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Solve For X

Comics, FYI
Solve For X
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #6 • View online
Fans looking forward to the new ‘X Lives of Wolverine’ series had a surprise option of reading format this week, with a surprise appearance on subscription service Marvel Unlimited.

Wednesday brought the surprise announcement that Marvel was simultaneously releasing the first issue of new X-Men event series X Lives of Wolverine* on Marvel Unlimited alongside its release in comic stores, in what was being called a “special bonus release” of the issue. 
Traditionally, the MU subscription service uploads issues three months after their in-store date, although there have been occasions when issues appear earlier than anticipated; the first four issues of Donny Cates’ Thor run were added before the in-store release of the fifth in summer 2020, for example. (That’s saying nothing of accidental uploads of material ahead of in-store releases, as has happened more than once.) This “bonus” addition of the debut of X Lives of Wolverine’s premiere issue marks something new for Marvel, however – and something that might end up being a problem if it’s a trick repeated too often.
It should be noted that Marvel isn’t breaking entirely new ground here; DC has been using its own digital subscription service, DC Universe Infinite, like this for awhile – all of the new Milestone Media titles are available day and date on DCUI and comic stores, for example – and going further, too: each issue of the DC Round Robin contest, Robins, has been released on DCUI ahead of its print release, while the DCUI version of digital first series The Joker: A Puzzlebox is a “director’s cut” featuring material not included in the original release of the issue on ComiXology. These releases, along with DCUI exclusive titles like the underrated Let Them Live!: Unpublished Tales from the DC Vault, are clearly intended to make the nascent service more attractive to fans – but in every case, their status as a digital priority was clear ahead of release. (Indeed, DC’s focus on digital comics in general has been no secret for some time.)
The X Lives of Wolverine bonus Marvel Unlimited release feels a little different, though, at least to me. It’s the unexpected element – and, specifically, the fact that retailers weren’t given any kind of advance notice about it. X Lives, and its companion series, X Deaths of Wolverine (two five issue series that alternate weeks for the next two months) have been massively hyped up to fans and retailers alike for months – I have PR from October last year that reads, “In the same way Jonathan Hickman’s House of X and Powers of X transformed the mutant mythos in 2019, these twin series will usher in The Second Krakoan Age of X-Men,” while November PR promised that it would “transform the mutant mythos in the same exciting fashion as 2019’s revolutionary House of X and Powers of X,” while also calling it “the most epic Wolverine story in Marvel Comics history.” Last month saw the final issues of both series being described as featuring a “showdown that will decide Krakoa’s future,” while a quote from writer Benjamin Percy promised a “seismic shift that follows” the story’s conclusion.
The implication couldn’t be clearer: these two series are a big deal, and retailers who wanted to keep their customers happy should ensure that they ordered heavily.
Thankfully, there are multiple variant covers to help them doing that. X Lives of Wolverine #1 had eleven of them, for example: a main cover by Adam Kubert and three “regular” variants by Peach Momoko, Ron Lim, and Jorge Molina, as well as (deep breath) a “Lives of Wolverine” variant by Ed McGuinness, a “homage variant” by Will Sliney, an “animation style variant” by Todd Nauck, a Stormbreakers variant from Joshua Cassara (who draws the interiors), a “trading card variant” from Mark Bagley, something called a “hidden gem” variant from Arthur Adams, and, finally, a “connecting collage variant” by Mr. Garcin. Who wouldn’t want to order a lot of copies, with that many covers for a series so hyped? 
For those wondering, I’ve checked with Marvel: X Lives of Wolverine #1 isn’t returnable. Any retailer who’s left with unsold copies because fans have realized that they can just read the issue on Marvel Unlimited without the three month delay are… well, simply left with unsold copies.
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!
Image Comics continues to be have one of its most interesting years in recent memory, this week announcing Image!, a 12-issue anthology launching in April, curated by publisher Eric Stephenson. As someone brought up with British comics, and who still believes that 2000 AD has legitimate claim to its self-proclaimed “Galaxy’s Greatest Comic” title, I’m always happy to see U.S. publishers try and make anthology series work. 
The creator line-up for Image! – I love that exclamation point, which makes me think it’s a musical – is an interesting one, boasting a new Geoff Johns-written series alongside work by Mirka Andolfo, W. Maxwell Prince, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, Zoe Thorogood, Emma Rios, Kieron Gillen, and as the saying goes, “many more.” (Others have pointed out that the announcement seemed to be made up of predominantly white creators, which is certainly a problem, and certainly a wider problem inside the Image line-up in general.) 
It’s probably worth remembering that Skybound did its own short-run anthology series to celebrate its 10th anniversary last year to some acclaim; I’d be surprised if the response to that didn’t lead into the creation of Image! to some degree… and I’m also curious to see if the varied and, in some cases, unexpected creator line-ups that made Skybound X what it was – bringing in Tillie Walden, Kyle Starks, Daniel Warren Johnson, Erica Henderson, etc. – is something that Image! is going to be able to replicate.
If nothing else, the cover to the first issue is lovely, even if it’s uncredited in the promo that went out yesterday. (It’s funny that Radiant is reading Youngblood #1; I get that it’s the first Image comic ever published, but is Youngblood even an Image property anymore?)
(Image continues to have a big January next week: Saga returns after, what, three and a half years…?)
One last thing before I send out this later-than-intended issue (Sorry): DC announced the cancellation of Justice League this week, with April’s 75th issue of the current series. It’s an issue that, according to the early promotion at least, is killing off the entire Justice League, with writer Joshua Williamson teasing that it’s “gonna be a while [before there’s a new Justice League comic], and that’s gonna be a major part of what the DCU looks like after this story: There is no Justice League.” (I mean, we all know that they’re going to come back eventually; almost every single one of the current team have already died at least once before, after all.) 
It’s all part of Williamson’s ongoing Infinite Frontier mega-story that’s been running in various titles since the start of last year  – which reminds me, those interested in the idea of all of DC’s history as one singular meta-narrative in a way that would make both Roy Thomas or Grant Morrison proud, you’re going to want to check out the opening of Justice League Incarnate #4 at the start of next month – but it’s also, apparently, a tribute to the final chapter of “The Death of Superman,” from Superman #75. There’s even a Dan Jurgens-drawn cover referencing his promotional poster for “Death of Superman” way back when, with Hal Jordan still hanging back and grieving. 
Here’s the thing about Superman #75, though: it’s a comic that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. 30th.
In related news, yes, we’re all older than we think. Have a good weekend pondering that sad reality.
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Graeme McMillan

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