The frontline in this fall’s comic book war

Editor’s Note: You know that deep conversation you have with the purveyor of your local comic book shop? The one where you have incredulous questions about what comic book publishers, artists and writers were possibly thinking, and the clerk gives you a Yoda-like lowdown that brings everything into focus? Those conversations are a more accurate litmus test of the comic book industry than any corporate interview will ever reveal, so that’s why Geek Out! is going straight to the brick-and-mortar source.

DC Comics is taking 52 of their superhero titles back to number one. Marvel Comics won’t take that lying down, so they’re turning the clock back on fan favorite “Uncanny X-Men” and then upping the ante by offering to reward comic book show owners who destroy DC comic books.

This war is not over, and it is not a clean fight. Zack Overton knows it, and as the clerk at Atlanta, Georgia’s Oxford Comics, he knows which books to recommend for you, your friend, your sister, your dad, and anyone else you might be shopping for this fall.

We sat down with him to talk about the current state of the comics industry and how the staff and customers of his little brick and mortar are reacting to the latest buzz. Specifically, Overton told us how comic book buyers are actually reacting to DC Comic’s plan to start 52 of their superhero comic books back at issue number one, rival publisher Marvel’s tit-for-tat and alternative publishers. Here’s what he had to say:

CNN: DC’s universe-wide “New 52” reboot is getting the most publicity out of all the events announced for this coming fall. What is your reaction to this New 52? Do you expect this to drive sales your way?

Zack Overton: That’s exactly it. There are 52 new "#1" issues. Anyone that works at a comic shop will tell you, a "#1" always sells the best. Sometimes it takes a little while for a book to get going, then people will come back clawing for it. Sales for new first issues are usually the highest, though, and numbers tend to drop from there.

What’s also exciting about DC’s “New 52”, to me, is that many characters will be getting completely new origins and we’ll be getting a completely different look at that character. There won’t be any heavy, established history you’ll need to know about these characters before diving in. It’s a clean slate. It’s the perfect jumping-on point, which is exciting to me, but you also have to look at it from the perspective of a long-time customer who has been giving DC their money since they were six. These guys are in their late 30’s, into their 40’s, and some of them are furious. They’ve been reading these books for a long time, several decades, and they’ve just been told that everything they knew and loved doesn’t matter anymore.

A lot of customers have asked to have DC taken off their pull list as a result. On the other hand, a lot of people have asked us to suddenly add DC to their pull list. It’s sparked a lot of interest and I think a lot of people are going to end up buying more books than normal, which is exactly DC’s goal. It may upset a lot of people, but I think that, in the end, a lot of people will be lured in by their curiosity.

CNN: One of the most controversial characters in this whole announcement and build-up has been Superman. “Action Comics,” a consistent release since 1938 that featured his first appearance, is going to start over with a new #1 issue. How have your customers reacted to that news?

Overton: There are definitely collectors who complain that “Action Comics” is getting rebooted. They take offense at the dismissal of that legacy. I say to them, “Yeah, but would you dare miss any new issue of ‘Action Comics,’ even if it starts over?” No, they wouldn’t. That’s the answer, and that’s what DC is hoping for. I couldn't care less, but I think it’s a good financial decision. I think it’ll sell really well.

Some people are really looking forward to Grant Morrison’s take on a young Superman. He's really hit-or-miss for me. Some of his stuff has been unique, different, well written. Other things have been haphazard and carelessly placed in hopes that someone else will come along behind him and pick up the pieces, almost as if he didn’t have a genuine direction planned.

He just knew that, eventually, he wanted to get to a certain point and if it didn’t get there in a way that’s popular or that makes sense, “Oh, well.” He’s getting paid anyway. I hope his Superman will at least be unique and different. Traditionally, Superman does not sell well until there’s some big event. In those cases, he’ll spike and then immediately drop. He's been so stale and boring for so long that any new, different direction they take Superman is a better direction for that character, as far as I’m concerned.

CNN: What are some of the books you're most looking forward to with DC's “New 52?” Do you think this is a good decision, creatively?

Overton: Certain titles I was picking up from DC have been cancelled. Those characters are not coming back. That really upsets me. At San Diego Comic-Con, people were lining up to ask the editors, writers and artists, "This character is one of my favorites and I know they're not in the spotlight right now, so what are the chances of them ever coming back in this ‘New 52?’" There's no definite answer yet, because the teams haven't mapped that far ahead or, even if they have, they aren't allowed to talk about it. Some characters like Power Girl will still be around, but they've been stripped of their powers and are just the supporting cast to a different hero. That's upset a lot of readers, myself included.

I typically bring home thirty DC titles every month. I know for a fact that ten of those that I loved are now gone. Some of the ones that are returning have all-new creative teams attached to them instead of the original names I enjoyed reading, and a lot of them feature an entirely different roster of characters anyway. Personally, I have no incentive to pick up those books. I'm always willing to give a new book a chance, but with some of these I just do not care about the characters.

Believe it or not, one of the books that I'm most looking forward to is Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis's “Aquaman.” I don't think I'd ever have picked up that book before now. I'm really excited about it. They're going above and beyond, as Geoff Jonhs usually does. When he and Reis tackled “Aquaman” briefly in their “Brightest Day” event, they were even exploring avenues of that hero that had never been seen before.

That's what they're doing with this new title, they're introducing a sense of humor into this character and his world. He gets no respect, but he deals with it. It's the old gag, you know. He talks to fish. He's got super strength and super density to survive in deep water, but he mainly talks to fish. One of my coworkers would always argue that Aquaman was a great character, and I'd ask him, "Okay, what are his cool powers? Why is he a cool character?" He'd reply, "Well, he's a prince, he's rich, he's blonde..."

CNN: How has Marvel been responding to DC's media prominence following their “New 52” announcement? Who do you think is coming out on top right now?

Overton: Traditionally, for years, Marvel's stable of books have outsold DC—at least in our store. DC's flagship titles like “Batman” and “Green Lantern”, however, regularly outsell the bigger Marvel books. It's fairly mixed.

Marvel's retaliation to DC's current universe-wide event, “Flashpoint”, which is leading directly into the “New 52”, has been to say to retailers, "Got any Flashpoint books you can't sell? Well, if you're willing to strip the covers off of those books and send them directly to us, we're going to give you a shipment of Marvel issues with rare variant covers that'll sell for more than any of those DC books."

I think this is great for store owners and anyone who has this opportunity. This isn't anything new for Marvel, either. Last year was DC's hugely popular “Blackest Night” event. Marvel decided to combat that with a similar exchange program that featured a special “Deadpool”-focused variant cover drawn by J. Scott Campbell. It sold for a lot of money, so it was definitely in our favor.

CNN: What are some Marvel events you're looking forward to this fall? How are they planning on counteracting DC's big reboot with their established universe and characters?

Overton: Marvel's big storyline right now has been “Fear Itself”. Some ancient, forgotten Norse gods have returned and are drafting and transforming some Marvel villains, heroes and anti-heroes into agents of fear and destruction. I was really excited by that. I really liked the initial premise, but so far everything has been a little too easy for the heroes to handle. That will be ending in another two months, right when DC's “New 52” will be released and ramping up.

Marvel's also relaunching “Uncanny X-Men”, one of their longest-running titles, with an all-new #1. They're dividing the X-Men team into two main books; “Uncanny” and then “Wolverine and the X-Men” #1. I almost wish they'd called it something else, because “Uncanny”, which is lead by Cyclops, isn't being called "Cyclops and the X-Men." They're just blatantly cashing in on the immediately recognizable name, which is no big surprise.

The bigger event that I'm excited about is Dan Slott's “Spider-Island” storyline. That just started this month and, at first, I wasn't looking forward to it. It screamed "Return of the Clone Saga." A lot of fans want to forget about that old storyline entirely.

“Spider-Island” is a completely different beast, though. Dan Slott is completely in-control, and he's great. I know fans have had a bad taste in their mouths with Spidey ever since Joe Quesada stuck his nose in and ruined everything a couple of years ago. I dropped it immediately, but Dan Slott brought me right back. His humor and his love for the character of Peter Parker/Spider-Man shines through every time he's at the helm. He knows this should be fun, and people have fun reading it. I certainly do. It's a breath of fresh air next to all these books that are taking themselves way too seriously and trying to sell themselves on shock value.

CNN: DC is about to begin same-day digital sales with their New 52, meaning that new titles will be made available for download on the same day that they’re placed on the rack at comic shops. Marvel followed soon after with a similar announcement for some of their books. As a comics retailer, do you think this might have a negative affect on your store's sales?

Overton: We like to hope not. What we’ve seen with digital downloads, traditionally, is that they cause a lot of people to start coming in to the store who normally wouldn’t walk through our doors. They say, “Hey, I got this free download. I read the first issue and loved it, so I want to own the book.”

This is different, but it might still work in our favor. These downloads are being made available online for the same price that we're asking, at release, so I think a lot of people are going to end up preferring to own physical copies of the books. Someone might download an issue of something that’s a few months old for the reduced price of $1.99, love it, and then come into our store to buy the graphic novel. We’re hoping it’ll drive both interest and sales, but we’re not sure how it’s going to affect our business.

CNN: How are publishers responding to those shops that might be concerned about their business in light of this new digital delivery method? Is there a conversation taking place between these companies and comic shops?

Overton: DC is taking a great stance and displaying a great confidence in their own books – so much so that they’re going as far as to allow store clerks to return copies of books that don’t sell. We're still responsible for 10%, but a 10% loss compared to a 100% loss is still great. They're looking out for us in that fashion. It also signifies to us that we should take a bigger gamble and have faith in DC.

There are a few books DC is not willing to compensate for, but those books are a given that we should feel confident about such as Superman, Batman, Green Lantern and Justice League. Those titles we cannot return, but for the other, smaller books that don't have that immediate, assumed audience, this allows us to take a bigger gamble. Personally, as a customer and as a store clerk, I know that there's nothing more frustrating than popping into a comic book store on release day and find that the book is sold out. I can't stand it.

CNN: What about alternative publishers outside of "the big two?" Are there any events coming out of the smaller publishers like Boom, IDW or Dark Horse?

Overton: I can't think of anything that I'm personally excited about. I feel like they're probably taking a step back and letting DC and Marvel duke it out for the major media attention this fall. That’s actually a big reason to like the other, alternative guys in comparison. They never do these major, headline-grabbing events just for the sake of making headlines. They're the ones telling the consistently strong, powerful stories that actually resonate and mean something.

I love, love, love IDW's “Locke & Key”. It's the first issue I pick up when I get home. I just devour it. I'm disappointed because it's coming to an end within the next year, but it's going to be great because you know he's got a clear direction of where this story is going and how it'll end. He's not going to have a rug yanked out from under him with a shoehorned ending.

CNN: As a veteran of many seasonal events and game-changing bomb drops from the major publishers, what do you think the rest of the year is going to look like for you and for other retail shops in light of this year's big announcements?

Overton: I think the “New 52” will be very successful, at least for our store. I can't speak for other stores. Looking down the line, it's harder to say. I know that, if they keep up the quality and content of these books, they'll continue to prosper.

They just have to stand behind a quality product and not be afraid to tell everyone just how good the book is. I feel like the major companies are way too eager to just drop a great book based on dwindling sales and pretend it never existed. Other books that have major characters in weak stories, ones most people just aren't willing to read, I think, are unfairly cushioned from dropping sales. DC and Marvel are way too determined to just shove those books and characters down our throats.

Take” Deadpool”, for instance. There's not a lot of incentive or reward to keep picking up “Deadpool”. He should be the curveball in a straightforward universe, that's when he works best, but now he's everywhere all the time and it's just too much. He has a fan following, certainly, but they embraced his popularity by plugging him into a million titles, places where he wasn't a natural fit. They shoved him down our throats and now his books are dropping in popularity.

The only book that he's good in right now is “X-Force”; he's a heavy hitter there, but not every page is a Deadpool joke. He plays off the other characters and functions in the team in a way that actually makes him matter. He even gets a few rare moments where he provides insight or says something that makes him the sane one for a brief moment, and I like that. When you can make Deadpool sympathetic and relatable, I think you're succeeding.