by Bon Alimagno
Several years ago I was talking with an acquaintance that used to work with Wizard. He told me this story of someone who waited for hours outside of a WizardWorld Philly show so that he could be the first one inside. As soon as the doors opened he made his way to the Wizard booth – not to see what they had to offer, but to complain. He had received a premium comic through a mail-order special offer and he thought it was damaged. The staple that bound the comic’s extra thick plastic cover to its guts warped the plastic around the staple far more than he wanted and he thought it damaged the comic’s value.
What struck me immediately about that story was that someone had generated the emotion necessary to take time out of his life and complain about the positioning of a staple. It didn’t matter whether the writer had sacrificed his nights and weekends to work on the issue’s script. It didn’t matter whether the artists canceled vacation time with their families to get the book done on time. It didn’t matter whether the colorist had discovered a better way to make a character pop against a busy background, or a letterer had just crafted an exciting new typeface. All that mattered was a staple. It’s sad how much care and attention is paid to the maintenance of paper and staples instead of the living, breathing people who give all that paper and all those staples meaning.
Are we in the collectibles business or are we in the publishing business? I ask this because most people who frequent comic book shops would never give it a second thought: comics is a publishing industry. They are wrong. In the publishing business you wouldn’t have had the situation that we had this past week with the Barack Obama variant of Amazing Spider-Man where it wasn’t even available to many retailers. Two weeks ago in the last Ignition column I called for the killing of the monthly comic as an option for new publishers, primarily because sales inevitably fell by about 10% an issue. One of the ways existing publishers prevent that is incentives like the Obama variant cover: maintain your sales instead of letting them erode. Then get the opportunity to order a comic that you can sell for many times above face value, even if you had to eat other regular editions you never would’ve ordered in the first place. For some retailers this may have looked like a punishment for doing what they have always done, letting sales erode at their natural pace, a pace that years of evidence have proven appropriate. For others it was a reward for bucking the trend. Really though it was business, it was what Marvel had to do, especially for a book that shipped weekly, the sales of which would be expected to erode at a faster rate than a regular monthly.
If this were the publishing business, the industry would’ve done everything it could to see that supply for the Obama comic met demand instead of creating a situation where it became, yes, a collectible. Thing is the stores able to receive it I’m sure were especially grateful for it.
Many comic store goers don’t realize how much of a store’s profit comes from comics such as these, ones that manage to exceed cover value by any amount at all, for any reason whatsoever. In an industry where profit margins are often so thin you often need an electron microscope to find them, books like the Obama variant are a gift. Of course it shouldn’t be this way, yet it is.
Many smaller, so called “independent” publishers can’t really compete with a system like this. Why would a retailer order their book when they could order one that could appreciate in value, when collectibility trumps quality? What does it matter how good the story or the art is if just the mere presence of a famous figure on a cover generates so much more buzz regardless of the comic’s content?
That is the real goal of any collectible incentive comic: to not just make one seem collectible but give the illusion that an entire series, maybe even an entire line has attained a level of collectibility desirable to your local comic book shop. This kind of buzz acts as a brake against the natural erosion of a monthly series’ sales. It may even make some stores consider upping their order to take advantage of the added buzz. (You may be tired to seeing all the press releases about comic books selling out, but until those stop generating the desired buzz and the afterglow of collectibility they’ll continue.)
What has this done to the medium though? Does it encourage innovation, spur creativity? Or does this force some publishers to surrender quality in favor of gimmicks and shortcuts that stir up buzz? What stories, what wonders have been sacrificed on the altar of collectibility?
Till next time…
Bon Alimagno is Director – Publishing & Editorial for Harris Comics, publishers of Vampirella.