Tuesday, October 23, 2007


I'd like to thank Tom for taking notice of my general musings on the state of Marvel / DC relationships in the direct market. He is correct to point out that my assertion that "The direct market is a zero-sum game..." is, precisely speaking, not precisely correct. It would probably be more accurate to say that Marvel and DC regard the direct market as a zero-sum game, their zero-sum game. Their corporate strategies in terms of periodical sales (still the main thrust of their business model) are ruthlessly built around the notion that the proverbial pie doesn't get any bigger -- even if it does, but more on that in a bit.

This is not a fanciful assertion: for anyone who may be unfamiliar with the way the "Big Two" play out their version of "the Great Game", look at the last five years in terms of their event planning, like television networks who have to place shows in direct competition for the same pool of viewers. (The time allotted for watching television has always been a "zero-sum game" -- however, the advent of VCRs and especially Tivo has changed that. I can see a generation of kids coming up who have no idea what it's like to have to make Sophie's choice between watching, say, The Cosby Show and The Simpsons; or who can't conceive of not being able to catch an episode they missed by instantly going online and ordering a season pass from iTunes.) For many years the idea of massive, line-wide crossovers lay a bit fallow. After Bob Harris got axed from Marvel, Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas made their dislike for crossovers well-known. So they didn't do any for a long time. DC still had crossovers, but they were sleepy affairs: Our Worlds At War, The Joker's Last Laugh, etc. No massive world-changing epics to be seen.

But then DC gave us Identity Crisis. I think this is the precise beginning of the current sales cycle: Identity Crisis promised to be centrally important to the DC Universe in a way that crossovers really hadn't been for years. Sure enough, it was, in more ways than one. Sure, dozens of specific plot elements spun out of the series, but more than anything else the tone of the series went a significant ways towards setting a new tone for the entire line. Marvel didn't sleep on this: Avengers: Disassembled (a sort-of baby steps dry-run of a crossover) came soon after, which led more or less directly into the massive House of M, which in turn laid the seeds for the even more enormous Civil War, as well as World War Hulk, and a few smaller but no less successful initiatives like The Other. This brings us to where we are now, a retail environment that has become so accustomed to using crossover events to boost sales that almost nothing else is even capable of boosting sales anymore.

Spurgeon very astutely summarizes:
. . . [You] can argue that DC and Marvel seem more interested in seizing market share than overall growth and react with the former in mind more than the latter (DC shifting Countdown so that it drives attention to the next maxi-series as opposed to the regular-title emphasis of 52; the emphasis given stunt creative teams at both companies even when the result stands against time-honored sales virtues like publishing regularity), and that despite gains that companies may be leaving sales on the table now or down the road and perhaps making more severe any eventual down cycle.

If I had to guess (and this is purely a guess, based merely on what little I know of how these companies do business), I would say that Marvel was probably quite surprised with how well their adaptation / continuation of Stephen King's Dark Tower series has done. Keep in mind that we're not talking about a hardcover or trade-paperback that shifted some respectable amount of copies through Barnes & Noble, we're talking about an actual non-superhero licensed fantasy book that did well over 100,000K in the direct market for seven months running. If anything disproves the zero-sum game hypothesis, it's this. I don't doubt that there's a considerable overlap between superhero fans and Stephen King fans -- especially considering that Dark Tower aficionados are often a breed apart from fans of King's more "mundane" horror and suspense works, many of whom probably find the high fantasy mode of the Gunslinger books slightly unpalatable. (I think King himself is aware of this division, or at least I remember reading something from his where talked about the differences between King fans and Dark Tower fans.) But the fact remains: there aren't, there can't be 100,000K superhero fans in the direct market who have read all seven Gunslinger books and found it easy to slip the Marvel book into their weekly pile. That would be a demographic miracle. These new readers had to come from somewhere.

It's also necessary to look at another hot literary property which succeeded in flying underneath just about everyone's radar: Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series, currently being adapted & compiled by Marvel under a licensing agreement begun by the Dabel Bros. during their brief association with the company. No-one paid attention to the Guilty Pleasures adaptation while it was being published: it languished in the middle tier of the sales charts, issue #6 selling 30,759 copies in April of this year. It got a lot of snickers from people who thought it was pretty damn silly (for the record, it is a remarkably silly series). As opposed to King, there probably aren't very many people in the direct market who read Hamilton. Hamilton's books are a publishing phenomenon, but practically invisible to much of the world, because their audience is overwhelmingly female. They're basically supernatural suspense stories with strong erotic overtones, sort-of Anne Rice with more bits of overt bodice-ripping, for those who find Harlequin romances a bit tame. (And for chicks who are sexually attracted to werewolves, but the less said on this subject the better, trust me.) So they're fantasy books for chicks, in a nutshell. The direct market doesn't have strong channels to support straight fantasy, and they don't certainly have anything resembling a strong outreach appeal to potential female readers -- so on the face of it, the Marvel license may have seemed an odd fit.

But then a funny thing happened. When they compiled the first Anita Blake series into a swanky hardcover, it sprouted legs and ran for the hills:
Anita Blake is one of the genre titles that Marvel has taken over from the Dabel Bros. In fact, it is the most successful of the group, as evidenced by the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter: Guilty Pleasures hardcover having stayed in the top 25 on BookScan chart of graphic novels sold in bookstores since it debuted in July, making it the one of the fastest-selling non-manga titles released so far in 2007.

Maybe not Naruto nubmers, but the consistent sales speak to the fact that this wasn't a one-time spike. Hamilton has a huge fanbase, and if you put Anita Blake material in front of them, they will buy it. If Marvel keeps a steady hand, they could have a strong, evergreen backlist presence on their hands.

So, is the direct market a zero-sum game? No. I think I knew it when I wrote it, but the kind of growth we see is hard to quantify, let alone easily summarize, so it's easy to try to elide it. The bread & butter superhero comics with which the "Big Two" make their bones are still frighteningly inaccessible to the casual reader. I'm not talking about something like Identity Crisis or Civil War, which have been repackaged for mainstream audiences. (This despite the fact that they often seem to be particularly inaccessible artifacts of high superhero decadence to those who regularly read superhero comics, making them unlikely objects of mainstream appeal.)(I also wish I had numbers on how well books like Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis and Civil War were selling in collected form through Bookscan, but I don't have the time to go digging through ICV2 records, unfortunately.) No, my main point is that the actual floppy format comic book pamphlets are still an incredibly dicey prospect for mainstream readers. The format long ago lost any real cache in terms of mainstream cost-benefit analysis: the artifact is too small, too flimsy, and too expensive to be of value to an audience who has not already been conditioned to see inherent value in the format.

As long as weekly pamphlet sales remain the engine which powers the direct market, it will continue to be a zero-sum system, or at least, a system with a statistically negligible intake of new readers. (This is, of course, impossible to verify, and you can feel free to call me on that if you wish.) The direct market's growth, such as it is, seems to be occurring outside the realm of the traditional superhero aficionado market. This is, again, unverifiable on strict terms, but there's a general consensus that, at least in terms of manga, the larger part of the new comics readers are not superhero fans. Again, let's look at ICV2's numbers on market growth:
Tough comparables continue to keep the market for comics and graphic novels in the direct market growing at a more sedate 5% pace, after blistering the charts with double digit growth earlier this year. Strong sales of the Civil War line in the comparable months a year ago hurt comic category growth rates in both July and August, with a 7% growth rate in August after a 6% growth rate in July.

The fact that the market is eking out gains against such a major editorial event in the year ago period is actually an indicator of a strong underlying market this year. The big drop-off in Countdown sales vs. 52's isn't helping either, making the continued growth, albeit at a slower pace, even more impressive.

I don't want to be accused of being a gloomy Cassandra in the face of good news: there's real growth in these numbers, and perhaps even sustainable growth. But I think the fact that Civil War caused such furious market growth, impressive market growth which has not been sustained since the series ended, is probably the first indicator that there has been less actual market growth than temporary increases predicated by a "gotta catch 'em all" collectors' mentality in the face of crossovers. As Spurgeon said: "despite gains . . . companies may be leaving sales on the table now or down the road and perhaps making more severe any eventual down cycle." What sales are being left on the table? Could it be the lack of any real mainstream publishing initiative to persuade fans of The Dark Tower and Anita Blake, not to mention Joss Whedon or Allan Heinberg, that there is more in the Marvel line to interest them? Again, this is unverifiable: there's no way of know if there aren't thousands of new readers who saw a house ad for, say, New Excalibur in the back of Dark Tower #5 and said, "I must own this wonderful piece of graphic literature!" OK, that's a loaded example, but you get my point.

One question remains: the mainstream comics industry isn't particularly imaginative, so their answer to the success of Stephen King and Laurell K. Hamilton comics will probably be more comics adapted from the works of popular genre writers. What's next? The obvious answers would be Tolkein's Middle-Earth and JK Rowling's Harry Potter. But despite a few middling comics adaptations over the years, the Middle-Earth books have become such a hot property in the wake of the films I don't see any comics company gaining the cultural clout to successfully license them. (I could be wrong, but it seems that giving the Tolkein estate their bones would probably be more trouble than even the considerable rewards might be worth.) As for Harry Potter, that's probably the holy grail for any comics publisher, but unless I misremember Rowling has voiced her displeasure on the subject of comic books more than once. So it will most likely remain a dream, unless Warner Brothers is somehow able to intercede on DC's behalf (Warner produces the Potter films.) So it's more likely we'll see a rush of relatively smaller-bore properties, stuff like Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, Anne Rice's vampire books, Dean Koontz' Odd Thomas series. If the Marvel of 20 years ago was concerned with licensing the next hot toy property, the Marvel of 2007 might well gain from scouting the literary world. If they're smart, there's a possible answer to market attrition to be found there.

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