The Return of Speculators and the Rise of Tumblr


1991: Rob Liefeld's "X-Force" #1 sold five million copies across five covers. Jim Lee's "X-Men" sold close to eight million with five covers. Todd McFarlane's "Spider-Man" sold 2.5 million, and that took a couple of covers. We hated this age of goosing sales with alternate covers, didn't we?

2014: Marvel announces sales of over a million copies of "Star Wars" #1. At last count, that issue has more than 50 covers.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose? Not necessarily.

That analogy has obvious flaws. The multiple covers on 1991's comics were being sold to retailers hoping to pass them along to "collectors" and speculators, on the assumption that one person would buy at least five copies, artificially boosting sales of the issue. Then, the speculators would come in to buy multiples sets to sit in their basements until it was time to pay the kids' college educations. You got to milk more money out of the same number of wallets.

This time around, Marvel is creating retailer-specific exclusive covers to get larger retailers to buy thousands of copies of a book rather than just hundreds. It's a potential win/win. Marvel gets to sell more comics. Marvel's comic gets more attention in the press. More copies on store shelves could lead to more readers.

For the retailer, it's a comic from a Big Two company that is, in some way, only theirs. It's a nice angle to promote a comic from, particularly one carrying a five dollar price tag. It can be a promotional item for them as much as it is for Marvel.

Marvel takes more money from a limited number of retailers, and the risk is passed on, as well. Retailers hope to take more money from a wider variety of people, not just in their store but probably beyond that, as well. From what I understand, you need to order a lot of these comics to get a cover made, far beyond what most stores would sell for their usual #1 monthly comic.

There will be no doubt a small speculator element at work. Some collectors will go crazy, but given the large number of covers, I doubt it'll be too many. The shipping alone would drive most people away.

Marvel could make a killing on an "Art of Star Wars #1 Covers," though. Maybe they'll package that book up after they finally release an "Art of Skottie Young Covers" volume...

But we also know there's a press release on a hard drive inside Marvel waiting to go out to crow about Marvel's best-selling comic of the last twenty years, the first million seller in that time. The press release will talk about the popularity of Star Wars and how Marvel and Chewbacca are two great tastes that taste great together. Maybe a few paragraphs in, it'll mention how retailers took part in this million-selling effort in some vague wording that covers the fact that they created 50 stunt covers to bring up those numbers.

At the end of the day, "Star Wars" #1 is a comic that likely would have sold between 100,000 and 200,000 copies. Marvel's Sales and Marketing Department worked overtime to sell the rest with fancy covers. It's not all that different from "X-Force" #1 and "X-Men" #1. Good for them for doing their job.

I just want them to be honest about it. This isn't a landmark sales figure based on the pent-up demand for the product. "Star Wars" has only been off the comics market for about three months now. People aren't missing it that badly. This is an event that Marvel is manufacturing. It's a much-anticipated book, for sure, but it's not a million copy seller on its own, even with John Cassaday making a return to interiors.

But, then, neither were the million sellers 20 years ago. In retrospect, we're honest about that. Let's get ahead of the curve and be honest about this one up front.

The real trick is in getting "Star Wars" #3 to sell 140,000 copies by being a good comic that everyone wants to read, with creators that can meet their deadlines to get it out in time often enough that it builds a following. Marvel's marketing and sales goal there should be to increase distribution and awareness of the comic to get more people interested in it. That's real market growth, not a press release based on no doubt tireless work from the P.R. department.

Maybe all these covers will work that way. Maybe they'll pull people into comic shops who are just Star Wars fans, and make comics fans into Star Wars comics fans. If they do that, then I suppose all the effort that went into this promotion will be worth it.


Comic fans love Tumblr.

I've always suspected it, but I didn't discover it for sure until last week when I announced my Tumblr art blog. I've been posting my pics to Instagram for a while now, and use that service to follow a great number of artists in both comics and animation. It's been linked at the bottom of every Pipeline column for months.

I have 81 Instagram followers. If I had to guess, half of those are probably spammers, anyway. But that's OK. I just like having an outlet for these scribblings of Smurfs and Stitch and X-Men and whatnot.

For comparison's sake, I have 1576 followers on Twitter as I write this column, and suspect about 75% of that are people who are hoping I'll back their Kickstarter.

It only took three days since the Pipeline announcement to have more Tumblr followers than Twitter followers. It happened sometime on Friday afternoon. Here's a screenshot to prove it:

I'm still getting dozens of new followers every day.

Suddenly, I feel the pressure to post better pictures.

I don't write this to stroke my ego, because we know how little these numbers often mean. I only write this to compare the various social media platforms. Instagram is a loser. And, it turns out, comic fans live on Tumblr, which is a platform I have issues with regarding usability and community building. That doesn't matter, though. This is the world of social media; you have to go where the people are if you want to be seen.

If you're starting a webcomic anytime soon, I'd whole-heartedly suggest you own your own content and start your own website and make a home for everything there. But I'd also advise you post it on Tumblr for the audience that you could reach there. Even if eventually you pull it from Tumblr to get more people to your own page, it's too juicy a target to avoid for any reason.

In the meantime, visit my page and see my fumbling attempts at drawing with Manga Studio 5. I'll have more on what I've learned with that software another time.


  • Memo to variety: In your story about the NFL's Sunday ratings, you left out the real reason: "The Walking Dead" is on a break. The NFL had no competition for the first time in a couple of months. "TWD" doesn't even get mentioned until the last paragraph, but only as a reason why "Family Guy"'s ratings might be low. UGH.
  • Great to see the wonderful Image title, "Rat Queens" getting so much good press and attention this week on the announcement of the title's new artist, the spellcheck-defying Stjepan Sejic. His style is perfect for the book, blending fantasy with humor.
  • It's also a sad indictment of the industry. "Rat Queens" has been a wonderful book since the first day, with great story and art. The fact that it took this series of events to get people to pay attention to the book is just sad.
  • Kyle Baker's comic strips for "Marvel Age" were great. Robot 6 linked back to them this week, but that's not why I link to their post now. I link so you can read the comments. Seriously, read the comments. It's the funniest exchange I've seen on-line this year.
  • IDW made its official mouth-watering announcement this week: They will be making three volumes of Artist's Editions books to cover the entirety of Don Rosa's "Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck" series. The first one is due out in April, so we have time to start saving the spare change in the seat cushions to get this Must Buy Book of 2015.
  • Here's the story of a photographer who recreated a Ron Lim "Silver Surfer" cover using a model and lots of body paint. That's impressive.
  • BOOM! is publishing a "Bill & Ted" comic while DC is doing a cover in the likeness of the "Bill & Ted" movie poster. Small world. I hope the lawyers don't invade it.
  • The problem with the internet is that there is no moderation. It's all or nothing. You push the gas pedal down all the way or else never bother taking your foot off the brake. When someone makes a mistake, it's not a teachable moment; it's a moment to assume the worst in the creators, burn something down, and cow the creators into submission, even when those creators are attempting to rise to those same commentator's earlier criticisms with their work. In other words: You can't ever win. Don't bother trying.
  • It's not that Sony needs to be kicked while they're down, but Variety's review of the upcoming "Annie" movie is a delightful piece of movie loathing, well-written and filled with specific examples. As the review admits right off the top, it won't matter. The kids will love it anyway.

"THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN" #323: "Assault Rivals"

Silver Sable, Captain America, Spider-Man, and Solo go after Ultimatum to find out who's behind the recent Symkarian assassination.

This is the best issue of the McSpidey Chronicles so far. It's David Michelinie's best script. With the issue set in Symkaria amidst an international crisis, Michelinie is forced to script all new situations. There's no chance for Spider-Man to lazily swing through the city as he recaps recent events. Having a book on a bi-weekly pace means you don't need to be recapping so hard. There's not a meaningless encounter with a random villain. There's no side trips to Mary Jane's stalled career, only a brief one-pager for Peter to send a message home under the cover of Spider-Man. It's a cute and smart piece of storytelling, and not just a page filler. And there are costumed people galore in the issue, anyway, including superheroes, super villains, and rough and tumble armies.

The issue opens on one of Michelinie's best action pieces of the series, with Solo in the sewers of Paris breaking up an Ultimatum attempt to blow up the Arc De Triomphe. It's quick, it's hard-hitting, and it's complete inside of four pages. You have gunfights, an explosion, and a crisis narrowly averted. The dialogue flows nicely within all of that. While it's a bit long-winded in a panel or two, given the style of comics writing at the times it's rather expressive and informative without being expository. You know who Solo is after these four pages, and that's a good thing since most people would likely not have heard of him before this. He's basically the Punisher for terrorists, complete with a personal transporter that allows him to appear and disappear from tight spots.

McFarlane's storytelling is strong on these pages, too. He gets to draw a character with a costume that's right up his alley -- full body suit, facemask, knife, and a ton of pouches, grenades, and bullets. Since the action is set in the sewers, there are no annoying feet to draw. They're all conveniently underwater, without looking painfully obvious.

That's followed by a one-page segment that bears all the hallmarks of the book's rushed schedule. It's a couple of American diplomats coming to town. Without any costumed superheroes or real action on the page, it looks like it was hacked out over lunch. The page stands out in the issue. Like a couple of similar pages in the previous issue, it looks like someone else inked it. McFarlane's figures lack his usual subtlety and detail. The fine lines are completely missing, like the entire page was drawn with a heavier brush instead of a fine pen.

Once the costumed characters show up again on the next page, though, the quality jumps through the roof. If McFarlane picked and chose the pages he wanted to pay attention to based on who is on them, he did a good job. Any page with action or exciting costumed characters gets particular care. The rest can go scratch. Hey, if you have to make trade-offs, that's not a bad one to make. It certainly keeps the reader's interest up, as well as the original art buyers after the fact.

With America looking like the culprit in the Symkarian assassination, the big gun comes out to play: Captain America parachutes in. Why doesn't he just take a car? Because it looks cool, that's why. This is why we love superhero comics. Revel in it.

Given this much firepower in the comic, Michelinie's script cranks quickly through every page. There's tension between characters constantly, and not just due to Sable's bristly personality. There's real tension between the two countries and all the characters involved. That helps push characters into more interesting dialogue and compels them to more action. The characterization is on point, too, with lots of grumbling and one-liners from Spider-Man that make sense and got the right reactions.

Once Ultimatum's location is found, Silver Sable brings Captain America to it. Spider-Man tags along out of patriotism, and an all out fight between superheroes and a terrorist army ensues. It's like a good Bond movie, as the terrorists pop out of the snow and ride their jet skis after the good guys, guns in hand. (I "researched" "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", "The Spy Who Loved Me", "For Your Eyes Only", and "The World Is Not Enough" for their ski chases. Not the same, though there were parachutes.) What follows is a well-orchestrated sequence with solid storytelling from McFarlane, who makes his trademark thin and tall panels work for the story.

Just to bring things full circle, Solo shows up again to provide a counterpoint for Captain America, as if Silver Sable wasn't enough.

It's great that McFarlane had an issue to draw Captain America in action. I wish he had explored more of the Marvel Universe in his time on the series to draw more of the characters. I loved his "Marvel Tales" covers just because it meant he was drawing X-Men characters, if only for one static shot. Half the fun on this run on "The Amazing Spider-Man" was watching McFarlane interpret various characters in his style. The parade of guest villains provided ample opportunity for readers to see how McFarlane could modernize their appearances in his style. His Captain America didn't really change anything, but it was nice to see.

By the end, we learn the Prime Minister's killer's identity: Sabretooth. It would seem he was thought dead at the time. Who can keep track of those pesky mutants, anyway? It's not like there was Wikipedia in 1989 or anything.

Michelinie's Script's So Good: I even loved the pun in the title.

Felix Watch: Felix shows up twice in this issue, first on a microphone, and second as a small statue.

One More Angle: Overhead angles are rarely necessary, usually very tricky to pull off, and something that can pop you out of a story instantly when you see one. McFarlane was firing so hard on all cylinders with this issue that he pulled off this overhead shot nicely. It may not have been necessary, but it looks cool and feels good. McFarlane even shows it in one point perspective.

Looking ahead: Todd McFarlane only drew two more issues of "The Amazing Spider-Man" after this one. He did not draw the next issue, #324. Erik Larsen did. He did draw the final part of this storyline, but then you have to jump over a couple issues (drawn by Colleen Doran and Erik Larsen) to get to McFarlane's grand finale in issue #328, guest starring The Incredible Hulk. The McSpidey Chronicles series will cover the rest of the "Assassin Nation Plot" storyline, including Larsen's issue, then skip ahead to the grand McFarlane finale.

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