Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Marvel's Express Cancellations

Imagine this hypothetical situation: you are a hot new creator in the comic industry, your previous work has been getting lots of positive buzz and critical acclaim in the past, and you have just been asked to be part of the creative team for the launching of a new ongoing series. This is a pretty big opportunity, so you draft a year long plan of what you want to do with the series, you write the first couple of issues planting seeds along the ways, foreboding and hinting at the great and new things to come in your series. And then, before the third issue of the series is out, before the first arc is finished, you find out that it has been canceled. What happened? It's one of the latest trends coming form Marvel comics, an express cancellation of ongoing series that are doing poorly in sales. Hit the jump to read more about the latest string of cancellations from Marvel.

The Cancellations

Three different ongoing series that started in 2009 received cancellation notices before the fourth issue was out.

The first one was a relaunch Exiles, by Jeff Parker and Salva Espin (who was later replaced by Casey Jones). The title had previously been under the helm of legendary creator Chris Claremont, having been relaunched only a couple of years prior, and was struggling under sagging sales. The first issue came out in April of 2009, and the final one (issue six) was in September of 2009, but people knew about the cancellation before issue four came out. I personally bought that series, and you can see how Jeff Parker laid out a plan that was set to play out over a year, possibly two, with mysteries and character development. It was all quickly explained and revealed in the final (over-sized) issue, but you could see how it could have taken months or years to all come out in the open. What's surprising is that despite a tremendous drop on sales in the second issue (from ~32,000 to ~22,000), sales remained consistent throughout the rest of the series, and were not that much lower when compared to earlier incarnations of the series. Interviews at the time seemed to hint that Jeff Parker was given the decision to choose between continuing this title or Agents of Atlas (Parker obviously chose AoA, which he co-created, although that series would also ultimately get canceled).

The second one, and also very recent, was Doctor Voodoo: Avenger of the Supernatural, a New Avengers/Doctor Strange spin-off series by Rick Remender and Jefte Palo. Doctor Strange has always been a hard sell, and hasn't maintained an ongoing series in a long time, and the series did not apparently appeal to fans of New Avengers enough to carry over some of it's audience (even with the addition of "Avenger of the Supernatural" added to the series' title). The story here is very similar to what happened in Exiles, not long after the third issue was out (December 2009), the series which had started just two months earlier, got the cancellation notice. Doctor Voodoo's sales, however, were lower than Exile's: first issue sold at ~23,000 and the second went all the way down to ~16,000. Issue five is going to be the last one of this series.

And the last one, which was just announced days ago and was part of the inspiration for this post, is that of S.W.O.R.D. by Kieron Gillen and Steven Sanders, which launched in November of 2009. The ongoing series admittedly came out too late to capitalize on the popularity of Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men (which itself had lost lots of steam thanks to heavy delays, but that's a whole other article), which is where the main characters and concepts of S.W.O.R.D. were introduced. Sales for the first issues were considered terrible for a Marvel book: at ~21,000, it barely cracked the Top 100 comics in Diamond's sale charts, and the second one went down a couple thousand units more. Shortly after the third issue was out, rumors started coming out that the series was canceled and the confirmation came shortly thereafter. Fans have taken notice and have started a mail-in campaign (which has been sponsored by Death's Head) but S.W.O.R.D. would need a significant spike in sales to compensate for a lackluster start and avoid the cancellation, with the series set to end on March with issue #5.

The Demotions

The above mentioned series, cut down much shorter than expected, were retroactively denominated limited mini series. Of course, these are not the only series to have ended before they were originally planned to, but some of them already knew before the first issue that they were going to be shortened. These series were originally planned as ongoing series, but probably due to lack of interest and orders, they were downgraded and demoted to limited series before they got out of the gate.

This is not a new thing, but the earliest one I can recollect being downgraded to a limited series was Omega Flight, which spin out of the aftermath of Civil War, under the banner of The Initiative. Omega Flight featured a rag tag team of characters, mostly with ties to the old Alpha Flight team (a.k.a. Canada's Avengers). The characters have always been a hard sell, and with no popular creators behind it (Michael Oeming was writing, but he doesn't sell a book on his name alone), but it still did some very nice numbers. The first issue sold a mighty ~71,000 units, and going down all the way to the ~48,000 by it's final issue. In today's market, this would be a winning book (and selling more than many other titles), but 2007 was an incredible year for comic sales, and I guess the drop in pre-orders from the first issue to the second one (almost ~15,000 issues) were seen as too much.

A more recent example of a series being demoted was Fantastic Force, a spin-off from Fantastic Four. The characters in the Fantastic Force series had previously appeared in Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's run on Fantastic Four, but were for the most part new characters. Millar and Hitch's run on the Fantastic Four title, however, was not doing very well in the sales chart. The Fantastic Force title was probably plotted based on the popularity of the creative team, but it ended up under-performing, which is the most probable reason why it was downsized to a limited series. The series ended up starting at ~21,000 units, and by it's fourth and final issue (after two months of delay), it ended up in the ~12,000 range.

The Expectations

One of the most tragic aspects of these express cancellations is that it all lies in speculations and expectations from the part of the retailers, and what they think a series is going to sell. True, some books have a small audience and are doomed no matter what is done, but the orders for the first two issues, and thus the fate of the book, are decided before anyone reads a single page of the series. Once a series is canceled, people are obviously unwilling to jump into a sinking ship, especially nowadays where everything is collected into a trade eventually, and so the series' sale either remain steady and gain no new followers, or continue to hemorrhage sales.

It is also worth noting that all of these series, with the exception of Omega Flight, had first issues priced at $3.99 (some had extra content, although they varied from one book to the other). I guess the logic is that because the first issue of the series is the one that sells the most, Marvel recoups it's loses by upping the price. It probably is a huge deterrent to both retailers and readers, making the first issue of a book a harder sell. Retailers know that at the higher price, more readers are likely to not pick it up, and readers may think (unless they read Previews religiously) that all of the issues will be priced that way.

On the other hand, Vertigo does the exact opposite and prices all of it's first issues at $1, probably hooking more readers than they would have done at a normal price. It's a smart and time-old strategy used by drug dealers: the first hit is cheap, but the ones after it aren't. Image, Marvel and DC have begun toying with the idea, although not with first issues of new series, but rather with old #1 issues of old series.  Such promotions are almost guaranteed loses for the company, but books like The Unwritten have gotten a higher profile because of it ("You have to lose money to make money" is an very common business motto).

Not all series are winners and big sellers, but you never know when you have a brand new popular franchise until it explodes in your face. For example, the first collection of Asterix (Asterix The Gaul) had a first print run of only 6000 units, and the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comic had a limited run of only 3000 comics. I can't find any exact numbers, but I remember reading that the first Scott Pilgrim book also had a very small run, and yet all franchises eventually became much larger because the perseverance of their creators.

DC also seems to be more lenient when it comes to letting series attempt to gain a readership. In the past couple of years, they have released some series with terrible, terrible sales numbers, such as Vigilante, The Mighty, and the recent Red Circle ongoing books, but they all made it's first year mark (or seem to be, in the case of the Red Circle series). A series like The Web is selling around ~7000 units, but Dan Didio expressed his commitment to keep the book going despite the low sales.

Perhaps having a larger company behind their financing allows DC to absorb more loses when it comes to series. And certain books in Marvel have gotten equal time, such as Nextwave, The Order and Agents of Atlas before getting canceled. I think that is a fair number of issues for any series to have to try attain a readership, and perhaps with the new Disney deal in place, Marvel will also allow more series to last a bit longer.

On the other hand, I also understand that working for a bigger company like Marvel means that certain expectations must be met. Even though these Marvel series met an untimely end, they still sold better than, for example, Chew from Image Comics. Yet Chew is lauded as a runaway hit, even though it's only selling around ~13,000 units right now, and it's first issue sold ~6,000. The increase is what makes this series a hit, but in pure absolute numbers, it's doing much worse than any of the series I mentioned above.  Like I said, it's all about expectations, from the publishing company and from retailers. It's also worth noting that the first trade paperback collection of Chew, priced at an accessible $9,99, sold incredibly well.


In case you can't tell, some of these cancellations have hit pretty close to home for me, but personal feelings aside, I think it is a very bad move to cancel a title at such an early stage. Some series have unrealized potential to become more popular, and no chance to ever achieve it. However, what I think is the most important aspect that Marvel needs to change if they want to avoid any more express cancellations is to lower the price of the first issues, at least to their normal price. It is my opinion that this is what has been leading to an increase in cancellations and a decrease in sales this past year. How have these express cancellations affected you, dear readers? Did you not pick up these books because of the high price of the first issue? Let me know in the comment section.

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Nathan Aaron said...

This isn't really a new thing, it's just hit a couple of books all at once recently and has been brought to everyone's attention.

Marvel did this in the eighties, too. Dakota North lasted five issues; Druid lasted four issues. Both WERE originally ongoings. And I still remember DC comic's Sonic Disruptors - a twelve issue mini series that sold so bad DC cancelled it with issue seven!

Fantastic Force deserved it's limited series run. Man, I had high hopes for that book, and couldn't even last the full mini. It was horrible.

I do, however, think companies should give a book at LEAST a year run to catch on. I mean, you can't even get a following with five issues.

Matt Ampersand said...

I've heard about the Dakota North series, but I didn't know it was originally meant to be an ongoing. And I want to read Druid, since it was written by Ellis (if I am not mistaken)

But yes, I do know that this is not a new thing, but the recent string means that something is wrong, you shouldn't have this high failure rate. Whether it's lack of interest or the wrong business model is up for people to decide, but I think it is a combination of both. Ultimately, a bad business model can kill any book, regardless of interest: look at Spider-Woman by Bendis and Maleev. A highly praised critical team, a relatively high profile character, strong publicity push, but the first issue did pretty bad (I think it was around 50K issues), and that one was a 3.99 issue.

Anonymous said...

Alright, what are some titles that need some help?
I'm reading the web and the shield, and I'll be getting the rebels trade

Anonymous said...

I didn't pick any of these up because I knew they would likely not make it to their 25th issue AND because I have zero interest in the characters. I have been reading/collecting comics for 35 years. A good rule of thumb (as far as longevity of the character or the book being published) is, if they were not created during the Lee/Kirby/Ditko years in the 1960's, then they will fail. The only exceptions of note are the post 1974 X-Men, and Wolverine.

Matt Ampersand said...

Anon 1: Well, Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy are pretty dangerously low in sales, and we at the Weekly Crisis love those titles.

Anon 2: Don't forget Deadpool!

Zdenko said...

I loved SWORD, I'm not a big X-Fan, I mean I read it and all, but I'm not invested in them, I'm more off a Spider-Man/Daredevil/Avengers guy. But SWORD was awesome... It was so good... :-(((((

@ Matt-I doubt they'll cancel Nova and Guardians, it's the two books Cosmic Marvel has, granted Joe's not a fan of Cosmic Marvel, but he recognized the fact it has many fans.

As for Exiles, there was a frame in a comic that was recently mentioned on 4thletter. Namely, the ''other'' Exiles-MODOK, Venom, Lizard, Deadpool and Selene (I think, black haired chick in black costume?). I think that would sell better. :) But it's easy to be smart now...

IslandLiberal said...

"Chew" and other Image stuff (and most Vertigo) is creator-owned; completely different economic model. Creator-owned books just have to justify themselves to the writer and artist; company books have to support the whole Marvel bureaucracy.

DC's greater leniency doesn't really provide much justification for the idea that low-selling titles given more space will eventually 'catch on' either, because none of the titles they tolerated much longer than Marvel would have are still around. Eventually they reached the point where even DC had to call it a day.

So, while I enjoy many of those titles ("Exiles" I loved), it's pragmatic to cut your losses.

Dennis said...

Chew and The Web are the only ones here that I enjoyed reading, so I'm glad they're still going.

Andrenn said...

Great article, Matt.

I stick to Image nowadays so these titles don't effect me but I'll admit when I first heard of a new Exiles ongonig under Jeff Parker I was tempted to pick it up, I sort of regret not at least checking it out.

For me the cancellation that will never stop hurting is Spawn: Godslayer. An amazing fantasy book that only lasted 9 issues when seeds where planted for years of stories by the masterful Brian Holguin. It was shot down way before it's time much like these Marvel titles where so I feel your pain.

about me! said...

I really haven't enjoyed anything that Marvels published in the last couple years, but I can't get enough of SWORD. That will be my go to gift trade for friends birthdays and such, hopefully it can pull a resurrection.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

It's just sad that new Marvel series' are expected to sell so much more than a new Image title is. S.W.O.R.D. as an independent series would have killed but because Marvel makes it it gets the can within five months. So shameful.

Also, I have those five Dakota North issues and there's a reason that one got canned. Not hugely impressive. Really glad she was added to the Daredevil title but her as a model/P.I. was pretty woeful.

Monch said...

I think Marvel should handle each new, unproven series as a Limited Series: tell the writer she/he has only 6 issues or so, but that if it gets a good result it will result in an ongoing.

This way writers already KNOW the series will last X issue and won’t take a slow pace or other direction that it would have taken if it was an ongoing. They can still leave plot points open in the case it becomes an ongoing, sprinkle themes just as they were planning to.

But it easier and better for the writer to write something if they already know when it would end. I can’t imagine, for example, JMS Thor title being so slow to get really good if it wasn’t about a known character as Thor. New series need to get people hooked fast.

I know that Marvel just likes to create a lot of new series and but eventually have to cancel them due to perceived low sales (not all can be top tier).

Having them as a bunch of Limited series from the on start, will help them out. Price it better. Have a bunch of them group together in Trade Paper backs.

If it doesn’t pan out, well it already was just a onetime deal. If it does pan out, have the ongoing.

M├ędard said...

I wasn't picking up any of these titles you mentoined, but I was looking forward to pick up SWORD in a nice premiere hardcover. Now it'll probably only get a trade edition, which I'll pick up anyway because it seems like a damn fine series to me.

It's a shame Marvel isn't giving their series a bit of playground to find it's market. Hopefully they'll follow Vertigo and make their first issues cheaper. Maybe not one dollar, if that's to much for them, but I think two dollars would also make a difference. Especially if a lot more titles go for four dollars these days.

Jason said...

While a high cover price is usually a deterrent for me, I just don't have the room in my budget for any new series right now, plus I wasn't interested in any of those Marvel titles from the get-go (with the exception of Omega Flight).

The Unwritten, on the other hand, was worth the gamble at $1 for the first issue, and I felt the same about Greek Street #1 and Joe the Barbarian #1.

Nathan Aaron said...

Ha ha, yeah I guess Dakota North wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but for some crazy reason I really liked that series! I was so disappointed when it got cancelled. Ah well!

Matt, Druid is DARK! I mean, DARK! I LOVED that series, but man, talk about a main character you just sorta hate. LOL I bet if Warren Ellis had been as popular back then as he is now, it would have gotten a much bigger chance for success.

I'm really surprised Spiderwoman isn't doing well. I mean, it's a different kind of book, not superheroics per say. More like Alias was. But I'm loving it. And is 50K really a bad sales number in today's market? Maybe. I'm betting that stupid (sorry! LOL) motion comic hurt those sales, as people who downloaded that "got the whole story" so they didn't pick up the book. I think Marvel will give them a big chance, given the creative team and how freakin' long they've worked to get that book going. BUT at the same time I just read recently where both Bendis and Maleev are going to be starting a new creator owned comic book this year. THAT doesn't sound good for Spiderwoman, as I can't see HOW Maleev could possibly do two monthly titles.

smkedtky said...

I somehow missed the second issue of SWORD and realized I didn't much care. I liked the first issue despite the Beast's horselike appearance, but never bothered with it again.

DOCTOR VOODOO, on the other hand, I stuck with even though I knew it would never last (if Doctor Strange can't support an ongoing then Doctor Voodoo, who up until recently wasn't even seen outside of Fred Hembeck's comic strips, never could). Still, Rick Remender was off to a great start with the book and, despite some fill in art, Jefte Palo's art was as great as ever (like Frank Miller at his best). It was a really good book.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Kieron Gillen will get a new x-book post second coming and was given a choice (ala Jeff Parker) on what title to write... My guess would be post second coming there would be a rotation of writers:
UXM - Matt Fraction w/ ??? (I think he will get a co-writer as he will be doing THOR, INVINCIBLE IRON MAN, and CASANOVA to lessen his workload)
X-Force - Either Rick Remender or Kieron Gillen.
New Mutants - Zeb Wells
X-Factor - Peter David
X-Men: Legacy - Christopher Yost & Craig Kyle

Matt Ampersand said...

@Monch: Kieron Gillen stated in an interview (or might have been his own site) that he set up the first arc of SWORD, the first five issues, as a stand alone story so that if the worst did happen (and it did) it would have a clean, natural end to it.

@Nathan: Should have clarified, but Spider-Woman sold 50K on it's first issue, second one went down to 37K, and 32K in the third one. For comparison, Bendis and Maleev ENDED their run around 50K. Unless Spider-Woman gains a lot of readers through hype, I don't see it lasting as long as their run on DD.

PMMJ said...

So, really, Marvel should just sign people for limited series (or, in my dream world, straight-to-graphic novels) and if they turn out hits, order another. Self-contained stories, maybe with hints of what could come later, but no expectation of an ongoing. Marvel gets their prepackaged trade paperback, and no one is let down.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately starting a series as a mini nowadays would not help, because most of these series are cancelled before the TP comes out. I can't even count how many times I've heard, or even said, "Its a mini, then I'll just wait for the trade".

Bevbos said...

It really is a shame about Dr. Voodoo and S.W.O.R.D. Both are top-notch titles. I would hope that now that Disney is in charge, some money could be spared to develop properties like these. There's really nothing intrinsic in, say, Wolverine, that makes him a more durable character than Dr. Voodoo, for instance.

Matt Ampersand said...

Also, Marvel is pricing ALL their minis at 3.99 per issue, which makes waiting for the trade less expensive that buying all the single issues. This is especially true for long mini series, such as the 8 issue-long Marvels Project or The Torch.

The Reviewer said...

Personally speaking WC, I was sad for Heroes for Hire. It was a great comic, and did not seem to catch on as I would have hoped it would.

My Heroes for Hire 12 review - http://www.comicbookandmoviereviews.com/2011/10/heroes-for-hire-12.html

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