I’ve talked to a number of people about what might be going on here. A recurring thought – which, I should point out, comes as a number of people all outside Marvel, and should therefore only be taken as speculation – is that the Marvel Unlimited drop could actually have been a response to what was seen by Marvel as disappointingly low order numbers from retailers, perhaps burned out on the idea of a second X-Men event arriving weeks after the end of Jonathan Hickman’s swan song Inferno. Marvel’s hope, according to this theory, was that having essentially made the first issue a freebie (at least for those with MU subscriptions), interest in later issues might pick up and lead to a stronger selling end of the run and launch of the subsequent Destiny of X books.
It’s an interesting idea, but surely one somewhat flawed simply by the fact that retailers who ordered heavily on X Lives #1 could be those left holding the bag here – and they’d also be the ones Marvel would be relying upon to order the upcoming X-books Marvel is trying to promote. Why piss off the people you’re trying to get on your side? (A compelling counterargument to that is, mind you, “have you seen the history of the comic book industry?”)
The alternative is that Marvel is, itself, trying to promote Marvel Unlimited by day-and-date releasing comics on the service and in stores. It’s possible; certainly, last year’s introduction of the Infinity Comics format
** – a Webtoon-esque vertical scroll format that has now led to an actual collaboration with Webtoon itself
; something that I feel utterly slipped under the radar last week when it was announced, but maybe that’s just me – suggested that the company was beginning to look at the service as something more than simply a second-run depository of back issues. For all we know, X Lives
might be the start of a scheme to promote all manner of new launches on Marvel Unlimited for a period, like HBO Max’s 2021 day-and-date movie release program
, except that it upsets comic store retailers instead of theater owners and movie directors.
Of course, that assumes that retailers are
upset by the surprise X Lives
release, and that it impacted sales of the physical issue at all – which might be a pretty big assumption, in the end. I’m reminded of something that former DC publisher Dan Didio told me when I talked to him for Polygon’s New 52 oral history
last year: “[E]verybody was so worried about [offering digital releases on the same sale date as physical for the first time] and it didn’t make any dent into the physical sales at all. It hit a certain plateau and never really changed in the five years of the New 52.” What if there’s no significant crossover between the audience buying comics in stores every week and the audience reading comics in subscription services, and this “special bonus release” gives Marvel some evidence of that? What effect could that have on the way that Marvel, and other publishers, release their books every week moving forward?
* I keep on typing the title of the comic X Loves of Wolverine, and come on, Marvel: that’s a Valentine’s anthology waiting to happen.
** One of the Infinity Comics series currently running on Marvel Unlimited? Life of Wolverine, a new 10-part weekly retelling of the history of everyone’s second-favorite Canadian Marvel superhero in chronological order. It’s a spin-off from/tie-in to X Lives of Wolverine that launched this week, presumably because one series (well, two, technically) about Wolverine’s history isn’t enough at any one time, I guess? Synergy!