Ignoring Countdown

Everyone agrees that Countdown to Final Crisis is not a good comic book, right? It’s poorly-written, poorly-drawn, and wastes pages tieing into other books rather than developing its own plot. But there are lots of bad comic books coming out every week, so why do the major comic book sites keep writing feature articles about Countdown? Just today IGN published Countdown Nation, a “behind-the-scenes look at DC’s weekly series”, yet last week their review of issue 22 said:

With Grant Morrison recently stating in no uncertain terms that Final Crisis can be read and enjoyed with no Countdown experience, I see little reason to keep trudging through it every week. I only do it because it’s my job, and one of these weeks it might just force me to quit.

Of 30:

Countdown is so bad week in and week out that you can absolutely count on it being a waste of time. […] There is no reason for you to buy this book.

Newsarama and Wizard cover it frequently, too. If it’s so bad, why not just ignore it just like any other bad book? Is DC paying them to give it coverage? Such practice happens in video game reviews, and comics journalism isn’t much better I guess.

Well, it sells. According to The Beat’s Marc-Oliver Frisch, last month Countdown to Final Crisis sold an average of 77 thousand copies each week. You can make lots of guesses as to why such a bad book sells so well. Maybe it’s selling well because DC has hyped it, and people are willing to let the hype convince them the book doesn’t suck. Maybe people are buying it because it’s counting down to a big event, and they don’t want to miss out on the “important” events. Here’s my theory: comic book sales are low enough that the bottom of the barrel sometimes accounts for the entire market.

A digression. Last year John Gruber wrote a piece called Windows: The New Classic on Daring Fireball. In it, he attributes part of the Apple’s recent success to the possibility that, while they only had two percent of the computer market, it was two percent from the best part of the market. If you take one hundred computer users, lots of them are the ones who don’t care about what computer they’re using, or will always buy the cheapest one, or hate computers but have to use them for work. What Apple’s managed to do is to court the ones who are passionate about computers and care a lot about computer choices. Those are the people who will form lines to buy $600 $400 telephones and $130 operating system upgrades. Apple was able to stay in business only selling to two percent of the market because that two percent spends a lot more on electronics than the rest.

So Apple’s example shows that you can stay in business by selling lots of your products to a small group of very hardcore fans. Hardcore fans will spend lots of their money on the subject of their fandom. A subset of them will even buy every single product you release whether they need it or not, even if they don’t like what it is. Hardcore fans tend to be loyal, but they also tend to be opinionated and feel entitled. When a reviewer attacks a product they love, they’re the ones who respond with personal attacks. There aren’t many of these people, but enough that most tech journalists have in their minds a picture of the “typical” Apple fanboy (his name is Artie Macstrawman, incidentally) despite the fact that most Mac users are very normal people.

Earlier this year I did a little bit of thinking about Marvel Comics’s announcement that they were going to start shipping Amazing Spider-Man three times a month, up from once. At present there are three different Spider-Man books: Amazing Spider-Man, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, and Sensational Spider-Man, each of which tells its own self-contained Spidey stories each month. Once the change is made, Marvel will cancel the latter two books and, instead of telling three individual Spidey stories, they’ll tell one that progresses three times as fast. This means that your casual fans will have to start reading every book just like the hardcore fans, or none at all. Just how many people, I wondered, are buying only one Spider-Man book a month versus all three? My thinking was:

  1. Amazing Spider-Man is the “main” Spidey book. Casual fans who only want one Spider-Man book a month probably read Amazing. Marvel itself uses this reasoning as to why they are canceling the other two and keeping Amazing, which has been published continuously since Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created the character, 540+ issues running.
  2. There are such casual fans who only want to read one Spidey book a month, and there are hardcore fans who want to read every Spidey book, but there probably aren’t too many moderate fans who only read two a month. It’s either one or three.
  3. Therefore, the readership of the two “lesser” titles, Sensational and Friendly Neighborhood, probably consists of the majority of Spider-Man’s hardcore fanbase. I estimated that this number was probably around 50,000 people based on Marvel’s sales data. 50,000 people will buy any Spider-Man book being published.

Like the Apple enthusiast, many of these hardcore Spider-Man fans simply like the character and enjoy stories about him and his supporting cast, and like those stories enough to buy three titles a month. Some, though, are harder-core. They’ll buy any book in which Spider-Man appears. He’s in New Avengers so they buy that. If he guest stars in Fantastic Four, they buy that. They’re the completionists, and they’re the ones who are, I posit, most likely to be obnoxious fans. They have a need to own every single appearance of the character, and will buy them even if that character appears in a terrible book. They’ll buy the terrible book, then complain about it online. They own every issue of Uncanny X-Men that’s come out since they started reading comics, and they’re not about to miss one even if Marvel hires a monkey with a typewriter who decides to tell a story about how some religious nuts fooled Nightcrawler into thinking he was the Pope and then tried to get him to distribute poisoned communion wafers (actual story). They feel that the publisher owes them something. And really, the publisher does owe them good stories, in a way, but sometimes bad stories slip through. Sometimes the editors don’t recognize that a bad story is bad, or sometimes a deadline means that the art has to be rushed through, and the quality suffers. More often than not, when a book is attacked for being bad and over-hyped, a voice from the publisher will say, “well, look at the sales. Whether you in particular like it or now, some people are buying it.” Any if people are buying it, why shouldn’t the publish it? Artistic quality is great, but money talks.

Look at reality TV. It’s cheap to produce and people watch it, so of course the networks will keep it on. Some of it is entertaining, but much of it is crap. But people watch crap, and it’s cheap crap, so it goes on the air. So how do I, the consumer, fight against crap on TV? By not watching it. If enough other viewers stop tuning in, the networks will stop airing the shows. And there’s where it breaks down in the comic book industry. Most people will just stop reading a book that they don’t enjoy. Turns out (or, at least, my theory is) that there are enough hardcore fans for some books that they’ll buy enough copies to keep it afloat. Thousands of people each week are buying Countdown even though they don’t like it, just because they’re fanboys who can’t help themselves. They buy a terrible book, go online and complain about how terrible it is, and DC keeps publishing it because it thinks it has a success on its hands.

Would DC have canceled Countdown if it has been a huge sales failure? Probably not. There’s a lot of money in the weekly comic concept and they need to demonstrate that it has legs so that they can do it again next year. But they might have tried harder to retool it than they have. And if the numbers had dropped down and down and down, IGN and friends maybe would have stopped writing feature articles about it. But when a book is still selling 70,000 copies each issue and hitting the top 20 each month, it appears to be as big a hit as the real hits, even if it’s just fanboys filling out their collections.

It’s not bad that there are people out there who really love these characters. What’s bad is that the market these days is small enough that the fanatics overpower the “normal” fans. If a successful comic book were selling 500,000 copies each month, you wouldn’t notice the sales influence of 30k rabid fans. The industry needs to work on getting its products into other venues and not just the Android’s Dungeon. The hardcore fanbase is important, but you can’t let them run the whole show, either.

Anyway, moral of the story: if you don’t like a book, don’t buy it. If you run a website about comic books, don’t devote weekly features to a bad book just because the publisher wants you to.