Monday, April 27, 2009

What I Think Marvel is Doing Wrong - The Imprints

Why does it seems the people who bitch the most about the state of comics are also the ones who are the most desperate to break in?
- C.B. Cebulski (via Twitter)
This comment by Marvel editor and writer, C.B. Cebulski, hit a bit too close to home for me. As a blogger and comic book fan, I find that talking about the bad things is a lot easier than talking about the good things. As I have already mentioned, it is hard to criticize the way Marvel runs their business because of their effectiveness and domination of the market.

Therefore, for this post, I will be making a series of points and counterpoints mentioning what Marvel is doing right and what Marvel is doing wrong, playing defense attorney and devil's advocate at the same time. I also will suggest some solutions or compromise that I think would help Marvel improve in each area I discuss. Most of them will be small changes, nothing drastic like some alarmists on the internet that call for the end of the monthly comic or some other equally revolutionary thoughts.

The other day I asked you, the readers what you thought Marvel was doing wrong, and you provided a great deal of interesting comments in return. I found myself writing so much, that in order to properly give the spotlight to every aspect I wanted to mention, I had to break up the answer of what I think Marvel is doing wrong, into several parts. This first entry of this three part series into what I think Marvel is doing wrong will discuss their use of imprints, or lack thereof.

The Imprints

Point -
One advantage that DC has over Marvel is the fact that they own two wildly different imprints: Vertigo and Wildstorm.

What I hated the most recently [...] was the rapidly falling quality of the MAX imprint. At first they were comics with adult content for an adult reader. Now - it's still 18+ content, but now its target seems to be boys who've just hit puberty.
- Anonymous

DC's Vertigo imprint has the market cornered when it comes to "mature" comic books and graphic novels. Books like Fables, Y: The Last Man, and 100 Bullets have raised the standard for what kind of entertainment a comic book can provide, and have proven that comics outside of the standard superhero tales can be popular.

However, Marvel does have its own mature line of comics, known as Marvel MAX, which is described as "sophisticated entertainment for a mature audience, with writing targeted at an adult reading level" on their website. No one can deny that the MAX titles make good use of thei R-rating, usually involving plenty of violence and gore, of which the best example is the longest running title for the imprint - Punisher MAX.

The problem lies in the fact that most of the MAX titles involve plenty of the same amount of violence and blood, leading to a group of stories that are very uniform in nature. Just because you can go all out without fear of censorship doesn't mean you always should. This is not to say that the stories are bad or that I do not enjoy reading a bit of ultra-violence, but I would like to see some MAX titles break the mold more often.

An excellent example of such non-over the top storytelling would be Alias, which was one of Brian Michael Bendis' best written titles about the life of Jessica Jones, a former superhero turned private detective who eventually made the jump to the standard 616 line and is now a recurring character in his New Avengers comic.

Similarly, one could draw the comparisons between the Ultimate imprint and the Wildstorm imprint. Both have been quite successful at one point in history (as Eric pointed out in his ideas for a revamp for the Wildstorm Universe) and they are both smaller universes than the main universe for each respective company.

The true strength of DC's ownership of the Wildstorm imprint is that of video game and movie adaptations, such as the Gears of War, World of Warcraft, and X-Files comic books. These add a sense of variety to your publishing line and the potential to attract new costumers (gaming and movie fans) that would not otherwise get anywhere near a comic book shop.

Of course, Wildstorm is not the only one doing adaptations. Dark Horse has a long history of publishing movie and TV-based comics, such as Star Wars, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Aliens, and BOOM! Studios is currently putting out a new line of comics based on the Disney/Pixar films. Marvel publish no film or video game adaptation comic books (with the exception of a couple of Halo comics), and could potentially be losing customers.

Counterpoint - Are imprints, like Vertigo and Wildstorm, economically viable?

I really want to see more Icon titles. With Vertigo, DC offers to the comic fans a lot of mature reads, but seems like Marvel it´s only interested in keep some of this stars as happy as possible [by giving them their own creator-owned series]. I think they could expand the line without having it stealing sales for this most successful line: the superheroes.
- Clucaran

Despite a very high rate of critical acclaim, Vertigo and Wildstorm titles hardly ever become top sellers in the monthly sales charts. Despite that, a good deal of them do great in the paperback/collection market. The aforementioned Fables is a great example of this trend.

However, it is unknown just how much of a profit this method leads to and it is very possible that, on a month-to-month basis, they prove to be a financial burden rather than a source of revenue.

As I mentioned earlier, Marvel is a business first and foremost, and they must stick to publishing books that benefit them. Even when there is a talented creative team behind a comic, such as Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips on Incognito for the Icon imprint, it will have a hard time reaching sales number reflective of the talent working on it.

There is also the contention that Marvel is not making the money it could be by fostering these creator owned initiatives and would be better served having these creators update one of their characters or working on one of their properties. This would increase revenue for them significantly and could lead to renewed interest in one of their properties that could then be spun off into a movie or television property. None of these new revenue streams would be shared with creators nor would Marvel be accepting a fraction of the money from a creator owned book if they simply did not support a creator owned imprint.

Counterpoint -
Other Adaptations

In the past few years, Marvel has been releasing a combination of adaptations and new material based on Stephen King's and Laurell K. Hamilton's works. This move has proven to be quite popular. While the single issues move modest numbers, the collections ended up being one of the most sold products from Marvel last year.

Furthermore, Marvel has also been releasing comic book adaptations, under the banner of Marvel Illustrated, of classic novels, such as Moby Dick and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. While these have not proven to be as commercially popular as the Dark Tower or Anita Blake comics, it certainly provides some variety into Marvel's line-up.

This tactic of adapting well-known books with extensive universes could open up whole new markets for Marvel and they should keep exploring it. Could you imagine how popular a Harry Potter or a Twilight comic could be if Marvel pursued either property?

Solution - A Mission Statement for Marvel Imprints

I wasn't aware that [the Marvel] MAX [imprint] was still around.
- Sebastian

As I've said before, Marvel does not really need the imprints to continue their economical success. But, at the same time, their existence provides a variety of titles and appeal to a wider demographic of customers, which is something every company wants.

The problem with the imprints is that there is very little distinction among them and the content in them could easily belong to any other one. For example, Moon Knight is just as relentlessly bloody as a MAX title and Brubaker's Captain America could easily be considered a Mature Content title. Not for it's violence or sex, but for the complex and layered storytelling. If Marvel wants the imprints to survive, there needs to be a clear distinction between them.

MAX Imprint: Concentrate on horror and fantasy comics and should slowly distance itself from superhero comics. This is how Vertigo got started and is now a very prestigious imprint, almost a synonym with "mature comics" and the graphic novel market. Unseating Vertigo from the top of this market would be quite a feat, but is obviously not an achievable goal at the moment.

The MAX imprint should put all of its effort into just creating new and compelling characters or series. Ideally, it should focus on creating new characters, but that leads to a whole new problem. Popular characters, such as The Hood, the Squadron Supreme and Jessica Jones, become victims of their own success and are absorbed into the larger Marvel Universe. Stricter use of these characters should be in place, and they should avoid using them outside of the imprint.

Icon Imprint: Leave it as is. Currently, it is only being used as an output for creator-owned projects of writer and artists that have signed a Marvel exclusive contract. Marvel, as a business, doesn't really have an need for creator-owned projects.

At the same time, with such prolific writers signed on to Marvel, like Matt Fraction, Rick Remender, Jason Aaron and Jonathan Hickman, the Icon imprint could easily become more used in the future.

Marvel Illustrated: Keep publishing adaptations of books, but concentrate on more modern material. While there's no doubt that there are fans of classics books, like Pride and Prejudice and The Illiad, there is probably a bigger market in adapting newer cult favorites, like the works of Chuk Palahniuk, Douglas Adams, or Kurt Vonnegut.

Of course, these more modern stories are not part of the public domain and, therefore, would be harder to get the rights to adapt. A nice medium would be to adapt the works of writers, like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, who are fan-favorites in the science fiction genre and popular enough to draw people in, but whose works are already in the public domain (or soon will be, in the case of Wells). Additionally, they should definitely get a logo so we can easily recognize which titles fall under the imprint.

Marvel Knights Imprint: I quite enjoyed the evolution of this imprint over time, which is now used as the place to publish out-of-continuity or continuity-light miniseries about popular Marvel characters. This imprint is a nice parallel with the now deceased All-Star imprint from DC .

The problem with the Marvel Knights imprint is that if these creators are being used on out-of-continuity tales, they could just as easily be used to raise the profile of Marvel's regular titles. For example, the current Old Man Logan storyline, by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven, could have easily been a Marvel Knights series. However, by putting it on the ongoing Wolverine title, Marvel has garnered both a critical and commercial success and increased the sales of an already high selling title. I would not be surprised if this imprint is used less over time, despite believing Marvel should actually use it more often.

Ultimate Comics: It's hard to say what should be done about the Ultimate Comics imprint, because it is in the middle of a reinvention. I, like many people, quite enjoyed the early years of the Ultimate Universe because of how simple it was.

Over the years it degenerated and became extremely convoluted, completely leaving behind the ideals on which it was created. Make the Ultimate titles simple and without crossovers, so they will be easily accessible to the non-comic reading public at large, who is the target audience of this imprint.


That is all I have to say about what I think Marvel is doing wrong with their imprints, and what possible solutions there could be. Be sure to check back on Wednesday for the next part, where I discuss Marvel's business practices. In the meantime, tell me, what do you think Marvel is doing wrong AND right with their imprints?

Related Posts


Christine said...

Awesome post, Matt. Marvel should hire you. ;) Seriously though, this post was a pleasure to read. God, I love it when people can actually put together a cohesive argument.

Andrenn said...

Great opener, I really look forward to the future posts. You make some great points. My biggest problem with Max is, as you put it, a lack of distinction from it and regular Marvel comics like Moon Knight.

ShadowWing Tronix said...

I'm saddened by your lack of including Marvel Adventures. It is also an imprint, but unlike any of the other versions, even the mainline titles, is kid-friendly and often a lot more fun. However, a severe lack of continuity between titles (I've used Donald Blake dating his 616 sweetheart in MA: Super Heroes while Thor was involved with Storm over at MA: Avengers as an example in the past) is something they should fix. Also, while I love the stand-alone stories, and don't necessarily need to have the running subplots of the MU proper, the occasional multi-parter (that's OCCASIONAL, not the mega events bogging down MU right now) wouldn't hurt.

I'm not sure about crossovers. It depends on how the kids are getting these comics. I've only seen them in comic and book stores, while the MU proper comics are in the Stop and Shop and a magazine featuring the MA stories are over on the magazine shelf. That's something else that should be fixed--the marketing, as they're losing the target audience for these books, who are too young for most of the DC and MU Proper titles as they're currently done.

I'd set it up where MA (and titles like Mini-Marvels or its replacement, Super Hero Squad) are the kids titles, like Johnny DC (who needs the logo back to set them apart from DC Proper), the "normal stuff" in the regular Marvel title, catering to all age groups, and Max/Knights set up for the older audience. Ultimate would be the fresh universe as it has been, but dial the darker stuff down (save that for Max/Knights), like the cannibal Hulk and god-aren't-we-all-tired-of-Wifebeater Hank Pym.

I've actually not seen an Icon comic, and didn't know what it was until this post. I keep thinking of the Milestone character. But it sounds like a good idea to freshen up the industry, like that tax write-off that you can afford, but don't really need.

But that's what I would do. Would it "save" Marvel? Darned if I know, but at least I admit it. :)

Anonymous said...

It is spelled Vonnegut, not Vonnergut.

Otherwise an excellent article.

Matt Ampersand said...

@Anonymous: Thanks for the correction, I went and fixed it.

ShadowWing Tronix: I did realize that I forgot Marvel Adventures about halfway, I did not know any other complains or ways to fix it other than the "more marketing" point. I agree with it, but I just couldn't think of much else to say about it.

Matt Ampersand said...

Christine and Andrenn: Thanks for the support

Anonymous said...

What's to blame for the failings of the MAX line? How about Kev Walker? He was the artist on Max's "The Eternal" series, and he improbably gave nudity a bad name. Perhaps if "Shanna the She-Devil" came before "The Eternal", Frank's unadulterated vision could have seen print.

I don't think there's any reason for Marvel to continue publishing "MAX" as a line anymore. Technically, MAX was both the name of the line, as well as the name of the adults-only rating. Honestly, who needs that when you have the words "WARNING: EXPLICIT CONTENT" on the cover?! As a rating, "MAX" made as much sense as "PSR+" did on Shanna. Incomprehensible ratings are useless in an age when consumers demand unambiguous warnings about which comics will corrupt our souls, curve our spines, and cause America to lose the war in Vietnam.

Also, "MAX" is a scarlet letter that taints any book it stains. Take "Supreme Power" which was as high profile as they came. Hit writer, fan-favorite artist, and it had a front cover on Diamond's Previews. Ultimately, the imprint just overburdened a title which could have been a mainstream hit, but by virtue of its labeling, certain stores just wouldn't order it & buyers couldn't buy it due to availability or age restrictions, or wouldn't buy it due to puritanical prejudices in a crypto-Christian America.

spartantylr said...

Not a mention of Loeb!

spartantylr said...

I kid, I kid.

The Dangster said...

Oh wow, Marvel Knights is still around?

Anonymous said...

seriously aren't you all over thinking this issue a bit. I thought the whole point of reading comics was to enjoy them and think about whats going to happen in the next issue. Not fume about how Marvel could improve their business model, who cares what type of imprints they use. Just buy the comics you like and don't buy the comics you don't like.

I mean if you really want marvel to focus more on imprints stop buying their mainstream content. you'll see new imprints spring up like crazy. Why do you think Ultimate Marvel was created in the first place? cause in 01 none of the mainstream marvel books were selling, and what does marvel always do when enough people stop buying their books? they make imprints! Just like how now that Ultimate is not selling they make up Noir to replace it. (a whole bunch of mini-series set in the same universe and yet have nothing to do with each other, yea thats totally not their new Ultimate)

Really it comes down to what people buy. if the top selling marvel books every month are always spiderman, wolverine, and New Avengers. you are going to see a lot of stuff derivative of that content. hence weekly spidey, infinite wolverine books, and new, old and evil avengers. you don't want to see this stuff, don't buy it and it will eventually go away.

I however think 4 avengers books is awesome and love dark reign so I will keep buying those books and feeding the beast. But that's me

Matt Ampersand said...

At the first anonymous: That's a great point on the MAX icon being a scarlet letter. What happened with The Eternal? I had heard that Shanna was censored/modified, but I'm not sure if I know the whole story.

At the second anonymous: I don't think we are overthinking it, I don't think anyone is saying that they will stop reading Marvel unless they create some new imprints or anything. But that is an intriguing point about imprints being created when sales are sagging.

C.B. Cebulski said...

Happy to see an off-hand tweet I made inspired such an insightful and well-thought out post, Matt. Looking forward to reading more.

Anonymous said...

"Why does it seems the people who bitch the most about the state of comics are also the ones who are the most desperate to break in?"

Ever been sat and watched somebody repeatedly fuck up something over and over again, when the solution is incredibly obvious to you. That crawling feeling under your skin that makes you want to jump up and scream "Arrrgh! Just let me do it for you!"

There you go C.B

Matt Ampersand said...

C.B., thanks for the nice words, it means a lot coming from you. Be sure to check back on Wednesday, when the next post goes up.

ShadowWing Tronix said...

For some reason, every time I scroll to the "Counterpoint-Other Adaptations" part of the page, IE7 locks up. However, this doesn't happen with other articles, or in Firefox, which I'm using to type this. Anyone else have this issue?

Glad MA wasn't totally forgotten.

Kirk Warren said...

@ShadowWing Tronix - Wow, just duplicated that with IE7. I'll try and see if I can figure out what the problem is. Might be the pullquotes doing, but my original post on DC, which uses the same pullquote code, doesnt give me problems.

Kirk Warren said...

Okay, one piece of code was inside the last pullquote just after the Other Adaptations part that wasnt in the other ones (some stuff for italics, which was standard css code and correct). I removed it and it no longer locks up in my IE7. Let me know if there's still problems for you.

ShadowWing Tronix said...

C.B.'s Twitter quote still formats wrong, but the page doesn't lock up.

Anonymous said...

Clucaran said...

hey matt!

Thank you for make my lame english look a lot better. I really apreciate u choose my opinion for your article.

If u come to Madrid sometime, one beer is on my bill.

"Saludos" from Spain

Matt Ampersand said...

Cluracan: De nada, se lo difícil que puede ser el Ingles. Por cierto, fui a Madrid en Febrero, pero solo me quede ahí dos días.

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled across your website today and I will be adding it to my list of sites I check daily.
Great articles!!

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