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Monday, November 08, 2004
Yes, despite a recent wave of protestations to the contrary, the Marvel Zombie does indeed exist. A significant number of regular comic-shop customers will only buy comics that have the Marvel logo on them. If you ask them why, the reasons you will get will usually center around issues of favorite characters or the vaguely defined notion of "quality." In fact, a good deal of Marvel-only customers are in fact Spider-Man-only, X-Men-only, or Avengers-only customers. Not only do they limit their purchases to one publisher, they further define the scope of their purchases to one "family" of titles.
Tellingly, the reverse is not normally the case. I have yet to find a single customer who only buys DC, Dark Horse, Image, or some other still-in-business publishers titles exclusively. I think the primary distinction here is that no other publisher narrowly defines their product line to one type of comic and one type of comic only. The only publisher that publishers a singular genre is Marvel. Further, Marvel is the only publisher which actively encourages it's customers to buy their products exclusively. The term "Marvel Zombie," if I'm not mistaken, was actually coined in a Marvel letter-column. This is where that vague notion of "quality" comes into play. Marvel seems to want to actively foster the notion, both within Marvel comics buyers and in the culture as a whole, that the words "comic books" and "super-heroes" are synonymous with "Marvel." Only Marvel comics, this plan suggests, are "worthy" of consideration. They're the only "good" ones.
The problem with that notion, of course, is that a sizeable chunk of Marvel's output as a publisher is no damn good whatsoever. Invariably people look at other comic books and find something else they will enjoy. Leaving Marvel with no one to sell to but an aging and increasingly small audience. I think this explains some of Marvel's recent efforts with non-direct market stores to carry only Marvel comics. A child finding Marvel's comics in Target for example, helpfully shelved near the Spider-Man toys, is only going to ever see Marvel comics. That's what Marvel wants, and they had best pray that that hypothetical child never shops anywhere except Target.
But I didn't want to write yet another Marvel-bashing piece today. Marvel has always and will always do what Marvel thinks is best for Marvel, and whether or not what's best for Marvel is good for comics retailers or the comics industry as a whole will never be part of that equation. I actually wanted to share some observations about customers who only buy one kind of comic.
In addition to the Marvel-only buyer, there is the Star Wars-only buyer. This person isn't hard to figure out, they're primarily a Star Wars fan, not a comic book fan. There is not, so far as I can tell, a similar trend for Star Trek-only buyers. I'm sure there are plenty of people who only read Star Trek novels, but Star Trek comics have never seemed very popular. I think the key difference here may be that Star Wars comics are generally seen as "part of the story," while Star Trek comics have always been officially regarded as non-canonical.
The "Gothity Goth" comics as I tend to call them have a core audience as well. Books like Johnny the Homicidal Manic, Lenore, Gloomcookie, Courtney Crumrin and all of Slave Labor's many attempts to duplicate the success of those books sell regularly and well to people who wear too much eyeliner and want to read comics about other people who wear too much eyeliner.
Certain creators attract dedicated followings as well. The usual suspects; Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, all have customers who will only enter a comic book store in order to buy their work, but a surprising number of other writers have similar followings. Grant Morrison, Steve Niles, even Chuck Dixon have fan-bases that will only purchase their work. Jim Lee, Michael Turner, and yes, Rob Liefeld seem to be the artists who attract similar followings. Todd McFarlane, significantly, has managed to retain a core group of fans who will buy all the comics he publishes, and all the action figures he puts out, despite the fact that his involvement with comics, either as a writer or artist, is non-existent at this point.
Returning briefly to the question of people who only buy work from a specific publisher, the only examples outside of Marvel are two now defunct companies: Chaos and Crossgen. Both companies survived as long as they did thanks to a group of customers who would go out of their way to only buy their product. Importantly, a good number of those customers were women. In fact, Chaos and Crossgen were the only publishers who attracted such a demographically narrow fanbase. Many of these women were in fact introduced to comics thanks to Chaos and Crossgen. This suggests to me that any other publisher trying to attract the dollars of women, especially new customers who happen to be women, should perhaps take a look at what Chaos and Crossgen where doing creatively, rather than focus excessively on the bad management and financial decisions that brought the companies down.