Some of the biggest stories in comic book history have revolved around the death of a beloved character. Jean Grey's death in X-Men 137 traumatized a generation of comics readers. Superman's death in 1993 led to the highest-selling comic of recent times. When the death issue is announced in advance, retailers usually order heavy; back issue prices may go up, and graphic novel collections usually enjoy a long-term shelf life.
Even with the popularity (if not permanence) of comic book death, no one could have predicted the firestorm that erupted last week over the death of Captain America in issue 25 of his regular book, especially given the intense secrecy with which the story was rolled out. Written by Ed Brubaker with art by Steve Epting, the story created a media sensation and led to an almost immediate sellout in comics shops across the nation and rising prices on eBay. The entire process pointed out the quirks and foibles of the direct sales market—all of which, in this case, seem to have worked out as best they could.
According to Marvel senior v-p of sales David Gabriel, total sales for the issue should surpass numbers for Civil War, the already bestselling miniseries that the Captain America story line arose from. The sales represent a seven-fold increase over a typical Cap issue. (According to figures calculated by industry business site ICv2, Civil War 1 has sold over 350,000 copies and subsequent issues have sold around 250,000 copies each.)
The wildly successful promotion was the result of both luck and planning, said Gabriel, and kicked off entirely from a story in the Wednesday, March 7, New York Daily News, which was the only story Marvel knew was coming out. Prominently placed on page three, the story quoted Cap's 93-year-old cocreator Joe Simon as saying, "It's a hell of a time for him to go. We really need him now."
The media certainly seemed to agree, with pundits on every side of the political spectrum arguing over what the death of a pulp character created to battle the Axis powers during World War II meant to the nation's zeitgeist.
The Daily News story had been in the works for a few months, said Gabriel, but Marvel didn't get the final word that it was running until the night before, around 9 p.m. "We were also told, if the story was mentioned anywhere on the Internet that [the Daily News] would pull the story immediately and it would not get coverage," he said.
As soon as the story broke, it was picked up everywhere, at CNN, ABC, the front page of the online New York Times and Stephen Colbert's "The Word" segment on The Colbert Report, among others . "It's easy to say we were brilliant and planned every story," said Gabriel. "But we were just lucky there wasn't much other news that day."
The media attention led to a surge of interest from fans and people simply caught up in the dramatic news. "It was pandemonium," said Gerry Gladston, co-owner of Manhattan's Midtown Comics. "A madhouse, one of our busiest days ever." The shop ordered very heavily and still had copies as of Thursday, but "we did not have enough," said Gladston. Rick Lowell, owner of Casablanca Comics in Portland, Maine, had ordered aggressively as well, but he also sold out.
But this is where the peculiarities of the comics shop direct sales market factored in. With the story needing to be kept secret in the months leading up to retailers placing their orders, Gabriel could only hint vaguely that retailers should order deep. (According to ICv2 figures, retailers ordered over 80,000 copies of the previous issues of Captain America.) While many retailers heeded his words and boosted their orders considerably, it was still not enough. Luckily, Gabriel had foreseen this, and Marvel ordered a large overprint of the issue. (More copies of Captain America#25 will be available in most comics shops this Wednesday, March 14.) However, even as most retailers basked in the afterglow of a huge sales day, some wondered why they couldn't have been told earlier, so they could have upped orders even more.
According to Gabriel, this wasn't possible—retail mailings go out to thousands of people, and the chances of anything staying secret would remain slim to none.
"Unfortunately, every time even the most minor secret is revealed to the retailers, it's leaked," said Gladston. "There is a need to keep it secret. I wish we had known sooner so we wouldn't sell out, but that's the way it is." As if to prove the point, a Diamond retail mailing announcing a second printing, which was supposed to be confidential, was leaked to a comic book news site within three minutes.
One other option raised by retailers was making the issue returnable. Would that have been viable? "It's not something that we do," said Gabriel. "And again, we didn't know it was going to be a media event."
Gabriel still thinks that everyone did the best they could under the circumstances. "If we had told them and this had backfired, and retailers had ordered like it was the biggest event in comics, they would have had a lot left. We absolutely regret that people didn't have enough copies, and that people were going into stores and calling and getting turned away. It was not our intention, and the direct market is our first concern. But we did what we could to make sure there were copies out there."
Gabriel predicts that there will be more magazine and media coverage of the event. "We're pretty confident no one will be stuck with issues," he said. And everyone seems to agree that Brubaker and Epting have done a solid job creatively, which will keep readers coming back to see what happens. Marvel has another wave of tie-ins and spinoffs for those following the story, including Civil War: The Initiative by writer Brian Bendis, Civil War: Confession by Bendis and Alex Maleev and Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America by writer Jeph Loeb.
Gabriel expects the collected editions of the books to have a strong shelf life as well. The collected Civil War will be out in April, and these issues of Captain America will be put out in graphic novel format around the holidays.
"The big news is that it's a good story line, and fans are reacting very favorably and are eager to get the next issue and the next crossover," said Gladston. For fans who arrived after the original issues sold out, he has been pushing a number of trades as jumping-on points, including Winter Soldier, the first collection of stories by the Brubaker-Epting team.
In the end, like most media sensations, The Death of Captain America was a combination of many things—Marvel's laying the groundwork with the politically charged Civil War, the work of Brubaker and Epting, and simply the mood of a nation at war. "Is anyone going to care if Captain America dies?" asked Lowell rhetorically. "They found out that people did."