Oh, wait, I get it – once again, it’s all our fault

by  in Comic News Comment

Yes, I’m going to rant a bit. There’s nothing more fun than that!

So there I was, reading The Savage Critics, like one does, and I came across this post. In it, Mr. Brian Hibbs reviews The Shade #2, and he linked to The Beat, where there was a link to a James Robinson tweet in which Mr. Robinson said that The Shade might not make it 12 issues because sales are so lousy. As I am one of the people waiting for the trade, this has a tiny bit of an impact on me. (In the sense that it’s a minor annoyance in life, not unlike when you’re cleaning out your garage and the people from St. Vincent de Paul can’t pick up some of your stuff for a week and in the meantime, you can’t really do anything else with the garage because that stuff is blocking everything else but you know it will be gone in a few days so it doesn’t really matter and no I’m not dealing with anything like that right now, why do you ask? I mean, I could live a full and happy life without ever reading a page of The Shade, so this rant isn’t really about possibly not being able to read it. It’s sort of about that, but not really.) But it still makes me grumpy.

I’ve ranted about the idiotic business practices of comics companies before, and as I don’t know all the ins and outs of it, I’m probably talking out of my ass, but this still seems idiotic. DC decided to publish a mini-series about a villain who hasn’t appeared regularly in a series in a decade. They decided to publish this by a writer whose most recent work in comics has been vilified, and a lot of people in comics who weren’t reading comics in 1990s wonder why anyone would enjoy this guy’s work.. They decided to publish this as a 12-issue mini-series, which is fairly ambitious considering the first two points. They decided to publish this very soon after a highly-publicized “soft” reboot of their entire line in which the foundations of this mini-series (the JSA, for instance) were wiped away. They decided to publish this in single issues when they have recently published the series out of which it was generated in handy, giant-sized hardcover formats (according to Brian Hibbs, the smaller, softcover Starman trades are out of print, so there is that). And now they’re surprised when sales of the single issues might not be as strong as they thought? Really, DC? How tone deaf are the people running that company?

According to that article at The Beat, issue #1 of The Shade actually did fairly well, with pre-orders in the 30,000 range. That ain’t bad at all. Perhaps pre-orders for subsequent issues were terrible, but we don’t know those numbers yet. One wonders what prompted Robinson to make the tweet – he must have knowledge that we peons don’t, because I can’t believe DC thinks this book will sell even in the 30,000-copy range – I would think it would be below 20,000, frankly. That they’re considering axing it means they know something. Or maybe Robinson is getting bad information. Who knows.

I’m not buying single issues of The Shade, as you might know (because I haven’t reviewed them). I’ve been slowly moving away from single issues, especially those from Marvel and DC, because so much of their output these days gets collected in trade paperback form, even books that get the axe (Xombi, for instance). As this has been advertised as a 12-issue mini-series, I figured there was less chance of it getting cancelled, because it had an ending built in. I’ve been doing this with the mini-series from the Big Two for a while, and all these cancellations and reboots (the big DC one, of course, but the Marvel one with the X-books) have given me a good place to stop the ongoing titles, too. I’ve reached the point where I’m tired of advertisements, the price of comics (trades are basically the same price – maybe a dollar less, even, or maybe a dollar more), and the storage concerns. I’d rather have a trade on a bookshelf than a bunch of single issues in a long box. None of these are surprising reasons to anyone – they’re pretty much the reasons anyone gives for switching to trades. But there are others, even. One is that the comic book companies themselves have made it easier – as noted, they release almost everything in trade, especially the new stuff. Even the old stuff is coming out of the archives, and often it’s in a very nice format (the Absolute Editions, the Omnibus Editions, even hardcovers). Scouring back issues boxes might get you the story for less money, but again, there’s the idea of having everything between one sturdy cover, which is an attractive notion. Plus, I would argue that the way companies have changed the storytelling in comics has led to it being easier to get trades. I’ll explain:

Back in the day, editors and writers tried to make sure continuity worked. I’m not talking about making sure that if two characters had met in some obscure comic fifteen years earlier, they’d still know each other if they turned up in another comic. I’m talking about making sure that the characters’ actions in one book had an impact in other books. In Secret Wars, for instance, Marvel tried to work around the fact that many of their characters were off-world for 12 months (not really, but there were 12 issues in the series). Chris Claremont began dropping Wolverine out of Uncanny X-Men when he got his own title and when he returned, he made some references to hanging out in Madripoor. Batman and Detective might have been separate titles, but if a new character was introduced in one, they might show up in the other or at least be mentioned. Over the years, that kind of continuity has fallen completely out of fashion. Now, Wolverine shows up in 32 separate books a month and never mentions the fact that he’s showing up in 32 different ones. Not once in the X-Men books does he say “Yeah, look, I have to go hang out with the Avengers for a bit.” He never mentions anything to the Avengers about having just come back from fighting Deathloks from the future (well, he might, because I don’t read any Avengers books, but I doubt he does). There might as well be 32 different characters named “Wolverine” with no resemblance to each other except that they’re bad-asses with a weakness for redheads. On the one hand, this is perfectly fine. Writers can just tell stories and not worry about where Wolverine is supposed to be. I just read the first trade of Uncanny X-Force and didn’t care what the characters might be doing in other books – it was just a good story about a group of characters trying to shoot a young boy in the head. On the other hand, this free-for-all has meant that the immediacy of comics is lessened. The idea that you must go to the comic book store every week to find out what happens next with your favorite characters simply doesn’t exist anymore. Comics from the Big Two used to feel like one giant organism, with the characters all moving forward at roughly the same speed, and events occurring that had ripples in other comics (that’s a messy metaphor, but you get the idea). This is more a Marvel phenomenon than a DC one, of course, but even DC had that feeling. That feeling no longer exists. DC, it appears, is trying to bring that feeling back, as their new 52 seems to be far more structured than anything we’ve seen in years from the Big Two, but I’m not sure if it will work. We’ll see, won’t we?

What this does is make it far more easier to wait for trades. I can wait 18 months or so to read “The Apocalypse Solution” in Uncanny X-Force because nothing these characters did during that book had any impact on any other ongoing books I was reading at the time. It’s a completely self-contained story. If any of the consequences of it are going to be explored, they’re not going to be explored anywhere but in Uncanny X-Force. Did anything that happened in that story have any impact on Deadpool’s ongoing(s)? It didn’t appear to have anything to do with Wolverine or Psylocke in Uncanny X-Men. So why would I rush out to buy the single issues? They were filled with ads, they were chapters in a story, and the trade even has the brief prologue about how the team got together, which isn’t terribly necessary but fills in a few blanks and appeared in a different title altogether. Why on earth would I buy the single issues?

The same thing applies to The Shade. Despite the effort of DC to tie it into the main rebooted universe, it seems like Robinson is simply writing a story about the main character and Opal City and it will have nothing to do with any other comic (I could be wrong about this, of course). It’s 12 issues, and a hardcover version will look nice alongside the Starman hardcovers I’ve been buying. Why on earth would I buy the single issues?

Well, because the series might never conclude, of course. This is where the new model of buying comics breaks down, because some things really don’t get collected (now that Flex Mentallo is – at last – getting a trade, maybe it’s time for a nice hardcover of Automatic Kafka?). In the post at The Savage Critics, Brian Hibbs points this out. He also makes the point that DC “has been cancelling at least a book collection a week for the last month or two, due to low orders, and it would again be my GUESS that the velocity on ‘old DCU’-driven backlist titles has cratered since the nuDCU launched.” This explains where the solicited trade of Knight and Squire went (I waited for the trade, but apparently the trade will never arrive, so I’m SOL, it seems). But it also seems that DC and Marvel have created this secondary market but haven’t explored it yet. Hibbs goes on to write (everything is [sic], by the way):

[A]s a retailer, it is overwhelmingly transparently shockingly true that virtual every book sells much much much MUCH better in serialization than in book format. There are exceptions, of course, and some of those exceptions are so awesomely slanted the other direction (your BONEs or WALKING DEADs) that that is the standard by which too many people assume that’s How Things Works.

Even books which I consider to be poor selling periodicals (say….BIRDS OF PREY), go on to be even WORSE SELLING perennials. While I have positioned Comix Experience as a BOOKstore specializing on comics, and we tried for a really long time to stock EVERY book available, I gave up on that one 4-5 years ago — we don’t even bother stocking a single copy of at least 25% of book releases (and it might be as much as half, I’m not really keeping records on what I DON’T sell), and at least a third (and maybe up to half) of the ones we DO stock never end up selling that one single copy (or do so long after release as to be an utter waste of working capital).

So, yeah, I go just a little nutsy when someone says something like “DC should man up” and just go straight to book, because a book on the scope of SHADE would have to be a $50 dollarish HC on release to have even a prayer of recouping creative costs, and that means it would be lucky to hit 5k sold in it’s first year on sale.

I’m certainly not saying that Hibbs is wrong, but what I wonder is how good DC and Marvel are at tracking the sales of their collected editions long-term. I’ve never been to Comix Experience, but despite what Hibbs writes up there, it’s a comic book store. I imagine most of his customers are long-term comic book fans who have been conditioned to get their single issues every week. Maybe a small percentage of them are figuring out that waiting for the trade is better, but I doubt if most of them are (Hibbs, if he gets wind of this post, can refute that if I’m wrong, of course). Do DC and Marvel do anything beyond retailers’ pre-orders to track sales of their books? This has been a bone of contention for years, I know, but I’m unsure if anyone has ever resolved it. Do DC and Marvel ask booksellers about their trade sales? I don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t make any difference and the sales would still be sickly compared to single issues, but again, I don’t know. I would be very curious, though.

We also get back to the idea of The Shade as single issues and the cancellation threshold. What should readers do about it? Over on The Beat, our pal stealthwise writes:

What I never understood is why people who honestly love a title, and I mean they truly love it and would gladly pay twice as much to own it just to keep the book alive, don’t buy multiple copies and encourage other die-hard fans of the books to do the same? Trying to get DLers to buy a book seems like pulling teeth, and getting new readers on board on what seems to be a sinking ship can seem like an impossible task. If you really, honestly dig what’s being produced each month, then get out there and pre-order multiple copies and give them away to people to help sell them on the title.

That’s one idea, but I’m not friends with anyone who reads comics. The one person I’m friends with who does read comics doesn’t live anywhere near me. Anyone I would get this comic for would want a nice, thick book to read, not a single issue. And, for me, buying one copy ought to be enough. It’s really not my fucking job to promote a title that DC is publishing. I think I do enough just writing for a popular blog about titles that might not be as popular as the top sellers. But it gets back to the price of comics and the way they’re sold. I spend a lot of money on comics, and I honestly can’t buy everything, even some books I might like. So some comics that might “deserve” a chance don’t get one. Sure, that sucks, but that’s the way it is. Can DC and Marvel do anything about that?

The analogy I’ve used before is with television, which isn’t a perfect one but is better than some other ones. I pay about $100 a month for cable service (and I don’t want to hear that I’m paying too much; this isn’t about trying to get me to switch my service). For that, I get hundreds of channels. I can pick and choose what I want to watch. If I want to zone out with some dumb detective show like The Mentalist (which I do), I can, without ignoring “good” television like Boardwalk Empire or Mad Men. My enjoyment of big, dumb television shows doesn’t mean I have to give up smarter stuff. If I had to, I would choose the smarter stuff over the big, dumb television shows, but because I pay a standard fee, I don’t have to make that choice. Television doesn’t really do any better at tracking ratings than comics companies do at tracking sales – the Neilsen system is woefully outdated – but they do seem to give shows that are telling bigger arcs a bit of rope – in the past few years, we’ve seen shows that are poorly-rated but tell a long story at least get one season to get their shit together. I mean, thanks to the fact that one person who works for Subway apparently loves it, Chuck has gotten five seasons even though it’s been on life support for the last four. What’s that all about?

Have DC and Marvel considered anything other than an à la carte way to distribute their comics? I’ve said this before, but if I could pay a lump sum to DC or Marvel monthly, I’d probably read a lot more of their comics. I’m sure I wouldn’t begin to know how it would work with retailers, but if I could pay $100-$150 a month to DC, I’d read every single one of their comics. You could still choose to do it à la carte, but this would be another option. People have mentioned releasing every single issue digitally (at a reduced price) and then, if enough people wanted it, doing a trade. A lot of DIY cartoonists have already done this, of course. I know the economic realities of the market probably preclude this, but it gets back to the fact that DC and Marvel are still doing business as if it’s a Golden Age of comics reading, when in fact it’s not. They aren’t all that aggressive about getting comics into the hands of people who might be interested in them, which brings me back to the title of this post.

DC and Marvel want to make us think it’s our fault if a book like The Shade goes under. As a lot of people have pointed out in the comments sections of those two posts, DC did the book absolutely no favors by releasing it when they did and how they did (not in the single issue format, but without linking it to the DCnU), so fuck them. If they don’t want to figure out how to make sure people know about this book and make sure that it will exist in a format that will last beyond the latest weekly fix, it’s their fucking fault. If they want to accept a pitch that they know will probably be a tough sell and then release it when everyone is focused on the new, shiny toys DC just dropped on them, that’s their fucking fault. If I want to support independent comics where the creators don’t get paid up front but rely on sales to keep them going and DC can’t realize that the single issues of The Shade are a fucking loss leader, then fuck them. The co-publishers of DC, Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, are apparently too busy writing and drawing comics to try to figure out ways to make sure that comics that might serve a niche audience get a chance to be read, and that’s not my fucking fault. So I’m sorry that The Shade might not make it to 12 issues. But you know what? It’s. Not. My. Fucking. Fault.

Okay, rant over. Thoughts?