Monday, March 06, 2006

Superboy Punched Through Time

So, the oddest thing happened the other day. There I was, sitting in my tiny, squalid apartment, a newly divorced bachelor reheating a meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken which I had bought with a clipped coupon.

And then BOOM, Superboy punched through time so hard I woke up the next morning in a palatial estate overlooking California wine country. I was a rich and famous author who just happened to be married to Neko Case. Then Kurt Cobain and Wesley Willis came over for brunch because, you know, Superboy is so strong the force of his blows causes the dead to rise from their graves.

Superboy should hit time more often.

OK, originally I was thinking of belaboring the point, but I have changed my mind and decided to make this as concise as possible. Because, really, elaboration never really did me any favors except turning any coherent arguments I have into a hopeless muddle.

Basically: line wide relaunches are just a stupid idea. The direct market retail mechanism for monthly superhero comics is as close to a zero-sum game as can be imagined. If you keep an eye on the numbers posted at places like ICV2 (and I'll admit I don't follow as closely as some, but it gets repetitive after a while), the sales story in comics these days is a fairly stable dollar amount being fought over with increased ferocity by the Big Two. The problem is that, just like in the Cold War, both sides are so symmetrically matched that any real gains are essentially illusory. (Apparently in January, DC closed the gap in dollar share with Marvel, bringing it from 5% to only 1.5%. Marvel will undoubtedly strike back next month, or the month after. At this point it's academic.)

It's about putting product on the shelves, it's brinkmanship in order to ensure that neither side loses an inch of shelf space to the other. No new observations there.

But I think it bears saying that, at this point, I can think of few things less likely to succeed on anything more than a piecemeal basis than a line-wide revamp / relaunch. Tom Spurgeon spoke on the topic here, and as is often the case his words rattled around my head for a while before anything solid cohered. This is the money quote:
I'm also not convinced a big chunk of the fanbase, primed for years to divide money between their selected favorites among the regular titles while extending their wallets to a few temporary must-haves with industry-wide "buzz," has it in them to suddenly divert that energy and capital to a wider variety of titles, particularly when others are going to play the event card for a while longer now.

Trying to make every book in their line a "must have", replacing (to a limited, but still tangible degree) the endless event-driven hype with the perception of actual quality (I mean, come on, having Kurt Busiek writing friggin' Aquaman is the mainstream superhero equivalent of taking a gun to a knife fight) . . . in a perfect world (ie, one where the rules of market economics functioned less retardedly then in comics [is "retardedly" a word?]) these would be the ingredients for DC to take a step towards breaking Marvel's permanent - if slim - hegemony. But the comics market doesn't work like that.

There's only so much money to go around. And most comic book buyers are about the furthest thing in the world from the theoretical "rational" agent that economists study... if what you're attempting to measure are any kind of "objective" standards of quality and value (the type of things you would normally try to quantify in art). No, these are patently false assumptions, or else Wolverine would not have been such a consistently popular comic book these past twenty years. The fact is that for the majority of Wolverine's existence, the book has been bad to mediocre, even by the relatively loose standards of good Wolverine stories. And yet people buy it - have bought it - month in and month out. Because, and this is where DC is ultimately fighting an uphill battle, the product is not a quality issue of Wolverine, but merely a 32-page paper pamphlet that has pictures of Wolverine in it. Marvel figured out a long time ago that they didn't need to expend a lot of energy on "sure things" like Wolverine because they would sell regardless, so long as quality didn't dip below a certain level. They discovered exactly what this level was in the 1990s with Spider-Man, but I would argue that creating comics so aggressively bad as that is almost as difficult as creating comics that are really, really good. So as long as Wolverine shows up and fights ninjas every month, people will show up to buy the comic.

These are the buying habits of the vast majority of mainstream costumers, and they can only be changed slowly, if at all. Meaning: just because you have a bunch of decent creators producing good work on books like Aquaman and Firestorm and Hawkman, it does not necessarily follow that sales will explode. In a closed system, the best you can hope for is that sales across the line will level. Assuming the pressure from across the aisle continues (and neither side can ever balk, Marvel's already got at least one major crossover in the hopper to counter DC's One Year Later and 52), you're in a situation where, for the most part, the only way a person is going to be able to add Aquaman to their list on anything but an occasional, event-driven basis is if they drop Batman or Action. And in most fans minds, the value of a 32 page book of Superman drawings supercedes the value of 32 pages of Aquaman drawings. From an economic point of view, does it make sense to bring the sales of the top books down in order to lift sales for the mid-tier?

I don't have an answer to that, and in any event, we won't know how successful "One Year Later" will have been for about six months or so. Hell, we could see a miracle and the direct market's total dollar amount could increase exponentially. But again - I don't see a flood of new costumers in the stores chomping at the bit in order to see what Aquaman has been up to. Whether or not a few piecemeal, hard-fought success stories will have been worth the incredible exertion is a damn good question, and one on which the immediate future of the direct market hinges. Any sales gains are going to be the equivalent of robbing from Peter in order to pay Paul - and by making such a bald ploy for increased market share, DC is gambling that the Peter getting jacked is Peter Parker. We shall see.

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