In the Dark (Knight)

Someone had posted a question on CBIA, the private retailer/industry message board, about just how many copies of a #1 to order. "Double regular Batman, triple, or more?" they asked.


I think DC is hoping that's how the average retailer is going to think -- in fact, they're going all-out on the sales programs -- there are 1:10 covers, 1:25, 1:50, 1:100, 1:500. Those all mean that you can order 1 copy of that variant for every X you buy of the regular edition of #1 -- you must order no less than five hundred copies to get a single copy of the 1:500. Four hundred and ninety-nine will not cut it, even if you're ordering forty-nine 1:10s, nineteen 1:25s, nine 1:50s, and four 1:100s -- that's five hundred and eighty copies total, but that still won't get you a 1:500 variant.

If you order five hundred, then you can order five hundred and eighty-five copies -- nearly a 15% increase, just from the variants, and you are, naturally, obligated to pay for those extra copies as well.

DC Reveals First "Dark Knight III: The Master Race" Cover

Also, there is a blank cover version you can order in any quantity that you want (assuming you order at least 100% of "Batman" #43), as well as a "have your store logo on the book (in black and white)" version that can be yours at a mere one thousand copies. And, if you're truly going "all-in," you can have Jim Lee draw you a custom sketched copy for just the low order of five thousand copies. Assuming that you then also order five hundred additional 1:10s, two hundred 1:25s, one hundred 1:50s, and fifty 1:100s, then that means you're ordering five thousand eight hundred and fifty copies of the book, for a retail cost of thirty-five thousand and forty one dollars and fifty cents. That would be something like $16,000 at cost to be allowed to order that Jim Lee sketch.

It's a little more than that because it isn't like you get that sketch for free after all of that outlay -- "NOTE: Retailers please inquire for pricing on this item. This is not a Free Item." This seems to imply that the sketch cover in and of itself will be charged more than your wholesale cost of a $5.99 comic book. Ouch, and you just gave them 16 grand!

At a guess, there can't be more than ten of these being ordered -- and I don't really know that I can name more than three or four organizations (Midtown, DCBS, possibly Graham Crackers and Hastings and, say, New England Comics maybe?) who might natively move that much weight of comics without thoroughly over-stretching themselves.

(For point of comparison, "Batman," which is the best-selling periodical ongoing monthly comic book month-after-month among all publishers, does about 120K a month in sales, and there are something like 3200 comic book stores we are told, so the "average" comic book store sells about thirty-eight copies. The jump from thirty-eight to five thousand is vasty and more).

It doesn't stop there. There are actually two distinct versions of the comic being sold -- first the regular edition, which is a standard format 32-page comic book with a 16-page "mini-comic" (5.5 x 6.5 inches, which makes it much more of an "ashcan" than a mini!) bound inside of it. They're going to have to be careful in manufacturing and shipping that this doesn't damage huge swathes of the print run as a result. They have announced the artist of the "mini" as "TBA" (to be announced) -- in what I am assuming to be a bid in order to get a second news cycle out of the first issue when they announce it just before FOC?

In addition to the standard package (which is $5.99 an issue), DC has also announced that just two weeks after each issue of the comic is released, they're going to ship a "Collector's Edition Hardcover" that is a (roughly) magazine format forty-page presentation of the same material from the comic format release. If we're assuming that they're not counting the cover in the page count, this implies that the thirty-two page comic actually has 24 pages of story content (because that's what forty minus sixteen equals) -- on the other hand, if the hardcover presentation has, say, four pages of endpaper and design, then you're looking at just twenty story pages from the main comic. Either way, this 40-page hardcover will be just over twice the price of the comic at $12.99 an issue.

I mean, we can say this is kind of super-genius levels of evil brilliance, getting your double-dip going during the serialization, and allowing a clear triple dip within a year of publication. That's some Lex Luthor-level scheming there! But it adds kind of an improbably more complex variable to the basic "how do we order this?" problem that retailers face each and every day.

See, because if the "TBA" mini-comics artist is someone good and/or commercial, then being asked to buy that comic in a clearly inferior format is really encouraging people to "trade wait" -- but we don't know if they'll do so for the thirteen-dollars-a-throw hardcovers (which I must note is a massive thirty-two cents a page, if that's forty pages of wall-to-wall content, and at least thirty-six cents a page if there are endpapers in the hardcover -- that's roughly 160% the price-per-page of the "industry standard" of twenty pages for $3.99, or not quite twenty cents a page.)

And the problem is that the success or failure of that more expensive format potentially rises or falls on who TBA is. And without that data, we can't solicit our customers on how they actually want to buy this book making the entire thing just a phenomenal and risky guess.

While DC clearly has their Sales goals set to "High" for this one, I have to question if this works for a very specific reason...

I am terribly afraid that this is a Nostalgia product.

No, seriously, this is a sequel to a comic that was last released fourteen years ago ("Dark Knight Strikes Again," also known as "DK2," was serialized as a three-issue series starting in December of 2001). That itself was a sequel to a four issue mini-series from 1986, fifteen years before that.

To say that "DK2" was poorly received critically would be a pretty massive understatement. So we're really looking at a project that is trading on the reputation of something that's twenty-nine years old now.

Understand: I have multiple employees that weren't even born when "Dark Knight Returns" was released. A huge portion of the current readership has never actually read "DKR" (though they may know some of the tropes), and way way less have read "DKSA" -- and while they may be exposed to some sort of bastardized version of chunks of the story in the upcoming "Batman v Superman" film, that does not necessarily directly translate to interest to a twice-removed sequel to the original.

So, to answer that retailer question of "how many multiples of 'Batman' should we order?," I very much think that the answer is "that's not the comparable."

No, the comparable is "how many copies of 'Before Watchmen: Rorshach' did you sell?" Not ordered, mind you, but sold. You could probably add a scoonch to that because it's Batman, and people really like the Batman -- but in my opinion this has as much native and natural relevance to today's marketplace as, say, Neal Adams' return to Batman did. And we all made a mint from "Batman: Odyssey," didn't we?

Didn't we?

No, OK, Frank Miller + Batman is probably a more potent combo than Neal Adams + Batman, but how much of that is from the actual purchasing public, and how much of that is from "well, I read 'DKR' in my formative comic reading years" magical thinking?

Now it turns out that that formula using "Before Watchmen" actually yields for me, almost exactly, 1:1 to current "Batman" sales at Comix Experience (though, that's post-break, post-Gordon-in-a-mechanical-suit "Batman" sales -- certainly not the kind of numbers that the "Endgame" storyline drew), and your mileage will certainly vary, but I think a range of somewhere of 0.8 to 1.2x "Batman" is probably about what the native non-nostalgia draw of this project really and truly is, despite the famous name association, for the first issue.

And if that's low? Well, that's what reorders are for. There's no real value for a retailer to have more than 30 days of stock on hand when you can reorder a book as it sells, and quickly manage your inventory without bearing the holding costs for it.

Especially when it is in multiple formats out of the gate with a great deal of uncertainty about which, if either, the consumer market will prefer.

In other news, retailer organization ComicsPRO has decided to create another sales event in the year to counterpoint Free Comic Book Day (what I like to call "the Happiest Day of the Year"!) (We'll call this "FCBD" from here out) -- the organization has announced (LCSD) modeled closely on Record Store Day" (RSD).

Essentially the premise of LCSD is that on "Small Business Saturday" (something invented by American Express to try and get people to like them -- not actually a groundswell of support for small businesses) participating stores will be allowed to sell either 1) limited edition items with tight print runs that will possibly be allocated to participating stores (the general model of RSD), or 2) will have "early release" of a small number of items that would otherwise not be on sale until the following Wednesday.

And I, frankly, think this is one of the most misguided ideas I have ever heard.

Let's back up a few steps, though.

From the top, I have a great deal of concern that LCSD is going to be deeply confused with FCBD by the general public. Indeed, doing an internet search for "local comic shop day" gives me the FCBD site as the first hit... And when I searched for "local comic store day" (which I was misremembering the name as) seven of the ten hits on page one of search were for FCBD. LCSD didn't show up on page one of that search at all for me.

What's the difference between the two events? Well, on FCBD every single store with a Diamond account can order from a selection "free" comics -- these comics, of course, are not free to the retailer, usually costing somewhere between 15 and 35 cents a copy. Every store runs their event a little different, with most putting some sort of a limit on how many comics each customer can get, and some stores going as far to setting up tents and block parties and huge events.

Despite the fact that we're paying for and giving out for free many thousands of comics, for Comix Experience FCBD has consistently been the largest sales days of a typical year -- often many multiples of a strong Wednesday. This makes the several hundred dollar investment in "free" stock a great investment, especially because we're fairly certain that everyone who comes in that day is walking away with something free, and with a happy impression of our medium and hobby.

LCSD, on the other hand, is looking to be mostly about profit -- the idea is that every item brought in can be sold at full price and for a normal markup. As noted, it is modeled on the idea of RSD, which there is a long line of problems about.

LCSD, if the results are anything like RSD, also injects the notion of "collectability" into the event, which for RSD creates a litany of eBay "flippers" buying material just so they can sell it for a profit. This is what can happen when you stand up and say "This is a limited collectible" -- a certain percentage of people who are not interested in the item as its own thing will think, "I can profit from that." And when an item is limited, this then keeps it out of the hands (or at vastly inflated prices) of the people who are the fans. The very nature of "limited" almost certainly ensures that someone is going to walk away unhappy.

I really intensely dislike if people walk away from my store unhappy. That makes them less likely to come back another day. I especially dislike the idea of someone walking away unhappy who came with cash in hand ready to buy a specific thing. I don't think that's a thing that we should encourage or promote in our retail environments.

If you ask me, It's never good to split your customers into haves and have-nots. And that's as true for publishers serving retailers as it is for retailers serving consumers, which I think makes the second notion, that of participating stores releasing select merchandise on Saturday, four days before a normal Wednesday release, even a more problematic idea. The level playing field, where all comers have equal chance to sell goods, is one of the most essential components of a fair marketplace. I find it all the more staggering that a retail trade organization whose by-law-ed remit is to raise the fortunes of all comics retailers is behind the idea of a bifurcated release structure.

Then we get to what I think is one of the more troubling aspects of this -- there is a fee to be allowed to participate. $10 if you're a ComicsPRO member, and a staggering $50 if you're not. And here's my problem: that feels like a shakedown.

Follow this logic: you're in a competitive marketplace with a number of strong competitors, one of whom happens to be a ComicsPRO member. He's going to have access to desirable products before you do, but in order to access them you have to pay five times what he is for that privilege. If you don't acquiesce, he is at a competitive advantage, and you're reduced the ability for consumers to choose where they buy their goods from. Clearly, that's not moral, that's not equitable, and, frankly, I'm not entirely sure that is legal -- my understanding is that two members of a class of trade be offered equal access to all goods at equal terms, otherwise you're possibly in violation of the Sherman act.

I like FCBD because it is egalitarian and free to all to participate as much or as little as you like, and it is designed to by as inclusive as possible, while LCSD is built around being exclusive. I don't think it's good for the market to create haves and have nots, and I think it is even worse that it is a trade organization proposing such.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program..

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