For any comics historians in the room, Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story has just been published. The Comics Journal has an excerpt dealing with Marvel in the early 90s and some of the decisions it made as it inched towards bankruptcy:
Bank’s concerns weren’t rooted in some naïve idealism about artistic purity; he worried about Marvel’s long-term business interests. Field representatives had gone out to nearly forty different stores, collecting sell- through numbers—the number of copies that retailers actually sold to readers, as opposed to the larger number of copies that distributors sold to retailers—for a dozen different comics over a three-issue period. The findings were stunning.
“Every time we did one of these stupid-ass covers that caused us to increase the price by 33 percent—say issue #475—we would have a 20-percent drop-off from 474 to 476. The numbers would spike for #475, but we’d actually lose readers from #474 to #476. It was consistent with every single example.”
Of course, none of this would have an impact on Marvel’s quarterly goals. Marvel’s bottom-line reports, which only reflected distributor-level numbers, would continue to show sales and profits going up, even as the readership began to cool and the retailers, who couldn’t return unsold copies, absorbed the costs. “In the meantime,” said Bank, “we were killing the stores that were feeding us.”
As it happens, I just read TCJ’s history of Image Comics last weekend, which details the role Image’s chronic lateness had on the retail business.