Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Marvel's Irrational and Schizophrenic Graphic Novel Policies

I read a fairly broad spectrum of comics and graphic novels, but when it comes to mainstream super-hero slash shared universe sci-fi, I make mine Marvel, always have. I sell comics for a living, and from experience I can say that Marvel makes it as hard as possible to own their product in trade or hardcover, and even harder to sell from a retailing perspective.

When I sell a hardcover or trade or OGN (let's just call them graphic novels from here on out), I tend to push product first on quality of story, then on the value of the package the customer is getting. For me it is fairly simple to figure out the bang for the customer's buck: put plainly, after story quality, how many issues do you get for the money you, the customer, are spending?

When assigning prices and print availability of their graphic novels, Marvel and DC are operating in completely different universes, and I'm not talking the fictional kind. It seems evident that DC sees in the graphic novel format the future of the industry, a format they more or less invented in the mainstream, and they are completely right in thinking so. Comic sales in 2012 were as high as sales during the speculator boom in 1994, with Graphic Novel sales making up an astonishing $385 Million of $715 in total sales. So much of the mainstream market for comics see the format as books rather than single issues, both inside the comic shop and at the book store. And with the rise of digital comics, the piece of physical ephemera that will ultimately survive is the graphic novel on the shelf.

Two collections, both $24.99. Top is New Avengers
with 4 issues, bottom is Action Comics with 8 issues.
DC recognizes this and they have always been reliable in producing graphic novels that are an excellent value for your already stretched comic dollar. Marvel seems to be bleeding its audience of as much money as possible for the lowest common denominator of product. Like with everything I'm talking about here, there are far too many examples to count, so I'll just use two very recent examples:

Two hardcovers, both are $24.99. One is Action Comics Volume 1 (New 52), by Grant Morrison. The other is New Avengers Volume 5 by Brian Michael Bendis. Ignoring the quality criteria (one book is by one of the preeminent creators of his generation, the other is a capstone to a tired and overlong run), and just looking at quantity, Action Comics gives you eight full issues of story, where New Avengers gives you just four. Four issues of standard superhero fare for $24.99 is frankly ridiculous (DC charges just $12.99 for the first six issues of the widely acknowledged masterpiece All-Star Superman). Why on earth would you spend the equivalent of $6.25 per issue when most of the issues were less than four dollars each on original publication?

Two  more collections, this time $29.99.
On top is Secret Avengers with 7 issues,
on bottom is Night of the Owls with 16 issues.
Two more hardcovers, both $29.99 in this case. The first, one of the best reviewed superhero comics of 2012, is Batman: Night of the Owls, featuring sixteen issues of content. The other is Secret Avengers Volume 2 by Rick Remender, just seven issues of completely unremarkable fluff in shockingly cheap packaging. Atrocious pricing for the material presented.

These are just two quick recent examples, but believe me when I say that in the last three or four years, Marvel has consistently shocked me with the cheapness in value and quality of so much of the product at needlessly high prices. The majority of Marvel graphic novels are terrible values by this metric, but (in turns frustrating and relievingly) it is not universal; they do surprise me by (rarely) putting out quality material in a nice package at a decent price. An example I love to use (to great effect as I have hand-sold dozens of these) are the Invincible Iron Man deluxe hardcovers by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca, what was, for me, consistently the best superhero book on the stands. In the first deluxe hardcover you get 19 issues of content, the first three collected volumes of their extraordinary run, for less than $40. In contrast, the 19 issues of J. Michael Straczynski's Thor run are in a $65 omnibus, the 14 issues of the Brubabker/Fraction/Aja Immortal Iron Fist are in a $75 omnibus. But positive examples like this are far too few and far between.

This all says nothing of the poor production value of Marvel's collections (and DC is not much better for most of their catalog). Too often the collected editions are just the individual issues slapped between two covers, sometimes (but not often) with ad-hoc extras of little value. And increasingly, Marvel has been printing their graphic novels on cheaper paper, in cheaper packaging, with no sense of design. There is no regard for the permanence of the collected edition, the obvious fact that seems to escape Marvel and DC that it will be the graphic novel on the shelf and not the floppy in the long box that will stand the test of time. (I would be completely remiss not to note the beautiful production design by Jonathan Hickman on his Marvel books - but this is the exception, a rare example of a creator taking control of the design and presentation of his collected material for one of the big publishers to make the finished product a beautiful addition to ones library.)

And that doesn't even scratch an even more important factor of this equation and that is availability of product. DC has always been aggressive in keeping items in print and available to retailers, be it for their super-hero fare or their extensive and highly in-demand Vertigo catalog. DC approaches their graphic novel line like a legitimate book publisher (which, especially comparatively, they are). Marvel seems to approach their graphic novel line as nothing more than an extension of their individual issue line, something to be pumped out as cheaply as possible, as quickly as possible, and with little regard to availability after the initial printing, especially for hardcovers. I can easily drum up dozens of examples of so many great Marvel books that are impossible to find because they are unavailable at Diamond Comics Distributors, but here is one quick example chosen randomly: Daredevil by Frank Miller. The first two volumes of the Miller/Janson material are in-print, the third, for some reason, is not. In contrast, Miller's groundbreaking Batman work of the same period, The Dark Knight Returns and Year One, are not only perpetually in-print, but half the price of Marvel's Miller Daredevil material. Unfortunately, it is very common to find random volumes of a creator's run unavailable when it comes to Marvel - I'm continually infuriated at Garth Ennis's Punisher Max volume 7 and J. Michael Straczynski's Spider-Man ultimate collection 2 randomly out of print. Not a single volume of Peter Milligan and Michael Allred's critically acclaimed X-Force/X-Statix is available in softcover.

But most glaring, with a new Guardians of the Galaxy series premiering this week and a major movie in the works (to much positive excitement amongst Marvel fandom), the Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning books of recent years on which both are based are completely out of print. For some reason there have been new printings of the irrelevant 1970s and 1980s Guardians material. This is simply irrational and schizophrenic.

These comparisons don't take into account the quality of material being put out by many other publishers (or even Marvel's Icon imprint), and doesn't even scratch the surface on the problems in the individual issue market, be it the reduced page count, DCs notoriously messy editorial or Marvel's senseless variant thresholds. 

Being a Marvel fan and working in retail trying to sell Marvel graphic novels in this environment has left me fairly exasperated. I speak for myself here, and not for my employers, though I really believe these frustrations are shared by most retailers and Marvel fans. And I'd imagine these frustrations are shared by Marvel employees, who, by and large, are fans who want to put out better material at a better value but are hamstrung by the Isaac Perlmutter-dominated, as-cheap-as-possible executive culture long dominant at the company. The fixes that Marvel would need to apply are small: better value, better design, better quality, more quantity, deeper catalog. Unfortunately, based on current management, these necessary changes are unlikely to happen, to the detriment of both Marvel and the industry at large.


  1. Heidi MacDonald recounts my "withering overview" of Marvel's irrational reprint policies (above), as well as Brian Hibbs' analysis from a couple of weeks ago at She goes on to recount Marvel Associate Publisher Ruwan Jayatilleke's rather lame responses that Marvel was meeting their own internal metrics for their trade program.

    These responses, of course, do not remotely address the most glaring concerns from either Hibbs or me. To be blunt, while Marvel may be meeting their own cheap-as-possible goals, they are continuing to fail retailers in the direct market, as well as their fans nationwide.

    As I said before, they need better value, better design, better quality, more quantity, and a deeper catalog. Until then they will continue to fall far behind DC in terms of value and quality and availability. Today Ruwan Jayatilleke was fired. There needs to be a sea-change, and axing one of your executives isn't going to cut it.

  2. Just an FYI to whomever titled this article: schizophrenic does not remotely mean what you think it means and it may offend somebody who actually deals with it on a daily basis to have it misused like this.

  3. Axioma, no offense intended, I was using it in the colloquial sense, defined in several sources as "Of, relating to, or characterized by the coexistence of disparate or antagonistic elements;" "experiencing or maintaining contradictory attitudes, emotions, etc." Concern noted, but I'm not changing it.

  4. I'll stick with Valiant comics. Their opening salvo of trade paperbacks are $10 each. That's for 4 issues of X-O Manowar, or 5 issues of Harbinger! That's like $2 per issue for Harbinger and that's half the cover price of the floppies. Viva la Valiant!

  5. From a perspective of a reader/customer, the key issues (aside from the quality of the story - which is a relatively subjective assessment) are value for money and accessibility. It's baffling to see how quickly Marvel's trades go out of print and it also baffles me to see how slow DC are to produce paperback editions of their trade collections. $24.99 for four issues in a hardcover is obscene, especially given the fact that other publishers offer a longer book with higher production values for the same money.

    In Marvel's favour, I do admire their Omnibus Editions and better value products like the 12 issue hardcovers, such as the recent one covering the first year of Waid's Daredevil run (which I thought was very well produced).

    I would be interested to hear your assessment of Image, Dark Horse and IDW's trade/graphic novel publishing practices. My anecdotal experiences are generally very positive in terms of the cost:content ratio.

  6. Ed, I kept my comparison to DC as Dark Horse, Image, IDW, et al are very different publishers. DC and Marvel are distinct companies, but they largely draw from the same talent pool, and produce the same kind of work (superhero and main-stream genre material).

    Today DC released James Robinson's Shade series in trade, with 12 issue for just $19.99 featuring art from some of the best in the business including Frazer Irving, Darwyn Cooke, Javier Pulido and more. The value and quality of this collection is typical of DC.

    That Marvel can't hold a candle to DC in this regard is because of Ike Perlmutter and his shockingly cheap ways infecting every aspect of the company. (This is from my conversations with Marvel staffers in the last couple of days and from the consensus of reportage from Heidi MacDonald and more.)

    As for other publishers, Image and Dark Horse put out fantastic material for a good price, especially with certain recent Image releases, like Saga - the best comic of last year with 6 issues in trade for just ten bucks.

    And one could write volumes on the extraordinary quality of the material that IDW has been putting out between their art books, artist editions and more. Marvel could learn a lot from them, but more importantly, they could learn a lot from DC.

  7. An observation of note:

    When I published this article, Punisher Max Volume 7 was out of print (and had been for a couple of years), as I note.

    As of this writing, it has come back into print and is now available at Diamond Comics Distributors. FEB072209. Astonishing coincidence.