Saturday, March 2, 2013

The flawed logic of the multi-title mega-crossover

One reason I quit reading comics in 1999 (and something I still despise today having gotten back to the hobby) is DC's and Marvel's tired, old, failed marketing strategy that I call the "Multi-Title Mega-Crossover", or MTMC for short. So what exactly is are MTMCs and why do I hate them so?

A Multi-Title Mega-Crossover (MTMC) is a story-arc in which the various parts of the story are told in more than one series (hence "Multi-title") and have many parts. A recent example is the "Death of the Family" crossover spanning all the "Batman Family" books. This story-line hop-scotched across the Bat-titles, starting (sort of) in Batgirl 13, then moving to Catwoman 13, Batman and Robin 13, Suicide Squad 14, Batman 14, Batgirl 14, Detective Comics 15, Batgirl 15, Batman 15, Batman and Robin 15... and so on until issue 17 of these titles. It's so convoluted, the Superheroes List website has a whole article explaining the order in which to read these books. In all, there were 26 issues to read, spanning 10 different titles over 5 months. The only word I can find for such a story-line is "mess." (Hmm... I seem to use that word frequently in reference to decisions made by the front office of DC Comics.)

Why I despise MTMCs

I have always hated the multi-title mega-crossover, for a variety of reasons. I will list them here briefly.

Reason #1: Fragmentary story-telling. No matter how good the writers or how good the overall plot of the crossover, the fact that a story crosses into several books with completely different creative teams gives the story a kind of 'multiple personality disorder.' Imagine you read a novel where every chapter was written by a different author. That is exactly what the MTMC is like. This leads to fragmentary stories that do not flow properly from issue to issue. Thus, every single MTMC that I've ever read has been vastly inferior to good story arcs produced within a single series.

Reason #2: I don't like being played. I don't like having my hand forced. I sample titles regularly on my own. I do not need Marvel or DC telling me what comics to try each month. The MTMC is blatant money-grubbing of the worst sort.

Reason #3: It utterly screws up the series that participate. Most (good) series have a long, interesting thread of continuity running through them. The MTMC usually has nothing to do with that thread. That means the MTMC is going to interrupt, often for 3-4 months, a long-running story that has captured my interest. Thus the MTMC forces each participant series to 'break stride' and then resume the longer storyline months later.

Reason #4: Inferior quality of stories. The MTMC issues of a series are never as good as the book's main storyline. Even the most talented writers struggle to make the MTMC fit into the general continuity of the book, and in many cases this simply cannot be done.

Why companies publish MTMCs

I've always despised MTMCs, and I have had many fellow comic-book lovers say the same, so why do companies even do them? There's only one reason to have a 10-title, 26-issue crossover story in all the Bat-titles: it's a marketing ploy. DC clearly intends to entice readers who are only buying one title, say Catwoman, to buy all the others so they can follow the story. If the reader doesn't do that, then he ends up reading only, say, parts 3 and 11 of a 26-part story, and winds up confused. The company is trying to force the reader's hand, much like Microsoft tries to force their PC users to browse with Internet Explorer rather than Chrome or Firefox. This is an apt analogy: just as Microsoft doesn't try to win IE users by making it better than Chrome, instead relying on the brute force of their operating system, DC doesn't try to make the stories in Suicide Squad or Batman and Robin any better -- they try to make Catwoman readers buy the other books because that's the only way to finish reading the story.

Another reason for the MTMC is that most families or groups of books have a "lead" book -- the headliner book for the family -- which is the most popular. Then there will be a bunch of "follower" books with a narrower readership. Again using our example, the "lead" book would be Batman, and the "follower" books would be the ones about the "second tier" Bat-characters (like Catwoman, Nightwing, and Batgirl). Lead books usually have more readers for historical reasons. For instance, Batman is one of the oldest heroes in all of comics, whereas Catwoman is one of his supporting characters. The MTMC's purpose, then, is to try to force people who read the "lead" book, but usually ignore the second tier characters, to sample the the follower books. DC of course hopes that some of these will stick with the follower series for the long term, but even if not, the follower books get a sales boost for a few months.

Finally, the companies hype MTMCs to Kingdom Come, with the apparent belief that crossovers win comic-book series entirely new fans (who hadn't been reading those books before). According to DC's logic, MTMCs will expand readership simply because "crossovers are cool."

The question we will ask and answer in this article is: does the MTMC really accomplish anything in terms of sales? Do MTMCs encourage readers of each book to cross "party lines" and read the other books? Do MTMCs cause readers of the "lead" book to pick up the follower books? And perhaps most importantly, are crossovers really "cool"? That is, do MTMCs boost readership in general for the series involved in the crossover by getting new people to read those books?

Do MTMCs boost sales? A case study

As a "case study," I will use a currently ongoing MTMC from DC's Superman family of comics. Please keep in mind that, because this crossover is not done, the data are preliminary. However, I would be very surprised if, once the final numbers are in this April or May, the conclusions will be any different, based on the pattern so far.

Although Superman technically appears in Action Comics, we will not count that as part of the family because it was not involved in the crossover. Thus, for our purposes, the members of this "Family" are Superman, Supergirl, and Superboy. Beginning with a "prelude" issue in Superman 13, the story arc spans 13 regular issues of the three series (plus at least one Annual), occurring in each issue 14, 15, 16, and 17 of the three series. This is a Multi-title Mega-Crossover in the most typical sense -- insanely long (13 parts, hence "mega" crossover), and hop-scotching across multiple titles (three, in this case).

The question we shall ask, now that this MTMC is nearly done, is did it "work?" Did it boost sales? Did it cause readers of the "leader" book (Superman in this case) to partake of the follower books, or vice versa? Did it attract new readers to the Super-family? To find out, let's take a look at the sales of the Superman family of books since the New 52 began (data come from Comichron).

New 52 Superman Family sales
Issue No
Total Sales
Total Sales
Total Sales
% change

Let's review these numbers a bit more closely.

Immediately apparent, is the fact that the Superman Family is in a tail-spin. Admittedly, the issue #1 circulation is an outlier, but even if one disregards the issue 1-2 decline in readership, Superman has lost roughly 47% of its readership since issue 3. Both Supergirl and Superboy have fared similarly, each experiencing about a 33% decline in circulation since issue 3.
This pattern had been going on for about a year before the H'el crossover, so we can imagine rather safely that the crossover is a ploy to boost sales.
This leads us to the question: Did the "H'el on Earth" crossover, which spanned issues 14-17 of all three titles, increase sales? There are several ways to look at the numbers, and I will break them all down, but the short answer is: no.

Crossover effect on total readership. First, let's ask whether the H'el on Earth multi-title mega-crossover increased total sales volumes (i.e., acquired new readers) across the family of books during the issues in which the crossover took place relative to the prior issues. We don't have the results of issue 17 yet (and won't for a while, since Superman 17 is being put out in March, and those sales results will not be posted until April). But we can compare the first 3-month period (issues 14-16) to the previous 3-month period. Now, we will not use #13, because for Superman this was a H'el prelude, but not for the other books in the Family. We also shouldn't count #0, which is an obvious outlier (DC's #0 books sold higher across the board, so it would be unfair to compare the sales of the H'el story to the #0s). Thus, we compare the last 3 "normal" months of sales in issues 10-12, with the total sales in issues 14-16. The answer is not good for the crossover mentality: The H'el crossover books sold a sum total of about 329,000, compared with the issue 10-12 books selling a total of 352,000. That's a decline of 7% during the crossover. Thus, there is no indication that the multi-book crossover did anything to boost sales across the family and acquire new readers. On the contrary, sales overall appear to be depressed, which means that the family of books lost readers, not gained them.

Crossover effect on lead-book readers. The "lead" book in the family is, of course, Superman -- he is the original, and also, his book sells more than the others. As the lead book, Superman in most months nearly equals the total sales of Supergirl and Superboy combined. Recently (in the last 8 months or so) Superman has had about 60,000 readers, and the other books about 30,000. The simplest assumption here is that 30,000 people each month read just Superman, and the another 30,000 read all three books. That means 30,000 readers could potentially be attracted to the follower books. Were they?

Here again, the answer is no. Both Supergirl and Superboy sold a few more copies of issue #14, but since then, their sales have gone back to pre-H'el levels (or even dropped a little lower). At best, out of 30,000 possible new readers from the lead book, the follower books picked up a few hundred. Thus, after 9 out of the 12 crossover issues have been published, we can safely assert that no Superman readers have bothered to pick up Supergirl or Superboy "just to get the rest of the crossover." Therefore, not only did the crossover hurt total sales for the family, but it also failed to attract readers of the lead book to the "follower" books.

Enticing cross-family readership. Above, I made the simplifying assumption that all 30,000 readers of Superboy and Supergirl also read Superman. But if we relax that assumption, then the crossover could possibly have attracted people who read just one of the follower books, to start picking up the lead book. This is a tougher row to hoe, because those books have half as many readers as Superman. But it's still possible that Superman's readership could have gone up. Did it?

Once again the answer no -- a resounding, deafening, unambiguous "NO!" this time. If readers of the other books had picked up Superman, his readership would have gone up. But it didn't go up -- in fact, the average readership for Superman dropped from 60,000 during issues 7-12 to just over 51,000 for 13-16. Thus, instead of Superman gaining readers, about 10,000 previously existing readers kissed that series goodbye during the crossover. In other words, Superman actually lost about 16% of its readers over the course of the story arc!

Overall Impact of the Crossover. No matter how you crunch the numbers, the 12-part, 3-series-spanning "family wide" H'el on Earth crossover, which was clearly produced as a pure MTMC marketing ploy, was an utter failure. It failed to gain new readers for the books in the family. It failed to entice readers from the lead book to try reading the follower books. It didn't convince anyone reading the follower books to partake of the lead book. And it caused nearly a sixth of the lead book's readers to walk away. The H'el on Earth story arc was, therefore, an unmitigated disaster for DC.


We can see from the above that, if the companies think the Multi-title Mega-Crossover is going to boost sales, they're sorely mistaken. The lack of any significant boost to sales for MTMCs is not unique to Superman. The numbers are similar for the JL/Aquaman crossover "Throne of Atlantis." There was one issue of Aquaman where sales went up dramatically (by almost 20,000 readers), but the readership crashed back down to the pre-crossover levels on the very next issue (while the crossover was still going on). Justice League's sales remained flat the entire time. Thus, at best the MTMC sold some extra issues for one series on one month. It's hard to argue that this was a tearing success, or that the MTMC is even worth it if that's the best for which DC can hope.

This analysis shows that the Multi-Title Mega-Crossover is a bad idea all the way around. MTMCs screw up the continuity of the existing books that participate. MTMCs produce inferior, fragmentary stories. MTMCs piss off any readers who do not want to, but feel forced to, read affiliated books. And in exchange for all those ill effects, they do very little to boost sales of the participating series (and indeed, as the H'el numbers indicate, they run the very real risk of pissing readers off so much that the series experiences a net decline in readership).

I really don't know what the people in DC's front office are smoking, but based on these numbers, if I were they, I would hand down a company-wide edict right now banning the MTMC forevermore. MTMCs are at best a huge risk with very little chance of a solid payoff. You might wonder why companies still produce them so much. I confess, I really don't know. The numbers speak for themselves. Maybe some day, one of the people running DC will explain why they keep employing this high-risk gamble in an effort to boost sales, instead of just doing what they did years ago, and producing solid quality month in, month out, in each individual series.

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