THE ULTIMATE DISCUSSIONWell, Tuesday's diatribe against Marvel Comics for its marketing of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN brought some interesting responses to my mailbox. They were, as a whole, nicely thought out. They raised some interesting points. And I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at some of the counter-arguments to what I wrote there. My responses are interspersed.
Todd Allen wrote in with some marketing perspective, and reasons for Marvel to be doing what they're doing:
1. The direct sales market is a collector's market more than a consumer's market. By not reprinting Ultimate Spidey, he [Bill Jemas] has created a collectible.
Can't disagree with you there, Todd. The only issue is that up until now, Jemas has been talking about getting as many people as he can to read this book. How does not printing enough copies for everyone to read one helping that original goal? (Oh, wait, your answer is coming up. Nevermind.) Furthermore, wouldn't it be great to start warping the direct market towards a more open audience? I mean, wouldn't it be great if the direct market could cater to both collectors and readers? Wouldn't we all love to walk into a comic shop and see not only the regulars, but some fresh faces?
2. By creating a collectible with demand exceeding the need, he's created a buzz. Granted, the book is pretty good, but quality alone doesn't sell a comic… especially in a collector's market. How many more people will want to see what's causing all the commotion as the book shoots up in price? It's a way to raise the awareness level. You think WIZARD isn't going to have to devote some space to how hot the first issue is? That's free publicity. Anybody here old enough to remember the black and white boom of the 80s? As soon as the first issue of something got to be an expensive back issue, people started buying the current issues. Granted, all of this has limited value in a consumer market, but we're talking about fanboys and direct sale shops.
3. If you fan the "no reprint" flames for a couple months, and then quickly drop a double issue reprint of the first 2 issues, ala the Ennis PUNISHER or the NO MAN'S LAND 80-page el cheapo reprint one shot, you can still get people caught up and still benefit from the extra buzz.
True. You just have to hope you don't tick off the potential readership too badly. Fanboys are known to get indignant over the slightest misstep. Of course, they're also known to let their mouths speak louder than their wallets, completely invalidating their big yaps.
4. This might be a dry run for the newsstand. I don't understand what this business of the Ultimates hitting the newsstands 4 months later is…
Well, we may have an answer to that now, but it's still in the rumor stage. We'll see. I hope the rumor is true. This could be a good thing.
On the other hand, it doesn't necessarily invalidate anything I've already railed against - limiting readership in the direct market and blowing a (comparatively) large marketing and p.r. push.
Let's just hope they can repeat the effort come January.
5. Is more money made on single issues or on trade papers? I think I know where Vertigo makes their money, and that's thick volumes of SANDMAN and PREACHER at Borders. If you know you're printing TPBs, anyway, the monthly graft is less important…
This is the whole model about publishing the monthly pamphlets as loss leaders towards the trade paperback. I like the theory. I wonder if that's what CrossGen is doing sometimes. I read in an interview somewhere (I honestly forget where) that they were planning to do trade paperbacks every six months. With Alessi's deep pockets and ability to try different marketing models, this may be what he's pinning his long-term success on.
As I understand it, the trade paperbacks have a higher profit margin but a smaller volume of sales, whereas the pamphlets have higher individual sales upfront and lesser profit margin.
Of course, the trade paperbacks can sit on the shelf a lot longer than a 32-page comic can.
6. The movie tie-ins. Why isn't this book launched to coincide with the Spidey movie? Duh, because it makes more sense to have a handful of TPBs of an accessible Spidey on the shelf at the bookstore for a $20 purchase, than to trust consumers to sift through the newsstand find the one issue of the comic that's on sale this month for $3 and hope they like it enough to try and find an issue next month. (It should be taken for granted that Joe Public isn't necessarily going to know how to find a comic shop or want to go to the effort to make a special trip because he liked the film.)
Wait! You mean there's a possibility that Marvel isn't thinking solely about the short-term cash-in? They might be building something up for the long term?!? Let's hope so. Past history seems to warn against this, though.
Don't take my comments as attempts to completely debunk your arguments, Todd. I think they're perfectly valid. I don't know which side is right in this case. I have my gut feelings, but that's not scientific by any means. Thanks for writing!
Brendan McKillip writes:
The Ultimates are designed to bring in new comic book readers. Marvel never said anything about bringing readers into comic book shops. As far as the Ultimates are concerned (and I'm sure this argument could be extended by some), Marvel couldn't care less about the comic book zombies making their weekly trek to the little hole-in-the-wall shop tucked between the Grey Hound bus station and Uncle Charlie's Tattoos and Oriental Fish Fry. Marvel wants the money-loaded suburbanite boys (maybe girls) who are at the magazine rack picking up Video Game Insider and whatever WWF crap Vince McMahon is crankin' out. Let the geeks fight over the direct market run, Marvel wants the pre-teens and their parents' cash in the mass market.
True, but I'll just throw out what I said in the column again - if your goal is outside the direct market, why is all your publicity and marketing push aimed at the direct market release? Who knows? Maybe there will be another big push into the major media in January for the newsstand release, in whatever form it may take.
The problem is that it costs scads of money to get your periodical on the newsstand and to be seen there. Marvel is just out of bankruptcy and has stockholders that might not be so willing to take short-term losses against long-term gains. It's really tricky. And if this all fails, they'll be in bankruptcy yet again. Things would get ugly.
…In order to jumpstart a lagging industry, it might mean thinking outside the box. The direct market ain't all its cracked up to be.
Geoff Gardner writes:
I think Marvel is just completely clueless. Above and beyond all that, my personal problem with the "Ultimate" line is, didn't we already have the "Ultimate Spider-man" when it was written by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko (or John Romita, take your pick)? Ditto for F.F., HULK, THOR and the X-MEN when written by Lee and drawn by Kirby? … I couldn't help thinking how Stan and Steve did the same story and more in 10 (?) pages or less, and much more memorably to me. If Marvel wants to draw in new readers, I think they would do much better to do something like DC did with their Millenium editions! Why is it that I feel like a lab rat whenever I buy a Marvel comic?!
See Todd Allen's message above for why you might feel like a lab rat! (I love it when it all comes together.)
I've heard the argument about the "Ultimate" moniker, also. I can understand why some people might take it to heart. Personally, I think it's just part of the marketing gimmick. Maybe I'm just cynical and too much a product of my time, but that doesn't bother me. It's all part of branding and in this day and age, and that means everything.
If you want to be fatalistic about it, let's talk about how "Ultimate" could mean "last" and how that would mean if this experiment fails, we'll never see another Spidey comic again. Kinda makes you wish they named it "Penultimate Spider-Man" now, doesn't it?
I wouldn't be opposed to Marvel Millenium editions, though. They could release them next year and show DC what math really is! ::duck grin run::
COMING DOWN AND BACKING UP THE PIPELINE The reviews promised for this column have been pushed back to next week, unfortunately, to make room for all of this 'Ultimate' discussion. That just means more reviews on Tuesday, I guess.
If you didn't stop by yesterday, click here to read PCR Extra #3, which included a preview of Oni Press' ALISON DARE, LITTLE MISS ADVENTURES, a review of the Xeric Grant-winning ARM'S LENGTH, and more on the Small Press Expo.
Finally, please note that the mailing address to reach Tom Beland at concerning "True Stories, Swear To God," was updated to his current address in that column, as well.