Sunday, March 30, 2008

Smackdown!! Or Was It?

While researching my bit on Atlas Comics, I came across this awesome little tidbit, which I had never heard before, from an article by Jon B. Cooke at the Atlas Archives website, originally published in the magazine Comic Book Artist (Dec 2001):
One of [Marvel publisher] Martin [Goodman]'s outrageously successful business moves during the last years of his tenure at Marvel was to trick the industry's top company, DC Comics (then called National Periodical Publications), into committing an ultimately disastrous page-count and pricing change for the publisher of Superman, resulting in what then DC editorial director (soon to be publisher) Carmine Infantino characterized as a "slaughter" committed by Marvel upon his company. In an audaciously daring move, the House of Ideas raised the page count of its regular titles 75% from 32 to 48 pages, accompanied by a 75% price hike from 15¢to 25¢ on its October and November 1971 cover-dated books. Immediately DC followed suit, though significantly increasing their page count 100%, from 32 to 64 pages. But within a month, in a move that sent shockwaves through the industry, Goodman immediately dropped page count back to 32 pages yet only reducing the price per book to 20¢, still a 25% price increase from two months prior.

The results of Martin's gambit? Marvel was able to give wholesalers a 50% discount off the cover price of their line, as compared to DC's mere 40% price break. And whose titles would the retailers be more likely to push, do you think? Plus, what kid could resist getting five snappy, all-new Marvels for a buck, compared to four DCs, padded with moldy, old reprints? Also, as DC had to lock into ordering huge quantities of paper-a full year's supply-the publisher was trapped at the 25¢, 64-page format for an entire year. (Historian Carl Gafford has surmised that the Wage and Price Controls of President Richard Nixon's Administration may have also played a factor in the DC debacle, a proposition CBA intends to examine with Gaff in the future.) Those 12 months were all the time DC's competitor needed to come out on top and, for the first time in their decades-old rivalry, Marvel surpassed DC in sales, only rarely looking back in the quarter-century passed since that fateful year. The DC supremacy on the comics racks ended in 1972 after an astonishing 35-year reign, a dynasty suddenly in disarray, scrambling to get back on top, while Martin Goodman sat very prettily indeed, ensconced in his new role as the King of Comics in this New Marvel Age.
Isn't that just crazy amazing? Can you just imagine Marvel pulling a complete financial jiu jitsu on DC like that? That is so amazing, I would make it a Friday Night Fights if we weren't on hiatus right now (hey, print is black and white, right?). Would such a thing be possible today?

However, there's a pretty big problem with this tale: the timeline doesn't work, at least not the way Cooke describes it. It fact, a lot about it doesn't ring correct:
  • DC went up in price BEFORE Marvel did. DC went to 25¢ and a higher page count in issues dated August 1971. Marvel didn't go up to 25¢ until October 1971. That sure sounds like Marvel was reacting to DC's move, not vice versa.
  • Just in case you think there might be some confusion between street dates and cover dates, all the Marvel September issues were emblazoned with "Still 15¢". Again, that clearly implies that Marvel was reacting to DC's increase, and advertising that. You saw the exact same thing in 1976, when DC went to 30¢, and for months Marvel emblazoned their covers with "Still Only 25¢".
  • It's possible that DC was acting preemptively, I suppose, in response either to an announcement Marvel had made, or a leak from their offices. But if that's the case, was it really some master plan of Goodman's to kick DC in the groin financially? Or did he just get lucky? If it was a deliberate ploy, wasn't Goodman taking a gamble that DC would make the price/page jump in response? If this was some Machiavellian "gambit," what's the move if DC doesn't react, and doesn't go up first?
  • DC wasn't "trapped at the 64-page format for an entire year." In fact, they were NEVER at 64 pages regularly. According to the GCD database, the page count the month DC went up to 25¢ was 52 (and later 48). Some of their comics still had their regular twice-a-year 64-page Giant (see the next item), but the regular issues were never 64 pages during that year-long period.
  • Those "moldy, old reprints" were nothing new. In that period, DC every year turned 2 regular issues of their titles (July and December) into 80 or 64-page Giants, priced at 25¢, featuring nothing but reprints. If that hadn't hurt DC's sales, it's hard to fathom why the same price and format lead off by brand new stories would turn off the "kids." (Plus, on an editorial note, how many great stories were reprinted in those issues that we never would have gotten to see otherwise? "Moldy" my butt...)

I plead complete ignorance on the matter of wholesaler rates, year-long paper purchases, and wage and price controls. But the stuff I do know about, by simply looking at the covers of the comics and checking dates, seems to call into question how correct Cooke's story is.

Damn...another great anecdote ruined by the facts!! And here i was hoping Joe Quesada could trick DC into going down to $1.99...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fantastic analysis, Snell! I love all of that "inside baseball" stuff with the comic biz. Even something as seemingly benign as a format and price change has a whole back story of cunning and borderline ruthlessness....I love it! It's a constant reminder that comic book publishing, at the end of the day, is a business. The point, contrary to what many fanboys believe, in not necessarily to make all our dreams come true, but rather to make a buck while (hopefully) entertaining readers enough to come back for more.