Lately my son has been reading through a hefty Omnibus of the John Byrne run of Fantastic Four issues. He remarked how different they felt from modern comics. At first he couldn’t quite put his finger on what was different, but eventually it came to him: a lot of space was devoted to filling the reader in on background details that were relevant to the story. Comics today seldom do this.
There is a great deal of irony here. First, the comics industry desperately needs new readers and seems clueless as to how to acquire them. And yet they continue to pump out stories that are so deeply buried in continuity that they are uninviting for a new reader. Certainly, comics today are more sophisticated in their storytelling. Fans point to this increase in complexity as a sign of how much comics have improved in the past few decades. And in many ways they are right. However, this same complexity means that someone new cannot pick up a comic with any hope of understanding what is going on.
Frequently someone will wander into my store having just seen an Iron Man or Thor movie and ask about the comics. I do my best to summarize what is going on, but the current plotlines are so convoluted they inevitably get confused and leave without purchasing anything. DC’s very successful relaunch of their line of comics in 2011 did wonders in allowing new readers an entry point into comics, but already many of those books are beginning to get some weighty continuity of their own. And Marvel’s success at the movies means most of the casual people off the streets are looking for a Thor or Iron Man or Avengers comic to read and Marvel is simply not “new-reader” friendly.
A second irony is this: thirty years ago you could pick up most comic titles off the stands and start reading without confusion. These books were numbered consecutively, so chances are you would be picking up Fantastic Four #240 or Thor #310 or some other high number. Once the numbering began for a book, the publishers kept it going, no matter how many times the readership might turn over. Conversely, these days a book is lucky to make it 50 issues before the publisher restarts the numbering for some arbitrary reason. Wolverine in particular keeps getting restarts even though the story in the “first” issue of the new series is likely continued directly from the “last” issue of the previous series. So what that means is thirty years ago you could pick up Captain America #287 as an introduction to the series and start reading with no problem, where today you might pick up Captain America #1 and be completely confused as to what is going on, unless you had happened to read the last twenty or thirty issues of the preceding series.
In their defense, I understand why the publishers do this. Every day someone comes into my store and asks for a good series to read. If I direct them to any title with a number past the single digits they inevitably put it back on the shelf and ask “Don’t you have anything that… you know….just started?” Which brings me to irony number three. Potential fans are obsessed with getting in on a series at the beginning, and yet at the same time they want an iconic “brand name” character. Unfortunately they are about fifty years too late to pick up the first issues of Hulk or Spider-Man, but they are not interested in giving something like Bloodshot a try because it is an unknown quantity (i.e. – no movie yet). So instead they fall for Marvel’s marketing gimmick and pick up the latest Number One, and wind up totally confused at the bogged down story that is already well underway. These potential comic fans aren’t coming back, folks. It’s easier to just go watch the latest movie. And still the publishers scratch their heads and wonder why sales continue to erode year after year.
Giving the people what they want is not always the best idea, especially when what they think they want is yet another Wolverine #1.
Traditionally the worst month for retail sales is February. People still have Christmas money (and gift cards) to spend in January and by March some people are starting to get their tax returns. But February is stuck right in the middle of a sales “No Man’s Land” and is the weakest month for most retailers.
For us, September has always been the month when sales take a sharp dive. Two factors figure into this, albeit in a roundabout way. First, the kids are back in school and although kids are not a significant percentage of our customer base, their parents are. Second, the East Texas State Fair happens here every September and it is a significant money drain. Truthfully, very few of our customers even go to the Fair, but it still affects the economy in this town. Bottom line is, September is the month that we try and prepare for, but never quite seem to handle as well as we would like.
So, it is interesting that DC Comics has chosen September as the month they try to win back lapsed readers with company wide events. In 2011 they launched The New 52. There was an avalanche of grumbling about how DC was “pissing on decades of continuity”, but when the books were actually launched, most of those complainers were silenced. The launch was a resounding success and the best thing to happen to our store in many years. One year later they suspended regular publication of their core “New 52” books and offered “Zero” issues of each title as a way to introduce even more people to their characters and new line of books. It, too, was a terrific idea and helped keep their momentum going.
This year, they are again suspending publication of their regular universe books and instead hosting “Villain’s Month”. For the entire month of September, the DC universe villains will headline the books instead of the regular heroes (i.e. Joker will take over Batman). To make the deal even more interesting to collectors, DC planned 3D motion covers on each of these books. They are using some new technology that involved a very long lead time, so long, in fact, that they had to set the print runs for these books well in advance of the time when they would actually see any retailer orders. They printed what they thought were generous amounts, but then the comic shop orders came in with much larger numbers than they predicted.
Some publishers (I’m not naming names here) would have just alerted the press that these books were going to be in short supply, let the market go crazy and then use the aftermath frenzy to pump sales of all their other books. DC, however, saw that there was going to be a shortage and so they immediately scheduled a regular cover edition of all these books. They are even going to get final allocation numbers to us BEFORE we have to order these regular cover editions so we can plan accordingly.
All of this boils down to one basic principle, which I’m sure I’ll elaborate on in future posts: DC genuinely treats the comic shops as partners in publishing. My store has often been accused of being a “DC store” as we tend to push their books over many of the other publishers (not Valiant, though. Valiant also rocks!). And why wouldn’t we? I cannot begin to tell you how differently DC and Marvel treat retailers. DC is supportive and responsive where Marvel is generally secretive and belligerent. However, my point of this post is not to trash Marvel so much as point out the help that DC has given its direct market accounts.
I still see a lot of suspicion and general hostility every time DC makes an announcement of some future event or company wide plan. Let’s face it, there is a large chunk of the comic fan base that will never be happy with anything they do (and you know who you are). I think DC realizes they will never be able to make everyone happy, but they are genuinely trying to do the right things to insure that the comic market remains healthy in the long term.
So if we are guilty of being a “DC Store”, so be it, because their goals and our are the same.