The Bottom Line...

Hey CV! As many of you have learned, I'm pretty new to comics. You've played a huge part in changing that (go you!), but I still have much to learn. And while I learn, I observe, and I try to gain a better understanding not just of the superficial -- what's happening within the books, who the popular and unpopular characters are, etc. -- but of what lies beneath the surface.

So here's what puzzles me: the way the "Big Two" comic publishers dissociate abstracts like Sales and Ratings from Fans and Readers. While most audience-driven industries naturally begin with a question like "what do our supporters/customers want?" and "what will make our fans happy?" Marvel & DC begin with "how can we make headlines?" and "what can we market a book with?"

Let's be clear. DC is a business. Marvel is a business. Those latter questions matter. But the assumption that they are mutually exclusive, or even possibly exclusive, from the former questions is the reason, I think, that DC's reboot has already failed in terms of growing their long-term readership, and why Marvel NOW stands primed to do precisely the same thing. Both focus on short-term bottom lines but employ methodologies which, quite frankly, are as likely (perhaps more likely) to terminate current business relationships as to generate new ones.

For every reader who says "The New 52 is the reason I read comics," there's one or more who says "The New 52 is the reason I no longer read DC." Sometimes it's not as drastic as the whole publishing house, but the sentiment remains: many long-time fans of certain characters or books have with heavy heart abandoned what they used to depend on because it's so infuriatingly disappointing. Add to these fall-off readers the temporary readers brought in by the reboot but not held onto, and DC ends up worse in the long run than they were in the beginning. And that's not because the reboot was an inherently bad idea; it's because the execution placed a premium on attracting non-readers and minimized the importance of romancing increasingly jaded but still optimistic older fans.

I recently wrote, rather incredulously, about one sales pitch I read regarding Avengers Arena, in which Marvel explicitly stated that people who weren't fans were the target they were aiming to attract with that book. In a move which will never cease to baffle me, the anti-fan became the group reached out to, while the extant fan was actually marginalized if not outright dismissed. By all accounts that move has been successful -- plenty of people who expected to hate or lack interest in the book have expressed being surprisingly satisfied.

Meanwhile, many fans wax furious. I can honestly say that if I never read another Marvel book again, it will be because of Avengers Arena. And I've seen plenty of other people share the sentiment, to varying extremes. Months ago someone said it was "everything wrong with comics." Less pointedly, but similar, are the folks who point to this book in a list of reasons why they are considering dropping mainstream comics altogether and going exclusively with indie titles.

By ignoring the "what would make our fans happy" question in pursuit of temporary financial success, Marvel is creating a product which elicits responses no company would ever want to elicit: active disdain and disenchantment. If your product has people pointing to it as a prime example of why they are ready to stop doing business with you, or why they can no longer be excited about doing business with you like they used to be, then that's a clear sign you're doing something wrong. Sure, there are some people in the opposite camp: AA is their favorite book, and a reason they've chosen not to drop Marvel. But as a company, your ideal product is one which attracts as many readers as possible; not everyone has to like it, but if it's actively alienating a noticeable portion of your perspective readership, it's inherently flawed.

With the soft reboot, Marvel avoided the wholesale tide of rejection which DC seems to have wrought (and continues to wring), but the ebb is still there. The company's AvX event can hardly be called successful; most readers' reactions are mixed at best, bordering on the negative, and you are hard-pressed to find anyone who truly loved it or its fallout. Many long-time fans will tell you that since that mess occurred their favorite characters have never been the same; and as NOW really comes into its own, plenty of poor characterizations are pointed to by people who have chosen to give a permanent pass on franchises by which they once defined their lives.

It's telling that the most fervent fan bases for both major houses are seen begging for retcon of the retcons. DC fans hold out hope that an upcoming Trinity event will erase the entire New 52 "continuity" and revert back to the stories that had decades of development behind them (and many of these fans would have been shocked by such a hope several years ago, when the then most recent catastrophic events had convinced them a reboot was the only chance of salvaging what they loved). Marvel fans look to the summer's Ultron interference and wonder if there's a chance that the whole AvX timeline (and most of NOW along with it) will disappear like a nightmare one wakes from with the utmost of relief.

Is this really good for business? Is this actually what the head honchos at these two houses were hoping would happen when they made the decisions they've been making? Or is it possible that in pursuit of profit, they've completely lost sight of the only thing which can ever actually sustain profit: their readers?

I'm pretty new to this whole thing. My observations can thus be read more as those of an outsider than anything else. And because of my limited perspective, perhaps those observations are missing important details. So I turn now to you, Comic Vine faithful. Do you think Marvel & DC are in a bad place or a good one? Do you see signs of progress or regress on the horizon -- and what specific trends can you point to which support such optimism or pessimism, as the case may be?

I'm genuinely curious. I get the sense I picked one of the worst possible times to try to become a mainstream comic book fan. I leave it to y'all to confirm or deny ^_^

10 Comments
10 Comments
Posted by Ravager4

@akbogert said:

Do you think Marvel & DC are in a bad place or a good one?

Posted by SC

Marvel and DC are already aware that fans have a shelf life, and so they naturally expect number drop offs. They also know that comic fans can be extremely addicted, even if they are angry, they still tend to buy things for a while. They also know that certain types of fans actually do get a bit more excited by certain gimmicks, like events and so on. A lot of the biggest decision makers in comics have kind of been in the business for a while, whether it was being a fan or just how long they have had their job. All those things combined has put comics into a bit of a funk - Marvel and DC comics that is - which sort of affects everything else in comics trying to make business money. I think both the New 52 and Marvel Now were basically props to help past the time until DC and Marvel can unroll and execute their digital plans. I think if anything is a problem with DC/Marvel mindset is that they are too ingrained in the past with what they think sells. When you get readers in from shallow hooks they leave and comics may have traditionally had a stable and steady audience which mean that they could be a bit more creative with some books because other books could support it, they couldn't stay competitive not with just each other, but the internet and games, and manga, and the internet and TV and phones. I'd say Marvel and DC fail to know who their actual competition is and I think most fans wouldn't do so either. People these days are more different and diverse from each other. Superman use to be a huge character in comics in a period where lots of boys wanted to be Superman because he was sort of similar to them in personality but also a power trip on steroids. With time Superman became less a force in comics because he got competition. Some people would identify more with Wolverine, Spider-man, Flash, Batman, Wonder Woman. Then fans kept getting more and more choices and more characters that actually spoke to them a certain way that Superman couldn't, they got more choice. They got X-23, Deadpool, Harley Quinn, Bleez, Spider Girl, Runaways, and not only did they get new characters, but old characters were written by new writers giving them more and more choice. Except Marvel and DC's system works best for just a few limited characters being at the top instead of figuring out a cheap way to sell a product to an audience out there that wants it. There have been mini successes a long the way for example the Ultimate and Vertigo imprints, oh and the TPB format also dramatically changed comics too. They are good band aids though, Marvel and DC need big time surgery. I think they are looking at their surgery being digital and in the mean time doing what they can to get paid. Which means relying on the fact a lot of its fanbase are traditionally addicted to their product too much to stop getting them even whilst being angry.

Moderator Online
Posted by akbogert

@SC: Some very interesting points, for sure, and I love the statement "they are good band aids though, Marvel and DC need big time surgery." What precisely do you mean by seeing digital as their surgery, though? Your implication extends beyond merely new distribution models, as obviously it's the content that's creating the problem, not how people access to it. What do you expect to see digital bringing to the table which will stop the bleeding and other internal damage of the industry?

Posted by SC

@akbogert: Oh I think Marvel and DC are looking at digital as their savior and get out of jail free card, but I personally think comics could benefit from a lot more than that. I am not sure which will come first though, but knowing Marvel and DC digital will probably be implemented first before any other strategies. Digital will help accessibility wise. Another thing it might also do is make it cheaper to put out lower selling comics and you could also get to have a lot more fans interacting and contributing to the medium.

Moderator Online
Posted by akbogert

@SC: So you're agreeing with my appraisal, then, that they are seeking a business-minded solution to an art/human-driven problem?

Posted by SC

@akbogert: Sort of, I wouldn't separate those two terms myself. A good business minded solution should cover art/human problems. Marvel and DC have done okay in the past (fan art sections, reader letters), but they haven't really kept up and keeping up in general in the big picture sense is just harder. They could be taking advantage of all the people out there doing fan fictions and fan art of their characters, but nope.

Moderator Online
Posted by The Mighty Monarch

I'd like to see one person still defend the position that Avengers Arena is a book dedicated to flashy cheap deaths. We're six issues in with only 3 confirmed deaths; only one of which was for a major character. The other two were for some complete unknown C-lister and one of the new characters. Ditto for the character focuses I've seen complaints about, where honestly only 2/6 were for major characters, one for a minor one, and the other half for new characters. Not to mention that only one of the deaths was vaguely cheap, and that one wasn't even flashy. The other two deaths had serious emotional content to them. At this point in time, I honestly don't see what everyone's problem with that series is.

Posted by MatKrenz

@The Mighty Monarch: Go and read any of his previous blogs about the book. You'll get the picture very quickly.

Posted by akbogert

@The Mighty Monarch said:

I'd like to see one person still defend the position that Avengers Arena is a book dedicated to flashy cheap deaths. We're six issues in with only 3 confirmed deaths; only one of which was for a major character. The other two were for some complete unknown C-lister and one of the new characters. Ditto for the character focuses I've seen complaints about, where honestly only 2/6 were for major characters, one for a minor one, and the other half for new characters. Not to mention that only one of the deaths was vaguely cheap, and that one wasn't even flashy. The other two deaths had serious emotional content to them. At this point in time, I honestly don't see what everyone's problem with that series is.

I was going to reply to the parts of this that had to do with what I actually said in the blog, but I couldn't find any...

Edited by Saranth

Looking to the future, I wonder how well publishers are going to fare. Digital sales are sky-rocketing, and are accounting for more and more of Marvel and DC's profits. With companies like ComiXology allowing individuals to publish their comics through their store, without an attached publisher, what's to stop writers and artists from skipping the middle-man? Sure, they don't have rights to the characters. That's their get out of jail free card, but would the publishers retain their enormous market share in an environment where their top-talent can easily head off to work on more lucrative, personal enterprises?