"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
Okay, I wasn’t going to comment on this, but after the announcements DC has made this week, I can’t help myself.
Literally just a few days after I noted that the problem DC is having with consistency and follow-through on their comics titles is starting to seem like Attention Deficit Disorder, they made their big announcement about re-shuffling creators and canceling some books and launching other new ones. At a time when many of the just-launched “New 52″ ongoing titles haven’t even concluded their first story arcs, DC has decided a fresh start is in order.
A publisher has every reason to cancel books that are under-performing, of course. Some of them might be hidden treasures artistically, but big publishers aren’t in it for the art, the books need to make money. This has been going on as long as there have been comics. It’s not really news that DC took a look at its sales figures and decided to thin the herd. Comics aren’t just about art; they are a business. I get it. I do.
But here’s why it strikes me as more of this ADD silliness.
Let’s recap. DC made a huge, huge deal out of its “New 52″ relaunch. They are so committed to this that, as Brian noted a couple of days ago, they replace however many titles they cancel with new ongoing series so as to keep their “52” schtick going. Okay, fine.
But no matter what you put in the books or who’s doing them, fifty-two standard ongoing 32-page monthly comics is a huge investment to ask of readers– and readers don’t actually buy the comics from DC, they buy them from retailers. Remember, comics publishers are wholesalers.
So the way it’s set up, a retailer has to somehow look two months into the future and estimate what he thinks he can sell to the people that come into his store, and then he orders that much from DC. Those are the “sales figures” we talk about so much in the comics press.
But that gives DC a built-in sales problem with their much-ballyhooed 52-book line. Because no matter what they publish on that basis the mathematics of it guarantee that most of the line is going to under-perform.
Think about it. For the retailer it’s a zero-sum game. He has a fixed number of dollars to invest each month in his order, and looking two months in the future he really only knows two things. Readers will show up sight unseen for a favorite character (Superman or Batman) or a hot creator (Grant Morrison or Geoff Johns.) He can invest heavily there if he wants. But there’s no way in hell he’s going to be able to tell what else might hit or miss with his customers. You don’t need to take my word for it… look at DC Comics’ publishing history.
So our hypothetical retailer would order conservatively on mid-listers like The Flash or Green Lantern Corps, and even more conservatively on total unknowns like Batwing or Voodoo. Moreover, every dollar he spends ordering a new DC launch that might or might not stick is a dollar he’s not spending on Marvel or Dark Horse or IDW or whoever. Zero-sum game. No wonder most small-press guys just skip trying to get shelf space in comics stores and go straight to the internet.
Okay? Those are the ABC’s of comics retail. Most of you reading this already know that stuff, I imagine, but it’s helpful to remind everyone of it because it emphasizes why these panicked cancellations and revamps of creative direction and personnel are so ridiculous.
Because what all of that means is that the sales figures DC is looking at and canceling books over are based on the retailer guesses of over two months ago. When all the stuff on the stands was at #2 and virtually all the available reviews and reactions were still mostly concerned with the “New 52″ first issues.
Even with the internet facilitating word-of-mouth among comics fans, I think it’s too soon for DC to be freaking out about what’s working and what’s not. Retailers were still just guessing. Hell, they’re still guessing now.
What’s more, none of that takes into account those of us who prefer to read comics in book form; there are quite a few trade collections of DC’s New 52 coming according to Amazon.com, but none of them exist yet. No way to tell which of these new titles might sell better in trade collections. (I can tell you flatly that’s where I do most of my sampling of new titles these days.)
So if these decisions are based on sales, then clearly DC is going on, if not technically bad information, then at the very least it has to be incomplete, premature sales information.
But if it isn’t sales, then what is it?
DC is reshuffling everything based on… what? Internet gossip? Retailer grumbles? Blogger reviews? Can’t be. There’s no way you look at the internet and conclude, “From what fans and retailers are saying, clearly the thing to do is to give Rob Liefeld more books.”
And yet, that’s what DC is doing. Hell, to many jaded onlookers it looks like that’s the latest installment of DC’s master plan of trying to re-create the superhero comics scene of mid-1992. Certainly, that era is what springs to mind for most comics people when they see names like Bob Harras or Jim Lee or Rob Liefeld, especially when you couple those names with the launch of a bunch of new #1 issues that (according to press releases) are being promoted as “pushing boundaries” and “edgy.”
Sure DC sold a lot of comics then. Everybody did, even a bunch of hack small-press outfits that folded a year or two later. It was almost impossible to lose money publishing comics in 1992. Strictly in terms of business, it’s natural that a corporate publisher looking at a balance sheet is going to say, “What did we do then that we’re not doing now? Get those guys back here.”
Look. If you’re a businessperson running a corporation of any kind that deals in the creative arts, you’re always looking to hedge your bets. Corporations go back to the well because it works. The new Mission: Impossible movie is the fourth in a series of successful movies based on a television show that was itself successful not once but twice. It’s a better bet for Paramount Studios and Pocket Books to keep putting out Star Trek stuff than it is for them to invest in some new science-fiction space thing. Marvel never loses money putting Wolverine on the cover of a comic book. That’s just the way popular culture functions. It’s why it’s called “popular” culture.
So DC looking to the comics boom of the 1990s as a model is understandable…. to a soulless accountant.
But it’s obvious that if that’s the strategy, they’re not looking at the whole picture.
I don’t mean the artistic part of it where most of those comics stunk. (Although they mostly did.) No, you only need to look as far as the business perspective of the retailers DC sells their comics to.
Whatever part of the entertainment business you might be in– creative or administrative or financial– it’s always guesswork. There’s really no way to tell what’s going to hit with a general audience. As William Goldman famously said, “Nobody knows anything.” But there are a couple of things that even a cautious old geezer like me would be willing to bet on, if it was me making these business decisions.
The first is that if a series of any kind is going to succeed, it ought to be around long enough for people to find it. Superhero comics are now a publishing business that’s on a six-month cycle for the most part… story arcs generally last that long, six issues is the standard for a trade paperback collection. Internet or not, word of mouth on a cool comic book takes about six months to spread far enough to have an actual retail impact. That’s the point when wholesale orders from retailers start to reflect actual reader preferences. So freaking out and shuffling everything around in a panic because a book’s not an instant hit after only four months is silly, especially since those sales figures are based on Conventional Retailer Wisdom from last October.
The second thing is that if your wholesale business depends on retailers to guess what’s going to work for them two months from now, you might not want to work so hard at re-creating what most of them bitterly remember as the time they got screwed by the industry’s most infamous failure.
Whoever’s getting misty about the early nineties at DC needs to take a harder look at those sales statistics. Yeah, sure, publishing comics was like free money for a couple of months there in 1992. It was a boom. For about ten weeks there, you couldn’t lose. Everyone was trying to duplicate the million-dollar success of Image and some publishers were fast enough to ride on the coattails of that success. Suddenly there were a lot of really crappy “Collector’s item #1!” comics coming out from everybody and quite a few of them made money…
…wholesale. For the publisher.
But there was a catch. All those retailers making publishers rich right and left by investing heavily in those new #1 books guessed wrong. Not just wrong but spectacularly, disastrously wrong. It proved to be almost impossible to for those retailers to make money when they tried to sell those same crappy comic books to readers.
Believe me, comics-shop owners remember the early 1990s and how it looked on their balance sheets. It put a lot of them out of business. They remember the solicits for books that never showed up, the unsold copies of Youngblood and Brigade that they’ve had rotting in the three-for-a-dollar box for years, the publisher promises that were routinely broken. And they’re not going to fall for that again.
Honestly? I’m kind of hoping it is just a case of ADD fueling DC’s publishing decisions over the last month or so. Because the idea that this might be a deliberate strategy? One that’s based on the cynical cash-grab publishing mentality of the early nineties? That’s just flat-out depressing.
See you next week.
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