The problem with the most recent Flash series…

§ July 3rd, 2007 § Filed under retailing § 2 Comments

…aside from the last issue being crap, is….

Well, let me set up the situation for you, in case you don’t know already.

DC Comics brought the previous Flash series, starring the Wally West version of the character, to an end about a year and a half ago. Then a new Flash series was launched, featuring Bart Allen, the former Impulse, as the title character. It was a whole big relaunch hoo-har, with a new #1 issue and everything, and even though the writing in the early issues of the book was pretty dismal, things picked up a bit when a new writer came on board and readers started to slowly come back, at least in our neck of the woods.

But it’s not the quality of the book that concerns me here. Don’t get me wrong, it does concern me, and that is an important issue, but the point I am trying to make here makes the actual quality of the title moot.

As I’m sure most of you know, we have to order books ahead of time, getting our order numbers in to the distributor about two months or so, usually, before the items are released. And, in the last couple of months, we dutifully placed our orders for Flash #14 and Flash #15.

Well, Flash #13, which came out a couple weeks ago, is actually the last issue of the series, and DC took order numbers on succeeding issues as an attempt to keep secret the shocking surprise wrap-up to Bart Allen’s run as the Scarlet Speedster (a strategy last used, far as I recall, for the Ultraverse title Exiles). The orders for issues #14 and #15 have since been transferred to a Flash one-shot special and the “first” issue (actually picking up the numbering from the previous Wally West series) of the new Flash title.

And, judging from statements made by folks at DC, this was the plan the whole time. There were a lot of comments made along the lines of “don’t get attached to this new Flash” and “the Flash in the early issues may not be the same Flash in the later issues” and that sort of thing.

The end result is that a title that was launched as a new ongoing series was, in fact, a mini-series. I don’t have the solicitation info right here in front of me, so maybe it was never explicitly described as an “ongoing,” but neither was it presented as a finite run, either.

In most cases, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal. Plenty of comics start big, intended as ongoing series, and fizzle out in short order. In fact, this was practically Image Comics’ publishing strategy for a while, there. In any case, publishers start new ongoing series, retailers order what they think they can sell, and we all hope for the best. Sometimes things go well, sometimes they don’t, sometimes publishers pull the plug on a series a little too soon, sometimes something that sells well for us isn’t selling well anywhere else and thus gets canned, and so on.

But a Flash series is different.

There are certain characters that Marvel and DC publish that, while not their primary licensable properties like Superman or Spider-man, will nevertheless almost always be assured a place in their publishing schedules. Partially because of the its recognizability or importance to the company’s history, primarily because of the its translatability to toys and movies, these characters will almost always have a comic with their logo on the cover. There will likely always be a Captain America comic, for example, or a Green Lantern comic. Sometime sales will dip so low that one of these titles will disappear for a brief time (like GL did, or Thor), but will then get relaunched with a lot of fanfare.

In short, the chances of survival for an ongoing series starring the Flash is better than, say, the chances of survival for an ongoing series starring, say, Penance or Blue Devil. Not saying I wouldn’t like to see an ongoing title with…well, with Blue Devil, at least, but from the point of view of someone who has to sell these books for a living, I’d have to imagine the publisher would have more invested in perpetuating the recognizable, marketable trademark in an ongoing series than any of their secondary, less marketable characters. If a Blue Devil series is launched, goes nowhere, gets cancelled…no big whoop. That idea didn’t work, let’s try something else with another character. If a Captain America series is launched, goes nowhere, gets cancelled…they’ll try again with a new Captain America series in short order.

So, let’s go back to the beginnings of this recently cancelled Flash series:

DC puts an end to their previous Flash series starring Wally West. Okay, it wasn’t selling like gangbusters or anything, but I can see where DC may want to revitalize their Flash character with a big, new revamp/relaunch.

It’s time for us to place orders for the new Flash #1, the series starring Bart Allen. Since it’s a Flash series, and the previous Flash series have each lasted hundreds of issues, we make the seemingly-safe judgment call that this new Flash series probably will stick around for a while. Given this, and the fact that we tend to do pretty good business in back number sales, we order heavier on the initial issues. We’ll adjust orders once actual sales figures are evident, but it’s okay if we have some extras of #1, #2, and #3 floating around. Having a Flash series on the stands, particularly with low numbering, functions as a good advertisement for its own back issues. People who start with, say, #8, are likely to go back and buy the first seven. Plus, early and relatively inexpensive issues of a comic book series starring one of the major characters is an attractive draw.

And, while the Bart series is running (har har), we do indeed experience some significant back issue movement. People pick up a Flash #3 on the stands, they’re gonna want a #1 and a #2.

Had the Bart series continued, this probably would have been the case for quite some time. Not indefinitely, of course…once you get to issue #15 or so, which the series had been approaching, you’re not going to have as many people impulse-buying (har har, again) #1 through #14. But, as I’d said, this is a series featuring one of DC’s major properties…those #1s through #3s had at least a little sales life left in them.

However, now that the Bart series is a self-contained one-off mini, with that version of the Flash not being seen again at least for the near future, and which has been supplanted with the revived numbering of the previous Flash series and once again starring Wally West…well, one of the motivators for folks to buy those back issues has been removed. Now it’s a canceled, soon to be forgotten oddity, for Flash fans and completists only, with no back issue sales to casual comic fans driven by new issues of that series on the rack.

Had this actually been an ongoing series that we’d ordered heavily on for the early issues, and it got canned due to poor sales…well, What Can You Do? We took a bet that the series would succeed, we lost, it happens. We ordered the best we could with the information we had.

For the Bart Flash series, we didn’t have all the information. We didn’t know it was only an interim series published during a hiatus in the Wally West series. Yes, there were hints that the Flash that started the series may not be the Flash who would end up starring in it…but at no time did we suspect that the relaunched title, quite the big deal at the time, would be canceled and replaced by the previous title with the old numbering.

I expect to still sell some back issues of the Bart series, as there may be some cursory interest driven by the news around the Flash cancelation/relaunch and the forthcoming All-Flash one-shot which spins off from that last issue. The healthy lifespan of those back issue sales, however, has been severely curtailed without a “live” series driving them. Even where, unlike this case, there’s a continuity of character across multiple “ongoing” (but canceled and replaced by other ongoings) series, like Captain America…back issue sales on the previous series tend to dry up in favor of the current one.

That was a long row to hoe to basically say “We wish we new that Bart Allen series was a mini, because we would have ordered it as such.”

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