Ghosts of Comics’ Past: 2003

By | January 11th, 2024
Posted in Columns | % Comments

Multiversity’s history column is back with a comprehensive review of the comic industry of 2003.

The year began with a series of changes at Diamond. The first was a response to super-discounted comics released in 2002, like “Batman: The Ten Cent Adventure,” the nine-cent “Fantastic Four” #60, and the thirteen-cent “Gen13” #0. These effectively gamed the system to show up as the top sellers the month of their release, and DC and Marvel tried to do it again in January 2003 with “Superman” and “Daredevil” respectively. Diamond short circuited these attempts at free publicity by updating its policy to exclude heavily discounted comics from its sales charts (they would have been #1 and #2 for January otherwise). That move, plus lower sales on each successive use of the tactic, stopped Marvel or DC from trying it again.

In February, Diamond updated its sales chart policy again. Instead of reporting the the number of comics ordered by retailers, they would now report the number of comics shipped from their warehouses. In a perfect world, these numbers would have been identical. In reality, comics are sometimes late through no fault of the distributor. The most notorious example of this is Whilce Portacio’s “WetWorks,” which was reported as the fifth best-selling comic of December 1992 despite not being available for sale until 18 months later. Fines for shipping late were instituted to cut down on that behavior, but Diamond’s move in 2003 permanently corrected the reporting system.

Diamond’s third tweak to its sales chart came a couple months later, perhaps after receiving feedback on its February change, or maybe just after some further internal conversations. Prior to April 2003, the sales charts reflected only initial orders from retailers, capturing a snapshot of activity early in the process of soliciting and advertising upcoming books. In April and forever afterward, Diamond included advance reorders and immediate reorders in their calculations. This covered the gap in reader interest generated by ads and word of mouth. The practical result was for several DC and Image titles to rise in the rankings.

Also in April, Marvel revised its ordering policy to the benefit of retailers. Before, stores had to submit their orders for new comics 2-3 months before publication to allow time for processing, printing, and shipping. The new policy reduced the lead time to 20 days, giving retailers time to gauge real interest and place more accurate orders. This move didn’t come out of the goodness of Marvel’s corporate heart, however. The new final order cutoff date (FOC) coincided with the previous deadline for advance reorders, so combining the two Marvel reduced paperwork on its side.

FOC was also a reflexive action to mitigate some trouble caused by Marvel’s cost-saving decision a few years earlier to end overprinting and reprints. That had worked better than planned, as Marvel was occasionally losing money when it didn’t have supply to meet demand. Retailers could charge premiums for under-ordered books like “Ultimates” #2, but none of that extra profit made its way to Marvel’s coffers. The change in order date allowed Marvel to meet demand without backtracking on its overprint policy by counting “advance reorders” as “initial orders.” An ongoing class action lawsuit brought against Marvel by retailer Brian Hibbs over Marvel accepting returns for comics that weren’t exactly as described at order time may have been a factor as well, since the shorter time frame gave Marvel 40-70 extra days to revise their item descriptions without penalty. (That lawsuit was settled in Dec and saw over a million dollars credited to retailer accounts.)

Over at DC, Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s ‘Hush’ story in “Batman” had been a huge hit since it started with issue #608 in October 2002, with multiple printings to meet demand. The reprints were given new cover artwork to make them distinct, creating collector demand for a new breed of variants. When they reprinted issue #612 in April, DC pioneered a new variety of variant artwork: the sketch variant. Fans loved it, and it was a fairly easy way to get two covers out of one piece of work.

As the second annual Free Comic Book Day approached, retailers were invited to vote on when it should be held. The first one had been held on May 4, 2002 to coincide with the release of Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film, and for 2003 the options were May 3 to align with Brian Singer’s X-Men 2 or June 21 to sync with Ang Lee’s Hulk. The volume of responses was disappointingly low, but the May date won by a significant margin and about 2000 comic stores participated. Reports after FCBD showed that about 30% of attendees were first-time customers to the stores. (The 2004 event was held in July with the release of Spider-Man 2, and turnout was so poor that the event was permanently moved to early May regardless of a movie tie-in.)

Continued below

Upstart publisher CrossGen was still on an upward trajectory. They had started 2003 with a money back guarantee that raised sales and produced no refunds. A big win came when the first volume of “Meridian” was included on the New York Library’s “Books for the Teen Age” list. After testing an educational program in the Spring that used their comics to help slow readers and English-as-Second-Language students, they officially launched it as “Bridges” in June with nine pilot programs in middle schools and high schools in seven states.

In July, DC’s lead editor Dan Didio caused a ruckus when he signed “Astonishing X-Men” writer Grant Morrison to an exclusive contract. Marvel’s immediate response was muted since it was busy bringing fresh talent to the industry, but when Didio followed Morrison with Jeph Loeb, Greg Rucka, and Tim Sale, Marvel couldn’t ignore it any more. Soon, Brian Bendis (“Ultimate Spider-Man”), Mark Millar (“The Ultimates”), J Michael Straczynski (“Amazing Spider-Man”), and Greg Land (“Ultimate Fantastic Four”) were exclusive to Marvel. The Exclusive Wars continued for the rest of the decade.

Through the summer of 2003, Marvel accepted pitches for its newest version of its creator-owned Epic imprint. Rules for submissions were first described in the May issue of Bill Jemas’ “Marville.” The first comic to be published under its banner came a month later with Mark Millar and Terry Dodson’s “Trouble,” which featured a teenage Aunt May Parker getting pregnant. Sales were brisk, and not even the new FOC arrangement could fulfill demand. Marvel’s policy against second printings was quietly discarded so a second run could be released while buyers were still interested.

By August, Marvel was inundated with submissions, so they announced they were no longer accepting pitches for creator-owned concepts and would only be reviewing properties they could own and develop for television or film. A few months later, they stopped accepting new pitches of any kind citing the overwhelming amount already received. Not long after that, they canceled the Epic line entirely, planning to burn off remaining completed material in a quarterly anthology. This change of plans prompted one of the titles, Mike Sangiacomo and Mitchell Breitweiser’s “Phantom Jack,” to move to Image. The Epic idea was reworked into Icon for 2004, where Marvel allowed their exclusive creators to publish their creator-owned material.

In mid-October, Dan Buckley replaced Bill Jemas as Marvel’s publisher. Jemas was briefly moved to the role of Chief Marketing Officer, but he left the company entirely by the end of the month. Jemas was a polarizing figure at Marvel who seemed to have no discretion with regards to how he felt about certain creators or staffers. After three years in power, he had few friends left. Executives at DC were overjoyed by the news, as Jemas’ efforts to build a rivalry between the two companies had not gone over well.

Around this time, the MPAA complained that Marvel’s rating system for its comics included PG for “Parental Guidance”, which the MPAA had trademarked. Marvel updated that rating to PSR (“Parental Supervision Recommended”). When advance copies of “Avengers” #71 (cover dated November) were sent out, someone pointed out that the PSR-rated comic featured a sex scene. Marvel delayed release for a week, but ultimately decided the cost of pulping and reprinting the issue (and valuing their rating system) wasn’t worth it.

//TAGS | Ghosts of Comics' Past

Drew Bradley

Drew Bradley is a long time comic reader whose past contributions to Multiversity include annotations for "MIND MGMT", the Small Press Spotlight, Lettering Week, and Variant Coverage. He currently writes about the history of comic comic industry. Feel free to email him about these things, or any other comic related topic.


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