Marvel Legacy #1 features a wraparound cover with most of Marvel’s major characters. Variants have a lenticular cover, the sort of expensive gimmick that some say is part of Marvel’s sales problem.
Andrew A. Smith
Tribune Content Agency
Marvel Comics is suffering a historic sales slump – and it’s looking to an initiative called “Legacy” to get back on top.
It’s hard to believe, given that Marvel dominates the box office and is ubiquitous on TV. But print sales have fallen off the Bifrost, and that has not only Marvel but rival DC Comics worried, not to mention all of America’s comics retailers. When Marvel stubs its toe, the whole industry yells “Ouch!”
How did this happen? As they say, it’s complicated.
You might remember some controversial remarks by Marvel’s Vice President of Sales David Gabriel, who explained poor sales in March to ICv2.com by saying, “What we heard was that people didn't want any more diversity. They didn't want female characters out there. … 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.”
There’s no doubt an element of truth in there. A casual pass over the message boards at various comics websites will find hateful comments about “SJWs” by people who are incensed by any superhero comic book not aimed squarely at a white, male audience.
But more importantly, there’s also an absolute in serial fiction that fans don’t really like change – they want, as Stan Lee used to say, the illusion of change. If a major publisher replaces a major character with someone else behind the mask, you can bet your last repulsor ray that the original will return.
And when these temporary replacements occur, there’s a very good chance a woman or person of color will be the replacer, while the replacee will almost always be a white male. That’s because most major characters are white males, since most were created in the 1940s (DC Comics) or 1960s (Marvel), when white males dominated most entertainment media.
So when Marvel replaced Captain America, Iron Man and Thor in recent years with Sam “Falcon” Wilson, RiRi “Ironheart” Williams and Jane “Mighty Thor” Foster, it was a given that Steve Rogers, Tony Stark and the original Thunder God would return someday. That’s the illusion of change: Things happen, and then they un-happen. And in the meantime, we get a lot of (hopefully) cool stories.
Avengers #675, arriving in January, will kick off a a weekly, 16-issue story titled “No Surrender” in which the Earth has been stolen.
That the Big Three of the Avengers were replaced by, respectively, a black man, a black girl and a white woman is almost beside the point. We know this to be true by judging from the last time Captain America, Iron Man and Thor were replaced.
Yes, this is literally a rerun. In the late 1980s, the originals were taken off the board, and replaced by, respectively, John “USAgent” Walker, James “War Machine” Rhodes and Eric “Thunderstrike” Masterson. In that case, three white men were replaced by two white men and a black one (Rhodey). But they didn’t last, either – and nobody really expected them to.
Meanwhile, sales don’t bear out the “diversity” charge. Sure, America (starring a lesbian Latina) isn’t doing well, but neither is Guardians of the Galaxy, led by a white guy. Marvel’s best-selling books aren’t exclusively white, nor are they primarily diverse – Amazing Spider-Man and the X-Men books are among Marvel’s better sellers on a monthly basis, but Unbeatable Squirrel Girl does well in collections, and Ms. Marvel (starring a Muslim, Pakistani-American girl) stays alive due to digital sales.
Most people attribute Marvel’s big sales slump to other factors – mainly, Marvel’s awful marketing practices. For years, Marvel has been launching new first issues of all its titles, complete with gimmicks like variant covers, then canceling the titles a year or so in and doing it all over again. Some characters would literally have two or three first issues in a calendar year. This is terribly expensive for retailers, and after a while, even the fans begin to feel jerked around.
Content-wise, Marvel has leaned on massive, line-wide “event” stories that require fans to buy books they don’t want to get the complete story. Ongoing books can’t ever work up a head of steam, as they’re always being taken over by the “events” – and then launching over with new first issues, and often new creative teams.
Sadly, event-driven stories are unlikely to stop because – well, that’s about all that really sells well for Marvel, even though poor sales of the recent "Monsters Unleashed" and “Secret Empire” events indicate they’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. Of course, some of those lost sales were to people who were revolted by the Cap storyline, which had the Living Legend of WWII re-imagined as a fascist.
But here’s the good news: All of the major changes of the last few years are heading for a reboot. We know this because of Marvel Legacy #1, a 58-page, $6.00 book that came out Sept. 27.
And it’s really pretty interesting. Legacy introduces us to the “Prehistoric Avengers” – a group that fought a Celestial a million years ago. (Celestials are a gigantic, space-faring race that tends to wipe out civilizations it deems unworthy.) This group – consisting of Odin (before Thor was born), the Phoenix Force (long before Jean Grey), the first Ghost Rider (on a flaming mammoth), and a few other concepts that are effectively immortal – defeated the Celestial, and buried it in what would become South Africa.
Leap to the present, and guess what’s getting dug up in South Africa? I imagine it’s pretty grumpy.
Oh, and we learn something’s monkeying with the timeline. A “new” Avenger named Voyager has been added to the team’s history, and nobody seems the wiser.
Captain America will stop its current numbering and pick up with issue #695 in December, as Steve Rogers attempts to reclaim the shield and the country’s trust after a controversial “event” in which he was turned into a fascist.
And did I mention Valeria Richards? The pre-adolescent, genius daughter of Reed and Sue Richards (Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman) has been missing and presumed dead since the 2015 “Secret Wars” event, along with her parents and brother, Franklin. But she narrates Legacy, teasing a return of the Fantastic Four just as the remaining pair, the Human Torch and the Thing, team up in an ongoing series titled Marvel Two-In-One.
Meanwhile, Legacy checks in on most of Marvel’s major characters. And as you’d guess, the status quo and the original characters made famous by the movies are in process of returning – even Wolverine, who’s been dead for three years. But we’ll also have the new kids, and with luck, the best of both worlds.
Will that be enough to get readers excited about Marvel Comics again? Legacy is a sharp-looking package with some interesting ideas, but fans have already registered fatigue with constant events and re-inventions. Worse, Legacy will affect every book in the Marvel line, returning some long-running characters to “legacy” numbering (Avengers will re-launch at #672, for example), but quite a few others will start over with new first issues.
Can Marvel go to that well again?
That comes down to execution. Marvel has to decide if its true legacy is imagination and adventure … or events and sales gimmicks. A whole industry is hoping for the former.
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Yeah, cheap paper isn't really going to keep the costs down...although if that's your thing, one publisher, Alterna Comics, is doing it. The one Alterna book I read had an 80s independent vibe...but was also set in the woods in the dark, and in some cases I had a hard time telling what was going on. (Maybe it would have been clearer with better printing.) I'm not sure how many of these books are reaching kids, though, because a much bigger obstacle to getting more casual kid readers is distribution, and I doubt Alterna gets any space outside of comics stores.
Other than digital, that is. What do kids want with paper, anyway? Kids want things on a screen, or they don't want them at all.
The real reason comics cost more is the labor costs. There's a reason older creators were so prolific -- it was hard to make ends meet doing just one book a month. Comics pay higher page rates than they did back then, and consequently, prices have risen. If you want to make comics cheap again, newsprint won't do the job. What you need to do is get Vince Colletta to ink everything with a three-day turnaround, erasing and simplifying as necessary.
And THAT'LL make kids buy 'em, I'm sure!
Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) said:
What you need to do is get Vince Colletta to ink everything with a three-day turnaround, erasing and simplifying as necessary.
One of the reasons comics finally went up from 10 cents each was that the cost of newsprint paper increased dramatically. Also, the comics companies had contracts with printers that produced newspapers. I believe Charlton had its own printing presses and the poor printing made the comics look bad when they were actually pretty good. The costs today of buying or renting presses, buying enough newsprint stock and hiring writers and artists who are talented probably would not result in cheap enough comics to entice new readers.
Rob Staeger (Grodd Mod) said:
If DC or Marvel started selling certain comics digital-only, only printing the TPBs for stores, retailers could certainly claim they're being undercut. And they'd be right. It might be the way the industry goes eventually, but the retailers will be losing sales in that plan, no doubt about it.
Something has to change or the industry will collapse. Easing into digital with TPB reprinting is the only way I can see it surviving. The movies aren't driving droves of new readers to comic stores, if they can find them. The management of the comics companies have to sweeten the deal for the retailers in some fashion, such as a deeper discount on the TPBs. You can't sell the same book for $3.99 in the store and 99 cents online. It has to be a different book. They need to gradually move in the online direction. The retailers won't be super-happy but they'll be less happy if comic books go belly up.
A lot of retailers are hanging on by a thread as it is, thanks in large part to Marvel's sales tanking in the last year. Undercutting them by eliminating them from the first-run chain will drive a lot of them out of business entirely, and likely cause an industry-wide collapse you're trying to prevent.
Just selling TPB collections is like only showing reruns on your TV channel. I'm not saying the industry couldn't use help, but I don't think undermining the wednesday warrior habit that keeps a lot of retailers afloat is the way to do it.
I suppose to increase their sales they need to advertise their product, find ways to allow potential readers to sample it, advertise where it may be obtained, make sure the entry titles are accessible to new readers, and make those titles enjoyable for new readers.
Top-selling titles that are continuity-heavy and have multiple-issue stories mightn't be the best entry titles. (A year is a longer period for a child than an adult.) One would expect readers to start with characters they know - my first superhero comics starred Superman, Batman and Spider-Man - so I suppose the logical thing would be to have entry titles with those characters. But the companies have tried that, with their animation titles.
I'd suggest doing internet-only stories with their top characters for new readers at their websites, but I can't really imagine young readers flocking to read them. Young readers might be more likely to get into comics from their parents buying comics for them in an effort to get them to learn to read.
In the 60s Stan went to all single issue comics for awhile. That might help some of the titles today.
On the other hand, publishers have to find things to do they haven't done before to retain the interest of long-term readers, and more epic, larger-scale stories are one thing they can give them.
Parents looking for reading material for their kids mightn't be natural regular purchasers. So the correct approach might be to publish books with comics aimed at that audience. On the other hand, my father bought home weekly periodicals for my sister and me. But he got them at the newsagent.
That was tried before, but basically we got regular comics for us and Strawberry Shortcake for kids.
One thing I think we really do need is a Spidey good for everybody. Make titles for him in other categories if you like, but we need a regular Spider-Man anybody can pick up and follow. Possibly some ideas from the Code might work. Books that would get the Code on them but would otherwise be the best that could be offered.
At the risk of turning into Pre-Crisis DC, maybe we need a few books with the characters as they are now, but also a few books on another world where Tony is Iron Man and Bruce is Hulk and so on, since it sounds like all these Legacy characters are confusing people.
When I see a comic being sold in other than a comic store it's like I spotted Big Foot. We need more done-in-ones so that if the parent gets past the $3.99 price tag they will have a comic that has a beginning, middle and end. Chances are the parent won't be lucky enough to get the done-in-one and will get part 3 of an 8-parter.
Marvelhq.com appers to have lots of free comics and other content aimed at kids.
I think comics should start with a #1 that's actually a #1, then maybe tell us a big story starts next month, or over in some other comic. Giant epics need to follow one shots and vice versa. No twelve parters followed by twelve parters. Those were there to give the writers, artists, and us time to get over the big epic before the next one hit us. After the Inhumans, the Silver Surfer, and Galactus, the FF really needed #51 to quiet things down a bit before Jack hit us with something else.