Marvel Comics has long ruled the comic book sales charts, DC’s recent relaunch resurgence notwithstanding. Marvel has not ruled all facets of the comic sales charts, however. Marvel has not achieved the same dominance in the book trade as they have with periodicals. Retailers say this is because Marvel has longstanding problems keeping their backlist available.
“[It's been going on] at least five years, possibly more,” says Brian Hibbs, owner of San Francisco’s Comix Experience. “There’s no publisher I remotely have the same problems I have with Marvel.”
“At least five to ten years,” says Eric Kirsammer, owner of Chicago’s Chicago Comics. “I feel like I’m not part of the logic loop.”
“At least fifteen years,” says Nick Purpura, manager of New York’s Jim Hanley’s Universe. “In recent years, especially, there’s been little rhyme or reason to what’s in print or in what format.”
The problem is that Marvel is inconsistent in what they keep in print. A series with 8 volumes in it will frequently have two or three of the middle volumes out of print. Some titles that should be evergreen sellers, like Secret Wars, will be randomly out of print. To compound the frustration felt by retailers, when titles come back in print, they sometimes are reprinted in a different format entirely.
Purpura offers The Infinity Gauntlet as an example of a book that recently came back into print in a different format, and a quick trip to Amazon reveals a hardcover edition and different softcover editions with different trade dress from 1992, 2000 and 2006, in addition to the current one. Hibbs complains about titles flipping from a hardcover to a softcover to a hardcover to an omnibus, making it harder on consumers to find the content they’re looking for and then leaving them with an uneven and varied set of volumes on the bookshelf. “The overwhelming majority of people want the softcover,” Hibbs explains.
The retailers all agree their irritation is driven by money being left on the table. Kirsammer could sell more of the “classics” like Marvels and Wolverine if they were always available. Hibbs vividly recalls Iron Man Extremis being out of print when the Iron Man film came out and “people were asking for an entry point to Iron Man.” Purpura points to Secret Wars and Daredevil: Born Again as titles that have frequently been unavailable.
In fairness, these examples are all currently in print, though Secret Wars is very recent reprint. On the other hand, The 10-volume Essential Amazing Spider-Man has volumes 5, 7, 8 and 9 out of stock and the 8-volume Essential Fantastic Four only has volume 8 in stock.
“They're a publisher that publishes their trade books like they’re periodicals” says Kirsammer, who adds, “They don’t really have a backstock. I’ve been told by Marvel they don’t.”
The retailers all agree that DC is the gold standard for keeping graphic novels available, with Marvel falling below other companies like Image, Dark Horse and Dynamite, depending on which retailer you talk to.
“DC’s long proved it has a winning practice for the right book,” says Purpura.
While he doesn’t think every Marvel title needs to be in print, Purpura points to the Walking Dead as a series that consistently keeps multiple formats – softcover, hardcover and omnibus – consistently available. For “civilians walking in off the street,” Purpura needs to have graphic novels in stock for properties they’ve heard of. He feels Marvel could “easily be number one” in graphic novel sales if they kept things in print. He notes that Criminal, a series released through Marvel’s Icon imprint, where the creators have a more active hand in printing decisions, is always in stock and is “great seller for him.”
Kirsammer, taking a dimmer view of the inconsistencies thinks, “if you don’t want to hold the inventory, find a publisher who does.”
Purpura, while no less frustrated, offers a possible explanation for the situation: “DC’s sales staff is 25 people. Marvel’s is David Gabriel” [Marvel's senior v-p of sales].
Marvel did not respond to a request to comment on this story.