This week's (potential) cancellation of Thor: The Mighty Avenger has raised some eyebrows. Even in the jaded comics world of 2010, this title's demise seem to have struck a particular nerve. Just take a gander at the comments in the iFanboy article and you'll see that a lot of people REALLY loved this book. A lot of fans are left wondering why one of THEIR favorite books is getting the ax.
Being disappointed is perfectly understandable. I'm sure we've all been there. Whether you were lamenting the premature end of Exterminators or Young Liars, or cursing Marvel for an early demise of Atlas or Dr. Voodoo or S.W.O.R.D. or Captain Britain & MI-13, chances are you've had favorite series cancelled before their time. It's the nature of the beast.
There are plenty of reasons why Thor: The Mighty Avenger fell prey to cancellation:
*** Were the sales too low?
*** Were there too many Thor titles on the market at once?
*** Was the book's all-ages bent working against it in the direct market?
*** Was it poorly marketed to retailers and, therefore, potential end customers?
The truth it, it was probably a confluence of those factors. It's no coincidence that with a major motion picture looming, Marvel has deluged the market with Thor related comics. And yet, as a 30-year Marvel zombie, I can tell you that he's rarely been a character that sat atop the charts for long. It wasn't long ago that Marvel killed Thor off and went for a few years without a single title, much less a half dozen.
This news left me questioning the state of the direct market, but in a broader sense. If a book of this quality, with near universally well received writing and art, can fall short so quickly, is there something inherently wrong with the way the industry markets this kind of material? Is the fact it was an "All Ages" book really to blame more than the other factors? Because the other Thor related titles aren't cancelled, and while some of them are of equally high quality…I can emphatically say they all aren't as well done. So if it wasn't the quality hurting this book (and it wasn't), and other Thor titles are doing fine (and they are), doesn't that leave the fact it was "All Ages" as a red flag?
Take a look at the Diamond numbers. All ages material struggles. The Marvel Adventures line is always among the lowest selling in Marvel's vast catalog. DC's Johhny Bravo line suffered a similar fate. Even a title like Eric Shanower and Skottie Young's Oz adaptation doesn't blow the doors off in the direct market. Let's take a look at the sales of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the DM:
12/08 Wizard of Oz #1 — 25,116
01/09 Wizard of Oz #2 — 17,608
02/09 Wizard of Oz #3 — 15,668
03/09 Wizard of Oz #4 — 16,159
04/09 Wizard of Oz #5 — 16,110
05/09 Wizard of Oz #6 — 15,774
06/09 Wizard of Oz #7 — 15,473
07/09 Wizard of Oz #8 — 15,487
Solid sales for the issues, but it wasn't a Top 100 book. Yet, this book received droves of well-deserved critical acclaim, received two Eisner Awards, and has gone on to MASSIVE success in the bookstore market and abroad.
So what keeps all ages material from being a huge success in the direct market? Is is the buyers? Is it the retailers? Is it the publishers?
I asked my followers on Twitter their thoughts, and the majority of respondents were dubious of the direct market's ability to support all ages material. Here are a few of the responses:
ActionLab: @wood83 As currently constituted, no. Too many comic books stores are poorly run & don't know how to bring in all types to buy books.
Gobo: @wood83 all evidence points to no.
ScottCederlund: @wood83 From Marvel and DC? No.
pchan126: @wood83 Doubt it. Is your average DM retailer ages friendly? It hasn't felt that way in my experience
julianlytle: @wood83 no, it is not made for or marketed to all ages not since the bust.
But not everyone was as fatalistic, including DC artist extraordinaire Jamal Igle.
@wood83 availability. The fact of the matter is that Archie outsells every other comic book company in North America . The make the books -
Accessible. They're in bookstores', comic shops and spinner racks. They're packaged in a pleasant, friendly manner and for the most -
@wood83 are not bogged down with years of continuity.
@wood83 Retailers willing to put in the effort to make them available and inviting to the casual shopper. Point of purchase displays go (a long way)
@TreyKrimsin @wood83 My LCS keeps all of the all ages books in the front of the store across from the register on it's on bookcase
@julianlytle @wood83 however we are in an industry that has adult readers who want adult heroes. There should be room for both.
Not content to limit my responses to the 140 character kind, I reached out for comment from some of the best retailers I know. I was fortunate enough to get back very detailed and thoughtful responses from two of the best in the business.
Patrick Brower (Co-Owner, Challengers Comics + Conversation):
My answer is an overwhelming “yes” that the direct market can support all ages material but the tougher question is “in what format?”
There is no doubt that comics should be for everyone. All ages. At least, the standard, across the board superhero fare from the mainstream publishers should be. But are they really? Um, kind of not. The subject matter has become too mature in an effort to match an aging audience. I know Peter Parker is a 20-something adult male and would have adult relationships, but as a kid reading Amazing Spider-Man, the consummation of those relationships was never brought up. Can an effective story still be told without those elements? Absolutely. Will the current readers fall off if that’s the case? Probably. But shouldn’t comics be written for the incoming younger fans as well as the adults? Here I would argue the existence of the Marvel Adventures books (now without the “Marvel Adventures” branding), but how well do those even sell?
Challengers can sell a ton of units of a single graphic novel series that is targeted to all-ages. All-ages meaning they can be enjoyed by anyone; not that they are written for kids. My examples are Marvel’s Power Pack minis, Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series, Kean Soo’s Jellaby, Jill Thompson’s Magic Trixie, Jeff Smith’s Bone, and on. These are clever, wholesome series that tell great stories and keep kids entertained. But they’re graphic novels, not single issues. Even the youngest of comic book readers see the pamphlet format as disposable, but when it’s a graphic novel they want to read it (or have it read to them) again and again and again. I can’t explain why, but I can tell you from experience it works. By the accounts of our customers, Challengers seems to have a larger than average all-ages section. We don’t think it’s nearly enough, but it is 50% single comics and 50% graphic novels. The graphic novels sell rings around the single comics. Even books like (Marvel Adventures) Spider-Man sell way better in the digest format then do the singles.
So here’s my point… on December 8th when the Thor Mighty Avenger trade paperback comes out, we’ll rack it in our all-ages section and watch it sell 3 times what it would in the regular Marvel graphic novel section. All ages comics CAN exist and prosper in the direct market, but they have to be marketed to the customer as such. And by the retailer, NOT by the publisher. Saying something to the effect of ‘this is great for kids’ on the book itself is the fastest way to turn kids off. Giving kids a great story that can teach them without preaching, and can keep them entertained for 80+ pages is the best way to get them wanting to read more comics.
I, perhaps naively, think that the direct market can sell any book that it wants to get behind. The problem is what direct market participants KNOW they can sell often leaves things that CAN/WILL sell left behind—particularly if the shelves are already saturated with a particular character, company, event, or it’s a heavy month of ordering, or whatever. The quality of the book, or even the perceived quality of the book, is, as you know, in no way an indicator of how it will perform in the direct market. I think this is more than amply evidenced by the sales figures that come in from even Eisner nominated titles, particularly if they are not produced by the Big 2.
The market at large, however, I think wants and will support all ages titles—enthusiastically in some cases. To support that I offer the success Jeff Smith’s Bone, Diary of A Wimpy Kid, Amelia Rules, Archie, a mountain of different manga titles, and on and on. If you look at the direct market sales for these titles they probably would not inspire one with hope. They may look okay, but probably not spectacular. However, none of these titles are married to or hindered by the direct market and do not rely on it for their success.
So, if the market at large seems to want these titles, why can’t the direct market support them on their own? Or use them to pull in new customers? I don’t know. There are a lot of variables involved but few that I think can’t be overcome. The direct market is small and the participants in it take a not insignificant risk with every single title that they order from Diamond. On top of that, in many cases, their personal biases, financial situation, customer base, and knowledge of the product are all additional factors.
Nearly every single day we have a number of customers that literally just stroll in off the street with their kids and they almost immediately ask where the all-ages comics are. The sheer number of new in-store customers that come in looking for all ages books is impressive to me; and is an indication to me that the market DOES want those comics. It also leads me to believe that cartoons, toys, and movies do encourage readership…just maybe not with the older, established, fanbase. The kids that come in are wearing their Spider-Man t-shirts, their parents make a point to say how much they like the Brave and The Bold cartoon or the Iron Man movie and now they want to buy their son or daughter the comic that goes with it.
So, in my opinion and experience, what it boils down to is that it’s not necessarily consumer demand that is hurting all ages titles. The demand APPEARS to be there. The issue appears to be that the target consumer is not able to find the product to begin with and/or they don’t know that it exists, much less where to buy it. Most comic fans don’t pre-order and I would guess that the majority never look at Previews, or check comic news sites. So if most regular fans aren’t pre-ordering, why would we assume that children and non-comic reading parents would be? They, completely understandably, expect to walk in to any store and just find the product there waiting for them.
Given my in-store experience and our overall sales numbers for all ages titles, I think that all ages titles CAN work in the direct market, if direct market participants are willing to make the effort to market at least part of themselves in a new way—that is, one that is open and friendly to families and makes a concerted effort to get kids and families into the stores. This is in no way to say that direct market participants are responsible to publishers to make sure that certain titles do well, they're not. My point is that there is a potential customer base that is waiting for us to reach out to them; we need to make sure that we're extending our hands whenever possible.
There are A LOT of stores that do this already, and not every store has to do it in order to be successful. But the success that many titles receive outside of the direct market is hard to ignore, as is the potential for revenue. The market is there; if you’re able to take advantage of it, grow the community, and grow your customer base, why not try to take advantage of it?
It’s interesting that two retailers are both saying that 1) All ages comics CAN sell in the direct market and 2) the onus is on the RETAILERS to cultivate that market. Your mileage may vary, and I would invite the thoughts of other retailers who see things differently. That said, I’m not at all surprised to hear two very successful retailers take the position that ultimately the success or failure of any product in their hands comes down to what they do with it. Kudos for that attitude, now maybe if we could get more retailers to WORK at cultivating audiences beyond the traditional maturing superhero buyers, titles of a different sort would have a greater hit rate.
Jason is a mutant with the ability to squeeze 36 hours into every 24-hour day, which is why he was able to convince his wife he had time to join the iFanboy team on top of running his business, raising his three sons, and most importantly, co-hosting the 11 O'Clock Comics podcast with his buddies Vince B, Chris Neseman and David Price. If you are one of the twelve people on Earth who want to read about comics, the stock market and football in rapid fire succession, you can follow him on Twitter.