One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

It’s no secret that I’ve been impatiently awaiting the next big thing to hit the comic book industry, but to my surprise they’re already there. That’s right, they because this time the next big thing seems to come in two parts:

Literary Comics

By which I mean comics based on previously existing literary works, like Stephen King’s Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born, Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake Vampire Hunter, and (though it stretches the “literary” label to almost beyond the breaking point) Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

At Dark Star the first two issues of Gunslinger outsold such “event-”oriented superhero titles as 52 by three or four times, sales of Anita Blake not only remain steady, there hasn’t been a drop-off in sales of the second or third issue and we keep going through reorder after reorder of the early issues. And while it’s still a little too early to tell just how well the “Season Eight” Buffy is going to do long term, it’s definitely been both a strong seller and first week sell-out.

The rest of the Marvel/Dabel Bros. line (Magicians Apprentice, Wyrms and Red Prophet) haven’t done nearly as well, but we keep reordering them and keep selling out. But what they all have in common is that these comics aren’t being bought by our regular customers; they’re selling to people who heard about them in the mainstream press and have gone out of their way to seek us out to get them. And (so far, anyway) they keep coming back for more.

In short these titles have helped grow the market, creating a readership willing to enter direct market shops for a product that isn’t necessarily super-hero comics (though today we had a phone call from a woman who could barely admit out loud she wanted us to save her a copy of Wonder Woman #6, the first written by best selling novelist Jodi Picoult).

They are in short, as someone once said about The Lone Ranger, the embodiment of an answered prayer.

The second next big thing is something I realize has been with us for quite a while:

Nostalgia

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with looking back wistfully at the characters you loved when you were a kid – it’s undoubtedly what helped make (and I still can barely wrap my head around this) the new CGI TMNT movie #1 during its opening weekend.

However in the Marvel Universe they’ve been absolutely wallowing in it and the scary thing is the nostalgia factor seems to work on an audience that wasn’t around when characters like Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman and Nova first appeared. And I can’t argue with success; at Dark Star titles like Moon Knight and Ghost Rider don’t just sell out, they keep selling out – I believe we’re on our fourth reorder of every single issue of Iron Fist so far.

But Marvel also seems bent on repeating on the mistakes of its corporate past, like:

Pumping out new unnecessary ancillary titles spun-off from top-selling titles.

Variant covers that aren’t, very.

Making Everyone Meet Everyone Else, regardless of whether anyone cares; see Marvel Zombies vs. Army of Darkness and the announcement of another Spider-Man/Red Sonja team-up.

And, in general, producing more super-heroic product than the market can bear. Even rare tip-toe steps taken outside the genre like the Legion of Monsters one-shots and the Marvel Illustrated line seem more like 70s flashbacks rather than honest attempts to give their readership something different.

Well, you might ask, if the “literary” comics are selling and super-hero comics are selling, what’s my problem? The problem is the literary comics are growing the market and the super-hero comics aren’t. Marvel is asking the same number of readers to absorb twice the amount of superhero material – and history shows the day will come when they decide they’ve had enough and a boom becomes a bust.

Bringing me to the Joe Friday column that ran last week at Newsarama where Joe responded to someone asking what the difference was between Avengers Classic (the fourth ongoing Avengers title) and the similarly themed X-Men: Hidden Years from the 1990s.

“Why is it okay to do something like this now, but not a few years ago?

JQ: When we canceled Hidden Years Marvel the industry was losing its shirt. We needed to clean up the X-Men Universe as well as the entire Marvel Universe and there was no place for those kinds of walks through memory lane. Just as there was no place for us to varying genres, mature titles, kids titles, etc. We had to get back to our bread and butter and we needed to make it as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.”

Now I can’t fault a company in trouble returning to their core menu, and Marvel’s core menu certainly is superheroes, but I do question the wisdom of focusing on superhero comics when they’re not selling. The 90’s was the perfect opportunity for the publisher to try different genres, but instead they cut costs and desperately flailed about trying to woo back an audience that had abandoned them.

They stayed the course, basically waiting until a new generation of potential readers grew into their books and some of their old audience came back, starting to feel nostalgic about the comics of their youth. I know it’s easy enough for me to spend their money, but even with the runaway success of Gunslinger (someone at Marvel has said the first issues were likely to sell over 200,000 copies) the company remains strangely conservative when it comes to trying something else. They’d still prefer to go with the “safe” bet of a fourth Avengers title than try and revive Patsy Walker — a project considered “too risky” in an America where manga dominates the paperback bestseller lists.