Comics Shops on the Prospects and Perils of Marvel Legacy
It's been a common theme both here on this Patreon and on the comics internet that Marvel Legacy is in a weird position. Between prominent shops sharing they won't be ordering the lenticular covers Marvel is using to fuel sales (through Meet or Exceed gates that require shops to order a certain percentage above a previous comic to gain the ability to order the lenticulars) to skeptical takes on how much Legacy is really changing, it's an endeavor that has a lot of doubters out there.

You likely know where I stand. I find Legacy as a whole to be uninspired, and while I'm hopeful the Legacy one-shot itself (from Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic) will be a great comic, I'm dubious about its potential. But what do I know? I'm just a dude who talks about comics too much.

The opinions that matter the most are the comic shop owners who have to order these comics, as they're dictating the success or failure of an initiative that could make or break Marvel's next six months to a year. They're the ones gauging reader interest and whether or not they it's reasonable to order these lenticular covers.

So I reached out to some folks in the retail world to get some perspective on the subject, and as you might expect, the response is diverse and the decisions are difficult. Give it a read, and hey, are you looking forward to Legacy, or perhaps not? Let me (and the retailers) know in the comments.

Let’s start with a broader question. How has 2017 been for your shop, and in specific, how is Marvel’s line doing right now for you, relative to recent years?

Patrick Brower (Challengers Comics + Conversation): This is a great question because part two explains part one. Simply put, we are down by Marvel. We are down from 2016, and the difference is almost entirely in Marvel sales. We’ve been up every year since we opened, so a down year was to be expected, but the last few months look like our 2013/2014 more than our 2016, and the percentage drops match our drop in Marvel.

Ralph DiBernardo (Jetpack Comics): Sales are down across the board and Marvel sales have plummeted this year. I think Marvel is between 60 and 75% of its past years and it continues to decline.

It's deceiving because their movies do so well that the broader general public has no idea that I'm watching their sales decline monthly.

I can't even speculate how any of this is measured but I see my sales and know that my sales represent the median sales across the world. 

John Hendrick (Big Bang Comics): 2017’s been good in lots of ways and surprising in others, there’s been a downturn in single issue sales, and I wouldn’t say that’s specifically just Marvel but they are the leading (catalyst) casualty. However, nearly every other area of what we do is up!

There are noticeably less people pulling Marvel titles or just coming in and buying them from the shelf, and that trend appears to be not exclusive to us. Communication amongst retailers has been vastly improved over the last few years and that’s only been a benefit to us and the industry as a whole.

Jen King (Space Cadets Collection Collection): 2017 has been a largely flat year for us, due to local impact within the oil industry, as our economy is oil/gas centric.

I read Marvel very heavily, so I have been fully engaged in the overreaching story-line for a long time. Because I have been reading and discussing this with my customers, I have a very healthy Marvel customer base. 

Colin McMahon (Pittsburgh Comics): Slow slow slow. Down 10.5% YTD against last year, which was down from the year before.

Marvel is down 21% from 2016 and accounts for 45% of my decrease. (I cut games from the store this year and that is the other decrease vs last year– but also has the benefit also having decreased expenses). By contrast, DC is down .5% ($481) from 2016.

Scott Tomlin (Comics Dungeon): This has been a good year, but only because there has been a resurgence of back issue sales. New periodicals are way down year over year. This is leads the decline. Not a couple years ago we would have many Marvel titles selling 50 copies per month, now we are down to one and most selling under 20.

An unnamed retailer shared that their shop is slightly up in 2016 in terms of comics and graphic novels, as well as seeing healthy growth throughout the year in other items the shop carries. That said, they emphasized that the lack of a strong, healthy Marvel has been noticeable since 2016. Thankfully, this shop anticipated this after the end of Secret Wars and prepared accordingly.

Final order cutoff for the Marvel Legacy one-shot just passed. Roughly speaking, how heavy did you order on it compared to similar Marvel or DC books?

Patrick Brower: Thanks to a Deep Discount offer, we went exceptionally heavy with the standard cover of Marvel Legacy #1. Considerably higher than any other ‘event’ book we’ve ever ordered. Too bad for us that that discount doesn’t count towards lenticular cover ordering thresholds.

Ralph DiBernardo: I treated it like every other Marvel gimmick. Marvel promised us that GENERATIONS was going to rock the comic book world. It didn't and I am finally learning to trust myself rather than the publisher.

I ordered it conservatively. If it sells out Marvel will have a second printing. More often than not, they announce a second printing before the first printing is sold out. I think I will have plenty of them but I did not go out on a limb. Let's hope Diamond didn't lie to me. Supposedly the lenticular, for this issue, was order all you want with no restrictions. I did not order any of the regular cover.

John Hendrick: Frankly speaking, we ordered way heavier than we should have based on pre-order interest; generally a good guide for a book like this is ordering twice what we have in terms of pre-orders. We ordered way above that because we will be pushing the hell out of it because we need to. Interest appears to be lagging in a lot of Marvel titles, so we’re hoping this kick starts something amazingly cool. There’s a lot of great talent on it too, so we’re hoping that this will be our Marvel “Rebirth” one shot. We still sell copies of the Rebirth One Shot off the shelf to this day. I’m hoping we can replicate that success with this.

Fun fact though, while American store’s got the deeper discount, we didn’t on our initials, we were only told a week before FOC that and order increases would be charges at a high discount, but even then our initials wouldn’t. So if you were a store that went heavy on this from the get go you are paying more per issue than a store that upped their orders later.

Jen King: Marvel was very generous with an incentive discount for Legacy #1 which allowed stores to order extra books with a lower cost. It indicates to me as a retailer that Marvel believes that we will need more books to meet demand and that the series will have longevity. Our orders for this book were roughly twice that number that we ordered for the DC Rebirth #1.

Colin McMahon: I reached for the deep discount on it. I want it to be good. I need it to be good. I need to get it in as many customers hands as possible to reinvigorate the Marvel line. My initial order on it was the same as Secret Empire. Figuring the Marvel guys were getting that already. The $6 was off-putting. DC had done a bigger book for $2.99 and I moved over 300 copies and Rebirth has been a huge success for me. I felt $5.99 was a big misstep on Marvel’s part. An obstacle that did not need to be there. Especially on how important they were making this book out to be.

So I will do some special to get as many people as possible to read it.

All that said, I still ordered it less than a regular issue of Batman.

Scott Tomlin: We ordered strong on the one-shot. We felt we needed to give Marvel a fighting chance of having a hit. We were more conservative on the “re-launches” but still increased a bit. We are ready with the machete to reduce our orders if they are not strong.

An unnamed retailer shared that a combination of desiring a healthy Marvel and their own optimism led to a REALLY STRONG order on Marvel Legacy. They believe it's the most exciting thing content-wise from Marvel since 2012.

Both the Legacy one-shot and the line itself are going to be featuring lenticular covers for their first issues. Just from a gut feel standpoint, how appealing do you think lenticular covers are to your customer base?

Patrick Brower: When used sparingly, the lenticular covers have pretty decent interest. When used too often, it’s diminishing returns. Just look at DC’s New 52 lenticular history. The first time they did it was a huge success. The next year, when retailers ordered really high based off the previous year, there was a huge drop off in interest. The main reason I think there will be interest in these Legacy covers is because collectors (not readers, mind you) know how limited they will be to come by, and how many shops aren’t carrying them.

Ralph DiBernardo: People love them but I can't afford to buy them. See my letter I just published on our website.  What other industry requires their main customers (the retailers) to purchase 2x what they think they need? I don't think any other industry behaves like this.

John Hendrick: I think there are people out there that want those covers, for lots of reasons. Whether it’s for rarity or just the fact that they look cool, and they do look cool. I think people do and will want lenticular covers, just like they want variants by a certain artist or theme. That’s a part of the business that isn’t going away.

Jen King: My customer base knows that I will only order variants that I am eligible for without having to order extra copies of the regular issue over the normal amount that I need for my subscription customers and my usual rack copies. My customers typically are buying the comics for the story or art. While they certainly appreciate a cool cover like the lenticular, they will certainly be excited about the story and its impact on the stories going forward with it or without it.

Colin McMahon: They did very well for DC. I don’t now about these for Marvel. The Legacy one is not a moving image, just changing from color to B&W. The regular books don’t appear to be really lined up, at least on the GIFS I’ve seen. So visually, I don’t know if they will be as “cool” as the DC ones.

Because I upped my order on the regular Legacy one shot, I cut my order on the lenticular. It costs me more and I would not be able to offer it at the same price as the regular cover, so, again, a hurdle. 

I’m also looking at them as they will be prevalent on the market and should not command a higher price, so people will be able to find them if they want them. I will still have some for collectors, but I cut my order on them 75%.

Scott Tomlin: We know from the DC covers that the lenticulars are desirable for the customer base. We don’t see as strong of an interest on these as we did with Marvel, we feel that is dues to the fact they are incentives instead of the main cover. I don’t expect to be left with any lenticulars, but we didn’t order even 50% of what we did for DC titles, relatively.

An unnamed retailer said "they're going to be big." They're aware that many shops are not fans of the covers and they agree that the gates for the books are terrible, but they know readers want them.

They view that the steep buy in for the variants - the Meet or Exceed gates - will make the books bigger on the secondary market and help drive attention and buzz for the books, hopefully stoking the flames of fan excitement in a way Marvel has been missing recently.

While they largely believe the new books look good and will deliver, they did admit that there are a few that they're unimpressed by in terms of changes to content. That said, the ones that look good "look really good."

Much has been made about the “Meet or Exceed” hoops retailers are having to jump through to get those lenticular covers on the Legacy line. How much of the line are you ordering enough on to qualify for the covers, and how hard of a decision was it for you to go in that direction?

Patrick Brower: Challengers is not a ‘variant’ store. We don’t stock variant covers, regardless of ordering thresholds, so it’s pretty easy for us to ignore them. Just for fun we did look at all the numbers, and we would have qualified for exactly one title’s lenticular cover. One.

Ralph DiBernardo: See my letter and know that Jetpack Comics will not have any of the lenticulars on week one.

It was easy. I am loyal to my family and staff first. I am spending their money, each and every time I make a purchase. It is my job to be profitable, not to tow the company line. If my conservatism makes my area a target, so be it, but I promise you that my 30+ years of retailing experience will keep my family clothed and sheltered and my staff thriving much longer than the new guys coming in and thinking they can beat the odds.

John Hendrick: Heh, is this like on a dating site where we pretend not to know each other David?

You know the score, much has been written on sites and on our twitter about what we’re doing with this.

But, for clarities sake here, this is what we’re doing?

We’re ordering ZERO copies of the lenticulars, not because we don’t want to get them in, they look really cool. Of course we want to get them in.  But because the “hoops” we have to jump through to get them are totally unfeasible for a store our size to accommodate.

Here’s the thing, I’d be ordering nearly double our normal Marvel order to get these, so on a title like Amazing Spider-Man, where I’d need to order ludicrous numbers surplus to the store’s requirements to then be allowed to even start ordering lenticulars. It’s just not worth it, nor is it a responsible action to eat that stock to get them.

When we made the call, (which in reality was about a week before we sent our order in) we still deliberated right up to the day or so before. We ran every sort of exercise we could think of to be able to get these in. 

But the truth is that the math just does not work.

And when we know it doesn’t work it doesn’t work and that’s it. We were pretty fried after doing the Marvel order, and really, if these were open to order we’d order tons. But there not and that’s it, so we’re moving on.

Jen King: I have been in the business for long enough to have seen what the effect of stores over-ordering to reach incentive variants could be. It's not healthy to do so. That being said, if a store naturally reaches the incentive level and can order the variant covers, than they should order for what they believe their customer base would be interested in. 

Colin McMahon: I order with a group of stores and it benefits all of us for every publisher except Marvel. Marvel is the only company with group discount requirements. The group decided that they thought the lenticulars would be in demand, so I had to go against my better interests and qualify for the lenticulars across the board.

All said, I ordered 22% more books than I had on my first pass through the Marvel section, with part of that being lenticular and other variants that I had not qualified for previously. I did not go big on the lenticulars (max 10 copies). Just enough for the curious. 

But, I would have passed just on principal if it were just up to me. I feel that it is a very bad practice, requiring stores to over-order just to qualify for books that they are promoting. I also know that if the 1st week sales are not gangbusters, there will be massive cutting on FOC. Stores will be watching this very, very closely.

Scott Tomlin: We truly had the “Meet of Exceed” criteria, we feel it is not universally balanced in who can participate. Titles don’t sell the same universally and it feels like our customers are punished because they happen to be in a market that is not as strong for super-heroes. We also see other retailers making poor decisions, so they have the incentives. We put initial orders in to qualify for the various covers, but we will pull back hard on FOC should we not see the interest. It used to be hard for us to skip these types of tactics, but they are so broken now we just don’t care if we miss a few or all of them.

An unnamed retailer said that they're going full line on the lenticulars, calling it "probably the toughest choice" they've had to make in terms of ordering. Ultimately, the math added up, even if it took an incredible amount of time on it and how they were going to approach it.

They believe the lenticulars will create excitement and draw attention, and that it could help them capitalize and capture readers. Their goal isn't to sell a lot of lenticulars; it's to sell a lot of books in general. They believe they'll sell out of most of the lenticulars and still have fans buying the majority of the new titles.

As it currently stands, based off your own intuition and what you’ve heard from your customers, do you feel Legacy as a whole is going to make a real difference in terms of how Marvel performs in your shop?

Patrick Brower: No. I don’t even need to elaborate; just, no. Don’t get me wrong, I mean, we’re not shunning these new books or downplaying them in any way. We’ll still have them all available (just not the lenticulars), I just don’t think there will be many new or returning readers to these books. Except Captain America. That book looks wonderful. Huh; I guess I elaborated after all.

Ralph DiBernardo: Marvel has lost touch with its customer base versus what it wants its customer base to be. I think the movie money makes them untouchable but it can’t last forever. They can't co-mingle the two. So, we no longer have quality creators on the flagship titles. Legacy will only matter if Marvel can go a few years without another reboot/relaunch/bullshit gimmick to sell comics books. Legacy could be the greatest thing Marvel has done in years, but so many times Marvel has made promises, on the consumer level, only to not honor them a few months later.  

I love Marvel. I am a Marvel fan. I embrace everything that is Marvel. It is my legacy. DC is actually making me money. Lots of money. That's hard to ignore. DC is listening and giving the fans what they want. DC is adapting to the changing tide. Marvel wants to change the tide but they change it so often that the sea is flat. Marvel has created the Saragasso of the comics industry. Marvel spent years on top and drove the industry. Now they are a shadow of what they were, living on their legacy. That won't last forever. More than anything I want this to work. I want to go back to the days when I couldn’t wait for Marvel comics to come out on Wednesday. That's a long way off from where I am now.

John Hendrick: I’d love to be wrong here, but I trust my gut, and my gut says that this smells like a really big missed opportunity.

I hope I’m wrong, I’m going into this very positively, extremely positively, but I am keeping an eye on those numbers and FOC dates.

Jen King: My customers are interested in the individual stories within the titles themselves and are excited about the characters getting to return to fighting "bad guys" and peace within their ranks. Marvel has provided really awesome Legacy numbering images for retailers to print and share with their customers for each of the titles. 

Colin McMahon: No. I really don’t see this having much effect at all. Had there been creator changes and new directions, yes. Anything to draw people in. But the fact that it’s the same creators just continuing the current storyline, there is no incentive for people to jump on. Or more importantly to come back. Avengers and Champions are both at or near single digits. A crossover between them will not move the needle at all.

A retailer on a message board was trying to push this as “The beginning of the Road to Return” for some missing characters. I really don’t think people can get excited about that. I am not going to order in the hopes that the next issue is the one where the character comes back and will be in demand.

That said, because I am going to have extra copies of at least the first issue of these, I will do my best to create some excitement for them in the store. 

Scott Tomlin: We are hoping it will help. I am sure it will for some time, but unless Marvel truly finds its place, hint it is not with the Marvel Zombies of past, any lift won’t last.

An unnamed retailer believes it will revive interest and excitement in Marvel, and that they need it. While they believe some aspects could have been handled better - and that they didn't go in like DC did with Rebirth - they are just happy that it's better than last year with titles like Solo and Slapstick.

Do you find the (seemingly) increased reliance on variants and “Meet or Exceed” gates in comics to be concerning at all, or is it just one more wrinkle you have to be conscientious of as you’re putting orders together?

Patrick Brower: Yes, but not for Challengers. We do, however, worry about stores that feel the need to overextend themselves in an effort to get these variant covers, and we always wish retailers would pass on ordering variants and instead put that money into a new title or two for their shelves, but all we really know is how our shop works, no one else’s.

Ralph DiBernardo: I have stopped playing Marvel games across the board. If I can get there easily I will buy in, and if I can't, I won't. I can't find another manufacturer that treats its front line sales people the way Marvel does and I think it is catching up with them.

Quality always sells. The cream always rises to the top. There is nothing wrong with incentivizing extra sales but when your whole sales platform revolves around BUY MORE with no reason to buy more you're setting up the industry for failure.

So, we only buy what we can sell. Marvel sales have plummeted but the incentivized structure has hidden that for a long time. Cream always rises and the shit will sink. I think they may be taking on water.

John Hendrick: Of course, that’s a problem; gated variants have been a problem for years, not a big problem. But we fed the monster, and now, in this case the monster is massive.

I get it, and it’s crazy to think that this is a thing; I mean it’s just not a thing in any other industry right? 

Are there Harry Potter books with different covers that you’re not able to order until you order the new Harry Potter book in numbers that are 175% or higher of your orders of the last Harry Potter book. Because once you do order all of those then you’re allowed to order the Lenticular cover of the New Harry Potter book. That’s the one people want, the regular version of the book will be immediately discounted or held back to be given away for free on Free Book Day because those are the options here! 

Of course not! Think about how ridiculous that sounds. Booksellers would literally freak out. And that’s what our options were here in a market with no returnability.

For Marvel it’s a way to bump the numbers, sell more books, the Skottie Young covers were done under this scheme, Venomised variants, Mary Jane Variants, Jim Lee Variants etc. But none of those were A) as high a gate as this or B) really a case where the more desirable cover as a whole is now off limits to us.

Look, here’s the thing, this shouldn’t have been this hard, we’re actively trying to buy product to sell from Marvel and we’re not allowed to.

That’s what this boils down to.

So of course we’re frustrated, but enough has been said and now we’re doing something, we’re not feeding the monster because we can’t afford to feed it anymore as an industry, in a year’s time something else will be tied to these numbers, and so on and so on.

Plus, we all remember the 90’s…

Jen King: I believe that if we, as retailers, order responsibly, it will send a message to the comic companies via our order numbers what works for us and what doesn't. They should use this information for future orders and how covers are offered. 

Colin McMahon: I find it concerning in that it seems to be Marvels only tool. There is no demand when you have 6 variant covers for every issue. There aren’t any more “every cover guys.” They killed them off. So I have to guess which ones peope will want, often with no idea what the cover looks like. And with open order, there is no real going price. A 1:25 variant has a specific price stores charge. Customer know how rare it is by that. Open order do not really have a defined price. So they really shouldn’t command a higher price. But my cost is higher due to the hoops I have to jump through.

The more they do it, the less successful it will be. 

I haven’t seen the requirements for November books yet, but I saw someone say Daredevil is 200% of a prior issue. So that tells me that, even though Marvel has a forum where we can talk to them, they are not listening. We said we would order lots of lenticulars if they were open order or even just with lower requirements. The first month was a last minute thing and I kind of understood why they botched it a bit. They lowered the requirements (not enough really) as a show of good faith and trying to work with us. 

Having 200% on one of their more successful books tells me they are not listening. They are doing just what is best for them, to max sales, with no thought to the health of the industry or stores themselves. The only party who benefits with stores overordering to meet customer demand is Marvel. Stores with boxes and boxes of unsold books, trying to not loose too much by dumping them in dollar boxes aren’t winning. Just Marvel with higher sales on the sales charts. 

This is the part that disappoints me the most. Marvel is #1! Woo. We won the sales chart! But in reality, they aren’t. Stores are now angry at them. Customers are apathetic to their line. No one is coming in going “I can’t wait to read XXXX!” I had 50 people in the store at midnight for the Dark Nights Metal #1 release party. I moved 130 copies on Wednesday. So there is that excitement out there. I just wish Marvel could generate it again. They are all sizzle with no steak. They are making me over order on the first issue. I think the drops on the 2nd issues are going to be historic. They are already doing an incentive to keep us from dropping too far. We’ll see.

Side note: I would love to see someone in the comic media instead of just reporting that Marvel won the sales chart, I would love to see an analysis of subsequent issues. When I look at the numbers when the Beat does it, it always looks like there is a 50% drop on Marvel 1s to 2s. Why is no one ever talking about that? It shows that the #1s are propped up with incentives and in no way indicate real sales or demand. It's one thing to “win” the sales chart, but if the numbers are manufactured, does it really mean anything? Marvel will certainly win the sales charts October through December based on the lenticular requirements alone. They made the lenticulars more expensive for us than the regular solely so they did not have to increase the cover price (like DC did) just so that they did not come up as two separate items on the chart. This way they are all grouped as one item.

I can’t deny that Marvel has success with the Meet or Exceed. Look at the last three sales charts for Avengers. The numbers have no explanation other than stores trying to get variants. It went 30,651 then 45,386 then 34,386. That is not normal. Or healthy for the market. It is basically just manipulation. And it will burst. The customers for the variants will disappear. Then where are we/they?

Scott Tomlin: I think Variants in general need to be evaluated as an incentive model. Making retailers reach for levels they can’t naturally reach is not good for the market. Ratio levels are better, but better yet are those without requirements. I know this is all a way to get more shelf space per title, but there are so many variants, we simply can’t give the extra space any more. Variants should be used to excite customers not to force behavior of retailers, IMHO.

An unnamed retailer called the "Meet or Exceed" variants one of the most annoying things in the comics retail world, but also something that wasn't going away. That said, sometimes the desirability of the book and the emphasis put on it outweighs the work they have to put in to make it work.

They believe these covers could bring attention to books that have lacked attention for a while, and that they could be big drivers for new readers to the best of the bunch and other titles in the line. Still, there are plenty of other Meet or Exceed variants this shop chooses to not order or push themselves. For this shop, it's more about what they feel comfortable putting their money and passion into, and they want it to be something they believe in.

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