Thursday, February 07, 2008

How To Save Marvel Comics, Step Three

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.


Anonymous said...

Comics are periodicals! You can subsribe to them, but it sure isn't as easy as all the other magazines I subscribe to. My kids bring home magazine fundraisers from their school- I can subscribe to People, Discover and National Geographic- I can even subscribe to super-niche stuff like Wooden Boats for Beethoven Enthusiasts, but not Spiderman!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you brought up the Archie comics. I always wondered about the staying power of Archie, while Spiderman and the Fantastic Four seemed to vanish from every place except comics stores, Archie has always been right at the check-out line at our local grocery store. To a casual comics fan, it might seem like Archie is the most popular comic around just because of its prominent visibility.

Matthew E said...

Other places Marvel and DC might want to consider as potential sales points for their comics:

Toys 'R' Us.
Future Shop.

Joel said...

Another way that I think Marvel and DC could up their sales would be to lower their price. I understand that a part of the reason for the higher price is the higher-quality, glossy paper that comics tend to be published on these days. Drop it. Go back to the pulp paper and charge accordingly. Save the glossy pages for the trades.

John Seavey said...

Except that Marvel didn't raise the price so they could get the nice paper and higher-quality printing, they got the nice-paper and higher-quality printing to justify the price increases.

Essentially, what with the price of paper, ink, et cetera, the break-even point on any comic, even a cheap one, is probably close to a couple of bucks. (That's just a guess, but I know it was a dollar in the late 80s without any fancy paper or printing, and it's been a decade since then.) It's hard to convince someone to pay two bucks for an obviously cheap product, but it's easier to convince them to pay three bucks for something nice.

There's a limit to how much comics prices can go back down, unfortunately, and the days of seventy-five cent comics are probably as gone as the days of seventy-five cent gasoline. :)

Anonymous said...

I've been giving this essay, and the series of which it's a part, some serious thought, and I thought your remark about comics being periodicals was very interesting.

For most periodicals, and particularly for successful ones, the bulk of their revenue comes from advertising, not sales. And anyone who works in advertising will tell you that the most desirable demographic for advertisers is people aged 18-35, which is to say the demo that Marvel and DC are principally targeting. Young children, by contrast, are a much less desirable demo; that's why television networks charge the highest rates for commercials that air during hour-long dramas in the evening, not for those which air during afternoon or Saturday morning cartoons. You are essentially advocating that the big two forgo the highly desirable demographic they are reaching now to focus on a less desirable demo.

I think a better prescription would be for publishers to do a better job of appealing to the demo they are targeting now. The idea that they should make it simpler to subscribe is a good one; after all, for most periodicals, advertising rates are determined by the number of subscriptions, not the total sales. Go to the websites of either DC or Marvel, and you actually have to look pretty hard for the link for the subscription form, and they don't even make all their titles available; DC's website doesn't allow you to subscribe to any of their Vertigo, Minx, CMX Manga titles, and only some of the Wildstorm titles, and Marvel's is, if anything, worse. Also, they no longer include subscription forms within the individual issues themselves.

So I don't think publishers should forgo the desirable demographic they are currently appealing to in order to target a less desirable demo. I do think they should focus more on selling subscriptions and selling ads, as other periodicals do. But I do think you're right they should do a better job on distribution.

And if you're right and they can't bring prices down, then they should offer more for the money. In fact, they are offering less than they did when prices were lower: I know I keep harping on this point, but average per-issue panel counts have fallen considerably, which means there's just less story per issue. Readers are not getting their money's worth. Publishers should insist that writers and artists go back to having more panels, and they should increase per-issue page counts too. If you're going to charge us three dollars, then give us three dollars worth of story.

Austin Gorton said...

On the subject of giving away comics at comic based movies, when I saw Spidey 3 I (and anyone who bought a ticket) received a free Spider-Man comic. This was opening day, so I'm not sure how long that promo lasted.

Here's the thing: that comic sucked. Not just from a fanboy "where does this fit?" perspective. Cruddy, cloudy art, lousy dialogue, no connection to the film at all. Just a schlocky product that a couple of interns probably put together because Marvel knew no one was going to buy it, so they figured why bother spending any money producing it?

So I think giving away a relevant comic with a ticket to a comic book movie is a great idea, but an addendum to that idea should be that said comic needs to be of the same quality as one that would be put on the rack at a comic book store and sold for 2.99.

Anonymous said...

"You are essentially advocating that the big two forgo the highly desirable demographic they are reaching now to focus on a less desirable demo."

I thought his point was that, based on sales, they aren't really reaching anywhere near their potenital as far as *any* demographics.

No matter how hard they try to appeal to 18-35, they can barely crack 100,000. The harder they try to appeal to 18-35, the less likely that children (who, within ten years, will be 18-35) will be interested, and if they're not interested in superheroes when they're young, what chance is there that they'll be interested when they get older?


Don said...

Comics need to be everywhere! Like they used to be. Marvel's deal with Diamond is killing them and the industry. My town has no place whatsoever to get comics.

Anonymous said...

You have the same ideas I had about improving the comics industry, from Jump style digests, improved bookstore space, selling at movie theaters, in music/game/toy stores, competing with the Archie comic checkout rack, finding something more effective than Diamond, starting mature titles that aren't simply regular characters with adult content... all great ideas, but Marvel seems resilient to change.

They could create a comics industry where average people read, comics are everywhere and easy to find, and all ages and genres are covered, but it looks like they would rather occupy the top position in a niche industry than reinvent the industry itself.