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Friday, January 29, 2016 

Eric Stephenson laments the constant reboots and crossovers coming from the Big Two

Image's publisher has said a few sensible things in an interview with CBR, who've had the decency to let his voice be heard on a serious matter involving business. For example, he addresses the relaunch-at-number-one tactic Marvel's been particularly notorious for:
It's striking to look at the year-end Top 500 sales charts in single issues and graphic novels -- Image doesn't show up in single issues until "We Stand On Guard" #1 at No. 124, but inhabits seven of the Top 10 slots for collected editions/OGNs. Image certainly had single issue successes last year, but it's still a market ultimately dominated by Marvel and DC. How much are you looking to expand the single issue market for Image in the coming year?

I think I'd go even further there, honestly -- the list you're referring to is dominated by Marvel and more specifically, by Marvel first issues. Over three quarters of the top 100 is Marvel, and of Marvel's total, nearly half are first issues and nearly half are Star Wars. It's also interesting to look at "Bravest Warriors" #1 and "Orphan Black" #1 in the top five, without a single other issue from either series in Diamond's top 1,000. "We Stand On Guard" #1 may be our highest entry at #124, but all six issues of that miniseries made the chart, and I think that best underscores where we're at right now. If you combine that with our strong performance on the trade paperbacks and graphic novels chart, it becomes even clearer. Image is interested in readers. The practice of releasing new number one after new number one simply is not creating new readers, it's not growing the market, it's admitting that the books in question aren't successful enough to continue without being constantly relaunched, and the long-term result is that it diminishes enthusiasm amongst readers and damages the medium.

Do we want to build our single issues sales? Of course we do, but we're not going to do it with retailer exclusive covers or pressuring accounts to qualify for outrageous incentives, we're not going to do it by inflating our numbers through Loot Crate variants and we're not going to do it by playing the relaunch/reboot/renumber game. I mean -- by all indications, DC's going to go that route again this year, and going back to the market share for 2015, I guarantee you it's not because they ended last year on a high note. Dropping 5 percent in units -- that's a sign there's something wrong, and the grim reality there is that it's going to take more than a slew of new number ones to make things better. What's the point of advertising a line's rebirth, when these superhero universes are reborn every few years? First, it was just a case of killing of characters and resurrecting them, now it's whole universes, again and again and again, and it's just leading everyone down a dead end road.
And it's already an open signal that the real drive for any sales at all comes from the speculator market that they refuse to move away from. He's correct that DC's own "events" have flopped in the long run, and their refusal to admit they made mistakes from both business and moral perspectives is only harming them even more. Similarly, DiDio and Quesada's continued presence as heads of the firms is alienating people. He also says recent times have been very dull:
In terms of the industry as a whole… not a lot really. I mean, I'm not going to claim we don't have our share of misses along with the hits, or that there aren't things Image can do better -- but looking at the vast majority of comics that came out in 2015, it was just a pretty dull year. I don't think Star Wars was much of a surprise. Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and given the kind of talent involved, it would have only been surprising if those books hadn't done well. The fact that Star Wars is bolstering Marvel to such a great degree is more interesting to me than the actual comics, though, and I think that's one of the biggest problems with comics as a whole right now. Talking about comics and analyzing the industry has, by and large, become more interesting than a lot of the work being generated. And I know, there are going to be people out there with pitchforks saying that I'm claiming there aren't any good comics -- that is not what I'm saying. There are always good comics. There's too much great talent in this business for there not to be good comics, but I think the genuinely exciting new work is obscured somewhat by the sheer same-as-it-ever-was of it all. It's like the bland leading the bland, and there's just so much out there, it's hard to sort the good from the bad. I was talking to someone the other day who mentioned browsing new titles on comiXology and just how bland much of it was, the sameness of it all, and this was like the umpteenth person to voice that opinion to me. There's definitely a kind of malaise that's set in over the last year or so.
Actually, it's been that way for over a decade. He obviously won't admit it, but some of their own contributors are a pretentious lot themselves, like Mark Millar, who's been writing a few books for them of recent. And if they're marketing books that emphasize politics of the same kind Marvel/DC have been doing for a while now (such as this Rick Veitch propaganda), that's also quite a dismay. I'd be a lot happier if Stephenson would admit even that's not very helpful.

In the second part of the CBR interview, Stephenson also gave the following answer to one of the first questions:
CBR News: Eric, In addition to Image publishing more titles targeted towards an all-ages or Young Adult readership, what audiences would you like to see Image reach that it may not be hitting right now?

Eric Stephenson: Anyone and everyone. Seriously. Any publisher in comics who tells you he or she only wants this audience or that audience, to just occupy one niche, is either stupid or lying. We all -- everyone in comics -- should want every type of reader we can get. And by reader, I mean READER. Put that in caps, and bold. Collecting comics is nice, and I did it myself for years, but that is not the road to the future. Our business is only as strong as its reader base, but honestly, I think we've all gotten a bit too cozy with the notion that we have this dependable group of comics fans that keep us all in the black. That kind of thinking isn't doing any of us any favors, really, and it's something that bothers me about things like variants, or when people complain about digital comics. The digital comics thing, especially, because those aren't collectors -- they're readers, they're people interested in the stories, the work. They're looking to be entertained, not for the most perfect copy to flip on eBay.

And you know, kind of related to that -- after David Bowie died, somebody sent me this great quote of his. "If you feel safe in the area that you're working in, you're not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you're capable of being in; go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don't feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you're just about in the right place to do something exciting." I felt like that was something literally every single person in comics could benefit from taking to heart. We need to stretch more, in terms of format, in terms of the types of stories we're telling, in terms of the readership we appeal to -- we should never, ever be comfortable with what we've got. That's when the rot sets in, and I think 2015 stands as a testament to that, to be perfectly frank.
On the surface, that is a good thing to say, but it should have limits. In all honesty, I wouldn't want to pander to communists and other such ideologies. But other than that, Stephenson's comments, in themselves, have some sense in them. However, the Big Two aren't always honest about their positions, and have long trashed the potential to appeal to a wider audience and make a core base out of them too. People have to point out their failure to be open about many things they do wrong.

If Stephenson really wants Image's output to find an audience, that's why I think they'd do a lot of good by switching entirely to paperbacks and hardcovers, especially if it's a miniseries they're selling. They could save tons of money that way, get the books into regular stores just as much as the specialty shops, and break monopolies this way. Few people want to spend 4 dollars - what many now cost - on what only amounts to little more than 20 pages. If Image were to announce they were going at least half exclusive with paperbacks/hardcovers, it could have a very positive effect, and might prompt other companies to follow suit with similar steps. But so far, that doesn't seem to be happening.

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This was a very good read, thank you for sharing it. I usually cannot stomach visiting CBR anymore, so I would have missed it otherwise.

Stephenson is right on target. Renumbering and Variant cover over-reliance is giving many a false indication on the health of the industry.

I made the mistake of following this column into CBR's ridiculous message board. It's funny seeing that there are folks that will still circle the wagons, and defend these practices... especially Marvel's part in it. It's as though they are hoping a comics pro will see their post and thank them for "fighting the good fight". Sad.

Lately, I've been using CBR for brief news items. I shouldn't, but I can't be bothered with the others at times (the Outhousers can be a bit much). As long as I avoid commentary, it's bearable enough, but just barely.

Stephenson's quite right about the re-numbering (and the endless killing off characters and now universes). I didn't realize how dependent Marvel now is on their Star Wars comics, so that was interesting to know. So glad someone is voicing these concerns.

As for Chris' unfortunate encounter with the CBR messageboards, I'm sorry, but never underestimate fans' lack of self-aware ness, especially over their beloved Big Two. I still have my love/hate relationship with Marvel, but I've finally realized "they don't want my support, as I'm a dreaded straight white male". Of course, even though, not supporting them with any money is hitting them where it hurts, Marvel just continues to double down like good liberals do, even as their approach clearly isn't selling and no one wants to face reality. But, hey, Sana Amanat and Nick Spencer can tell how racist you are for opposing their brilliance.

Then again, we are talking comics, so reality is a relative term.

And after this, you'd think fans would be more wary of dealing with Marvel anymore:


No, he probably shouldn't have spent his money on this, or at least pick a property whose copyright company is more fan friendly, as they do exist. DC is worse, especially as, for example, they'll sue anyone who uses Gotham, as one software company learned, or even Rhianna for wanting to use Robin, her given name, for a company she was forming.

Of course, if Marvel didn't treat X-Men like their red-headed stepchild, fans wouldn't have to take such extremes, anyway.

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