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June 20, 2005

Why DC Being #1 Doesn’t Matter

DC Comics has assumed the top spot in the comic book direct market for the month of May, both in dollar share and unit share. This is a rare although not unprecedented position for DC, a company that conventional wisdom will frequently tag as fine managers of a deep backlist of graphic novels but largely hopeless before the generally more popular Marvel comic book efforts.

imageShould we be surprised that DC can capture the top spot? Not really, for a few basic reasons. Remember, these measurements are not absolutes but comparative, so really what you're seeing is a company's place in the overall market as compared to its competitors. As pointed out here a billion times before, DC and Marvel have slowly and surely forged for themselves a marketplace that responds more and more to the pushes of its biggest suppliers in terms of its biggest offerings -- crossovers, number one issues, and character reintroductions. The DM is a market mechanism primed for big events, and DC has the bigger events right now.

This is particularly true of May, where DC rushed to its lead by putting out several #1 issues related to its forthcoming Infinite Crisis mini-series, and by double-loading its current reinvention of the hardcore fan favorite Green Lantern character with the last issue of a mini-series and first issue of a new title. DC can do these things more easily than Marvel can because Marvel's editorial culture is still more entrepreneurial than centralized -- something I always think of as a two-decade Jim Shooter hangover, but I believe also it's the way Marvel works best. In the end, with this direct market at its disposal, it's would be amazing if DC couldn't have the top spot whenever it wanted.

What does matter is what is smartly pointed out later in Newsarama's article: the overall result of these two companies playing Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in the limited train compartment that is the Direct Market is that the Big Two together are dominating sales in a way that allows them to creep into the market shares of all other companies. I don't think this is automatically bad. Unlike some of my alt-comix friends, I think mainstream comics remain undersold in this country right now. It's therefore possible to imagine a surge of legitimate interest that skews the playing field.

But that's not what's happening here. This is Hungry Hippo economics, where the number of marbles stays roughly the same. What becomes scary is when you imagine what happens next. Big Event comics have a very specific downside in that they can only last so long. In the same way television networks want their regular programming to drive their ratings rather than specials and Super Bowls, for comic book companies to really be healthy they need in the long term to add readers to the individual series and team books that make up the bulk of their line.

My hunch is that DC believes by planning well and planning ahead they can add vigor to its overall line strength coming out of this sequence of "Important" Mini-Series. We'll see. For now this is a lot of money tied up in stuff that history tells us doesn't lead to much of anything but more of the same, just less so. The crazy thing is that for once, there's no plausible deniability about what is going to happen. The direct market is already showing signs of weakness in the middle, and has for quite some time. You keep pulling a piece of taffy so that there's a big chunk at one end, and eventually that middle gets pulled apart. That supposedly good May for DC was a month of overall decline for comic books in the direct market. Compare the two publishers dominating periodical comics and the nine publishers able to launch a top 20 graphic novel, and it's pretty easy to guess which category has the ability to grow. Of course, it may soon be that DC and Marvel take their market dominance to this category and strangle the shit out of it, too.

But today is about funnybooks. At some point both DC and Marvel will shift gears to a long-term strategy -- either that or some crotchety noise will scare them, they'll stay in first, the market will burn out, personnel will change, and a long-term strategy will be forced on them the way it was a few years back before they started hyperventilating and rolling the dice again. This would be bad if it were to have happened in a down period for the art form, but it's worse that it's going on today. Right now, the grandest age for comic books in the history of that form, with good, quality titles popping up across the industry, should not be the time that all this money and attention remain focused on one or two companies. Corporations have no capacity for memory, but at the very least you'd think moderate returns thus far for the well-reviewed and crowd-pleasing Batman Begins should be as blunt an instrument as required to remind these companies how a future market can be poisoned in part by ill-considered past creative efforts. A good Monday isn't worth entire bad years down the road, but I'm afraid DC and Marvel are too big and insulated and oblivious to care.

Please read Brian Hibbs' new column for one retailer's take on the dangers of short-term thinking.

posted 9:50 am PST | Permalink

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