If Not Diversity, What Is The Cause of Marvel’s Comics Sales Slump?

Posted by April 2, 2017 Comment

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As you know by now, we have been heavily dissecting, discussing, theorising and pointing at the recent candid discussions at the Marvel Retailer Summit between Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing David Gabriel, and a number of retailers who attended the event, as covered in an extensive report from ICv2.

This time, I wanted to look at Marvel’s thoughts on events, event fatigue and the comic sales slump. And then I’m going to present my thoughts on the matter, as well as those of some other comics retailers. Note, these are just that – my thoughts. Take them as you will.

Marvel, for quite some time now, has been pushing the cycle of continual yearly major events, to the point they have started speeding up in frequency, or in some cases not speeding up but because of massive delays, the time gap between events gets incredibly small. Meaning the world-shattering, massively changed status quo lasts about three months before something else comes along and the cycle repeats again.

Well, Marvel seem to have explained their thoughts on this, and in particular why events may even start overlapping, as sales from the first two issues of one event will be used to prop up the weaker sales the last two issues of a prior event.

The argument being that everyone buys events, especially the first few issues, and if you can use a rotating team of artists to pump these out on a short production schedule instead of a long, well thought through production lead time, then all the better.

But I’d argue that it is these constant events that leads to the comics sales slump, and especially for those seen at Marvel.

Before the ‘Oh, you’re just a fat, whiny gay boy who hates Marvel’ brigade gets their knickers in a twist, let me just say that I am far from it. I started collecting comics with Marvel, namely with Generation X. I would not even touch a DC book until my mid-teens. It was Marvel Way or No Way for years. And I still love Marvel – I just do not love some of the things they have been doing of late.

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This push for constant events leads to muddled looking books as artists are forced to swap and change, sometimes at the drop of a hat. It leads to a struggling sense of long-term story, as writers and readers barely get a chance to get used to a new status quo before it’s all up in the air again and all change again. I’m regularly forced to read tie ins to events I have no interest in, just because it’s ‘that time of year’ again – except that time of year has fast become ‘that time of Quarter’ and may soon be that time of week.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. One retailer, who has chosen to remain anonymous, said to me:

“Between the constant relaunches and late shipping event books, my customers see most “endings” and launches as jumping off points instead of jumping on points. Until we get a perfect melding of new, diverse characters mixing with core, existing heroes it will be more of the same.”

What happened to the times when stories went on for ages without massive publisher wide events? Back when I was first reading comics, the biggest publisher-wide event was probably Onslaught. And sure, other events came afterwards, such as Operation: Zero Tolerance, but those events remained within a single line, and as such didn’t often derail the main story of a book. The creative team were allowed to tell their story without interruption, complete.

For me, I want an event to be a massive, world-changing thing, sure, but I also want it to be a statement piece from the creators. I don’t wanna see two dozen artists working on 7 issues, that then becomes 9 issues ‘because the story demanded it’. And I want them to feel earned. Not something that rolls around once a year like clockwork or worse, in less time than that.

It feels like at Marvel the focus is the Big Idea, and not the quality of the end product. We all like events, but if they’re not something built to and earned they feel…shallow. Fake. They become a gimmick and little else. Another retailer told me,

“Well people like them [events] and they bring in new readers, but Civil War II needed to have a bigger payoff for the reader at the end. That’s why people left Marvel as far as I saw.”

And on diversity in comics?

“vocal complainers about Marvel’s shift to diversity are mainly the folks who come to my shop to chat and not buy things”

What about the Distinguished Competition and their events?

“Meanwhile DC is killing it with Rebirth and I’d say readers have been very satisfied with their events like Justice League vs Suicide Squad. It sounded like making that weekly was going to be a lot at once but you know what, it was over in a month and had lots of compelling twists for the reader.”

It’s worth noting that event from DC only really took over two titles, and had little in the way of tie-ins. It did feature multiple artists though.

Another comics retailer contacted me these thoughts on the matter:

We see in our store big demand in comics that have something new to offer. America for example sold out, Ms. Marvel was and still is going strong! Angela had a hardcore following when she had her own series, Thor Jane Foster is doing really, really well and so on! In my opinion diversity is the future, you can’t back down from progress just because some people that were accustomed to one thing can’t handle female/Muslim/Queer characters. The majority of our customers are young to very young, to me it’s exciting that the first thing I can give them is Ms Marvel, Young Avengers, Champions or the upcoming solo X-titles (a lot of excitement here for Jean Grey and Iceman).

I think that the problem with Marvel today is the fatigue of events and I can see it in sales of events and how people just giving up on them altogether. Give people stories that matter, don’t give up on continuity and just make it count. Civil War did that, House of M did that to extent, Messiah Complex and Second Coming did that and we sell them in trades up until today!

For me, I worry the focus has gone away from putting out quality comics and runs, for quick sales boosts and pushing higher figures. This leads to a large number of mediocre at best books flooding the market, and very, very few complete runs from a coherent creative voice.

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What is interesting in these comments from retailers is it implies Alonso and Marvel are onto something in the sense of events with multiple creative teams are more popular with their customers. Though these retailers largely are mentioning events that featured multiple writers as well as multiple artists. But there is something to be said for events and runs on series by a single team, right?

Once, we could have a book like Generation X, with nearly the same creative team for the the majority of it’s 75 issue run. Or Astonishing X-Men as a fantastic statement piece from Joss Whedon and John Cassaday, without ever having to get embroiled in the middle of events that derailed that (yet they still respectfully reacted to events in their series).

Some writers can work with the constant deluge of events tie-ins needing to be worked into their story. Kieron Gillen et al.’s run on Jouney into Mystery is an incredible example of a series perpetually bombarded by events that not only survived but told it’s own, coherent tale throughout. Not everyone can be a master of that, and indeed, not everyone is.

So if not constant events, what can Marvel do to bring back the readers and keep sales going? Well, how about allowing enough time for thought-out, well-constructed stories and art, from creative teams that are not playing a constant game of musical chairs. Let the teams settle into their characters and situations and tell a full story. Might there be dips in sales in the middle or at the end? Maybe. But if the creators are able to tell full stories uninterrupted that have something new and exciting to say, enough to get them talked about without the need for ‘event’ status, then maybe, just maybe, the numbers will work out in the end.

And readers may return if they feel like they’re not constantly having the Next Big Thing rammed down their throat all the time too.

To finish, I’ll leave you with the thoughts from another retailer who is pretty damn livid about the whole situation:

I don’t agree that there’s a sales slump for comics in general — Marvel may be seeing a sales slump, and the ridiculous notion that it’s due to diversity is, as I’m sure you agree, absolutely ridiculous. It can be almost solely put down to two things within Marvel Comics;

1. Endless f****** events. Pleasant Hill led to Civil War II leads to Secret Empire. Before Pleasant Hill, there was the monumental fuck up that was Secret Wars. People are sick to the teeth of events. They ALWAYS suffer heinous scheduling issues, the endings are ALWAYS disappointing, and they consume the shelves with tie ins and divert previously good stories to fit in with the plot of the ridiculous events. Readers are completely sick of it.

2. They spread themselves too thin in an attempt to flood the shelves, thus resulting in lacklustre titles, and great titles finishing after incredibly short runs.

For example, Mockingbird was absolutely terrific. I believe that wrapped up at around 12 issues. Kate Leth’s Hellcat is finishing with #16/#17. Lemire is leaving Moon Knight, so it wouldn’t surprise if that got cancelled too, (and Lemire’s Moon Knight is, in my opinion, Marvel’s best book.) The recent Robbie Reyes Ghost Rider run has been cancelled after 5 ISSUES. How can they expect anything to gain traction within 5 issues!? That’s not even enough time for a first arc to finish up! I’ll be amazed if the incredible America, and the excellent Man-Thing last more than 12 issues.

They expect people to buy just ‘because it’s Marvel.’ They’re not trying to sell a product anymore. They’re just making it, and expecting people to buy it, both retailers and customers/readers, without Marvel themselves putting even an iota of work in.

The whole ‘taking away the digital copies’ didn’t help a whole lot either. Just served to p*** people off.

Sorry if I’ve rather gone on — as someone whose shop is a HUB of diversity and inclusiveness, it’s really boiled my p***

Well, at least they’re changing their mind on the whole digital codes thing, right?

(Last Updated April 2, 2017 2:43 pm )

About Joe Glass

Joe Glass has been contributing to Bleeding Cool for about four years. He's been a roaming reporter at shows like SDCC and NYCC, and also has a keen LGBTQ focus, with his occasional LGBTQ focus articles, Tales from the Four Color Closet. He is also now Bleeding Cool's Senior Mutant Correspondent thanks to his obsession with Marvel's merry mutants.

Joe is also a comics creator, writer of LGBTQ superhero team series, The Pride, the first issue of which was one of the Top 25 ComiXology Submit Titles of 2014. He is also a co-writer on Stiffs, a horror comedy series set in South Wales about call centre workers who hunt the undead by night. One happens to be a monkey. Just because.

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