The comic book market is going through a dramatic time of change. DC's "Rebirth" has been phenomenally successful, and August 2016 saw comic book sales hit a 20-year record! But the devil's in the details; while DC is flourishing, Marvel is struggling. February's sales figures left fans reeling — needless to say, Marvel has acknowledged that something is going badly wrong.
Indicating the scale of the company's concern, Marvel held their first Retailer Summit of the millennium last week. The summit gave retailers a chance to address their concerns to key Marvel figures, including David Gabriel (Senior Vice President – Sales and Marketing) and Axel Alonso (Editor-in-Chief). Given Marvel want news from this Summit to reach retailers across the US and beyond, many details have been made public — and it's becoming something of a hot topic! Some websites have gone for the sensational, trying to whip up as much controversy as possible. Here, though, I want to take an in-depth look at some of the most important points from the Summit...
1. Digital Sales Aren't Everything
The comic book market of today is very different to the one of, say, ten years ago. The biggest difference, of course, is the rise of the digital medium. While we get sales estimates from Diamond distributors, we simply have no way to know how well comics are selling over on the Marvel store or ComiXology. In fact, there were rumors that a number of comics are selling better digitally than in paper format, and some fans have speculated that Marvel is transitioning away from the traditional paper sales.
Now we know better. If digital sales were outperforming traditional sales across the range, it seems highly unlikely that Marvel would have set up the first Marvel Retail Summit. In fact, this looks set to become an annual event, suggesting that Marvel is looking to build a stronger relationship with retailers. It's the kind of response you'd be expecting if the direct retail market was still the primary sales channel.
2. Legacy Heroes in Crisis
It seems that October was a watershed moment for the comic book industry. Sales patterns changed, seemingly pretty suddenly, and Marvel was caught out. Even now, the company doesn't really seem to understand what drove the change; David Gabriel referenced the economy, and hinted at the political uncertainty surrounding the election. Meanwhile, in Gabriel's view Marvel had "probably a little too much product going out at the time", making the impact worse.
Marvel's famous 'Legacy Heroes' were hit the worst. Gabriel told ICv2:
"What we heard was that people didn't want any more diversity. [...] We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against. That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked."
Some sites have taken this to mean that comic book culture is moving away from the "diversity agenda," or that Marvel is claiming fans no longer want diversity. Frankly, they're reading too much into this. Many fans and retailers are excited about comics like Ms. Marvel, Spider-Gwen, and The Mighty Thor (comments from retailers at the Summit prove as much, and Marvel has released several statements to clarify this). In the blunt words of one retailer at the Summit:
"I don't think diversity is actually an issue, as long as the product is good."
The core issue seems to be that Marvel has lost the balance between new characters and the classic heroes, and this is problem they need to address. The "Generations" event later this year will provide an opportunity to unite heroes old and new; it even looks set to resurrect key characters such as Wolverine and Jean Grey. The Marvel Summit does not signal the death of diversity; it signals the rebirth of classic characters, and a redress of the balance between old and new.
3. Relaunches and Reboots
Unsurprisingly, Summit attendees wound up discussing Marvel's habit of driving up sales by continually relaunching their titles. These give a new creative team a boost, providing a natural jumping-on point — but also, as retailers observed, they also a natural jumping-off point for readers. Marvel also conceded that another of their key incentives, variant covers, only seem to work with first issues.
Surprisingly, though, they did find one tactic that worked. Amazing Spider-Man #25 was a mammoth-sized issue, with an increased cover price of $9.99. The result? Triple sales. Sure, some retailers and fans saw this as a gimmick, but half of retailers declared that it helped make their week. Personally, I considered it to be a strong issue, and well worth the cover price.
Interestingly enough, comments from the Summit suggest that there's a trade-off with constant relaunches; it seems this confuses the chronology of the trade paperbacks, leading to trade sales suffering.
4. Event Fatigue
For perhaps the first time ever, the Retailer Summit featured Marvel acknowledging the phenomenon known as "Event Fatigue." Many fans are weary of the constant run of events, with each year featuring a Summer Event that will "change the Marvel Universe forever!" The sales figures bear this out, with sales across an event dropping massively as it continues. Worse still, many Marvel events — including 2015's 'Secret War' and last year's 'Civil War II' — have finished late, with the writer needing an extra issue to tell their story, and the whole line suffering as a result.
Axel Alonso admitted that this has been a real problem:
"Where we run into trouble is in big events when we've had one writer, one artist, and we scheduled it too tight and/or the writer decided to add another issue at the 11th hour. Again, these things happen. I couldn't finish, and then everyone pays for it. The story gets done right, but at no small repercussion to the larger plan. We're sorry, and we feel your pain, because we felt it on our end before you guys felt it."
Marvel's solution this year? To return to the classic format, and use multiple artists to cover their next event, 'Secret Empire'. Meanwhile, in perhaps the most bizarre strategy I've ever come across, Marvel will deliberately overlap events to keep sales consistent. 'Generations' launches at the time Marvel are expecting sales of 'Secret Empire' to decline. The events are actually being staggered.
Retailers don't seem to have been too impressed with this logic, and fans are bemused by it. One retailer argued that there's too much promotional marketing noise for fans to tune in to either of the overlapping events.
Looking beyond 2017, though, many fans will be relieved to hear that 'Secret Empire' will be the last major event for the foreseeable future. David Gabriel revealed:
"Hopefully, you guys will be happy to know that at the end of Secret Empire, we do not have any big crossover event scheduled. We haven't even talked about one for 18 months, at the very least. Those will be away for quite a while."
- Captain America Will Lead The 'Secret Empire' In Marvel's 2017 Comic Book Event
- Did Marvel Comics Just Reveal The Return Of Iron Man?
- 'Back To Basics': Marvel Reportedly Shelving Politics & Legacy Heroes, But Doubling Down On X-Men
All in all, this first Retailer Summit is an important moment for Marvel. The company's recent sales performance is clearly concerning, but Marvel's taking steps to put matters right. Perhaps the most important part of this Summit is that Marvel is now working to rebuild their relationship with the retailers they depend on. These retailers are the ones who actually deal with the customers — and they're the ones who can really give Marvel the advice they need to hear.
Do you think Marvel's taking a step in the right direction?
(Source: ICv2; Poll Image Credit: Marvel Comics)