Year in Review: Superhero Comics double down

The New 52 hits comics stands

Much of this year was a struggle for most of the comics industry, but it seemed particularly apparent in the primary publishers of American superhero comic books, Marvel Comics and DC Comics. Those two publishers also comprise about 75% of the comic book market, as tracked through North American comic book stores, so if they’re struggling, the entire industry struggles. For the first 3/4 of 2010, sales at comic book stores drifted away.

Some retailers began to complain that Marvel and DC weren’t providing any big high profile comics to bring readers in. Through much of the 2000s, both publishers had released big summer events that consumed much of their respective lines. These big crossover events, like DC’s Identity Crisis (2004) and Marvel’s Civil War (2006), garnered some headlines from mainstream media and definitely got fans talking. Most important, it got them buying. Soon, much of their publishing strategies were built around the next event, with comics devoted to teasers, prequels, accompanying mini-series, spin-offs, sequels and so forth. It got to the point where it would literally cost one or two hundred dollars to get every issue that was part of one single event, if one was that much of a compulsive completionist (and let’s face it, plenty of superhero fans are just that). Toward the end of the 2000s, readers started to complain of what became called “event fatigue”. The never-ending cycle of an earth-shattering, teeth-gnashing crisis leading right into the next bleak crisis was losing appeal. So DC and Marvel took a break from them, although they kept publishing smaller more contained mini-events. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, they didn’t replace these sales magnets with compelling comics that would bring readers back (or, to dream the impossible dream, bring new readers in).

So to answer retailers’ concerns, instead of innovating, they returned to the same trick: big line-wide crossover events. Unfortunately it didn’t work this time. Marvel’s Fear Itself and DC’s Flashpoint were largely met with lukewarm sales and reviews this summer. Meanwhile, Hollywood was showing that it could actually do halfway decent superhero stories, certainly more accessible, entertaining and populist than their current comics counterparts. All summer long, big screen audiences were hit by Thor, X-Men: First Class and Captain America: The First Avenger, with no compelling reason to carry any interest in the characters to comic book stores. Even DC Comics’ valiant promotion of rolling back or holding cover prices at $2.99, instead of the increasingly common and excessive $3.99, didn’t do much to turn losses around.

So it finally became clear something truly big had to be done. Waving arms around yelling “hey look!” in the traditional fashion didn’t get anyone to really notice or care, so it was time to bring back the old stand-by of adding in a hearty table flip. Just after their Flashpoint crossover had started, DC Comics announced that their entire superhero universe would be (sorta) reborn. Every series would be cancelled and an entirely new line-up of 52 comics would start over the next month. In many ways, it’s the mother of all events, and similar to a move DC Comics made in 1985 with Crisis on Infinite Earths, where their entire universe was reset for the first time. The difference this time is that there would be a clean break. Starting August 31, every DC Universe comic book was set back to issue #1, with updated costumes and streamlined origin to create a younger, hipper world of superheroes. The New 52 got a lot of press. DC’s chief executives and architects went on an aggressive tour of comic book stores to win over support of the massive gamble. They offered retailers great incentives and the ability to return unsold comics. They did interviews for radio, TV, newspapers, websites. They made TV commercials that airing on cable networks, played before movie trailers and streamed online. Yes, they did something almost unprecedented: they did real marketing to people outside of the current comics reading habit. Letting people know that something they might like exists is a foreign concept to most comic book publishers, but somehow it worked. Sales have been great. In many cases, sales of relaunched books doubled the first month of the launch. DC Comics’ market share jumped to make them the #1 comics publisher of North America for the last quarter of 2011, after at least a decade of being #2 to Marvel. Some other publishers have even reported improved sales for their own unrelated comics as a possible side effect of the New 52.

Miles Morales stars in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1

So the industry is saved, right? Well… not quite. Reviews have been mixed, the consensus seems to be that some books are good, some are OK, some are bad. There are concerns over excessive violence and objective depictions of females, just as there were before the relaunch. After five months, retailers are already seeing sales settling back down to how their stores were selling DC books before the New 52 launch. Unfortunately that has historically been the pattern with events. Initial enthusiasm reflects in temporary sales bumps. But without  sustaining quality that speaks to larger audiences, it’s always temporary until the next big event needs to be concocted.

While Marvel hasn’t done something quite as aggressive relaunching their entire line, they have been making changes, amid a series of layoffs and cutbacks. Probably their highest profile move was their new Spider-Man, the multi-racial Miles Morales, in their Ultimate Comics imprint, also first announced in USA Today. They’ve also announced plans to release in 2012 a new line of original graphic novels updating the origins of their most popular characters. Previously swearing that original graphic novels just didn’t make financial sense to them, the move is presumed to be a response to DC’s successful Superman: Earth Oneoriginal graphic novel, released in 2010.

Both Marvel and DC also stepped up their schedules in releasing digital comics. DC announced they would release their comics on the web and mobile devices the same day their print comics are released in comic book stores the same day their New 52 began, August 31. Marvel has been slowly rolling out a similar strategy instead of a line-wide shift all at once. They announced to Gizmodo in November that by March 2012, all of their titles would be on a simultaneous digital/print release schedule (excluding licensed comics and their mature MAX imprint). Marvel was the first of the two to experiment with this kind of release. Comic shop owners have been nervous about digital stealing away customers, and their vocal protests is believed to be the reason for the staggered pricing schedule that has become standard for day-and-date digital releases. For digital comics released the same time as their print counterpart, their price will match the print version’s cover price (typically between $2.99 and $3.99). After a month, the price drops to $1.99. Both Marvel and DC tend to have sales that drop some prices to $0.99, and some issues are available for free.

Did DC’s New 52 just stall the inevitable? How will Marvel respond to regain their lost market share? How will retailers who rely on superhero comics deal with digital comics? 2012 will be an interesting year.

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