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Friday, April 28, 2017 

Ronald Perelman was a leading factor in Marvel's decline during the 90s

In this opinion column on Mile High Comics from 2002, a writer from Colorado cites a certain businessman who once owned Marvel as one of the guilty parties in Marvel's downfall during the 1990s:
...I believe that Ronald O. Perelman outperformed Wertham in the harm that he inflicted on the comics industry. When he took over ownership of Marvel comics in 1989, Marvel was coming off of a series of record years of both sales and earnings. Part of that growth in earnings had been based on the popularity of the Marvel line of characters, but even more derived from the fact that New World Pictures (Marvel's previous owner) had raised prices by 50% (from 65 cents to $1) during its 3-year ownership of the company. While these price increases help generate significant short-term profits, they also ate away at the core of Marvel's business, those fans who were purchasing the entire line of comics published by the company each month.

Sadly, Perelman severely aggravated this problem by raising prices by another 100% over the next seven years, and by increasing the total line of Marvel titles from approximately 60 when he took over, to nearly 140 different monthly issues at the peak. Calculating the math in this scenario is fairly easy. In 1985, comics were 60 cents. With 40 regular Marvel titles being printed, it cost a typical fan $24.00 to purchase every Marvel comic book being printed. That left plenty of disposable income left over for trade paperbacks, toys, and other related Marvel goods. Even for collectors of modest means, it was possible to be a "Marvel Zombie" for only $6 per week.

By 1988, the number of Marvel titles had increased to 50, and the base cover price was $1. At a $50 total cost, that was a 110% increase in the cost it took to buy the complete Marvel line in just 36 months. On the retail end of the business, we saw a few collectors dropping out of the business due to these new higher costs, but most stayed. In fact, that was the period when we saw the greatest growth in the number of Independent comics titles, as publishers such as First, Dark Horse, Comico, and Eclipse nibbled at the edges of Marvel's market share.

When Ronald Perelman took over Marvel in 1989, his goal was to expand Marvel's business. He had his team start by increasing the number of titles being published, raising cover prices on a regular basis, and salting the monthly output heavily with special issues that could derive extraordinary profits through such inexpensive means as enhanced covers. At first, it looked like his plan was succeeding brilliantly. Sales and earnings soared as fans purchased huge numbers of these higher-priced books. What we heard in the stores, however, was an accelerating stream of complaints against the high cost of comics. Initially this criticism was focused on the higher-priced enhanced comics, but it quickly became apparent that the higher cost of collecting was forcing many fans out of their chosen hobby.

While we also heard many complaints about the quality of comics being produced in 1993, it was evident that the problem was greater than that one simple element. A survey of the books from that period does show a large number of mediocre titles being published, but there were also some very good ones. So why did so many long time fans quit? The answer seems to be a combination of time and money. Fans who had been purchasing every Marvel title were frustrated that they could no longer afford to purchase the whole line, and were even more frustrated that they didn't have the time to read them all. Rather than cut back to what they could afford, this substantial portion of the comics collecting community simply chose to quite collecting altogether.
Yep, the rise in price was a problem. I fully agree with that. But I would also add that Marvel, under onetime EIC Jim Shooter, has to shoulder some blame for bringing us the influence of the first company wide crossover, Secret Wars. The Big Two never recovered because they remain firmly stuck on its template in any way possible, and that's one of the ways creative freedom on an individual book was all but destroyed as even the consecutive writers themselves had less objections and willingly took part to the point they were part and parcel of the problem. And if there was any creative freedom, it was selective only, depending on what hack writers they're employing, and just how rabid their leftist politics are. Even smaller companies like the revived Valiant have resorted to crossovers at least once so far, which only proves they lack confidence in their ability to sell the individual products on their own, and their continued use of the monthly pamphlet format instead of going straight for trades is another letdown.

Here's a followup column to the first one. Perelman will have to be remembered in business history as one of the company executives who brought pricing to where it stands today. Since these op-eds were first written, cover prices have gone up to 4 dollars and could be going higher soon. Those books that are cheaper may have less pages, recalling DC and Marvel both chose to cut back on page counts of recent, which evokes the 1960s and 1970s, when there were various comics that were 20 pages or less. The insularity of the publishers, combined with the mainstream press' protection by not commenting on any of their negative practices, is just what's led them to the bad shape they're in today.

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  • I'm Avi Green
  • From Jerusalem, Israel
  • I was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. I also enjoyed reading a lot of comics when I was young, the first being Fantastic Four. I maintain a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy in facts. I like to think of myself as a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. I don't expect to be perfect at the job, but I do my best.
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