When trying to place blame, I think nothing is less agreed upon than the books themselves. The books still have their fans. They are still defended as the best-written, best-drawn, best-colored books in the industry. Even bitter former employees wax nostalgic over the production values, and their control over that aspect. And the books are still attacked as boring and exclusive. So where does the truth lie? As always, somewhere in the middle.
At the same time, I think most of the false theories of failure originate in this area. In one respect, that’s understandable. For one thing, no book is able to appeal to every segment of the population. For people in those segments left out, they naturally generalize from their own experiences, not realizing that the very thing that turned them away is the same thing that brought others in.
One of the theories often forwarded is that the books weren’t edgy enough. Not true. Or at least, that wasn’t a problem. First of all, not everyone is looking for edgy. The company’s name proclaimed that they weren’t edgy. They were the company for all generations. And in some ways, they were successful. CrossGen could never have sold their Bridges program to schools and PTAs if they were edgy. By all accounts, their Bridges program is the most successful branch of the company. Furthermore, edgy isn’t in itself a guarantee of success. Marvel’s edgy MAX line brought about very few successes. DC’s edgier fare like Wildstorm and Vertigo sold roughly the same numbers as CrossGen. Looking at the numbers from July 2003 (the month before CrossGen’s big financial setback), we see that Solus outsold WildCats, Way of the Rat outsold the vampire tale Blood and Water, The First outsold Sleeper and even DemonWars outsold 21 Down. I share these examples not to show disdain for either Vertigo or Wildstorm, but simply to prove that edgy and sales do not go hand in hand.
Another theory is that the books were too slow. This is a theory I tried to contradict every chance I got, but the theory is so widely cited that I’m left to wonder if there isn’t some truth to it. In one way, CrossGen books weren’t slow. More real change happened in one year at CrossGen than in most other titles. But CrossGen also disdained the “fight of the month.” While most titles were showcasing a fight in every issue, CrossGen was building up to one every 6-7 months. For some of us, this was a plus. But that wasn’t true for enough of us. CrossGen’s slowness was such a factor that some readers believed CrossGen used less pages than other publishers. That wasn’t true: CrossGen used the same 22 as Dark Horse, DC, Image and Marvel. But we believe what we perceive and one of the reasons why CrossGen lost so many readers was that many of its titles moved at a glacial pace.
This accusation is one that is also forwarded by some of the writers. Ron Marz has been vocal in this complaint. He occasionally felt held back. He has said that he wasn’t allowed to move a particular title forward because other titles weren’t ready. Mark Waid has been less obvious but his remarks lead one to believe that he felt the same constraints. When two of your writers are among those who complain that the books are too slow, the accusation obviously has some merit.
And yet, I think that the accusation of slowness pales in comparison to two other problems with the books themselves. The first could be considered as much an industry problem as a book problem and indeed, I debated the proper placement. But whatever the cause, CrossGen was a company caught in the middle.
In one of his excellent industry books (I think it’s Reinventing Comics, but it could be Understanding Comics), Scott McCloud describes the current superhero-dominated comics industry. At one point, the industry offered every genre imaginable from A to Z. But A sold better. The publishers realized this and started producing more of A. The retailers realized this and started promoting more of A. The result was that other genres were discarded and ignored. As these other genres disappeared, the industry focused more and more on genre A. Now the industry is wedded to one genre. McCloud wondered about the future of other genres. It seems impossible to introduce genre B into a marketplace that serves only A. Those who would be interested in B wouldn’t know to find it and those who would know to find it are only interested in A. McCloud theorized that in order to introduce other genres like B, one would first have to try an AB hybrid. The hybrid would appeal to existing customers while potentially drawing in new customers who would be interested in B. The theory has some merit. The most successful crime book in comics is Powers, a superhero crime book. I don’t remember if McCloud dealt with this or not but despite the occasional success, it’s also possible that neither those who like A or B would care for AB.
That was one of CrossGen’s major problems. They tried to introduce multiple genres into a one-genre industry. In order to succeed, they borrowed many of the standards of the superhero genre like interlocking continuity and godlike powers. Yet those standards designed to appeal to existing readers alienated other readers they were trying to court.
Sometimes, CrossGen was very successful. There are hundreds of people who claim that CrossGen either introduced them to comics or brought them back. But CrossGen couldn’t fully free itself from this dilemma of being caught in the middle. There are also dozens of fantasy fans who complain that CrossGen’s comics were derivative and unworthy. And there are thousands of superhero fans who found nothing of interest in the new company.
And just as CrossGen compounded some of its fan-related problems, CG expanded this problem as well. Instead of trying to specialize in one genre, CrossGen tried to enter all of them. Newer companies are now trying a safer route. IDW is specializing in crime and horror books. Devil’s Due/Dabel Brothers is concentrating on fantasy. In one regard, CrossGen had to build its audience from scratch for each new title. Considering the uphill climb they faced as a company, it was almost foolhardy to recreate that climb for each new title.
The way that CrossGen tried to avoid reestablishing themselves with each new title was by having an interlocking continuity. Each title, whether it was fantasy, mystery or martial arts was part of one universe and one overall picture. This set-up did much to create a hard-core fan-base of approximately 10,000 people (you can count me among that number). But that same set-up proved to be an obstacle to everyone else in the comics hobby and many of the millions outside of it.
The four launch titles had remarkably similar situations. This wasn’t a deterrent to me, but that was partly because of the way in which I experienced the books. I was in the process of a cross-country move during the summer of 2000 when CrossGen launched their first titles. Due to those circumstances, I was buying few titles and certainly no new ones. When I was finally settled in my new home, I became aware of the positive reviews surrounding this new company. I also became aware of the three-issue money-back guarantee. I bought the first three issues of each of the first four titles. That means I was able to read all three issues at once. The similarities among the books which were pronounced in the first issue had become minimal by the third. Although I didn’t agree, I could understand the complaints of those who thought all of the books were the same.
The launch books led many readers to believe that if you’d tried one CrossGen book, you’d tried them all. Those who had disliked any one title were therefore hesitant to try another. CrossGen did a good job of varying up its formula in its later titles but it took awhile for those titles to overcome the earlier stigma. Instead, CrossGen was forced to rely more on more on its set of hardcore fans. Indeed, their expanding line debuted with almost identical numbers (Crux, Sojourn, Ruse, The Path and Way of the Rat all had debuts within a thousand units of each other). That means that each new title spread thin their fanbase rather than reaching out to new readers. The fanbase eventually felt squeezed for more money, and as was noted earlier, new titles cannibalized the old ones.
At the same time, the word was getting out that CrossGen was more than a one formula establishment. In 2001 and 2002, CrossGen was slowly building its fanbase and diversifying its readership. But in early 2003, CrossGen confirmed the old beliefs. They spun a barbarian title Brath out of their sci-fi title Sigil. Unfortunately for CrossGen, their thirteenth ongoing title featured many of the same details as the first four. Brath was the lowest selling debut for an ongoing core CrossGen title (by 1000 issues!) and it should’ve been a sign that the company had maxed out.
The next title had an even more negative effect on the company. In March of 2003, CrossGen debuted a new George Perez monthly called Solus. Earlier, I described Solus #1 as a commercial success. That’s true of the first issue. Not the series. Solus was neither a critical nor creative success. The book was supposed to be a gift to the hardcore fanbase. It specialized in the Big Picture that tied the various titles together. And as it was more about continuity than either plot or character, it was widely panned. Solus was a flop. It lost 7000 readers between its first and second issues. By the sixth issue, it was selling half of its debut. If it hadn’t been cancelled, Solus would’ve been reduced to that core base of 10,000 in only one year.
Ron Marz has remarked that George Perez “was the biggest bullet in the CrossGen gun and we shot ourselves in the foot with it.” Both Marz and Bedard have said that they argued against putting Perez on Solus. Their cries apparently fell on deaf ears. Perez’ first issue should have been the boost the company needed. After nearly a year of declining sales on individual titles, Perez’ involvement could have guaranteed a second major hit. Indeed, the debut sales show that a Perez title could’ve exceeded Sojourn, Ruse and Lady Death as CrossGen’s best seller. The profits could’ve offset losses in other books and other areas. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Solus confirmed many of the accusations directed at CrossGen. Their books were insular. You had to read every title to make sense of any of them. Solus could have buoyed the company. Instead it damaged it. Solus actually hurt the sales on other titles. As the belief that you had to buy every title was confirmed, readers began to drop not just Solus but other CrossGen books as well. Way of the Rat, The Path, Ruse, The First: all of these titles either began slipping or lost readers at a more rapid rate shortly after Solus’ debut.
The catastrophe that was Solus leads us directly into the biggest problem that faced the books themselves: “The Big Picture.” As noted earlier, all of the CrossGen titles were part of an interlocking continuity. They were all part of the same story that was commonly referred to as “The Big Picture.” This interlocking continuity receives the most blame for CrossGen’s failure, second only to “too many books too fast.” There’s some truth to that, but there are some nuances that also need to be addressed.
First of all, there is a big difference between saying “The Big Picture was the problem” and “The execution of The Big Picture was the problem.” For some, simply having a big picture was indeed a problem. But this gets us back to some of the stylistic complaints discussed earlier. The very thing that detracted for some, attracted others. It is obvious that the comic book industry of 2004 is no longer appreciative of an interlocking continuity. That worked against Image’s superhero line in 2003. But it is not as obvious that an interlocking continuity worked against CrossGen when it first launched in 2000. The similarity of the launch books, yes. The overarching story, no.
Initially, CrossGen was helped by the big picture. It helped develop the hardcore fan base. That fan base supported every title and guaranteed that books would launch in Diamond’s top 100 with at least 20,000 in sales (only Route 666, written by then-unknown Tony Bedard failed to reach these markers). And that fan base was responsible for the positive word of mouth that helped up to half of CrossGen’s titles make sales gains. On the other hand, that hard core fan base was also one of the causes behind the insults that CrossGen was a koolaid-drinking cult. Those accusations are representative of the hostility discussed earlier. The big picture helped create both a minimum threshold and a maximum ceiling for CrossGen titles.
I would like to theorize that CrossGen was not hurt by the big picture itself as much as the execution of the big picture. That isn’t to say that CrossGen should have made every book a part of the big picture. Two of their most successful launches, Lady Death and El Cazador, stood apart from the big picture. And their most successful books were only loosely tied to the interlocking continuity. Obviously, their titles didn’t need the overarching story to find its audience. But that claim isn’t necessarily the same as saying the overarching story lost its audience. Yet that is just what happened.
So what were the problems with the execution of the big picture? The reasons are many, but I’ll quickly describe five.
One, the crossovers were poorly executed. CrossGen claimed that it was doing away with many of the industry crutches like relaunches and company-wide crossovers, but that didn’t prevent them from using guest appearances. At the same time, CrossGen was trying to keep a promise that you wouldn’t need to buy every book to enjoy any one of them. The guest appearances put a lie to that statement. Instead of being forced to buy two titles, fans were treated to the same scene twice. For example, Sam from Sigil visited Sephie from Meridian. The same scene was shown in both titles from the perspective of the different characters. It may have been an interesting exercise, but it left many readers feeling as if they’d paid twice for the same story.
Two, the crossovers didn’t always make sense. It is possible that CrossGen listened to complaints about the earlier guest appearances. The later ones certainly felt different. Unfortunately, they didn’t feel better. Characters would again make guest appearances, but rather than reading the same scene twice, the guest wouldn’t make sense within the context of the title. This was particularly true of Solusandra. Her appearance in Mystic had little to do with what had come before or after (the same can be said of Ingra’s earlier appearance). If somebody was reading Mystic but not Solus, the issue just wouldn’t make sense.
These failed crossovers and guest appearances meant that the big picture began to feel like the big intrusion. Fans of a particular series were put off by appearances of The First or other characters from outside of their specific title. And even fans who bought everything (like me) occasionally resented the impact that the big picture had on an individual title. One example is the removal of Capricia from the cast of Crux in order to export her to Sigil. This lessened Crux as that particular title lost one of its more popular characters. This lessened Sigil as it intruded on the popular romantic liaisons between Sam and Zanni and took scenes away from the main plot of that title. And it disappointed fans of the big picture because we felt Capricia was wasted as she barely appeared in Sigil. Even worse, Capricia’s Crux farewell happened to be the key issue that was supposed to bring new readers aboard.
Four, the big picture was not as interesting as the little pictures. Okay, I admit it. It turned out to be boring. The titles most closely connected to the big picture were always the least interesting. I know that The First has its fans, but The First experienced the sharpest decline of the core CrossGen titles and quickly passed the other books to become the company’s worst seller. The only title to beat The First’s rate of decline was Solus, a big picture title whose faults have already been discussed. As Crux become more associated with the big picture, its sales also experienced a sharp decline. So sharp that Crux became CrossGen’s second worst seller next to The First. Inker Drew Geraci is particularly critical of Crux. As the title that featured Mark Waid, Steve Epting and Chuck Dixon Crux should have experienced the same word-of-mouth gains as other books. But it didn’t, and its close association to the big picture seems to be the likely culprit.
Fifth, and finally for our purposes, the key characters in the big picture were unlikable. How many readers liked Danik in Crux? Yet he turned out to be one of the key players. How many readers like Solusandra of Solus? Yet she turned out to be the other key player. It was hard to want to follow the big picture when we as readers had so little reason to like, sympathize or cheer for the main characters. I have to confess that when Negation War: Part Two teased that the villainous Lawbringers were about to attack The First, I was cheering for the villains to win.