In his weekly column, “One Fan’s Opinion,” yesterday, Erik Larsen discussed the idea (which Stan Lee has brought up) that, in the broad sense, readers are the “real editors,” in that they decide, by what they buy, what books are produced. It’s an interesting article, with a whole lot of truth (especially the part about the fickle nature of readers), but I think there’s a certain aspect of the comic industry that Larsen left out of his piece, and that’s what I will call the Venom Discretion Test.
In his piece, Larsen discusses how essentially (at least for the Big Two, as he rightfully points out that creator-owned titles such as his own Savage Dragon are much less likely to be swayed by fan sentiment), the readers make their decisions with their wallets. If they want something gone, it’ll be gone by them not purchasing the title. Larsen points to the hordes of fans who complained about Chuck Austen, but yet they still bought Austen’s comics, so Austen was in no danger of being replaced.
Well, right there is the slight thing that I think Larsen is missing, which I call the Venom Discretion Test. I name it after the Venom “ongoing” series that Marvel had from 1993 until 1998, where Venom had an “ongoing” series of mini-series for five years. Why did Venom not just have an ongoing, since he was so popular with the fans? Bob Harras, Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, fought hard against it, because he did not want Marvel to give a villain like Venom his own series just because he was popular. However, the popularity of the character “forced” him to meet the fans in the proverbial middle and give them an “ongoing” series of Venom mini-series (by the by, Harras wasn’t even Editor-in-Chief when this series of mini-series thing began, so I suppose Tom DeFalco felt the same way, although I’ve never heard DeFalco’s thoughts on the subject).
Finally, though, in 1998, Venom’s popularity reached a point where, according to Tom Brevoort in Wizard #72, “Reader interest weakened enough for Editor in Chief Bob Harras to justify killing it. The return on the book had declined to the point where any immediate financial reward was overshadowed by Bob’s discomfort with the character starring in his own title.” On Spider-Fan, reader Joel Mathies complained about this in a piece for Spider-Fan, “Venom was always in the top 100 sales and usually sold better than other headline titles from Marvel and even some of the Spider-Man books.”
This is what I mean by the Venom Discretion Test. For all the talk about sales being the end point, it really isn’t always. Often, it’s more about GREAT sales can forestall problems, but that’s it.
Take, for instance, Larsen’s example of Chuck Austen. Larsen writes, “A short while back a number of readers (accompanied by a legion of trolls) jumped on the ‘I hate Chuck Austen’ bandwagon and badmouthed his work to beat the band. But as long as readers continued to purchase the books he produced, there was no reason for publishers to show Chuck the door.”
Yet, when DC sent Austen packing as writer of Action Comics, Action was selling about 50% BETTER than it was before he took over as writer! An average issue of Austen’s Action Comics (I took one where it’d be fair to everyone, a non-crossover, post-“NEW CREATIVE TEAM!” issue, as I didn’t want anything to artificially pump up the sales), #817, sold 45,178 copies. A typical issue of the previous run the year before? 31,959 copies. So it was INCREASING sales! What it WASN’T doing, however, was selling astonishing numbers. Later writers did not increase the sales much, as a typical issue of the following creative team’s Action Comics (I picked #833 as a typical issue, although some of the issues that tied into Infinite Crisis sold much higher, in the high 50,000s) sold 44,613 copies (all these sales numbers are according to ICv2, so feel free to disagree with their calculations).
In any event, while yes, staggering amount of sales will allow people to “get away” with stuff, just plain old GOOD sales (Austen’s Action Comics #817 was ranked 32nd, pre-Austen it was ranked in the high 50s!!) does not help you. In those instances, the fans are NOT the real editors, and the book is fully within the realm of what the company and its editors feel is “good.”
Note, the Venom Discretion Test sometimes goes the OTHER way, where editors will fight for LOW-selling titles, where they use their discretion to keep around a book that “the real editors” have said they do not want anymore, due to them not buying the book.