How Lee & Kirby's "Fantastic Four" Birthed the Marvel Universe, Part 1
Finally, somebody’s gotten around to actually implementing an idea that I and other comics blogger-types have been carping about for years.
Ever since superhero movies started to be really big hits, comics fans and industry pundits have been trying to figure out how to convert a movie success into a surge of new readers for the comic being adapted. After all, the reasoning goes, clearly there’s millions upon millions of people that like Spider-Man, they’re all buying tickets to see him in a movie, why can’t we get them to spend some money on reading more of his adventures?
In particular, we’ve often wondered why Marvel and DC don’t make use of their huge corporate clout to get their books into places that are not comics shops, simply to let all those newly-minted superhero fans from a movie know that the comics are out there. (I’ve run into an amazing number of people who assumed that when comics disappeared from newsstands back in the 1980s, they simply died off, like pulps or radio drama or some other once-popular entertainment that gradually ceased to exist as a mass medium.) Especially, it seems weird not to offer some kind of sampler package of comics for sale in the theater lobby, at least.
Well, it looks like that might actually have happened. It wasn’t in a theater lobby, but it was in a non-comics environment — specifically, the big books table at Costco. We were down there to pick up some prescriptions for Julie, and while she was talking to the pharmacist I was idling away in the books.
And, lo and behold, I saw a big pile of these, right there in between a stack of Chelsea Handler’s new book and a collection of Gwyneth Paltrow’s recipes.
A movie-cover edition of Thor headlining a sealed baggie with three Marvel comics in it for $3.79. A real, honest-to-God sampler produced to tie in with the movie. And whatever you may think of Ms. Handler or Ms. Paltrow, those books are moving right now, so that’s some pretty solid display space for a Marvel comic.
Turn the baggie over and the other side has this cover facing out.
Captain America. Oh yeah. Now we’re talking. This is a seriously smart piece of comics merchandising, I’m thinking. Push the comic for the movie that’s out now and the one that’s coming in a couple of months. Well played, Marvel.
So I bought it, curious to see what Marvel was using as their sampler come-on for all those folks who loved the movies and wanted more.
I got home and opened the bag and the third comic in between turned out to be this one.
X-Men. Okay, again, well-chosen, what with First Class about to open in theaters as well. At first glance I am thinking this a really smart package.
It was when I settled in to read them that the wheels came off the wagon. The Thor story was chapter one of Fraction and Coipel’s “The Galactus Seed,” featuring not just Thor but also the Silver Surfer. It seemed like a well-crafted piece, but the story sure wasn’t any kind of introduction or jumping-on place for a new reader. At times it was a pretty hard slog even for me to figure out what was going on, and I’ve been reading Thor comics off and on for forty years.
There was a recap page in the front, and good on Marvel for including that; it was absolutely vital or I’d have been completely lost.
Understand, if I was picking it up on a whim in the comics shop, it was perfectly adequate as a first issue. I sussed out what was going on without too much trouble, I was mildly intrigued by the story, and I might pick up the trade collection some day if there is one.
But as a come-on for a person who was thrilled by the Thor movie and wanted more? Total fail. The story just didn’t feel very… I don’t know… “Thor-ish.” There’s a lot of talky setup stuff and scenes of various people, including Thor, brooding about Something Bad that might be coming.
The Captain America comic, chapter two of “The Gulag,” was even worse in some ways, though it was easier to follow. (Of course I’ve read all the trades up to this point so really I’d only missed chapter one of the current storyline, but still.) The book supplied a recap page, Brubaker did a much better job of setting everything up and building a mood, the story ticked right along, but… this isn’t the book that’s going to hook a movie crowd on Captain America comics. “Captain America” doesn’t actually even appear in the comic — everyone’s in civvies the whole time. Seems like an odd choice for the book to put in your loss-leader three-pack sampler.
The X-Men issue, Uncanny X-Men #535, struck me as perhaps the best-executed introduction to the characters and their world. It’s by Kieron Gillen and the Dodsons, and it’s about the X-Men returning to the Breakworld. It’s a well-constructed intro, still awfully talky but with more interesting characters saying smarter and funnier things, and most everyone on the team gets enough face time that by the time you put the book down you’ve got a sense of who these people are and how they relate to each other. Of the three, I think this is the one that I’d be curious about and want more of.
As an experiment I took all three books to Cartooning class to see if maybe it was just me that was reacting badly. This year, as it happens, I have quite a few kids who were comics fans coming in — I mean Marvel and DC, that is, not manga like the vast majority of the students I’ve taught over the last sixteen years. Their situation is almost exactly the same as mine was at that age — just starting to be able to earn enough money and get mobile enough to go and get comics on their own, but still only sporadic readers of any one title.
So I took these sample books into class and offered kids a chance to review them. “These are sample comics,” I told them. “What I want to know is, can you tell who’s who, can you tell what’s going on, and are you interested enough to read more? Because that’s what these are supposed to be, they’re trying to get you to read more comics.”
As I suspected, the students who took me up on it were my hard-core geek kids, the ones who sign up for cartooning just to wallow in being around comics at school. Troy lunged at Captain America, Eileen took Thor, and Josh got the X-Men.
A minute later Troy was back. “This isn’t Captain America,” he said, scowling. “And it’s part two. Shouldn’t it be part one?” He was clearly disgusted. His face had the same expression you have when you’ve fallen for someone’s practical joke.
Troy was so annoyed he decided he didn’t want to do a review, and handed it back to me. Niko reviewed it instead. Here is what he had to say:
You could not see Captain America until the last page. If I had never read Captain America then I would not understand this book. It was kinda clear if you know who Winter Soldier is and the book is about Captain America not Winter Soldier. If you read Marvel frequently then it would be a good book I guess but I would not read it.
Note that without any prompting from me, the two twelve-year-old kids who are both Marvel fans have nailed the big problem with using this issue as a sampler — it’s a Captain America book without any actual Captain America putting in an appearance, just Steve and Bucky in their civvies.
Bear in mind, I’m a fan of Brubaker’s Cap…. but I buy the books in trade collections, so I don’t feel cheated, and this comic reads just fine in that context. As a chapter in the ongoing novel Brubaker is spinning about Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, it works great. But as a stand-alone for movie fans? Not so much.
The Mighty Thor fared even worse with Eileen:
Did I understand who the heroes were? NO! Not at all. I did know who Thor was but I did not know anything about the silver guy or that lady who was naked.
Eileen refers here to the bedroom scene where Sif is trying to get Thor to come to bed with her, and he’s distracted because he’s brooding over impending evil. There’s nothing particularly naughty about it and Sif is discreetly covered by a bedsheet, but it did strike me that this was the thing that jumped out at Eileen. I’m pretty sure it would jump out at any kid who wasn’t regularly visiting a comics shop. Again, not a wrong storytelling choice, but a very odd marketing choice for the comic you put in your come-on general audience sample baggie. Any CBLDF board member could tell you it only takes one angry parent, one ambitious DA, or one eager-beaver local news crew to spin something relatively innocent into the next big comic-books-poison-our-children witch hunt.
But Eileen, truthfully, was mostly just annoyed by the whole thing. She kept pausing in writing her review to ask me questions… who was the silver guy, what was all the church stuff about, why did the story keep switching back and forth.
But let her tell you:
Was the story clear? NO! As I said I could not tell what was going on. I would not buy more of these because it was so confusing.
So a swing and a miss with both Thor and Captain America. Here’s Josh on Uncanny X-Men:
I knew who the heroes were but I could not always understand the story or who the villains were or what was happening. But probably it’s okay because I would buy more. Just if the story was more clear and tells who the people are better.
So let’s call that two bad reviews and one ‘meh.’ The hell of it is, these aren’t bad comics. They’re, all three of them, actually pretty good comics.
They’re just crappy samplers.
Look, here’s what I’m getting at. I really like Sue Grafton’s series of novels about tough female private eye Kinsey Millhone. I want more people to read them. So I tear ten pages out of the middle of, oh, say, G Is For Gumshoe and sell copies of that random ten-page sample at Costco or Target for a dollar each, with the idea of persuading buyers of that ten-page excerpt that Kinsey Millhone and detective stories are AWESOME.
Would that work? Of course not. Publishers don’t do that, because it’s idiotic. That’s not a very smart way to sell books, period. And neither are the comics in this three-pack. They don’t do the job the package is clearly designed to do, which is to present Marvel comics to a new readership in a way that gets those readers to come back for more.
Here’s the thing that’s really annoying. Marvel DOES do books that are perfect for this sort of sampler marketing…. the “Saga” giveaways.
I bring these into class every so often and the kids are ALL OVER them. They love the huge info-dump structure of the things, it’s not dry or didactic for them at all. Marvel could do a lot worse than to slap five or six of them together into a trade paperback and sell THAT at Costco for $4.99. That’s how I’d do it. I bet it would sell, and it might very well lead new readers to the actual books.
Oddly enough, DC is trying exactly the same thing, putting out a one-shot book tying in to the upcoming Green Lantern movie. On a whim I picked up their sampler as well.
And this is how you do it.
It’s a collection of various Green Lantern short-story comics, filled out with a news article and a few photos from the upcoming movie. Included are “Flight,” by Geoff Johns and Darwyn Cooke from GREEN LANTERN SECRET FILES 2005; “Alienated,” featuring Hector Hammond, from writer Geoff Johns and artist Ethan Van Sciver, from GREEN LANTERN #4; and “New Blood,” by Peter Tomasi and Chris Samnee, from BLACKEST NIGHT: TALES OF THE CORPS #3.
I really can’t find fault with that package at all. Some of the stories may not be to my taste, but considered simply as a book that is supposed to explain who Green Lantern is and what his world is about and why it’s cool, I think this is a very well-thought-out collection.
I took this one to class as well, and Lilian reviewed it, knowing almost nothing about Green Lantern. Here is what she had to say:
You nailed it DC Comics! The comic, Beware His Power… Green Lantern Super-Spectacular is an awesome comic that hit all the main bullet points as to how Hal Jordan came to be the Green Lantern. DC, you also nailed the backstory with his dad, showing a little of his family. The story is easy to get into, easy to understand, easy to follow. The comic was definitely a worthy comic to make especially if you want to watch the movie but haven’t read the comics, or you want a hobby or you already are a Green Lantern fan. This is an awesome comic book!
Written by Lilian.
So. Sounds great. Good job, DC. Except…
… I didn’t get this one from Costco. I got it from my regular comics shop. I haven’t seen this Green Lantern sample collection anywhere except comics retailers.
Where it hardly does any good at all.
So on the one hand you have a great-looking sampler from Marvel with brilliant display placement and penetration and that’s all wasted by using very unfriendly-to-new-reader comics as samples. Meanwhile, DC has put together a book about Green Lantern that could very well bring in a lot of new fans– seriously, that book was a hot property in class that day, the girls loved it– but as far as I can tell, it’s only gone out to the establishments that are the least likely to have any potential new readers find it in the first place.
A lot of people were worried that when DC and then Marvel were bought up by huge business conglomerates, there would be changes that would hurt the comics being published. Things like media and marketing, commercial considerations.
I see ridiculous situations like this and I can’t help but think Marvel and DC would seriously benefit from a few grown-up marketing and business decisions. Until that happens, I don’t think that fabled wave of movie-driven new readers is ever showing up.
See you next week.
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