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Is Marvel Publishing Too Many New #1 Issues?

It would seem that there’s never been a better time for superheroes. There are superhero movies a plenty, and some of them are very good. And yet it’s still rather difficult to sell big numbers of comic books about superheroes. Marvel sells the most comic books but even they are looking to increase sales and so are trying publishing more #1 issues. For a number of reasons, number #1 issues sell better than other issues, especially for Marvel, and they have highlighted that trend with their “All-New Marvel Now!” initiative. It’s worth considering, however, whether Marvel has gone too far. Are they publishing too many #1’s and is their’s a strategy that can be successful in the long run?     There is an appealing element to Marvel’s emphasis on new series, which is that new characters get their own series. Recently, new series from the Silver Surfer, Black Widow, Ghost Rider, Magneto, and She-Hulk, among others, debuted (I previously looked at other characters who deserve their own series). Although some of these will be breakout hits (an early candidate seems to be Dan Slott and Michael Allred’s The Silver Surfer), most will sadly eventually fail. Marvel doesn’t let low-selling books hang around forever. As highly regarded as the creators are on a title and as interesting as the stories and art, a book that cannot sustain sales will eventually be axed.   Marvel does very well when they publish number #1 issues. This is not only because collectors will buy a #1 issue without any intention of buying #2. Marvel also has an important variant policy that increases their sales on #1’s. They offer rare variant covers on #1 issues for stores that place high orders of #1’s. Even if the store doesn’t believe that they can sell all of them, comic shops will sometimes order the threshold of #1 in order to get the valuable variants.     An article by Todd Allen at Publishers Weekly analyzed Marvel’s 2013 sales numbers with and without #1 issues included. The results are really eye opening. For some months, there is a huge difference between sales including number #1’s and not including them. The article also looks at sales bands and points out that of the 13 issues that sold over 100,000 copies for Marvel in 2013, 9 of them were #1 issues. It’s also worth pointing out that the sales bands with the most titles (both with and without #1’s) are the lowest selling ranges. The most common sales group is the 20,000-29,999 copies, following by 30-39K, 10-19K, and 40-49K. Basically, the most common sales range, by a large degree, for the comics that Marvel published in 2013 was between 10,000 and 49,000.   So clearly Marvel is highlighting the #1 issues because they sell well, and Marvel needs to sell issues. They also have learned a lesson from DC, which after rebooting their universe debuted 52 new #1 issues in the same month. Marvel has been spreading out their #1 issues. However, they are also dressing issues that are not #1’s to make them look more like they are. Avengers #24 and Uncanny Avengers #18 (among others) both prominently featured a #1 on their covers. I don’t see the point of this. If a comic book buyer is “fooled” into buying an issue that he/she thought was a number #1 and isn’t, that’s not really going to engender a faithful new fan. It’s possible that #1’s-that-aren’t signal to readers the beginning of a new arc, possibly as a good jumping-on point. However, I think the packaging could be a little clearer if this was the goal.     It could be argued that what Marvel is doing is just sound business strategy. If their customers want to buy #1 issues (and that’s evidenced by that fact that #1’s sell better overall), then why not give them #1 issues? However, I’m not so certain that this is a sustainable business model, let alone a good public relations one. The whole reason that #1 issues are desirable is that they are viewed as important and scarce. The importance is related to story and the scarcity is related to its collectibility. For example, there had only ever been 2 previous #1 issues of Amazing Spider-Man prior to the one published a few weeks ago. What happens, though, when there are 10 previous #1’s? If series are rebooted or renumbered every 30 or 40 issues (which works out to every three or four years), as was done recently with Daredevil, the perceived importance and value of “a new start” and #1 issue will go down – and so will Marvel’s sales on #1’s.       There are many reasons that in spite of the high interest in superheroes, it is still difficult to sell comic books, even for Marvel, which frequently tops the sales charts. Lately, the company has eased up on universe-wide crossovers, as there is “event fatigue,” whether real or imagined, in fans. The events still happen, such as the new Original Sin, but they’re on a slightly smaller scale. Instead, Marvel has shifted efforts towards making the additional #1 issues pick up the sales slack. It seems to be working relatively well for now, but I think Marvel had to tread lightly and be wary of flooding the market with too many #1’s and renumbering series too quickly, steps that could ultimately cause a backlash and sales slide.


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