Secret Invasion! Siege! Fear Itself! Schism! Avengers vs. X-Men! Infinity! AXIS! Secret Wars! Secret Empire! Secret Gwenpool vs. Ultimate Spiderkid! OK, that last one was made up, but I’ll bet some of you had to Google it just to make sure. Since the MCU kicked off back in 2008, Marvel’s comics division has had an ever-increasing number of “events” that are promised to change the Marvel universe.
Part of the reasoning behind these events is to capitalize on the popularity of #Marvel movies and draw in new readers. This is an admirable goal, both from the standpoint of the company, which is trying to increase revenue, and the reader, who benefits from a wider and more diverse range of available titles when the audience size increases. The events are often billed as an “entry-point” for new fans, but is this really the best way to increase readership?
In less than 10 years Marvel has been forced to do two massive relaunches (that, if asked, swear are definitely NOT reboots). Marvel Now! and All-New, All Different Marvel were both designed to give new readers an accessible starting point in the decades-old universe. Instead, the massive crossovers are confusing to those only familiar with the handful of superheroes who have made it onto the silver screen, and the endless events exhaust the budgets and strain the interest of longtime fans. They become required reading, though, due to the changes made to both individual characters and the rules of the universe themselves. There are much better ways for Marvel to pique the interest of new, younger readers without continuous and extreme changes to the already battered folks in Earth 616.
This may sound sacrilegious to longtime fans, but the 20-or-so pages per month being sold for $3.99 or even $4.99 a pop just isn’t palatable to cash-strapped millennials used to binge watching whole seasons of TV shows at a time. For better or worse, ours has become a culture of instant gratification. Some of the hottest new television shows are those that drop an entire season at a time.
Marvel should initiate a pilot program where select titles — particularly those that focus on characters with a devoted, but small, following — are released immediately in trade paperback form. The average consumer would be far more likely to pick up a $14.99 trade paperback featuring Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur than take a chance on subscribing to such a niche title.
Making titles considered "moderately unsuccessful" available in a format conducive to binging would boost sales of “out there” titles to skeptical readers new to comics and give longtime fans who have already committed to subscriptions of The Avengers, Captain America and other flagship titles a cost-effective way to stay up-to-date with the weirder, but still wonderful, side of Marvel.
Offer Exclusive Digital Content
Marvel Unlimited is an app that offers access to thousands of back-issues for $70 per year. Subscribers are invaluable to Marvel, not just because of the revenue garnered through the subscriptions themselves, but also because the app allows readers new to comic books to sample a wide variety of titles, discover their favorite characters, and decide which series to subscribe to. For more devoted fans, though, there is the drawback of always being six months behind the current happenings in comics. There are also fans whose distaste for the idea of a digital comic is too much when trade paperbacks of most of the proffered titles are available.
Marvel needs to take a page out of the books of Netflix and Amazon and offer exclusive digital content. Give lesser-known authors pitching risky ideas a platform with the Unlimited app. Sure, Netflix is known as the place to binge-watch popular cable TV shows, but lately it’s been their original content like House of Cards and Stranger Things that is taking the entertainment world by storm. Marvel Unlimited needs to transition from a purveyor of binge-reading to a necessity for anyone who wants full access to the Marvel Universe.
Don’t Make Diversity A Zero-Sum Game
Reader retention is just as important as bringing in new readers. Recently, Marvel fridged Tony Stark in the aftermath of Civil War II and replaced him with a young MIT student named Riri Williams, going by the moniker Ironheart. Replacing a founding Avenger with a woman of color guaranteed Marvel a place on the morning news, but biased readers against Riri, a delightful addition to the Marvel Universe.
Fans who subscribed to the Invincible Iron Man shelled out a not-insignificant amount of money for a subscription to Tony Stark’s story. While some of the backlash against Riri is undeniably a combination of sexism and racism, a lot of fans were not opposed to welcoming a new character; but Marvel making the addition of Ironheart contingent upon the exit of a much-beloved character created entirely unnecessary animus towards the new hero.
This is a frequent problem with Marvel. In an effort to draw in new readers, older characters are killed off or otherwise fridged and replaced with characters that will supposedly appeal to a younger and broader audience. Neither the fans of the old guard nor the new end up winning, however, as Marvel eventually caves to pressure and reverts back to the status quo. Marvel restores old characters to their original identities and in the meantime, the new, diverse characters end up relegated to team-ups and guest appearances, undoing any progress made in making comics more diverse.
What makes this all the more frustrating is Marvel has also proven this zero-sum game is unnecessary. Marvel placed Carol Danvers, a long-underused character, in the mantle of Captain Marvel and transferred the title of Ms. Marvel to Kamala Khan with much success for both series. The difference was that loyal readers didn’t lose any of their favorite characters in this shake-up, so both new and old fans were agreeable to giving Kamala a chance to shine. Captain Marvel was a name not held by its original owner in decades, and a title revolving around Carol Danvers remained available even after Kamala took on the mantle of Ms. Marvel.
New characters, more reflective of modern audiences than those created in the 1960s, are a necessity to draw in readers who rightfully expect representation in media, but Marvel has a nasty of habit of introducing these characters in a way that turns off longtime readers and dooms the often well-developed and fresh new characters that should be successful.
Marvel needs to look towards more modern marketing strategies and accept that changes in the reading habits of consumers will necessitate a change in distribution. Relaunches and gimmicks may garner temporary interest, but any gains in readership will be lost if those gimmicks turn off current readers.
Marvel has a stable of unique and beloved characters and some of the most talented writers in the business thinking up new storylines and developing the heroes of tomorrow; but every major event and relaunch constrains the talent behind solo titles. The stories they can tell are limited if they’re forever trying to write around their assigned characters’ action in the latest event.
This is not an indictment of all comic events. They can be incredible stories that stay relevant for decades (see the original Secret Wars), but they should not be the primary way of drawing new readership. There are better ways.
What do you think needs to happen in order for Marvel Comics to retain and build readership?