Mainstream Comic Books Have a Critical Problem


Mainstream comic books may dominate sales charts, indie books are the darlings of critics.

This week, independent and creator-owned titles claimed eleven of the top twenty slots on review aggregator site ComicBookRoundup.com. The remaining nine slots fell to DC and Vertigo titles, with Marvel left completely out of the rankings.

The top reviewed titles of the week were Black Mask‘s The Dregs, Image’s God Country, and Valiant’s X-O Manowar. Each received close to a 9 overall rating on the site. This suggests that the perception of quality from indie publishers far outweighs that of mainstream books.

Black Masks THE DREGS led the field

These charts indicate an interesting conundrum for the industry. The critical conversation is increasingly centered on titles outside of the Big Two. The health of the market’s largest performers from a sales perspective is unquestionable. The story on the critical front is quite different. While DC can certainly lay claim to their fair share of success, Marvel’s absence is notable.

Marvel’s policy has long been to restrict advance review copies to Disney-owned outlets and other corporate comic book news sites. ComicBookResources and Newsarama are among the only sites to receive access to Marvel titles. Independent publishers are far more liberal with their distribution. Nearly any blog willing to provide reviews receives access. (Full Disclosure: Capeless receives advance review copies from almost every publisher except Marvel.) As indicated by the number of advance reviews of forthcoming titles, publishers such as Image, Oni, Titan, etc do everything they can to build buzz for books by putting them in the hands of as many reviewers as possible.

COMIC BOOKS’ WAY FORWARD

This is not to say the free-wheeling review copy policies are solely to blame for Marvel’s absence. Interestingly, mainstay titles such as Batman still receive literally hundreds of reviews from sites around the internet. Titles of this magnitude remain closely held by DC. The fact that Marvel can’t appear to get a single book into top critical charts suggests that there is certainly something amiss. Either critics are intentionally lowballing the “House of Ideas”, or the event fatigue fans consistently moan about is taking its toll on critics as well.

There is a growing belief that Marvel Entertainment’s actual comic books are little more than fodder for Disney’s Marvel Studios. Characters not controlled by Disney receive little to no attention from the publisher. Characters featured in recent and upcoming films receive massive publicity pushes. Just a reminder, Marvel’s “First Family”, the Fantastic Four, still don’t have their own title.

As the industry continues to evolve, publishers are going to have to consider how to improve fan perception of their titles if they want to survive. Unless DC and Marvel are content to use their comic book content as loss leaders for films in perpetuity, they may want to take a page from the indies and open the gates a bit more. Though their books may sell well, they’re failing to build goodwill. While critics aren’t the end-all be-all, perception matters. How much does it matter? Time will tell.


 

Josh Epstein

Josh Epstein is the Publisher for the Capeless Crusader website. He’s a lifelong comic nerd, and “Superman” is the first word he ever read aloud. He is also an actor, singer, and resident of a real-world Smallville.

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