When last we left our marketing & design superheroes, they had stumbled on a way to change the design of their core content offering that spurred reader interest and increased engagement. Now they faced their toughest challenge yet, creating a premium version of the product with minimal changes to the editorial content. Would they triumph or find themselves consigned to the long list of failed innovators. Would they create the next iPod or the next Newton?
In the summer of 1991, the team at Marvel Comics was thinking in simpler terms. How could we create a special version of SPIDER-MAN #1 (the best selling comic in modern company history) as a thank you to our retailers? As I noted in my last blog post, we had made extensive use of “fifth ink” technology and created silver and gold ink versions of the regular book. Other color options (like the Day-Glo colors we used on our HULK cover) really wouldn’t have worked with McFarlane’s detailed artwork.
Our production department rose to the challenge, showing off technologies like embossing and foil stamping that had rarely been used in comic books before. Like any good development team, they had stayed on top of the latest technologies and presented a number of possible solutions to the design challenge. Of course, there was a platform limitation involved here as well. Print techniques like foil stamping and embossing could not be used on the fairly lightweight paper stock that Marvel used for its regular covers. To effectively utilize these techniques we would need to increase the weight of the paper to a cardstock like the one used for paperback books. Since this project wasn’t P & L driven, we were given the okay to go with the extra expense and produced the “Platinum version” of SPIDER-MAN #1 with a card stock cover. Although production deadlines forced us to use the “fifth ink” technology again, we hadn’t given up on more advanced print techniques.
Although we didn’t realize it at the time, this ended up being a research project for us and a good example of rapid prototyping. Rather than the hundreds of thousands of copies we would produce for a normal print run, we only produced 5000-10,000 copies of this premium edition (after 18 years my memory of the exact figures is a little hazy). The relatively low production expense allowed us the chance to experiment with numerous print techniques. It also gave us an intimate understanding of the costs of those new technologies and led to two new design breakthroughs.
The first breakthrough was related to production expenses. As we researched costs of the various print technologies associated with the Platinum SPIDER-MAN, we discovered that they were much lower than we had originally expected. As a result, the door was opened to using these technologies on a longer print run. At the time Marvel had re-launched the Silver Surfer (a shiny, metallic alien for all you non-geeks out there) and was preparing to release a 50th anniversary issue of the series that summer. I had the idea to take the foil embossing technology we had played around with and use it on this character. After all it seemed like a natural fit! It’s an important lesson for design and development firms. Without the research we had done on the SPIDER-MAN #1 project, we would have never thought about using the technologies available to us.
That segues nicely into the second breakthrough that occurred as a result of the project. While we were grappling with the dilemma of how to differentiate the Platinum version from it’s gold and silver counterparts one of our vendors presented a new option. A new fluorescent ink that glowed in the dark! This type of technology had been used in a very limited manner in things like toy packaging but never on a comic book. While the technology wasn’t right for the SPIDER-MAN project (why would Spidey’s webs glow in the dark?), we did have another property that was appropriate. Ghost Rider, a demon biker whose head was a skull covered in flames. Like SILVER SURFER, the GHOST RIDER series had been recently re-launched and was a sales hit. Even though we didn’t have a marketing event to tie in to, we decided to go ahead and test the technology on GHOST RIDER #15. We also learned another important lesson. Don’t dismiss new technologies without a close examination. Even if they’re not right for the project you’re currently working on, they can be important tools in a designer’s arsenal.
Once we got the cover proofs for both these books, the summer of 1991 was hilariously surreal. I remember well attending trade shows and inviting retailers to come under dark covers while I shined a flashlight on the GHOST RIDER cover! For us, trade shows and consumer conventions were the equivalent of releasing a beta version to bloggers and other social media champions. Retailers increased their orders for these books but also created a buzz in their stores for the arrival of these issues. By the time both books reached market, anticipation was high.
Both issues did tremendously well, increasing their regular sales figures by 300-500% and going in to multiple printings. Their success spurred a whole new marketing strategy for comics that would culminate two years later for Marvel with the release of X-MEN#1 (still the modern day sales champion with over 8 million copies sold).
Like all marketing strategies, special covers were adopted by other companies, used on almost every title by Marvel and really utilized till there was nothing “Special” about them anymore. Combined with a burst of the speculator bubble in the collector’s market, special covers became as symbolic of the ‘90s comic bust as Aeron chairs are of the first Dot.com crash.
But I hold a special place in my heart for those early books and for the lessons that their creation taught me. They’re lessons that I use every day in my current position at Zemoga and they’re lessons every designer and developer should take to heart. I guess I owe a lot of my digital design education to a guy who “spins a web any size”. Thanks again, Spidey!