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.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Review: Chiggers

Hope Larson
Aladdin MIX/Atheneum

I know that lots of folks question the wisdom in reviewing something based on how you would expect its intended audience to receive it. The dangers to this approach are clear: by taking it, one runs the risk of ignoring one's own responses, concentrating on the more dubious proposition of trying to guess how someone other than yourself would react to a book. It's not really a problem, of course, if the reviewer is part of the target audience, or if it's the kind of thing where marketing concepts like "target audience" are of reduced importance. I don't generally have to worry about this sort of thing for most of the comics I read, since I either belong to the target audience (eg, dudes who know who the Terrible Turpin is), or the author isn't really concerned with narrowcasting or the like (an approach I would associate with most of the stuff on this list).

It is something I have to think about when considering Chiggers, however. This is clearly a young adult title, presumably intended for an audience of teenage or preteen girls. That's obviously not me. Furthermore, I don't have any great expertise as to what kinds of comics someone in this target audience would respond to. I could take the approach I've seen in most reviews of DC's Minx line or various shojo titles--just give my reaction to it, ignoring any consideration of who it's intended for. I'd do that if I could, but I'm not sure that my brain works that way. From the moment I picked up Chiggers all the way through the end, I couldn't help but think about how my understanding of the book would necessarily differ from that of the folks who will (hopefully) be buying it or checking it out from libraries.

Complicating all this were my high expectations for the book, given Hope Larson's reputation. If I had read any of her earlier work I probably would have approached Chiggers differently. In fact, I wish I had read some of her earlier work, since I found Larson to be a very talented cartoonist. I especially appreciated the ongoing symbolic content to the work, sort of like a low-key David B. Which is good, since a YA title probably doesn't need a full-force David B. type of approach. See, I'm still thinking about this in terms of target audience.

Despite this reviewer's cognitive shortcomings, I still found Chiggers to be quite enjoyable. Besides the aforementioned symbolic content, I also found Larson's linework and storytelling to be quite charming. The real strength, however, is in the character work. The various denizens of Larson's summer camp are all strongly-defined in every possible way--design, body language, dialogue, and motivation. It's strong enough work to warrant a comparison to Jaime Hernandez, which is about the highest compliment I can imagine for this sort of thing.

Of course, this being a YA title, the stakes all seem a bit mild to my jaundiced, adult eye. I'm not so old that I can't recall a time when the events at summer camp (or, in my case, the summer program for the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts) seemed like life-and-death propositions. But that was a long time ago. Larson's incredible execution overshadows this, however. And besides, I'm not the target audience, right? None of this seemed inappropriate or corny, and I'd imagine it's tougher than you'd think to navigate a path avoiding those pitfalls.

I certainly hope Chiggers does well, because it's kind of the ideal entry-level comic. One could envision a generation of young comics readers with incredibly high standards based on their experiences reading Chiggers. Then again, they might be disheartened to find that other YA offerings aren't nearly as strong. What's really important, however, is that Hope Larson has produced a book which one can enthusiastically recommend to young female readers to for years to come. It's a shame that there's nobody in my family in the correct age group for this book, because I'd love to give a copy as a gift. As for myself, I really need to read Larson's other books.

EDIT: Please note the comment from my brother, who actually does have a background on how young girls process visual culture. It's good to think about these things in a more academically rigorous way.

(Review based on an advance copy.)