Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc.

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.

Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc.

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.

Copyright Marvel Entertainment Inc.

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.

Find Captain Comics by email (capncomics@aol.com), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Captain Comics Round Table) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).

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One-shots and miniseries did well back in the 90s, when Robin and Birds of Prey first launched. But from what I hear, they're usually dead in the water, sales-wise, these days, because the market is so crowded. 

I like back-up series as a way to introduce characters, but the market doesn't seem to -- when DC did it a while back, people complained about them, preferring to get more of the lead feature instead. And when Archie did them even more recently, with back-up reprints of classic material, people complained about that, too. Now those pages are being used for house ads, and no one's complaining. Fans sure know how to shoot themselves in the foot sometimes.

Anthologies have been failing too, much as I love them. I don't know how to launch a new property. The way Marvel launched Ironheart is certainly imperfect. But I don't know if there's a way the market will respond to more positively, at this point. 

I think your 100% returnability idea is an interesting one, but that's a LOT of risk Marvel would be taking -- probably more than they can shoulder. It might be able to be tweaked with some retailer caps -- (100% returnable up to a certain metric, like a recent issue of Hulk or whatever) -- but it's a good notion. If Marvel wants to launch a character, it should be willing to risk a bit to do it.

I think that's a large part of the problem. I think that both Marvel and DC have lost hold of the reality that new readers are interested in specific characters and not creative teams.

Assuming you became a comcs fan like I did when I was about 5-7, I didn't give a damn if Kirby was drawing or Stan Lee was writing--I wanted to see Batman and Superman and Spider-Man and Thor and the Fantastic Four. Who wrote and drew the stories didn't really start mattering to me until I was an adult, and even then I wanted to mostly see the regular characters in those roles. As the comics fanbase has aged and isn't really getting replaced, IMO way too much emphasis is being given to the creative teams over the characters and the stories being told.

Of course, price is a barrier too. Just for giggles, I looked at an inflation calculator. What cost a dime back in 1938 should be approximately 1.74 now. I recognize that there are a great many differences now in terms of what costs what and where the money goes, but at 3.99 it's far from "disposable income" especially for your average kid. Because of this, it's highly likely that the only exposure available for potential young readers is the movies--the stories collected in trade paperbacks are squarely aimed at adults and rely heavily on continuity.

I can and do appreciate Marvel's attempts to diversify and create new characters that have the potential to resonate with younger readers, but it's obvious that doing so--particularly in terms of having those characters replace older, beloved ones--has not been working.

Oh, and I bet all of these titles get new number 1's within the next five years.

Detective 445 said:

It wasn’t necessarily because I wanted to read all of those stories. That would just depend on the creative team more than anything else.

For far too long, the big publishers have been catering to collectors at the exclusion, or active alienation, of readers. This is far more destructive than it might seem at first glance because it's choking off the roots of the industry. As others have mentioned, how many kids read comics these days? Where is the next generation of readers coming from?

In addition to telling stories about characters we might actually like, or even want to emulate, they need to go back to publishing some monthly books on cheap paper and cut production costs way down. Make books that kids can buy and read and get hooked. If it's popular, it'll get collected on high quality paper. If not, it might actually gain collector value because it's going to turn to crap faster than current comics.

Printing cheap comics also makes it easier to take a risk on new properties, and to give them enough time to try to prove themselves.

And, of course, they need to get over this whole idea that destroying a character and/or character's history for shock story telling is terribly counterproductive. It's really hard to spend money on a comic when you know there's a good chance someone out of ideas is going to destroy any reason you cared, and likely use your memories of the character as toilet paper. Who needs mental skid marks?

They need a next generation of readers to exist as anything other than a copyright maintenance organization. That includes building trust with the readers - giving them faith that they'll want to read what's coming next, not have to buy it to complete the set. They've got a lot of bad faith built up, and it'll take a while to rebuild trust. I hope they can commit to a better vision, and just as importantly, stick to it long enough for it to have an effect.

The funny thing is, there are new characters that interest me, even after 45 or so years of reading comics. Even a character like Gwenpool that sounds like somebody just randomly amalgamated Gwen Stacy and Deadpool (and for aught I know, that is where the name came from) and which I initially purchased on a whim, has surprised me with an interesting, amusing  look at what it might be like for a comics fan to suddenly find themselves living in a comics universe.  There is some fresh, interesting stuff out there.

Kaja and Phil Foglio publish Girl Genius online, and collect the strip in books. My niece used to be a Girl Genius fan. Why shouldn't that be the future?

If what you want is that Batman or Spider-Man feeling, you have to read Batman or Amazing Spider-Man; and if what you want is Adventures in the Marvel/DC Universe, that's what you have to do.

But if you want new characters and genres, you don't have to stick with Marvel and DC at all. The incentive for doing so back in the day was their comics were more likely to be enjoyable than Charlton's or Gold Key's. Today there are many small company titles that are labours of love for their creators.

It certainly should be the future. Because we grew up when we did, our biases are toward DC and Marvel books and characters. They somehow make a character "valid" in some way. Kids (and by kids, I mean anyone on my lawn) don't have those prejudices, and can enjoy Girl Genius or Princeless or Rick and Morty or  My Little Pony or Snotgirl or Saga without worrying about who's publishing it. There were always other publishers than DC and Marvel, and when another generation wants something that speaks to them, they're probably better off looking elsewhere.

Combating that notion is DC and Marvel's biggest problem. They've got the biggest megaphones int he business. They just need to have something to say.

Luke Blanchard said:

Kaja and Phil Foglio publish Girl Genius online, and collect the strip in books. My niece used to be a Girl Genius fan. Why shouldn't that be the future?

As I've noted in the past, if what you want is that Batman or Spider-Man feeling, you have to read Batman or Amazing Spider-Man. But if you want new characters and genres, you don't have to stick with Marvel and DC at all.

The incentive for doing so back in the day was a Marvel comic rarely fell below a certain level of quality.

I actually like a lot of the younger/newer characters. Or at least I like the way a lot of them are written.   But I mostly come across them when they show up in books I already read.  I just think it was a bad idea to present some of them as replacements rather than additions.  It’s almost like setting them up for failure to offer them as a replacement to a character that the reader is fond of. Oh...so you like the Don Blake Thor? Well guess what? You can’t have him. You’ll just have to accept Jane Foster and like it. You’re a Bruce Banner fan? Too bad... we’re giving you Amadeus Cho. What? You don’t like those choices? Well you must be against diversity.  It’s almost  like issuing a challenge to the reader rather than an interesting new option.

3 said:

They've got a lot of bad faith built up, and it'll take a while to rebuild trust.

They keep adding to the bad faith. The old saying is "if you're in a hole, stop digging."

Luke Blanchard said:

Kaja and Phil Foglio publish Girl Genius online, and collect the strip in books. My niece used to be a Girl Genius fan. Why shouldn't that be the future?

IMO, that is the future. The new titles need to start online (DC, Marvel and all others) with cheaper prices followed by TPB collections. If it's not the same comic that's in the retail stores the retailers can't complain they're being undercut. The comic stores and other outlets can then sell the TPBs. In the U.S. there are entire states or huge areas of states without a comic book store. Even if there are several comic book stores in an area, one still has to want to go there. Few comic stores have deep enough pockets to stock things their existing customers won't buy, so online comics should expand to offer the diverse genres they used to offer when they were on newsstands. If customers never see a product how will the know to look for it?

“Oh, and I bet all of these titles get new number 1's within the next five years.”

The cynic in me notes how many of the renumbered series are approaching a “milestone”.

They’ll hold off that long at least.

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.  

3 said:

For far too long, the big publishers have been catering to collectors at the exclusion, or active alienation, of readers. This is far more destructive than it might seem at first glance because it's choking off the roots of the industry. As others have mentioned, how many kids read comics these days? Where is the next generation of readers coming from?

In addition to telling stories about characters we might actually like, or even want to emulate, they need to go back to publishing some monthly books on cheap paper and cut production costs way down. Make books that kids can buy and read and get hooked. If it's popular, it'll get collected on high quality paper. If not, it might actually gain collector value because it's going to turn to crap faster than current comics.

Printing cheap comics also makes it easier to take a risk on new properties, and to give them enough time to try to prove themselves.

And, of course, they need to get over this whole idea that destroying a character and/or character's history for shock story telling is terribly counterproductive. It's really hard to spend money on a comic when you know there's a good chance someone out of ideas is going to destroy any reason you cared, and likely use your memories of the character as toilet paper. Who needs mental skid marks?

They need a next generation of readers to exist as anything other than a copyright maintenance organization. That includes building trust with the readers - giving them faith that they'll want to read what's coming next, not have to buy it to complete the set. They've got a lot of bad faith built up, and it'll take a while to rebuild trust. I hope they can commit to a better vision, and just as importantly, stick to it long enough for it to have an effect.

I agree in part and disagree in part.

I certainly agree about the catering to collectors over readers. Variant covers, lenticular covers, constant reboots to #1 issues are all catnip to collectors.

I can't agree about going back to cheap paper. That ain't gonna happen. And it's not like the paper is the biggest part of the production costs. 

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