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Is Marvel’s Siege a bomb?

by  in Comic News Comment

Siege #1 was January’s bestselling comic. Written by Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Olivier Coipel, it’s the capstone to years’ worth of event-driven Marvel Universe storylines, and the launchpad for a linewide rebranding called “The Heroic Age.” Anecdotally, it’s generated a lot of happy chatter from readers, especially following its gut-wrenching (heh heh) second issue. It’s a major milestone in the Marvel metastory by two of the company’s most popular creators, and it’s literally a chart-topper.

So why, as Marvel Vice President-Executive Editor Tom Brevoort points out, are people saying it’s a flop?

According to ICv2’s sales estimates, Siege #1 sold 108,484 copies. That’s just a hair above the 106,444 copies purchased of the month’s No. 2 comic, DC’s Green Lantern #50, which is the eighth issue of a Blackest Night tie-in arc. Blackest Night proper’s sixth issue sold 135,695, well above the figures for the launch of Marvel’s much-hyped event.

A longer-range comparison makes for grim reading, too. Veteran number-cruncher Marc-Oliver Frisch of The Beat ran down some stats at his blog:

In April 2008, Secret Invasion #1 sold an estimated 250,263 units. In May 2008, Final Crisis #1 followed with 144,826. January 2009 saw Dark Avengers #1 (118,579), June Batman and Robin #1 (168,604) and July Captain America: Reborn #1 (193,142). Also in July, Blackest Night #1 came out with estimated sales of 177,105—and none of the five subsequent issues of Blackest Night released to date have fallen below 135,000 units.

Were one to go further back, the comparison gets ever more lopsided. Civil War #1 debuted with first-month sales of 260,804 in May 2006 and added tens of thousands more copies with reprints and reorders. Even World War Hulk #1, a comparatively “minor” event that doesn’t really factor into the Avengers Disassembled/New Avengers/House of M/Civil War/The Death of Captain America/The Initiative/Illuminati/Secret Invasion/Dark Reign/Dark Avengers/The List/Siege mega-story, sold 178,408 copies in its June 2007 launch.

So those are the numbers. But what do they mean? If you’re judging by the arguments of the comic-website commentariat — which isn’t always a great idea — they mean that DC has Marvel running scared. By this logic, yes, Reborn #1 beat Blackest Night #1 that first month in much the same way that Secret Invasion #2 beat Final Crisis #1 back in the day. But since then, Blackest Night has over-performed to the point where a tie-in title as deep into its story arc as Green Lantern #50 can give Marvel’s biggest launch in over a year a serious run for its money. Moreover, that plastic-power-ring promotion may be a lousy way to gauge reader interest in, say, R.E.B.E.L.S., but it certainly speaks to the popularity of the rainbow of Lanterns that drives Blackest Night. Meanwhile, the long-simmering rivalry between Marvel and DC has recently heated up again, at least on Marvel’s side, spearheaded by the House of Ideas’ controversial offer to swap unsold “ring books” for a Siege variant and by the outspoken commentary of Brevoort. Put the former together with the latter, and you’ve primed the pump for at least some of the audience, particularly the ones annoyed with Marvel to begin with, to believe that Marvel’s actions stem from insecurity — and to point to the sales of Siege as Exhibit A. Factor in the fannish goodwill toward newly minted DC honchos Jim Lee and Geoff Johns and you’ve got the recipe for a bona fide backlash.

And that’s even before you come to the more subjective question of Siege‘s content. Robot 6 guest contributor Tim O’Neil made a case against it based on Siege‘s comparatively slow pacing and relatively indirect lead-in from the “Dark Reign” books, while Frisch compared “Dark Reign” to DC’s similarly ambitious “One Year Later” line-wide branding, in that it debuted to high sales and reader acclaim only to lead to a sales die-off that arguably, outside of titles by Johns and Grant Morrison, persists for the company to this day.

However, there’s more to the story than just a tale of two event comics. For starters, stories of Marvel’s demise have been greatly exaggerated: Marvel continues to enjoy a commanding lead over DC in terms of market share for both units and dollars, regardless of who falls where on the top of the charts.

But more pressingly, in January, Siege and Green Lantern were the only titles to break the 100K barrier. Books with sales levels that would have qualified them to be healthy midlist workhorses a couple years ago are now Top 10 titles. The threshold for a “hit” has dropped dramatically across the board.

Is this “event fatigue” in action, as Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada has long warned? Is it a sign that the Great Recession has finally caught up to the buying habits of comics readers? Is it a long-overdue course correction for a direct market artificially buoyed by Watchmen and the Obama issue of The Amazing Spider-Man the previous year? Is it just the age-old fact of life that sales in January stink? Hell, this is purest spitballing, but could expensive Avatar tickets have taken a chunk out of readers’ genre-entertainment allowance? Is it, as Frisch and O’Neil argue, a problem unique to Siege‘s specific strengths and weaknesses? Is it a sign that readers are really just waiting around for “The Heroic Age” and the slew of (re)launches — Avengers, Secret Avengers, The Age of Heroes — that it will bring, as critic David Uzumeri suggests?

Frankly, I have no idea. That’s way too many variables on way too many fronts, from economic to editorial to creative, for me to feel comfortable even speculating. I do think it’s a bad sign when the Direct Market, a system all but custom-built in every conceivable way to sell big superhero comics, is evidently having this much trouble doing so, but damned if I know what the culprit is.

Regardless, as to the notion that Siege #1 is a failure, its editor Tom Brevoort is unsurprisingly having none of it. In a pair of tweets that inspired me to take up the topic in the first place, Brevoort wrote:

Also amazed at how fans irritated at me have decided Siege [is] a bomb. As the best-selling title last month, I’ll happily take more bombs. But if I couldn’t take their shots, I’d have curled up into a little ball during Civil War.

With “The Heroic Age” set to square off against Brightest Day in a few months, I’m sure the shots will continue to be fired at both sides …