It’s nearly 2024 and I’m more than concerned.
Marvel and DC, you blew it. Or maybe you just succeeded in your plan to kill off an American art form of which you’ve been the able stewards of for 80 years. It’s baffling that something so prolific was ushered to the chopping block and executed. Strong accusation? No, just the unvarnished truth as new comic sales find new lows.
Worse, you’ve gutted an army of passionate retailers who’ve worked in this biz for decades for close to poverty wages in many cases. To put such a system of advocates in every state and major city in America, and around much of the world, would cost a fortune. But it happened organically to your benefit, and in gratitude, you’ve strip-mined what little profit there was in favor of short-term goals and chasing corporate bonuses.
We, the retailers, cultivated the fanbase the same way the under-appreciated creators created the precious IPs that have made their parent companies obscene amounts of money. It was a biosystem of fans feeding off the Wednesday excitement, eager to spend money on not only the comics that drew them in, but the T-shirts, lunch boxes, and mousepads with Spider-Man or Batman on them. Fan, retailers, and creators, have all suffered under the recent corporate mandates.
Where did it go off the rails? It’s not such a conundrum to anyone with two active brain cells and a list of back issues they need to complete their runs. Comics, first and foremost, have always been entertainment. Sure, collectible entertainment, which justifies the cost-to-entertainment ratio. But along the way, the immediate sale and false bolstering of numbers through variant covers, convoluted events, and incessant reboots left the considerations of the fans behind. Character swapping, gender-bending, and changing sexual orientation of beloved characters fell flat with the Wednesday Warriors who supported the industry for decades. The crowd of new readers the changes were meant to attract didn’t translate to a 1-for-1 swap, leaving a declining customer base.
To make things more difficult on the retail side, in a very deliberate abuse of both the FOC system and retailers’ goodwill toward publishers, we constantly have to FOC an issue two issues out rather than next issue. This makes ordering a guess. Throw in four covers on #5, then six on #6, one of which is by Artgerm and another by Skottie Young, and then #7 has five covers with neither cover artist, and #8 has a celebrity appearance cover, and it’s a constant and very deliberate shell game, forcing retailers to guess on nearly every next issue.
How do we fix this, assuming we can pull the canoe back over the waterfall at this point?
A friend of mine recently moved into a condo and took up an advisory position on the board. The pool was in need of repair, the roofs needed replacing, and the facades and landscaping had seen better days. There was no money to make the repairs and the only solution was to add $150 a month to everyone’s condo fees to pay for the repairs. The meeting that followed the announcement was less than friendly as people complained about the extra costs. My buddy explained that everyone had been living off the equity in the condos and put no money INTO the condos, thereby devaluing them.
And here we are in the comic industry facing the same conundrum. Marvel & DC have strip-mined the comic industry for the better part of a decade, putting no money into the market that sustained them for years. Much like the condo association, an investment is needed by those who lived off the equity for years. If you want a market in 2 years – yes, TWO years tops – then the time to invest is now. What we need to revitalize this market:
- $3.99 comics. I would say $2.99 but we have increased rents, labor, and insurance costs to cover so $3.99. $4.99 and more is a non-starter with too many fans.
- Fewer covers. I know this will get some pushback from every corner but without a focus, it’s all about the value of the covers and not what’s between them. Max of 2 covers. While you’re at it, give us a hook to sell, not just another convention commission piece with no indication of what’s inside the comic it covers.
- Editors who are editors. Too many stories are lackluster and agenda-driven, too many covers are con-sketch drivel with no sales point, and too much interior art is amateurish. It’s clear neither Marvel nor DC has a publishing plan beyond the current reboot.
- The characters are iconic for a reason. The movies never got traction until they leaned into what made the characters decades-long successes. Change is good for story but inevitably, you need to touch base with what brought them. Gender swaps, sexual orientation changes, and outright changes to who’s in the suit are short-term headline grabbers but without long-term sales with very few exceptions.
- Tell stories without proselytizing. I’ve beat this drum for a decade and more but here we are, chasing away a large portion of our customer base with every new tale as they want entertainment, not a serialized sermon.
- Limited new characters. Fresh blood is good, but it’s become obvious that characters aren’t organic to stories, they’re shoehorned in for a bump in sales. Dance with who brung you, as the saying goes.
- I’d ask for Minimum Advertised Price but we’re not in that world anymore. You made deals with the devil, which is also on you.
- Here’s the big one: Discount and shipping. Marvel and DC screwed this market so if you want to continue to have people dumb enough to labor 60 hours a week for poverty wages to sell AND ADVOCATE for your precious IPs, you need to invest in that market. You stripped-mined (that word again, though it applies so precisely) all the cash out of the direct market and retailers are bleeding from the bone. We need your investment, or this market goes away. No, you can’t just sell online as the minimum production costs won’t be met with online only. Investment means putting books on stands at a cost to you, not the people with the highest-per-issue cost.
Set a minimum for each title by store. Every issue over that minimum is sold to BRICK AND MORTAR retailers for 60 cents. This puts books on stands, minimizes cost to retailers, and helps print runs.
Why should you listen to any of this? Because your livelihood is tethered to the retail community. Rome is on fire. Fiddle or get on the phone with some of your key retail partners and find out what it’s like out here but be prepared for some ugly stories. Without some immediate action, I see 25% of the retail stores closing at the end of the 1st quarter, 2024.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.