Saturday, June 16, 2007


The first genuinely interesting announcement of the comic convention season: Marvel are merging all three Spider-Man books into a single title with the upcoming creative reshuffle. The mechanics are that they're cancelling Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man and Sensational Spider-Man and upping Amazing Spider-Man to three issues a month - but in practice, it's a merger. There will still be several creative teams, but they'll work on alternating arcs.

I'm a huge supporter of this move, and I've been saying for years that they should do it with the X-Men. The usual counter-argument is that it involves a massive investment of time and capital to build up the first few months' stories, which is a fair point. But the current format, where all three books try to exist independently of one another, simply doesn't work as a storytelling device.

The reality is that Amazing Spider-Man has dictated the direction of the line while the writers of the other two books - Peter David and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa - have been left to squeeze their stories into whatever books are available. Because the modern tendency is to write five-issue storylines, which take five months to get through, it's never entirely clear what order things are meant to be happening in. Events in other books - save for the real agenda-setting stuff in Amazing - are just ignored in the other titles. There's absolutely no sense that the stories in Sensational or Friendly matter on any level, since we can see for ourselves that they have no impact on the characters.

This just doesn't work. Creative freedom is vastly overrated; if you're going to maintain the idea that all of these stories take place in the same universe, and feature the same lead character, then it's simply not on to have three competing books trying to tell different stories and dragging him in different directions. If the market will bear this volume of Spider-Man comics, all ostensibly featuring the same character, then your options are twofold. Either you run a single, co-ordinating story and make sure things fit, or you resign yourself to the fact that the B- and C-titles will have to tell completely inconsequential stories. Marvel have tried the latter option and the sales figure for the satellite titles speak volumes. Now they're going to really face up to the implications of a shared universe - and a shared title character - and have a single book with collaborating creators.

In an ideal world, perhaps, I'd rather have one book done by one creative team. But if the economic reality compels more Spider-Man comics than one creative team can produce, I'd rather they were heavily co-ordinated and working as a team to tell a single story. There's still scope for creators to have some freedom within this format, just as individual Dr Who scriptwriters can still tell their own stories within the wider framework of the show - it just means that everything has a clear thread and direction.

Hopefully it works. Hopefully, if it does, they'll take the hint and kill off two of the X-Men titles as well. The X-Men books have been plagued by spectacular lack of direction ever since Grant Morrison left, and they've been suffering for it in terms of sales figures. One team, one title, one direction. Any more is a mistake. Marvel has been demonstrating why for the last few years.

So - if you actually buy all of the Spider-Man books at the moment, and you intended to keep doing so after the creative reshuffle, then this is a good thing. Without question.

The fly in the ointment is what this means for the readers who don't buy all three books at the moment - which is where the whole thing could go catastrophically awry. Amazing's direct market sales fluctuate according to crossovers and events, but it's been consistently over 120K for months now. Sensational and Friendly sell less than half that amount, because readers (quite correctly) perceive them as totally superfluous.

That means that in the direct market alone, there are presently some sixty thousand readers who have decided that they don't want to buy three Spider-Man books a month. How will they react? Will they buy into the glorious new era and shell out extra money for the privilege? Or will they see this as a shameless device to make them pay triple the money - which, on one level, it plainly is?

We're not talking about a few people round the edges, here - we're talking about half the Spider-Man readership. And one has to assume that they're the half who were less interested in Spider-Man to start with. Many of them are only around because of Amazing's seemingly neverending string of crossovers. Marvel will need a very strong opening storyline to hold them.

But that said, Marvel can afford to lose a fair chunk of them. Suppose the new Amazing drops 40,000 readers. That'll still translate into a big sales rise for Friendly and Sensational - and it'll make the exercise worthwhile.

I really hope this works.