Wednesday, November 13, 2002

MARVEL HATE: Stan Lee sues Marvel, Joe Simon sues Marvel. And then there was this important Dirk Deppey essay from the weekend:

On the 23rd of last month, current Marvel COO Bill Jemas attempted to defend his company's policy of no longer fulfilling re-orders on new books by claiming that A) it was better for Marvel's bottom line and B) that it would stimulate the moribund speculator's market, which would C) benefit forward-thinking retailers.

Bill Jemas is full of shit, and he's full of shit for the following reasons:

The policy is only better for Marvel's bottom line to the extent that the initial sell-through makes Marvel look better to both current investors and companies interested in buying out Marvel and giving it the same kind of safe-haven DC enjoys from AOL-Time-Warner. As recent sales figures show, once re-orders are factored into the equation DC Comics actually holds a slim lead over Marvel in overall dollars earned. If this is Jemas' definition of "better," I'd be interested in seeing what his definition of "worse" looks like.

The policy will only stimulate speculation to the extent that it's possible to convince teenage boys that tens of thousands of comics, all hoarded away by collectors, will ever accrue in value. Anyone with half a brain in their head can see the flaw in this logic. Anyone who lived through the last two speculator bubbles can see where all this is headed. You did read this far down, right?

Even if the speculators' market is again kick-started into existence, the reader demand necessary to drive up prices has a new damper preventing it from increasing the way it did in times past: graphic-novel collections. Say you're a reader wishing to collect earlier stories from your favorite title. In times past your only option was to buy expensive back issues, but nowadays you've got a second choice: buy the book instead. If the back issues cost substantially more than the book, which option are you going to choose? Moreover: with a brake like this applied to the speculator market, can anyone seriously forsee the value of said back issues significantly rising past the cost of a softcover collection? This is what I meant when I said earlier that I thought the speculators' market was a bygone era -- with a second alternative available, the only people speculators can realistically sell their "investments" to are other speculators. Something of a closed loop, don't you agree?

The policy makes comics retailing even more of a crapshoot than it already is; by forcing retailers to gamble on increased inventory rather than on what their experience tells them will be the maximum point of sell-through sales, Jemas is asking retailers to sit on an increasing backstock in order to improve Marvel's own financial fortunes. Eventually that backstock will pile up to the point where the retailers' ability to invest in new merchandise will be compromised by the capital already tied up in inventory. This has happened before. Twice.

Marvel's "no re-orders" policy, coupled with the proliferation of titles we've seen coming out of Marvel over the past few years, represents a cheap and sleazy attempt to recapture long-lost market-share by forcing retailers to buy more heavily into an ever-increasing array of titles. By printing more titles per month, Marvel undoubtedly hopes to squeeze some competition from other superhero publishers off the shelves. By eliminating re-orders, Marvel undoubtedly hopes to tie up money that might otherwise have gone to their direct competitors, which further squeezes them out of the game. The notion that this policy is in place for the benefit of the retailers is ridiculous -- the only people who stand to benefit from such moves are Marvel Comics and their investors. Even then, this policy actually screws Marvel in the long-term by adding instability to the very market Marvel depends upon to sell the bulk of their wares. If comics shops again start going belly-up in large quantities, Marvel loses retail outlets they'll still be needing years down the road.

Read the whole thing, it covers, in detail, three of the big comics events of the 80s and 90s: the speculator bubble bursting after the black and white comics explosion, the speculator bubble bursting with the 90s gimmick comics, and the distributor wars of the 90s. An excellent read if you need to know about comics industry history. And make mine Marvel.

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