Thursday, March 01, 2007

Adventures in Retailing: Civil War

No, not the Marvel event, although, well, sort of.

No, I'm referring to the Civil War within myself, a retailer who cannot stand most of the creative decisions Marvel is making these days... even as I find myself applauding them from a business standpoint.

If you look at the numbers, the current regime at Marvel looks like geniuses. Civil War was a sales monolith, a crossover that boosted numbers on every book it touched (in some cases raising books sinking towards cancellation, like Black Panther, up to become viable entities). And post-Civil War, they're capitalizing better than DC did on Infinite Crisis.

Now the events themselves, Infinite Crisis and Civil War, suffer from much of the same problems. Lackluster plots. Recognizable heroes acting wildly out of character for shock value. Tons of C-lister characters that the average audience doesn't care about and the audience that *does* recognize them probably mostly cringes expecting the writers to off them for shock value. A weak ending, helped not at all by storytelling that seemed to veer off in one direction or another throughout, rather than aiming at one particular story target and hitting it. In the case of Civil War, lateness. In the case of Infinite Crisis, dozens of fill-in artists to avoid lateness.

However, after Infinite Crisis, DC had two big plans to hang onto their sales boost: A weekly title and "One Year Later," an event allowing the creators to shake up the main books. The weekly title was a big hit, but it probably drained some excitement from the main books. And the main books didn't help but being really, really dull in general. As with the original Crisis on Infinite Earths, despite having that very thing as an example, editorial tried to have its cake and eat it to. Rather than biting the bullet, renumbering every book with a new number one and giving the whole thing an across the board shake-up/ground-up relaunch, some books were radically altered, most were given cursory pretend alterations and some just went on with business as usual. The result? Fast sales drops back to pre-OYL levels.

Marvel, on the other hand, seems poised to capitalize. The Spider-Man books had been sinking in sales prior to Civil War, but saw a big boost during Civil War. So how do you keep that audience? Knock off a major supporting character, bring back the popular black costume. Did it work? Anecdotally, the answer seems to be yes in my store. Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man sold twice what it usually does for us, Sensational Spider-Man sold about 50% more, and we haven't seen Amazing Spider-Man yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's back up to healthy numbers as well.

Civil War had a limp ending, but it did offer up a new status quo, and Marvel is poised to jump on that, with a handful of new series and miniseries and new directions for many of its titles. Too soon to tell how it's going to shake out, but Iron Man, Director of SHIELD sold better than any Iron Man issues since the first few of the Ellis/Granov run (before it became so late nobody cared). Folks seem excited about the idea of the Initiative. Captain America #25 has huge buzz as being something big. New Avengers sold out fast and got reordered. Mighty Avengers has some buzz.

Now personally, what's selling is the last thing I want to read. I found New Avengers #27, which sees Doctor Strange, Power Man and other notable heroes fighting ninjas (that fight should take about one page... it's a waste of the characters), ridiculous and annoying. The idea of Iron Man as director of SHIELD isn't awful, but it doesn't hold any particular interest for me. And the notion of all the Marvel heroes forming some sort of nationwide army split into 50 states seems like a bizarre decision to completely uproot the foundation of the Marvel Universe as it has stood since the beginning.

But... as a retailer, I can't help but be happy that Marvel has found a way to reinvigorate interest in these characters. I mean, a Moon Knight series selling the way Charlie Huston's book has is amazing, even if I find the whole thing banal and pointlessly ultra-violent. The Avengers are a complete and utter betrayal of the concept of the team, and yet it's selling better than any version of the book that I've loved. Spider-Man: Reign seems like a viciously nihilistic misunderstanding of the appeal of the character and a weak Dark Knight Returns ripoff, but it's doing pretty solid numbers and selling out.

So what can we learn? One, it's clear that my general guidelines for Marvel and DC superheroes (let them be heroic, make them at least somewhat consistent with the past, don't be embarrassed about superhero conventions) may in fact be diametrically opposed to what the readership at large wants. And two, it is possible to be mostly bored and/or disgusted with what's going on in mainstream superhero comics and at the same time elated by it. Just tie your financial fortunes into the very books you don't very much like. ;)

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