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Comic Book Dictionary: Venom Discretion Test

In his weekly column, “One Fan’s Opinion,” yesterday, Erik Larsen discussed the idea (which Stan Lee has brought up) that, in the broad sense, readers are the “real editors,” in that they decide, by what they buy, what books are produced. It’s an interesting article, with a whole lot of truth (especially the part about the fickle nature of readers), but I think there’s a certain aspect of the comic industry that Larsen left out of his piece, and that’s what I will call the Venom Discretion Test.

In his piece, Larsen discusses how essentially (at least for the Big Two, as he rightfully points out that creator-owned titles such as his own Savage Dragon are much less likely to be swayed by fan sentiment), the readers make their decisions with their wallets. If they want something gone, it’ll be gone by them not purchasing the title. Larsen points to the hordes of fans who complained about Chuck Austen, but yet they still bought Austen’s comics, so Austen was in no danger of being replaced.

Well, right there is the slight thing that I think Larsen is missing, which I call the Venom Discretion Test. I name it after the Venom “ongoing” series that Marvel had from 1993 until 1998, where Venom had an “ongoing” series of mini-series for five years. Why did Venom not just have an ongoing, since he was so popular with the fans? Bob Harras, Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, fought hard against it, because he did not want Marvel to give a villain like Venom his own series just because he was popular. However, the popularity of the character “forced” him to meet the fans in the proverbial middle and give them an “ongoing” series of Venom mini-series (by the by, Harras wasn’t even Editor-in-Chief when this series of mini-series thing began, so I suppose Tom DeFalco felt the same way, although I’ve never heard DeFalco’s thoughts on the subject).

Finally, though, in 1998, Venom’s popularity reached a point where, according to Tom Brevoort in Wizard #72, “Reader interest weakened enough for Editor in Chief Bob Harras to justify killing it. The return on the book had declined to the point where any immediate financial reward was overshadowed by Bob’s discomfort with the character starring in his own title.” On Spider-Fan, reader Joel Mathies complained about this in a piece for Spider-Fan, “Venom was always in the top 100 sales and usually sold better than other headline titles from Marvel and even some of the Spider-Man books.”

This is what I mean by the Venom Discretion Test. For all the talk about sales being the end point, it really isn’t always. Often, it’s more about GREAT sales can forestall problems, but that’s it.

Take, for instance, Larsen’s example of Chuck Austen. Larsen writes, “A short while back a number of readers (accompanied by a legion of trolls) jumped on the ‘I hate Chuck Austen’ bandwagon and badmouthed his work to beat the band. But as long as readers continued to purchase the books he produced, there was no reason for publishers to show Chuck the door.”

Yet, when DC sent Austen packing as writer of Action Comics, Action was selling about 50% BETTER than it was before he took over as writer! An average issue of Austen’s Action Comics (I took one where it’d be fair to everyone, a non-crossover, post-”NEW CREATIVE TEAM!” issue, as I didn’t want anything to artificially pump up the sales), #817, sold 45,178 copies. A typical issue of the previous run the year before? 31,959 copies. So it was INCREASING sales! What it WASN’T doing, however, was selling astonishing numbers. Later writers did not increase the sales much, as a typical issue of the following creative team’s Action Comics (I picked #833 as a typical issue, although some of the issues that tied into Infinite Crisis sold much higher, in the high 50,000s) sold 44,613 copies (all these sales numbers are according to ICv2, so feel free to disagree with their calculations).

In any event, while yes, staggering amount of sales will allow people to “get away” with stuff, just plain old GOOD sales (Austen’s Action Comics #817 was ranked 32nd, pre-Austen it was ranked in the high 50s!!) does not help you. In those instances, the fans are NOT the real editors, and the book is fully within the realm of what the company and its editors feel is “good.”

Note, the Venom Discretion Test sometimes goes the OTHER way, where editors will fight for LOW-selling titles, where they use their discretion to keep around a book that “the real editors” have said they do not want anymore, due to them not buying the book.

19 Comments

Interesting. The whole “the fans are the real editors!” thing is bogus for three reasons: firstly, as Larsen points out, people won’t stop buying a book because it has one thing wrong with it — there’s a threshold of suckitude above which books will keep selling without a single thing being changed; secondly, as you point out, editors aren’t pure wealth-maximising machines and will readily nix books that sell well because they just plain don’t like them; and thirdly, besides that, editing is what happens to books before they get published. What happens afterwards may need a name of its own, but it’s not editing.

Editors also have the power to request changes in material, like altering dialogue or a given plot point. At best, a reader can just not buy what she doesn’t like, and even then the publisher doesn’t know why she’s not buying it. She could be dropping X-Men because she abhors writer’s bold new direction… or she could be dropping it because she’s got a new job that doesn’t pay as much and needs to cut back, or she wants to invest money in a new hobby that doesn’t clutter her basement up so much.

Readers could be given more feedback into the creative process at the Big Two, and I personally think doing this would boost circulation signifcantly. The status quo for the moment, though, seems to be the editorial staff of the Big Two enforcing their Fanboy Priorities into continuity first and foremost. Selling books seems to come second to that, and then telling good stories / printing good art comes a sometimes-distant third.
And all of this stuff is strictly secondary to marketing demands to keep major characters available for licensing into films, books, merchandise, etc.

I think another example might be Dan Didio’s stated disinterest in punishing a “funny superhero” book. He points to PLASTIC MAN and its low sales as proof that they just don’t sell, when Marvel is able to keep SHE-HULK in print and the two “Superbuddies” minis seemed to do okay business. Combine that with the misdirection about YOUNG JUSTICE and subtle knocks on it and the statement about how he doesn’t want to “sacrifice characters for a joke”, and it seems that personal distaste does play a role.

Wow. Sounded a tad bitter, didn’t I?

Hmm, so that’s why Marvel didn’t sack Erik from Amazing Spider-Man way back when–even though part of almost every letter was how bad the art was…

Well I had good things & suggestions as well.
They even printed a few.

The VDT was used on Young Justice and Teen Titans prior to Graduation Day, according to Didio. They were profitable just not uber-profitable. I may be naive but I still think there are some editors willing to fight for comics despite low sales. The Manhunter save and the continued existence of Spider-Girl seem to belie that all decisions are made for profit. I am curious to see if sales dropped, raised or were unaffected on those issues of Teen Titans that Liefeld recently drew. Does anyone know? In the end, just like in any entertainment field 85% of decisions are made for commerce the other 15% for art, because the high selling dreck gives publishers the freedom to greenlight less popular/more thoughtful comics. Would Watchmen sell in today’s market?

“I am curious to see if sales dropped, raised or were unaffected on those issues of Teen Titans that Liefeld recently drew. Does anyone know?”

According to Liefeld*, sales were higher than on prior, non-tie-in issues.

Usually I just call this sort of thing editorial bias, but Venom Discretion Test certainly sounds better. The Justice Society instance mentioned in a prior Urban Legends column is another good example of this sort of thing and there are a couple of other characters who I’m fairly certain have been “victims” of it as well (in DC’s case most of these were created after 1975 or so). On the one hand, it seems rather unprofessional, but on the other mainstream comicdom is basically run by fans, and all fans, even professional fans, have biases.

*Source being Liefeld’s journal found here:
http://www.robliefeld.net/journal_insert.htm

The first issue of Liefields run did better than the bokj’s avarage, the second one drop below, so I guess he brought some fans for his two issues but drove a lot of regulars readers away by the second one.

Today’s market is what it is because Watchmen still sells, and in fact, sells very well.

As I said over on CBR’s Image Boards, the “voice of the internet” means very little in terms of sales.

To boost sales, you have to do grass roots campaigning. That means fans have to actually get away from their computers and promote the books they like at their local comic shops / haunts. You can gripe and groan about comics you don’t like all you want, and you can stop buying them, too. That isn’t going to get others to stop buying those books, if that’s what they think they want.

But it’s a whole lot more effective when you’re at a shop and you see someone complaining about the latest “A2Z” book and you tell them to put it back on the shelf and find something else to read, and then get them potentially interested in what you’re reading.

The only problem is, the retailers don’t like it when you do that, because it flies against the marketing practices of the publishers. You get a reader of X-Books, you potentially lose that reader from what, seven to ten titles? Are you replacing the same sales with seven to ten other books? More importantly, is the retailer intelligent enough to have that much alternative stock in their store? (ANSWER: For you, maybe. For the retailers- Hell, no.)

Watchmen sells as a trade paperback in bookstores. I’m asking if 12 individual issues of a mature superhero comic with no recognizable characters and large text sections would sell.

Of course, with any discussion of sales figures it’s important to keep in mind that these are not sell-through numbers, but sales to retailers (unless ICv2 provides sell-through estimates–if they do, I’d love to see them). So those Liefield numbers reflect what retailers thought they could sell to customers, rather than what customers actually bought.

Same thing with the sales of lower-tier Marvel/DC or independent books–low sales don’t necessarily reflect unsold copies, but they do reflect retailers’ confidence in being able to sell copies. I would guess that the ratio of orders to copies sold is much better on the smaller titles than the big ones at most stores, simply because many stores only order enough of the smaller titles for their pull-list customers. I had trouble buying an issue of Fables (hardly an obscure comic, really) when I was visiting my brother in South Carolina last Christmas, because the store only ordered enough copies for subscribers. And this was a pretty decent store! (In the end, the guy sold me his subscriber’s copy, reasoning that he’d be able to re-order before the customer came in to pick up his books.)

I don’t really have a point I’m trying to argue here, other than reminding everyone that you have to factor in the retailer when discussing sales. Most surviving retailers do a pretty good job of predicting what their customers will buy, but there are occasional miscalculations.

Well, David, to be fair, REorders of the first Liefeld Teen Titans issue ALSO cracked the Top 300.

But yes, it’s a valuable point to note that these rankings are only what stores ordered, not what they actually sold to customers.

See Civil War #5,6 and 7 for some GREAT examples of this deal.

That’s interesting. That somewhat refutes the Byrne hypothesis of comics retailing–store owners/managers will order according to personal prejudices rather than (predicted) consumer demand. If reorders were that high, then retailers were clearly sensitive to in-store demand. (Or else it was just the smart retailers who reordered Liefield in such large numbers.)

That’s an interesting point to consider in conjunction with the Venom Discretion Test: does it apply on the retail end? Brian Hibbs says no, if I’m interpreting his columns correctly; Byrne, of course, says yes.

Venom Discretion Test – I like it. It works in a number of ways too. The example I always think of with this is John Byrne’s X-men: The Hidden Years series. It was cancelled when it was performing adequately well, but it didn’t “fit the direction” that they wanted to take the X-books at the time. (Amusingly, years later, the X-books are pretty much right back where they were then, to the point where Byrne’s series would fit right in).

And, really, its all about thinking long-term rather than short term (something that a lot of folks in all industries neglect at their peril). Sure in the short term a Venom book would have done well, but I’m sure that the folks at Marvel saw the long-term damage that had been done to the Punisher by moving him from a conflicted anti-hero/vigilante villain to the star of his own books. It took a long time, and Garth Ennis, to rehabilitate him for the masses. When Venom was hitting his stride as a popular villian, Punisher was really, really in the doldrums, and almost useless as a villain, while simultaneously boring as a “hero”. Venom could have easily spiralled the same way (though, I think that the series-of-mini-series did as much damage to the character as an ongoing would have, but then I think Venom is kind of a weak character to begin with, so my bias may be showing).

Sometimes the long-term thinking is good, sometimes its bad. It seems like Marvel’s longer-term thinking with Spider-girl must be paying off, and I hope that DC can do something similar but different with Manhunter to keep that book going. Time will tell, I suppose.

I liked Larsen’s column, but I think he fails to realize, or mention, four things:

1- Any “editing” that a fan does is mostly “absorbed” by retailers and probably has to filter down through various months of purchases before it’s felt by the companies.

2- When Stan Lee (or whomever made those remarks) said that the Fans were the real Editors, comic books were still returnable. So if fans hated an issue of Spiderman, not only did Marvel find out real fast; but it had an immediate economic impact on them.

3- The fans have been leaving the market in droves. Sure, sales are up, but if you did an actual head count, you’d see that the total number of fans and comics sold is in decline. So fans have been trying to edit the books with their wallets but the industry continues to turn a deaf ear and reposition themselves in order to maximize profits any which way they can. Ergo, all the Infinite Crossovers! I mean, they know that comic book fans are notorious completists, so how do they keep their audience captive? Well, with a never ending cross-over.

DC’s been the worst since their own cross-overs and mini-series didn’t even end. They just dovetailed into another never ending miniseries and special.

And with regards to Internet Trolls:

4- If the criticism is well constructed, has merit, and it can stand on its own; then it shouldn’t matter who said it, or where it came from.

Whether he heard it from an internet troll or an industry head; by now he should know how to discern between good and bad criticism. After all, he is a professional.

4- If the criticism is well constructed, has merit, and it can stand on its own; then it shouldn’t matter who said it, or where it came from.

True, but I believe Larsen’s position is that trolls specifically do NOT give well-constructed criticism that have merit.

That’s interesting. That somewhat refutes the Byrne hypothesis of comics retailing–store owners/managers will order according to personal prejudices rather than (predicted) consumer demand. If reorders were that high, then retailers were clearly sensitive to in-store demand. (Or else it was just the smart retailers who reordered Liefield in such large numbers.)

Well, not for nothing, reaching the Top 300 isn’t THAT impressive of an achievement these days, as I believe reorders were under 2,000 copies, which is just enough to reach the bottom edges of the Top 300.

And one could make the argument that fans bought so much of the first issue to make reorders needed, but most of them disliked it, leading to the low sales on the second issue.

However, applying the Venom Discretion Test to retailers is a brilliant concept, David. Good call.

That’s an interesting point to consider in conjunction with the Venom Discretion Test: does it apply on the retail end? Brian Hibbs says no, if I’m interpreting his columns correctly; Byrne, of course, says yes.

I think it definitely does – just not to all retailers, I guess.

It’s also prudent to remember that those Venom miniseries, on the whole, sucked.

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