Saturday, April 14, 2007

Captain America: Dead. Capitalism: Alive and Well

Major hat tip to Angus for pointing me towards this story.

Even if you aren't part of my comic-readin', game-playin' crowd, you are probably aware that a couple of months ago, Marvel decided to kill off Captain America. You know this because you probably heard about it on the news; Marvel's PR team did a fine job of getting the word out. Character "deaths" happen in comics all the time, but the last time I can remember a comic event like this (hell, any comic event) getting this much mainstream media coverage was the death of Superman in the early 1990s.

His death was the talk of the geekosphere for quite a while, and I didn't weigh in because I really didn't have much to say (Jeff, however, had quite a bit of interesting stuff to say if you want to get up to speed.)

It turns out that there's another interesting side to this story that takes place well outside of the Marvel universe, and firmly in ours.

A little preface for the non-comic-reading Puppeteers: Wizard Magazine is pretty much the only print publication that caters exclusively to comic book readers. There are others, of course, but none come close to scratching Wizard's subscriber base, sales, and quality (and by quality, I mean the quality of their layout and print.) The mag tends to cater to the juvenile side of the aisle - it's kind of like Maxim, but with female superheroes instead of airbrushed celebrities - but it is a solid and credible news source for comics and entertainment news.

And Wizard Magazine is the main character of our story today.

Wizard Magazine is only one arm of Wizard Entertainment, who run the various Wizard World conventions as well. Wizard also runs its own online store, selling comics and collectibles. At WizKids, we worked with Wizard on several promotional figures that they sold both through their magazine and their online store. The idea behind those offers was to increase circulation numbers of the print magazine, and because Wizard is basically the only show in town when it comes to comics news, they tend to get what they want when it comes to things like exclusive promotional tie-ins. Companies want to see their product featured as a promotional item, because it's basically free PR. (You HCRealms guys: pay attention.)

Now you might know that print publications, like game companies, tend to run pretty far ahead of schedule on their news - meaning they have to know things about 3-4 months before they release/happen, so they can cover them in a timely manner. This is all the more important for them now given how fast news travels over the Internet; more than once, WizKids had exclusive news we'd given to a magazine leaked online, and the mags were none too happy to have been scooped.

Perhaps you see where I'm going with this. Wizard almost certainly knew of Captain America's impending death weeks, if not months, before it happened. And magically, within hours of the release of the issue - when it was sold out at almost every comics store in North America - the Wizard online store had plenty of copies. They had so many, in fact, that they had already graded them (a comic industry term for putting a funnybook in plastic with a permanent grade of its status, for hardcore collectors only) and put them on eBay - in the hundreds.

They also engaged in a major Google ad buy to purchase ads that redirected people searching for issues of the comic right to their online store.

In and of itself, that's not so terrible. This isn't Martha Stewart-esque insider trading; it's comics, and their profits on this venture could probably be measured 4 digits, 5 at the most. Does it hurt comic book retailers? Sure, a little, but I would also argue that comics and games retailers can be their own worst enemies (I'll get into this another time.)

But retailers themselves would probably disagree, and Brian Hibbs in his "Tilting At Windmills" column certainly does. (Brian's column, incidentally, is where most of my facts regarding the timeline of events came from). But Brian is also arguing for something new and interesting that, so far, the comics industry has seen very little of. It is something I experimented with at WizKids, and it's something I've discussed here before: transparency. I'll let him tell you:

To me, as a guy who sells comics and stories for a living, knowing months ago that Cap was going to die would have helped me sell more comics, not less. Because it’s not the action itself that’s the important thing, it is the execution of that action. That’s what people are buying.

I couldn't agree more. I'm not calling for a radical, "Marvel ought to let us know every line of dialog from every upcoming comic" - that's unreasonable. But as I've argued before, that information would have been relevant to the overall discourse. And I doubt very much it would have impacted the media blitz surrounding Cap's death. If anything, people lining up in front of comic book shops - people who had knowledge of the event because their comic shop guy told them about it - would have been a great picture to put on CNN.

Kevin Huxford at Newsarama did an excellent interview with Wizard's PR guy Drew Seldin about the issue, where Drew all but concedes the company, operating as one unit, did in fact have advanced knowledge of the issue. I can empathize with Drew, being a PR guy myself, and I'm not sure I would have handled it quite like he did (Hey, I'm new! only goes so far, especially in the comics industry where insiders tend to frown on outsiders to begin with), but I present it a Wizard's reaction to the debate.

Frankly, what matters here is not whether Wizard did anything shady. It's that people in the comics (and games) industry should closely consider what Brian had to say about releasing information sooner. It is antithetical to the "old way" of doing things, but those are the kinds of steps that might need to be taken to reignite interest among fans used to having more information at their fingertips than the sum-total of human knowledge 50 years ago.

1 comment:

Kevin Huxford said...

Wow. I was doing the huge ego-driven thing called "Googling one's self" and found your blog. I really loved the coverage of the Democratic debate, but I appreciate the compliment you gave my interview with Drew Seldin. Thanks a lot. :)