Reflections From A Virtual Marvel EIC

By | Tuesday, July 31, 2012 2 comments
Way back in May 2007, I participated in an online role-playing game hosted by none other than Tom Brevoort. The idea is that each of the four players (myself, Michael Heide, Patrick Cook and Philip Schaeffer in this case) took on the role of editors at Marvel, responsible for several books. We would try to direct the books, as editors do, and Tom would run things as the game master, acting as NPCs (i.e. the artists, writers, board of directors, etc.) and would tell us how well our decisions were playing out in the market.

It was actually the second time that Brevoort played the game, and he made some changes from his first, most notably that one of us would play the role of editor-in-chief while the others would act as line editors. The game was played on a very compressed timeline, running (I think) six months of comics in about a week and a half. The stated goal was to increase overall sales by 20%. All the main details are still on Marvel's site, but it looks like the time/date stamps got scrambled and everything older than a few years is dated to April 28, 2007. So you can find all the original "moves" we made and Brevoort's responses, but they're not really in any sort of order and mixed up with a lot of other stuff.

Anyway, one of the things we very quickly did was launch a giant crossover event. Increasing overall sales by 20% is a HUGE endeavor, and one that I immediately recognized as unattainable in the time period without adding at least one new title of some sort. Schaeffer was hoping to relaunch The Defenders with a team consisting of Black Panther, Namor, Dr. Doom and Magneto, but I countered that it's an interesting idea but the team didn't seem to have a good reason to exist. We all batted some ideas around, and I got everybody on board for a mega-event-crossover we ended up calling "Balance of Power."

The basic thrust of the story was that the Earth suddenly experienced a rash of natural disasters: earthquakes, floods, tornados... everything. All at about the same time. I talked a bit more about it back here, but it provided (I thought) a nice way to let everyone contribute without having to worry too much about what the next guy was doing, and then gave a more natural introduction into this new Defenders book.
Ultimately, we sailed past our sales goal and received some nice kudos from Brevoort. It was an informative (and fun!) experience, getting a taste of how books get created from an editorial perspective.

I recall that one thing Brevoort noted he was surprised about, in his wrap-up/summation at the end, was how quickly we went to the standard tropes for boosting sales -- new titles, crossovers, multiple covers, etc. It seemed obvious to me, given the timeframe we had to work within. Even back then, I was knowledgeable enough about comic sales to know that you can't goose an entire line by 20% without adding more product. You could increase the sales of maybe a title or two with a great creative team, but it would have to be a LEGENDARY run to impact overall sales that much. So we did an event book instead.

What's interesting about that now is that I've been hearing some rumblings around the internet the past few days with people complaining about how Marvel and DC aren't even trying to bring in new readers. All they're doing is tying to get the same fans to spend more, or drop the competition's books in favor of their own. That's kind of an open secret any more.

In the simulation, we were given a specific goal by power higher than the Editor-in-Chief. The real-world equivalent of that is that Joe Quesada, Jim Lee and Dan DiDio all have bosses they report to, and have to deliver against specific goals. Maybe it's not sales volume per se, but maybe revenue. Or profits. Something likely tied to how much they're selling. If Quesada, Lee and DiDio want to hit their goals (and keep their jobs!) they're going to direct their people in a way that they think will achieve those goals. And, if they're short-term goals -- say, six or twelve months -- they're going to take a short-term approach.

The same way we did in the simulation. We didn't have to think about long-term impacts because we knew the game wasn't going to last very long. We had to worry about the next ten days, and that was it. While there was an overall strategy to how we approached things, it was most decidedly a short-term strategy with most of the focus -- even at the editorial level -- on tactics.

I believe Brevoort also mentioned at some point that most of what he was doing as the game master was based on real events he actually saw/experienced at Marvel. One of the creators went AWOL, art pages that were getting mailed in went missing, some of our plans wound up getting leaked to Rich Johnston (who actually wound up playing as himself in the game!), our budget was slashed and I had to fire one of the other editors... Brevoort obviously changed and tweaked things as to make sense with the game narrative, but the thrust of the challenges we faced were based on real ones.

And, although I didn't ask specifically, I have to imagine "increase overall sales by 20%" was one of them. Again, maybe it was via revenue or profits or something, but I suspect that Quesada was at some point given a similar directive. If that were the case, it wouldn't be surprising if he went to the same conclusion we did, but without the benefit of having someone just getting done proving how well it works. (If I had to guess, I'm thinking that occurred around 2004/2005 and led to the "House of M" event. That's just a guess, though; I have no evidence to back that up.)

But, whereas our game ended after a short time and we walked away, Quesada still reports to higher-ups at Marvel. When his game finishes, he's congratulated and given a new goal. Often, probably, do that again. So we get "Avengers Disassembled" followed by "The Initiative" followed by "Civil War" followed by "Secret Invasion" followed by "Dark Reign" followed by... And, not surprisingly, Lee and DiDio have to do the same thing.

We like to think of comics as wondrous creative endeavor. That the writers and artists are out there, trying to express themselves and entertain us, with Wolverine and Wonder Woman as their vehicles. And that any crass marketing efforts are the fault of all those people who have "editor" somewhere in their title. But the reality is that those editors are making marketing decisions like that as a result of their superiors define their jobs. The editor's job is NOT to steer a great creative team to make a great comics; the editor's job is to sell more comics. More specifically, sell more comics NOW.

People will naturally adjust their behaviors based on what/how you reward/punish them. The No Child Left Behind law is a prime example. The students are told they have to pass a standardized test, or the school gets punished. So the teachers naturally start teaching only/exclusively to the test. The students only wind up learning how to take one specific test, and don't really learn critical thinking or applied logic. Similarly, if editors are rated against how well their books sell in any given month, they're going to work towards achieving that goal. Bringing in new kids now is, by comparison, a costly endeavor and takes years and years to really bear fruit. Which is difficult to track as well. So editors focus on what they can see/measure today -- how many more books did I sell this month over last month?

Fans bemoaned the 1990s for embossed, foil, die-cut, hologram covers but the sales numbers show those books sold better. So editors kept producing them. It wasn't until they stopped selling that we stopped seeing that nonsense. As long as fans continue to buy in to the big event books, similarly, Marvel and DC are just going to keep doing them. The editors really are doing exactly what they should be doing, given the goals handed to them from their bosses and the purchasing habits of their readers. Expecting them to do anything else would mean expecting them to walk away from their jobs.
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Matthew Southworth said...

Hi Sean--

Thanks for this article; it's informative and level-headed about something I think many (most?) comics readers and pros are pretty tired of, the event book. I really appreciate your description of this game--one I'd give my eye teeth to have taken part in. It has given me another perspective on the event phenomenon, and I'm grateful for it.

Matt Southworth

Jesse Post said...

Thanks, Sean -- fascinating piece and really engaging.

I think most people have a very slim grasp on just how omnipresent the financials are in your day-to-day work when you're toiling for a publicly-traded corporation. Sure, everyone can identify publishing moves that seem like they're financially motivated, but few understand exactly what that means. And it's almost never the greedy Mr. Burns-ian "cash grab" that most fans think it is; it's just you going to work every day.

Most corporations have a mid-year strategy plan that charts out the financial growth for the next ten years (yes -- TEN years into the future!). The first two years have to be very specific, with double-digit percentage growth over the year you're in at the moment, and a clear plan with examples of how you'll achieve it. The outer years can be more fast and loose, but the end result is usually a minimum 10% growth over the strat period, usually more if you're at a really ambitious company. If you ever present a 10-year-plan with, say, 3% projected growth and your CFO approves it, you're in trouble -- that means they know that your business isn't worth that much and layoffs are likely coming.

Then, a few months before the fiscal year rolls over, you have to re-present your plans for the immediately following year with even more specificity and the same thing applies: it should be significant growth (10% is usually acceptable) and you're never allowed to say, "We're just gonna hang back and stay flat for the next couple years while we invest in the future." I mean, you COULD say that, of course, but the higher-ups will still set your budget target at 10% anyway. Then, each week your supervisor will stop by to ask how you're doing with efforts to meet that goal.

As you point out, there's almost no one below an executive VP level who can even dream of pitching an alternative way of going about things. It's not even true that those higher-ups don't care about the product. It's just that they assume those "creatives" down below will handle that, within the financial boundaries they've set up.