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Batman/Fortnite: Success or Failure?

Last Wednesday, I drove down to my local comic shop in an attempt to grab the first issue of Batman/Fortnite: Zero Point for my brother and niece, who are avid Fortnite players. Unsurprisingly, the shop was sold out.

As far as I know, this story was the norm for those who had not pre-ordered Batman/Fortnite prior to its release. On Tuesday (DC Comics’ new release day), Twitter was buzzing with people surprised that Batman/Fortnite was selling out as quickly as it did. Even shops who had ordered a significant amount of the issue were surprised at how many calls they were getting, asking if they had Batman/Fortnite in stock:

So, I knew it was likely my shop would be sold out when I arrived. In fact, the cashier I talked to said they had sold through their stock early on Tuesday, almost immediately after putting the book on their stands. She also said their re-order list was at least a dozen people long, and that she could currently write the book’s re-order code from memory.

I chose not to add my name to the re-order list, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Batman/Fortnite. Most notably, I wondered whether Batman/Fortnite selling out in such a massive way was a success or a failure.

Do You Need Notice to Know Fortnite Is Popular?

In our conversation, my cashier mentioned that she and her shop had not really received notice that Batman/Fortnite was going to be a thing. By which I mean, she couldn’t remember seeing Batman/Fortnite listed in Previews (the magazine that lets comic shops know what’s coming out each month), and she didn’t really remember reading about it anywhere else. I didn’t have time to ask how the shop decided how many copies of Batman/Fortnite to order (there were people behind me in line, and it’s still a pandemic). But clearly, my shop and other shops ordered far too few.

Knowing the history of tie-in comics, that sub-genre of superhero comics in which they cross over with popular non-superhero properties, one could be forgiven for thinking that a tie-in comic would not fly off shelves. For example, while many comics nerds love it, the general public didn’t really care about Green Lantern/Colonel Sanders.

Green Lantern Colonel Sanders 3 Cover

Except … we are talking about Batman and Fortnite. The world’s most popular superhero and at least arguably the world’s most popular video game. Not only that, the comic includes a code redeemable for a unique in-game item. That item? A skin that lets you play as Harley Quinn, possibly the world’s most popular anti-hero.

If you want to play as Harley Quinn in Fortnite, you have to track down a print copy of Batman/Fortnite 1 (or subscribe to DC Universe Infinite, which is itself an interesting move on DC’s part). Is it really surprising that parents are calling comic shops, attempting to track down a copy of the issue?

Except (again) … what if you are a comic shop and you don’t know the comic has an in-game item code? At that point, Batman/Fortnite becomes just another tie-in comic. A tie-in comic with much more potential to sell through, sure. But just another tie-in comic.

DC took some actions to mitigate this sellout. According to Bleeding Cool, DC made Batman/Fortnite returnable and extended the period in which comic shops could order the book. But, I wonder, did DC help retailers understand that whether or not Batman/Fortnite itself is good, Fortnite players (and their parents) would be willing to pay $4.99 for just the Harley Quinn outfit?

To get to the point, it’s not Batman/Fortnite that’s selling these books. It’s the chance to play Fortnite as Harley Quinn. And I’m not sure that comic shops understood a) that an in-game cosmetic code would be included in Batman/Fortnite and b) how big a business video game cosmetics are. Fortnite is free to play, and it made $400 million last year. All that money came from players buying in-game items and cosmetics like the Harley Quinn outfit. Fortnite cosmetics are big business, and if comic shop owners did not know that before, they certainly do now. But could they have been warned ahead of time?

harley-quinn-fortnite-skin

Is Selling Out a Success?

Now, I’ve purposefully chosen to sidestep the question of whether or not this sellout is speculator-driven. Because honestly, I don’t think it matters.

If comic shops had somehow been made aware (or just started aware) of the frenzy a unique, popular Fortnite cosmetic code would create among Fortnite players, speculation would not have been as much of an issue as it seems like it might be. Also, from the tweets I’ve been reading, most of the demand for the issue seems organic. It is (anecdotally) coming from actual Fortnite players and their parents who want the comic and/or Harley Quinn code, not people looking to scalp the code or comic on eBay.

Finally, on the speculator front, there is a cap to how much all the skins and items packaged with Batman/Fortnite: Zero Point can collectively be worth: the price of a DC Universe Infinite membership. Fortnite players who just want the in-game cosmetic codes can sidestep speculators by signing up for (I believe, DC’s PR isn’t clear) four months of DC Universe Infinite – which is a price of $32 (cheaper than the physical comic books). If the cosmetics require signing up for a year of DC Universe Infinite, that’s $75, which is a little steep – but better than paying $25 or $40 for just the Harley Quinn code.

So, I don’t think speculation actually affects Batman/Fortnite‘s success too much. What might, however, is Fortnite players’ inability to find the the issue at their local comic shops.

In theory, selling out of a comic book is a success. However, ordering and selling comic books is often a tightrope business, in which shop owners attempt to carefully manage their profit margins – and sellouts are not always a good thing. Most monthly comic books are not returnable, so shops have to be careful not to order too many or too few copies. Too many, and the extras sit on shelves. Too few, and the shop misses out on sales – selling out, sure, but leaving money on the table and potentially frustrating customers.

Clearly, many comic shops left money on the table with Batman/Fortnite.

While Batman/Fortnite 1 will be back in stock at most stores by May 4 (when issue 2 releases), that leaves a two-week window in which players can google Batman/Fortnite, sign up for DC Universe Infinite, and get their Harley Quinn code immediately. Or, they can find out that if they wait until June, they can just purchase the Harley Quinn outfit from Fortnite’s item shop. (It seems unlikely, however, that the unique Batman outfit players get for using all six Batman/Fortnite codes will become available in the item shop – so players are still incentivized to purchase the comic/codes.)

Comic publishers, especially the Big Two, have taught comic shops to order conservatively. Comic publishers, especially the Big Two, are not always the best at advertising books to their actual primary audience – which is comic shop owners. In this case, it seems DC did make a push to market Batman/Fortnite to comic shop owners, even going so far as to make the issue returnable, allowing retailers to order as many as they wanted. But still, retailers did not understand how popular this book would be – so someone (or multiple people) in the marketing chain failed.

What’s the Harm in Batman/Fortnite Selling Out?

For every dozen people who chose to sign up for their comic shop’s re-order of Batman/Fortnite 1, there’s a person like me – who decided to look for the issue on a lark, saw that it was sold out, and went about their day. I probably won’t be going back to my shop to look for Batman/Fortnite 2 (unless I happen upon a copy of issue one at one of my city’s other shops, which seems unlikely). And if my brother and/or niece tell me they really want all the Batman/Fortnite codes, I’ll probably encourage them to sign up for DC Universe Infinite. After all, four months of DC Universe Infinite is nearly the same price as the print comics themselves ($32 vs. $30).

This is the real reason that Batman/Fortnite‘s massive sellout seems like a failure: people who could have been drawn into a comic shop multiple times over the next three months are instead not going to purchase any print comics. They are going to think of their local comic shop as “that place that didn’t have that comic I wanted,” and they are going to think negatively of their attempt to purchase print comics.

Even I, who understands exactly why print comics are sometimes as hard to find as they are, get frustrated with this aspect of monthly comics. For example, the real reason I drove out to my shop last Wednesday was to check whether the store had a copy of Tom Taylor, Bruno Redondo, and co.’s first two issues of Nightwing. I figured the shop might have sold out of issue 78, which released last month, but that I’d at least be able to pick up a copy of issue 79, which released the same day as Batman/Fortnite.

Lo and behold, my shop had only more-expensive variant cover copies of Nightwing 79 left in stock. I didn’t sign up for re-orders on those issues either, preferring to try to track down the books myself. (If I can’t, I’ll probably just wait for the trade, as I am currently wont to do.) This is not even close to the first time I’ve had this happen to me recently, as I attempt to hop onto series or runs that I’ve heard good things about. The lesson I’ve come to learn is that, at the moment, monthly print comic books are likely not for me.

The harm in Batman/Fortnite selling out in a day is that it implicitly teaches Fortnite players and parents that same lesson: that monthly print comic books aren’t for them. If my first encounter with purchasing print comics was an attempt to find an issue that is sold out nearly everywhere and being sold for $25 online, I’m not sure I would have stuck with the hobby. Batman/Fortnite‘s sellout has taught a number of potential new readers that keeping up with monthly comics is work. In that case, wouldn’t you rather just play more Fortnite (or stream a movie, or buy an eBook) instead? That’s why Batman/Fortnite‘s frenzied sellout feels like a failure for comic shops, DC Comics, and the comic book industry.

(P.S. – After I wrote this post, DC’s final July solicits came out … and it looks like the hardcover collection of Batman/Fortnite: Zero Point contains codes for all seven cosmetic items, including the exclusive Batman skin. I hope comic shops order hard on that book! It’s gonna sell!)

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