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Your Friendly Neighborhood Comic Shop: If I Were the Emperor of Comics... (Part 1)

Written by Matt Johnson on Tuesday, August 06 2013 and posted in Columns

Your Friendly Neighborhood Comic Shop: If I Were the Emperor of Comics... (Part 1)

Matt Johnson opines about what he'd do differently if he ruled the comic industry with an iron fist.

I wish I had this power: an iron fist in which to rule the comic world.  …and I’m not talking characters or the creative end of comics, but the day to day running of the companies that run comics.  Ah, but there is so much I would do, so I am going to try and break this down into one thing per week over the month of August and look at how each major change would affect companies.

I’m going to generally stay away from Diamond though. They're a complete mess, and, if I was Emperor, I would more than likely start there… but they have so many problems that a complete and utter destruction of this terrible entity would likely be the best option.  And I’m not alone on this one.  Ask any retailer and they probably agree.  That said, day one…

Over Publishing!

As Emperor of Comics, I would cut... no, the word I’m looking for is either hack or slash (I’ve read that book) the number of comics being published.  Every single publisher complains about not making enough money, so they think the only way to fix this is to put out as much product as possible.  This has only increased – even during an economic downturn – over the last couple of years. However, not every book published is able to sell enough to make money.  What to do?

Firstly, it's tough to look at every company the same.  One publisher’s great sales are not the same as another’s.  (A fifteenth Bat-book can’t be looked at in the same light as a second Judge Dredd book.)  However, everyone thinks that a successful Book X means that we should put out more books just like it, since our idiot, er, our loving and faithful fans will buy all of them.  Obviously, this was started with Superman some sixty years ago and ratcheted up 100 fold with most of the major characters or sets of books - a la the X-Men and Spider-Man - in the 1990s.

It's my feeling – as a fan AND a retailer – that less is more.  But don’t think of it as just comics.  Think in terms of cake or cookies or nearly anything you love. Too much of a good thing can be bad for you. If we could slash the overall number of books being published, I do not think overall sales would go down.  Instead, I think sales of the books left would go up.

I'm going to use a few specific examples of books at my shop.  First, most customers have a general budget when buying comics.  It's up to the publishers to compete for their dollars or to try to break their budget.  So, decisions have to be made.  Usually, when it comes to superhero books, a customer will buy books based on characters and in that mindset, quantity is valued over quality.  (I am generalizing, of course, but this largely holds true if you think about it)  Bat-people buy Bat-books and X-people buy X-books and Avengers collectors buy all the Avengers books. 

Marvel has figured this out.  Uncanny Avengers is a melding of two obsessive and completest fanbases into ONE BOOK – you evil geniuses!   To some extent, that is what Superman/Batman and now Batman/Superman is as well.  (That, or it's a way to take the terrible seller of Superman and pit him with a character that actually sells.)

I know the reaction of my customers when another book of their favorite character is released.  It is NOT, “Awesome, a fourth Thor book!”  but usually more like, “Damn it, fine, put me down for that too.  Money grubbing whores!”  That is NOT the outlook a company should try to get from its customers.  Again, less is more and publishers, greedy, gluttonous bastards that they are, need to break the bad habits and, as Spike Lee would say, “do the right thing.”

IDW is a different kind of insane.  Every time they get a hit, even a moderate hit, it results in at least one more title with a similar name.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has three titles. With My Little Ponies, they're showing great restraint by only publishing two series.  GI Joe has four books, but there isn’t a movie out right now.  The biggest, most bloated mess is Transformers.  I think there's only five Transformers books out right now, but I can’t keep them all straight.  Every retailer summit I’ve been to IDW has said, “we have heard that over publishing of our licensed material is a problem and we promise to keep it under control.”  And a year goes by and it is the same as the last year.

Each of these IDW books only sells to the extreme collectors.  GI Joe sells THREE copies in my shop.  Why?  The people who buy them are extreme lovers of the characters, the stories and the world that is GI JoeTransformers sells just a little bit better, but again it is ONLY to just the die hards.

If I could say  that ONE GI Joe book is really, really good and you should buy it, that would be great.  But most people – the retailer included – are at a loss to figure out where to start.  If I can't figure it out, there's a problem.

Obviously, though, DC and Marvel are the worst.  I’ve mentioned Marvel some, but DC needs their time too.  Seriously, 52 titles?  Never before the “great” reboot and overexpansion of their line did I feel that the company overpublished.  I think the powers that WERE at DC understood they didn’t have fifty characters or fifty books that needed publishing.  DC WAS a solid publisher that didn’t rise or fall on the sales charts and, frankly, it seemed like they didn’t care either.  Yes, there were a lot of Superman and Batman books, but everything else was kept in check.

Now, there will be SIX Green Lantern related books in the coming months.  You know when they could have published SIX different Green Lantern series?  Never.  (However, they would have at least sold better three years ago after Blackest Night)  In addition, you have a problem when a quarter of your line is related to Batman.

But enough beating a thoroughly dead horse.  What do we do to fix the problem?

First, it comes down to talent.  No more untalented hacks on books!  If you need to have a forty-first Batbook, it needs to be actually readable.  If there are not enough good artists and writers employed by a company, don't take advantage of the weakness of your readers. 

This goes to paying off favors too, DC.  A friend from a bygone publishing era who wasn’t any good then and isn’t a good writer now does NOT get another shot.  Maybe he has pictures of you in compromising positions with an underaged dolphin, but he does not get another shot.  Think before you hire.

This also goes for stretching out the talent you have.  No more putting a guy’s name on a book just to help it sell. If a writer has had nothing to do with a series beyond adding a few vague ideas, either leave his name off it or don't publish it at all.  

Oh, and no more letting Dan Didio or any other executive at a company write or draw a book.  This goes for four pages of Joe Quesada art or an ongoing series by Jim Lee. 

Second, be creative in how you publish.  You can no longer publish fifty-two of your fifty-two books with Batman in them.  Instead, make a Batman anthology or a Two in One.  If the creative talent doing these books is good enough, guess what, IT WILL SELL!  Dark Horse Presents is one of Dark Horse's strongest series.  That type of book is what more companies need to do.  Sure, it's $8.00, but it's three times larger – with NO ads - than two Avengers comics.  As a youngster I loved Showcase from DC.  Published with three stories in it, it was a great rotating group of second-tier characters.  Also, use back-up stories!  You just don’t get to charge extra for having the stories in there.

Third, just because you have a movie coming out doesn’t mean you get to publish fourteen new miniseries, just so you can get trades published for the big box bookstores in time for the movie release.  I’m looking at you Marvel!  I will say they've gotten better about this, but I remember the first round or two of Iron Man movie tie-ins and related miniseries.  Yikes, that was crazy.

Fourth, you do not need a new book a month.  Image – and other publishers - seems to think that every month there needs to be a new number one issue.  Why not promote the hell out of the ones you have and leave the new books for the next month?  This goes for an overall feeling of how Previews is used and abused, but it is a much larger discussion, again for another time.

So, what have I done as Emperor on my first day?

I cut the number of books published, leading to increased sales of the current books being published which creates more demand. Instead of 87 Batbooks, we have three titles and a Batman Family book.  Rather than 442 X-Men series, there's two series and an X-Family book.  Maybe some of these are published twice a month and maybe there are rotating creative teams, but less is more. 

Because there aren't seven Batman series to buy, I get the Batbooks and a few other titles I wasn't getting before.  This helps EVERYONE, especially the independent market, which has been abiding by these rules for sometime… and that's how Rachel Rising becomes the top selling book in comics!


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About the Author - ThanosCopter

ThanosCopter is a specially designed helicopter built to transport Thanos the Mad Titan. Built by Sterling Custom Helicopters, ThanosCopter appeared in several Marvel comics, before being abandoned by its owner during the character's ascension into major villainy. ThanosCopter was discovered by the Outhouse and given a second chance at life. He now buzzes merrily around the comic book industry, spreading snark, satire and humor like candy to small children.


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