Are Surprise Comics Releases A Good Thing?

date set about one month before the comics release. That means by the end of August readers will [...]

Surprise Comics Releases - Jessica Jones Blindspot
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

Comics are normally a very predictable commodity. Those that are sold in the direct market are usually solicited and pre-ordered by stores months in advance with a final order cutoff (FOC) date set about one month before the comics release. That means by the end of August readers will know all about what they should expect to read in September, October, and November. It's a monthly grind that local stores and regular readers thrive on, and one that leaves very little room for surprise (especially with major spoilers being released before comics are even released). That's what makes the release of several high profile comics this summer with absolutely no warning all the more shocking.

It began with Die!Die!Die! #1 on July 11th, when large boxes of unanticipated comics bearing the names of Robert Kirkman and Chris Burnham arrived in stores unexpectedly. The earliest discoveries were made on Tuesday afternoon, mere hours before new comic book day as retailers questioned how this new series had arrived and why they had not heard about it. It was actually a plan by Kirkman and his team in the Skybound imprint to surprise readers with a new series that would not even be previewed before release day. They shipped orders based upon retailer interest in Kirkman's last new release, Oblivion Song, and allowed for absolute returnability of all copies with those that stores kept or sold to be billed later.

Marvel Comics did something similar one week later on July 18th when they launched a new Jessica Jones series available exclusively through digital publication. Unlike some prior digital exclusives, it had not been hyped at all with previews or news articles, and featured one of their biggest rising stars, Kelly Thompson. It was only clarified later in the week that Jessica Jones was the first of several surprise new series that would be initially launched digitally before being published as "seasons" in the direct market and bookstores.

Despite all of the factors that make it difficult, two of the largest American comics publishers have managed to drop some big surprise new releases this summer to critical acclaim (the sales numbers for both series remain unclear so far). However, one question remains: Are surprise comics releases a good thing?

Surprise Comics Releases - Die Die Die Image Comics
(Photo: Image Comics)

Looking At The Markets

If nothing else, it's hard to argue that any of these surprises hurt the direct market. Die!Die!Die! both based its release numbers on a comparable property and didn't punish retailers for any copies that went unsold. The surprise element of it and popular creative team had some comic shops receiving calls to hold copies before they even found them in the order. While it's impossible to gauge the overall success of the series launch as Diamond doesn't report on total returned copies, there seems to be a reasonable possibility that this rare type of release may have generated more buzz than any amount of interviews and previews might have.

Marvel Comics' focus on digital distribution makes for a different argument. While there are no exact numbers, the digital market is generally suggested to be much smaller than the direct market with estimates generally suggesting it to be between 10 and 30% of the scale. That limits the possibilities for these new series to gain readers prior to their collections. However, based on the quality of both Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, there may be substantial word of mouth to push those collections. They are also perfectly framed for a bookstore market as they are both related to popular series on Netflix and designed as seasons with a complete, self-contained story. The real judgment on this initiative will require a serious look at the numbers once the first season of Jessica Jones becomes available in a physical format.

Surprise Comics Releases - Luke Cage Everyman
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

Looking At The Readers

Reflecting on the release of Die!Die!Die!, retailers that limited reader purchases to avoid a speculation rush seem to have faced few problems in meeting demand. While some may have missed out due to a lack of pre-orders, second printings can typically be found within a month of a comic's initial release. There's also the substantial upside of feeling genuinely surprised. Robert Kirkman has one of the most devoted followings of any writer in comics; even his series outside of The Walking Dead sell well. The release of this new series, along with new stories for fan favorites like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, all provided fans with something they really didn't expect and that's a rare treat in the world of comics.

Again, the only substantial downside is the limited audience created by a digital only release. Some readers simply prefer reading physical comics or supporting local retailers with their purchases. Even in these cases it is not a complete negative as the only change being made from a standard distribution is that readers will have to wait a few months longer. Marvel Comics is releasing all six issues of content digitally over the course of three months with the collection arriving on month four. Readers who missed the debut of Jessica Jones in July can have the entire story in their hands by October.

Surprise Comics Releases - Cloak and Dagger
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

Looking At The Creators

The people who face the greatest potential loss from these surprise comics experiments if they flop are the creators involved. Retailers are not out any coin and have more comics they can choose to market and sell. Readers can access all of these stories eventually. Creators potentially face a loss of revenue or poorly diverted resources though. Writers and especially artists only have so much time to spend working on comics and a series that misses big in sales or popularity is a real cost, especially if that miss wasn't necessary.

There's not as much concern for Kirkman who is already one of the biggest money makers in comics and has a reputation for treating his new collaborators fairly. However, rising stars like those attached to most of the Marvel digital only series are taking a bigger risk. If these new series are under promoted or fail to sell in collections, it's a loss. The digital first Cloak & Dagger series was retroactively included in this line and seems to have missed out on much of the associated buzz, in spite being a solid superhero book from good creators.

Those are potential concerns, but not realized ones. For the most part it looks like these surprise releases are doing exactly what they intended in their first couple months of publication: build excitement. Fans of existing properties and popular creators are excited to see new comics and comic shop regulars are excited to actually be surprised. While a different story may emerge based on sales figures in the months ahead, it looks like some surprises in monthly comics are a good thing for right now.