An open letter to Marvel, DC, and comicbook readers everywhere

Do you remember the nineties?

Because as I comicbook fan, I remember. I remember the endless variant covers, the foil covers, polybagging. Gimmick after gimmick after gimmick, which for a time resulted in record-breaking sales but ultimately caused a crash from which the industry has struggled to recover ever since.

Now to be fair, it wasn’t the gimmicks themselves that led to the crash. It was the realisation among readers that while Marvel and DC clearly put a lot of thought into the fancy packaging, the content within hadn’t received the same level of attention. Quality control had slipped, storylines routinely devolved into incoherent gibberish, and both publishers doubled down on big events and old ideas. But for those of us who lived through that era, gimmicky packaging is seen as emblematic of everything that was dispiriting about reading superhero comics in the 1990s.

The beginning of the 21st century seemed to mark a change. Lessons had been learned, and Marvel and DC had got the message: readers care about the story above all else, and if you don’t cater to that we’ll find other ways to spend our money.

Let’s jump forward to 2013. Last week, Superman Unchained #1 was released with a four page foldout that succeeded only in detracting from the story, given that it was needlessly difficult to read without tearing either the comic or a muscle. This week, Age of Ultron #10 shipped in a polybag, the apparent justification being that Marvel wanted to keep the ending of the series literally under wraps (seemingly operating under the belief that the sort of people inclined to spoil comics on the internet are incapable of penetrating a thin plastic covering. This belief turned out to be wrong). And in September, DC will be gracing us with Villains Month, an excuse to ship multiple issues featuring their core characters complete with 3D covers, in what I’d describe as a shameless exercise in money grabbing were it not for the fact that DC will actually make a loss on every single issue published with a 3D cover.

This needs to stop. Because once again, we’ve reached a point where the big two seem more concerned about content delivery than actual content. So listen up, Marvel: if I don’t want the ending of Age of Ultron #10 spoiled, I won’t read the spoilers; if you’re that worried about my reading experience, how about not selling me 10 issues of comic that contain about five issues of plot? Oh, and none of the reviews I’ve read agree with your assertion that the ending was significant enough to warrant the polybag treatment. And that’s the problem: you’re telling us that the story is special, rather than actually making it special. That, more than anything else, is what leaves you open to criticism and/or ridicule.

And DC: taking a financial loss on every issue of Villains Month doesn’t show how committed you are to delivering innovative products to your readers, it shows that your priorities are in completely the wrong place, and it sets a dangerous precedent for the future. In promoting the 3D covers as a reason to purchase the books, you’re putting a pointless gimmick above the stories your writers and artists are telling. Same thing with Superman Unchained #1 and its four page foldout; if you can’t sell a Superman title on the strength of the creative team of Scott Snyder and Jim Lee, you’re in the wrong industry.

The way to make comicbooks special is to deliver original, interesting, and engaging stories. Everything else is just window dressing. Now would be a good time to recall the lessons of the nineties; after all, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

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