Pipeline2, Issue #71: Comics Companies


A couple of weeks ago, I railed pretty harshly on the retailers in this industry. The basic gist of it is that they don't know how to order comics. The problem goes much deeper than that, of course. There are issues with how their stores are run, how they stock merchandise, how they try to appeal to non-comics readers, etc.

But let's look at some other problems we've got, starting with the comics companies.

I don't want to dwell in the past. What's done is done. The whole distribution war with Marvel buying out Hero's World and all the rest is irreversible. Marvel's attempt to swamp the market to force out smaller titles has been dead in the water for at least 5 years now, probably longer. Let's look at what we have now.

We have companies -- mainly Marvel and DC, since they're the undisputed biggest -- sending mixed messages at a disturbing rate. Marvel wants as many readers as they can get for ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, but they limit its availability, because they feel collectability will fuel new readers into the market. While I can sort of understand Bill Jemas' point in all of this, it just works out to be contradictory. When you try to serve two masters, you end up giving both the short shrift.

While the saturation of the market boondoggle of the early 90s is over, it's still practiced in smaller ways, perhaps just as a "healthy side effect." How many Batman books does DC publish? I can think of at least 6, and if you throw in the ancillary titles, such as NIGHTWING, BATGIRL, BIRDS OF PREY, ROBIN, and AZRAEL (is that still published?) you can very easily make it up into double digits. I'm not counting the annuals, the mini-series, the one-shots, and the crossovers here. Hell, it's gotten so bad that there's even a HARLEY QUINN title on the market right now. How long can this all last before it comes down upon itself? How long can they milk it?

There are also four monthly Superman titles published alongside a raft of spin-offs, specials, mini-series, Elseworlds, cross-overs, and more.

I think the worst offender DC has, though, is JLA. It's not the sheer volume of books, though. But any character that has even a trace of familiarity with JLA has a book branded as "From the pages of JLA..." How many JLA one-shots and mini-series have we seen since Grant Morrison took over? Ever since the main book got really popular again, DC loaded up the mini-series, one-shots, and spin-offs. MARTIAN MANHUNTER only came about because they could link it to the JLA. And now we're getting a fifth week JLA special, hot on the heels of the Batman fifth week special.

Does the world need a JLA/WITCHBLADE?

It's amazing these characters haven't burnt themselves out yet. I do think, however, that the whole is not as great as the sum of its parts. They're weakening their readership and, maybe, the quality of the stories this way.

Marvel may be straightening itself out. At this point, though, it's all talk. It'll be another three months before we see the fruits of Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas' labors. The Spider-Man line reduction occurred last year, and that's a good thing. Now it's a question of re-energizing the base, to use some political parlance, and make the books equally good and differentiated. The X-MEN line reduction seems to be next, and it'll be interesting to see the direction that goes in. Paring the X-books down to a half-dozen a month will be interesting.

Yes, I'm the same guy who suggested not too long ago that the problem wasn't so much that there were too many X-books, but that there weren't enough. Please note that argument also included the caveat that the books had their own identity, filled some sort of niche, and didn't rely on each other. It would almost be like an entire comics universe unto itself. Just because all the lead characters were mutants, it wouldn't mean that you had to collect them all. You would just read the ones you like. Heck, in my Dream Mutant Universe, you'd have Mutant Romance titles and Mutant Adventure titles and Mutant Teenage Angst titles. They wouldn't all be Mutants Angsting Over Xavier's Dream titles.

The X-Universe is still prone to frequent crossovers, however, and plot lines from one book depending on stories from others. There's no self-containment. UNCANNY X-MEN and X-MEN might as well just be a single bi-weekly book. If there's no clear differentiation, you might as well cut it down to one book. Then the two separate groups of readers would be reading the same one book and those sales would go up. For those (the majority, I imagine) who were reading both titles, they now have an extra couple of bucks each month to try something different. Maybe they'll get hooked on the revamped Spider-Man books.

Marvel seems to be taking some steps in the right direction, but remember: This is all talk right now. JMS won't start writing THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN until April or so. Grant Morrison won't be taking over X-MEN until 2001 sometime, either. We still don't know who the other new X-writer is, and there's no specific list on which X-titles will bite the dust. The increased trade paperback list won't be seen or felt until next summer. It takes time to ramp these things up. In Marvel time, 3 months is an eternity. The company can go bankrupt twice, have three different owners, and prepare for its own demise in that short span of time.

The comics companies are even guiltier of shortsightedness when it comes to trade paperback collections. This goes for DC as much as Marvel, although more so for Marvel. Here's my beef there: Half the times, there won't be a trade paperback of a storyline unless the sales for those individual issues are high enough to "support" it. If you're of the opinion that you can save a few bucks by holding off and waiting until the collection, you may save more money than you expected because the collection won't come out. The books that automatically get collected, meanwhile, are the ones that were automatic sales on the monthly issues. How many collections of Batman and Superman runs do we have? Just because there was a summer-long crossover event in one of those titles, it doesn't mean we need a trade paperback of it tomorrow, especially if it blocks out the chance of another book with a slightly smaller but more rabid cult following from getting its collection. Those are the books that stand to gain the most from trade paperbacks.

Why do the companies - particularly DC - publish such needlessly expensive editions of books on a monthly basis? Take a book like JLA: THE SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER-HEROES. It was a two-parter printed with cardboard covers, square binding, glossy paper, no ads, the works. But each issue was also six bucks! If the "pamphlets" are to become loss leaders for the collections, why publish them so expensively? I'm not saying you should do it up on newsprint, but how about a solid white paper, some staples, and a regular glossy stock cover? People who just paid $12 for two issues aren't going to be very likely to pick them up again on lesser paper for $10. I can just about guarantee you now that the collection - which is designed to live on for infamy - will be printed on cheaper paper. It's what happened with the first PLANETARY trade paperback.

Then there are the readers.

They support all of this. They say they want one thing, but their wallets say something else. They loathe the crossovers, in theory, but the second those are cut out of the Batman books the sales drop. They say they want more coverage of independent comics on major industry web sites, but the second you put them up, they won't read them. (You should see how pitiful the numbers get, relatively speaking, on Pipeline when I'm talking about something off the beaten path. It doesn't bother me. I'll still write it.)

But, yeah, the readers are the ones who introduce the money into this system, so it's kinda tough to want to bite the hand that feeds the industry, isn't it? In theory, the industry should bend to the will of the readers, and not vice versa.

The guiltiest party of all is the distributors. Or, should I say, The Distributor.

But that's next week's rant, in Part Three of this Trilogy.


This column spawns off a column I wrote two weeks ago analyzing a glowing press release Image put out basking in the glow of reorders on POWERS and RED STAR. There are a couple of things I should mention and update from there.

First of all, the retailers paid for the overshipped books that they received. The deal is that if they sell them, they pay for them. If they don't sell them, they're fully returnable. The creator and his company assume the risk. In a system wherein the returnability rate is zero, barring a mis-solicitation or lateness, that's a pretty big gamble. Wouldn't it be better if that could be the norm? With more books on the shelves, there's a greater chance of a greater readership. Maybe the answer lies in some form of limited returnability. The risk then gets spread out just a little bit. (Ah, but I went into this a little more in a couple of columns last year. Go look at those. They're probably in need of an update, though.)

Second of all, something Bendis told me over on his message board right after the column hit. (Unfortunately, the message seems to have long spooled off the server.) Basically, it's that I was going to hear from angry retailers on that column, but not to worry. They're not the problem.

I have to agree with him on that. The retailers I heard from were most often those who had tried to promote the books I mentioned or do the best they could with their clientele. The real problem lies in the retailers who never knew about the books, or didn't order them because they didn't come out from Marvel or DC, or refused to order them when asked.

Let's face it - ordering comics months in advance is about as tricky a thing as hitting a fastball being pitched to you high and inside at 96 MPH. It's pure guesswork, half the time. But the more you observe the pitcher and the more pitches you make him swing, the more you can refine your reaction to a science. And that's what the best retailers do. They have their own scouting reports on their customer base, and can hopefully stay just slightly ahead of them. It ain't easy and I don't envy them their task.

There are those, however, who are highly self-destructive and do more harm to the industry as a whole than to just merely themselves. Those are the retailers I wrote about two weeks ago.


Part Three, wherein the distributor gets a brief rant and Augie (theoretically) dips into the mailbag on this issue. Register your thoughts now.

Election Day (U.S.A.) sees a new Pipeline Commentary and Review, in which I'll ponder the question, "Has this been the single greatest week for new comics in a long time?" The stack of comics I've got sitting next to my computer here doesn't contain a real stinker in the bunch, and a couple of them have been highly anticipated.

Have a good weekend and don't forget to vote on Tuesday if you're in America! (If you're in Chicago, please vote only once. And remember: The dead shouldn't vote at all. Illegal aliens shouldn't vote, either, but that's never stopped California.)

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