Sunday, April 2, 2017

Marvel's Retailer Summit and Why We Bailed on Marvel a While Back (It Wasn't Diversity)

I generally don't pay attention to this stuff anymore, because it's usually a fire that burns itself out and the world keeps on spinning, but...

The Comics Internet has been in meltdown over the weekend as word got out about the first Marvel retailer summit in two decades, which - with the best of intentions, Marvel (God bless their hearts) decided to invite in ICV2 and let them report out on some of the conversations between their senior staff and retailers.

Frank conversations.

Part 1
Part 2
and the part that set the internet ablaze

I'm the first person to nod and acknowledge that sometimes the unicorn dreams of the world don't add up to financial success and security for all, no matter how much we want the opposite to be true.  But...

The sentence that is getting all the play:

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.

I would point out, it seems like folks are ignoring all the "we like our diverse characters, and we were doing okay with them until just now" commentary surrounding that sentence.  In context (and you can see the article in that third link above), it sounds more like a guy trying to grasp market forces that changed super rapidly, is looking at what's not selling and making a statement that reflects his spreadsheets.  And he made some insensitive remarks in illustrating what they saw happening.  Which is why you don't do that.

Honestly, I cannot believe a wing of Disney opened the door to the amateur-hour world of comics press during frank conversations.  Off-the-cuff-on-the-record convos have never been the strong suit for most comics folks.  In the end, the same guy had to come back and admit that some of those new characters are popular or are doing fine and he undermined Marvel's significant efforts to diversify their character base and their fan base.  And that just makes Marvel, clearly, look awful.

My intention is not to protect Disney/ Marvel so much as to say - "Marvel, that was kind of bone headed on a multitude of levels" and to also say "My fellow progressives, it's possible many market forces are in play that are impacting sales on books featuring newer characters, which in Marvel's case of late, are those diverse characters because those are less established characters who don't have the foothold of, say, Spider-Man."

I'd argue that that there's probably a much more realistic reason Marvel is having issues than a sudden public disinterest in diversity.

None of this is news - but this is my "how I wandered off from Marvel" journey.

A lot went into it.  I quit reading X-Men in college, but had lost my interest when Claremont left the book and the book became a soggy mess of art over story - which is kind of the story of comics between 1991 and 1997 if you ignore the stewarship of Karen Berger at Vertigo.

I quit on Spider-Man when Spider-Man made a deal with Satan to revoke his marriage, which was one of the clumsiest damn things I'd seen in Spidey.  And I read that "Gwen Stacy had the Green Goblin's babies" shit.

In general, and I know Marvel will disagree with me on this, but the endless runs of new #1's, events, and - diversity or no - swapping out who is the person behind the mask or name - doesn't help me out a lot.  Partially because I'm well-trained to not expect that stuff to stick - so why jump in then?  And partially because at age almost-42, I'm not super inclined to go scrounging for spin-off characters.   I'll leave that to the kids.

But the real bottom line is that:  When I *do* pick up a Marvel comic - usually something starring one of the Captain Americas, the quality is... inconsistent.  And it's been not terrific when I've picked up things that I was told were *good* Marvel events.  See: Marvel's  Infinity event.  That was... bad.  And, by the way, expensive.  Which is not a good combo.

At some point about ten years ago, Marvel became terribly fixated on the short-term sales generated by events and - in more recent years - by the allure of the push of new #1's, fully admitting to absolutely massive drop-offs in sales by issue #2 of near everything.  So they keep putting out new #1's.

Well... hope springs eternal.   I have to expect that I'm not that different from a lot of comics readers and want to be there when the next good thing begins.  I've picked up some new #1's and 2's from Marvel, and from my own experience - I'd say that, without exaggeration, 85 - 90% of the time - there's nothing happening in those pages that even begins to pique my interest.  And this includes established writers and artists, some of whom I already like and some I'm trying out.

Part of what occurs with those new #1's that doesn't work for me is that storytelling is so decompressed, I've literally read first issues that are a single action scene with a cliff hanger, and I'm left at the end wondering what the hell just happened and why on earth I should care.   It feels like a technical achievement, sometimes, but otherwise, that's not really how you get me to plunk down another $4.

And - let's be real honest - Marvel comics are not cheap.  $4 - $5 - $10 for a comic is a lot of money for 20 decompressed pages of 3 panels each.  @#$% yes, it's made me a trade-waiter.

And, of course, the trades are impossible to follow thanks to renumbering on those as well, so reading Marvel that way has become a @#$%ing chore if you're not totally on top of what's happening week in and out.

Truth is - I don't think what I look like as a consumer is appealing to Marvel in the slightest.  That I free up money to buy comics and it's been hardwired into my budget since I got my first steady paycheck is of no concern because they have an idea of how many comics I should be buying at what price, and to hell with me if I'm not onboard.

And, look, I've been reading comics for a long time.  And one thing that Marvel and DC (until recently) have made clear is that they find me embarrassing.  They seem to find the idea that anyone would *want* to follow a book/ character consistently totally embarrassing.  Certainly DC's New 52 effort was about cleaning house to welcome in new readers/ steal readers who'd shown up thanks to Marvel/ Marvel's movies and marketing.  And they've certainly trained younger readers to mock anyone older who was around in the long, long ago.

But when I hear readers say (from the first part of the summit) "I am completely different from him [she said of her company’s co-owner]. He has been reading since he was six, and I couldn't care less if you renumbered it every six months. Because I just like to read a story, and I'm done." - I just think "but that's not how *any* of this works".

I mean, I accept that not everyone reads comics the same way, but the rebooting means that those comics tend to play fast and loose with what they expect you to know about or understand.  Jumping onto a new Captain America #1 includes decades of Cap lore that they may or may never cover even while they reference it.  Hell, I kinda liked the Black Panther ongoing, but I have almost no idea what the hell is happening because whatever happened occurred some time prior to Infinity and I'm not going to get my story background from Wikipedia (I'm still deciding between dropping the series or trade-waiting) - which is something I've seen Marvel Senior Editors say they expect readers to do.

Which - do your @#$%ing jobs, y'all.

What drives the new #1's is, of course, the ever-occurring Marvel line-wide events.

Look.  Back about ten years ago, as Marvel's Civil War limped to a conclusion, I remember all the tie-in's I'd purchased, all the related issues I wanted to read to keep up, all of which were *very* important, and I kind of hated the whole series by the end.  And just a month later we got into Secret Invasion and all the same damn cross-overs and related mini's, etc...   But this time I didn't buy it.  And I stopped trying to keep up with Marvel at that point.  Just hung it up.

Both retailers and Marvel admit to trying to balance the desire for a slippery "new" readership while trying to retain longtime readers - but if their sales woes are any indication, they're @#$%ing it up.  Almost as badly as DC @#$%ed up with The New 52 and had to provide a mea culpa in the form of "Rebirth".  And it's still not clear how many readers DC actually lost to the New 52.  But anecdotally, I can tell you how many adult readers I talk to who have their own "I gave up on Marvel when" story.  It may have happened at a different time, but it's always the same.  Too many events.  Too many #1's.  Too many stunts.

What's weirdest to me is that Marvel (and to a lesser degree, DC) want those new readers, but they aren't doing anything to convert them from new readers to longtime readers, and they publicly make fun of longtime readers, which is sort of the opposite of what one is supposed to do with a brand name.  You don't see Proctor & Gamble mocking old people for being lifelong purchasers of Crest.

I still pay some attention, mostly because I will occasionally ask "so, what's new that's good?", but the events have absolutely meant I have no ability *to* jump back into Marvel.  After years of that, I quit caring if I could jump back in some time ago.  And, like I said, when I tried out Infinity, it was like meeting for dinner to catch up with someone you knew back when and now you're wondering what the hell happened to them and you're going to find a way to wind the dinner up as fast as you can.

And, of course, this mega-event impacted the whole line, interrupted universes and stories and made everyone rearrange chairs on the deck of the seemingly sinking ship.

Chris Claremont wrote Uncanny X-Men for 16 years.  The book and the X-universe were his, and you can thank the man for the fact we have any X-Men movies, including ideas in those movies that weren't his.  Those are all more or less e a daughter or granddaughter of one of his ideas.  (Yeah, we can thank Dave Cockrum and John Byrne some, too, and of course Stan and Jack).  For years Claremont ruled the sales charts and had a continuity to the world of the X-Men that was only barely impugned by the rest of the Marvel U (sorta like how it's cordoned off today).

But point is: Claremont was selling pretty well until he left.  Yeah, the power of Jim Lee sold a ton of X-Men comics for a blip there, but it didn't hold.  And he left and X-Men has been a roller coaster of feast and famine since for Marvel.  But he built sales over a very long time, of getting better and better at his own work, building his characters and stories and making each new issue feel imperative.  And writing it in such a way that new readers could jump in and want to know what happened before just as much as they wanted to know what happened next (note to retailers:  Claremont's X-Men got me into back-issues/ going to an actual comic shop).

I don't see Marvel wanting to let that happen ever again.

At the risk of sounding like I'm anti-diversity: look - Marvel was recently acquired by Disney for their highly recognizable and sought after IP, including characters and stories.  Swapping out Tony Stark is going to be noteworthy enough to draw an audience (hell, Superman did it back in 92' with 4 potential new Supermen).  But that's not the highly recognizable IP.  That's not a good story about Tony Stark or Bruce Banner or whomever the readers came in to read about.

And if someone is game to try - you can't build that audience if you keep pulling the rug out from under them.  For every "I only read comics one story at a time" mystery reader, I'm convinced Marvel is seeing those spikes of #1 buyers because it's a cheap entryway to see if they want to get onboard, and they're saying with their wallets that they absolutely don't.  And they're going to quit buying those #1's after a while, no matter how cheap.  But if you take away the writers and storyline that could build those new, diverse characters/ audiences every 7 issues, you're killing the baby in the crib.

As mentioned - for the past 15 years, I've mostly been sticking with Marvel via Captain America.

What Marvel isn't taking into account is that there's a new guy behind the mask was novel about 30 years ago when John Walker put on Captain America's mask - but is less so every time they do it.

Cap got "killed" something like ten years ago.  And while I enjoyed the Bucky stories, they weren't Steve Rogers, and that's more or less what I signed on for.  I knew I was waiting for the triumphant returns of Steve Rogers.  Which happened.  But then Cap spent a year working through the Z-Dimension shenanigans which kind of took him out of pocket, and then Marvel made him old.  And I am a fan of Sam Wilson as both Falcon or whatever you want to call him.

That's practically a generation of readers that hasn't had a long run of Steve  Rogers just being Steve Rogers.

And - then, when you finally had the chance to just tell a Captain America story, you made Cap a Nazi.

It's enough that it *has* to go away - enough so that you can more or less look at pieces of the Marvel U and write the story on your own - but then extending it seems more like the dude-bros at Marvel are more enamored with their stunts than they are with building anything sustainable.

Look, Marvel... I'm not buying Nazi Cap so I'm not buying Captain America or any tie-in's, which at this point means I'm not buying Marvel.

For all your explaining and rationalizing that I see in those linked ICV2 articles, what I'm not seeing is a commitment to story and character.  I'm not seeing anyone at Marvel reconsidering how they handle talent or edit books.  Or anyone in the Marvel offices talking about doing their jobs *differently*.

Look, a year ago, DC was in dire straits.  What had been the sales coup of the century had spiralled into a mess.  One of their iconic characters was so broken, he was no longer recognizable, and fixing him seemed nigh impossible.

There's no question Rebirth was a deeply conservative business move, but for nearly a year, DC has been back to basic storytelling as it's greatest stunt (that and a Power Rangers crossover).  And it sounds like Marvel is basically following suit - although we'll see if they're willing to drop the prices on those books or go semi-monthly with their shipping schedule (which I've quite liked, much to my surprise).

Let's just say - it's a lot.  I'm not actually surprised Marvel is struggling a bit at the moment, because what they haven't done is encourage storytelling and creativity.  They've pushed for events - and not storytelling events, but marketing events.  And it's created an environment where they can't get out of their own echo chamber or can imagine the problems any way but what what's being said in the office by dudes who all kind of sound the same - and pretty defensive when they aren't sounding like trollish dopes on their twitter accounts.

Anyway - I'm more or less done with Marvel for now.  I've got movies and TV that serve me well.  I may pick up those Black Panther trades, but I have to let Captain Nazi run its course and maybe I'll check in later.


Fantomenos said...

Totally agree, here (which is a terrible way to comment on the internet...)

There are bright spots, I contend. I was reading your piece and thinking "Oh yeah, I don't have any Marvel on my pull-list." But then I realized:

Scott/Allred Silver Surfer is on its 3rd year. Grand cosmic stuff, with a romantic companion grounding the action. Largely free of event interference.

Moon Girl and Devil Dino is IMHO, a great way to stay grounded in Marvel tradition and have your diversity too. I'm enjoying the hell out of it, and it's just about to go through its first creator shake-up, so who knows?

Lemire's Old Man Logan is definitely hitting the same sort of nostalgic notes that you mentioned in your film review.

Also Black Panther, which you mentioned. I'm lost on some of the continuity as well, but it's just such a beautiful book...

I guess, in summary, I feel like the books for old-school collectors are there, they're just (almost by definition), not the titles that make headlines.

Also, thinking back to 10 years ago, I feel like we're in a better place now, but that may just reflect that I'M in a better place now...

Anyway, thanks for your analysis. It's always thought-provoking.

The League said...

For reasons probably best tied to Joe Satriani, I've never quite warmed up to ol' Silver Surfer. Just never quite made the jump into Marvel's cosmos in quite the same way I've occasionally enjoyed DC's space opera, from Captain Comet to Adam Strange. I don't know if there's just not enough there to ground me once we leave Earth's orbit or what.

Moon Girl I assumed would be canceled after 6 issues and am surprised to hear it's actually still going. Is it still going?

I would argue that Marvel is in a better place regarding *diversity* today than it was 10 years ago (hooray for progress!), but all of comics feels to me like we're no longer talking about stories, we're talking about the machinations of the companies and the marketing stunts. Ironically, Nazi-Cap may be the first time I've seen this kind of fan engagement as much about the actual story as about the marketing since Civil War.

I guess if you can get people talking... But the trick is to also get them buying, so we'll see how Marvel pops out the other side on this one.

Fantomenos said...

I’m happy to report that Moon Girl is still going. Issue 18 hit the stands Wednesday, wrapping up the 3rd arc nicely (an infestation of Doom-Bots, a message about team-work, and indications that the title character may be able to control her dino-mind-swap abilities). Like I mentioned, the original writer and creator is leaving, so we’ll see if the quality holds, but so far its been a year and a half of solid comics.