DC and Marvel: From Mainstream to Irrelevant

Brian Hibbs, as always, makes some excellent points in his Tilting at Windmills column. This time, it’s all about how badly some of the Marvel and DC titles sell. Based on his estimate of between 2-3000 dedicated comic shops, and sales data of 35 “big two” comics selling under 20,000 an issue, he concludes that these “borderline” titles are likely unprofitable for stores to carry. As he says,

I remember a time when I could not sell fewer than ten copies of any Marvel comic, no matter how uncommercial it might have been. Today, probably a third of what they publish is now selling fewer than ten rack copies at my store. This is frustrating on multiple levels, and averages say that I am nowhere near alone — if we draw the line at 30k, assuming there are 3k comic book stores racking Marvel comics, then according to that chart up top, more than half of Marvel’s line is like that for the typical store.

… what were once the most solid and commercial brands, the ones that allowed stores to experiment with a wider and more diverse set of titles because they were so profitable, have found themselves fighting an entirely self-imposed war over the bottom of the market, publishing titles at circulations that would have been literally unthinkable a decade or two back.

I strongly believe that it isn’t merely hurting a store’s ability to be acceptably profitable — it is hurting the very brands themselves. I believe that the absolute inability for Marvel and DC to currently launch new ideas successfully is intrinsically tied to the insane overproduction that they themselves have created. The market has neither the room, nor the desire, for the sheer bulk of “DC Universe” and “Marvel Universe” titles that are being produced, and so the very value of the idea of a “universe” is being steadily eroded.

Now, the readers I know who are still reading any superheroes gave up on the idea of “collecting the universe” a long time back, since the level of quality varies so much across the line, but a lot of comic shops do rely on dedicated, habitual customers that buy large numbers of mostly superhero titles. As those buyers disappear, or are driven away, it’s harder for the comic shop to be profitable.

Hibbs’ conclusion is to call for the cancellation of at least 70 of the DC and Marvel titles, anything selling under 30,000. He wants fewer books that sell better. Which would make things easier for everyone in the chain, including distributors, but would also likely result in less diversity of reading. (Speaking as someone who only tends to like the “fringe” titles, those that aren’t as popular and successful, I’d likely have fewer superhero comics to read. But that’s been the case for years now.) Still, perhaps the argument is that readers who want something different have already gone elsewhere, to manga or graphic novels or the works of other publishers. There’s plenty of horror and science fiction around, anyway.

Some think that these low-selling books should be kept around because both DC and Marvel should be creating new properties for their corporate owners to make movies out of, but without a willingness to cut in creators for a share of the profits (which they don’t like to do), few new ideas will come to the corporate publishers. Creators would rather put out their own books and make their own deals. Fewer books will also mean fewer creators able to make a living through their comic work.

Are these books even profitable, anyway? I know, in the past, low-selling books were kept around for reasons other than money — they were award winners, or they were done by a creator the publisher wanted to keep happy, or they featured someone’s favorite character — but those in charge of the two publishers these days don’t seem to have that kind of take on the business, because they aren’t long-term fans.

In the column, Hibbs also goes into some detail about his strategy for his store, which is informative as well. For another view of what DC and Marvel are facing today, Sean Kleefeld makes the case for the two publishers no longer being “mainstream”. That’s a word usage choice I made years ago — when I realized that “big two” could as easily apply to Viz and Tokyopop at that time. Now, their sales peak didn’t hang around the same way, but neither did DC and Marvel’s.

3 Responses to “DC and Marvel: From Mainstream to Irrelevant”

  1. vantine Says:

    Great article. But I don’t read anything there that makes either Marvel or DC irrelevant or anything other than mainstream. Especially when you factor in the films which are currently the hottest tickets in town at theaters. Selling fewer floppies, sure.

    When it comes to the comics end of the business and the big two’s whole saturation strategy, I’m not going to underestimate for one second their understanding of the power of “habit” with regards to buyer psychology. The Tobacco companies sure haven’t. But quality doesn’t necessarily translate to popularity. Marvel is about to introduce Rocket Raccoon to the world. How long will it be before we see a movie based on The Massive? Everything gets optioned nowadays but few quality non big 2 books make it to film.

    I’m also not sure if Marvel or DC even need to come up with any new characters at this point in order to be successful or even to maintain an acceptable level of sales. I can think of a dozen characters that havent’ been revived in a couple decades. Ideally it would be nice for the industry, retailers and creators, if there was an invironment where contributors could create a character and be well paid to have that character appear in a film.

    As far as quality of the product, it’s like cereal. General Mills puts out a lot of cereal but even though they sell more Cherios than they do Boo Berry they continue to make Boo Berry and the stores continue to stock it. I have to think that there’s a reason for that.

    That said, I agree with all the above conclusions. In theory.

  2. Johanna Says:

    Well, the movies aren’t DC and Marvel any more — they’re Warner and Disney. Mostly Disney, since Warner still has only the one superhero franchise success (Batman). Arguably, the Walking Dead is as significant as the blockbuster movies, in terms of merchandise and reach, and it sets the message to keep your own properties. Thanks for your comments.

  3. James Schee Says:

    Hibbs makes some interesting points, as I too think there are too many books put out by DC and Marvel. I’m not sure that the readers would buy of certain books if there weren’t more.

    Yet there are some books, DC’s Team 7 and The Ravagers for instance (the upcoming Vibe series for another), that you wonder how they got green lighted in the first place.

    I think in a lot of ways the comics side for the big 2 are irrelevant. I’m sure the creative teams are doing their best, but management is hoping to catch lightning in the bottle that’ll turn a minor character into the next franchise. (Guardians of Galaxy most recent example I guess?)

    Superman, Batman, Spider-man, etc are still very relevant characters or properties I guess you’d say.

    Good things is creators are going out and doing their own properties. Many seem to be doing the right thing and putting the comics first. Since yes Walking Dead is huge but not everything (probably most) will be that big. Yet I think it’ll be neat to see in a few years where comics “mainstream” proves to be.




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