Saturday, January 16, 2010

Marvel Comics is Run by a Bunch of First Graders

I just wanted to take a minute to talk about a little controversy that the so-called House of Ideas stirred up in the nerd-verse earlier this week. Here's the gist: longtime rival DC Comics recently hit upon a neat marketing thing by offering them rings based upon the various Lantern Corps running around in Green Lantern and Blackest Night. Retailers could order bags of the rings and do whatever they wished with them, and collectors could have fun putting together a set of power rings. Here's the catch: in order to a bag of rings, retailers first had to meet a minimum order number of a certain comic book. In other words, to order a bag of blue rings, retailers had to order, say, 25 copies of Booster Gold (I'm just guessing at the exact criteria). Nearly all of the books tied to the ring promotion were among DC's lower selling titles, and each jumped up several thousand units for the ring tie-in issue.

In order to understand this story fully, you must understand how comic books are sold to comic book shops. Comics are sold as a non-returnable items to shops at a deep discount; it's been this way since the direct market supplying comic book specialty stores began three decades ago. The reasoning then for non-returnability (unlike traditional newsstands, which have always been able to return their materials) was that comic shops were also in the back issue business, so why would they want to return comics? They'll just sell them later. So comics remain an unreturnable item, even though the back issue market for comics published after 1980 or so has long since collapsed, and most stores have tons of leftover, overordered merchandise with very little hope on which to turn a profit. Some store discount this stuff almost immediately; it's not uncommon to find comics selling for a fraction of their original price within a few months of their release.

This is very important to remember, whenever you read anything about comic book sales, positive or negative: those figures represent sales to retailers, not readers. I often hear retailers shrug and happily say, "hey, we screwed up and ordered too many". Which is true, I suppose. But the fact is that retailers bear all the burden whether a book is a success or not. If Marvel or DC promote something as being the be-all and end-all event that every comics fan must take part in, and it flops, well, the editors have to read some nasty posts in the forums, and have some uncomfortable moments at convention panels. But the retailers are the ones stuck with the comics.

So back to the main point: DC offered a cool promotional item, and used it as a chance to prop up some of their lower-selling titles. Or they inflated the sales of several of their weak titles for a month by bribing retailers. I guess it all depends on how you look at it. Keep in mind that DC didn't say anything to retailers about how they distributed the rings. Some offered them for free with the purchase of the title they came with (which is what I would have done, were I a retailer, incidentally). Others just gave them away. Some probably sold them individually, or as sets, for an inflated price, because there are some shady comic book dealers out there. Whatever.

So we've got most of the factors here: nonreturnability; a promotion tied to comic book sales. Which brings us to what Marvel did this week: they announced that they would send retailers a free variant comic book for the covers to the unsold comics tied to the ring promotion. Let me make sure you've got this straight: Marvel announced that they would take returns on DC comics. And they were offering to give retailers a bribe for taking part in their little scheme.

The hammer of internet nerdom was swift. Most felt that Marvel was being juvenile. Some were offended that Marvel was encouraging retailers to destroy perfectly good comic books (by allowing the retailers to send just the cover, not the whole thing). Marvel editor Tom Brevoort tweeted about the controversy (and I know what you're thinking: if this is a tweet, why is it so long? Did he really just keep typing all these entries in little 140-character bursts, stringing them all together until they made sense? Yes, actually, he did. Which proves the problem with Twitter: you can't make any kind of substantial point. Imagine if I was tweeting all this crap right now. What a pain in the ass that would be). I give Brevoort credit for standing up and responding to the critics (especially because, as an editor, he probably had nothing to do with it). But his response is bullshit, and here's why.

Brevoort says that Marvel is "in the business of selling content rather than Cracker Jack prizes...[w]e're not making any money on the deal, but we are helping our retailer partners during a tough economic time." Oh, that's nice. See, they're not trying to embarrass their competitor by pointing out that people were more interested in the toys then the comics. Nope, they're just trying to help out. Which means that they'll be taking back returns on their own unsold comics, right? Well no: "[Marvel won't be accepting trade-ins for unsold Dark Reign and The List books] because there, what we were selling and what the retailers were buying were the books."

Now, that doesn't sound like bullshit, does it? Here's the thing that Brevoort so conveniently overlooks: variant covers. And what are they? Well, they are a marketing stunt, an incentive that comic book companies regularly offer to retailers for ordering a certain number of comic books. And this is something DC does all the time, yes, but nowhere near the extent of Marvel Comics.

Here's an analysis of Marvel's month to month sales, courtesy of The Beat. They do this every month, and as I read them, one thing keeps popping up to me, over and over: variant covers. Some months, it looks as if Marvel is publishing more comics with variant covers then without. Retailers order a certain number of copies of books (a number set by the publisher) and they can order the variant, or variants, as there are often more then one per comic, each with an escalating order number. So here's what happens: retailers hit these thresholds, order the variant, and sell them at inflated prices. Ebay's loaded with them, conventions are flooded with them. It's hard to say how much Marvel's sales month to month are inflated by variant covers, and I'm not about to try and figure it out, but it's safe to say it's a significant percentage. After all, they keep doing them.

This damn post has gone on much longer then I expected. I just wanted to make a simple point: Marvel engages in the very practice they are decrying- offering retailers a carrot to inflate their orders- multiple times a month. And this whole return offer is just a naked attempt to embarrass DC, plain and simple. So here's my challenge, to Brevoort and his bosses: stop the variant covers. Offer returns to retailers for comics that have been bought solely to hit the variant cover insentive. Shore up your own glass house before you go thorwing stones.


  1. This is, without doubt, the most fucked-up story of modern comic marketing crap I've heard in awhile. What makes it worse is knowing that some mid-level marketing exec somewhere at Marvel gets a yearly paycheck to come up with this kind of stuff while talented artists and writers can't find stable and regular with the company. It's the classic case of "just-fire-the-management-and-get-back-to-making-the-product."
    The "House of Ideas" lost it's foundation years ago. Now they're apparently letting the real estate agents choose the furniture.

  2. See, I happen to think this comes from higher up. Not Quesada maybe, but he certainly signed off on it.

    I realize now that I forgot to mention the greatest counterargument to Marvel's "we're just trying to help out our brothers in retail" claim: the Obama Spider-Man stunt. May have to do another post. May just let that die here. I hate blogging.