You Have to Tell People Honestly What They’re Buying

Sensation Comics #3 cover by Joe Prado and Ivan Reis

I was pondering whether these links were too old to talk about now, when retailer Mike Sterling posted a related item and made everything current again. (Thanks, Mike!)

But first, some context. When you think about buying a comic, you probably assume that a reader is the customer. But in the comic store direct market, most all those pretty pieces of paper are sold non-returnably, so the actual customer of the publisher is the retailer/store owner. If something doesn’t sell, or if something can’t be sold, in most cases, they’re stuck with it. And if the retailer doesn’t commit to preordering a particular title from a publisher, it often won’t matter if customers would have purchased it.

(That’s why it’s difficult these days to find places to browse new and lesser-known titles — retailers don’t have a lot of incentives to take chances, for fear of them being stuck with something their customers don’t want to buy. And with publishers more often selling directly through websites or conventions, this isn’t the kiss of death it once was — although a lot of publishers haven’t really geared up their direct-to-end-customer marketing. But that’s all a different topic.)

One of the big tensions of this traditional comic market is thus the amount of information retailers are given by publishers so they can place accurate (for their store, their market, and their audience) preorders. Sometimes publishers just don’t know what’s going into a comic in two months. When we’re talking about the big commercial (which means superhero) publishers, though, they’re more tightly editorially controlled these days, so they can predict what the storylines will be.

The problem is that so many readers are looking at exactly the same ordering material as the retailers are. Retailers like it when their customers preorder, since that reduces their uncertainty. But to have them do that, they give them the Previews catalog (or an equivalent). There isn’t a retailer-only information channel, so retailers are often left unaware of why a publisher thinks a particular comic will be a big seller if that turns on a plot event (like a death) that the publisher doesn’t want to reveal early. The publisher can’t tell their actual customer because there’s no way to keep the information from going wide to the public.

That’s been an issue so long as the direct market has been around. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. (Long digression, huh?) What I want to point out is three examples of material where the publisher can and should have given retailers information that would definitely affect their ordering patterns, but chose not to.

First, let’s talk about a legal liability. Image Comics put out Humans #1 by Keenan Keller and Tom Neely last month. It’s meant to be a grindhouse-style biker-gang story with sex and violence, only starring apes instead of people. However, they went further than expected with, as Chicago retailer Tim Davis reports, “one of the ape-like female humans holding the erect penis of an ape-like partner, performing fellatio on it”.

Davis is right, that’s the kind of content that can get retailers arrested, in certain areas of the country, which puts them at risk for losing their store. And it’s the kind of content that should be indicated with more than a small “MR” (mature readers) note, since, again from Davis, “at least a quarter of my books have some sort of (MR) Mature Rating attached to them.” We’ve established that comics can be for adults, and no one’s suggesting that the book shouldn’t be published, but the creators should be honest and transparent about what they’re including in the book, since it went beyond the usual understanding of the MR term covers.

My second example isn’t as dangerous, but it’s a clear indication of bad marketing. DC Comics has been publishing stand-alone Wonder Woman stories by a variety of creators digitally and then collecting them in print as Sensation Comics. Many of these stories might appeal to the non-traditional superhero comic reader. However, with issue #3, DC put fun stories that look like this:

Wonder Woman and Catwoman by Amy Mebberson from Sensation Comics

Under a crappy, stereotypical, violent cover by Joe Prado and Ivan Reis that looks like this:

Sensation Comics #3 cover by Joe Prado and Ivan Reis

As Hibbs points out in his piece, titled “Why I Hate The Comics Industry, Part 8756412“:

SENSATION COMICS #3 is a pretty great comic — it’s the kind of comic you could give to a 10-year-old girl, or her 45-year-old hipster mother equally. It is kind of exactly the kind of WW comic that a whole swath of people really really want right now, because empowering but also really really cute. I can absolutely sell this comic to a LOT of folks.

Except for the barrier they put in my way…

This is the kind of cover pretty much designed to repel the people who would be interested in the insides of the comic, and the people for whom the cover is attractive would be APPALLED by the content on the inside.

This comic will get cancelled pretty soon — which is a damn shame because this is the kind of content that today’s new audience really wants — and someone somewhere will probably point to it as an example of why sweet, cartoony, empowering material doesn’t work. But they’re wrong, this is a failure of positioning and marketing.

Hibbs is right. You have to be consistent in your packaging. The cover should reflect the contents to find the right audience. Companies don’t think that’s important, though, since they’re relying so much on preorders. There is a potential new customer out there, though, who can be attracted by the right cover.

And in this title’s case, maybe also quit splitting two-chapter stories across two different issues, which just smacks of trying to force readers to come back.

Justice League #36 LEGO variant cover

My last example is the Sterling one I mentioned earlier, and it also features bad cover strategy from DC. Sterling has been seeing customer interest in the LEGO variant covers that ran on a bunch of books last month. As he says,

These customers saw Lego Superhero covers, wanted Lego Superhero comics, and were almost universally disappointed not to find any Lego content at all beneath said covers.

… this feels like a huge missed opportunity, particularly since many of the people attracted to these covers weren’t necessarily typical consumers of what DC and Marvel usually offer….

I’m hoping there will be some kind of comic book tie-in to the forthcoming Lego Batman movie, but I also hope DC and Lego don’t wait that long to capitalize on that desire from the funnybook-interested public, at least at my shop, for capes ‘n’ tights ‘n’ plastic brick adventures.

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