Thursday, November 18, 2010
Yesterday Nate Cosby blogged about comic book solicitation copy, outlining exactly what I've been shrieking about for the past year, and you should click the link and read it. Of course Cosby made his points succinctly, eloquently, and has the added bonus of being credible. He was an editor at Marvel comics until recently, and actually wrote many of those "never be the same" blurbs that give me an instant migraine. So thank you, Mr. Cosby. For the eloquent distillation of my shrieking, not for the prior headaches.
I was at Half Price Books today, saw the issue of World's Finest #202 pictured above and just had to buy it. (for the tidy price of $5, by the by) I had to buy it because of the hype copy splashed onto the right hand side of the cover which reads:
"This is NOT an IMAGINARY fight scene! Nor a symbolic picture! Nor any other sort of COP-OUT!"
This was 1971. Obviously being suckered into meaningless hype that doesn't pay off is not a new thing. Incidentally, the cover isn't imaginary or symbolic. Superman falls from the sky, conks his head, and loses his memory. A cat name of Brakh takes advantage of this and gains an oddly complete control of Superman, and orders him to attack Batman.
A couple of problems, though. (spoiler alert!) It isn't really Kal-El, but one of the robotic constructs he created as a boy. And just as "Superman" is about to kill Batman, Brakh inexplicably tells him to stop, because he wants him as slave labor. So the fight doesn't include the real Superman, it isn't allowed to conclude naturally, and if that's not a cop-out I don't know what is. Anywho.
We were talking on the last show about how over-saturated we are with "This Changes EVERYTHING!" marketing, and wondering if it actually works. The example I promised to research was the effect that Captain America's death in issue # 25 had on the title long term.
And here's the raw data as reported by Diamond to retailers. Captain America # 1 launches in late 2004 at 67,223 copies. It takes a typical dip between the first and second issues and finds a remarkably stable home in the 45,000 copy range.
Then something magical happens: between issues 16 and 17, Captain America actually gains readers. No creative shift, no marketing push, no Wolverine guest appearance, no event tie-ins...it just gets ordered more based upon word of mouth. This never happens. It happened to Captain America in early 2006. After # 16, Cap picks up steam and gains readers every month. Stunning.
Think about that for a moment, though. Brubaker didn't suddenly learn how to write around issue # 16, and Steve Epting didn't transform from an ugly moth into a beautiful pencilling butterfly. It just took that long for people to catch on - OH, these guys are good! It took 16 MONTHS.
And then comes the Civil War/Death era and beyond:
Cap # 20/ 47,351
Cap # 21/ 49,045
Cap # 22 (Civil War) /82,203
Cap # 23 (Civil War) /81,286
Cap # 24 (Civil War) /79,880
Cap # 25 (Death) /290,497
Cap # 26 /126,384
Cap # 27/ 99,046
Cap # 28 /89, 689
Cap # 29 /83,775
Cap # 30 /79,530
And it continues to bleed from there. The latest issue, Captain America # 611 clocked in at 48,788. It's almost exactly back where it started before the Civil War explosion.
Did it work? Did the event marketing help Captain America find more actual readers? I think in this case we have to admit that it did. Civil War nearly doubled circulation, and then the death issue ramped it a bit further.
A couple of anomalies to consider. There was a four month delay between #24 and # 25. Ordinarily, that's enough to take all the wind out of a titles momentum. Obviously it didn't do much to slow things down in this case. Or did it? Would Cap have sold 500,000 issues without the delay? I seriously doubt it. Cap # 25 is a unique deal, driven largely by speculators and in significant part by people who don't ordinarily visit their local comic shop.
What's really interesting to me is how many people stuck around for # 26. I don't think anybody was looking at that one as a money-maker, they were probably there to read. And yes, the issue took a giant dip, but when you consider how many people bought both versions of # 25, (or 20 copies!)I think it's possible that more actual people bought # 26 than purchased # 25, and that's really remarkable.
So it did gain Captain America a quantifiably larger audience...at which point it started bleeding out, as per usual.
The obvious case to be made is that for Captain America, hype marketing beat attrition for three years. They were in the high 40,000s when the Civil War hit in 2007, and it has taken all the way to 2010 for it to fall back into the high 40,000s. You can make that case.
But I wonder if it ended up doing more harm than good. To me, the real story of Captain America isn't the 300,000 copies that # 25 sold. It's the four months of increased sales prior to # 22. Here's your list of comic books that gain sales in 2010 without benefit of creator change or event hype.....ready for this?.....
That's it. There's your list.
Brubaker and Epting were doing the impossible before the hype bomb went off. They were churning out books of such quality that word of mouth was building them a larger audience. Maybe I'm wrong, but that kind of gain has durability, provided quality maintains.
When you create an "event" around a thing, you cannot possibly sustain it. If the book is always an event, than the concept ceases to have any real meaning. So if the people jumping onto Captain America are there for the circus, then naturally they are going to leave when the adrenaline wears off. A comic book can't change your life every month, it just can't. If that's what you're there for, you're bound to be disappointed.
When Marvel re-framed the reason for reading Captain America, did it shoot its own foot? If they had left it alone and just let it build, would Captain America be selling 60,000 copies a month right now?
I don't know. It seems a little far fetched, granted. But so does a title, ANY title picking up readers at issue # 16. Doesn't it seem possible that it could have continued to grow with word of mouth saying to potential readers "Hey, I'm reading this comic and it's really pretty good" instead of "Oh my God, you will remember where you were when you heard that Cap DIED!" Word of mouth A doesn't get you on television, but it's a promise that a comic book in capable hands can fulfill. Word of mouth B just can't be sustained.
As another aside, I think that even if you take the position that the Civil War and Death issues helped Captain America, I don't think you can automatically justify the incessant hype marketing were seeing today, because 2010 is a different psychological landscape than 2007.
In fact, 2007 is really what re-ignited all of this event bullshit. DC had phenomenal success with Meltzer's Identity Crisis, and Marvel answered in spades with Millar's Civil War. We haven't had time for a breath since, and the system is showing the strain.