WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKES ...
... NOT TO MENTION MINUS 108,000 COPIES SOLD
FAST REWIND FROM DOCTOR
STRANGE #52 TO
Welcome back to a little bit of digging and excavating amidst the artefacts of the world of comic books - although the character featured here would probably prefer to label this historical dabbling as multi-dimensional time travelling, for after all, Doctor Strange is the Master of the Mystic Arts and the Sorcerer Supreme.
On second thought, the good Doctor may even have a point there, as we start out with a comic book which was published in February 2011 (cover date April 2011) but actually plotted and lined up in 1998.
The reasons for this rather substantial delay in publication are explained by author Roger Stern in a special introduction entitled Secrets of the Vault!
The long completed material was seemingly unearthed during preparations for an office move by Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort.
Penned by Roger Stern and pencilled by Neil Vokes (with inks by Jay Geldhof and colours by Lee Loughridge), Doctor Strange: From the Marvel Vault #1 presents a tale set in the very early stages of the Sorcerer Supreme's career as Stephen Strange has just returned to New York City (after studying with the Ancient One in Tibet) and is now looking for a new home. He is especially drawn to a property which turns out to be a terrible non-seller for the real estate agent showing Strange around the house, as all kinds of mysterious and even spooky events have scared away any potential buyers.
Naturally, this can't deter the Master of the Mystic Arts who senses that this house on Bleeker Street may just be what he had in mind - a place where the mystical and supernatural come together. He agrees to buy the property and subsequently spends his first night in his new home fighting the demons of the house whilst the reader learns more details about the origin story of Doctor Strange through a series of flashbacks.
|Conceived as a single issue within a series, the story now stands on its own as a one-shot from Marvel. And although this format is a guarantee for virtually nothing, this little tale about the early life of Doctor Strange works rather well. This is certainly due to the fact that Stern knows the character by heart after serving as author on the vast majority of issues between #27 and #75 of the second volume of Doctor Strange, from 1978 to 1986. Stern's storytelling thus has an authentic "vintage feel" to it and moves very smoothly along established lines whilst still infusing a flash of novelty here and there.|
Strange: From the Marvel Vault #1 provides some
interesting and fun reading, but the reason why it offers
more than just a little food for thought for someone
interested in comic books and their history is linked to
another comic book featuring Doctor Strange which I just
so happened to pick up from my favourite mail order comic
shop more or less at the same time - Doctor Strange #52.
I will have to admit that I am rather taken by Marvel's Master of the Mystic Art, although this urge to read his adventures does have a tendency of coming in waves of "on" and "off". The publication of Doctor Strange: From the Marvel Vault #1 once again set the switch to "on", and because there is no other current material available (at the time of writing), I turned to finding some near mint back issues, and Doctor Strange #52 was amongst my haul.
A truly random pick, I could probably not have chosen a more poignant and interesting counterpart to Marvel's one-shot from the vault.
First of all, Doctor Strange #52 was published with a cover date of April 1982 and thus predates Doctor Strange: From the Marvel Vault #1 by exactly 29 years. However, and this is a far more substantial point of comparison, the author of both comic books is the same - Roger Stern. And yet another point which these two comic books have in common is the appearance of Nightmare, Doctor Strange's oldest adversary who was introduced in the same issue as the good doctor himself (back in Strange Tales #110 in July 1963).
These rather amazing similarities between two individual comic books separated by a time span of 29 years make them the perfect choice for a few comparisons - even more so as the story told in Doctor Strange #52 is all about travelling through space and - you guessed it - time.
In "Life-Times" (pencilled by Marshall Rogers, inked by Terry Austin, coloured by Bob Sharen and edited by Al Milgrom), Doctor Strange and Clea have placed a young writer named Morgana Blessing in hospital after previously travelling back to World War II London and rescuing her from the grasp of Baron Mordo and the Dread Dormammu. Because she is still slowly being drained of her life energy Strange investigates the situation and finds himself in the dream dimension, summoned by Nightmare.
|However, this time things are markedly different as his oldest foe actually asks the Sorcerer Supreme for help, explaining that "a shard of Morgana's soul" was reflected back through her past lives. If Strange is unable to restore this situation, humanity will seemingly cease to dream and ultimately be driven to collective madness - whilst destroying Nightmare's realm.|
of reference is Fantastic Four #19 (October
1963) and the FF's journey back to Ancient Egypt in Dr
Doom's time machine and their encounter with Rama-Tut. It
turns out that Morgana was actually a handmaiden at the
court of Rama-Tut at that point in time. Without the FF
becoming aware of his presence, Doctor Strange succeeds
in restoring Morgana's soul-shard and finally travels
back to his own time period...
However, my previous comparison of two issues of Fantastic Four has shown that the really interesting differences between recent and older comic books is not only to be found in the content pages, with changes in writing styles and artwork preferences, but just as much if not more on those pages which play no part in telling the story. And this is also true for Doctor Strange: From the Marvel Vault #1 and Doctor Strange #52.
Marvel Comics had grown to be the industry's number one not only because of the content and style of their comic books, but just as importantly due to how editorial communicated with its readership.
controversial figure at Marvel during virtually all of
his nine years as editor-in-chief, Shooter put into
effect some great ideas (such as an art return programme
and creator royalties) as well as some really bad ones.
Abolishing the Bullpen Bulletins was definitely amongst
the latter, and the mistake was duly corrected as of
January 1982, only three months before Doctor Strange
#52. However, major changes were evident as the page
featured a completely different tone and mood and
replaced Stan's Soapbox with Shooter's "Hype
Box". But in spite of all these changes, it was
still recognisable as a "Bullpen Bulletin" in
the sense of "Hello, this is the editor
speaking". None of this survives today as editorial
pages are few and far between, and if they are
featured, they will very often serve a specific single
marketing purpose (quite unlike Stan's plugs for all
stuff Marvel). Doctor Strange: From the Marvel
Vault #1 actually features several pages which can
be labelled editorial in the sense that they feature
creator interviews and informations, but essentially they
only served the purpose of advertising the launch of
Marvel's Crossgen titles in March 2011.
Maybe it's just me, but the infotainment value of the Bullpen Bulletins (with their content infused with well balanced doses of zany humour, larger than life assessments of banalities and a tongue-in-cheek club atmosphere) seems lost for ever... and the same goes for in-house advertisements.
I'll come back to precisely this question in a short
while, so just let that hang on there for a moment or
The most revealing and certainly the most important difference between Doctor Strange #52 and Doctor Strange: From the Marvel Vault #1, however, is revealed on the letters page. Just like the editorial page, the letters page has become an endangered species within the Marvel Universe as only a few flagship titles such as Amazing Spider-Man or Fantastic Four carry such a fan dedicated page on a regular basis. DC brought them back only to drop them unceremoniously with the launch of the "New 52". Indepedent publishers vary in their policies, but as an example Dynamite dropped a long standing tradition in 2012 and ceased publishing a general combined letters and editorial page which was the same in all of its titles of a given production month.
|But no - I
am actually pointing to the fact that Doctor Strange
sold around 100,000 copies on average in 1981 (issue #49,
the issue nearest to the filing date of the statement in
October 1981, effectively sold 107,000).
Obviously, this number only acquires a real sense of meaning when put into perspective with current sales figures. So how many copies did Doctor Strange: From the Marvel Vault #1sell for Marvel? The answer is: 11,248 - a total which placed it at 153rd place in the February 2011 comic book sales according to the Comics Chronicles . The best selling title of that month, by the way, was DC's Green Lantern #62 with a mere 71,517 copies sold.
fact that there has been a huge drop in comic book sales
figures over time is nothing new (even though they are on
a slight rise again since late 2012), but comparisons
with the 1940s - when any issue of Superman sold
an average of 1,250,000 copies (Lopes, 2006) - now seem
far too much grounded in a remote period of time to
provide a real sense of meaning even to the babyboomer
generation of comic book readers.
Even pointing to the fact that the best selling popular comic book titles still sold around 300,000 copies in the early 1970s (Mackay, 2007) is too unspecific to leave a real impression. But seeing the sales figures of a secondary and hence bi-monthly Marvel title such as Doctor Strange from early 1982 in comparison to a current one-shot comic book featuring the same character does strike a chord which resounds with the current way comic book afficionados experience the market.
Employing reasonable means and time of research I found myself unable to find any specific data regarding comic book sales from 1982, which could put those 100,000 copies of Doctor Strange sold on average into real perspective, but as already mentioned this figure of 100,000 could not have been anywhere near as impressive as it would be today - otherwise the title would obviously not have been published on a bi-monthly schedule only.
Looking at the public information source for these sale figures - the various printed statements of ownership and circulation - reveals that Doctor Strange continued its six digit sales in 1982/83 (Doctor Strange #59 in June 1983 reports an average paid circulation total of 119,651 copies per issue over the preceding twelve months) before dropping to 68,800 (Doctor Strange #65, June 1984). However, in September 1984 (Doctor Strange #71) the average paid circulation for this title had once again risen to 121,574 copies.
The Master of the Mystic Arts more or less hovered within that range of sold copies from the late 1980s to the early 1990s with his title Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme (which was first released in November 1988 ,following the cancellation of Doctor Strange in February 1987) as the figures ran from an average of 65,800 copies (Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #19, July 1990) to 109,514 copies (Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #51, March 1993). Sales then plunged to 23,861 (Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #85, January 1996), but that was just six months ahead of the cancellation of the title and ten months ahead of Marvel filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
The end of Sorcerer Supreme in July 1996 would turn out to be the beginning of a lengthy absence of any Doctor Strange title from the Marvel Universe, and the good Doctor would not return to a feature title of his own until the four issue mini-series Doctor Strange: The Flight of Bones in 1999. Sales figures for these four issues ranged from 47,700 (#1) to 32,500 (#4) according to Comics Chronicles (www.comichron.com).
years later, the Sorcer Supreme featured in another
mini-series, simply titled Strange and spread
out by writer J.M. Straczynski over six issues, which
sold from 59,974 copies (#1) to 35,842 copies (#6).
Subsequent mini-series sold increasingly smaller numbers of copies, as Doctor Strange: The Oath (five issues, 2006-2007) sold between 40,280 and 25,665 copies and the sales for Strange (four issues, 2009-2010) ranged from 23,362 to 14,393 copies. Doctor Strange: From the Marvel Vault #1 would thus seem to represent a new all-time low with its 11,248 sold copies, but in fact the one-shot Mystic Hands of Doctor Strange from 2010 dipped even further with a mere 10,148 copies sold.
Now it must be noted, of course, that any proper analysis of comic book sales figures requires a great deal of market knowledge and an even greater chunk of caution. As I do not lay claim to the first and the latter would defeat the object of any kind of ramblings such as these, the happenstance comparison of two issues of a Doctor Strange title simply provides some anecdotal insight regarding the question of the (fairly drastic) drop in comic book sales over recent years.
gone up again since then, but the question remains of
what precisely is happening as comic books feed into
mayor success movies yet fail to reach even just a nice
fraction of that audience. One important aspect may come
to light by looking at the Mighty Marvel Checklist
from April 1982. This feature, which goes back to the
inception of the Bullpen Bulletins in the early 1960s,
was one of those editorial tidbits which really were
quite essential to Stan Lee's concept of presenting
Marvel as though it were a club for insiders (N. N.,
2003). The checklist afforded the reader a glimpse of
what was on offer, but it also provided him with a real
sense for the variety to be found in the range of comics
published by Marvel. Even in 1982, that feeling was still
The checklist also suggested a certain stability with regard to titles available, with many of them clocking in at high two digit or even three digit issue numbers. Naturally, this never ever precluded the cancellation of a title, but just as importantly the range of titles prsesented in the April 1982 checklist was still manageable, i.e. you could still see the forest for the trees.
this kind of manoeuvre - which, with all due respect to
the people in charge at DC, seems to border on absurdity
more than anything else as readers are told that current
titles will be cancelled for tie-ins which don't even
have any real importance for the main "event"
title - is not the rule, but both Marvel and DC are
constantly sending out signals to the readership which
can sometimes be really hard to decipher. In the days of
the "DC Implosion" in 1978 the sudden
cancellation of more than two dozen ongoing series was a
linear move by DC. Today, however, new monthly titles are
being advertised whilst others are being cancelled at the
very same time - it's easy come easy go to the
simultaneous utterings of hellos and goodbyes.
As a result, the volatility of today's comic book titles is to a certain extent created by the publishers themselves. As a reaction, potential readers shy away from a title which they feel or suspect will be doomed after a couple of issues anyway. A good example was Marvel's Doctor Voodoo - Avenger of the Supernatural, which was launched in late 2009 on the promotional note that its main character, Jericho Drumm (a.k.a. Brother Voodoo), was now the new Sorcerer Supreme. However, Marvel's 2009 trail of "express cancellations" (Warren, 2010) cast a huge shadow of doubt on the series right from the start - and sure enough, the book was cancelled after a mere 5 issues.
The fact that sales figures for Doctor Voodoo dropped from 23,314 for the first issue to 12,154 copies for the fifth would seem to be the plausible explanation for the title's cancellation, and in this specific case this can be assumed to be true. However, the publisher generated volatility has even overturned this golden rule. Over the past few years, Daredevil had been a title with wide critcial acclaim and, although not a blockbuster, proved a solid book for Marvel with an average of around 40,000 copies sold month after month.
the monthly comic book will, however, change its medium -
from paper to digital. This will depend on the consumers
and the devices available, but just as much on the publishers. If
the end of the monthly comic book should ever come, it
will no doubt be due to a persisting lack of quality
content which will have made readers go looking for
other, better means of entertainment. If, however,
publishers can raise the average rate of good comic books
over the percentage of mediocre or downright bad comics,
then nothing is to be feared, because then the good news
will be that comic books are still, overall, a dynamic
medium - as can, in fact, be learned from the Mighty
Marvel Checklist found in Doctor Strange #52 in
April 1982, with its announcement of Marvel Graphic
Novel #1 - or, as Marvel put it, "the
beginning of a new era in pictorial storytelling".
Well, I suggest you check back here in twenty years or so to see how all of this has worked out. Alternatively - should you lack the patience required for this appointment - you could ask Doctor Strange to quickly pop ahead to 2030 and, by the Hoasts of the Hoary Hoggoth, have a look round the comic book scene...
| The Comics Chronicles, www.comichron.com/monthlycomicssales/2011/2011-02.html|
BABOS John (2011) "Geoff Johns: Flashpoint tie-ins fun, but not key / Dan Didio: DC Titles", in Comics Nexus, available online and accessed 11 April 2011 at insidepulse.com/2011/04/04/geoff-johns-flashpoint-tie-ins-fun-but-not-key-dan-didio-dc-titles-cancelled-for-tie-ins/
KHOURI Andy (2010) Marvel Unearths Lost 'Doctor Strange' One-Shot by Roger Stern and Neil Vokes, available online at www.comicsalliance.com/2010/11/04/doctor-strange-from-the-marvel-vault-one-shot-roger-stern-neil-vokes/#ixzz1HKXR3kGw
LOPES P. (2006) "Culture and stigma: Popular culture and the case of comic books", in Sociological Forum (27, 387-414)
MACKAY Brad (2007) "Hero deficit: Comic books in decline", in The Toronto Star, 18 March edition, available online and accessed 4 April 2011 at www.thestar.com/sciencetech/article/193167
MELROSE Kevin (2010) Bring out your dead: DC Comics cancels two more all-ages titles, in Comic Book Resources, available online and accessed 11 April 2011 at robot6.comicbookresources.com/2010/07/bring-out-your-dead-dc-comics-cancels-two-more-all-ages-titles/
N.N. (2003) Stan Lee Interview, contained as extra feature on the double disk DVD release of the movie Daredevil (personal transcript)
WARREN Kirk (2010) "Marvel's express cancellations", in The Weekly Crisis, availble online and accessed 12 April 2011 at www.weeklycrisis.com/2010/01/marvels-express-cancellations.htm
WUEPPER Gesche (2011) "Comics geraten in die Krise", in Saarbruecker Zeitung, 29 January edition, available online and accessed 6 April 2011 at www.saarbruecker-zeitung.de/sz-berichte/wirtschaft/Comics-geraten-in-die-Krise;art2819,3611087
ZALBEN Alex (2010) "11 comic books we'll miss in 2011", in MTV Geek, 28 December edition, available online and accessed 11 April 2011 at geek-news.mtv.com/2010/12/28/11-comic-books-well-miss-in-2011/
first published on the web 26 April
The illustrations presented here
are copyright material