Yesterday, CBR News spoke with Marvel Comics publisher Dan Buckley about the company’s performance across 2011 and into 2012, including perception of the publisher’s accelerated shipping of top titles, cancelation of low-selling comics, competition and public discourse with chief rival DC Comics and plans for pricing and digital initiatives. The full interview with Buckley can be read here.
Today, our extensive two-part interview concludes as Buckley discusses Marvel’s incoming plans across its publishing division and its public appearances and events. It’s almost impossible to forget that Marvel still publishes more comics product per capita each month than any other operator in the North American comics market, and that level of volume and popularity means that even the company’s smallest adjustments and initiatives have a big impact on retailers coast-to-cost. Combine that with the level of attention brought to Marvel media properties like the incoming “The Avengers” film and its growing cable TV division, and the way in which the organization choses to connect with its audience also warrants a second look in advance of convention season.
Below, Buckley addresses how the incoming event series “Avengers Vs. X-Men” will lead the way for Marvel’s broader content plans in 2012, what the immediate and long term future holds for launching new series both limited and ongoing for a wide range of characters, how the Disney family of properties will continue to play a role in Marvel’s publishing, what that relationship with their corporate parent means for Marvel’s plans come convention season, an extension of their digital strategies and much more.
CBR News: Let’s talk about one of Marvel’s stock-in-trade publishing platforms: the crossover event. 2011 saw stories like “Fear Itself” and “Spider-Island” perform strongly issue over issue, though many people noted that additional product like tie-in books seem to be a harder sell right now. What about this tentpole-to-tentpole event strategy continues to work for Marvel? How does the incoming “Avengers Vs. X-Men” event differ from past efforts?
Dan Buckley: First, I want to clarify that we do not do “crossover” events. This is [an] important distinction. I was here in the ’90s when “crossover” events were the norm, which is when you make a reader buy four or more different titles in a specific order to get the whole story. “Galactic Storm” is the example that jumps out from my memory banks.
We do line-wide editorial events. These events usually involve a core book like “Civil War,” “Secret Invasion,” “Siege,” etc. that could be read on their own for the complete story. Other books in the line will then use that event to develop “tie-in” stories which could be “in line,” a new miniseries or one-shot. Sorry to go off on a tangent but this is a very important distinction because we are not requiring the fans to buy into three or four other ongoing series to get the main story.
Now with “AvX,” we made a conscious decision to have just one new tie-in created for the series — our recently announced “VS” book — and then tie in with the ongoing books that have strong editorial ties with the characters in the event itself. It should be noted that this approach is consistent with the strategies discussed earlier. Fans love reading big stories with our biggest characters — and each year we’ve found these “event” books are our top sellers. These books work because these are what we consistently see fans want to read and what gets them most excited. We balance this out with exciting new launches independent of these events and feel like we have a great a balance in our line.
How “AvX” differs is pretty obvious. From a creative side it is very different with the involvement of five writers at the top of their game and three A+ artists. From a merchandising perspective, we are accelerating this shipping of the 12 issues to get the story out more quickly, and the tie-ins are much more limited in scope. Where “AvX” is similar is just as important. It is a standalone event that is constructed in a manner that it will welcome a new reader and reward our loyal fans. Most importantly this event is editorially driven. It is a story that our characters and creators led us to organically.
“AvX” is something we believe in both as a great story and a way to bring in new readers, so you’re going to see a very aggressive marketing campaign to lapsed readers and the mainstream audience supported by a significant investment. Expect to hear more details on this soon — but it’s the biggest marketing campaign in Marvel Comics history and something [that] will, without a doubt, bring new readers to stores.
As you’ve said, launching new series that don’t have major names in their titles such as X-Men or Avengers seems to be difficult at best in today’s market. Additionally, miniseries — with some rare exceptions — not tied to events seem to be an increasingly hard sell to long-time readers. The reaction they’re often met with is, “If it’s a mini-series, it must mean it doesn’t matter so why should I pick it up?” Could you address the challenges of launching new product in today’s market — are the days of titles with “B-List” characters and miniseries behind us?
It’s all about finding the perfect combination of the right character and right creators. I’d point to “Daredevil,” “Punisher,” “Defenders,” “Incredible Hulk” and “Venom” as very strong launches — from both creative and sales standpoint — in 2011. In 2012 we’re starting strong with new books like “Scarlet Spider” and “Winter Soldier,” and I think everyone would agree that those two titles also have a strong combination of character and creator.
That being said, this is the toughest time in the past decade to launch new titles. Fans and retailers are setting a deservedly high standard on what they are willing to sample with a more limited budget. Will we launch new titles in 2012, yes, but we will not be launching as many new stand-alone series and the ones we do commit to will have experienced a great deal of scrutiny before it is solicited in “Marvel Previews.”
Another huge aspect of comics publishing over the past decade is the book trade and collected editions. While there are tons of Marvel graphic novels on the stands and continually coming out, one of the criticisms brought up often is one of backlist and whether Marvel has enough of their marquee collections readily in print at all times. Do you think that assessment is fair? What are some of the titles you identify as Marvel’s perennials, and what’s your strategy as publisher to keep them out there for readers new and old?
The limited backlist rap is one that has dogged us for years. To be very honest this rap was deserved when I first go here because Marvel did not show any real commitment to the GN business until 2001. This commitment changed with the success of “Ultimate Spider-Man” and the “Spider-Man” movies. Bill Jemas should get a great deal of credit for getting this business off the ground for Marvel. He worked very closely with editorial to ensure that we constructed stories that could easily be repurposed for trades.
From then on out we have been committed to this business. Did we manage the backlist perfectly from day one? No. Have we improved consistently since then? Yes. [SVP of Sales] David Gabriel and his team learn more each and every year, and have done a great job in improving our performance each and every year. Do we get caught short every now then? Yes, but who doesn’t? But I find that the backlist complaint is now more about legacy then reality.
As for our perennials, they are always available. This list would include “MARVELS,” “Wolverine Origin,” “Wolverine Old Man Logan,” “Ultimate Spider-Man” Vol. 1, “Secret Wars,” “Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt,” “Dark Phoenix Saga,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Weapon X,” “Runaways,” “Astonishing X-Men,” “Marvel Zombies,” “Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle,” and all are available in one format or another.
One chant we hear from numerous industry insiders and pundits is “print is dead.” Do you share this opinion? Are comic publishers — not just Marvel and DC, but the entire industry — and direct market retailers capitalizing on mainstream interest and marketing opportunities enough? Is there still opportunity for growth in print, or is it truly dead? Can it increase in 2012?
No, the print comics and graphic novel business is not dead. And quite frankly I am tired of our industry “pundits” stating that it is dead. Is our industry as a whole challenged by technological innovation? Yes, but that is true for every content producer in every industry. I strongly believe our print business can continue to grow, but in order to do that we will need to embrace all the new technologies and its marketing and distribution platforms.
First, we need to think through how we can take this newfound reach and drive them into our Hobby Shops. The coupon program we are presently testing is one tactic that is addressing this challenge. Second, how do we leverage the digital world to provide greater value to our print product. Free digital versions with the purchase of the print version is just one of many different executions that can do that will provide additional value to our print products.
These are just two examples of how we can use the digital world to grow the print business. All I can say is that you will see more value added and traffic generating “digital” programs that will specifically support print and the hobby shops in the near future.
Can the business grow in 2012? Yes, it will as long as we as the industry believes it can and aggressively pushes to do so. Like I said to the AP and I’ll say it again here — instead of spending so much time talking about how print is dead and who won market share, let’s all spend more time supporting and celebrating the medium. To that end I challenge every stake holder in this industry to do two things:
1. Let’s buy those books you think are good instead of stealing them online.
2. Spread the word about books you like, not just the ones you hate.
Those two simple efforts alone would ensure year over year growth.
Let’s finish up the publishing side of things looking at Disney comics. Since BOOM! lost the license to publish Disney books, we’ve seen some moves by Marvel to publish Disney comics, but not as many as most expected. Disney is still publishing new comics in italy and there are certainly many opportunities with Disney properties worth exploring. Can you say what plans there may be for kids’/Disney comics publishing through Marvel?
We’re going to publish a lot of great material featuring Disney characters — we recently announced a Toy Story miniseries, and you can expect more material like that year round. Being part of the Disney family offers Marvel some huge opportunities, from tying into major movies like “John Carter” and publishing new stories of Disney*Pixar favorites. We’d be crazy not to take advantage of that, but we’ll do so in a way that’s both manageable for retailers and financially sensible for Marvel.
Marvel announced their convention appearances the other day and the list includes four shows — WonderCon, C2E2, Comic-Con International and New York Comic Con. While that’s where Marvel will be in an official capacity with a booth, does Marvel still plan to send editors/representatives to other shows like you’ve done in the past, such as Emerald City Comic Con and Fan Expo Canada?
We’ve revealed some of the shows we’re attending, but there’s no full list out yet — we’ll be at quite a number of conventions worldwide throughout the year. Our first big stop will be SXSW in a few weeks and then days later we’ll be at WonderCon. We love going to shows and interacting with fans — all our creators, editors and staff will tell you that interaction is one of the best parts of being at Marvel.
Disney operates their own convention, D23, in Anaheim which is where Marvel Studios seems to have a big presence, but last year Marvel Publishing’s presence was limited to a presentation on the history of Marvel by COO Joe Quesada. Will Marvel Publishing be a bigger part of D23 in the future and if not, why?
Joe had a great time at D23 and Marvel made a huge impact at the show. It’s a bit early to start talking about the next D23, as that’s in 2013, and I don’t want to reveal too much about our plans just yet. Ask me again next year and I’ll try to be less evasive. Or maybe not. We’ll find out. [Laughs]
Let’s wrap by rolling all these issues into one big ball, or rather, one big franchise: the Avengers. With the movie hitting this summer, everyone is expecting a very big year from Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. We know that Brian Bendis and Mark Bagley’s “Avengers Assemble” title is going to be the focal point for drawing new readers into comic shops — to say nothing of “AvX” — but are there other kinds of moves you are making in publishing to help that franchise pop in 2012?
First and foremost, we’re releasing “Avengers Vs. X-Men” to allow new fans to join in on the biggest story we’ve ever told — and it’s completely accessible for new fans. If all someone knows is the bare basics of these characters from the films, they can jump in just fine. And you mentioned “Avengers Assemble,” which is a great new series from the biggest creative team of the modern era — Bendis and Bagley. It’s perfectly accessible for new readers and plays a large role in what’s coming next from Brian.
But we’re also making sure we have a lot of great Avengers collections out there so someone walking into a bookstore can easily jump right into the Marvel Universe. That’s not even touching on our “Avengers Alliance” game for Facebook or the new season of “Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” on DisneyXD beginning April 1. The Avengers will be everywhere and we’re making it very easy for everyone to feel like they can jump into an Avengers comic with all the knowledge they might need.
Finally, what do you expect to be the big trend in comics for 2012? A lot of hay has been made about an increase in ongoing series as a market anchor maybe at the expense of smaller projects or limited series, both at Marvel and across the industry. Has the soft economy led us to a place where 2012 will be the year of the big franchise? Or is there another cornerstone that comics can launch off of and into the public consciousness?
I think that it is safe to say that 2012 will be focused on the big franchises.
“Avengers Vs. X-Men” is certainly a big franchise pub event, and that event should get some mass market halo affects from Marvel’s “Avengers” franchise film. Yes, our creative teams need to deliver the goods, which we are confident they will, but interest for Avengers product will be at [an] all-time high this year.
Spider-Man, who is having his 50th anniversary this year, has some very strong content plans with “Ends of the Earth” and “Spider-Men” will also be experiencing renewed mass market interest with the “Amazing Spider-Man” movie releasing this July.
With that being said, I am not saying that we are only publishing Avengers, Spider-Man and X-Men next year, but we will certainly be using the heightened awareness of these lines to elevate the rest of the Marvel U. The other cornerstone to raise public consciousness will involve us leveraging technology in a r-evolutionary manner.
Stay tuned to CBR for more coverage of Marvel’s 2012 plans.