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Wednesday, October 10, 2012 

How Marvel's turn to gimmicks in the early 90s brought them down later

The Comics Journal published an excerpt from Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, which tells how as the 1990s came in, they increasingly turned to gimmicks like variant covers and more crossovers for the sake of sales, which clearly didn't help in the end. Some of this was caused by a form of panic that overtook them when a couple of artists defected to found Image Comics, but did it help? According to this paragraph:
Barron’s was the first to run with the story that several major Marvel artists were planning to defect, in a two-page article that warned investors that a bursting bubble was imminent. After reporter Douglas Kass noted that most of the publisher’s IPO proceeds had been redirected into other Perelman properties (rather than paying back company debt), he pointed out that Marvel “pushed through another price hike in January and increasingly resorts to gimmickry to break down consumer resistance,” and then twisted the knife: “The brash kid willing to take artistic and literary risks has grown too big, fat and timid. Marvel’s continued focus on violent themes and stereotyped heroes is wearing thin with consumers, who increasingly are turning to upstart competitors.” Perhaps most alarming was the intimation that collectible comics were some kind of Ponzi scheme. “Visiting a dozen specialty comic-book stores,” Kass wrote, “I saw boxes upon boxes filled with unsold copies of the highly promoted premiere issues of X-Men and X-Force—titles that were introduced nearly six months ago.”
*Whistles* So despite all the promotion, those X-books weren't as successful as might've once been the spin. Most of the storytelling, especially in the latter book, was pretty tedious anyway. As were some of the early Image books, which probably didn't do much better sales-wise either. I honestly don't understand why the people in charge of Marvel at the time were worried about the defection of someone as awful as Rob Liefeld though: after all, even if his art hadn't plumbed the deepest depths at that point as it did when he got settled in at Image, he sure wasn't worth keeping around.
To some, the monetary incentives offered to editors clouded judgment. “You had editors who tried to gerrymander hits in order to get themselves a great deal of money,” said editor Jo Duffy, who’d left her staff job to work as a freelance writer. “Suddenly the editors seized control. It used to be if the writer and editor weren’t getting along, change editors. Now it became: change writers.” The empowerment of the editorial staff, begun as a morale-building necessity in the wake of Jim Shooter’s stormy departure, now resulted—in extreme examples—in instructions to writers and artists on how to appeal to the lowest common denominator. “If the Punisher appears in a panel with another character,” Jim Starlin was told, “that character should be killed within the next few pages by either the Punisher or someone else. If the Punisher appears with any object, it should be destroyed in an explosion as soon as possible.”

“Everyone decided, ‘Hey, we get royalties on this, so let’s put Wolverine and Spider-Man and the Punisher in every one of the books, and dilute the product,’ ” said editor Mike Rockwitz. “I was working on that piece of shit Secret Defenders. Tom DeFalco came to me one day and said, ‘Let’s do a super-book that has Doctor Strange and Wolverine in it.’ I’m like, ‘Okay . . .’ None of those things made any sense, but on the first book, I made seven grand in royalties. It was just absurd.”

Still, many had reservations about the ways in which commercial concerns were starting to overwhelm the contents of the comics. Some editors complained that the sales, marketing, and publicity teams only worked to sell the books that were already selling, that the response about underperforming titles was, Sure we can help you push this book. Just put Wolverine or Ghost Rider in it.

To many in the editorial department, the face of the enemy was Richard Rogers, the marketing executive who was calling more and more of the shots and itching to crank up production at every turn, as though comic books were as infinitely reproducible and conveyer-belt-ready as the candy bars he’d worked with before he came to Marvel.

“It’s hard for people who haven’t come up through the comic book industry to understand just how hard it is to get a comic book out,” said Sven Larsen, who struggled to mediate between Rogers and Harras. “It’s very easy to turn around and say, ‘Why don’t we take this 32-page book and make it 96 pages?’ All these right-brain thinkers on the editorial side were like, ‘Let’s let this happen organically. Why do we need to make all this money? We were doing just fine before you came along.’ ”

Peter David, writing X-Factor, threw up his hands after a number of his story ideas were put on hold to accommodate crossover events. “The editors are as trapped in this ‘Crossover Uber Alles’ mentality as anyone else,” David wrote. “The stockholders expect massive profits from the X-books, and crossovers remain the only way to give them what they want . . . right now, there are quite a few people in very difficult situations. Some of those situations are of their own making. Others are imposed from other directions. There’s a great deal of stress going on there with a lot of folks caught in a lot of vises. It may be that, sooner or later, it all blows apart.”
And it did. Today, it's pretty apparent that the X-franchise is no longer bankable, because they'd long sacrificed emphasis on storytelling for the sake of selling on artwork alone, which was just the problem with the early Image products. And when that didn't work, they resorted to company-wide crossovers to get people to buy as many series connecting to the main wheel hub as possible. The same goes for the variant covers too, yet as the earlier details suggest, even that didn't work out well, as some people clearly did have the smarts not to buy the exact same interior story dozens of times with just a different cover wrapped around it.

(Interestingly enough, DC might have begun the idea for variants with at least 4 different issues of Justice League of America in 1985 that could be bought for piecing together into a rectangular poster with a couple League cast members' faces on them. I own one of those issues, #235, in my own collection).
[Lou] Bank’s concerns weren’t rooted in some naïve idealism about artistic purity; he worried about Marvel’s long-term business interests. Field representatives had gone out to nearly forty different stores, collecting sell- through numbers—the number of copies that retailers actually sold to readers, as opposed to the larger number of copies that distributors sold to retailers—for a dozen different comics over a three-issue period. The findings were stunning.

“Every time we did one of these stupid-ass covers that caused us to increase the price by 33 percent—say issue #475—we would have a 20-percent drop-off from 474 to 476. The numbers would spike for #475, but we’d actually lose readers from #474 to #476. It was consistent with every single example.”

Of course, none of this would have an impact on Marvel’s quarterly goals. Marvel’s bottom-line reports, which only reflected distributor-level numbers, would continue to show sales and profits going up, even as the readership began to cool and the retailers, who couldn’t return unsold copies, absorbed the costs. “In the meantime,” said Bank, “we were killing the stores that were feeding us.”

Bank sent a memo to Terry Stewart, citing the research, and warning of the possible dangers in continuing the enhanced-cover strategy. Presumably the sentiment was passed up the chain of command, to Bill Bevins uptown at the Townhouse, and maybe even to Ron Perelman. Whatever the reaction from above, said Bank, “Terry continued to behave in a way that was detrimental to the long-term future of the company.”
Clearly, Stewart is a real life supervillain. All he could think of was survivalism, rather than marketing each title based on the quality of the individual storytelling efforts, and he wasn't being fair to the stores carrying their output either if they couldn't return the unsold copies.

And this explains how Marvel went downhill as a comics publisher, and even after they succeeded in getting their creations turned into successful movies, it was too late for the comics to do better, mainly because Bob Harras and then Joe Quesada ruined everything. And all this began just because they were worried about Image, a company that sure wasn't worth the paper it was printed on when it first began. Sure, they changed a lot after several years and some of the books published under the Top Cow imprint were a bit better than what the other contributors were turning out, but all in all, Image was nothing worth getting worked up over, business-wise and certainly not in terms of quality storytelling, which they weren't offering much of in their early days. I sure hope a book like this will be produced one day about DC's publishing history, which I'm sure has some very intriguing back story similar to what's told in Howe's book about Marvel.

And I've argued this before, that Marvel could have a chance at a quality comeback if the publishing arm were bought or licensed by a different owner/management, and adapted to formats more along the lines of paperbacks instead of pamphlets, and avoided resorting to crossovers, which would allow more freedom for the writers who take charge. Someday, I hope that vision could come true.

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Terry Stewart wasn't--and isn't--a supervillain. He's a businessman. He may have made choices that I thought were poor choices, but that hardly makes him a villain. He did a lot of good for me and a lot of other people.

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