Call me inspired by Goldeneye’s posts on comics here, but I’ve started to pay more attention to the comic industry, and I see that Marvel Comics has a big problem.
I was in my local comic shop today, of which I don’t frequent nearly as much as I used to. I don’t want to say I lost a love for comics, as I recently just plowed through the trade paperbacks of Chew and finished 4 of the end of the series in one night. I feel similarly about Revival and Terry Moore’s Motor Girl. However, it’s been at least three to four years since I stopped making weekly appointments to go to the comic shop on Wednesdays, eager to pick up new books. I mentioned in an earlier post that the way storytelling has gone, I don’t really want to pick up individual issues anymore. That’s certainly part of it, but I’m also consuming a lot less content than ever before.
Around the time I stopped regularly buying comics, I cut ties and dropped the last vestiges of my Marvel Comics reading. EPIC CROSSOVER EVENTS had been anything but epic for me for years, making it difficult to read individual comic storylines (this issue of Amazing Spider-Man takes place after Civil War #4 and continues in X-Factor #17!), and trying to one-up the last with a new “shocking” death or even “shockinger” resurrection. This was hard for me to do. I’d been reading Marvel Comics since I was 10. That all started with a subscription to Amazing Spider-Man that my aunt bought for me for Christmas. If I had to choose desert island top 5 all time favorite comic characters, they would be: 5. Spider-Girl 4. Fantastic Four (I count them as one unit). 3. Captain America 2. Black Cat (way better than Catwoman) 1. Spider-Man. Marvel meant a ton to me over the years, and if I added up all the money i’ve spent on their comics, I probably could buy myself a new car at the very least. So it pained me to let them go.
What I heard today was disconcerting to me, because I care about Marvel Comics, and more because of what their mistakes do to the comic industry as a whole. The local shop owner told me that Marvel used to comprise about 48% of their sales, and now they’re down to about 25%. Whoa. That’s a huge drop. And I know that doesn’t mean that people are jumping ship and buying equal amount of titles of other books. The comic book readers like me, are mostly quitting except for picking out a few titles here and there. It’s really sad. Marvel, apparently, has it the worst, as the shop owner mentioned that the distributor comes into the shop, asks how things are going, with a caveat of “other than marvel” and they laugh about the poor sales together.
Now this could be anecdotal for one shop, but it’s not. If you look ten years ago, Marvel led comic sales across the board, every time, hands down, and had for decades prior to that. What happened was laziness, complacency, an unwillingness to learn from business mistakes and a healthy dose of social justice sprinkled in on top of that to seal their coffin.
Marvel went wrong in a few big ways that they need to correct:
- Crossover events. I mentioned how they’re just not special anymore. They haven’t been special in a decade. You may get a boost in sales temporarily but it doesn’t do anything for the long term. I hate them. Most readers hate them. We tolerated them for awhile because it looked like Bendis and Co. were doing cool things with the universe, but it turned out there wasn’t much of a real plan there other than to make new crossover events. I pick up a book to read its story. If you want to do a team up whatever with Spidery and X-Men you can make that happen within the confines of the one story and without 50,000 loose tie ins that the writers shoe-horn in. It makes for lousy books every single time.
- Variant covers. I was informed that it was recently or is “Venom variant month” where everything has a Venom variant cover. Look, variants were cool a couple of times, when it was special. Once it started happening all the time, it killed collecting. There’s barely any collecting going on now, and that’s your fault, comic industry. Marvel is repeating these mistakes by killing the specialness of such things even more.
- Social Justice. It stems from the editorial down to the writers, and they’re al the same lockstep of trying to force a left wing social narrative on everyone trying to relax and read Hulk beating up bad guys in a pure rage. Your overall audience aren’t hipsters in New York City. We’re spread out across the country and are probably split mostly along the way they country’s split. Recognize that. I couldn’t find any book that looked like the iconic characters any longer. Everyone is a gender swap trans muslim whatever gimmick of the month to virtue signal how diverse they are. And it suffers from the same problems as the first two points I made about the industry. When this was done once or twice, it was something different. It was cute. It made news headlines. Marvel got a quick sales bump. They went for that cheap gimmick on repeat rather than maintaining excellence in storytelling. It’s not making something new, it’s using a marketing gimmick for what would have been a single issue of What If? 30 years ago. A bigger problem is it isn’t to evoke the same sense of What If? fun and wonder, it’s 100% completely for the virtue signal. That intent shows through, it annoys people. No one wants it, for real.
- Distribution. This is an old problem, but it’s getting steadily worse. Throwing these things in specialty comic shops only or lost on the internet just gets clouded with easier to find, easier to digest content. Not exclusively Marvel’s fault here, but they need to get with a new program. I don’t have an answer here, but someone smarter than me working for Disney probably does.
- Not Telling A Story In An Issue. Stories go like this: Issue 1: Thor wakes up, brushes his (or her, or xer or whatever gender this week is popular) teeth. Eats breakfast. Heads out the door. Something happens. Cliffhanger to be continued! That is not enough to get me remotely interested in what’s going on, let alone to remember what happened a month from now to continue it. This is why I’m only buying trades, which hurts sales. I think the last instance I remember where whole stories were told was Tom De Falco’s Spectacular Spider-Girl, the third incarnation of that book. He’s a great storyteller. I miss him on Marvel books. When a book was a book. Cliffhangers ok, but give me a full story.
- Resting on the laurels of Stan Lee. There’s nothing new, and that’s nothing new. Really the problem is Iron Man is 50+ years old. And they’ll do their social justice gimmick “what if Iron Man is…. female! Because women and men are interchangeable!” and then, when a movie’s about to hit, they go quickly to revert back to some iconic unchanging Iron Man. Then repeat. There’s no long term investment available for these storylines. Marvel attempted it and succeed to make continuing stories for these characters up until about the 90s, but they couldn’t think of ways to keep them going and maintain continuity. I’m still pissed over One More Day. That was lazy writing. It doesn’t help that readers are disappointing, and any attempt to bring forth something new doesn’t last, but it’s partially Marvel’s fault for letting it get that way, and not really pushing their top talent toward those endeavors. Frankly, I loved Runaways, Arana, Spider-Girl, Spider-Man 2099. Many others did too. They didn’t get a long term commitment or lasting support from marketing or editorial. They were vestiges allowed to exist for a time as an experiment, but they were too little too late. To fix this, Marvel needs to make a real dedicated push and be willing to make a long term plan out of it. It probably involves disconverging the “Marvel Universe” and letting some books be separate, like Image does. I doubt they’ll ever be able to do that.
My last point is my greatest, and the reasoning is that any of these fixes can be done to one or two books, or for a bit. Someone will always come in with an ALL NEW SUPER COLLECTORS #1 and reset it to just these five terrible points on repeat. We know that as the readership, and that’s part of why Marvel’s lost its luster. It needs real creatives, real leadership to take it in a bold and fresh new direction to resolve this. I doubt it’s going to happen any time soon.
I long for the days of someone saying “Excelsior!” once again.
Jon Del Arroz is a science fiction author best known for his Top-10 Amazon Space Opera Bestseller, Star Realms: Rescue Run. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is oft hailed (quite soberly!) as the Dean Martin of the science fiction writing scene. Read his blog at http://delarroz.com and follow him on Gab: @otomo.