Taking Stock of Marvel's Monthly Line

Throughout the month of November, Marvel Comics has cancelled, shuttled plans for or concluded ten of its ongoing and limited comic series. While changes to Marvel's -- or any publisher's -- line are not a new development, the amount and frequency of cancellations hitting the news in advance of this week's February solicitations have gained the attention of comics readers and industry watchers alike. Marvel's Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso has recently laid some of these moves at the feet of "new budgetary mandates," while noting the publisher's shifting strategy towards shipping more issues of its popular core titles in lean times.

All these changes working their way through Marvel's monthly periodical business begs the question: how different is Marvel's line going to look in 2012 and what is driving the changes being made in such a tight timeframe?

CBR News looked through the available data on Marvel's line from sales estimates released via Diamond Comic Distributors, announced plans and solicited titles and public statements from executives and creators alike to gauge just what has changed and what is still changing in regard to the publisher's core periodical business. Overall, the picture painted by the data is one of a publisher that, while strong in market share and overall readership, appears to have become more averse to taking risks after a prolonged period of market retraction.

Take the recent string of cancellations and line changes: regular series "Daken: Dark Wolverine," "Ghost Rider," "X-23" and "Iron Man 2.0" have all been cancelled. Miniseries "Destroyers" and "Victor Von Doom" were scuttled before their first issues even saw print, while "All-Winners Squad" was cancelled before the completion of its life as a limited series. "Alpha Flight" was downgraded from an ongoing to a miniseries after being upgraded from mini to ongoing earlier in the summer. And monthly series "PunisherMAX" and "Black Panther: The Most Dangerous Man Alive" will cease publication once their current, long-gestating storylines wrap in February.

It can't be ignored that even in the case of the latter two series, sales estimates place the monthly readership for the affected books at the bottom of the "Marvel Universe" slate of comics. The only books which have sold less than these titles are event tie-ins whose runs were already limited and/or near their completion, licensed comics like "John Carter of Mars," "Halo" and "The Stand" whose primary profit streams can be assumed to come from channels other than the Direct Market and creator-owned Icon titles like "Casanova," whose publication relies on an entirely different set of sales goals.

Some have made public note of other comics which fall in the sales range of the cancelled titles, including monthly comic series like "X-Factor" and "Thunderbolts." However, rather than view these series as ticking clocks counting down the minutes to their own cancellations -- a thesis which remains unknowable due to a number of factors whose metrics aren't public -- it's more useful to look at why the titles still standing may have made it to February and, presumably, beyond.

For the most part, titles that remain untouched are those built off of properties and franchises that have proven to have long runs in the market, be they spin-offs of popular titles or series that have lasted for hundreds of issues, even through market fluctuations and creative changes. Even the lowest selling comics that remain, such as "X-Factor," have shown a level of sales consistency from month-to-month, pointing toward a dependable place in the market. It is logical to assume Marvel is relying on steady, stable performers first and foremost rather than banking on newer, unproven titles bucking their downwards sales trends and building an audience over the long run.

Even more notable in this respect is the way in which Marvel is approaching their biggest franchises in the months ahead. Comparing the solicitations for February 2012 with those of February 2011, the actual size of Marvel's monthly periodical business has changed very little. This past February, Marvel published 84 new single issues in the month with 37 of those releases coming in at the lower $2.99 price range. In February 2012, the publisher plans to release 83 new singles, 38 of which sell for $2.99. However, while the size of the offerings hasn't changed much, the shape of the line is still rather different today.

First and foremost, Marvel's new strategy of shipping more than 12 issues a year for its top sellers has wide-ranging implications. This coming February, no less than 13 monthly comics are shipping two issues in the five-Wednesday month, including line leaders like Brian Michael Bendis' "Avengers" titles, Marvel's spiritual flagship "Amazing Spider-Man" (which, when you factor in the "Point One" issue, has three installments on sale in the month), high profile launches like Ed Brubaker and Butch Guice's "Winter Soldier" title and a full seven comics from the X-Men line, including the three biggest selling titles "Uncanny X-Men," "Wolverine & The X-Men" and "X-Men." Meanwhile, Venom sees five new issues releasing in February: one of the regular "Venom" title proper and a four-issue storyline (numbered "Venom" #13.1, 13.2, 13.3 and 13.4) co-starring Red Hulk, X-23 and Ghost Rider, the latter two of whom saw their series end in January. In theory, this accelerated shipping schedule will allow both Marvel and retailers to increase sales across the board as these comics traditionally sell much higher numbers than the cancelled titles.

However, these changes also hold the potential to dramatically shrink the talent pool at Marvel in the coming year. By leaning harder on its most popular titles and franchises, the publisher is also relying more on its biggest name writers to deliver the sales it wants. Names like Brian Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, Jason Aaron and Jonathan Hickman -- the so-branded Marvel Architects -- dominate the solicited books, while established, emerging and fan favorite talents from Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente to Rob Williams and Paul Tobin have decreased output and presumably fewer chances to ply their trade on a monthly title and build long term fan support -- not to mention a decrease in opportunities for up and coming writers to make their mark at the industry's biggest publisher.

Meanwhile, the diversity of the Marvel publishing line runs a risk of being severely diminished if trends hold their current course. Much has been made online of the fact that the recent cancellations brought an end to Marvel's most prominent Black characters starring in monthly titles as well as the last solo books anchored by women and the only monthly starring a character whose sexual orientation is other than straight. In addition, a comparison between February 2011 and February 2012 shows that the types of comic series that fall outside the core "tied to the spine of the modern Marvel U" construction has been noticeably cut. The number of kid-centric offerings from the publisher have been halved in the past year from four titles to two. The mature readers MAX line will soon have only one book standing in the "DeadpoolMAX" limited series. And a previous string of non-continuity or stand-alone miniseries (some tied to the release of Marvel's popular films, others strictly Direct Market fair) has dwindled in the face of twice as many "Avengers" ongoing issues, a resurgence of Spider-Man-related product and the steady growth of the X-Men line to include nearly a dozen ongoing comics.

Of course, these changes to the shape of Marvel's line don't necessarily indicate a lack of interest in diversity from the publisher -- either on the page or in the talent pool -- nor do they point towards an end to experimentation from the company. In recent months, executives and creators alike have been very vocal, both in interviews and across social media, about their desire to have a line of books that offer a range of options and a healthy level of sales success. Marvel does also have a number of newer stories and initiatives on tap, as evidenced by the characters and series recently previewed in its "Point One" one-shot, the "Season One" line of original graphic novels and promises of big changes coming with its next mega-event. However, if the new titles on tap fail to find the sales traction the publisher's mandates require, and if the double-shipping of its biggest franchises remains Marvel's best bet for retaining market dominance against strengthened competition in DC Comics, readers and creators alike may find themselves looking at a very different Marvel Comics in 2012.

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