Saturday, February 12, 2011

Marvel Death=Sales - A Solution?

At the ComicsPro retailer summit, Senior Vice President of Sales at Marvel Comics announced that Marvel are going to kill off a main character every quarter. They are doing this because of the grand media response they’ve received to the recent death in Fantastic Four, as well as the tripling sales spike this death received. It seems Marvel think death is big business but does it make good comics? I’m making the argument “NO!”, or at least ‘not always’, and I’m also going to put forward a drastic and different solution that might aid the sales woes the entire comics industry appears to be facing. Read on to see me possibly revolutionise the way comics are currently made.

Image taken from Mayo Report
Yes, it’s true that the Death Bag issue of Fantastic Four did see a dramatic spike in sales. In fact, sales just about tripled. That’s big business, and comics is a business, but it’s not sustainable. Captain America sales went through the roof when he died and yet the title soon went back to the normal sales it had been experiencing before the death. And it also returned to the normal slow grinding slump in sales that affects nearly every comic being sold through the direct marker right now.

The sales spike doesn’t last forever. Truthfully, it rarely lasts past that month, with residual sales normally dropping back within 1-4 months. Then it’s back to square one. Unless you have someone die all the time, surely that will keep sales peaked, right?

Is a death in comics going to become the new holofoil embossed cover? Wait, I already thought death in comics was a joke, what will it be after this new evolution? It seems that a death comic only escalates sales to this variety if it’s a big character biting the dust. The press didn’t really care when Ares or Nightcrawler died and neither did the rubbernecking speculators who buy big now with hopes to sell bigger later.

I would think, however, if there’s always someone dying then people will start to care less and less. Cap’s death sold hundreds of thousands, the FF death only scraped the series above one hundred thousand. It’s a law of diminishing returns. Over-killing this type of plot point will more likely push the current readership away as it lessens the value of serious storytelling, and those it draws in rarely seem to stay – if the numbers are indication.

It should be mentioned that other great sales spike gimmicks are the anniversary issue, you collect all the issues that have come prior and you add them up to find a special centenary issue for your character. Is it cheating? A little, yeah, but those #x00 issues usually sell well and they’ve also usually got some pretty neat content in them as well. There is also the relaunch number 1 issue. Everyone likes to feel they’re in on the ground floor, and a number 1 comic must be collectible, right?

It’s been said before but the only way to draw in bigger numbers is to tell better stories. It’s true, the better the stock you put on the shelves then the more people will buy it. It’s not about collectability value, it’s about quality value. But, and I am acutely aware of this, Marvel already put out some very high quality material. It’s out there but it isn’t always accessible. Here’s my problem, and my suggested solution. Marvel could read the following and try it for one year, see what happens.

Many of the great comics being created in the Marvel U right now are long runs from creators. A creator gets a handful of years to craft a landscape and in that time they detail grand plans and finite minutiae. It usually works out and right now we have Bendis on Avengers, Brubaker on Captain America, Hickman on Fantastic Four, Fraction on Invincible Iron Man, just to name a few. These creators are gaining rave reviews but slowly slipping sales. I can only postulate but it seems there must be some reason why these good comics are not being bought in better numbers.

If a reader doesn’t get in on the ground floor of a run that’s going to soak up years then maybe they just trade wait it. There’s nothing worse than wanting to pick up the single issue but knowing it will only offer complete enjoyment if supported by the prior five trades. People will skip that, there’s very few who will just grab everything right there and then. If someone does grab the trade then they’ll most likely want to keep going in trade so as not to break up their run between shelves and longboxes.

Others might not want to buy in on the start because they know the pay off will come years later and they just don’t have the patience. And some might jump on but then find a convenient jumping off point if there’s a lull in the story and once that happens people rarely buy back in.

To set one thing straight, I think these long form tales are great. It’s really cool to see creators afforded the time and comfort to spread a masterful tale out in great detail. These runs are critically acclaimed for a reason – but they also aren’t selling for a reason.

You’ll notice that Fantastic Four sold well on the death but they also had a spike a fair few issues earlier. This was when Hickman came on board. A new creative team is probably the fourth most common reason for a spike. People want to dip a toe and see if the hype is worthy. As is also usual, these sales spikes dip back down to the average sales number, or, if the new team isn’t cutting the grade, below the standard sales bar.

Marvel are now intending, and this is “no joke”, to kill off a main character every quarter. I’d like to think this is said because the death’s were already coming through the pipeline (like The Death of Spider-Man already is) and not just as a knee-jerk reaction, and editorial mandate, because the FF death bag got some press and spiked sales. I’m also sure Marvel are preparing a few more anniversary issues and number 1’s in the coming quarters. And those issues will all sell well, but those sales won’t be sustained. Does that mean we need to have a death, anniversary, and relaunch issue in each quarter? There are only so many titles Marvel put out, within a decade everyone would have gone through the cycle. Trends show that overall sales, and ongoing sales for these titles, would not have budged at all. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion they might just dip a little if this were to be the case. But Marvel wants to try anything to get that sales spike.

Which all begs the question:

Why aren’t Marvel looking to change creative teams more often?

Dig, if you will, a rolling roster where a creator dips into a title for 3 issues, drops a story full of awesome, and then rolls off into the sunset. It can be done, not every story needs 5 years to be told, or 12 issues, or even six issues for the trade. Hickman’s ‘Solve Everything’ was only 3 issues and it made the world sit up and care about the Fantastic Four. Gillen did it when he took over Thor; ‘Latverian Prometheus’ is a great little story that didn’t need to drag on. Aaron’s Secret Invasion Black Panther story and Get Mystique were 3-4 issues each. All of these stories are current classics, so imagine if that’s the sort of quality we got for each and every arc.

Writers are currently spending their time seeding plot threads to tie together come 2012 but sometimes all you need is a few issues. Get in and get out. Dominate the story, keep it tight, don’t decompress, and leave before sales even get the chance to slump. Then the next creative team comes on, you get a spike, mild dip, right into another spike as another creative team comes on. If someone doesn’t like one creative team then they wait 3 months and hop back on. But with change will come the mind set that the buyers can experiment. They might try new things because they only need invest 3 issues worth to see if they like it. Comic arcs need to be shorter.

Not every great idea needs to take years to come to fruition. Sometimes you get lightning in a bottle and then you can be done. If creative teams are shuffling at least once a year then you’re bound to get a great creator on your favourite character eventually.

I think the constant sales spikes provided by new creative teams, and maybe creative directions as well, coupled with the fact these creators need to bring their A games at all times means we’ll get better stories, and if we don’t then the creator moves on and someone else comes on board who can bring the thunder.

I would be interested to see this method tried, even just for one year, and see if sales are positively impacted. At this stage of the race, some creative thinking needs to be employed to boost sales with a lasting and sustainable impact. Gimmick deaths will only last so long, the logical progression is back to variant embossed covers and we all know how that ended last time.

At least with varied creative teams, and they can have more than 3 issues but probably no more than 12 I would say, the emphasis is on good stories. That’s where the effort should always be made, shouldn’t it? I can't guarantee this theory will work but what we've got isn't working, and I'm sure killing characters for giggles isn't going to show any onward and upward data trends appearing.


Deaths, anniversaries, and relaunches will spike sales but have no guarantee to hold the audience. Marvel needs to look at the big game and know that only good stories will boost sales with meaning. They have good stories now but they’re not getting into people’s hands so perhaps that needs to be looked at. If the stories are shorter, easier to jump onto, and out of, and every creator is trying to strike a great moment with every panel and page then you breed a competitive environment that will benefit the reading audience and then they will vote with their wallets.

All I want to see is sales rising and good stories getting into more hands. This is how I see it happening. Spread the word.

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Anonymous said...

I had not heard of this until now. I love marvel but this is terrible. Killing characters for the sake of sales? How does that even work? Pretty soon no one will care anymore. Knowing that each "dead" character will only be gone for a few months. Especially since the each death issue will prob be like 5 bucks.

Patrick said...

Wow that is messed up. 4 deaths a year. Just to boost sales. As if death wasn't already a joke in the comic industry. I'm more of a DC guy so this doesn't affect me much but I feel bad for Marvel fans that are gonna see one of their favorite characters killed just because some fat cat sitting in Marvel HQ wants to boost sales.

Brandon Whaley said...

I've already decided that each character this happens to is going to get their book dropped. This type of thinking is ridiculous and indicative of what is wrong with the industry. I really hope they rethink this. I like your idea of shorter arcs though. Makes more sense than this idiocy.

Midnight Monk said...

That just stupid, I'm sorry but thats just bad writing. May as well let Brian Bendis write every book then since he loves to kill off every character if he could then stupidly bring them back

brandon said...

Marvel could try a) promoting better b) shortening their line up of books and c) lowering prices if they want specific title's sales to increase unit wise - which I am not convinced is all that important next to total revenue.

Klep said...

This idea of Marvel's is one of their worst ideas ever. The only reason big deaths sell so well is because they are so rare. If you make them commonplace, their sales figures will also be commonplace. I don't mind a death for a story's sake (well I do, but that's because I like happy endings), but death for sales' sake is just awful.

Anonymous said...

Retcon Joe said...

Really a death a quarter isn't going to garner much in the way of long term sales. Yes, there will be spikes, there always have and always will be.

Your other ideas are sound and would create interest and probably sales would increase for a while. The one idea that hasn't been mentionned is the dollar figure. A drop in price might help.

My kids don't have the kind of money to shell out for 3 or 4 books a month at $3.99. Truth is neither do I and I've been buying for thirty years. I know there are smart financial people out there that would debate lowering the price however the only other ways is to cut back on the number of titles published and no one wants that to happen.

Great Column!

Colt said...

Moving past all the death stuff to the idea that arcs should be shorter, I've always been an advocate for the Hellboy/Atomic Robo model, where each story is contained to a mini-series. There's nothing saying one team can't do multiple mini-series which can carry plot points over, but each would have to be a complete story, unto itself.

I think it'd make it easier for new readers to get into monthly superhero comics, cut back on delays from artists that can't maintain a monthly schedule, and remove the need for issues that are just there to tread water or stall until leaping into the next big event tie-in.

Also, totally unrelated, but would The Weekly Crisis have any interest in adding a weekly art feature? I've got some time on my hands, and have a few ideas that I think could be fun. I'd normally forward this question to Kirk, but I've not seen him around lately.

mugiwara said...

When I see how people are making a huge deal of an irrelevant death (ohmygosh, a member of the FF is dead! it's the first time it happens! nothing will never be the same! I must buy this historical issue!), I cant' blame Marvel for wanting to make easy money of it. Even a brief spike in sales is better than no sales at all.

Matt Duarte said...

The problem with series-of-minis format that indies do so well is that Marvel (and DC) have a pretty big side of business with subscriptions. They HAVE to put a certain number of issues for series, or else they won't be able to fulfill out these subscriptions. (Though it's certainly not as big as it used to be)

@Colt: If you want to discuss a guest post, you can send me an email to:


Naymlap said...

That seems like a bit of a joke. I don't think there is a publisher dumb enough to use kill a major character every three months as a publicity stunt. Oh, wait, there probably is. But I don't think Marvel actually is planned this as a 'let's kill Spider-Man next, then Iron Man, etc.' deal.
If any characters actually bite it, it'll be because nothing sells the gravity of an event like someone dying. In the past two years we've seen Wasp, Hercules (he got better), Nightcrawler, Cable, the Red Skull (I'm counting it), and I'm sure some others die at Marvel in the service of events. And I'm sure there were other major characters I missed. So if they're killing 4 this year, that seems about normal.
I'm in different to this news.

Retcon Joe said...

@ Naymlap

Don't forget Nova and StarLord. However, they aren't really dead are they?

DS30455 said...

This was done before - at DC. Before Infinite Crisis on the Batman titles. After Batman went from the current writer of Rucka to the hands of Loeb on Hush, it bounced to other writers - and a new writer came on to tell a self-contained title that was 12 issues on Detective so that was a bust. But if I recall, on Batman, it went Hush, another writer's six issues, to Winnick, the War Crimes 4 part crossover, then I think it settled on Winnick for good until Infinite Crisis. At the time Didio said he just wanted to bring in talent to do their story, tell it, and move out for the next team, so each big name writer could tell their story without having to stay on the title. For me, at least, this meant little continuity between 'arcs' because each writer wasn't continuing a story - and I didn't like it. I'm not sure if other DC titles had rotating teams like this or not. You'd have to go back and look.

Anonymous said...

The series of minis you suggest was tried under "Brand New Day", and as we all know the storytelling was inconsistent, and while sales started high (short term), they eventually leveled out in the 50K to 60K range. I agree we need less decompression and better stories overall, but I don't want to see a revolving door of creators coming in every few months.

Aaron K said...

It should be at first admitted that anything Marvel or DC do to boost sales are not aimed at anyone of us reading this. They are trying to attract non-readers or casual readers, not the folks who patrol message boards. And, as comic readers, we should encourage this lest the industry go the way of the dodo. Sales seem solid enough to keep them in business at present; let's not complain that they are trying to keep it that way.

That said, the problem is not death. The problem is resurrection. Were deaths never (or rarely) to be followed by resurrections, I don't think folks would cry "Gimmick!"; instead, they would lament the loss of their favorite characters. And it deserves noting that without death, superhero comics lose a great deal. If I *know* no one will die, who cares if Thanos has the Infinity Gauntlet? There must be that fear overhanging superhero encounters to keep them tense, and death is the ultimate fear.

Regardless, I don't think shortening writer tenures on books is a solution, or even a good idea. First, it must be acknowledged that longer story arcs and decompressed writing is the modus operandi of many of the best writers working today. If you abandon that, you force those writers to change their styles wildly or you must find new writers. That hardly seems ideal.

Second, in order for the Marvel U to seem a living universe, long story arcs would still need to happen. We still need to see Spider-Man deal with the grief of some tragedy over years. So, that task gets passed on to a new writer every three issues, instead of permitting one to let it run its course. Basically, you now have editorial setting long story arcs upon writers during their shorter arcs. That doesn't sound good.

Third, I imagine that sales bumps for new writers occur mostly with "big names". When Kieron Gillen took over for JMS on THOR, I doubt there was a sales increase, despite his run being high quality. That said, how many big names are there? You take Hickman off FF and give it to Bendis for 3 issues, then Brubaker, then Aaron, then Slott, then Pak, then Millar (again), then Van Lente, then... Who else is there? Now less-renowned writers are cutting their teeth on a title like FANTASTIC FOUR (after only a year and a half), and that's not going to equal greater sales. Further, these writers are successful because they're *good*. To replace them on a title after shorter runs simply decreases the number of issues written by *good* writers.

Fourth, it may simply not be feasible for so many writers to be able to write all these different books. Some writers are just better on certain types of books. More importantly, writers *prefer* writing certain books. Inspiration has to strike; there has to be a connection to the characters; there has to be a story in mind. This can't really be forced. Just because it's Brubaker's turn to write DEADPOOL TEAM-UP doesn’t mean he'll have anything to say, or that it will necessarily be good.

Fifth, if only Marvel took this shorter run initiative, I would not be surprised to see certain talents flee to DC or elsewhere when their contracts were up if those companies would give them greater freedom over their writing.

BDS said...

Nightcrawler is dead? Wow, I have missed a great deal. Stunts like this drove me from buying Marvel and the increase in price has kept me away. I understand the idea that you bring in new readers, but will they stay. How about we try and make comics affordable and encourage reading at the elementary level more. Grow the readers from the ground up. Silly, I realize. I mean video games and gadgets are taking over at an alarming rate, but kids still are curious about comics and there are fewer avenues for them to see and (beg) obtain them. They are not in stores and shops as much it at all. Many places do not have comicbook shops. Availability might be nice.

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