I've been joking for a while now that Marvel and DC only have three problems they need to overcome--unfortunately, those problems are content, marketing, and distribution. The first two columns in this little mini-series talked about content and marketing, and hopefully left Marvel in a place where they were once again in synch with their brand identity, and pulling audiences into the specialty stores that have become the core of their market. (Actually, "core" is misleading...more like "core, pulp, juice, skin, and everything but the stem".) This, in turn, leaves Marvel with some cash to start funding the third and final leg of their journey back to financial success...better distribution.
The first and most important part of this involves breaking off their exclusive deal with Diamond. This doesn't mean that they should stop doing business with Diamond...necessarily...but Marvel needs to understand that Diamond mostly does business with a network of hobby shops and specialty stores, that they don't have the inroads to major retail chains that Marvel needs to push their business to the places they need to go (i.e. everywhere), and that Diamond ultimately needs Marvel a lot more than Marvel needs Diamond. Marvel can find other distributors, but Diamond can't just make up about half their business walking away. So Marvel needs to do what's best for Marvel (a running theme in this column), and start working with other distributors to get themselves out there.
Where do I mean by "out there"? Everywhere. Marvel is a periodicals publisher, they publish short reads designed for impulse purchases, and that means that anywhere people buy things, Marvel can put their stuff and expect people to say, "Oh, and I'll add a comic, too!" Video game stores are a good place to start; put a Marvel comics rack next to the check-out at 'GameStop' or 'Best Buy', and there's a pretty good chance that the people buying video games are enough of a comics fan that they'll probably decide to grab an issue of Spidey or the Hulk if the cover looks interesting. (Which is another thing that needs to change; go look at old Silver Age comics, and you'll see something comics publishers used to know, but have forgotten--the cover is not a piece of artwork, it's an advertisement for your comic. You know why they did all those covers of Superman being a dick? It's because they knew people would pick up the comic to see why.) The collections of 'Penny Arcade' are already being sold in video games stores on this logic--and when two guys running a website in Seattle have more marketing savvy than your forty-five year old company, you're in trouble.
Beyond that, bookstores are an obvious place to go. Sure, some bookstores already have a comics rack--but it's in the wrong place. Comics shouldn't just be shelved with periodicals, where customers go looking for them; they should be at the check-out aisle, next to the candy and stationery, where kids waiting in line with their parents can say, "Ooh! Comic! Want!" The same holds true for grocery stores and drugstores. There's a reason you can still find those Archie digests in grocery stores, even today--it's because the 'Archie' guys know that ringing up a week's worth of groceries for a family of five takes about ten minutes, and if you've got a six year old with you, that's an eternity without something to do. So Mom or Dad tosses them an Archie digest, kid reads and is happy, and Archie makes another few bucks.
And if you've got an entire line of adult comics, why are you selling them at the same point of purchase as your kid-lit material? Half the problem with Marvel's 'MAX' line isn't that they shouldn't have an adult line, it's that they can't seem to differentiate it from their other lines in the key areas of marketing and distribution. Sell your adult comics in coffee shops, and let people pick up an issue of 'Fables' to read while they sip their venti latte. (And yes, I know DC publishes 'Fables'. That's back to Column #1 on the list: Get some actual decent series going in your 'MAX' line, Marvel, something with real grown-up cred like Vertigo has. Vertigo's backlist includes 'Sandman', 'Swamp Thing', 'Animal Man', 'Doom Patrol', 'Fables', '100 Bullets', 'Preacher', 'Transmetropolitan', 'Y: The Last Man', and 'Fables'. MAX has Garth Ennis' 'Punisher' series. Something must be done, here.)
(You probably can't sell comics in movie theaters, but this is as good a time as any to mention giving them away. It's marketing, not distribution, to give away free promotional comics with tickets to comic-book movies (an Iron Man comic for 'Iron Man', a 'Punisher' comic for 'Punisher: War Zone', et cetera), but giving away comics to movie theater patrons would probably buy you twice as many new customers as 'Free Comic Book Day' ever could, because it's targeting people who like comics characters but aren't going to comics stores.)
In short, at the end of this third column, anyone who wants comics can find them easily and buy them (which should translate into cheaper comics, since the more people buying, the cheaper you can sell them for.) And all this is predicated on a firm belief of mine: There are more potential comics fans out there than ever these days. All Marvel (and DC as well, let's not forget) needs to do is connect with them.
Will the fans like this step? By the end of this step, everyone will be a fan.