Return of the Gimmick Age
I am ashamed to say that, in my collection of comics, I can count such gems as five copies of X-Force #1, an unopened copy of Ghost Rider from the "Rise of the Midnight Sons" arc and various shiny, pretty covers wrapped around unreadable books. Yes, my friends, I was a sucker during the gimmick age.
Thankfully, that time has passed. Sure, variant covers are still around, but to me, those seem like a far lesser evil than packaging a comic in such a way that prevents browsing before buying, or putting a cover on that costs an extra dollar or two with no alternative to someone who doesn't care if their cover glows in the dark or not.
Unfortunately, some of the publishers seem intent on bringing back the gimmick age lately, and it's a worrisome trend when the industry finally seemed to be getting back to producing more good comics and less speculator-driven tripe. Marvel is producing a polybagged insert to Uncanny X-Men in March and a bagged preview of Chuck Dixon's Marvel Knights with Punisher #3 in April. So in case you wanted to browse the new direction of Uncanny before laying out the cash, or wanted to get a glimpse at Dixon's take on the Marvel street level heroes, you're out of luck.
This isn't a huge tragedy, don't get me wrong. Most folks who are going to buy Marvel Knights are probably either already Dixon fans and are going to buy it sight unseen or are already buying the Ennis/Dillon Punisher series. And while there are probably a lot of folks curious about whether the new direction of the X-titles is going to sink or swim, Uncanny is the last issue of writer Alan Davis, not the first for returning writer Chris Claremont, so it could be worse.
That, of course, is what worries me. That it will get worse. It's proven that these things sell, largely because fans have no choice other than "voting with their wallets." If my choice is between skipping the third issue of Punisher, which I presumably will be enjoying, and buying it despite the support for a gimmick it implies, it seems like cutting off my nose to spite my face to do the latter. All I do is cost the company one sale that they probably won't notice, and I miss an issue of a comic I really wanted to read.
So now the polybagged issues have sold (and the Uncanny issue, being a new direction, may actually have increased sales), and the companies may well start flooding more and more of this kind of stuff onto the market. And before you know it, we'll be right back in the gimmick age, where every comic costs twice as much due to shiny covers and you can't decide whether or not you want to try a new series until you've already bought the first issue.
Listen, I'm not one to recommend reading in the comics shop. The industry exists to make money, and so does your local comics shop, so if you want to read a comic cover to cover, buy the issue. But if all you want to do is take a look at some interior art or get a feel for some plot or dialogue, you should be able to peruse the contents. That's just common sense. It was one thing when comics were less than a buck, but if I'm dropping two dollars or more on a comic, I want to know that I'm going to get at least that much enjoyment out of it.
That's the biggest problem with polybagging, and the main reason I don't want to see this particular scourge of the industry return. It presents a face to readers and potential readers of inaccessibility. The message isn't "Hey, kids, there's something valuable and extra in this bag!" It's "Hey, kids, we're afraid you're going to hate this comic, so we bagged it and you'll have to buy it to find out!"
I know times are tough, and the only way the industry is going to dig itself out of the hole is with clever marketing on top of good comics. But you know what? There are good gimmicks. Free overshipping, as Larry Young has done with Astronauts in Trouble, is a great gimmick, because it gets more comics into the stores, and since the retailer didn't pay for them, they're more likely to get into the fans' hands regardless. Variant covers can be problematic, but simply including a page in the comic which displays all the covers (even in miniature form) makes it a lot more palatable. Marvel's fold-out covers that provided synopses and character bios to make the series more accessible, even at an extra nickel a book, were well worth it. Of course, they soon did away with that, keeping the cover price increase but using the space for advertising, but it started out as a good idea.
Polybagging, however, is not a good gimmick. Unless you're bagging hundred dollar bills randomly in the comic, you're not adding value. You're adding hassles, and it would have to be one hell of a great freebie comic or trading card to be worth the hassle of not being able to browse the comic before buying.