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Eight Stories for '05 #3 -- The Continuing Weirdness of Marvel Vs. DC
posted August 23, 2005
 

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Maybe it's different if you're knee deep in this stuff week after week. But as a semi-interested outsider not mired in the excessive details of each strategem or even affected directly in the bulk of my reading for pleasure, the new permutations in the struggle between American mainstream superhero companies Marvel and DC for direct market, or comic shop, ascendancy has recently become a great deal more intriguing on a variety of levels.

This is one of those rare periods where the DC/Marvel battle involves real-world business moves. DC began publicly shifting the emphasis of their marketing department with January's hiring of Stephanie Fierman, and has since been reorganizing existing staff and laying the ground work to bring in new hires. I think the hope is to expose DC's line to more formal marketing techniques. This could prove fascinating because what DC is able to find out, track and maximize in terms of an audience is going to have to justify not just those efforts in and of themselves but this prolonged initial investment. If there's only an incremental improvement in audience, which seems likely, one will have to wonder if the new insights yielded by the applciation of various formal marketing techniques really outstrips the ingrained, inherent knowledge of customers that the old sales and marketing team banked on. It may be that DC's new staffers find out what Bob Wayne and company already know.

I think the key to how we're seeing this develop in publishing is that DC isn't using an old technique to spike numbers -- it's using all the techniques off and on, in rapid succession, to keep their core consumers from getting tired of one single market strategy. It's a weekly diet of maxi-series and multiple crossovers and new series and "this issue someone will die" and "this issue everything changes" and "everything you knew about her was wrong." DC's assault on the direct market has become one of those Star Trek episodes where they put their laser guns on random frequencies to thwart the single-frequency resistant bad guy. The market so far has bellowed like a bear (well, a few people have), but then pretty much trotted over and started licking Dan Didio's hand. Marvel seems particularly ill suited in terms of where they are corporate-wise and in managing their creative teams for the natural creative response to this, which would be to let their slightly more hands-off approach yield a multitude of approaches from a bunch of creative people working on a lot of different projects. But there are licenses to protect here, for future rounds of not-famous-property movies. In recent interviews Joe Quesada sounds like an old motorcycle gang leader who is a few months into a mortgage and all he wants to do is ride. I'm not sure the market would let him even if the current needs of his job did.

Because of all this, it looks like the next 18 months could be crucial not just for the American mainstream comic book companies but for their primary delivery system, the direct market. Instead of keeping with a slow-build approach that might have led to further dialoguue about where books sell and how to maximize those efforts rather than work at cross-purposes, both companies are ramping up a charge up the hill before the horses are truly rested from the last period of upheaval.

What does that specific market for comics look like five years from now and will it be better or worse for these aggressive moves? I have to think DC really believes all this sound and fury and furious stuntwork will eventually lead to a boost in the regular titles that will sustain them for the next five, ten years. I'm not as confident, particularly that whatever increase to be had will be worth the cost of putting this much of the retailer's energy into so many "special" comics, which gooses expectations and draws retailer monies away from investment in other parts of their business. A lot of what's going on in terms of the brunt of American comics these days seem built on willful denial to even the possibility that the long-range direction of the direct market might be anything other than more of the same. That's a long journey on some pretty rickety legs. These things have a Pandora's Box quality to them, too. If the boost after this unfortunate period proves to be a modest one, the pressure to do another round of event programming will be pop-your-eyeballs-out extreme.

In a way, what's going on across entire lines now is something akin to the creative impulse behind those recent mini-series or runs in a regular title where a hero fights all of their foes and answers all of their fundamental questions -- the Mark Millar stuff, or the Jim Lee Batman thing from a couple years back. The problem with the whole line being in play like that is that if everything is exhausted all at once, there's no place for anyone to go but away.

If you're not in there reading the comics and dealing with this stuff everyday, the stories to watch are: 1) the direct market numbers, particularly how the companies react to a couple of reasonably strong early Fall months; 2) any DC staff hirings, particularly of anyone with experience with efforts that mix traditional advertising with Internet destination points, like a print ad that asks you to go on-line somewhere; 3) any reports, even first-hand commentary on how material is actually selling through at various stores; 4) Marvel's ability to add more stars to a Brian Bendis-dominated sky.