Direct Market comic book retailers aren't sure what to think about Marvel's Secret Wars announcement that it will end the current Marvel Universe later this year — introducing a mysterious new world for its superheroes.
"Customers are curious, but as usual, Marvel is being very vague about the whole thing," said John Robinson, owner of the nine Illinois locations of Graham Crackers Comics. "And I have no answers for [customers] as to any of the specifics on how this is going to be handled."
"On the surface, I think it sounds absolutely awful!" laughed Mike Wellman, co-owner of the Comic Bug in Manhattan Beach, California. But the retailer added, "I tend to lean more positive on these massive events and I'm sure there are some things that Marvel isn't telling us. Their batting average is pretty high when it comes to these things and I fully trust them to make something awesome."
Success… or failure?
Despite the lack of information, most retailers were hopeful that Marvel wasn't going to come out of Battleworld with an unmanageable mess, but might instead come up with a revamp that matches (or even exceeds) the success DC's 2011 "New 52" reboot had.
"I think that if they do it right, there's a good potential that it could blow the success of the launch of DC's 'New 52' entirely out of the water," said Brian Hibbs, who runs the Comix Experience stores in San Francisco. "Marvel's brand is better known, and they're generally better at driving big traffic for publishing events, so I think there's potential for Marvel to have multiple, ongoing six-figure sales for a civilian-friendly 'fresh-start.'"
Yet retailers pointed out that the key word is "could," because the soft-reboot that's being rumored right now could also be a disaster. And if it doesn't actually change anything significant — but just ends up being another "cash-grab" event — it will further damage an already shaky superhero comics industry.
"Without specifics on how they'll be handling it, it can go either way obviously," Robinson said. "Handled well with a clear path and understanding for the customers, then this can be great. Handled like Secret Wars II, then it can be a disaster with unnecessary tie-ins, and event that ends up doing nothing. Marvels 'soft-reboots' have only hurt the industry, in my opinion, over the last 10 years.
"Short-term cash-grabs are nice, but end up hurting [retailers] in the long run," Robinson said, explaining that big events require a big commitment from retailers to buy new titles with no sales history. According to Robinson, the sales of one best-selling event title don't always negate the hit retailers take on the unsold copies of another. "By the time you play catch-up, figuring out that people want [for example,] Secret Wars Frontline Battleworld but don't want Secret Wars Embedded, it's too late and you've eaten as many copies as you made money on."
Casey said he's also seen a lot of cynicism from readers and retailers when publishers make these types of announcements, and that's not good for the comics industry. "How many times has a universe (specifically the Marvel Universe) been shaken to its very core? How many senses-shattering revelations that upend everything that you've ever known do they get to have before the effect wears off?
"Much like an addict, a bigger and bigger fix is needed to maintain a high," Casey said. "An event every other year became an event every year became an event announced before the current event wraps up became multiple events happening at the same time."
Charlie Harris, owner of Charlie's Comic Books in Tucson, Arizona, is also wary of the "soft" reboots, saying Marvel has made a mess of their characters by revamping them on the run, and the "mash-up" being described now doesn't sound like it's going to help. "The continuity, or lack thereof, keeps getting more unwieldy as their books have extensive 'story so far' pages that are so confusing that the chance of pulling in any new readers at this point gets slimmer and slimmer," Harris said. "They need to eliminate a lot of useless and redundant characters and try to make some of their 'heroes' heroic."
Adam Casey, manager of Ssalefish Comics in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, agreed that messy continuity would damage his ability to market Marvel comics to new readers. "It would stand to reason that the point of this shuffle would be to allow new readers to jump in or to hook casual readers," Casey said. "Those efforts will be complicated should there be a lot of 'buts' involved: 'Yes, that's Spider-Man, but he's from the future.' 'Those are the X-Men, but they're from a universe that was called House of M.'"
And if Marvel does make the leap and launch a new universe — or at least a significant revamp of its line — retailers who were in the trenches for the New 52 reboot are warning Marvel not to make some of the mistakes that DC did (or ignore the things that DC has done right).
"As many new readers as we gained from the "New 52" relaunch, there were also a number of long-time readers who felt disenfranchised," said Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff in Concord, California. "I do think Marvel editorial needs to frame and execute Secret Wars as appealing to new fans while still embracing long-time fans."
"Marvel needs to tread very carefully," Case said. "Die-hard Marvel readers, more than DC readers, have a very strong opinion on 'what counts.' MC2/Spider-Girl, the Ultimate Universe, and other efforts have never really taken hold because they 'don't count.' Marvel could shoot themselves in the foot sales-wise over the next year if readers think that the intervening issues of their favorite titles 'don't count' or, worse, the post-Secret Wars universe doesn't 'count.'"
"The very best thing that Marvel can possibly do is have a clear and long-term plan," said Jermaine Exum, manager at Acme Comics in Greensboro, North Carolina. "I would hope that there have been many discussions involving ramifications and connections… It's all about smoothness of presentation. Anything to not arbitrarily irritate fans is always a good thing."
Hibbs also said the launching of an "all-new" Marvel Universe must be accompanied by truly fresh, easy-to-understand concepts, with high quality writing and art. "The risk comes from, as DC sadly did, not having enough books of the relaunch being creatively propulsive, or, perhaps, from being too confusing or continuity-driven," Hibbs said.
Robinson said the "New 52" also suffered, in the early months, from having a few titles that were a little too diverse, "which stuck us with a bunch of stupid, unwanted titles that were very shortly cancelled to no ones surprise.
"Marvel's mistake has always been to find something successful and then glut the market with so much of it that no one wants any thing to do with it," Robinson said. "I'm expecting that pattern to repeat until the end of time."
Hibbs agreed that oversaturating the market would backfire for Marvel. "If this is a full reboot (which is not at all clear), I would personally urge Marvel to focus on far fewer titles with a goal to maximizing long-term circulation numbers," Hibbs said. "The last thing we'd want after such a move is everything drifting back to 50,000 in sales or under a year later — the goal should be 200,000-plus ongoing circs for six-plus titles, which I think is eminently doable if they start smaller, and build the line up properly, given Marvel's brand-weight. Launch with six new Avengers comics, and eight new X-Men comics, however, and it won't take — the general public just won't buy on that scale."
Retailers also said Marvel should learn from DC's steady shipping schedule. "DC did something very powerful at the start of the 'New 52.' With very few exceptions, fans had a good idea that certain titles would ship the same week each and every month. That consistency is something Marvel could embrace," Field said.
Until more information is available, however, most retailers are telling their customers to be patient and wait to see what happens without jumping to conclusions.
"The most important thing is to not panic," Exum said. "Marvel Comics have been through some truly bizarre times, but I think they have very talented creators working on whatever is to come next."