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An Ex-Retailer’s Response to FF #587 | Comic Nothings | Nerdy Nothings

An Ex-Retailer’s Response to FF #587

Batman 701

Or, Marvel Comics just doesn’t care about retailers.

Knowing that I co-owned and managed a comic book store for almost five years, Spaceman Spiff asked me to post my response to the way Marvel Comics promoted and handled Fantastic Four #587, the much-ballyhooed death of the Human Torch. In his insightful and appropriately nuanced review, Spiff actually covered a lot of what I would have said, and I think his feelings accurately sum up what many fans and retailers across the country feel when a comics company (almost always Marvel) pulls a stunt like this. Still, I do have a few insights from my own past to offer, and I shall be happy to do so.

In case you missed the ordeal: for months Marvel had been soliciting that a member of one of their flagship teams, the Fantastic Four, would meet his death at the end of Jonathan Hickman and Steve Epting’s “Three” arc. Retailers and fans alike had plenty of advance warning that someone’s death was coming in issue #587, though whose was kept secret. Marvel even promised to ship the issue in a black polybag in an effort to prevent in-shop spoilers come the Wednesday of its release. But the plot thickened: due to a 2011 change in how comics were shipped, some retailers were allowed to sell their copies of #587 on Tuesday, a day before all the other books that week. In addition, on Tuesday Marvel sent out a massive press release to major media outlets, many of which ran the story, and some of which decided to spoil the character’s death in their headlines.

And that brings us to now, with many feeling cheated by Marvel’s actions. Long-time fans were denied the emotional punch of seeing a beloved character die. Retailers… well, it’s trickier.

Marvel, instead of including retailers in their promotional plans, tends to run around them when big events come up, contacting the media with details shop owners aren’t privy to. In doing so, they set up a scenario where retailers might find out about major comics events in unfortunate ways. My own shop found out about Captain America’s “death” from an angry fan pounding on our door while we awaited our comics shipment that Wednesday morning. Put simply, that’s an inappropriate scenario for retailers to be in, as they are the ones responsible for providing customers with these books.

That kind of opaqueness on Marvel’s part leads to the issue of retailers not ordering the right amount of copies to satisfy demand. With Captain America #25, our store was obviously caught unaware. The typical response given to that is “Marvel said that issue was important; why didn’t you take note?” My answer: have you read a Marvel Previews lately? They make every comic sound Earth-shaking simply because it’s their job. They want you to feel excited for each book that hits the stands. Most retailers, I would think, have long-since grown desensitized to Marvel’s promotional jargon. It takes a little more than a Previews solicitation to tell us how important a book is.

Of course, retailers could be relatively certain Fantastic Four contained someone’s death, and knowing whose probably wouldn’t make a whole lot of impact on sales (though I suspect that, had it been the Thing, it might’ve brought in a few more people). But they still face the issue of knowing how many copies constitutes an appropriate order for a big “event” book, which is hard enough to manage without sudden spoiler-laden national media coverage. Spiff’s retailer seemed to be saddled with too many copies, as though the news announcement naming the dead character took away customers who might’ve come in for the surprise.

One might respond here “well, that’s the industry.” And that’s true, to a degree. But one ought to realize, as Spiff points out, that typically comics are not returnable. That means that retailers are left with whatever they don’t sell. If a store orders 100 copies of a $3.99 book and get saddled with 50, that’s roughly $100 out of their pocket. Understandably, that leads to most retailers ordering conservatively.

In the past, such ordering was seen as good for the aftermarket. Lower supply in the shops meant speculators and collectors could turn a tidy profit on their hard-won treasures. But times have changed, and I want to suggest to you a new paradigm, namely that the only value comics have any more is in reading them. Besides an occasional indie book or variant, modern comics almost never break $5 to $10 in value, a meager mark-up. Fantastic Four #587, like Captain America #25 before it, will prove almost worthless in the aftermarket. Its greatest use is to the retailers, who need to flip it the week it comes out and squeeze whatever profit margin (between 35%-62%) they can out of it.

The point of this: Marvel needs to start playing ball. Why don’t they institute a consignment-style overship program for any book they feel is especially noteworthy? They can make the retailers pay for an average number of issues per their usual terms (determined, say, by looking at the past year of orders on that title or a related one) and then throw in as many free copies as they think a retailer who typically moves that many books could use. If the retailer sells them, payment is due, and if they don’t, they can return them with no penalty. Then retailers wouldn’t have to be afraid of having too many of a given book on their racks, and fans who don’t understand why retailers order conservatively wouldn’t have to walk away angry. DC has done such programs with series like 52, to great success (at least, for our shop).

It seems to me that if Marvel really had faith in their product, such a tactic wouldn’t be a problem. Further, their company asks retailers to gamble regularly on their spotty product output; perhaps it’s time they do the same. Granted, the company currently offers incentives on key issues, but they’re often laughably impossible for retailers to achieve, requiring them to order something like 200% of their typical numbers to achieve an paltry 10% bonus discount on a book.

Of course, Marvel’s business model seems to be working for them. But I know lots of extant comic shops who could really benefit from a little less stunt-selling and a little more cooperation. At the end of the day, the retailers are the ones who’re doing Marvel’s job and paying their bills. If Marvel worked through them, instead of around them, I imagine it would lead to a much happier comics marketplace.

tags: fantastic four, marvel, retail

  • Marc Alan Fishman

    Interesting take ‘Rik. As a fan, I don’t know exactly what my thoughts are, so I’ll ramble. On one hand, my initial thought is, if I subscribe to a book with a shop, I know I’ll always get my copy. Be it a “MUST HAVE” issue, or just a run of the mill one… I know it’ll be in my box. And frankly, it doesn’t happen often that I’ll feel the need to buy something new off the rack, specifically because of direct marketing hype… unless it’s a start to a series.

    In the case FF, I don’t read the normal book. I never have. I’m familiar of course with the FF… their rogues, their major storylines, etc. But reading about a “death” coming… didn’t necessarily pique my interest. Mainly because to me, a “Death” in comics is really just a way to say “we need to shift the tone of the book, and explore new territory”. When Steve Rogers “died” it gave way to Bucky becoming the new cap. When Bruce Wayne bit it, the entire “batman family” changed. When Superman was beat to death, it brought us Superboy, Steel, and the Cyborg who all have stuck around. I assume, that the death of one of the Fantastic Four only means that the book needs some change. I’m more likely to buy the first “Fantastic 3″ book than I ever would be for the end of the 4.

    Concerning you suggestion on how Marvel conduct business with the retailers… I obviously feel for you and the other retailers who have to work as hard an Johnny Consumer does for business news. It’s akin to a monopoly really… Marvel just wants your money, and wants no system to return product. And I wonder exactly what DC did will all the returned issues of 52, or Countdown if they did it for that too.

    If I can, since it’s fairly on topic.. I want to share words by comic editor Mike Gold, who commented on an article on MichaelDavisWorld:

    “It (the comic book industry in general) died because the distributors started running into serious trouble. They stopped over-ordering for reorders (I was once taken to Cap City’s warehouse in Madison and saw the “Ronin” room and then the “Thriller” room; boxes and boxes and boxes of unsold stuff). They started delaying payments to the publishers. They started going out of business. And this is long before the bottom fell out of the market in, what, 1993.

    Direct sale comic books is a pyramid scheme that folds onto the publisher. Each month, your sales on a specific title will go down: that’s the dynamic of the comic book shop where you order 10 one month, sell 9, order 9 and sell 8, etc. In order to make their nut, publishers had to constantly add more titles. Because the revenue was going down and the payments coming in later, these newer titles were being produced by newer and less expensive talent. Since the retailers never heard of these new guys, their orders were smaller so the cycle perpetuated itself and spun harder.

    Seeing us (FIRST Comics) as a genuine threat (DC took an ad out in their own books noting their triumphs on Amazing Heroes’ Top Titles of the year list, and First Comics had four in the top ten!), DC and Marvel started flooding the market with reprints and revived titles that didn’t sell the first two or three times (how often can you resurrect Kull and even Doctor Strange?) and since retailers had to order their books — Marvel moreso than DC — there was less money for retailers to spend on the so-called independents.

    The collectible nonsense didn’t help. Alternate covers, holo-foil, Zero issues (I wanted to do a Pi issue for Image, but they didn’t get the joke and vetoed it)… all sorts of crap that had nothing to do with telling good stories started eating up the shelf space and retailers made more from “investors” than they did from readers. So the readers got hind teat, and they started cutting back once they developed a sex life.

    And then the largest distributor went blooie, pushed into oblivion by the bankruptcy of a nine-store chain in Texas and Florida. I wonder what ever happened to that retailer? Oh, yeah… he’s Senior Vice-President of Marketing for DC Comics!

    And then. Right then. DC and Marvel started putting serious money on the table. Woof.

    Quite frankly, there was another reason: some of the publishers simply weren’t smart enough to meet these challenges. What they didn’t have in revenue (I say “they” because by 1986 I had returned to DC, where the publisher didn’t seem to mind paying freelancers) they had to make up for in smarts and courage, and a couple were lacking in either or both.”

  • Kyle Gnepper

    I’m a little torn on how to respond here. I once worked in a comic shop but was never involved with ordering. I can see how it would suck to have Marvel bypassing the shops when they do stuff with the media. It would be a lot cooler if they organized instore events (since Free Comic Book Day seems to be so popular).

    Sadly I can also see the appeal of why they go to the media instead. It’s a fast way to get word out to places that don’t have as many comic shops and to all those non-comic readers. When I see this kind of stuff it really seems like Marvel trying to net people who don’t read comics to come in and buy ‘The one where human torch bites it’. I have no idea if that really is the plan, or how well it works, but from a marketing standpoint it makes sense.

  • Anonymous

    But Kyle, why can’t Marvel do both? I’m fine with them going to the media with things like this (though with less spoilers, please), but don’t the shops need to know everything the media does? It’s ludicrous that the LA Times or whatever would know Human Torch dies before someone who works hard to actually give people comics in which that happens.

  • Anonymous

    Marc, you are right on about Marvel. I also wonder what DC did with their unsold 52s… as far as I know, they ran the same (or similar) promos with Countdown and Brightest Day, and I think Trinity as well (probably not Wed. Comics). It wasn’t exactly what I described: the retailer had to pay for all the copies they ordered in the traditional way, but every copy they ordered above a set number (say, 100% of what they’d ordered on the last weekly) was returnable after a few months. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it did lead to our shop being unafraid to match our Brightest Day orders to Blackest Night, just in case. That didn’t pan out, but in the end we got credit for the books we couldn’t sell.

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