(Note: I wrote this article because I am a huge fan of comic books and I feel that they get a very raw deal when compared to other visual art forms and literature genres. I feel that comic books represent a different kind of medium whose growth has been stunted because of monopolies and unethical corporate practices. This article is not just a look at whether Archie will marry Veronica or not, but also a look at how the comic book industry in America functions, push and pull dynamics, speculation driven busts and booms and how they can affect an entire distribution system, marketing and line extensions, and very obliquely, what makes a recession. I know that its a long article, but bear with me)
For the past few weeks, most Indian newspapers have been covering the fall of Riverdale’s most eligible(?) bachelor, Archie Andrews. Yessir, just a few issues ago, Archie went down on a knee and asked Veronica Lodge to marry him, leading to heartbreak for one of the most desirable blondes in literature, Betty Cooper. Feminists all over the world seethed in anger, (which is kinda funny, considering Veronica is closer to the new age women than Betty), men all over the world nodded in agreement (as soon as their girlfriends were out of sight), and Archie Comics Publications is looking to milk the gullible masses for all they are worth. Archie and Veronica are set to tie the knot in a few months, and we are all invited (provided we buy the comic books).
Its heartbreaking, its romantic, its the story of coming of age and understanding responsibilities, its a story of true love and choices. Also, if the voices in my gut are correct
(yes, I have voices in my gut, even though I have no idea where gut is), this is all a load of c***, and unfortunately, its also bad for the industry.
I will attempt to answer both the topics I have raised: 1) Why Archie won’t marry Veronica, and 2) why it is bad for the industry.
Why Archie won’t marry Veronica:
If comic book history is anything to go by, Archie won’t marry Veronica. Why? Well, its a HUGE change, and in comic books, nothing ever changes. Thats right, people die and then come back to life. Comic book bosses and editors are yellow bellied namby pambies (got that one off Wodehouse), who are afraid of even the slightest change in the Status Quo. There have been innumerable changes that have been retconned (see below), and most of these decisions have been based on myopic editorial policies.
Archie marrying Veronica is a big thing. People have already voiced their concerns about Archie and the gang growing up, but the interesting thing is, it might actually be better for the comic in the long run. Currently, Archie and his friends cater to the following markets:
1) Young Adult/Teenage Girls (The regular Archie universe)
2) Pre-Teens (Little Archie’s old issues)
3) Boys of ages 10-13 (TMNT etc)
Of these, the majority of their readers lie in the first segment, and because Archie Comics is run by the same kind of people who run all other entertainment industries, it is my opinion that this story arc is nothing but a publicity gimmick to boost sales (for some examples, see The Death of Superman below). This story arc has generated a lot of publicity already, and battle lines are drawn over whether Archie made the right choice or not. IMO, Archie is making the right choice, and marrying Veronica is a groundbreaking step that will make the series more relevant and interesting. However, that Archie won’t marry Veronica is almost certain, for the following reasons:
1) It will push the comics away from what the biggest consumer segment (Young Adult/Teenage Girls)
2) It would spoil the love triangle that was the hall-mark of Archie comics
3) It would be a good thing for Archie comics in particular and comic books in general, and therefore, the Powers That Be will not even consider it.
These are legitimate concerns, but all of them have simple solutions (except for number 3, which is because of Murphy’s Law). People have correctly predicted that a married Archie might put off a lot of current readers, but what they are missing is that a married Archie can appeal to a different audience, an older, matured audience. Mangas sold in the USA and other parts of the world already have dedicated titles for girls and young women, focusing on content not very different from your standard Archie comics. They are a target segment that Archie comics is not even considering at the moment (and I bet a Betty comics that focuses on Betty dealing with this would be a huge success in that target segment, if handled well). Also, a married Archie need not necessarily translate into loss of numbers from the Young Adult/Teenage Girls target segment, since you can have a separate product line that focuses on content more suited for that audience. (Both Marvel and DC have such a policy in place, in fact, if memory serves right, there are currently two different versions of Wolverine and Teen Titans). Of course, we run into problem number 3, which unfortunately has no possible solution.
This is why I feel that Archie won’t marry. He should, but he won’t.
(And in case he does, let us pretend this article never happened)
Why is it bad for the industry:
In order to better understand this article, please bear with me for a little while as I explain how the system works. It’ll be useful to both comic fans and non-comic fans, since it explains market dynamics and various strategies at work, and how Wall St Executive types can ruin industries. (particularly relevant in these times of recession)
The publisher sells to the distributor, who then sells to the retailer, who then sells to the consumer. However, the dynamic that usually exists is a pull strategy, (ie retailers place orders based on the mood of the public). This takes place along the entire distribution chain. However, sometimes, under satanic influences, the publishers decide that it would be awesome if they could put out a book that would capture the imagination of the masses and chronicle events of such magnitude that they literally shake the space time continuum, and in an unrelated development, bring in lots of moolah. The publishers give pointed glances and drop subtle hints to the editors. The editors cough in a meaningful way towards the writers, and like Clockwork Oranges (check up the origin of the term, its rather interesting), churn out a story encompassing all the details mentioned above. The publishers then put out huge ads and use the entire marketing muscle at their disposal. They literally force this “Epic World Shattering Story” down the gullet of the fans in a classic push strategy, and then wait for the money train to pull in.
But how does this ruin the economy? Well, that’s where the speculators come in. The speculators buy multiple issues of major comic books and sell them years later for high prices. What’s that? I can hear you at the back. Oh, so comics are niche, are they? Nobody reads comic books, how much can a comic book sell for? Well, the comic book industry is about 1.3 trillion dollars, globally, and as some collector’s editions have sold for as much as 250,000 dollars. An average collector’s edition can fetch as much as 10,000 dollars in 10-15 years. Considering a comic book costs about 3 dollars, and an entire special/collectible series can be had for as little as 100 dollars, it is a sounder financial investment option than what your average financial institution sells.
However, the risks are high as well, and a wrong decision by a collector can be disastrous. Speculation booms have fuelled recessions in most industries, and the comic book industry is no exception. It went through three major recession in the past three decades, and the last one (addressed later in the article) in the mid nineties, set off a chain of events perpetrated by idiotic executives and board members, that resulted in nine out of ten major distributors going out of business, the number of comic shops going down by two-thirds, and ultimately, Marvel declaring bankruptcy.
And as for those “Earth-Shattering” changes? The following is a list of major earth-shattering changes that were rolled back faster than the speed of light:
1) The Death of Superman: in 1993, DC killed off Superman in a highly publicized story arc, that was very well
- Supes kicks the bucket
received at first. Fan horror and admiration turned to horror and outrage when they found that it was all a stunt so that DC could sell limited merchandise at high rates, and use the speculator market to their advantage. It worked well for DC, they made a lot of cash, most speculators who had bought hundreds of copies of the special editions and high prices went out of business, (since Supes came back, these special limited editions were now worthless), taking with them lots of book shop retailers, (who were left holding excess stock that no one wanted, since people had used all their money buying the ridiculously overpriced special editions, and hence couldn’t afford other comics, which then turned to pulp in the retailer’s basements), and this in turn drove the distributors in the red. Don’t get me wrong, DC made a lot of money out of this, but they also sent the entire comic book industry into a slump (notice any similarities with the current market fiasco?)
2) The Marriage/unmasking of Spider-Man: Spider-Man married Mary Jane Watson, his second love, in the 1980s. For the past twenty years, Spider-Man had been a married super-hero who juggled his unusual work-life balance with unusual aplomb. Enter Joe Quesada. The Ed-in-chief of Marvel decided that a married Spider-Man wouldn’t appeal to kids (fun fact, average age of a reader of Spider-Man comics: 15-24), and hence, they should dissolve the marriage, so that Spidey could be single and “fun” again. (Also, they had recently unmasked Spidey in public, resulting in him and his family being on the run from enemies and the media, an awesome premise, but something the Powers That Be had declared to be too revolutionary and something beyond the grasp of the kids who read the comics). But wait, divorce was not an option. Kids are impressionable (particularly when they are in the age group of 15-24), and we don’t want to break a marriage like that, especially when its Spidey, who is such a role model. So they had Spider-Man make a deal with the devil, where he agreed to dissolve his marriage and re-arrange the past so that he and MJ had never married, in order to save Aunt May’s life (who is about 80, and more hated as a character than Jason Todd, who, if you are a fan of Batman, should know that fans actually voted and paid money to have killed off), and to remove the memory of Spidey’s unmasking from the public. In essence, the current editorial policy at Marvel seems to be, a legitimate divorce is not nice, so we prefer making deals with the ultimate evil instead.
So now, Spider-Man is single, 30, and living in his aunt’s basement, rather than married with a beautiful and successful wife and a successful career. Somehow, I fail to see this new avatar as a role-model.
The fans reacted in the only way possible. Sales of Spidey comics have dropped significantly. However, the industry isn’t hurt so bad since the speculators didn’t bite the bait that hard, and anyways, Spidey wasn’t Marvel’s top seller (Wolverine and New Avengers are). While this did not have as serious an impact on the industry, it did send a lot of fans over to DC.
Superman’s marriage is doing rather well, by the way.
3) The Clone Saga: No, not Star-Wars, but Spider-Man once again. It goes like this: Spidey is revealed to be a clone of Ben Reily, a new character. It goes on for some issues, until it is revealed that Spidey was real, and Reily was the clone. It goes on for some issues, until it is revealed that Reily was real, and Spidey was the clone. It goes on for some issues, until it is revealed that some other dude was real, and Reily and Spidey were both clones. It goes on for some issues… you get the drift. The strategy behind this mess was to flood the market with Marvel products and drive the competitors off the shelves (something that Colgate-Palmolive does rather well).
It nearly drove Marvel to bankruptcy.
Of course the speculators got hit bad once again. The story started on a high note, but went so bad that today, the comics aren’t even worth the paper they are printed on. This was felt all along the chain of distribution, from retailers to publishers.
The biggest fault in this matter rests with the higher ups who do not understand comic books and the audience. Keep in mind that these are the same people who were responsible for Disney’s 2-d animation department going bankrupt and shutting shop (might write a separate article on that later).
It took the industry nearly ten years to come out of the recession that began with the Death of Superman and culminated with The Clone Saga. Then, in early 2000s, the industry faced competition from Mangas, and answered not with innovative, creative storylines, but by playing safe (Wall St Execs, I’m looking at you) and publishing the same old boring stories. Now, with Captain America coming back from the dead again in July, and Batman expected to come back from the dead next year, comic book fans are pretty jaded. Sales that began to rise in early-mid 2000s started falling once again. While the Death of Superman sold millions, the recent Batman R.I.P. story arc failed to cross the 200,000 mark consistently. Spidey’s books have reached as low as 30,000 copies a month. Add to that the hype surrounding Archie’s wedding, and the certainty that it will come to naught, the American comic book industry might have dug themselves into a hole that they might not come out of anytime soon. The unfortunate part is that while in the past, the economic conditions were such that the comic book industry could recover, in these times of recession, if another speculator bust occurs, the whole industry could spiral into oblivion.