If you read mainstream superhero comics then the chances are pretty good that you’ve noticed that this past summer was consumed by a deluge of crossover ‘events’. Back in late April/early May both Marvel and DC Comics kicked off their universe ending/revamping stories, Convergence for DC (owned by Warner Bros) and Secret Wars for Marvel (owned by Disney).
There seemed to be an odd synchronicity to both of these stories that had gotten my hopes up for the possibility of some corporate surprises, so I had decided to commit an unwise amount of focus to these multiversal publishing endeavors. Starting with DC’s Convergence in April, I published a quick post noting some of the similarities of these events and my intent to read every single piece of them. Every. Single. Part. So this article will be a combination review on the goals and effectiveness of these events, their effects on the industry, and the toll they took on my now shattered and fragmented mind. So fun times!
Now, I never claimed to be a smart man. I suppose I just assumed that I wasn’t a masochistic man, and well I guess hindsight is 20/20. So let’s start with a quick summary on exactly what I read.
The start point was Convergence. I then decided to toss in anything remotely resembling an alternate reality/summer event story, so I included Geoff Johns’ Darkseid War storyline in the Justice League title from DC, Grant Morrison’s Multiversity, the two Hickman sister titles Avengers and New Avengers which lead into Secret Wars, and even Valiant’s Book of Death because it is a summer event and it does feature alternate timelines or realities. Heck, I even tossed in stuff like the Star Trek/Green Lantern crossover from IDW that claimed to be the ‘Crossover Event of 2015’, because apparently I hate myself. Like, a lot.
Convergence consisted of one core mini-series that lasted for nine issues and was supported by forty different two-issue mini-series. That’s a total of eighty-nine issues, and I also read the Divergence release from Free Comic Book Day and all of the Divergence previews published in the back of each second issue of each Convergence mini-series which all lead to the DC You relaunch. Skimming over how that’s the most horribly corporate slogan for a desperate relaunch attempting to gain back a younger demographic, let’s be generous and say all of the combined Divergence shorts equal one full issue and round up the reading bar for Convergence to a total of ninety full comics.
Now Secret Wars is an entirely different beast. Let’s exclude the lead up, which if you are being a completest pretty much includes virtually every comic Jonathan Hickman has ever written for Marvel. I say that because the seeds for Secret Wars hearken back all the way to his 2009 Dark Reign: Fantastic Four series, which is bonkers when you think about it. So let’s just cut it to the core Secret Wars series and every mini-series, one-shot, and ‘Last Days’ special solicited as a tie-in to Secret Wars. That’s a lot of books, and it’s complicated because Marvel gave this thing a loose structure with an interesting clarification system that doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny for long but hey they tried. By my count (and I could be wrong), there’s a total of two hundred and thirty five unique issues. On a potentially related note, I no longer feel joy and I’m pretty sure the abyss winked at me.
I’m going to round the total number of books read to 330 to take into account Book of Death, Darkseid War, and any other loose stragglers that I’m forgetting. I’m estimating that as part of my review series for this that I have written in excess off 60,000 words, so practically a small novel. I’m not going to crunch the exact numbers as to the cost of purchasing all these comics if someone was insane or wealthy enough to do so, but my closest approximation lands at about $1200 before tax and before any potential discounts that customers may qualify for from their local comic book stores. It’s about $270 for Convergence and about $940 for Secret Wars as a whole. Just…take that in. Process it. Let it roll around in your brain for a bit.
Check out Marco D’Alfonso’s art if you get the chance, it’s pretty fun.
It’s going to be a very small audience that can afford to buy the entirety of one event. It’s going to be an even smaller number that would be insane enough to do both.
So now for some context. See, big summer event crossovers aren’t new. But the motivations behind these events are certainly more interesting than usual. On DC’s side it’s relevant to note that 2015 was the actual 30th anniversary of the original Crisis of Infinite Earths. If you’re unfamiliar, that was 1985’s first big major multiversal event that redefined the DC Universe. Since then DC has spent the last 30 years developing its characters, condensing its backstories, developing new myths, and…well, screwing it up from time to time. Go Google Zero Hour, I don’t have the energy to explain.
I…miss…the 90’s? Thanks Convergence. Thanks a lot.
So fast track to the past three years, where DC reset its entire universe to launch the New 52. A soft-reboot continuity (that didn’t even understand the meaning of what it said it was) that has managed to alienate more and more readers every year. Would you think that the 30th anniversary of the company’s most relevant story about continuity clean-up would be the perfect publishing launch point to alleviate that massive amount of growing discontent and maybe, I don’t know, re-evaluate your current editorial practices of continually trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator?
Naaaah, we’ll just have Aquaman literally bathe in the blood of a man named Deathblow. As one does.
See, DC was busy moving from their New York offices to Burbank, California. DC needed to bring something to the table for the summer, but the move from one coast to another overtaxed them in more ways than one apparently. So instead of creating a skillfully crafted core story with intricately plotted and edited crossovers to create a cohesive sense of storytelling, we instead got a rushed and alarmingly incomprehensible mess. The entirety of their New 52 publishing line was put on hold for two entire months and replaced with wave after wave of oddly conceived and poorly executed short stories created by a host of guest filler talents, their understanding of the event itself ranging from “Huh?” to “….ok? Sure?”. New 52 fans who had gotten used to purchasing their favorite titles like clockwork were told that their Scott Snyder written Batman comic wouldn’t be back until a few months. That’s probably going to be a big problem down the line here…..
I’m sure that on one of those versions of Earth there’s a version of DC that made a good decision about their publishing schedule….
So back in New York, Marvel was gearing up to take all of your money with a company wide story that was basically an homage to their 1984-1985 event titled Secret Wars (by way of merging it with DC’s 1985 Crisis of Infinite Earths). Jonathan Hickman had been building up to a major climax in his multiversal shenanigans he had been playing with in his Fantastic Four and Avengers runs for the past few years, and Marvel could actually benefit from a little continuity housecleaning (coughcough*kill the Ultimate Universe*coughcough). They’ve never really done a full blown Crisis type event where they had the opportunity to restructure the very fabric of their reality, despite having numerous built in plot devices that would make it incredibly easy to do so without requiring a huge event.
Ehhhhhhhhhhhhh? Oh FINE, have your 8-part that eventually becomes a 9-part event series!
But where’s the money in keeping things simple? It was also announced that Marvel would be structuring the event in such a way to allow a number of their titles to finish properly as the event was unfolding, while a few other titles simply wouldn’t bother with an interruption because they were marginal to continuity anyway. Groot doesn’t give a damn, Groot has other things to worry about.
I’m not like Groot. But this series was delightful. Go read it.
Marvel’s motivation, besides the usual which is $$$, was actually in cultivating an end game that they had already invested in years ago with Hickman. The added bonus opportunity was that the event would act as a springboard to launch a whole bunch of new #1 issues. That’s twice within a year, let’s not forget. This is all in Marvel’s usual playbook, so in that regard it was business as usual but ramped up like crazy whoa. Marvel had done something similar with the X-Men back in 1995 with Age of Apocalypse, where they paused all the mutant titles and replaced them with alternate reality versions of those titles for four months. DC even aped that with their Flashpoint event that was the springboard for the New 52 relaunch, so really these are now old hand publishing maneuvers that are in a process of extreme escalation. I wouldn’t be surprised if next year both companies abandon their corporate identities in some sort of meta feud and just create entirely new alternate publishing houses for a four month period. But I digress, let’s get back to our summer events.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Grant Morrison’s Multiversity, which had started in late 2014 and finished up in April 2015. Multiversity, which had been a fabled project Morrison had been reportedly working on for the past decade (if not longer), was an examination of the superhero event itself. There are layers of meaning and fascinating ideas throughout the series (which is also just fun, by the by), but there was one very important thing I took away from the project. Morrison was essentially predicting our new current state of mainstream comics:
“On every world, a crisis. On every alternative, a new apocalypse. A doomsday. A Last judgement. A conclusion that never comes but continues to arrive. An endless event.” So yeah, there’s that. Morrison essentially gave us a warning, a heads up as he apparently had a good hunch as to what 2015 would be all about in mainstream superhero comics. This Infinite Crisis, a term that writer/analyst Rob Salkowitz adapted from the DC event of the same name, is a state of perpetual stagnancy for the industry where we are forever trapped in a cycle of old tropes and ideas as the big publishers have retreated into their safe zones and keep putting out the same old crap. It’s all a little too on the nose for my comfort, and now that it’s all finally over it’s painfully evident that we were marching down that path regardless of all the different types of progressive developments the industry brought forth in 2015. The most intriguing (and scary) question now is what comes next?
Fatigue + Hyper-saturation
÷ Alternative Options =
2016 will definitely be a big year for change in comic book retail. The fallout of DC and Marvel’s abuse of their fan’s wallets and patience has already been felt as readers have had to make some tough choices. What doesn’t help DC and Marvel is that they had already been losing ground to publishers such as Image, and 2015 saw an explosion of content from a diverse range of publishers and creators.
Wait…..something new? Something different? Something that doesn’t require a map or Wikipedia to read it?
WHAT MADNESS IS THIS
Convergence’s failure as a story combined with poor marketing decisions such as a near universally panned series of alternate covers by Chip Kidd, a complex release schedule for its tie-ins, and an insulting handling of pre-52 continuity gave readers the perfect jumping off point. A large majority of fans took a ‘wait and see’ mentality to the event as bad reviews rolled out online. Comic book fans are often creatures of habit, so removing the safety of a regular release schedule was not exactly a hot idea. Retailers definitely felt the crunch regardless of how they played their orders out. Some retailers ordered high going into the event (as we did), remembering that the New 52 had actually paid off on the initial launch. Others played it safe and ordered exceedingly low. Even those who took that safe route still suffered from the actual lack of sell-able product as their monthly title-dedicated DC readers had nothing new to buy for two months.
Thanks for all the nothing, Chip
Our store essentially broke even on Convergence. We qualified for return-ability on the core Convergence title, so what we had sold and what we were able to return helped to balance the losses we took on all the tie-ins. We were stuck with nearly a thousand comics that became dead weight that we just needed to get rid of as no one was looking to buy them. That aspect was survivable. Our major loss though was the growing lack of faith in the brand and the widening chasm between DC and its prospective audience.
Fan hate is nothing new, but the actual existence of this website might be a bit of a sign
Over at Marvel our customer base was a bit more proactive, the range of tie-ins seeming to spark more interest and the good faith that Hickman had built over years of consistent storytelling paying off. We confidently pre-ordered copies of Secret Wars for all of our Avengers subscriptions and virtually none were kicked back. Issue by issue, the core Secret Wars title sold consistently and customers were, for the most part, enjoying the concept and execution. Until the delays hit.
Marvel’s teaser game was strong in 2015
Schedules matter. Consistency matters. And while Marvel maintained the art team on the core title (something I do appreciate as a fan), the shipping delays hit with a resounding thud for us. People still came in asking for new issues and were committed to the main event, but as delays progressed and even the tie-ins started to arrive late, sales declined. We saw a major drop in sales on the later issues of numerous mini-series tie-ins, and it became difficult to anticipate what numbers to order. With holidays on the approach and a growing number of alternative options from other publishers, customers either abandoned ship or decided to wait till the projects were over and done. I will forever utilize Natasha Allegri’s Bee & Puppycat cartoon to get this point across:
You can’t expect fans in this day and age to stick around for too long. Marvel and DC both generally seem to operate with this logic in mind as they won’t stop launching and relaunching titles, but they still hit these major snafus. You know there must have been major problems when a noticeable number of the Convergence two-issue minis don’t have the same artist from issue to issue, and we know DC’s move to the West Coast was probably a major factor. I would assume Marvel’s breakdown centered around scheduling conflicts with artists more so than any issues from their publishing infrastructure, and these problems are understandable but seriously, when it comes to your big game you need to get it together. Small press and indy creators need to take these lessons to heart as well. Of course you will have your dedicated fanbase that will wait for you to release your product. But as we progress into 2016, you need to understand that there is a blurring effect happening in pop culture. There’s an increasing amount of static noise permeating everything in our culture as we are bombarded by more and more media options. Consumers might be interested in your new comic, but you have to compete against Netflix, console games, PC games, Youtube, DirectTV, OnDemand, and oh yeah, the eleventy bajillion webcomics being published all the time. As more and more people have the means to create, communicate, and distribute their product, the price for all of this diversity of options becomes a fickle general public, which results in limited windows of opportunity for you to reach your most economically viable state as a creator. And maybe that’s not your concern, and that’s cool and not everything has to be about being a cash success. Just remember, if you wait too long, your candy will indeed be gone.
Yeah no, I’ll definitely finish reading all these comics right after Netflix confirms I haven’t died
2015 saw consistent market growth for Image Comics, and as you can see in various retailer reports online such as the ones here, here, and here, they spearheaded the expansion of the market to new and exciting demographics. Tradepaperbacks and graphic novels such as Saga, Lumberjanes, Rat Queens, Nimona, and Wicked & Divine tended to outsell the standard superhero fare, with DC’s selection taking a noticeable backseat on most of the Top 100 lists (unless you include Vertigo titles). Even Marvel capitalized with hits such as Ms. Marvel and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, tapping into the millennial demographic while maintaining accessibility for their older fan base.
How did Image achieve this new momentum? Well, you could credit a number of things. Skipping over the obvious factors like innovative new titles and accessibility, they maintain a fairly standard low price point for their first volumes of most new trade paperbacks. $9.99 trade collections are the new gateway drug of the medium, and selling bulk proves to be beneficial as it fosters repeat business. Toss in some retailer programs, the possibility for limited return-ability, and a near infinite mixing of genres, and you get possibly the most important thing any publisher in this industry can cultivate: good faith.
So in regards to the market success of these events, I’m sure Marvel and DC can spin their sales figures however they deem appropriate to paint a prettier picture. But when it comes down to the trenches and to the retailers who have to fight a continual guerrilla-warfare style battle to keep customers coming in and to maintain a steady cashflow, Marvel and DC were the supply lines that just up and left. Image in the meantime showed up with drinkable water.
Where Do We Go From Here?
So after Convergence, DC launched the DC You in a tone deaf attempt to cash in on these newfangled millennial demographics. Part of the problem though is that they can’t seem to balance out their roll-outs with any meaningful marketing. Convergence essentially confirmed that Grant Morrison’s 52 reality multiverse was back and in effect, but it’s been six months and we haven’t seen hide nor hair of the beast. Didio and friends keep saying they are operating under a ‘loose continuity‘, which I feel is the worst way to go. That was the original problem with the New 52, nobody seemed to know what a soft-reboot really meant and they should have just said they were all in or all out. I’m not saying you need a full-on mission statement, but a clear letter of intent would go a long way. So I don’t think it should have been a surprise that sales were mostly flat for the new DC YOU, which resulted in a lack of confidence from DC itself in their own product. They’re currently repeating the same mistake with Vertigo that they did with the DC You initiative, which is throwing too much crap against the wall in an attempt to see what will stick instead of focusing on fewer projects of higher quality. I get the feeling things are going to get worse before they get better, so DC is a horse that I can’t put stakes on for 2016. We can only hope that if they crash and burn they don’t take the industry down with them.
Hmmm, explain that this a title taking place somewhere in the multiverse? Or launch it as the first new Vertigo title and let it cultivate a following and then start a slow roll-out of more Vertigo titles? Nah, let’s just toss it out among a flood of superhero crap that people will be weary off, and then act surprised when it doesn’t make money within a month.
Marvel’s All-New All-Different initiative has a different set of problems. Despite the words ‘All-New’ being plastered everywhere, everyone is weary that this is the same old stuff. And the constant supersaturation of hot properties (would you like some more Deadpool variants before the movie comes out? How about another Inhumans series? We hear you might like Star Wars) is going to eventually break the average reader. I don’t think Marvel is in the same danger zone as DC, and I think Disney is more savvy than Time Warner in that they’ll notice they’ve played the market too hard for too long and there’s going to be a need for a paradigm shift. The more marginalized properties will become focus points as it’s evident that characters like Ms. Marvel and Miles Morales can bring in more sales, and we’re going to get a rocky re-prioritization of their creative content.
Marvel’s MVP for 2016?
I think Image will grow, but they will need to shift gears. The successful practices will continue ($9.99 trade volumes, the aggressive promotion of new titles), but their supersaturation at the end of 2015 will not have gone unnoticed as certain titles failed to find an audience due to too many competitors within their own ranks. Image will probably need to either A) diversify by creating new imprints to help separate projects in the eye of the public, B) adopt a parallel publishing business model of pay-what-you-will digital only comics via Vaughan & Martin’s Eisner winning Public Eye series and then harvest the successful properties for high end collections for the print market , and/or C) put the foot to the pedal and aggressively attempt to lure more big name talents to their game.
I also shouldn’t leave out players such as Valiant, IDW, Dark Horse, and Boom. For the most part I feel like most of these publishers are following safe business plans that won’t rock the boat too much but will see them grow and benefit from any changes coming in 2016. Of all of them I feel that Valiant has the most to benefit from any potential DC/Marvel exodus as fans of the superhero genre can be lured to their well constructed and maintained shared universe. They will be worth keeping an eye on, partially due to their forward momentum and their will to expand while maintaining a strong level of quality control, but also because of their forethought when it comes to retailer relations.
Man, I don’t know what that giant space robot dragon is all about, but I suddenly care a lot
As A Comic Fan and Reader
Convergence was an abysmal failure. It was hands down the single worst company wide crossover I have ever read. And I have read DC’s Bloodlines, Marvel’s Clone Saga, DC’s Zero Hour, Marvel’s Atlantis Attacks, DC’s Amazons Attack, and the original Marvel VS DC crossover. I’ve read some of the worst comics ever on purpose, and this event physically and mentally taxed and hurt me. I’m not going to go into details because I wrote a damn mini-novel about it. Go read it here. All I will say here now is that I will forever distrust all publishing efforts from DC here on out.
Secret Wars? Well, despite the delays and despite the completely unnecessary nature of all the tie-ins, I enjoyed the core story. I felt like Hickman got to say what he wanted to say and he finished up the majority of his plots and themes. And even all of those unnecessary tie-ins? For the most part they averaged a B level grade. The majority of them were unoffensive, and in light of Convergence that is entirely acceptable. The fun obscure ones were the best (as tends to be the way), and the main event came out stronger than I originally anticipated considering the lackluster nature of the previous few Marvel events. Was it the best Marvel event of the past 30 years? No, Annihilation still holds that title for me. But this was a good second or third place.
For the most part I’m mainly happy it’s all over. There’s a particular elated feeling of freedom I’m experiencing right now, and I’m sure both DC and Marvel will learn their lessons and avoid shallow cash grabs
and even more overly hyper-saturated events,
or at the very least, not put out two events at the exact same time.
-Chris Casos, Manager
Chris has been in comic retail for over 20 years, and despite all his consistent complaining he still enjoys comics. If you’re ever at a loss for conversation with him, just bring up gorillas, robots, or dinosaurs.