Late in the afternoon on the day before the Fourth of July holiday, word broke that Mad Magazine was going to come to an end…of sorts.
Beginning with issue ten (the book relaunched with new numbering last year), the sixty-seven year old magazine will leave the newsstands, and will be distributed only to the direct market (comic book stores) and subscribers. With the following issue, Mad Magazine will go all-reprint, mining its vast archives to present classic material under a new cover every two months. They still plan to do a new “year in review” issue every year, since those still sell pretty well.
This is very sad for those of us who grew up on Mad Magazine. There’s no denying that Mad helped foster a healthy sense of cynicism and satire that shaped every generation since the 1950s. The cultural impact of Mad cannot be denied, and it will be missed, even if it had been largely irrelevant since the 1970s. It is apparently the only magazine that the president reads, even if he has to have the jokes explained to him.
The magazine is not completely dead, since it will live on as a reprint title, but for a largely topical humor magazine, that’s as close as you can get to a death sentence without actually taking it behind the barn and shooting it.
The reasons for this change are simple…magazines are not selling well at all anymore. The entire industry has been dealing with plummetting sales for decades. Prices are going up. Frequency of publication is dropping (Entertainment Weekly only comes out once a month now). Long-running publications are shutting down left and right. There is a bit more to it than that, however.
The reason that Mad Magazine is not just being killed completely is pretty complex. First of all, the magazine still has a loyal subscriber base. It’s not large enough to justify the printing of new material, but it’s still sizable enough for Warner Media to want to avoid paying out refunds for unfinished subs. There is also a lot of value in the name. Mad-themed reprint volumes (like the one seen at left) still do well in the bookstore market, and there have been three different TV shows based on the magazine over the years.
There is, however, a more foreboding reason for the actions of Warner Global Entertainment and Experience Brands (the current name of DC Comics’ parent division) this week.
Earlier this year, the future of Mad Magazine was thrown into doubt when it was revealed that Bill Morrison, the high-profile new editor of the magazine, was laid off, along with several other well-respected DC Comics executives (DC has been in charge of Mad since the death of the magazine’s founder, William M. Gaines, in 1992–before that they were sister companies, both owned by Time-Warner).
Since the acquisition of Warner Communications by AT&T last year, the entire company has been placed under the scrutiny of corporate bean-counters. The heads of several of Warner’s divisions, many of them long-serving folks with incredible track records, have been forced out of the company by the new owners. The heads of HBO and Turner Broadcasting left in March. Diane Nelson, who had been running DC Entertainment and Warner Interactive, bailed out last year in advance of the AT&T deal. She’d been the person who shepherded the Harry Potter franchise before that.
The same week that she pulled the plug on Mad Magazine publishing new material, Lifford shuttered the long-running, award-winning Vertigo Imprint, home to the best-selling Sandman and Fables franchises.
That brings us to my prediction of what the changes to Mad Magazine really mean.
It is possible that taking Mad Magazine all-reprint is not only a cost-cutting measure to keep a brand alive just in case it becomes valuable again in the future.
My belief is that the Mad situation is a trial balloon that may indicate the future fate of DC Comics.
DC Comics has existed in some form or another for over eighty years. They have probably published close to a million pages of comics in that time. That’s a pretty huge library of archive material. Back in the late 1970s, during the famed DC Implosion, the idea was kicked around to simply start reprinting previously-published (and paid for) material in the comics, since the comics weren’t really what made any money anyway. The real income came from licensing Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman to movies, television and toys and games.
That did not happen then. It was heavily considered, though. Perhaps the Warner executives were shown what happened to the sales at Charlton and Gold Key when they went all-reprint (both companies went under soon after). However, things have changed since then. Sales are a mere fraction of what they were then. DC has forty more years worth of reprintable comics, and another experiement of their’s has proven to be quite successful.
About a year ago, DC started selling 100-page Giant comics exclusively through Walmart (that’s one to your left). These books contained 12 pages of new material (plus way the hell too many house ads and synopsis and preview pages), and over sixty pages of reprints, with most of those reprints coming from comics they’d published in the last ten or twelve years.
Comics fans mocked the idea. People complained about having to go to Walmart to buy them. Nobody was happy with the small amount of new material in them.
And they sold. They sold much, much better than any comic books that DC distributed through the direct market. The worst-selling Walmart Giant Comic sold better than the best-selling direct sales comic book every month since they began publishing them last summer.These returnable comics had better than an 80% sell-through, which is an amazing number, even compared to the days when magazines were not a failing industry.
They quickly increased the number of 100-Page Giants from four to six, and every month, those are now DC’s top-selling comics, by a wide margin. This sort of proved that the Direct-Sales comic book market, which is made up of a few thousand comics book stores nationwide, is not going to be a growth-engine for the comics industry. Those thousands of comic book stores were outperformed by a cardboard dump, tucked away in a corner of Walmart, near the checkout registers.
The Walmart Giants sold so well with very little new material, and with the bulk of the reprint material coming from books that were far from the best of DC’s vast library.
Now they’re taking Mad Magazine all-reprint. If sales remain steady, or even improve, that will demonstrate to the bean-counters that, maybe, just maybe, they don’t need to be publishing new material in all their comics every month.
I don’t think they’ll take DC all-reprint. They’ve already announced plans to bump up the new content in the Walmart Giants to 48 pages per issue, and to make them available to other retailers. However, I think the days of DC paying a creative team to produce 20 pages or so of new material for a comic that’s only selling 15,000 copies a month are rapidly coming to a close.
Another sign that DC is testing the waters for publishing more reprints is that they are borrowing a page from Marvel, and will start publishing “Facsmilie” editions of classic comics, as well as “Dollar Comics,” which will be DC’s version of Marvel’s “True Believers” reprint comics.
Comic book sales have dropped to the point where carefully-selected reprints could easily sell two or three times the number of copies of comics that all-new comics with those same characters sell each month.
There are comics with long runs of stories that could easily be reprinted on a monthly basis that would perform well: The classic Batman stories by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams and others are collected in several volumes, but would still sell well as single issues. The work of Steven Englehart on Batman, The Justice League and Green Lantern Corps would sell phenomonally well. They could go back and reprint Alan Moore and Steve Bissette’s Swamp Thing and probably sell more reprints now than the book sold in the direct market over thirty years ago. I have no interest in the current versions of Teen Titans, but I can’t imagine that reprints of the classic Marv Wolfman/George Perez comics wouldn’t sell spectacularly well.
I don’t think DC will go all-reprint. I do think that they could go mostly-reprint, creating new material for possibly as few as ten titles, with the rest of their line made up of classic reprints, and they’d probably increase their market share in the process.
And that, I believe, is where the fate of Mad Magazine plays into the future of comics. It’s really sort of hard to mourn the loss of Mad Magazine if it means we’ll get to see classic material by Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Don Martin, Mort Drucker, Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Basil Wolverton, Al Jaffee, Sergio Aragones and so many other legends.
Likewise, it’ll be hard to get upset if DC follows suit, and decides to publish the best material from its vast library instead of flooding the market with watered-down reboots of that material, written and drawn by lesser talents that I’ve never heard of before.
But I think that’s the real motivating factor of the fate of Mad Magazine. It’s just bean-counters, counting beans and testing the waters for a bigger bean-counting move.
That is this week’s PopCulteer. You know the drill.