Making Sense Of Marvel's Ring Swap Promo

When Marvel Comics sent out a press release late last week outlining a promotion that would net comic shop owners a rare Deadpool variant to "Siege" #3 if they would send in 50 covers ripped off of select DC Comics titles, the act hit the web with a "shot heard 'round the world" intensity. Various corners of the comics blogosphere and message board communities came out laughing, cheering or grousing in response all the while pumping the story up with both serious and comedic turns.

But while the announcement drummed up a considerable amount of talk on whether the promotion was in good taste, it did very little to address what bare knuckles competition like this says about the direct market system of selling comics. No, Marvel's tongue-in-cheek move may not shatter the strength DC has built around their "Blackest Night" brand or even upset the established ordering patterns around either company's titles too much, but when CBR News spoke with retailers in the wake of the announcement, the responses revealed that what's at stake here may be less about what books are selling and more about what gets talked about.

"[Slamming or badmouthing the competition] is just bad business practice in my eyes, but here with what Marvel is doing is a lot different," explained Mike Malve, owner of prominent Phoenix, Arizona store Atomic Comics. "They are not saying anything negative about DC. They are only saying 'Retailers, if you got stuck from doing massive orders on some of the lower selling DC books to be part of the Blackest Night promotion and want to trade them in for a cool book that you can easily sale...here you go.'

"Marvel is also smart in branding the name 'Siege' with the biggest selling series of last year in 'Blackest Night' with this new promotion. That way retailers are going to compare the two series now with ordering and promoting themselves in their shops."

And really, that's what the overriding point of the entire stunt is. While proponents of the cover-swap promotion such as Marvel's Tom Brevoort were quick to note that the publisher didn't name DC or "Blackest Night" in their press release, singling out only "Blackest Night" tie-ins for trade sent a clear message. And that message was, "If you couldn't sell all the copies of DC's event comics, we think you'll do better with ours." (When reached by CBR for comment on the promotion, Marvel representatives said that the initial press release was all their sales and marketing team would have to say on the matter).

Whether that idea holds true seems to come on a shop-by-shop basis. "It just doesn't affect us much," admitted Gerry Gladston of Manhattan DM powerhouse Midtown Comics. "It is an odd proposal on the part of Marvel, and perhaps they're collecting data to gauge the effectiveness of the rings promotion. We don't have enough left over copies to trade in even if we wanted to, and I'm not sure we'd want to."

When CBR spoke to retailers about the ring promotion in November, the initial response to the incentivized giveaway was strong, leading to DC's much-publicized capturing of seven of the top ten sales slots through Diamond for that month. However, this being the direct market initial orders and interest don't always lead to long terms sales success, and many retailers will have more than enough "Blackest Night" stock to take Marvel up on their offer.

"We absolutely will send DC covers in for the Deadpool cover, yes," said Patrick Brower of Chicago's Challenger's Comics. Brower explained that for himself and his partner W Dal Bush's store, "More people did buy the Blackest Night tie-in issues than the previous issues of all those titles, but nowhere near the number of people we anticipated. Especially with the rings being so prevalent that we had so many left over to sell for $1 apiece, people who just wanted the rings were able to forego the comic. Sell through was pretty terrible. Granted we ordered a LOT of extra books figuring the rings were going to be sought after. Many stores in our area handled the Black Lantern rings poorly and that worked to our benefit, so we got a little cocky with the rest of the spectrum."

In fact, the hardest part about deciding whether or not to partake in Marvel's offer was figuring out whether or not the "Siege" variant could be sold at a price that would truly offset the cost of all those "Blackest Night" tie-ins. "Full retail price of those 50 issues from DC is going to be around $200, so reaping 'profit' from the Deadpool cover would mean charging a price over $100," Brower and Bush said. "At this point, though, we're not looking to make money; we just want to break even. To that end we'll be selling the Deadpool cover for $100 as well as giving the 50 rings away with it that we got for those 50 comics...we only need to find one or two [customers] to make this worthwhile, and I have no doubt we'll have more people interested than actual copies of the book."

Ultimately, the profitability of each companies releases and promotions will remain varied from store to store. However across the board, promotions playing up the rivalry between the two companies - and more importantly their respective event titles - help to stratify the sales charts in favor of the big ticket books whose latest installments use variants, giveaways and other gimmicks to draw support. "Events can be a great benefit financially for all involved, but they have to be done right and certainly need to done wisely," said Malve. "I think the publishers need to consider that, especially in this economy, crossing an event into several books may indeed see a boost in those issues that may have a 'Blackest Night' or a 'Siege' banner on the, but the cost is usually that buyers with limited budgets are dropping another title to make room for a cross-over purchase. That often means a title like 'Fantastic Four,' a great book, gets passed up for the latest Siege-related book, or 'Scalped' looses a reader to squeeze in the latest Blackest Night tie-in. So what's the gain? A temporary boost on an issue or two at the expense of another title's long term sales? Something to consider by all publishers."

It may come as no surprise that the week Marvel made their Deadpool-themed "Siege" tie-in announcement, the critically-lauded yet commercially-struggling "S.W.O.R.D." series was cancelled after five issues, nor should it be too shocking to learn that in the first month past DC's ring promotion, the publisher's market share is expected to return closer to its normal level despite the continued sales of "Blackest Night" tie-ins. Though in the long term, both companies are paying lip service to bolstering the sales of their monthly titles through various editorial and sales strategies. Whether those talking points will capture the imaginations of readers like the gimmick-driven event competition has remains to be seen.

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