 copies.

Is it Marvel’s fault that Mosaic failed? Not entirely; launching an unknown character like Mosaic is a big ask for its customers. Not every series focusing on a new hero can be Ms. Marvel – and even that has the bonus of an established name. Marvel took a chance with Mosaic, but unfortunately that gamble didn’t lead to the sales the publisher wanted. The problem is that the moment Mosaic didn’t bring in those sales, Marvel gave up on the title.

At the end of the day, if a book isn’t selling, of course it’s going to be canceled. But it’s difficult to understand how a publisher can expect a book to sell when its business strategy seems to be to saturate the market with more and more comics, all while offering virtually no marketing and promotional support. The Crew and World of Wakanda both feature considerably more established characters than Mosaic, so why didn’t Marvel try a similar marketing strategy similar with them?

I don’t doubt Marvel has some level of faith in series like The Crew. If it didn’t, the title wouldn’t have been published in the first place. It’s just frustrating that the support of its own product can fall so short. The Crew is good comic that wasn’t afraid of tackling big issues and exploring the experiences of its character. The Crew was an opportunity to get inside them as black people,” Coates said of the series. It’s an important story for 2017, and it’s a shame that it has to end so early.

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