An uncertain future for Marvel as a book publisher
AXEL ALONSO, the new editor in chief of Marvel Comics, was recalling how, about 10 years ago, when he was less experienced and recently hired by the company, he persuaded the British writer Peter Milligan to take over a struggling superhero comic called X-Force.But they don't mention that it was canceled not much more than a year later.
One day last month in the company’s office in Midtown Manhattan, its top creative talent — 30 or so people, mostly male, many bald or bearded, or both — were gathered in a conference room known as the Hulk room, for what felt like the simultaneous meetings of a corporation, a television writing staff and the traders of the New York Stock Exchange. [...]Whenever Bendis is around, I'd think things could only take a turn for the worse.
Though the meeting could at times be rigidly precise, it had moments of spontaneity (like when Brian Michael Bendis, the author of Marvel’s Avengers, New Avengers and Ultimate Spider-Man series, observed that an enigmatic writer named TBD “has got a lot of books” assigned).
Marvel, acquired in 2009 by the Walt Disney Company, can make a claim to being the No. 1 publisher in its field, often beating its rival DC Comics, the home of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, owned by Time Warner, in the total number and dollar value of comics it sells each month.And that's about all they can do, since their sales are declining steadily.
Now, here's where they at least get a little into the coming twilight of their publishing arm, a problem that DC will be affected by too if they keep up their own abuse of their properties:
Though Marvel’s publishing side does not directly control the content of Marvel films, Kevin Feige, the president of production at Marvel Studios, said the storytelling in the comics had a strong influence on the movies “because it’s a hell of a lot less expensive to take a chance in a comic than it is take a chance in a movie.” Repeating a phrase he said he had heard from Mr. Quesada, he added, “It’s the cheapest R&D there is, but the best R&D there is.”We can credit them for acknowledging that crossovers are driving away audience. Unfortunately, they fail to acknowledge that terminating the Spider-Marriage, abuse of the Avengers and defamation of Scarlet Witch, overt lefty politics, among several other horrendous steps, have alienated the audience too. Sales of Spidey are down, and Avengers has gradually gotten lower receipts as well. Add to this how quite a few writers and artists, not to mention Marvel's own editorial staff, have been alienating the audience with contemptible statements, including Quesada's telling he doesn't care if we're alienated.
What is less clear is if superhero movies influence readers to buy more comics. Rich Johnston, who writes about comics at the Web site Bleeding Cool, said Marvel was just as likely alienating fans by preparing for the releases of Marvel Studios-produced movies like “Thor” (which opens May 6), “Captain America: The First Avenger” (July 22) and “The Avengers” (planned for May 2012) with the publication of lots of comic books and graphic novels featuring these characters.
“In order to read Thor,” Mr. Johnston said, exaggerating a bit, “you have to buy 10 mini-series for $4 an issue at 22 pages each.” Anticipating a reader’s reaction, he added: “You know what? Let’s not.”
A more worrisome problem, Mr. Johnston said, was a sense of “ennui amongst Marvel readers,” who have become tired of the publisher’s reliance on annual companywide mini-series, like House of M and Civil War, to shake up the status quo in its narratives while its monthly comics advance these soap operas infinitesimally.
Mr. Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter agreed that comics fans “feel the strategy of it,” and that “it’s really easy for an exhaustion to set in.”
Sales figures seem to bear this out: In 2006 and 2007 Civil War, in which Iron Man and Captain America battled over whether superheroes should register their powers and identities with the government, sold nearly 300,000 copies an issue. But last year the mini-series Siege, in which Captain America, Iron Man and Thor were reunited, sold just over 100,000 copies an issue. (This hasn’t discouraged Marvel from moving forward this year with the companywide mini-series Fear Itself, which will emphasize Thor and Captain America.)
From the outside Marvel is buffeted by big-picture publishing crises: the closing of comics shops and bookstores, a downturn in sales lingering through the recession and the increasing threat of digital piracy.
They do acknowledge what I suspected could be a case - comics stores are closing. Quietly, no doubt (and we can't expect the MSM to let us know), but it's happening. Part of the problem, I figure, is that the stores are relying far too much on the big two instead of other companies who could probably have some better products to offer than Marvel and DC's current output.
From within, the company wrestles with narrative strategies and promotional events that will lure new or lapsed readers while trying to satisfy the hard-core fans who have followed its heroes’ adventures for years, if not decades.Well they're not doing a good job, now are they? If they won't reinstate the Spider-Marriage, repair the Scarlet Witch, cut out the ultra-leftist politics polluting their books, including their assault on the Tea Party movements, then I don't think they're going to lure many new customers, if at all.
“We love the guys that have been here every month,” said Tom Brevoort, Marvel’s senior vice president for publishing, who joined the company as a college intern in 1989. “But it’s not an exclusive relationship. It’s an open marriage where we see and seek others as well — and as many others as we can get in.”Uh uh. It's only those whose POV they consider fit to go with theirs. Brian Bendis is a leading example of a writer favored by these terrible editors, because he's willing to take everything apart and do with it as he pleases, which they're quite comfy with since they don't have respect or faith in their own material. J. Michael Stracynski is another example along the same lines.
Yet Marvel and the industry journalists said the company’s publishing business is still profitable. Mr. Johnston estimated that a comic book that sold as few as 20,000 or 30,000 copies could still make money. And while the full effects of the company’s purchase by Disney are an open question, the opportunities created by the deal were potentially exciting.Wow, what a laugh that line in parenthesis is. Alonso was and still is part of the problem surrounding Spider-Man: as one of the series editors, he, along with Quesada, oversaw the desecration of one of Spidey's most notable stories, the death of Gwen Stacy, in the Sins Past storyline that claimed Gwen slept with Norman Osborn, and Mary Jane Watson-Parker supposedly knew about this and only later told Peter Parker. It was a killing 2 birds with one stone concoction, and most embarrassingly bad.
“I can’t even speculate,” Mr. Brevoort said. “There is ‘Disney on Ice.’ It’s not a great stretch to go, ‘There will someday be “Marvel on Ice,” ’ whether that’s ‘Iron Man on Ice’ or ‘The Avengers on Ice.’”
(And while Marvel’s editors have no hand in the struggles surrounding “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” they were unconcerned that the musical would hurt the character or his legacy. “Spider-Man’s been around longer than I’ve been alive,” Mr. Alonso said.)
And let's say that almost all current comics went down as low as 20,000-30,000 copies in sales: they wouldn't have much on the whole, and that they're selling so low already is a joke. If they were selling in several million, that would be a success. A paltry 30,000 is nothing but sadness.
They're right though, that Disney's purchase and its full effect, is an open question, one that may soon stand to be shut. Part of the problem is that Marvel got into Hollywood showbiz entirely at the expense of their publishing division, and clearly cares more about making money through movies, toys and theater plays than they do about publishing comics. With Quesada's ascension to a higher rank within their showbiz department, it wouldn't come as a surprise if he'd rather work in the big movie biz, since that's where the big bucks are found.
It's worth noting that all this abuse of the company properties by Alonso and Quesada, among others, is exactly why trade paperback sales are nothing to write home about either. Why, if they're publishing nearly every event in complete trades, that could have the effect of discouraging book buyers from bothering too: why should they have to buy several trades that could cost $20 or more?
(In fact, that's a surprising problem with quite a few of their trades, for both old and new material: they cost noticeably more than DC's trades can, with some costing a colossal $35. By contrast though, I don't think DC has ever published their hardcover Golden/Silver/Bronze Age archives in less expensive paperbacks, which makes for a definite fault on their part.)
Alonso and Quesada's names alone may have had the effect of alienating a considerable number of fans, who rightly figure that any story published under their editorship could only be dreadful. As long as they're within even miles of Marvel books, there's no chance for recovery. I estimate that in time, Marvel will close its book publishing arm as it no longer turns any profit. It'll be very sad, but Quesada and co. led to it, and are not willing to take responsibility.
I'm hoping that in time, a smaller company/conglomerate in the book business could take over the ownership of Marvel and DC's publishing arms together, and then restructure them into something that would sell better in the standard book market. That way, it would be possible for them to recover, as a book publisher like Simon & Shuster, for example (they own the rights to the former Stratameyer syndicate creations, and usually did a respectable job with them), could know how to better market their characters and universes without resorting to cheap gimmicks. And if both Marvel and DC were under the same ownership, the best part is that they could both use words like "mutant" and "metahuman" without legal wranglings. They could even maintain better relations with the heirs of Siegel & Shuster and Jack Kirby than Time Warner and Disney ever could.
But for now, that's only a pipe dream, and it may never come to be.