Comic Book Galaxy: Pushing Comix Forward


My name is Mike Sterling, and I sell comic books for a living.

There has been a big to-do over the shipping schedule of Marvel Comics' major companywide crossover Civil War...specfically, that the fourth issue of the series had been delayed due to lateness on the part of the creative team. This is, sad to say, not unusual nowadays. Any given month Marvel and DC, once sticklers for regular schedules on their funnybooks, have any number of late books on the shelves...or, more accurately, not on the shelves. Daredevil: Father, Ultimate Wolverine Vs. Hulk, All-Star Batman and Robin. And it at least one case, the relaunched Wonder Woman, the publishing frequency of the book had even been switched to bimonthly to accommodate the creative team.

In each case, the creative team is as much of a selling point as the character or characters involved. But back in the "olden days," when you could actually find comic books in places other than comic book stores, the perception was that was was solely the characters that brought the readers in. For the publishers, it didn't matter if Writer A or Writer B wrote the book, or if either Artists Y and Z drew it...each new issue of Green Lantern had damn well better be on schedule, and if the regular creative team didn't have a story ready to go, a fill-in story was run instead, rather than have the book come out late.

That's a generalization, of course...I realize that even then fans had their preferences, and would perhaps pass up a Superman not drawn by Curt Swan in favor of a following issue that was. And the fact that Carl Barks, in those pre-credits days, was referred to as "The Good Duck Artist" certainly makes explicit fans' preferences for certain creators. But, for the most part, the publishers were selling the characters, not the creative teams.

Things are slightly different nowadays, after fanzines and the Internet and so on, more fans are aware of creators and creative teams, and publishers often sell to that awareness. For those four late titles I mentioned, I can understand why the publishers decided to go with a delayed schedule, since the primary selling point of these titles are the creative teams. It's not a Batman comic, it's a Batman comic by Frank Miller and Jim Lee. It's not a Wolverine/Hulk comic, it's a Wolverine/Hulk comic written by one of the creators of Lost. Throwing fill-ins on these titles would undermine their raison d'etre.

And that brings us back around to Civil War.

Civil War is not like those other late series I brought up. For one, Civil War is a crossover series, tying in to virtually every superhero title currently being published by Marvel. It's not creator-driven, it's event-driven, character-driven. One of the earliest marketing gimmicks of the superhero comic book industry is the "team-up," back when the Justice Society of America was first introduced in All-Star Comics. And the purpose of the Justice Society? To get little kids who may be fans of, say, Green Lantern, to spend their dimes on this other titles where he's appearing, and expose them to other superheroes from this publisher. They buy it for Green Lantern, see the Flash, decide he's pretty neat, and then, suddenly, they have new buyers for the Flash's comic. Civil War is no different...its purpose is to mash together all their characters into one story, so if you're a Captain America fan, you pretty much have to follow this series to see what's going on with the character. And maybe you'll see another character in the series that catches your interest, or maybe you'll pick up one or two of a half-dozen of the tie-in comics, and suddenly you come out the other end of the crossover with a handful of new titles on your monthly buying list.

And because there are tie-ins to the main Civil War series, those tie-ins must clearly play off events in that series. As such, since the Civil War series was delayed, the tie-ins must be delayed as well to avoid "spoilers" and maintain the smooth flow of the storyline. Compare with the series I mentioned previously...Ultimate Hulk/Wolverine being late didn't drag down the rest of Marvel's publishing output with it.

That delay does more than just make the readers wait for their new comics. That throws off the budgets of comic book stores as well. Sure, we had a few weeks of reduced Marvel output, lessening our total distributor invoices...but we were waiting for that other shoe to drop, and when it did, when the delayed issue of Civil War finally came out, along with its attendant tie-ins, our weekly invoice suddenly doubled in cost. This wasn't entirely the fault of Civil was a heavy week for new arrivals anyway, but having the delayed tie-ins dumped on us as well didn't help. Not something we liked to see, particularly in the fall months when comic sales are, at least in our neck of the woods, traditionally soft.

One solution to this would have been to have fill-in artists come in to help the book maintain its schedule. As noted, this isn't a creative team-focused series. It's a sales tool, something to unify the company's output and attempt to improve sales across the board. One of the excuses given for not doing using fill-in artists is, once completed, the eventual Civil War trade paperback will be more aesthetically pleasing, and hold together more strongly, with a consistent creative team. That, years from now, it won't matter that any of the individual issues were late, because the final product will be a seamless creative work that will last the ages.

I suppose technically, that's true. I mean, it's nice that Marvel tried to do the right thing by the creators, even at the expense of the rest of their publishing line and the budgets of the retailers. But this reasoning leaves out one of the most important aspects of series of this type.

It's disposable. It has a limited shelf life, with an expiration date of "the next big crossover." Its purpose is not to stand alone as an individual work of art, but as an advertisement for the rest of the publishing line. Most collections for series like this may sell well at first, while the crossover is still fresh in everyone's mind, but eventually it'll be supplanted by new crossovers, new "everything changes" events. As the impact of Civil War fades, as it the changes it brought to the status quo of assorted books are undone, as they always are...the necessity of fans to read this book to "keep up" with Marvel events will dissipate as well. Chances are the Civil War trade paperback will eventually end up selling as well as the trade for DC's decade-old crossover series Zero Hour does now, and be about as relevant.

There are always exceptions, of course. The trade paperback for the Crisis on Infinite Earthscrossover series remains a top selling trade paperback, even twenty-something years after the series' conclusion, though it can be argued that the impact of that series can still be felt today (particularly with the recent sequel Infinite Crisis). Marvel's Secret Wars and Infinity Gauntlet trades also still sell fairly well. And, it should be noted, all three of these had either fill-in pages (Jerry Ordway on Crisis, Bob Layton on Secret Wars), or switched artists midstream (Ron Lim replacing George Perez on Infinity Gauntlet), with no detriment to sales or aesthetics (if one may use the word "aesthetics" in relation to something like Secret Wars).

As someone on the front line of comics retail, this type of delay is a true annoyance. You folks reading this, you're on the internet, you probably keep up with the comics news sites, so delays on books -- in particular, the Civil War delay -- aren't news to you when you pop by the shop for your weekly new funnybook purchase.

Well, it seems that you folks are the minority. The most common question I get at the store is "when is [name of late comic] coming out?" With Civil War there was a lot of surprise and irritation when I had to tell them that the series, and all its tie-ins, have been pushed back for a month or more. They hadn't heard, and I'm their source of comics news. Marvel or DC or whoever can post on their websites, and send out to the news sites, all the explanatory news releases they'd like regarding their late titles, but for the average customer coming into a comic shop for new books, all they know is that they've waited an awful long time for an overdue release to make its appearance on the shelves. And they get mad at the company, and they get mad at the creators, and they get mad at US, the funnybook sellers. Hey, it's not my fault!

They're not as mad as they used to get, back in the early '90s with the launch of Image Comics and the attendant lateness of most of the books from that company. Accustomed to the regular schedule of most of their Marvel and DC books, Big Two fans were thrown off by the lateness of the Image titles, and gave me an earful of their displeasure.

After a decade or so of lateness issues (the higher-profile the project, the more likely it's late, it seems), this irritation has lessened somewhat, less angry and more resignation. Customers appear to be slowly getting used to publishing delays of this sort.

Which is unfortunate.

If you have any questions, suggestions, or complaints, please feel free to e-mail me at cbg (at)

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