Business, Marketing, Strategy

Why Archie won’t marry Veronica (and how that is bad for the industry)

(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).

Another one bites the dust

Another one bites the dust

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:

Three is company

Three is company

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 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.

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12 thoughts on “Why Archie won’t marry Veronica (and how that is bad for the industry)

  1. jagdish says:

    nice language to go on reading…..
    i am not big fan of comics so i got enough info to know….
    but i am not getting your point. Is it all about the industry of comics? or Do you to compare the current recession factor of market with comics industry?

  2. AT_korvus says:

    The article is primarily concerned with the comic book industry in the USA, which is why I have spent an inordinate amount of time explaining the finer points of the same. However, I’ve also tried to show how the factors that can lead to recession in one particular industry can also be broadly applied to any other industry.

    Consider the impact Marvel and DC’s policies (Death of Superman and Clone Saga) had on the comic industry, how they forced a speculator based boom, and how that turned into a recession. Also consider the sales figures that I have quoted in the last para and the fact that instead of going for something out of the box, the comic book giants are using the same tactics that caused the last great recession in the comic book industry. You will find many parallels to this story in other industry as well,eg: The Automobile industry.

  3. I disagree with Veronica being closer to the “new age woman” bit :)
    The characters of Betty and Veronica are such that both combine certain aspects of the Grand stereotype that is the “New Age woman”. Betty Cooper with her apron and cookies is also the more academically brilliant one as well as better-read, while Veronica is the more outgoing one who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, though at the end of the day she is the spoilt brat afterall.
    Archie comics has been steadily losing ground to manga and a plethora of others. No wonder the knee jerk publicity gimmick 😉

  4. AT_korvus says:

    Actually, the entire American comic industry has lost tremendous ground to the Japanese Manga industry (might cover that in another post), and for pretty much the same reason that the American auto makers lost out to the Japanese. However, Archie comics routinely outsells most DC and Marvel titles, and hasn’t been affected by the Manga influx that much.

    And as re: Betty being more well read, Veronica is a genius at economics, and has out scored even Dilton at times, which is no mean feat 😛 and is in fact, more independent and head-strong than Betty

  5. sushant dhar says:

    dude…..this was just brilliant – very deep insight into the comic book industry
    of course. As a comic book aficionado myself (propelled by your own efforts :P)i understood most of what you wanted to convey
    i cite another example: taken not from comic books though. It concerns the death of sherlock holmes (the final problem)…..popular demand brought him back and subsequent sales (return of sherlock holmes) were higher than before. Sometimes these “stunts” actually help reinvigorate the brand.

  6. abhiram says:

    @Nattu: glad to hear that. I’d suggest that you start with The man who laughs, Transmetropolitan, and then move on to the works of Alan Moore etc.

    @Vampire: Yup, I was thinking of including that example into my article, then decided against it. However, the Holmes thing was not a proper stunt, as Doyle was bored of writing Holmes and genuinely wanted to kill him off. Another funny example is Agatha Christie, who didn’t want to face the same problem as Doyle, and so had it arranged that the last Hercule Poirot story would be published after her death :)

  7. Shubham says:

    Really nice summary & analysis of the happenings in the comic book industry. You can also explore the impact of movies on comics. One question, y don’t diff comic books merge?
    P.S. I wonder whether presence of soft copies make collectors better or worse

  8. AT_korvus says:

    @Shubham: I didn’t get you when you said impact of movies on comics. Did you mean what kind of impact does the movie industry have on the comic industry vis a vis the limited disposable income of the consumer?

    Also, by different comic books merging, do you mean different characters appearing together in the same comics, or different comic book firms like DC and Marvel merging together?
    If its the former, then characters regularly make appearances in each other’s books. In fact, one of the biggest problem with Marvel right now is that Wolverine appears in every single book in one form of the other.
    If its the latter, then comic book firms regularly get absorbed by bigger firms. In fact, many members of DC’s current JSA (Justice society of America) lineup earlier belonged to Charlton comics, which was later absorbed by DC.

    And Collectors are always welcome in any community. The problem comes with speculators, who hoard comics and screw up the entire system, as described in the article.

  9. Pingback: How MBAs killed Superman (and fundaes behind Modern Retail) « Strat . In

  10. Tushar Bohra says:

    Hi abhiram,,

    read this article only today. But i guess, better late than never. Well written, well-paced article. I liked it very much and will definitely keep following ur articles in future.

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