I’m Thacher E. Cleveland, one of the Super-Fly Comics podcast hosts and until the end of November I was one of the two owners of Super-Fly Comics & Games. After a lot of soul-searching I decided it was time to hang up my Comic Guy license and move on to new adventures. Not only do I have a new job in a new city but I’ll be buying comics again for first time in almost 7 years instead of just reading whatever I want, whenever I want. With the comic industry at a turning point with price wars, “event fatigue” and digital distribution, I’ve picked a hell of a time to get…Back in the Game.
There’s a feature we run here on the site called “Future Tense,” where we talk about something that’s been announced and our worries and concerns about it. I haven’t written one yet, but I feel like if I did it’d just say “Everything.”
I still haven’t shaken the weirdness about the industry that’s been creeping around me since…well, I guess it’s hard to pin it down, but maybe it goes back as far as the announcement about The New 52. Not that I think the relaunch was a bad idea, but I think it opened up a big jar of “anything can happen,” and that’s spread rather quickly throughout the industry. It’s more than just new costumes and revamp origins, but the outright admission that things just weren’t working and there needed to be a change. I don’t think anybody is surprised that it worked, but I think there’s some real concern about how long that success is going to last. If it’s just a one month bump to the number one spot and then everything falls back into pre-New 52 numbers there’s going to be some problems.
On the other side of the fence, creatively Marvel continues as if everything is perfectly fine while doing everything in its power to cut every possible cost they can to make sure they continue showing a profit. Those decisions are all made far above my pay-grade, but I can’t help but wonder if that’s a sign that they’re admitting (at least to themselves) that things aren’t super-great either. Fear Itself has kicked off another cycle of “event-aftermath-lead-in to new event” and it’s a plan that thus far they haven’t had to tinker with. You can look at the sales numbers and see just how not broke it is, so there’s little to no incentive for them to fix it.
Many fans and retailers (and even some creators) have been talking about how the big event cycle is self-defeating, but nothing about that is going to be acknowledged in a real way until there’s an event that absolutely craters in sales. However you have to wonder about how the tie-ins, which were a large part of Marvel’s publishing plan for the past several months, fared in these rocky times, especially in the face of 52 new #1s. Books like Herc and Alpha Flight were most likely made Fear Itself tie-ins to they can reap the benefits of being part of a big event that subtly encourages you to buy everything associated with it, but both of those are being cancelled shortly after the event ended. Are we reaching the end of the tie-ins usefulness? Has the benefit and novelty of the shared universe finally overstayed its welcome?
One of the craziest things I’ve heard in a while is that Super-Fly recently sold more copies of Strawberry Shortcake than Wolverine. Even my fingers are confused at having to type that sentence. Wolverine isn’t exactly neck-deep in crossover material right now, but at the same time I know I dropped it from my pull file after its most recent story arc concluded not necessarily because I thought it was bad but because Wolverine is opening his own school for mutants and getting his own team of X-Men and that idea is damn intriguing. Jason Aaron is writing both titles so I figured rather than “double-dip” I’d consolidate my Wolverine reading into one place. I don’t know if others at Super-Fly are doing this or not but it’s a hell of a trend.
I’m sure things haven’t changed that much in the almost-year since I left Super-Fly, so I’m pretty sure they’re still outliers in a lot of regards and this is more than likely one of them. I think it’s significant that the article (written by friend of the the store Steve Bennett) points out that the people buying Strawberry Shortcake are mostly walk-ins and not regular file customers while folks buying Wolverine are pretty much just the people who have been reading Wolverine. I’d like to think that it’s not just because it doesn’t have a “NEW #1” on it, but maybe there’s something to that. After all, 52 new #1’s put DC on top, so why don’t we just try it here?
The problem with that is that #1’s become 2’s and 3’s and 12’s and 17’s and other boring looking numbers. “Just relaunch it with a new #1” is not a sustainable business model, especially since that tends to lead to that other trick “change it to fancy and significant high number.” This shucking and jiving may be great for the short term, but I think any people paying attention to superhero comics can tell you that it’s not going to last. We have problems, and one of those may just be that super-hero comics don’t need to just keep going. Sure the license needs to stay active so movies and TV shows and pajamas still get made, but does that really need as many comics as we do? Do we even need them to be all tied together and part of a big shared universe? Is it desperately important that every story told about this character is referenced and still “happened?”
What Strawberry Shortcake baking her way past Wolverine tells me is that those things are becoming less and less important. Maybe not to you, John and Jane super-hero comic fan, but to the people out there walking into shops going “Lemme just grab something.” Maybe it’s for their kids, maybe they just love tiny pastry-themed girls, but something about that book spoke to the people that came into Super-Fly in a way that Wolverine didn’t. Is it an apples and oranges comparison? Possibly, but if the end is result is selling more comics than let’s make some fruit salad. Someone else on ICv2 reiterated Steve’s suggestion that someone should do some My Little Pony comics, and that’s another license that I’m sure could give some other mainstream super-hero titles a run for their money.
The most bizarre thing about this story is that even with this information out there, and even if someone did do a My Little Pony comic there are still plenty of shops (dare I say the majority of them) that wouldn’t order either one of those titles. In the interest if full disclosure I’m sure I would’ve eye-rolled the crap out of Tony if I was there and he suggested Strawberry Shortcake, but the important thing that comic people need to remember is that there’s a whole big world out there and right now most of them are not reading comics. Making decisions based solely on what your current customers are interested in is the same kind of short-sightedness that keeps the event cycle going like some kind of phoenix. If we want a significant change then we have to take risks.
One of the best parts of the story is that APE heard about it and is sending Super-Fly some free stuff as a thank you. That shows a lot of class on their part, and I wish more publishers participated in actively reaching out to retailers in that manner. As I touched on last week people are more willing to explore and try new things from folks that they trust and like, and comic shop owners are no different. They want to feel like they’re being heard and not just working in a vacuum. The majority of marketing for books from the big two has come from the creative teams themselves, who reach out to their readership and ask that they request and pre-order books at their shops. A wise move, but it’s also a good idea to get the retailers involved as well so as the eliminate some of that conservative, gun-shy behavior.
I don’t want to sound like I’m all doom and gloom about the future of comics because I maintain that comics are better than they have been in my life time, but something has to be done about a system that continues to use the same tactics over and over again for diminishing returns. Even the most conservative of businessmen must realize that it’s a losing proposition.
Filed Under: Back in the Game