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Touched For The Very Last Time: Hibbs on Virgin’s collapse

Brian Hibbs

I’m still getting used to this whole “kindergarten” thing — it isn’t in my natural disposition to leave the house before 7:30 in the morning, really — but it DOES give me a smidge more time before the store opens. What I SHOULD be doing right now is the new order form, but I’ve still got 7 days until it is late, so while I’m waiting for ONOMATOPOEIA to print on the photocopier, let me spout off a little, instead of doing “real” work!

(I COULD save this for a TILTING, but by then it will be “two weeks old”)

So, anyway, Virgin Comics has shut down, seemingly suddenly and in the middle of the night. Much like everyone else, this doesn’t really surprise me, but it might be worth exploring a little on the whys of it.

Unlike Dirk, I don’t believe that the issue is the Direct Market. Dirk’s argument basically goes like this: “DM retailers are big poopy heads. Neener-neener-neener!” This is largely Dirk’s argument about every and anything involving comics, and it is kinda goofy, really, because it assumes that it is the RETAILER that is responsible for sales, and not, say, THE PUBLISHER.

When I went out to the Feb 2006 NY Comics Convention, on my short list of people to talk to was the new start-up of Virgin comics. They hadn’t published any comics yet, but news was out that they were going to do it. “Self,” I told myself, “maybe here’s a real chance to expand the market with a company with big pockets known for aggressive and innovative marketing!” I’m not really down with “if you build it, they will come” — you also have to TELL them about it. How would they KNOW to come otherwise?

I know some of you just come for the reviews, so I’ll put the rest of this under the cut…

So, I sat down with Sharad and the marketing guy (funnily enough, at a Marvel cocktail party for retailers) and looked over their launch strategy (at that moment they were only talking about the Indian comics), and quickly saw that it probably wasn’t going to work — they planned to launch with not one, but FOUR different titles based on Indian myths. They were certainly gorgeous looking things — some of these artists could REALLY draw — but the problem was that they were working drastically against the public’s belief-in-interest. It’s not that Americans might not be interested in the Great Goddess Devi, or modern retellings of the Sanskrit epic cycle of Ramayan — it’s that they have no idea that they might be.

Well, no, even I don’t believe that Americans (as a mass) ARE actually interested in any of that, but of the half of a percent that might be, you’re going to have to actively tell them such things exist if you want to have a chance of them buying it.

This is where Dirk goes wrong — he says that the problem was that the DM isn’t going to reach a “broad cross-section of young American readers”. This may or may not be true (I sure think I do a pretty job job of that), but I think it ignores two pretty salient points. 1) that a “broad cross-section of young American readers” aren’t natively interested in Indian myth. Probably especially in a post 9/11 world. 2) they WERE available to that “broad cross-section of young American readers”. These comics were sold in the Virgin megastores.

I made about 3 trips in a 9 month period after Virgin’s launch to the Megastore in downtown San Francisco. As near as I was able to tell from looking at the stock, the Virgin comics didn’t sell. Virgin’s own stores, with that coveted audience of a “broad cross-section of young American readers” wasn’t selling any significant copies of Virgin comic books.

As a retailer, I can see Baker & Taylor’s inventory for their west coast warehouse. B&T is one of the major bookstore distributors. None of Virgin’s “not yet published” titles has orders for even 50 copies, while in the tab that marks “30 day demand”, only one of their 31 listed in-print TP/HCs has demand of over one (1) copy! (that would be the 7 copies demand for The Tall Tales of Vishnu Sharma, Panchatantra.

This tells me that the BOOKSTORES don’t want these comics either.

I told Virgin that their best opportunity would either be from reaching college students, doing comparative religions or something, or to work with communities that had significant Indian populations. I strongly suggested (even writing down the contact info) that they look to Comic Relief in Berkeley for both — if you can’t sell these comics in Berkeley, they won’t sell anywhere. I also called Rory to tell them I pointed Virgin in his direction, and he said he’d be really happy to work with them.

They never contacted him.

Picture this. You’re a big strong corporation with a global brand. You’re, dunno, off the top of my head, Kodak. Some bright and passionate light really really believes in comics, and wants to do a line of comics based around photography and photographers. You’ve managed to convince someone on the Board of Directors to fund this for a while, but you have a finite budget for promotion. Do you 1) Take out expensive ads in Wizard, Previews, trying to convince superhero-oriented customers to buy “Ansel Adams: The Wizard’s Eye” and “Paparazzo Tales!” and whatever, or do you 2) tell people who are interested in photography and photographers that there are comics about their interests, and here’s where you find them…?

I can’t speak for any other retailer, but I’d love a thriving number of wide and diverse topics to be covered in comics. In Japan apparently comics about Mah-Jong sell very well, so there’s no real reason that something equivalent couldn’t happen here (Well, except that North America is something over 9.6 million sq km, while Japan is about 377k sq km, so it’s really a lot harder to physically distribute niche products) — heck, I thought that the Nascar comics sold really well at Nascar events (but really badly out here in San Francisco), so it clearly CAN be done.

But if you’re going to do a series of comics about race car driving or photography or, yeah, even Indian Mythology, you’re going to have to drive the customer TO the outlets where they’re available. You’re going to have to EDUCATE those potential customers the product even EXISTS.

That’s pretty basic.

For myself, I thought the writing for Virgin was quickly on the wall — pacting with B-list celebrities to use their name really is a plan that seldom works. Who really wants to buy a “Guy Ritchie” comics or a “Nic Cage” comic? That’s no strike against them, but it’s certainly nothing in their favor either, unless the base premise itself is strong (then the B-lister gains more from it than the publisher)

This also created a deep discordance in what the heck Virgin WAS — were they about Indian comics, or about star-fucking, or what? You HAVE to have a clear identity in the market to use it in the best manner, and Virgin seemed to be too many different things, none of which were working very well.

Plus, once they partnered with Stan Lee’s POW Entertainment, it was clear they didn’t even know the right way to sell out. I mean, God love Stan Lee, he IS the man… but POW? As the kids say, “Roffle”

I suspect that Tom is in the right here — they had too much (transcontinental!) overhead for their actual sales.

Meanwhile, I keep hoping that a well-funded operation will eventually come along and do things the right way.

I’ll probably be hoping for the rest of my life.


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