Issue #74

[Chyna #1]Weird. Just found out I'm in the WIZARD Hot Ten, not that it's anything to do with me per se. Not for X-MAN, but for the CHYNA one-shot I did for Chaos Comics last summer. Chyna, for those who don't follow pro wrestling, is the WWF's statuesque Amazonian warrior woman, the only woman in wrestling who regularly wrestles male rather than female opponents. Some of you might've caught her recent nude spread in PLAYBOY. It's the third wrestling comic I'd done for Chaos, after MANKIND and STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN, both more popular characters in the wrestling world than Chyna is, with fair-to-middling response, so I was a bit startled when the Chyna comic generated a lot of e-mail along the lines of "I don't like wrestling, but I picked up CHYNA and really liked it." It's hard to say more than "huh" to something like that. The trick in the WWF comics Chaos does is to create a comics persona for the wrestler that connects with the in-ring persona but recasts the character in an action movie mold rather than focus on the wrestling. Mankind we played at the INCREDIBLE HULK TV show, which, unknown to me, turned out to be one of Mick Foley's (the real world Mankind) favorite shows as a kid. Stone Cold Steve Austin we set in a Walter Hill-style contemporary spaghetti western. My "brainstorm" with Chyna was to return to her "bodyguard" roots (in the WWF's storyline, she was originally introduced not as a wrestler but as Hunter Hearst Helmsley's bodyguard) and drop her into a truncated action flick. (There are limits to how much straight action can go into 22 pages.) I don't have any delusions that my name or story were the main attractions. Chyna is the draw. The comic inexplicably outsold all other wrestling comics. (Of course, it didn't hurt that, due to the PLAYBOY spread and WWF business, Chyna made a slew of public appearances and raved up the comic on almost all of them - or that the photo cover was a loud Pavlovian bell to the "big-breasts-and-biceps" crowd. Thanks, Joanie.)

For some reason, WIZARD sent me the Dec 2000 issue - first I've read in, oh, three years or so - and they say CHYNA's selling wildly. (Or was; I presume things have cooled some in the interim.) They also say Jill Thompson drew it, so who knows? (Jill was originally scheduled to draw it; the WWF decided after the fact they wanted a more photorealistic style. Our loss was SCARY GODMOTHER's gain.) The Hot 10 list is interesting for its lack of "mainstream" titles, with Marvel holding three spots and DC only one. (Unless you count Wildstorm as DC, but their entry is a back issue, Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch's STORMWATCH #11. Though DC's slot is a back issue too.) Top Cow in three slots including #1, Image with one, Chaos with one. Overall WIZARD doesn't seem to have changed much in ten years. Still their focus is on the three Ms: Marvel, money, media. I see the 80s are back; who knew? (Due to my own involvement in the 80s with those little comics inserts in MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE toys, I know there's a rabid MOTU underground, but is there really a market for THUNDERCATS? Was there ever?) Stan Lee wonders if a 77 year old writer still has something to offer the current market; who knew? The magazine's still pushing its own staff as comedy celebrities. And gosh! There's a price guide in here! Wow!

Well, it would hardly be WIZARD without an emphasis on speculation as the driving force of the comics business, would it? These days, that's just kind of quaint, like after Christmas dinner when your uncle starts telling war stories like WWII was the only real moment of the 20th century. It's a lot scarier when your nephew sits with glazed eyes and drool slivering over a frozen smile listening to your uncle and then starts talking about how cool killing people is.

Which is how Marvel's press releases have suddenly started to sound. A few months back the chatter was all about revitalizing the books and generating an entry line, the ULTIMATE titles, that would help draw an audience back to comics. A return to quality, after what can charitably be referred to as The Morass Years. Sounded pretty good, as far as it went; almost progressive for Marvel, which hasn't been noticeably progressive for a long, long time. Then, abruptly: "Over the past two months, Marvel`s management has discussed re-establishing collectability as a marketing tool to increase Marvel sales over time. Collectability can be built with a strong, unique editorial combined with limited access. Therefore, in the past three weeks we have continued to reduce the number of inventory copies of Marvel Comics available at Diamond. In order to guarantee that you have copies to meet your customer`s needs, you should place all order increases by the dates listed below." Marvel honcho Bill Jemas cited the discovery that ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, intended for 12 year olds, was instead being snapped up by 40 year olds as a rationale for this shift in direction. Does it suggest a shift in priorities as well? There's a certain logic to underfeeding demand to create greater demand if that's your intent, but it wasn't the avowed intent of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN. What's the point of putting out a comic aimed at pre-teens if they can't get copies? How does this feed the audience base? Does Marvel really think having a comic perceived as "cool" by 40 year olds will make it cool to 12 year olds? When you're a kid - especially bordering on an age when protest and identity become virtually synonymous - your dad liking something (unless you think your dad is really, really cool, and most dads don't fall into that category) is the kiss of death. Maybe when you're 30, you can grudgingly admit he was right, but when you're 14 it's the last thing you want to consider. American teens want something that smacks of their turf, not something they can share with Grandad. Have comics learned nothing from rock'n'roll? Half the original appeal of STAR TREK (and the reason it was cancelled in its third season) was that adults just didn't get it! Much as we'd like to pretend the comics audience is one big happy commune all dedicated to the same end, it's actually a bunch of little enclaves quietly warring for supremacy.

It's no secret Marvel's hungry for money. (Ain't we all?) You can follow the company's financial odyssey - we're talking Scylla and Charybdis here - weekly in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. It's no secret comics collectors have traditionally been the backbone of the direct market. Collectors were the backbone of Marvel's business from at least 1980 to 1994. As potential audiences go, it has a couple advantages over the 12 year old entry group: it already has the jones, and it already exists.

Or did. Despite WIZARD's interesting claim that there are still "a bajillion people still passionate about" comics, most comics shops in the '90s (and, millennium or no millennium, we're still in the 90s financially and culturally in comics) struggled, often failed, to stay afloat as the collector base - hence the audience base - disintegrated. Even those who still passionately collect comics have largely narrowed their focus. Got a telling e-mail on last week's column:

"Where comics used to be thought of as cheap, gaudy pamphlets for small children and imbeciles, they're now viewed as overpriced gaudy pamphlets for the obsessed, and there aren't many of the obsessed left who think comics are a good enough value for their money."

Speaking as a former collector, your statement above makes a great deal of sense to me. Since 1985, I bought approximately 120 titles every month… just about all of Marvel and DC's output with minor exceptions. I was a self-described comic addict… and I loved it.

Five months ago, I moved 80 miles to a new apartment. The comic books alone required their own bedroom ($800 versus $500 per month), their own moving truck ($150 plus gas and mileage), and three friends' entire day for help ($50 dinner treat). This started me thinking. Prices had crept up to the point where I had been blithely spending $325 a month for two years or so. When I realized three months ago that for about half the titles I ordered I was about six months behind (or more), and I hadn't even touched the previous two months' shipments, I looked at my checkbook and said this can't go on.

What really made the difference was reading an issue of Ben Dunn's NINJA HIGH SCHOOL. I had picked up the first four issues back in the mid-80s and found them highly entertaining; I saw he'd relaunched the title, so I looked at issue number five or six (doesn't matter which)…

… and I couldn't make any sense of it at all. I didn't know any of the characters, I couldn't understand what challenge they were supposed to be facing, I didn't know where they were supposed to be, I didn't know what their relationships were to each other, I didn't know what their powers were supposed to be, I didn't know what their purposes were; the story didn't even start at the beginning or end at the end. I had a snapshot of a cross-section of a segment, and by page three I was completely, hopelessly, utterly lost. And that made me realize: the only reason I'm even able to enjoy my comics is because I have been reading them for 15 years. And the only reason I was buying so many was because I was obsessed with "complete sets."

So that time when I sat down to make out my monthly order, I cut out all but the titles I was caught up on. This reduced the total to about 30 comics at $80ish. I was preparing to send in that as my new order when, on a whim, I decided to cut out all except those I was looking forward to-- not just interested enough to keep up with, but actually eagerly anticipating. This reduced the total to four. Hitman, Punisher, Transmetropolitan, and Lone Wolf & Cub. And that's it. Dazed, I took a deep breath and sent in that order (to the very reliable www.mmcomics.com, from whom I've been ordering since 1990).

I received a message back asking if the order had been a data error, or a joke.

It was incredibly creepy to look at all the consecutive numbers and think to myself "this is where it ends." It was almost a panic when I realized that new issues and new series are going to hit the stands and for the first time in fifteen years, I'm not going to have them. But I just had to remind myself of that NINJA HIGH SCHOOL issue, and think "millions of people don't even know this stuff exists, and they're all perfectly happy," and gradually that faded.

I don't feel any differently about comic books as I ever did, but now that I've started selling this stuff I fight the urge to tell my buyers "don't do it! Don't get yourselves addicted!" And I marvel that I lasted so long.

More to your point, though, even now after the excesses of the 90s market, the comics industry is still capable of destroying even the most obsessed customer.

I guess I'm not making much of any point, but maybe I'd interest you as a case study. I finally this month decided not to send in even my order of five comics.. I'll wait a few months and buy 'em for a buck from some sucker who paid cover price. It's been a life-altering decision for me. If nothing else, I've bought more Christmas presents this year than probably every other year combined (and I'm 28). I actually checked my total Xmas outlay last week and was a bit perturbed to see I'm pushing $800 for everything ($1000 including the plane ticket)… but then I realized that I would've already spent that much on the last three months' comic books! This is a much better use of my resources.

Isolated incident? Not to hear shop owners talk. In a collectors market, limiting print runs to encourage demand makes some (if rather cynical) sense. (I'm reminded of ads by wannabe companies c. 1993 with crappy art and ridiculously derivative spewing "we guarantee no more than 250,000 copies of this issue will ever be printed!" Yeah, I could pretty much guarantee that too.) In this market… well, I understand where Marvel's coming from, and I doubt anything I'd say could get them to rethink it. I knew a guy once who wanted to turn a comic into a read-along radio show or audiotape, with music and spoken dialogue and a narrator reading panel descriptions in order to get the action across, and signals for when to turn the page and how to read along; generally things reserved for learning books for three year olds. I pointed out psychological mechanics were against it, as either the reader reads faster than your cues and they end up thinking you're treating them as stupid, or your cues come far too quickly and they end up frustrated and feeling you're laughing at them because they can't keep up. He insisted there must be some way to force readers to read at the recordings pace. I must admit I knew he was an over-sensitive Republican and my subsequent crack about fascism would send him into the rage that followed.

And to some extent Marvel's new philosophy is sound: it is possible to nurture a collectors market. But it takes a lot of promotion (which Marvel did on ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN) which costs a lot of money; short-sheeting comics as a matter of course just results in comics without developed audiences. So does underprinting without lots of promotion, though, since Marvel's policy seems to be to print to order from now on, it may be nothing more than a way to pressure dealers into placing big orders on Marvel titles up front to avoid "missing out." Or it may be Marvel has surreptitiously adopted my "loss leader" model and intend to use the monthly titles as come-ons for the trade paperback collections, already announced on the Ultimate titles, which will allow readers to easily get the stories (if not the issues) they missed.

To acknowledge a collector market is one thing, but while it's rarely useful to bring terms like bad and good into a business discussion, any company that actively preys on the collector market is a bad company. Marvel's steady growth from '62-'85 may have been attributable to the collector market, but its period of greatest profit was attributable to the speculator market, and confusion of the two continues to be the business' greatest long term growth killer. (Anyone remember DC's '70s release of SHAZAM!, the "long-awaited" return of the original Captain Marvel with stories by CM co-creator CC Beck? The first issue sold a "gajillion" copies, with DC and half the comics market convinced the Renaissance had arrived and the audience wanted 40s innocence again, when the issues had been bought by hoarders waiting to cash in on the big craze that didn't exist. Within a year, SHAZAM! was gone, DC was awash in reader apathy and teetering toward financial collapse, and hordes of crying hoarders were desperately trying to unload their gajillion copies at any price when they couldn't even give them away. There but for fortune…) Real collectors markets are built slowly, piecemeal, and are predicated on material readers want to read. The collector market should be an ancillary consideration at best, a natural offshoot of publishing, not its raison d'etre. You don't get collectors by rigging supply and demand, which more often than not results in frustration and disillusionment; you get them by producing comics good enough that people actually want them, and you keep them good enough that people keep wanting them, and word of mouth gets around enough that other people start wanting them too.

Which is what Joe claimed he was setting out to do, and for Marvel's sake I hope that hasn't become the secondary consideration, because it's the only real future Marvel's got.

This is the last MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS for 2000. Is the millennium over already? I was going to take a holiday until 2001, but I just got around to figuring out New Year's Day falls on a Tuesday. Crap. Okay, quickie holiday starting now, and I'll see you next Wednesday same as always. All kinds of announcements coming up then, and I think I'd like to do an Ann Landers routine too, so if anyone has specific questions about the workings of the comics industry, whether creatively or businesswise, e-mail me and I'll see what I can tell you next week.

Question Of The Week: Your favorite writer or artist decides to leave your favorite company-owned title and work on a creator-owned title instead. But it's not in a genre you care you, or, perhaps, in no discernable genre at all. (Yes, "superhero" is a genre despite any contrary arguments.) What's your reaction, purchase-wise? Do you support the new work and encourage others to support it, or don't you? Why or why not?

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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