Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Covering Fire

Posted by Don MacPherson on May 29th, 2011

Well, that didn’t take long.

Earlier this year, IDW Publishing happened upon a fairly interesting and effective promotional campaign involving variant covers. Now, variants are hardly the freshest idea in the comic-book industry, but this one was a little different. If a shop ordered 500 copies of Godzilla: Kingdom of Monsters #1, its copies would feature a cover image of the Japanese monster’s gigantic foot crushing its premises to rubble. About 75 shops took advantage of the promotion. It definitely boosted sales on the comic book. Numbers indicate the comic sold almost 59,000 copies, which is probably somewhere between 30,000-40,000 more than it would’ve sold without the marketing gimmick.

Given this success, it was only a matter of time before other publishers gave it a shot. Avatar offered a special personalized variant cover to retailers featuring a unique piece of art for each of those covers (as opposed to the same image being tweaked slightly, as was the case with the Godzilla retailer variant. Given how small a publisher Avatar is, though (despite the popular and established writing talent it draws upon), I don’t think we’ll see tens of thousands of these personalized variant editions turning up.

So it’s Marvel Entertainment that’s taken the next big step in what I expect will be a crescendo of shop-specific variant comics. Last week, it issued a news release that read in part:

“Marvel is proud to unveil the highly anticipated comic shop variant covers to Amazing Spider-Man #666, the kick-off to Spider-Island! That’s right True Believers, we’re putting YOUR comic shops on the cover to the biggest Spidey event of the decade! In the Amazing Spider-Man #666 Comic Shop Bugle Variant by Ryan Stegman, an actual photograph of your comic shop will be front page news of The Daily Bugle! Then, in the Amazing Spider-Man #666 Comic Shop Battle Variant by Humberto Ramos, Spider-Man leaps into action defending your favorite comic shop from the villainous Lizard, complete with store name and logo prominently featured!”

Marvel is clearly taking its cue from IDW Publishing here, so it’s not as though it’s breaking new ground with this promotion. Furthermore, IDW didn’t come up with retailer-specific variant comics. There have been comic-book variants for individual retailers (and event organizations) for years, but those are ones that businesses specifically contracted with publishers to produce. IDW’s Godzilla and now this upcoming Amazing Spider-Man variant are promotions that the publishers offered to all of their distributor’s wholesale clients, so this represents a new approach in retailer-specific variants.

While Marvel’s following in another publisher’s footsteps, as the top comics publisher in the North American direct-market comics marketplace, it’s likely the one that’s really going to make a splash with this new approach. Let’s face it: there’s going to be more interest in a Spider-Man title at comic shops than in a Godzilla comic. The two issues of Amazing Spider-Man released the same month as Godzilla: Kingdom of Monsters #1 sold at about the same level as the IDW comic, and that was without a retailer-specific variant promotion (though Marvel did offer a variant incentive cover, but not one that’s going to have the same impact as the Spidey comic-shop Bugle variant and comic-shop battle variant).

It’s not clear what the qualifying numbers for the Spidey comic-shop variants are, as long as they’re not astronomical, more shops will doubtless avail themselves of this promotion than did for the IDW offer. Still, despite the likelihood of more participating shops, that doesn’t mean Marvel’s promotion will prove to be a greater success. While this offer will no doubt bolster ordering numbers for this issue of Amazing Spidey, the reality of the situation is that Marvel’s Spidey numbers would normally far exceed IDW’s Godzilla numbers in the absence of promotional offers. I expect that the percentage increase in Amazing Spidey orders won’t top the percentage increase from which IDW’s comic benefitted (mind you, what the Godzilla #1 numbers would’ve been without the retailer variant is a matter for supposition).

I find Marvel’s approach to promoting its promotion interesting. IDW reached out to retailers, but the language of Marvel’s news release clearly establishes a different target audience: readers and collectors.

“Be sure to head on over to your local shop immediately and tell your retailers which one you want because both of these commemorative Amazing Spider-Man #666 Comic Shop Variants can’t be ordered together. Here’s your chance to show your comic shop some support as these personalized variants are a one-of-a-kind, must-have item! With heroes and villains crawling all over Manhattan with Spider-Powers, can Spidey figure out a cure in time before mass chaos runs wild? Find out this July as Spider-Island begins and you show store spirit with the Amazing Spider-Man #666 Comic Shop Variants!”

I understand their thinking. Retailers will no doubt be required to commit a lot of cash to qualify for either of these variants, and many will need convincing. Hearing directly from customers that they want either or both Spidey variants might make it easier for those running comic shops to make the leap, but that’ll probably only be a factor for larger retailers that would’ve been more likely participate in the variant promotion in the first place.

The manager of my local shop doesn’t know yet if the owner will decide to sign on for the Spidey variants. It did order 500 copies of Godzilla #1, viewing it more as a promotional effort for the store (and later as a fundraiser for Japanese earthquake/tsunami relief). But the chances are that this Spidey promotion is the beginning of a whole series of similar promotional efforts to spew forth from the larger comic-book publishing industry as whole. Yes, a Spidey comic featuring a local store’s name/logo is no doubt a tempting proposition for a business in this marketplace, but at what point does it get to be too much? What’s next? A Batman comic? Hellboy? The Walking Dead?

What made IDW’s promotion a success was the novelty of it. The problem isn’t the promotion itself, but rather the industry’s proclivity for milking a good, original idea of all of its appeal and strength. It won’t take long for the bloom to go off this particular rose.

Oh, and does anyone else find it a little off-putting that this promotion (and the beginning of the “Spider-Island” storyline that Marvel’s pushing so hard) is for the Number-of-the-Beast edition of Amazing Spider-Man?

Follow Eye on Comics on Twitter.