You ever notice how hard it is these days to pick up a single comic title from Marvel or DC? And by single a comic title, I mean picking up one series that a) isn’t crossing over with several other titles a couple times each year or b) only comes out once a month. If you want to avoid bulk purchases, this plague of cross-overs amounts to a barrier to entry for readers.

Look at the racks and everything is Dark Reign or Blackest Night, the two new events by, respectively, Marvel and DC. Where they aren't, there are still other, smaller events. Want to pick up a Superman comic? Well, you could just get Superman: New World of Krypton, since that’s the only Superman comic with Superman in it right now, but what DC would really like you to do is pick up that along with Action Comics, Superman and Supergirl. Those last three look to be all crossing over for the “Brainiac and the Legion of Superheroes” cross-over. Want to just get one Spider-Man book? Oh, there’s just one Amazing Spider-Man title, but Marvel wants you to buy it three times each month. Just like DC thinks you need to buy all three Superman titles.

While the “big events” crossing over to regular titles goes all the way back to Crisis on Infinite Earths, in the mid 80s, more recently, big company cross-over multi-issue events stem from the problem of being publically traded. A few years back, Marvel had their biggest sales success in years with Civil War. Likewise, while not as dramatic on a per issue basis, DC sold a pretty healthy amount of copies of 52 and four of them each month for that weekly series. When you’re publicly traded, you’re expected to maintain sales levels. The street doesn’t care if you had a once in a blue moon hit—it wants consistency. And so we’ve been suffering through more mega-crossovers and weekly series.

Recently, both Marvel and DC have sworn off events, but looking at the reality, I’m not so sure the powers that be really understand what event fatigue is. Joe Quesada, on the Marvel side, wants to scale down to events that take place in “families of titles.” Theoretically, the model for this would be the X-Men family of books that periodically cross-over with each other. Now the X-verse does give you (so far) a one-off option with Astonishing X-Men. Technically, X-Men Forever is off in its own little Claremont Universe, but it seems to be coming out twice a month, not once. But the X-verse cross-overs will routinely pull any combination of the titles Cable, X-Force, X-Factor, Uncanny X-Men, X-Men-Legacy, New Mutants and a mini-series or two.

Oh, how about the “cosmic” books, currently in “[insert noun]” of Kings mode? You can’t just buy Nova, according to the March solicitations you need to buy Realm Of Kings: Son Of Hulk, Realm Of Kings: Imperial Guard, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Realm Of Kings: Inhumans, and Nova.

DC’s no picnic, either. The Superman situation is still there, and DC is just starting to announce their anti-event fatigue slate. Take this copy in the Diamond catalog for a Justice League book for instance: “Thisfour-pieceimagemakesupthecoverstoThe Justice League: Rise And Fallone-shotanditsthreetie-inissues:Green Arrow#31,Justice League: The Rise Of Arsenal#1And Justice League Of America#43.” Three tie-in issues for a one-shot? No event fatigue, there.

DC has tried the weekly series three times with diminishing returns (52, Countdown and Trinity). Their sequel to Blackest Night has been announced as Brightest Day, a year-long bi-weekly series; an IGN interview fingers Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, The Flash, Justice League and Titans as books that will be carrying the Brightest Day banner. Is this a straight cross-over, a Dark Reign “thematic” cross-over or a bit of both? Too early to tell, but it sure doesn’t sound like DC’s getting out of the event business to me.

Oh, and not to get too far away from the weekly series concept, DC is having another bi-weekly book alternating with Brightest Day. Justice League: Generation Lost marks the return of Keith Giffen’s Justice League International from the ‘80s. Now, mind you, Giffen is co-writing with Judd Winnick, instead of J.M. DeMatteis. Why? Because he’s with DeMatteis on Booster Gold. Is this a 2 or a 3 issue per month commitment? Again, a bit early to tell.

The bottom line is that it’s increasingly hard to buy just add a book to your monthly pull list without it spiraling into 2-5 issues per month. That’s the difference between a $3 commitment and a $15 commitment—or, potentially a $20 commitment in the age of $3.99 comics.

If you don’t want to add multiple titles to your buying schedule at once, this constant title crossing over is a barrier to entry. If you don’t like the cross-over, it’s not just a barrier to entry for one title, it could knock several off your pull-list. If you’re trying to attract entirely new readers, you’re going to require a decent initial financial commitment to jump into Marvel or the DCU. It’s increasingly hard to “just try a couple books.”

Why is this happening? We’ll never get a straight answer on this, but there seem to be two prevalent theories, both predicated on a zero-sum game.

Theory one: There aren’t any new readers picking up monthly comics. DC and Marvel cater to an existing, but aging, audience that’s already buying and they need to lock them into as many books as possible. That the cross-overs aren’t very relevant to the story hasn’t proved consistently relevant from a sales standpoint.

Theory two: There’s a finite limit of dollars to be spent on comics and when a customer buys a cross-over, it’s $3-$4 that they aren’t spending on the competition.

On the other hand, these big events do sell books. If we take a look at the December sales rankings, only two Captain America titles aren’t strongly tied into cross-overs (and Cap sprang into Siege right after “Who Will Wield the Shield”). Take it out to the top 30 and your only (relatively) cross-over free titles are Detective, Batman and Astonishing X-Men. To be fair, Mighty Avengers and Thor were just entering cross-over land after having been fairly independent for awhile. Everything else was either a regular event participant or putting out multiple issues that month. And that’s your over-50K sales club, according to the estimates.

The lower you get on the sales chart, the more likely you are to see non-cross-over titles, making you wonder if the big events are sucking up most of the fans money at the expense of freestanding storylines. Are cross-overs the only thing people are buying or just the only thing DC and Marvel remember how to sell and/or support? It seems a valid question. If cross-overs are the only thing holding the interest, that’s a greater editorial problem. If cross-overs are pulling limited resources away from the freestanding titles and fans walk away from cross-overs like they did in the ‘90s, there might not be a lot of choices left and this becomes a self-fulfilling problem.

When you shift your gaze to the collected editions, you have slightly different issues, in terms of how the material is collected and how well it’s actually selling. Trade paperbacks/graphic novels/whatever you call them do seem to be finding their way into the hands of new readers. Graphic novels are one of the few positive stories for mainstream bookstores in recent years, but the event collections have erratic track records. The first edition of Final Crisis didn’t have core chapters in the solicitation and nobody seems to be quite sure what to do with the supporting mini-series or 3 that went along with it. Final Crisis writer, Grant Morrison, issued a reading order for the series. Eventually, the collection added the Superman Beyond issues, but not the Batman issues in Morrison’s reading order. If the publishers can’t be bothered to pay a little more attention to how these multi-title arcs are packaged (hint: think 90s Batman cross-overs), the clumsiness of the packaging can be a barrier to entry. It can also call into question how important the sundry mini-series and cross-overs are. Morrison’s suggested reading list, did just that (if not by design).

Part of this problem goes back to the parallel story structure of Civil War, still the most successful event book of the modern era. The superhero story was told in Civil War. The tale of why things happened was told more in Civil War: Frontline. The two series, with some other titles mixed in were run for the newsstand as Civil War Chronicles. Marvel has a history of telling the events in linear comic book format reprints for the newsstand, but issuing single title runs in book format, even if that doesn’t lend itself as readily to linear reading.

Taking the issue of how to read the collected editions to an entirely new height of confusion was Secret Invasion. When you compare the reading order from the first five issues of the newsstand “Secret Invasion Chronicles” to what collected edition books the stories are in, the collected editions are even out of order for their own series.

Newsstand Reading Order (listed by original comic) Collected (book) edition each story appears in
New Avengers: Illuminati #1 New Avengers: Illuminati
New Avengers #44 New Avengers Vol. 9: Secret Invasion, Book 2
New Avengers: Illuminati #5 New Avengers: Illuminati
Secret Invasion #1 Secret Invasion
Avengers #40 New Avengers Vol. 8: Secret Invasion, Book 1
Secret Invasion #2 Secret Invasion
New Avengers #41 New Avengers Vol. 8: Secret Invasion, Book 1
New Avengers #43 New Avengers Vol. 9: Secret Invasion, Book 2
New Avengers #42 New Avengers Vol. 8: Secret Invasion, Book 1
New Avengers #45 New Avengers Vol. 9: Secret Invasion, Book 2
Secret Invasion #3 Secret Invasion
Mighty Avengers #12 Mighty Avengers Vol. 3: Secret Invasion, Book 1
Mighty Avengers #13 Mighty Avengers Vol. 3: Secret Invasion, Book 1
Mighty Avengers #18 Mighty Avengers Vol. 4: Secret Invasion, Book 2

When you look the difference between suggested reading order for Secret Invasion (at least the newsstand version) and how it was released in book form, or when you look at the issues around Final Crisis and what got added and not added in relation to the author’s reading order, you really have to ask yourself if publishers are paying attention.

Currently, Marvel’s big cross-over, “Dark Reign,” is more of a shared theme than a formal cross-over. The presumed endpoint, “Siege” will likely be its own reprint book, but it isn’t obvious how (if?) one is to read “Dark Reign” in collected edition.

Do these cross-overs sell well in book reprints? Well, you mileage may vary a bit, but Civil War was huge in the book world, Final Crisis was as well. There seems to be a value in having the big cross-over story in book format (even if the story contained isn’t as complete as may be advertised). It probably isn’t fair to compare other titles to Civil War, as unusually successful as it was. Secret Invasion fell short of those numbers and the Dark Reign tie-ins to date haven’t caught fire like Civil War did. There may or may not be a slight lifting of book sales for the cross-over branded collections. There doesn’t seem to be follow on attention to the individual series after the cross-over, and in that case the tpbs would be behaving like the monthlies. And just like the monthlies if you really want to get the full story, you’re probably going to be buying some extra titles (Secret Invasion + New Avengers + Mighty Avengers and so forth… instead of just Secret Invasion volumes 1-10).

I suppose the sales figures will ultimately tell the tale of the modern big cross-over event, but it looks to me like it’s a whole lot more complicated than just picking up a comic and seeing if you like it.

[Todd Allen is a technology consultant and adjunct professor with Columbia College Chicago's Arts, Entertainment & Media Management department. Allen's book, The Economics of Web Comics, is taught at the college level. His further comics industry commentary is available at Indignant Online. He also writes the webcomic Division and Rush for The Chicago Tribune Media Group. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of PW Comics Week.]