Ultimate Spider-Man is Marvel Comics' latest attempt at making more people interested in comics again (and gaining new readers), Ultimate Spider-Man starts off by retelling Spider-Man's origin. It is part of Marvel's new Ultimate-line of comics, a whole line of books designed to bring in new readers who normally wouldn't pick up a comic book.

The first few issues, written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by Mark Bagley and Art Thibert, retold Spider-Man's origin, much like it happened in 1963. Except, they have updated Spider-Man's looks (and that of the supporting cast, like Aunt May, Mary Jane and Flash Thompson).
The basics stay the same: Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider, Uncle Ben still dies (but not in the first issue) and Norman Osborn becomes the Green Goblin. The only changes are that it is set in the present, so Peter will do things kids do now, instead of what they did in 1963.

Since the series is placed outside the regular Marvel Universe, there are no worries that new readers won't understand what's going on, because they don't have to learn 35 or more years of Spider-Man history. Older readers can enjoy the series anyway, since it has beautiful art and a well written story, with dialogues that made Brian Michael Bendis famous.

The original plan was to make this comic available to everyone. It would be sold in places where comics usually aren't sold, hundreds of thousands of free copies would be handed out for free, and it would be supported by a huge advertising campaign, so nobody could claim they hadn't heard about it.

But this is where Marvel fails. They changed their original plans. They shipped the first issue of Ultimate Spider-Man with a variant cover, which is harder to get. Collectible is what they call it. The first issue sold out completely in a a week or two. It's harder to find then any other comic released this year. Normally, they would reprint it, and put a "2nd printing" label on the cover.

But they decided not to go with a second printing. Instead, they'll wait a few months and then reprint the first three issues in one volume, at a lower price. This way, people who missed the first issues can still buy them, even at a lower price. That all sounds good, but what they are now also saying doesn't make a lot of sense. They won't reprint the first issue, so the first printing will rise in value. They claim to do that to reward the fans who bought it when it was released, and hope to get kids attracted by the idea that two dollar comics (yes, that's what they cost nowadays, but most of them are even more expensive) become more valuable very quickly.

And that is exactly what's wrong with their strategy. It's exactly the opposite of what they first planned to do. Now everyone who doesn't have a copy still can't get one, since it's sold out and retailers ask outrageous prices, because it's very hard to get. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that is going to scare away new readers.
The way Marvel Comics sees it, people are going to think they can make money by buying comics, then selling a bit later because they're supposedly worth more. That isn't bringing in new readers in my book. That's bringing in people who only buy the book, hoping it will make money. That will work for a few issues, and then those who invested in comics to make a quick buck will realize that they aren't making any money fast, so they'll give up. No new readers gained. Only a few more issues sold for a short period of time. And the people who keep reading the comics were the people who read comics in the first place.

In a few months, the second of Marvel's Ultimate-line will be released: Ultimate X-Men. If they would have timed the release better, then it could have been released when the X-Men movie was in theaters. That way, it would definitely have been bought by an audience that normally wouldn't buy comics. Even though they claim it will be the highest seller for December 2000, it will probably sell to comic geeks only if they plan on doing the same thing with it as with Ultimate Spider-Man.

Much of the current trend with Marvel stems from it and DC Comics massive poodle screwing a couple of years ago.

At one point, there were (and still are, methinks) something between 5 and 7 different Spiderman series going on at once.

As well as the same number, at least, of X-Men titles, and a plethora of supporting characters. Thus, in order to keep up with the activities of your favorite characters, Marvel has you buying something between 10 - 20 comics a month, possibly, depending on how diverse you are.

Comics are actually more like 2.95 an issue these days, not counting the various independents out there which often cost more.

So that's something between 20 - 60 bucks a month, assuming that you aren't expanding your horizons or trying anything new.

And any comic store owner worth his salt is going to be trying very hard to get you into other comics.

So people got very tired of the whole mess (reinventing Superman didn't help) and comic sales dropped drastically, and a ton of comic shops closed.

Our problem becomes, in fact, not so much accessibility, as the need for profit. This is discussed at length in Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics and Warren Ellis's Come In Alone, as well as other resources...as companies become more interested in getting people to buy comics, than in producing quality stories that are going to hold readership, the more likely it is that people will lose interest.

Anybody who's going to spend that much wants some sort of guarantee of quality story, rather than crap, crap, crap, and a bit of light here and there.

The joys of the comic book industry.

I am one of those people who spends over $50 per week on comics. I am not a collector nor am I a speculator, I am a reader.

Unfortunately, the comic giants Marvel and DC don't seem to understand where their money comes from. It's the regular shortsightedness that politicians and a lot of business moguls seem to share. The inability to pass up a quick buck in favor of the long haul.

The comics industry bought into the same myth that brought the sports card industry low such a short time ago. They thought the speculators represented a movement, and not the flash-in-the-pan that they are. Unfortunately for the publishers and fans alike, speculators skew the sales data and make it difficult to tell what is actually being read as opposed to what is being collected for the possibility of its appreciating and the publishers react to this stimuli.

Marvel has been trying for years to make it next to impossible to follow only one or a few of their titles without missing huge sections of story that can only be found in their other titles. This is the reason I don't buy any Marvel titles any longer. I could spend $50 a week on just them to know the continuity when I only actually find a couple of their storylines even interesting.

DC is somewhat better in that they have stories that are not involved in their main universe at all and their titles are mostly self-contained, moreso recently than a few years ago. Some must still be bought in groups to make sense of even a single title, though.

Here's a short list of specific ways to not bring in new comic book readers.

  • Have limited run first issues. If they can't buy the first issue, they'll likely never buy any issue.
  • Have a lot of crossovers between titles. People like to start small, not with a $20/week habit right off the bat.
  • Have a lot of references to other related titles. Crossovers are bad enough, but at least they have the decency to advertise the need to purchase several titles to keep continuity.

There are several very good ways to bring in new comic book readers.

But that's a story for another node.

Definitely one of the best things that companies can do to bring in readers is to simplify titles and variants. After being rather heavily into X-Men in the early nineties I started waning and eventually dropped off with only a few random purchases of various books every few months. Fast-forward to the past few years, I've been meaning to get back into comics and don't need any hand-holding for most titles, but the problem of seperating what the primary books are is getting harder and harder.

Almost everything comes out in three or four various series set either in alternate universes or focusing on different characters either individually (e.g. Wolverine) or groups(e.g. the Amazing X-Men team might have Beast, Cyclops, and Kitty Pryde while the Uncanny X-Men team has Gambit, Rogue, and Psylocke) or what have you. It might be easy to tell those focuses on an individual character away from the pack, but it can get harder with more similiarly named titles (right now Marvel prints Uncanny X-Men, X-treme X-Men, New X-Men, Amazing X-Men, Ultimate X-Men and just plain X-Men). Even worse is that series are all too frequently re-numbered making it a bit hard to go by number ("hmm... well since Ultimate X-Men is #14 and Uncanny is #402 I'm betting that it's the classic one"). Casual fans who have a basic idea of what they like or may be more familiar with the characters as they're used in other properties and want to try the comic will likely feel even more daunted in their search. This isn't even considering those who want to be certain they get everything relating to a particular group of titles which can be a massive undertaking (as an example my comic shop offers the ability to subscribe to say, all the X-Men and related titles, mini-series, and one-shots coming out a month and for their discount purposes they count this as 16 titles monthly with the actual number averaging up around 20).

In a similiar vein the larger problem for many people is the extensive backstory. Not that it's a bad thing, but a lot of people who might want to pick up an issue for a few dollars might have a bit of a problem trying to follow years of plot developments that they haven't read about. Recent fans who want to learn more can often find it daunting to track down copies of earlier storylines even with trade paperback collections existing. Even worse is the reader who merely wants to read older issues, rather than collect them as the collecting market has driven prices up beyond the reach of most casual fans. The Ultimate line is a good step in the right direction (I find it rather flawed myself, but still...) to solving this and bringing people in "at the beginning", but something like this would definitely seem to help given the number of times I've heard this complaint. Despite this, no number of relaunches free of past continuity will ever suceed in the long run. They only push it back for a little while (Update: While I don't personally follow the Ultimate line myself the continuity is definitely buidling up so that instead of merely having "new" versions of everything we now just have two alternate realities existing sort-of side-by-side). The upcoming Marvel Age titles are supposedly going to be continuity-free and largely self-contained, but we'll have to see how well that works out when it comes out.

Finally is price. The last trip to the comic store I tagged pretty much everything at around $3 or so and for your hard-earned cash you can expect around 30 pages. Of course about 7 of those pages are ads. You also have a page for subscriptions, another for letters, and quite possibly one mentioning other titles from the same publisher. Now, after cutting things down to the readable part I've got about 22 pages (which is typically the standard number of story pages in a monthly comic) of nothing but pure comic joy to read. This ends up working out to about 13 cents a page or so. Despite how alluring this is the idea of picking up an interesting title just isn't there. It's not just about spending a lot for a whole mess of titles, but each one costs a pretty penny itself, even more if you start following it regularly. Maybe repricing and trimming the ads for some of the more popular comics would cause more people to start reading and once they start the habit it'll be a lot easier to get them to pony up for more (and of course, more expensive) titles. Cut the filler and drop the price. Look at some of the more popular manga "phonebooks" such as Shonen Jump, Young Jump and related. Despite often being printed on the cheapest paper available and not really having the best in plots and stories you get tremendous value for your money. Maybe this is part of the reason (aside from the numerous other ones I won't go into) that they tend to do a lot better than comics in the US. Recent sales of Shonen Jump in the US have been very high in the newstand market, running somewhere in the realm of 300,000 issues a month I believe when the best-selling American comic tends to do maybe 100,000 and drop off quickly from there. They may not be nearly as well written, but they bring in the readers and bring in valuable revenue to the publisher allowing them to make more quality products. Don't think that I'm saying that everything should be cheap crap to turn a quick buck, but what if there was crap that sold well enough that 1)more people are reading comic, even if they're pathetic crap they stand a better chance of coming on to quality later and 2)more money is available for higher-quality work... hopefully at prices that will also bring in more readers since it's no longer a $50/wk hobby. Kinda hard to get people hooked early on when you probably won't have the cash until you're out of college.

I still think that new readers can be brought in and old ones brought back if only a few changes were made. However it seems very unlikely that they ever will.

Update: 6/16/05

It's been a long time since I wrote this. I've now fully reabsorbed myself back into the comic lifestlye spending around $50/month on my obssession and getting a nice fat stack delivered to my door every month. Two and a half stuffed longboxes later my opinions have changed a bit, but not completely. Trades have helped a great deal into getting more regular readers to come into the hobby as they now have a solid, reprinted way to re-read earlier issues. The recent Spider-Man cd-rom was an idea of pure genius where you can now buy almost the entire run of The Amazing Spider-Man for $50. Comic fans are being given plenty of new ways to catch up.

On the flip side series often aren't lasting long enough to be collected or the companies are pretty slow about it. El Cazador launched quite well, but sank with CrossGen. Almost all of the DC Focus line went away with the only good book from the line Hard Time going onto hiatus at present. Gimmicky cross-overs and "events" are becoming more and more common. New, original, interesting series don't sell well quickly and get the axe faster than a critically-acclaimed show on Fox. Just being able to read the cool new stuff and find out what is worth reading requires at least a bit of work each month keeping track of the new releases coming in the next few months and being certain you start buying it soon lest it vanish instantly. I know that when I came back it required a few months of work trying to track down what the current state of the industry was, what good books were out there and then buying up tons of back issues and trades to get a solid pull going. Vigilance is key as well lest I forget which writer is changing onto which book in which month or when all of the Superman books are going to be used for a cross-over (thus making it pointless to be buying only one of the three titles and getting a third of the story I don't care about). It makes for a confusing, poorly-managed system that relies heavily on rumours and speculation.

My advice to someone wanting to get into comics today is to find a friend or group that knows and loves quality comics (no, not just super-hero comics or just indie books but a good sampling of the best out there) and read some of theirs. Get advice and ideas. Whenever you find something you like trawl around to find what the people who like that also like or are talking about. Learn to pick out the gems from smaller publishers who don't have an entire line running promotion or a recent feature film (e.g. the wonderful Stray Bullets). Find some writers that you love and become obsessive for their new work (Warren Ellis has a great online presence and consequently a horde of highly devoted fans, Brian K. Vaughn has a good enough record that he comes pretty close to just pissing gold) but more importantly their older work and creator-owned work at smaller companies (e.g. Greg Rucka is not the man who writes Adventures of Superman, or even just the wonderful Gotham Central, he's the fucking genius who writes Queen & Country). Learn to follow collaboraters who might express a similar style (e.g. Rucka is definitely the man, but so is his Gotham Central co-creator Ed Brubaker whose wonderful, lauded, complex, nuanced super-powered spy noir Sleeper just finished, but barely had an audience for it's first year despite massive critical praise). But if you're too lazy for that here are some of my personal picks:

  • 100 Bullets : Plenty of trades and a flow that reads very well in them. In essence it all starts off with an offer to someone who has been greviously wronged from the enigmatic Agent Graves who has an attache case containing airtight evidence of the guilty party, a 9mm pistol, 100 completely untraceable bullets and complete carte blance to do whatever you will. A limited series of 100 issues that is just over the half-way mark and going deeper into issues of just why he does this.
  • Fables : Classic fable and fairy tale characters have been forced out of their homelands and into our world where they secretly live among us. Wonderful writing and an engrossing continuing storyline have made this a top-notch title since it launched.
  • Y: The Last Man : Yorick and his monkey Ampersand are the only two living mammalian males on the planet. A simple concept done wonderfully and considering the realistic ramifications of what might occur rather than being some juvenile sex-fest.
  • Stray Bullets : A crime comic of a different sort that concentrates instead on the way that people hurt each other, on the victims of petty and hurtful acts by people against other people rather than criminals. Absolutely wonderful.
  • Gotham Central : A police procedural comic that investigates what life is like for the police of Gotham City and how they deal with the twin burdens of Batman and his rogue's gallery not with powers or super-human will... but just as cops trying to do their jobs.
  • Powers : Brian Michael Bendis has been writing this for what feels like a damn long time now so try not to get confused by the renumbering that occured when it came over to Marvel's Icon imprint. In a nutshell Powers tells the story of two police detectives who investigate homicides involving super heroes. Again, like many of the best concepts it sounds simple, but is packed to the brim with depth (e.g. in a world where using powers are illegal, yet super-powered criminals are all too willing to use them how do cops stand a chance when even those with powers are forbidden from using them?).
  • Ex Machina : The one and only superhero to ever exist in the "real world" has retired and in a controversial election has become the mayor of New York City. A wonderful series about politics, the post-9/11 world, what it's like to have super-powers in the real world, science-fiction, and just about everything else.
  • Queen & Country : A spy comic where the focus is on character, writing, and realism over James Bond style action. More scenes are written taking place in offices than exotic locales and an assasination is more likely to be followed by psychiatric counseling, heavy drinking, and misery than a double entendre and a chase scene.
  • The Goon : Best described as a sort of comedic, actiony mix of Hellboy and Evil Dead. It's funny, exciting, and has zombies and other wonderful beasties in it. Read an issue and try not to love it.
  • Astonishing X-Men : THE X-Men book to be reading at the moment. Then again, the only one with quality writing, but in this case quality is top-notch writing by Joss Whedon with wonderful art from John Cassaday.
  • The Walking Dead : A wonderful zombie movie in comic book form. It's a zombie book where the humans are the key and some issues don't even have any zombies in them. A certifiable hit whose readership keeps going up every week (and me one of the smug bastards who has been with it since the beginning).

I only listed a small selection of the excellent comics out there at the moment and even then only books that are currently coming out regularly with no mention of the many excellent mini-series and books that have ended or publishing very, very erratically (e.g. the excellent alternate history with magic in holy grail mystery Rex Mundi). Likewise I've not mentioned Hellboy or the Hellboy without Hellboy series of mini-series B.P.R.D.. This is just the tip of the iceberg so go out and prove that new readers can get into comics.

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