Here’s a cautionary tale. In 2011, Marvel Comics launched a new Alpha Flight title which was, more or less, exactly the book fans wanted. It tanked after nine issues.
What the hell?
Alpha Flight is a late Bronze-Age superhero concept of a team of exclusively Canadian superheroes, and Wolverine’s original team before the X-Men. Effectively the brainchild of John Byrne, Alpha Flight had a very distinctly Canadian team, sort of an Avengers with a Canuck flair (every character was from a different province, and each dabbled in different parts of Canadian culture—for poutine’s sake, one of them was a Sasquatch). It really was one of those oh-so-Marvel titles rooted in classic Byrne creativity, and a staple part of the company’s shared universe. Yeah, they were kind of third-rate, but the original series managed to run a respectable 130 issues, and a few experimental sequel series in the years after.
One of Alpha Flight’s problems is that the series kept straying from its roots, and the original team in their original form was never quite reunited. We always ended up with a number of awkward or ersatz versions of the team, and classic members kept getting killed, resurrected, and killed again (including Brian Michael Bendis very unceremoniously killing them before the first Civil War). The Avengers, Fantastic Four, and X-Men usually have a “core” team that the book always revolves around, but Alpha Flight always seemed to miss the mark.
The 2011 revival series by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente essentially got the book back to that core concept with the original team of Guardian, Vindicator, Shaman, Sasquatch, Puck, and the others reunited. There were some minor upgrades to the team’s appearance, and the characters had to deal with some loose ends from the past 30 years of Alpha Flight continuity, but otherwise, this book was gold. It was exactly the comic Alpha fans had been clamoring for with two creators who we knew would take care of them, some decent Dale Eaglesham art, a tie-in to Fear Itself (the 2011 Marvel summer event), and a guest-appearance by Wolverine. The book was as close to mainstream superhero gold as it could get.
And it tanked. The sales just weren’t there, and Marvel killed it.
This kind of thing happens all the time at comics companies, even the big two. (I’m going to pick on Marvel a lot here, but DC also has this issue.) We can generally agree that some books are “objectively” better than others and some books are more worth of cancellation of others. But regardless, unless a title is a “core” book, it’s probably going to end up on the chopping block at some point. There’s almost certainly going to be a Spider-Man or Avengers or Batman type book on the shelf every month, even if the number of those books expands and contracts. But your Moon Knight or Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat, probably isn’t going to last a year or two in this day and age.
Every so often, fans lament these books killed too soon with a “WHY????” as if it’s some grave injustice on the part of the industry, the publisher, and the readership for not letting a “great” book last longer. This complaint seems to get all the louder if it’s a “diverse” title with a female or minority lead.
I’m going to suggest a radical concept here: comic books get cancelled because that’s life.
I certainly don’t blame anyone who’s upset when a favorite title gets shelved and it the market doesn’t notice what we see in our hearts. We see great art, great story, important concepts, and something that resonates with us which the rest of the market just isn’t getting. They’re off reading their X-Men or whatever it is the kids are into these days. (Although, let’s be fair—today’s Top 20 books are probably legitimately earning their place. Tom King is on Batman, Marvel’s Star Wars line sells well for obvious reasons, and The Walking Dead is a cultural staple right now.) But when you have over 300 titles competing for the top 20 spot, 280 of them aren’t going to make it.
This would probably take a significant amount of research, but I would wager that upwards of 90 percent of all comic books ever published have been cancelled (subtracting out books which go through revamps and relaunches, like Spider-Man’s various forms). This tends to be true across all of business, though: most new restaurants and small businesses eventually fail, and few movies ever light the box office on fire anymore.
Marvel, if you think about it, does this all the time: it publishes a substantial amount of product, and statistically, most of it eventually fails. Why? Because in business, risk-taking is a necessity, and a conservative approach to a new product isn’t going to work. Success depends on a number of factors—luck included—but innovation starts with taking a gamble and seeing if the product can work. So Marvel, honestly, frequently throws a bunch of shit against the wall, floods the market, and sees which products the readership is buying. Most of the shit doesn’t stick. Sometimes, some of it does.
Let’s look back to “Marvel Now!” in 2012. Marvel, as they always do, put out a bunch of books. Among them were A+X, Avengers A.I., FF, Fearless Defenders, Morbius: The Living Vampire, a new version of Thunderbolts, Journey Into Mystery with Sif, and Red She-Hulk. And all those books tanked at some point. The books which came out of that period which really stuck were, uh, Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy, and they both had a boost from their respective films a few years later. “All New Marvel Now!” in 2014 gave us Ghost Rider, Angela: Asgard’s Assassin, Invaders, X-Factor, Black Widow, Cyclops, Iron Patriot, Legendary Star-Lord, Loki: Agent of Asgard, Magneto, Moon Knight (ha!), New Warriors, Nightcrawler, and Storm. Post Secret-Wars, none of those have stuck around, or if they mutated into another form (Angela), they still didn’t last long. A few books like Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur have managed to get enough attention that they’ve escaped the publication grim reaper, but most haven’t.
There’s no telling what’s going to stick with “Marvel Legacy,” because Marvel’s now taking a very conservative approach with going back to old numbering on existing titles and focusing more on core concepts. Falcon, Marvel Two-in-One, and Spirits of Vengeance are among the few “new” titles. A lot of the existing books are holdovers from the second “Marvel Now” launch in 2016, like Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows, America, She-Hulk, Thanos, Venom, Black Bolt, and a few others. It’s probably from those books that we’ll see our next set of cancellations.
We’ll never have a firm answer on this one. The fact is that it’s always an unexpected and lucky set of circumstances that results in a particular comic, book, TV show, or movie that results in it taking off like wildfire. Star Wars is crazy successful now, but back in 1977, it was a substantial gamble and almost fell apart. If entertainment companies knew how to replicate that kind of success every time, they would. But the market is fickle and always looking for the next big thing.
But here’s some things working against a book at any given time:
- Readership is diverse. You might really enjoy Power Man & Iron Fist, but you aren’t everyone. PM&IF, like Alpha Flight, probably depends on a certain nostalgia factor. It also probably depends on a certain segment of the market wanting to read about a rich Kung-Fu white guy and his black street-tough friend. It might be good, but it may also be that not everyone is into that very specific niche concept.
- Readership is limited. We have to face the honest fact that comic readership is, even in 2017, a very specific market. Movies now have billions of people to market to; American television has millions of potential customers. Comics, realistically, have maybe a few hundred thousand people who are actually willing to spend money on entertainment that they get for free on television or the internet. The whole of North America may be a potential market, but comics, unsurprisingly, are still struggling to bring in new readers to the local shop and floppy issues.
- Dollars are limited. Out of that limited number of comic book readers which the market is competing for, they only have so much money to spend on entertainment. Realistically, comics have to charge a certain amount of money to pay their creators, pay for publishing costs, and still earn some money on top of that in order to keep printing more. But with rising prices and other life costs (you need to pay the bills before you can buy your comics), the average reader has to choose what books they really want. Batman is a safe bet for good entertainment for the average reader. All-New Ghost Rider might not be. If a reader’s weekly budget is limited and they have to choose between a staple book and an experimental one…can you blame them if they go with the staple?
- The market is flooded. Seriously, have we not noticed this? If you have a shop that actually orders the entire Diamond catalog every month, a reader is going to have a shitload of books screaming for their attention. (If your shop is smaller and only orders the most demanded books—which is a budgeting decision they have to make—then you’re SOL unless you know about a specific book and can get the shop to order it.) Shops might have a “pick of the week” and websites might offer various recommendations, but that just sort of adds to the information overload. A reader might simply not know about your favorite “hot” book, or may have many, many other “hot” books competing for attention just as much as yours.
Put all these factors together, and you have a very unlikely shot at any given new book lasting for very long. It’s the problem you often encounter in nature, where a mother animal has to produce a very large brood because most of the infants are going to get eaten out there. Baby rabbits and sea turtles are cute, sure, but nature doesn’t give a crap about that and the bulk of them end up dead well before adulthood. It’s tragic, but it’s also perfectly, dreadfully normal.
The sad fact is that comic book companies are not there to cater to our tastes. They are there to make money, and they do so by putting out a product that they think you’ll want. Your tastes may coincide with their product, but your tastes are not the endgame. Your wallet is, and if enough wallets aren’t supporting it, the book dies.
If you love a given comic book, by all means: buy it, review it, promote it, and get extra copies for your friends. Maybe your beloved title will turn out to be the next Deadpool or Ms. Marvel and take off like wildfire. But odds are, it will suffer the law of the jungle and end up dead within a year. That’s not necessarily the fault of anyone unnecessarily hating on the book, but just a fact of life: not everyone makes it. Be happy that you found something you loved for however brief, but realize that nothing lasts forever in comics, and even fewer things last anywhere close to it.