In 1991 Slave Labor Graphics published Evan Dorkin’s four issue series Milk and Cheese in a rather unique fashion – the issues were called Milk & Cheese #1, Milk & Cheese’s Other Number One #1, Milk & Cheese’s Third Number One #1 and Milk & Cheese’s Fourth Number One #1. A rather gentle ribbing at the comics’ industry then-popular tendency to launch series by promising the first issue to be a collectors’ item whose value would only rise. A promise that clever speculators would not only be able to pay back student loans but also to buy more #1’s in the future (which will make them more money). Because of simple economics, this idea failed so bad it nearly took the direct market with it (a simplification, but a necessary one), and people learned the lesson and promised never to do this again. Milk and Cheese was a dark mirror put in front of a bloated industry, hoping to scare it straight with the horror of its own reflection.
Flash forward to the space year 2018 and Marvel Comics (companies are people too) apparently found out about the series made entirely of number one issues and took it seriously. The Marvel Rising series, meant to capitalize on the marketing blitz behind a new animated movie expected to bring in a bunch of new and young fans, was not solicited as Marvel Rising #1, #2, #3 etc. Instead each issue got an All-New, All-Confusing name, like Marvel Rising: Ms. Marvel & Squirrel Girl, Marvel Rising: Squirrel Girl & Ms. Marvel, Marvel Rising: Alpha, and Marvel Rising: Omega. And they were all numbered #1. This is stupid, and perplexing, and bad. Zora Gilbert’s article in Women Write About Comics already explained why this a horrible idea, but really this just part of wider thread of Marvel’s insecurity regarding their own stories.
In short – despite being the biggest player in the direct market for decades, despite being part of the single largest media empire in this world, despite owning the rights to the biggest pop-culture icons of our time (and I’m not even talking about their Star Wars stuff), despite having some of the biggest mainstream creators in their rolodex (and the budget to get almost anyone else if need be) – the higher ups at Marvel seem to believe that their comics aren’t great, and they cannot sell them to anybody.
Take a look at the solicitations for November 2018: Uncanny X-Men launches with a new #1. Only this time they’re launching it as a weekly, and first issue is $8. Add that to the other, regular-priced November Uncanny issues and you’ll have to pay $16. Marvel may counter that they are giving the audience more for their dollar (the first issue is 72 pages long, though how many of them are new story pages and how many will include stuff like reprints or sketches?), but the fact is that they are asking for that money blind. The readers don’t know this version of Uncanny X-Men, no matter how many of its creators they enjoy.
This kind of practice only makes sense if the people at Marvel are convinced that only the first few issues will sell and everything after is on a swift downward path until the next cancellation and relaunch (and these come faster and faster nowadays). If one looks at the Marvel sales charts – which are of only limited use because they cover only print sales and only in the USA – one might consider that they are right. But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy: with its behavior, the re-numberings, the first issue price hikes, Marvel is constantly telling the readers that only the first issue matters.
Let us compare two fairly recent cases: in 2016 DC started its DC Rebirth initiative with the titular one shot, a story meant to set the stage for their new crop of comics. It was an 80-page issue that cost only $3. Now, I thought DC Rebirth was terrible comic book and that its continued abuse of Watchmen was borderline immoral. But it doesn’t matter what I think because it worked; the book sold like hotcakes, and the books that followed, many of them costing only $3, sold well. As a branding exercise DC Rebirth was mostly a success – you could see the banner on the books even two years after they launched.
Compare this to Marvel. A year after Rebirth, they did their own line-wide relaunch called Marvel Legacy, which also started with a titular one shot. Except Legacy was only 60 pages and it cost $6. Six dollars. There are many reasons why the Marvel Legacy branding failed but this is its original sin. DC was willing to lose money, or at least not to make as much as they could, on their one shot because the point wasn’t squeezing the readers for every cent they could get. The point was winning them back, making them want to come back for more. Marvel Legacy’s pricing is entirely based on the idea that they would never come back, that you have to get whatever you can get now. Now. NOW. Before they leave you.
That’s a pretty terrible ideal to hold, doubly so if you are working in the business of serial entertainment. It’s not even cynicism (though it has that as well), it’s out and out self-loathing. Forget DC, many Image comics are launching with double- and triple sized-issues (Monstress, The New World, Paper Girls) that don’t cost triple the regular price because they hope the reader will come back for issue two and issue three. They don’t just hope that – they assume that, because they love and trust their own product. Marvel doesn’t.
Uncanny X-Men #1 might be good or might be bad. At this point it doesn’t matter. It exists as a statement from Marvel comics: they are not interested in newer and younger readers. In fact, they are farming out the recruitment efforts to companies like Archie and IDW. They do not believe they can expend their customer base at all. All they are interested in is finding out how much their current base is willing pay and pushing it as far as possible. They’ve already gotten most people used to the idea that readers won’t get into a series with anything but a number one issue. This contradicts decades of comics history which showed people willingly jumping on a series in the triple digits (and this was before you could get all back issues easily online), but this recent step takes this idea even farther: new readers are not invited.
Marvel is officially not interested in selling X-Men and Spider-Man and Star Wars for children. To me this is insane, kids love these characters – they would ask their parents for money to buy a banana if it had a Wolverine sticker on it. But most parents are not going to shell out 8$, especially not after the folks in the store explain to them they have pay eight more to get the rest of the story for only this month. Heck, I have disposable income and I’m not going to shell out this amount of money even if the books were drawn by Frank Quietly and scripted by Alan Moore.
It’s fitting that in this very same month IDW is publishing a comic book called Spider-Man #1 which is intentionally aiming at younger audience; IDW also publishes books on Star Wars, Tangled, and Mickey Mouse – all Disney properties that were farmed out to a different publisher rather than letting the company’s in-house comics company work with. Surely some of that is related to licensing departments within Disney needing to justify their existence by selling stuff, but licensing alone cannot explain how a company that is in the business of super-heroes lost the ability to sell to kids. Right now Drawn and Quarterly has a better output for younger readers than Marvel does, and Drawn and Quarterly is in the business of making you feel ashamed about how plebeian your shelf is.
I don’t have a “solution” (nor is it my job to find one), but anybody with clear sight can tell you something is rotten in the state of Marvel. To just continue as if everything is fine is to walk blissfully unaware into obsolescence.