Back in April, or March, or some time long past, Marvel announced a new series. Marvel Rising is a new “multi-platform franchise,” aimed at young girls, a long-neglected audience, especially in the wake of DC’s smash success with DC Superhero Girls. The project includes a comic series that is focused on two of Marvel’s biggest young-adult female characters from the last… decade, maybe: Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel.
“Great idea!” Said one marketing exec at a fictional meeting I’m making up just now, “This’ll be great for onboarding new readers. How should we roll the series out?”
A coworker turned to him, the light of inspiration in his eyes. “We’ll do an issue 0,” he said, “followed by four sequential #1s, each with different titles.”
And then, for some godforsaken reason, no one stopped them.
So now we have Marvel Rising, a good, cute, and wonderfully accessible series, with quite possibly the most bonkers numbering scheme Marvel has tried to use to date. I mean, there was Marvel: The Lost Generation in the 2000s, which was numbered backwards, and events are always wacky (Alpha! Omega! #0!), but Marvel Rising is a self-contained series with five differently titled books… aimed at new readers who aren’t at all familiar with how Marvel will bend over backwards for a bad gimmick.
Marvel Rising is part of a long history of desperate attempts by Marvel to reach out and drag in new or returning readers. Some, like Ta’Nehisi Coates’ work on Black Panther, have worked. Others, like starting four different solo series about Deadpool lackeys that no one cares about, have proven less fruitful. But even Marvel’s successful attempts have been marred by their absolute inability to provide a low barrier to entry to new readers.
Let’s look at some examples from my experience at my comic shop. Anecdotal, perhaps, but they paint a picture: first, Kelly Thompson and Leonardo Romero’s Hawkeye, and Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward’s Black Bolt. Both series were widely critically acclaimed, written by marginalized creators, and nominated for Eisners. Black Bolt just won its Eisner (Best New Series), and Hawkeye is one of my go-to books for young women (or people in general) looking to get into big two comics. Both books were also… cancelled. Granted, their final issues were released before Eisner nominations were announced, but the fact remains that both were cancelled, and one won an Eisner. New readers aren’t likely to care about the Eisners, even if they do somehow know about them, but retailers do, and they give us reason and impulse to read and push the books, something that we can only do in a limited capacity since Black Bolt and Hawkeye are no longer continuing series.
OH MY GOD WE WON AN EISNER https://t.co/qnnna6zl0J
— Saladin Ahmed (@saladinahmed) July 21, 2018
Next: Black Panther! Don’t worry, Black Panther has not been cancelled—not even close. In fact, it’s spawned at least three spinoffs or miniseries that I can think of without googling. But that’s… actually the problem. A new reader once came into my shop wondering where to start with Black Panther, and naturally gravitated towards the new miniseries with the big, colorful #1 emblazoned on the cover. Between working out the differences between trade volumes and single issues, Marvel’s recent reversion to legacy numbering, and figuring out whether he would be more interested in the Christopher Priest or Ta’Nehisi Coates runs, I worked with this guy for almost half an hour. He was clearly overwhelmed—and who wouldn’t be, when there seem to be seven different places to start, most of them are expensive, and none of them are the obvious best choice?
Marvel lives and breathes the philosophy that #1s sell best, so they should put out more #1s. But that’s a shortsighted philosophy, one that doesn’t even follow the customer out of the store to see if they liked the book they just dropped $4.99 on. Big numbers are scary to readers because people naturally want to start the beginning of a story; they don’t want the anxiety and confusion that comes from jumping in in the middle. But if the #1 they pick up—even if it’s an incredible book—still gives them that feeling, then why would you expect them to come back?
Marvel Rising’s numbering is the warped conclusion to the “#1s sell” philosophy, with all it’s quick payout and limited staying power. Five sequential comics—each containing a chapter of a story that’s meant to be read in order—that in no way indicate on the cover which is meant to be read first. There are reading lists in the backs of each of the four #1s, but not one of those mentions the #0, which is the first chronological chapter and sets up the entire conceit of the story. Marvel’s own website actually only lists three of the five issues on its Marvel Rising series page: the #0, the Alpha issue, and the Omega issue, which (respectively) are the first, second, and fifth chapters in the story.
I’ve been working at a comic shop for almost three years, and reading comics voraciously for far longer than that. I’m used to series that are bookended by #1s with fancy titles, and events that flip and loop through three or four tie-in books. Marvel Rising, with its single story, consistent publishing schedule, and reading list at the end of each issue, is completely comprehensible to me. But here’s the thing: I’m not the target audience. The target audience is, explicitly, people who aren’t used to Marvel’s gimmickry. It’s people who want to read a cute story, and picked up the book because the covers were colorful and their kids seemed interested.
Marvel’s insistence on making everything A Big Event is exhausting to me as a fan, and actually hampers my ability to sell their books as a retailer. The fact that event fever has bled through into kids’ comics is just more indication that the people higher up in Marvel have no concept of how new readers get into comics, and are still marketing everything to those same seven old white guys who got really into the speculator market in the ’90s.
Honestly, maybe it’s for the best that Marvel’s offloading their kids’ comics to IDW.