Thursday, June 19, 2008

The first two stages of unexpectedly low sales grief

-Sorry about that gap in posting. I was out of town (meant to mention this before leaving, but things were hectic), and it's been chaos ever since we got back. On the plus side, we found a place to live. On the minus side, there's a million things to do before we can leave, like working out a bunch of stuff with the mover, setting up utilities, packing, cleaning, and who knows what else. And once we've arrived, there's all the unpacking and furniture buying and whatnot to do. So posting isn't going to be much more regular until, I don't know, mid-to-late July. Once again, sorry about that.

I do have a small but growing review pile to get through, so posts in the near future will probably be more review-oriented. If you've sent me something recently, chances are I have it (I think there's just one outstanding package I'm sort-of-expecting). If you plan on sending me things in the future, please note that I am moving and will no longer be at my current address as of some time in July. If you've sent something off in recent days, I'm sure it will arrive in time or else get forwarded to my new address. I'll make a more formal announcement with more specific info once we get everything sorted out with the movers.

-I guess I was as shocked as anyone that Secret Invasion #2 outsold Final Crisis #1 by an estimated 37,000+ copies. We all know that the sales charts aren't perfectly accurate, but that's a big, statistically significant number. I thought it was even a bit more shocking to realize that Secret Invasion #1 outsold Final Crisis #1 by over 100,000 copies according to ICV2's estimates (250,263 vs. 144,826). Even the harshest critics of sales chart-watching should be able to admit that's not a sales gap so much as a sales chasm.

Reactions have been kind of predictable, including some amateur handicapping of the candidates most likely to succeed DC editor-in-chief Dan DiDio. (I had no idea Jimmy Palmiotti was such a popular choice; I'm not sure if he would do any better than DiDio in terms of sales, but I think he would improve things on the creative end pretty significantly.) On the other side of the spectrum, people trying to come to terms with this sales imbalance seem to be stuck somewhere between the denial phase ("these charts are meaningless") and the anger phase ("stupid comics fans are stupid for liking stupid Brian Michael Bendis and stupid Leinil Yu").

I'm not exactly disappointed by these numbers (it's not like I'm getting a cut of the profits), but I am a little dismayed by them. I certainly have had my reservations about Final Crisis, but I found the first issue to be pretty good, mostly due to the pervasive, foreboding atmosphere that Grant Morrison and JG Jones established. Of course, my reaction to the comic has very little to do with Direct Market sales, but it's still kind of surprising to see this kind of differential. I was under the impression that folks were underwhelmed by the whole Skrull infiltration storyline, especially compared to the prospect of a Morrison/Jones epic. And DC has been promoting Final Crisis as the culmination of several years worth of stories for quite some time now, whereas Secret Invasion just seemed like the sort of by-the-numbers crossover that would have been relegated to a summer's worth of annuals back in the early 1990s.

But maybe that's what people want right now, for whatever reason. I think it's worth considering that something as simple as an Invasion of the Body Snatchers rehash might seem somewhat appealing compared to what DC has been dishing out over the last year or so. In fact, it's probably time to consider the damage done by the Countdown miniseries and its related spinoffs. As Marc-Oliver Frisch and others have noted, a book selling 70,000 copies every week is nothing to sneeze at, even if DC expected those numbers to be about 15,000-20,000 higher. On the other hand, Countdown may have done some substantial harm to DC as a brand in the Direct Market.

When buying comics this week, I wanted to ask the owner of my local store what he thought about the large gap in sales between Secret Invasion and Final Crisis--especially since, at least as of last summer, Countdown sales were outpacing those of 52 at his store. So I was somewhat surprised when he told me that this was what he had expected. According to my retailer friend, Final Crisis was a hit only among the hardcore DC devotees, largely due to the popular impression that Final Crisis was nothing more than unnavigable continuity junk. What's more, this seemed to be the opinion of both the store owner and his assistant manager. I tried to explain that this wasn't really the case for Final Crisis #1, but neither of them were convinced. They did, however, praise Secret Invasion #1 for having a strong story hook and two interesting cliffhangers.

This, of course, doesn't mean that my conversation reflects anything other than one particular retailer's experiences; at least one retailer leaving comments at the Beat seems to be doing very well with DC's superhero line right now. And, lest you think otherwise, the owner of this store is not a Marvel fanboy, nor could anyone reasonably detect a pro-Marvel bias when shopping at the store. If anything, I've always thought the guy was maybe slightly more into DC characters. Plus, as far as I can tell, the store's aggregate clientèle doesn't really favor one company over the other.

One bias that might be relevant, however, is a prejudice against the work of Grant Morrison. I know that the owner of my local shop isn't really a fan of Morrison, aside from All-Star Superman. But he's a professional with over 30 years of experience selling comics; he wouldn't let his personal preferences get in the way of fulfilling his customer's wants. Still, it might be worth considering anti-Morrison sentiment in a more general way. I wonder to what extent the potential readership for blockbuster summer events might be turned off by Grant Morrison's writing. Morrison obviously has a strong following, which presumably includes people who are buying Final Crisis in spite of it being a big event comic. (I'm in that camp, for sure.) It's unclear how large this following is, or even if store owners took it into account when ordering copies of Final Crisis #1. Still, my hunch is that sales to rabidly pro-Morrison readers did not make up for sales lost to anti-Morrison readers.

But really, when it comes to an earth-shattering event comic, prejudice against the creator probably shouldn't make a 100,000 copy dent in sales. It could simply be that 145,000 is the upper boundary of what DC can expect to do in the current sales climate. And realistically, 145,000 is a lot of copies to sell in today's market. It's a little unnerving to think that there are 40% more readers interested in a Marvel crossover than a DC one, but, as Tom Spurgeon wrote, being Avis to Marvel's Hertz isn't necessarily such a bad deal for DC.

Or is it? One wonders how much this sales gap will matter to readers of Final Crisis. Critics of sales chart analysis have long hinted that the perception that a series is bleeding readers can result in even worse sales, creating something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course, no one in their right mind thinks Final Crisis will be canceled due to low sales. However, some creators have blamed poor sales on comic shop culture, particularly the behavior of biased store owners badgering their customers about their purchases. I've always been skeptical of either of these phenomena, however. Future issues of Final Crisis will surely lose sales, as do all series of this type. But I doubt we'll see low enough sales to send DC into outright panic mode.

That probably won't stop people from looking at Marvel's increasingly distant lead and calling for DiDio's ouster.* I don't know anything about the internal politics at DC or Time Warner. It could be that this was DiDio's last straw, or it could be that his superiors are happy so long as DC is making some kind of profit. No matter what happens, though, I would expect DiDio to keep his job through the end of Final Crisis. Firing DiDio would send the message that Final Crisis is a lame duck event with questionable lasting consequences. And since the current market is (tragically) built on publishers' promises of NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME AGAIN, I think you could expect DC's sales to tank line-wide if that happened.

But it's a strange world we live in. Some people get fired in the most illogical and classless of manners, while others manage to remain ensconced in positions they are obviously grossly unqualified to fill. I doubt that Dan DiDio is totally coated in teflon, but it's also unlikely that Paul Levitz is going to toy with DiDio's future in the press. But, frankly, it's hard to imagine that things are going to get any better from here, sales-wise. That might not really matter in the short term, though, and it certainly shouldn't stop you from enjoying Final Crisis if it's your kind of thing.

*This is not to say that there aren't plenty of reasons to encourage DiDio's replacement, the most obvious of which is the terrible quality of most of the mainline titles. This undoubtedly is the product of DiDio's managerial style and overall plans for the company. And it's probably also related to the public airing of grievances by Grant Morrison and Chuck Dixon in recent weeks.

-Good to know MarkAndrew is doing fine. We had a lot of heavy rain up here, and some flooding fairly nearby, but we weren't personally affected. Hope things turn around soon in Iowa.


Gardner Linn said...

It's worth noting that while DC's been promoting Final Crisis as the culmination of several years' worth of stories, it's turned out not really to be that. Secret Invasion, on the other hand, actually is the culmination of several years' worth of stories, dating back at least to the beginning of Bendis's Avengers run four years ago (and possibly even as far back as Alias, but that's just speculation on my part).

Morrison has said in interviews that Final Crisis is a culmination of his DCU stories (i.e. JLA, Seven Soldiers, 52, Batman), and based on the first issue, that seems to be bearing out. But while Marvel editorial has done a good job (or a terrible job, if you hate Bendis) of letting a writer weave a long-term story though the larger universe in a relatively plausible, consistent way, it seems that Morrison has had to sneak his story in drips and drabs in spite of DC editorial.

Also there's the common observation that Secret Invasion has an easily-understandable logline, whereas a lot of readers still can't tell what Final Crisis is about even after reading the first issue. Personally I don't think it's that cut and dried, but I do think that Bendis's work on SI is more plot-focused ("Are you a skrull? OMG am I a skrull?"), and Morrison's work on FC is more focused on themes and symbols (what comes through in the first issue most clearly is not a rip-snortin' yarn, but the pervasive sense of evil that you noted, as well as the thread of fire imagery that seems to point to a general theme of man squandering/perverting the gifts of the gods). SI, so far, is almost all text, while FC is almost all subtext. I think (or at least hope) that this will make FC more satisfying in the long run, but it definitely means that SI is so far the more viscerally exciting month-to-month read.

MarkAndrew said...

Hey, thanks. But I'm always OK.

Gardner Linn said...

Woo! Quoted in Journalista! Is this what feels like to know God's holy love

But, you know, I feel like I should clarifiy somewhat my tossed-off, poorly-thought-out comment from yesterday. (Obviously I have no knowledge of how DC or Marvel editorial works, or of the inner workings of Bendis or Morrison's minds, so this is all just based on reading their comics and interviews.)

When I said "while Marvel editorial has done a good job (or a terrible job, if you hate Bendis) of letting a writer weave a long-term story though the larger universe in a relatively plausible, consistent way, it seems that Morrison has had to sneak his story in drips and drabs in spite of DC editorial," I think I was grossly oversimplifying the issue. For one thing, by all accounts, Bendis actually did sneak in the Skrull infiltration story; it was well underway before he even informed his editors that he was writing a few characters as skrulls in disguise.

For another thing, Bendis and Morrison are two very different writers with very different methods and goals. As I said earlier, Bendis seems more concerned with the twists and turns of plot, while Morrison seems more concerned with using superheroes and superhero stories to illustrate his pet themes and ideas. This isn't to say Bendis doesn't have themes and ideas of his own that he puts across in his comics--he certainly does--but I doubt we'll ever hear Morrison extol the virtures of Robert McKee's Story like Bendis does, you know?

And so, with this greater focus on the mechanics of story, I think it's easier for Bendis to work within a shared superhero universe and a large company's editorial culture. So even though Bendis has been working on the Skrull invasion story solo for a year or two, It's easy to explain the concept and throughline to other writers and editors, and relatively easy for them to integrate the skrull story into their own books.

Anybody who's read Morrison knows that he's a master at creating cohesive long-form stories out of seemingly disparate elements, seeding small details that eventually pay off in major ways. But I think while Bendis has slowly and deliberately worked his way towards Secret Invasion for the past four years or so, Final Crisis is more the result of Morrison finding the common threads in his earlier DC work and then using those threads to weave the next phase. SI is a connect-the-dots picture: point A is "Something's rotten in SHIELD," point B is "Elektra is a skrull," etc. It's relatively easy to see what the picture's going to end up looking like. But Final Crisis, and Morrison's DCU work in general, is more of a pointillist painting. There are random dots scattered across the page, like a cloud, and you don't see the picture until it's finished and you take a few steps back. So I think it's much easier for a company's worth of writers and editors to understand a linear connect-the-dots structure than an amorphous dot cloud. So while I'm disappointed that DiDio/DC/whoever can't get in line with what Morrison's doing, I'm not exactly surprised.

And, you know, I don't think it's any coincidence that Bendis is a good company man, while Morrison always seems like an outsider, even when he's entrenched on projects as large and central as 52 or Final Crisi.

So, uh, what was my point? I guess it's that Morrison isn't completely blameless for all the contradictions between Final Crisis and recent DC continuity. But the first issue of FC was better than all 51 issues of Countdown, so that's really all that matters in the end.

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