This month's column is being written while I am feeling pretty darn weary, as I just returned from a grueling 5-day trip to Montreal. The purpose of my trip was to attend the DC Comics RRP meeting, a special event that DC hosts every couple of years in order to foster direct interaction between the DC editorial and marketing staffs and leading comics retailers. Approximately eighty comics retailers, representing 61 different organizations from around the world, attended this year's RRP. Each was selected to attend based not only upon the gross sales and/or professionalism of their individual comics retailing operations, but also upon their ability to contribute articulate and cogent views and perspectives about how DC could improve either their editorial output, and/or their marketing of their comics and trade paperbacks.
As per usual, this year's RRP was a resounding success. From even before the very first meeting, small side groups formed to discuss certain specific important issues. By the time the main meetings began, the breadth of vision within the group about how to improve the comics industry became readily apparent. DC revealed some specific editorial plans, including the launch early next year of ----, a 52-installment weekly series that sure looks like it is going to add fuel to DC's gathering sales momentum. Based on what I saw at the RRP, I would not at all be surprised if DC Comics were to become the #1 comics publisher, both in units and gross dollars, in 2006.
While I certainly am feeling positive about DC's successes, as a life- long Marvel fanboy, I feel a definite twinge of regret that Marvel is in imminent peril of slipping from the top of the comics marketplace. Given the radical difference in perspective between the two companies in how to treat comics retailers, however, I cannot but see the justice in DC's rise, and Marvel's potential fall. The RRP meetings certainly highlight the differences between the two companies, as Marvel's bare bones marketing approach contrasts incredibly poorly with DC's willingness to spend substantial sums to elicit feedback from leading comics retailers. While I certainly have appreciated the Marvel Comics marketing department's dilemmas in having to operate with practically no staffing during the past several years, I also am well aware from my experiences with my own company that if you continually skimp on marketing dollars, that unwise frugality will eventually come back and bite you in the shorts. In Marvel's case, their entire marketing plan right now is to schedule periodic (weekly?) conference calls between the Marvel staff and and a rotating group of selected retailers. Due to the limitations of the conference call methodology, however, only about a dozen retailers can participate in each call, with each one getting about 3 minutes to contribute ideas. Frankly, that program is such a worthless exercise that, after first responding enthusiastically during each session to which I was invited, I now no longer have any interest in participating. Particularly when it was pointed out to me by one of my fellow retailers that for the privilege of providing Marvel with feedback, we get to pay for the cost of the long distance phone call.
Even under all of those dreadful circumstances, given the opportunity, I would still try my best today to help Marvel. In the past, I have frequently (more than 50 times...) over the past 25 years scheduled my trips to New York so that I would have an extra day set aside to visit the Marvel offices. That move cost me about $200 each time for another night at my hotel, but I always considered that to be a valuable investment in protecting the future of the comics industry. Through all the turmoil and changes of the management teams led by Jim Galton, Terry Stewart, Jerry Calabrese, Winston Fowlkes, Bill Jemas, and several others whose tenures were so short that I can't even remember their names, I have worked diligently to try and make the business folks at Marvel aware of the urgency for them to respond to the needs of the Direct Market. My badgering has been so strident, on occasion, that one of the aforementioned executives nearly punched me out after having a few too many drinks at a Marvel party, and another had me declared persona-non-grata at the Marvel offices for over two years.
Throughout that 25 year span of time, however, I never gave up on Marvel. Sadly, however, that is no longer true. The management team currently being led by Dan Buckley no longer seems to have any genuine interest in outside input. Their conference calls begin with a clearly articulated perspective, and it rapidly becomes apparent that our input is only accepted if it fits within the parameters of what was decided within the Marvel staff before the meeting even began. After several conference calls in which consensus on selected topics were reached by all the retailers involved, and then those decisions were subsequently completely ignored by Marvel staff, I finally gave up. I'll be heading for New York in just two days, and I haven't even bothered to call Marvel to schedule any meetings. What's the use? It seems clear to me that the current Marvel management team is convinced that they know everything there is to know about how to sell comics in the Direct Market, and they feel they need no contributions from me. So I will save myself a couple of hundred dollars, and pass on providing feedback to Marvel on this trip.
Sadly, all dynasties finally reach their point of collapse. The Marvel Comics publishing unit has been running recently almost solely upon the momentum provided by the successful projects of a small number of very highly paid creators, and the positive energy contributed by the successful marketing of their feature films. While those two factors have managed to keep them #1 in the marketplace, the hidden cancer eating away at Marvel's guts has been the steady decline in the average line item sales of Marvel comics. The big winners still sell quite well, but once you get past the top ten titles, Marvel comics no longer sell anywhere near as well as they did in the past. Marvel has made up for this failure to capture the hearts and minds of their fans by flooding the market with an increasing number of mediocre titles, but even that ploy is now starting to wear thin. With the DCU now completely reinvigorated by the passion and energy of new DCU group editor Dan Didio, Marvel's prospects for maintaining the #1 spot in comics publishing look increasingly grim. They may, indeed, still manage to somehow keep their #1 position in the comics marketplace during 2006, but after all the positive energy I saw at last weekend's DC Comics RRP meetings, I can't help but believe their days at #1 are numbered. We'll all just have to see how 2006 plays out in the comics world. It should be really interesting.
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