Crown on the Ground / Good Kid, M.A.A.D. Distribution

 

You can do everything right and still fail. I think Beyoncé said that once. It’s a principle that a lot of people in the comic book industry have to reckon with daily, but has been given specific focus with Marvel’s announcement that critical darling Nighthawk will be coming to an end at five issues. Nighthawk had everything going for it: a team of rising stars with real on page chemistry in David F. Walker, Ramon Villalobos, and Tamra Bonvillain, an editorial team that backed their vision, and an urgently necessary perspective on the plague of police violence perpetrated against the black community and yet it couldn’t secure the sales necessary for survival in Marvel’s lineup.

Responses to the cancellation have been appropriately passionate, and in a particularly poignant bit of poetic justice, seem to mirror last year’s Batman #44, a standalone issue co-written by Scott Snyder and Brian Azzarello with art by Jock focusing on the mysterious death of a black teenager named Peter Duggio whose body was seemingly dumped outside the city from a great height. Bruce sets out to uncover the truth, intent on finding someone to blame, to take out his anger on. He starts with one of his favorite targets, the Penguin, and tries to torture a confession out of him by dangling him over the city in a cage and attracting hummingbirds to peck away at the rope. The Penguin, smug to the last, refuses to crack or take responsibility for Duggio’s death and Bruce is forced to move on to other prospects.

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Gavin Dillinger and Jude Terror pulled on their cowls for a tag team approach at The Outhousers, taking aim at personal favorite targets Brian Michael Bendis and Marvel as a whole, primarily over the argument that if readers want their favorite books to survive, they have to do more than just buy them. They have to pre-order them. Dillinger and Terror are absolutely correct, It’s an absurd and disappointing abdication of responsibility to put the full weight of nurturing talent and diversity in storytelling on an arcane system that requires a commitment to buy two months before the product arrives. It is, however, also one of the many ugly realities of direct market domination, which is a point they both readily conceded and one of the primary sources of the frustration evident in their takes.

As part of a piece on the Rebirth initiative lifting DC over Marvel in the sales charts, the LA Times reported that 400, 000 copies of Harley Quinn were shipped, outstripping the debut issue of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, and Laura Martin’s Black Panther by a cool 100, 000. There’s a lot to parse in those numbers and what they mean, but the most immediately relevant fact to point out is that it does not, by any stretch of the imagination, mean that copies of Harley Quinn made it into four hundred thousand pairs of hands. It means that’s how many copies retailers committed to stocking their shelves with based on perceived market demand. Those copies are also typically non returnable if they don’t sell, but more on that later. Black Panther dropped to 77, 000 the next month and looks to be settling in with 72, 000 as its latest reported number for July’s issue #4. So there probably legitimately are somewhere in the region of 70, 000 people buying Black Panther every month, and maintaining those numbers means maintaining retailer confidence in there being that many people reading it, which, to a certain extent, does rely on readers letting their retailers know they’re still reading it two months in advance when they put in those orders.

If you don’t tell your local comic shop that you want a comic two months in advance, they might not order it. Which isn’t a big deal when you’re moving as much as Black Panther, but Nighthawk debuted at 34, 000 copies, giving it a cushion of little more than 10, 000 orders to lose before it would begin flirting with cancellation. To anyone who studies these numbers closely, Nighthawk’s chances of survival with a debut like that would have looked to be slim to none without some kind of retailer incentive like a rare variant cover to boost orders. So yes, Bendis is correct in saying that pre-orders are a life or death matter for books like Nighthawk and a critical bulwark against mid tier books sliding into cancellation territory, but it, like the Penguin’s involvement in Peter Duggio’s death, was peripheral and one of many factors that conspired to doom Nighthawk to an early demise. Dillinger and Terror knew that too, but that wasn’t the point of either piece. They weren’t conducting an investigation into who or what killed Nighthawk, they were conducting a shakedown to vent their anger at the system as a whole.

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In Batman #44, Bruce is relentless in trying to put a human face on the cause of Duggio’s death, chasing down the gang members who wanted to use his father’s bodega as a front for their drug operations and the police office who reflexively shot the boy the way that so many have done and walked free, but each time Bruce could do no more than hang a small part of the blame on them until he ran straight up against his own complicity. His philanthropic efforts in The Narrows, devoid of engagement in the community, had only tightened the vise on Duggio to the point that he reached out to the villainous Mr. Bloom out of desperation, the true cause of his death. There’s a temptation to pursue a nihilistic response to that, to say well no one person or institution was responsible for the boy’s death, it was a wide range of factors that pushed him to his breaking point, and we can respond the same way when a beloved and deeply important book like Nighthawk can’t sustain the sales necessary to survive.

The least remarked on element of Batman #44’s brilliance is the role that the lettering played throughout the issue, possibly imparting an even more important message than Bruce realizing that he had to actually start listening to the people he claimed to protect if he was going to make any measurable difference in their lives. The issue is narrated by the voice of the city itself, spinning stories of its occult history more or less in line with the narratives established by Alan Moore in Swamp Thing, Jim Starlin and Bernie Wrightson’s Batman: The Cult, and the bulk of Grant Morrison’s Batman work.

It’s the kind of perspective that we take for granted, and within the issue it was placed over a secondary narrative made up of newspaper clippings that revealed a more concrete history of what created the pressures that conspired to destroy Duggio. The history of the gang that pushed Duggio into selling his father’s bodega, the number of “officer involved shootings” of unarmed civilians in Gotham, the failure of Bruce Wayne’s construction projects in the neighbourhood to alleviate gentrification. The details of life in Gotham that Bruce had skimmed over in his crusade. The visuals alone presented a damning indictment of how popular/political narratives convenient to the listener override the deeper and tougher truths.

Terror in particular was more or less accused of peddling that kind of romantic narrative in his screed against the direct market and criticized for not delving into the long and winding path that has lead the industry to its current position. The difference of course is that Terror, nor Dillinger are Bruce Waynes possessed of the means and influence to take the wheel and steer us into the promised land. They’re vigilantes in the truest sense, blunt and vocal members of the comic press’ fifth estate. The spleen of the comics Internet. To focus on the flaws, whatever they may be, in their arguments rather than chase the threads they unravel is a symptom of the deep myopia that really killed Nighthawk.

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The biggest problem with Bendis banging the pre-order drum is that he’s only speaking to and about people already reading comics, with no eye towards building the market to a scale that could support a book like Nighthawk. Terror estimates that there are 100, 000 readers being regularly served by the direct market. I don’t know how plausible that is, but assuming he’s correct that means that there were four issues for every reader of Harley Quinn’s Rebirth debut. As fantastic as it is that DC is willing to put everything they have behind a comic starring a woman, and a bisexual abuse survivor at that, it also means that they’ve hyper saturated the market in an unsustainable bid for market supremacy. The same could be said for the 300, 000 issues that Marvel shipped of Black Panther, which puts things in a much starker light when considering Nighthawk’s fortunes.

Marvel putting such a tremendous amount of their resources behind blanketing stores with copies of Black Panther far beyond demand means withholding those same resources from the rest of the line. A red carpet was rolled out for Black Panther that included a shock and awe campaign beginning with the announcement of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in the pages of the New York Times. On the surface, it looked like a bold move on Marvel’s part that sought to redefine their image in the public eye, but when taken against the reality of how comics are bought and sold, looks a lot more like empty posturing.

The New York Times is a massive platform to launch a comic from that will attract an incredible amount of attention, but that attention begins to wane once people realize what it takes to actually find a place where they can buy it. Imagine if Bendis had appeared on Conan the night following the Coates announcement to explain to a national audience that they would have to hunt down a comic book store two months before the first issue’s release date and give a code to the clerk to reserve their copy and to either place a standing order there or repeat the process ad nauseum just to keep it from disappearing into the ether?

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No one at Marvel is kidding themselves that Black Panther’s monthly sales matter as anything more than a cudgel to bleed numbers from marquee DC titles. The real, actual money from the Coates/Stelfreeze/Martin run is going to come from trade sales, when the outside world can walk into a bookstore or get a copy with a couple clicks on Amazon. By the time any comic makes trade, it’s already paid for itself and those sales are gravy. The same way Chris Claremont described direct market sales relative to the newsstand in its infancy. It’s doubtful anyone at Dark Horse gave a shit about Fight Club 2’s monthly sales, it was more or less a vanity project to bide time until the trade release when people could buy it in a single volume the way they buy anything else Chuck Palahniuk has ever written and the same is absolutely true of Margaret Atwood’s comics debut.

The biggest way, from my perspective, that Nighthawk was robbed by its cancellation at five issues is that it was never given the chance to prove itself in that market. When Omega Men was gaining incredible critical momentum and tumbling in the sales rankings, Jim Lee stepped in personally to give it a stay of execution and let it ride out to a trade. It was one of the savviest moves Lee has made at DC given that it was part of the machinations that went into building Tom King into a centerpiece of the Rebirth line, but it also refocused efforts on that trade release, which DC is putting all their weight behind right now, banking on that cult status. It’s a lesson they’ve had to learn the hard way in their recent history, most notably with Midnighter, which was axed prior its trade debut along with almost all of the DC You titles. DC very generously sent me a very fat package of all the first trades from that line, but I was struck immediately by the fact I didn’t know what to make of them given that they’d all been cancelled long before I received it. Midnighter was at the top of that stack and it proved its viability in that format so well that it’s being repackaged as Midnighter and Apollo, which is great, but it never should have been cut to begin with.

To say that Nighthawk couldn’t find an audience is correct in the sense that it couldn’t find one within the current comics market, just like Bendis was correct in saying that pre-orders are critical to the survival of most comics in the current market. In the insular world of direct market comics, it’s going to be tough to sell the story of a black vigilante taking on a racist police force wearing the latest in Kanye West designed footwear because major publishers have been so effective in telling black audiences that they don’t want their money or tell their stories in anything remotely resembling their own voices that they just plain aren’t around to buy books that do when they finally roll around.

If Axel Alonso were to say that Nighthawk was his favorite book in the current lineup tomorrow, I would absolutely take him at his word, but the hip hop variant cover debacle showed just how lousy he is at outreach. When he was criticized for the company’s lack of investment in hip hop he took it as a personal slight and retorted with the contents of his iPhone, failing to comprehend that the point his critics were making is that he was invested in the commodification of hip hop for a predominantly white audience rather than trying to cultivate an open cultural exchange to produce comics that reflect the values and concerns of hip hop or any other aspect of contemporary black culture. Marvel is definitely taking great strides in addressing that issue with the likes of Black Panther, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Power Man and Iron Fist, and the upcoming World of Wakanda, but if they aren’t taking equal strides in cultivating audiences for those books, they can’t hope to be sustainable successes.

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The most withering critique that I can offer of Axel Alonso is that he’s Bruce in Batman #44, convinced he has all the tools to not just save but lead the city as it all crumbles beneath his feet because he’s never stepped outside to actually listen to the people he thinks he represents. But he didn’t strangle Nighthawk to death any more than Chuck Rozanski did when he dissuaded the US Justice Department from pursuing a potential break up of Diamond’s effective distribution monopoly. Much like Duggio’s death, as satisfying as it would be to find a single, tangible target to blame for the commercial failure of a comic that had the zeitgeist by the throat, it just plain won’t happen.

Batman #44 was much bigger than a one off story, it was the centerpiece of the Superheavy arc that closed off Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s historic Batman run and a pivotal moment in cementing their legacy. Finally understanding Duggio’s death for what it was and his place in causing it, Bruce ended the issue by stopping to talk to the children in The Narrows, to start an outreach that would lead to a personal transformation that altered his relationship to the city and lives on as the spiritual core of Tom King and James Tynion IV’s approach to the character following Rebirth. There’s an equal opportunity for that kind of introspection following Nighthawk’s cancellation to use it as an opportunity to adjust how we advocate for the change we want to see in the industry on matters of representation and progressive storytelling.

Nighthawk was never going to change the industry overnight or singlehandedly, but it was that book. The one so many of us clamored and argued for, the Good Kid, M.A.D.D. City of superhero comics. So it’s natural to feel shook when something with that much fire behind it can’t make it and that, not the early stages of anger and frustration, is the time to advocate for the merits of being students of history. Because it’s clearly not enough to speak truth to power and demand change when the system we’re seeking to reform has proven itself unable to accommodate the change being called for.

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If we want to be agents of change in the industry as readers, critics, creators, or any other role within the industry, it behooves us to understand how that system works and how we can better strategize to effect that change. In Terror’s follow up to his original post, he highlighted comments by Outhousers contributor Richard Caldwell questioning why DC and Marvel’s parent companies, who have massive retail presences, have made no significant moves of their own in innovating distribution. Disney, after all, was looking to make major acquisitions in comics long before the eventual Marvel purchase. Remember CrossGen? His reasoning, and others besides, is that they’re content to run the comics wing of their companies as IP farms to fuel their more lucrative divisions and could thus very well be an albatross around the neck of the rest of the industry in attempting distribution reform.

The underlying malaise resurrected by Nighthawk’s cancellation and Terror’s polemic are nothing new. They were crystallized in Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson’s now legendary speech to retailers that evoked Dickens in declaring the industry to be in a time of deep ambivalence. He called for change; for publishers to stop shortsighted practices that boost short term profits to the detriment of the long term and for retailers to broaden their horizons in what they read to become better ambassadors for the industry.

By carpetbombing retailers with massive quantities of a single issue and reaping the rewards of glowing media coverage typified by Harley Quinn’s Rebirth performance, it doesn’t seem like that message has travelled far uphill at first blush, but Stephenson’s venture into returnability, piloted in 2014, has found open ears in Burbank, with DC making 141 of the Rebirth titles returnable, including the 400,000 issues of Harley Quinn. These are, however, moves that are pivoted entirely within the direct market. Thus, they live or die by Diamond’s ability to facilitate them which is asking a lot given their reputation for fulfilling orders under conventional circumstances, making DC’s venture a major stress test for the ability of the direct market to adapt to change in its current incarnation.

Stephenson has yet, to the best of my knowledge, make any significant moves to expand Image’s presence beyond the direct market despite having at least one ongoing title primed and ready for just such a moonshot. Brandon Graham and Emma Rios’ passion project Island, a monthly magazine format anthology, has so far been the most exciting experiment at a major publisher in recent history, remaining plastic enough to adapt to sales and seek out a sustainable model while exposing readers to a whole host of unconventional creators.

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Graham has, so far, focused on using Island as a vehicle for expanding how comic readers view the potential of the medium and getting people he admires published and paid, but in my opinion there’s tremendous potential for turning the anthology into an entry point into comics full stop. A large scale return to the newsstands is a ludicrous proposition, comics as a print market are never going to return to the halcyon days of the 1970s, but a publication like Island has tremendous potential to inhabit the same shelf space as magazines like Juxtapoz and Hi-Fructose, but such a move, in theory, could require a renegotiation of Image’s exclusive distribution contract with Diamond.

Caldwell, in his remarks on Terror’s initial post, goes on to advocate for challenging Diamond’s Don’t Call it a Monopoly, suggesting that putting hard times on Steve Geppi could lead to innovation, and it’s a tempting thought given that all roads do indeed seem to lead to Diamond given that even new entrants like Action Lab, Aftermath, and Black Mask have hitched their stars to the system. On the other hand, as I’m wont to do whenever the topic comes up, there remains the criminally under discussed example of Templar, Arizona creator Spike Trotman who has reinvented herself as a publisher through her company Iron Circus Comics.

In a few short years, Trotman has leveraged Kickstarter into a thriving and sustainable business model and is more or less live tweeting her venture into finding and negotiating the details of getting distribution outside of the direct market. Iron Circus’ output, it bears noting, focuses primarily on comics by POC and LBGTQIA creators, precisely the segment of creators most vulnerable to having their careers derailed or ended by the difficulties of navigating the direct market. She won’t save the industry single handedly either, but her success and current venture could very well give us a glimpse into a post-Diamond future.

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The fundamental point I want to make is that Nighthawk’s cancellation really ought to be a gut check for activism in comics. When a comic that tackles the biggest issues of the day head on with an all star team like Walker, Villalobos, and Bonvillain to massive critical acclaim can’t gain traction, it says there’s something very wrong with how comics do business. I’m not concerned for the prospects of anyone who worked on the book, they’ve found success individually elsewhere and will hopefully reunite in the future much like Team Batgirl is preparing to do with the forthcoming launch of Motor Crush.

The bigger question to me is how much sense does it make to continue to advocate for better representation and more progressive storytelling when the exclusionary nature of the system is keeping tremendous work out of the hands of the audience it’s made for? Activism can take many different forms and address multiple issues at once, but a question anyone with a vested interest in seeing the situation improve should be asking themselves how much better can we hope for without achieving significant structural change first?

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