There’s been a lot of thoughtpieces lately on the problems with Marvel Comics. This is down to a lot of things: staking up the prices, a creative exodus to independent publishers, the ensuing talent drive flooding the market with inexperienced new blood and unpopular editorial decisions. It’s probably all the Inhumans fault, somehow. They’ve tried to compensate for that with their Marvel Legacy initiative, which has met with some decidedly mixed reactions. Most people agree that while it’s not what Marvel needed, it’s nice to see them try to respond to criticism, at least. If they keep trying, they may eventually end up fixing their line of books. There is one thing that they don’t seem to be slowing down on; in fact, it’s something that’s only getting more popular across the industry. That’s double-shipping – one of the less talked about problems in the comics industry.
So, what is double-shipping?
Here’s a good definition from Quora. It’s lengthy, but it covers the bases well.
“Double shipping means a comic ships more than once in a month.
Traditionally, American comic books are published on a monthly basis. Sometimes (often in the summer), the publishers will increase the frequency of publication of key books to improve their market metrics. So, instead of one book that says, for example, “July” on the cover, there might be a book that says “Early July” and then two weeks later one that says “Late July”.
While the tactic certainly helps the monthly sales, it is deemed by most comic fans and retailers as a negative practice because the comic market is largely a zero sum game. The fans of Spider-man are forced to buy twice as many Spider-man books and that extra $5 is not used to support new books or struggling books.”
In other words, double-shipping usually means biweekly. On paper, double shipping doesn’t sound bad. You get your favourite series twice a month! More importantly, a month is a long time to wait for twenty pages of a story, especially when that story could take ten or twelve issues to tell. I’ll admit to being of this mindset myself. If I wanted a story that took years to tell before getting anywhere I’d probably just read a shonen manga. More content faster? Nice!
However, there is a downside to getting things fast. Two, in fact.
Firstly, there’s the artistic aspect.
When a book goes biweekly, it loses… Something. Maybe it’s a consistent artist – I don’t know of any who can hit a two-week deadline every time without needing a fill-in artist. The writing can also take a hit. While Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers/New Avengers was a fantastic run, at times characters acted in ways that felt strange and the dialogue really took a hit. Probably the best example of this comes early in the run, in #9. Here, the Avengers absolutely smash a young adult who just got superhero powers and had killed every friend he ever had. The reason? The Hulk tried to throttle him, so he retaliated. Meanwhile, dialogue boxes say that the Avengers were ‘perfect’ and Dustin Weaver’s intricate art gets replaced by Mike Deodato Jr’s computer-generated messy splash pages and… It’s just a bit of a hot mess. Hickman has stated publicly in interviews that having two or even three monthly books was a massive strain and often he wasn’t even able to make a second draft of a script before it went out. Bearing that in mind, it’s amazing that we got stories like Time Runs Out, New Avengers: Infinite Worlds or Infinity, but at times it shows.
Tangentially, this also explains why Brian Michael Bendis’s stuff hasn’t been great in the past couple years.
Now, I’m not saying that there haven’t been some fantastic runs on biweeklies. Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers/New Avengers was, all in all, stellar. A lot of people are loving Tom King’s Batman, and Superior Spider-Man is generally accepted as the pinnacle of Dan Slott’s Spider-Man tenure. But when you look at the titles I listed above, it feels like something is missing there. Biweekly comics can often marginalise the importance of the artist in comics. Biweekly comics are usually best known for the writer, but I can’t think of any that are thought of as “Writer and Artist”’s tenure, and this is a damn shame.
Comic books aren’t just a writer’s game. A great writer with a number of good artists is nice, but a consistent artist adds a stylistic flair to the run. Going all the way back to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the greatest comics are those where the artist and writer are both working in sync with each other over long periods of time. You can’t think of the New 52 Batman without Greg Capullo’s animated, square-jawed art style. Mark Waid’s Daredevil was good before Chris Samnee took on the role of main artist, but once Samnee jumped on it got really really good. Alex Maleev and Brian Michael Bendis used their time on Daredevil to create the 21st-century superhero noir. With biweekly shipping it becomes all about the writer. Without time to establish a consistent visual aesthetic, some great books can be lost in the mire.
However the arguably more insidious problem with double shipping is the long-term consequences that it could bring to the industry at large.
The money zone
Print sales are going down all the time. Compare the top three comics this year to last year and you already have a drop*. One of the factors for this is inarguably the price. For those unaware, the price of comics is generally $2.99 or $3.99. The extra dollar usually pays for a secondary ‘backup’ story of five extra pages, or a digital copy of the comic. A backup is generally considered a good use of the extra dollar, the digital copy less so – many print readers don’t read digital. At the moment Marvel publishes many comics at this $3.99 price point and is even cheeky enough to try for a $4.99 series or two.
This is where double shipping enters the equation. They make a company appear much stronger on paper. However this only works on paper, and even then only from a certain angle. Say Batman and Iron Man are selling 50,000 copies per month. DC decides to make Batman biweekly, and now Batman is selling 100,000 copies per month. DC says Batman is selling double what Iron Man is every month, therefore they’re in a better position. Even if they lose a few readers this way (which they usually do), half the fanbase will have to drop off to even out the stats form this perspective. Consider that this is Batman we’re talking about, however. It’s going to take some serious creative manhandling before that sells 25,000 copies an issue.
This kind of money-grabbing creates the appearance of financial stability, but it’s clearly just a cash grab. I’m fine with paying $2.99 for a comic every month – even $3.99, if it’s good enough. If you’re paying for that comic twice monthly, however, you’re effectively paying the price of two monthly series. The problem gets worse when you’re buying a $3.99 series. For the $8 I spend on two issues of All-New Guardians of the Galaxy I could practically get three issues of a monthly $2.99 comic. Hell, for the price of three issues I could buy a reasonably priced collection off the internet. As the series goes on and the price doesn’t fall, it gets harder and harder to justify going to get that new issue. I love what Duggan and Kuder are setting up in Guardians, but there are a lot of neat books at the moment trying to grab my attention.
How is this bad? Well, the people that comics seem to be trying to attract more and more lately (and, honestly, the people they should be trying to grab) are casual audiences.** They’ve seen a few movies and they want to try to read more of their favourite characters’ adventures in serialised format. They don’t want events, or reboots, or spinoffs. They don’t want creative inconsistency or fill-in artists, and they certainly don’t want to have it made absolutely apparent that they’re paying the best part of ten dollars for forty pages of content. For that price they could buy a book, a month’s subscription to Netflix, or two fidget spinners or whatever the cool kids like these days, I’m an adult now. Getting people to buy a comic isn’t all about recognisable characters – it’s about getting a price formula that works and sticking to it.***
So what next?
The solution? Well, there’s a few potential ones. Just raising a stink on social media isn’t a workable solution. Many reputable comics websites have called out double shipping for being dodgy, but it doesn’t seem to be working. So, that kind of leaves the big one – boycott double shipping books. This saves your bottom line and sends a clear message. The phrase ‘vote with your wallet’ exists for a reason. However in a market as wobbly as the current state of the direct market, it’s hard to do this without feeling you’re stabbing your hobby in the back. And of course, if the creative team of Batman was Frank Miller and Adolf Hitler and every issue was 20 pages of the same panel of Batman talking about how much he hates women and minorities, it would still sell better than anything else on the market. Unfortunately, that’s the best option there is. If it helps, there’s always the wait for trade option. It’s a bit less exciting but cheaper and less shady than the direct market.
Some good news, however: Dan Didio has publicly said that there are serious issues in the marketplace, and that DC wants to be in the lead to fix this. Their Big Summer Event of 2017 has no variants and most issues and tie-ins cost $2.99. More relevantly, it’s single-shipping! I’ve not always liked Didio’s creative direction, but I hope that he keeps his word and listens to fan’s advice on how to make comics healthier. If the pricing of comics stays the same, double shipping has to go.
Marvel’s screwed, though. They have the Inhumans, for god’s sake.
* 2016 – Amazing Spider-Man #15 86,994, Captain America: Steve Rogers 3 65,455, Deadpool #15 62,108 2017 – Amazing Spider-Man #30 56,560, Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man #2 54,247 X-Men: Gold #7 53,462. Numbers are from comicchron.com. I’ve chosen not to include event comics or #1 because gimmicks, or Star Wars due to it seemingly having a separate and fairly regular audience. Ideally I wouldn’t include tie-ins either, but Civil War II was an event of Lovecraftian proportions.
** I should probably make clear that I know that there are figures that prove that this isn’t how it works. Movies don’t really attract a humongous amount of new customers. But that’s a whole different can of worms. Anyway.
*** Check Black Panther, for instance. It started out with a big push, a big-name writer from outside comics and a quality artist. This meant that it sold tons –#3 sold 75,037 issues. After trying to push two spin-offs (neither of which lasted past one arc) it has now fallen to 29,593 issues.
But honestly? It’s all the Inhumans’ fault.