One comic debut this week should interest readers beyond the super-heroic action (and romance!) contained within its covers: Marvel’s Rogue & Gambit, written by Kelly Thompson with art by Pere Perez, is a limited series, scheduled to run five issues. While the sheer existence of a mini-series from Marvel Comics shouldn’t feel particularly revelatory in 2018, this title and a handful of others give industry observers a reason to suspect—and hope—that the era of the “stealth mini-series” is dead and buried.
For readers unfamiliar with the term, “stealth mini-series” was coined some time during the last few years of near-constant line-wide initiatives at Marvel to describes books launched, marketed and sold as ongoing series but cancelled within one arc. Titles like Red Wolf, Starbrand & Nightmask, Black Knight, Nick Fury and David F. Walker and Ramon Villalobos’ fan-favorite Nighthawk all fit the description, as does the much-discussed premature death of Ta-Nehesi Coates, Yona Harvey and Butch Guice’s Black Panther & The Crew, which ran for one fewer issue than the original infamously cancelled The Crew.
Black Panther & The Crew #6 Cover Art by John Cassaday
Beginning around 2015, the only comics Marvel launched as limited series were event comics, event tie-ins and Star Wars comics, a brand that (so far) seems mostly impervious to downward sales trends. Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing David Gabriel explained the publisher’s reasoning in a candid interview with ICv2 last March (the same interview in which he discussed the sales impact of “diversity” in one of Marvel’s most public 2017 blunders):
“I’m going to tell you, the limited series is the death knell,” Gabriel said of the current market environment. “The only place that it hasn’t been a death knell, which is amazing, is on the Star Wars stuff. Anytime we’ve called something a limited series, it did not hurt the sales at all. You call anything else in the Marvel Universe a limited series, it’s dead on arrival.”
Understanding Gabriel’s comments requires a wider explanation of how comics are sold within the direct market. Under the current ordering system, comic shops commit to (mostly un-returnable) orders several months in advance, which provides the bulk of the sales data that publishers use to determine series viability. This is why even the most prominent creators, like Runaways writer and YA megastar Rainbow Rowell, must continuously explain to their readers how to order comics in advance at brick-and-mortar comic retailers. Day-of sales when a comic hits shelves, digital sales and eventual trade-collection sales provide later waves of data for publishers, and few books receive the disproportionate back-end bump required to survive low single-issue preorders. (In fairness, some certainly do, including Ms. Marvel and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, but publishers are notoriously cagey about discussing non-direct-market sales.)
Runaways #1 Cover Art by Kris Anka
Why did Marvel view limited series as “dead on arrival”? Anecdotal wisdom suggests that readers are more likely to “trade-wait” mini-series, skipping the single issues in favor of the eventual collection. Limited series are frequently perceived as “mattering” less to overall continuity. After all, if something multiverse-shattering were to happen to Black Panther, it’s more likely to occur in the pages of his solo series or a major crossover than in a spin-off book (or so readers might rationalize). And with dozens of releases hitting shelves every week—Marvel publishes in the range of 70+ distinct series monthly—knowing that a book will soon have an affordable, all-in-one trade collection may be incentive enough to pass on individual issues.
Unfortunately, launching every book as an ongoing series seems to have backfired on the House of Ideas. Savvy (or jaded) readers can predict a property that may struggle to sustain an ongoing readership, and quick cancellations have made many readers wary of buying into series that seems doomed to an early grave. Some particularly egregious timing didn’t help, like the cancellation of Rocket Raccoon and launch of the Rocket-Raccoon-starring Rocket within a month of each other. While there are larger medium discussions to be had here—is it better to get six perfect issues or drag a series past its prime? Does a comic have to “matter” to continuity to be worth reading?—Marvel’s decision to launch every book as an ongoing series damaged reader trust and hobbled their ability to launch new books. Recent titles like America and Luke Cage launched to low numbers, as did higher-profile books like All-New Guardians of the Galaxy, and now all three are scheduled to conclude in the next few months. Iceman, potentially Marvel’s first-ever title written by and starring a queer man, was cancelled before its inaugural trade collection hit shelves. To put it bluntly, the “stealth mini-series” felt like a bait-and-switch: a promise of an ongoing comic reneged after you’ve purchased the first few issues.
Rocket #1 Cover Art by Mike Mayhew
(It’s worth noting that, while Marvel most visibly and vocally shifted away from limited series in the last few years, DC Comics helped pioneer the trend during the early days of the 2011 “New 52” initiative, when titles like Static Shock were frequently cancelled and replaced within six issues. This year will see the first cancellations from DC Comics’ more recent “Rebirth” relaunch, with titles like Blue Beetle and Cyborg wrapping up after a more respectable 18 to 20 issues.)
All of which brings us back to Rogue & Gambit, which follows on the heels of Spirits of Vengeance and precedes Legion, all Marvel titles announced, marketed and sold as limited series. Rogue & Gambit doesn’t tie into Phoenix Resurrection or pick up threads from the Secret Empire event. Writer Kelly Thompson and artist Pere Perez haven’t promised to shake either titular character to their core or pepper the series with shocking deaths and returns. These books are simply complete stories told within five issues. Even the upcoming New Mutants: Dead Souls book, which looks to take inspiration from the horror-styled film adaptation, will launch as a limited series.
While 2017 certainly wasn’t a great year for Marvel, marred as it was by PR disasters, it seems like the publisher has actually learned from one of its mistakes. It will be a few months before a clear picture of Marvel’s current sales landscape emerges—recent variant-cover initiatives required high orders from shops interested in participating—but the return of transparent limited series and the death of the “stealth mini-series” is a welcome start on Marvel’s road to recovering trust among its readership.
Rogue & Gambit #1 Cover Art by Kris Anka